Tennis has resumed its olympic journey quite recently, in Seoul, in 1988. But seven editions are already more than enough to compile a few enjoyable anecdotes - which are not so anecdotal, to say the least. Here are 10, with love, curses, heredity, feats and fairytales.
Roger and Mirka, chabadabada
Their encounter undoubtedly changed the face of tennis. At the Sydney Olympics, Roger Federer was 19 when he missed the two successive steps which could have offered him a medal (semi-final against Tommy Haas, third-place play-off against Arnaud Di Pasquale). But that was not the most important for the one who’s still, at the time, only a promising youngster in world tennis : it relied in his match played alongside his fellow countrywoman Miroslava Vavrinec, aka Mirka, who represented Switzerland in the women’s draw. The rest belongs to the History of tennis, Roger never forgetting to credit the one who became his wife, the mother of his children, and also her manager, for a big part of his success. To resume, the one who managed to channel the young rebel’s energy. « Without Mirka, none of what I’ve achieved would have been possible, says the man who’s won 17 major titles. If she hadn’t always been with me, I would’ve had retired already. »
Agassi, the winner who was almost disqualified
The Atlanta Olympic Games were an enchanted interlude in the complicated seasons 1996 and 1997 for an Andre Agassi who was confronted to numerous defeats in the Grand Slams. But at the Olympic Games, « his » Games as they were organized in the USA, in Atlanta, Agassi set the record straight. And when his devastating shots weren’t enough to defeat a tenacious Wayne Ferreira in the quarter-finals, the umpire gave him a hand by not giving him another warning for his countless swearwords, as Ferreira led by 5-3 in the last set. Why ? He had already been given two warnings for foul language and a third would have simply meant a disqualification. Agassi then won four games in a row to qualify. Two matches later, he was crowned olympic champion, to Ferreira’s great displeasure. « He should have never finished this match considering all the curse words he said », said the South-African. « A disqualification would have been his only chance of beating me, » answered the American, who wasn’t the great Zen master which the younger have seen in the last years of his career.
Stories of filiation
If tennis has a complicated olympic history, there’s no surprise in seeing that the champions who are most attracted to the competition are generally sons and daughters of sportsmen who have themselves attended the Olympics. A few examples among those who have won a medal : Andre Agassi (gold, 1996) whose father Mike had represented Iran in boxing during the Olympics 1948 and 1952 ; Lindsay Davenport (gold, 1996), whose father Wink featured among the American volley-ball team in Mexico in 1968 ; Vera Zvonareva (bronze, 2008), whose mother Natalia Bykova won a bronze medal in field hockey in Mexico in 1980 ; Nadia Petrova (bronze in the doubles, 2012) whose mother Nadezhda Ilyina run the 400 meters at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics (bronze in the 4x400m relay that year). As for Leander Paes (bronze, 1996), both his parents have taken part in the Munich Olympics in 1972 (basket-ball for mum, field hockey for dad, with a bronze medal won).
Leander Paes, the Olympics under his skin
Speaking of Leander Paes. If one man incarnates tennis at the Olympics, it’s him. Firstly because he only missed one edition since tennis made its return at the Olympics : the first one, in Seoul - he was 15 years old. Since then, he hasn’t missed one edition. Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Rio : he was there. His big moment occurred in Atlanta in 1996 when he, the Indian more famous for his accomplishments in the doubles, brought back home the bronze medal in the singles. A result which testifies how much Leander Paes loves playing for his country : six of his ten best performances in the singles were produced either at the BNP Paribas Davis Cup or during the Olympic Games ! Nothing too surprising for someone who was born in June 1973…exactly 9 months after the Munich Olympics where his parents visibly didn’t lose much time.
Pognon, the olympic ideal
That’s also the magic of the Olympics, when an amateur - in the purest sense of the definition - can face the best in the world. Like at the Sydney Olympics, when the winner of Roland-Garros, Gustavo Kuerten, faced Christophe Pognon, of Benin, in the first round. Invited by the ITF as to insure the presence of all the regions of the globe at the olympic party, Pognon was not ranked at the ATP. Even far from that : in France, where he had his license, he was ranked 0 and considered the…French number 400. The result wasn’t a surprise : 6/1 6/1 in 38 minutes. Nice touch from Kuerten, who lowered his level just enough at each set to enable his opponent to avoid a humiliation. In any case, the essential didn’t rely there. But in Christophe Pognon’s happiness to be able to live such an event and share with one of the best professional players in the world. And in Pognon’s first gesture after the match : reaching for his camera and asking a ballgirl to immortalize the moment with « Guga ».
