Top men stars in the fray

If you look at the last four Olympic Games, the men's singles gold medallists have been Miloslav Mecir, Marc Rosset, Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Apart from Agassi, the others are not household names.

RAMESH KRISHNAN

Roger Federer of Switzerland is fancied to win the men's singles title. — Pic. REUTERS-

I WAS surprised to read that tennis was a part of the inaugural modern day Olympic Games at Athens back in 1896. It remained so till 1924. I don't know why it was excluded from 1928 onwards but with much effort in the 1980s, it is back as a part of the Games.

For many years, the four Grand Slam events have been the crown jewels of the game. This, along with Davis Cup for the men and the Fed Cup for the women are considered the major events. Along comes the Olympics and where does it fit in the scheme of things? If you look at the last four Olympic Games, the men's singles gold medallists have been Miloslav Mecir, Marc Rosset, Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Apart from Agassi, the others are not household names.

Women have taken it seriously

The women have done much better as the last four titlists have been Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams — all multiple Grand Slam title winners. Clearly the women have taken it more seriously.

But even amongst the men, every outstanding player of the past decade has taken part in an Olympic Games. Back in 1996, when Andre Agassi won the gold medal at Atlanta, he called it the crowning achievement of his career. But he did not take part in Sydney and is not entered to play at Athens. So it is nobody's argument that winning the gold medal at the Olympics is the end all. Neverthless, tennis in the Olympics is here to stay.

Going back to the Grand Slam tournaments, three of the four are in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, they get compressed into a three-month span from early June to early September and every four years, with the summer Olympics, a player has to peak four times within that three month period — not an easy task.

The players themselves are not that clear where the Olympics fit in. A good performance will certainly get a lot of attention back home. This could even translate into monetary gains. And it certainly looks good on the CV.

But overall, I am very happy that tennis is a part of the Olympics. It certainly gains a lot of credibility in the host country.

Tennis boom

There has been a tennis boom amongst each of the last four hosts. While USA and Australia have been tennis powerhouses all along, Spain has become a champion nation after the 1992 Barcelona Games, dominating in both the men's and women's. And even Korea has staked its claim as the leading tennis playing nation in Asia. (But I doubt whether we will see any such development from Greece). Beijing , which is hosting the 2008 Games is already spending a lot of money developing their tennis players and is also hosting major tennis events. So we could certainly see some major talent emerging from there.

The organisers at Athens have made attempts to make the tennis event special for the players. They have restricted the tennis matches to one week — from 15th to 22nd August and this gives the players a week to move to New York for the U. S. Open. The matches are going to be played on an identical surface as the U. S. Open and even the balls will be the same. Other than the men's singles and doubles gold medal matches, which are going to be best of five set affairs, all others are best of three sets. This should make it easier.

The courts are new and as a rule of thumb, new courts play slow.

The weather should be hot in Athens and that could be a factor. (I remember at the 1992 Barcelona Games, the weather was extremely hot and our bedrooms did not even have fans. And tennis players are used to air-conditioned comforts! This could well affect the performance of some of the players.)

Coming to this year's entries, in the men's singles, the only big names that are missing are Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt. Both have decided that they want to save their best for the U. S. Open. Only time will tell whether they have made the right decision.

Federer, the favourite

Serena Williams, if fit, should carry home the women's singles gold. -- Pic. REUTERS-

The hottest favourite will be Roger Federer. He has clearly established himself as the top player after winning three of the last five Slams. The Swiss also had a taste of a medal at the Sydney Games after losing in the semi final and then losing the bronze medal play off.

Andy Roddick will be the main challenger and especially after his performance at this year's Wimbledon final, he proved he is a big occasion player even on a surface like grass in which he is not a natural. He is going to be much more at home on the hard courts at Athens. Gaston Gaudio, the other Grand Slam winner this year, will also be there along with all leading players from nations like Argentina, Spain, Russia and France.

In the women's section, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Venus and Serena Williams are all entered but each one of them has been having physical ailments for the past several months. So one is not sure until they physically show up in Athens and even so, may not be in top form. Kim Clijsters is not playing and the latest sensation and current Wimbledon champion, Maria Sharapova, did not even get an invitation. (The entry list for Athens was finalised in mid June prior to her excellent showing at Wimbledon at which point in time, the other Russian girls were ranked higher).

So here is a chance for the men to hog all the limelight.

India's medal prospects

Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won the Tennis Masters in Toronto, Canada on August 1, 2004. That these two have found the winning touch, just before the Olympics, is good news for Indian fans. -- Pic. AFP-

But from our Indian point of view, the main event is the men's doubles. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi will be considered as one of the medal prospects for the Indian contingent. It is fair to assume that this will be their last appearance at the Games.

It is commendable that this is Leander's fourth Olympics — I don't think too many around the world can boast of that. And his bronze medal at the Atlanta Games is right up there in his list of achievements both in Davis Cup play and in Grand Slam titles with Mahesh.

On the plus side, they have performed very well while representing India — they have not lost a match in Davis Cup for several years and they are big match players.

There is a possibility that they may not get seeded and could run into one of the top teams in the early rounds. And this year, the organising committee has made the change of allowing a maximum of two teams per country as against one in the past.

This will make the draw that much tougher. Quite apart from some recognised combinations, you also have players like Roger Federer and Andy Roddick floating around the doubles draw. They are not to be taken lightly, even on a doubles court.

For now all we can do is to keep our fingers crossed and hope Leander and Mahesh win gold for India. One last hurrah at the Olympics will go well with all their major achievements as a team.