The ghost champions of 1984
After 60 years of absence at the olympic program, tennis made its come-back in Los Angeles in 1984, under the form of an under-21 tournament. Described as a demonstration, the tournament crowns champions who don’t earn the right to see their names attached forever in the official rankings. Too bad for posterity, seeing the names of the winners in Los Angeles : Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graff. It’s even the whole table who sounds appealing to the tennis fan’s ear as we also find Pat Cash, Thomas Muster, Andrea Jaeger, Guy Forget, Gigi Fernandez, Jakob Hlasek, Jimmy Arias, Emilio Sanchez, Jaime Yzaga, Amos Mansdorf, Ronald Agenor… or the crème de la crème of tennis for the decade to come.
Massu’s power play
« I’ve never seen anyone produce a comparable effort on a tennis court. » The hommage is from Novak Djokovic, remembering Nicolas Massu’s feat in Athens in 2004, when the Chilean had battled for almost eight hours - in less than 24h - to offer his country its first two gold medals in its history. His marathon began with a victory in five sets in the doubles, alongside Fernando Gonzalez, against the Germans Kiefer and Schüttler. Official ceremony, antidoping tests, press conference : the heroes didn’t leave the stadium before four in the morning. Twelve hours later, Massu was expected on that same court for the singles’ final…where, to everyone’s surprise, he defeated Mardy Fish in the fifth set ! With a simple Masters 1000 final (Madrid 2003) as his best result on the ATP circuit, Massu now realizes what he’s accomplished in Athens : « I know that I have an uncommon career. I realize this every four years ! Even when people will have forgotten about me, I’ll still be put forward when the Olympics arrive. »
Leconte, how many syllables ?
Should i stay or should i go ? Finalist at Roland-Garros, Henri Leconte is being told off for attending the rebirth of tennis at the Olympics, in Seoul in 1988. To the point where the president of the French National Olympic and Sports Committee publicly criticized him : « there is one too many syllable in Leconte » (a wordplay with ‘le con’ meaning ‘the moron’ in french, editor’s note), said Nelson Paillou. But nothing great ever comes out of excessive pressure and in Seoul, which he joined at the last minute, Leconte was defeated in the first round by the local Bong-Soo Kim, world number 361. At least as famous as his enigmatic speech in the Roland-Garros final (« I hope that you have understood my game »), the French audience’s fall out of love with « Riton » in the next seasons came from this hesitating olympic episode. A heroic Davis Cup was needed to forget about all this…
Becker – Stich, the arch-enemies made peace
A cockfight : Germany was probably too small for Boris Becker to accept the rise of a top-level fellow countryman. So when the dear fellow countryman, Michael Stich, made his big entry by defeating « Boom-Boom » on « his » Center court in Wimbledon, in the final…A sporting rivalry with opposed personalities, the cohabitation was difficult between the men, to the point where Germany only won a BNP Paribas Davis Cup with one (Becker 1988-1989) or the other (Stich 1993), but never with the two together. But in 1992, they buried the hatchet before the olympic meeting. And in Barcelona, on clay, which was never their best surface, they went out to get the gold medal after a journey made of five set-matches to defeat the worst specimens of the surface, Spanish (Sanchez-Casal in the quarter-finals) or Argentinian (Frana-Miniussi in the semis). This will remain as their only gold medal, for both of them.
Mecir, Rosset, their own Grand Slam
Miloslav Mecir and Marc Rosset have never triumphed in a Grand Slam. But the winners of the olympic tournaments 1988 and 1992 have in common the fact of having won a competition played like a major tournament, with five-set matches. And one like the other had to put in their best efforts to earn their medal : in Seoul, Mecir was losing by two sets to one against Stefan Edberg in the semi-final. As for Marc Rosset in Barcelona, he had to wait for the 8/6 game in the fifth set of the final to defeat the tenacious Jordi Arrese. As for the anecdote, Mecir, who could compete for the title of the « best player who never won a Grand Slam », has won another tournament played in the Grand Slam format : Key Biscane 1987.