And that is precisely the reason why tennis does not belong to the Olympics.
I am not saying that tennis is not regal enough, wonderful enough and Olympian enough. Quite the opposite. Tennis history even predates the modern Olympics, with both Wimbledon (1877) and the US Open (1881) being older than the modern Olympic Games (1894). Even the Canadian Open (now the Rogers Cup, first played on 1881) has a longer run than the Olympics. So tennis is regal and wonderful and historic all in itself. Tennis does not belong in the Olympics not because it lacks any glory (it doesn't). It is that in tennis, there are jewels far more cherished than an Olympic medal. And it has never been more evident than now, in 2012, when the Olympic tennis competition will be held, barely two weeks later, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the site of The Championships at Wimbledon. When Champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams step (again) on Centre Court, they will be validating the Olympic Games, not the other way around.
It will be the same as when Rafael Nadal steps on a clay court anywhere. It is the fact that he is a 7-time Roland Garros winner that glorifies the event, not the fact that he also has won Barcelona (a fine event, mind you) eight times. Tennis offers four tournaments every year that are more important than the Olympics: ask any player what would she rather win, the Aussie Open or an Olympic medal, and you will get the fitting answer.
The Olympics are not really Mount Olympus, when it comes to tennis. Not even Everest. They are something along McKinley, or Aconcagua or Kilimanjaro. Difficult to conquer? Worthy of praise? Absolutely. The pinnacle of mountaineering? Awe-inspiring? Hardly.
It comes from the format, a regular 64-player field, and it comes from the history. The format: there is no difference between that 64-player field and, let's say, Monte Carlo. No difference between Cincinnati or Montreal or Madrid. So, in essence, the Olympics offer no challenges more difficult than a Masters 1000 or a women's Premier tournament. And, because of the qualifying rules, some Top 50 players will not qualify for the Olympics, simply because entry is supposed to be shared by many countries. So the Number 1 player from a country with little tennis power gets in, regardless of his ranking, while the Number 4 player from a tennis power does not, in spite of it. De facto, the Olympics offer a diluted (albeit slightly) field when compared to any Masters 1000.
And the history of Olympic tennis is too shallow to impress anybody. Its return to the Olympics took place in 1984, when it was an "Exhibition Sport." Run that one again. What was the difference? Sets were different? Scoring was different? Or were the medals won by Steffi Graf and Stefan Edberg not "real" Olympic Gold? Why was it an exhibition, if all the rules were the same, and prizes were to be given? Simple: the Olympics were just testing how much money tennis would bring to the Games (they called it "attention" but it was money). So, tennis was an exhibition. Only after the accountants had finished the numbers did tennis become "official" at the Olympics.
Rubbish. It was as if tennis had to "prove itself" to the Olympics. And with a verifiable high level of athleticism, played almost globally and featuring a long list of highly recognizable athletes, what was there to prove?
The list of Olympic champions is missing almost every great name: no Sampras, no Borg, no Evert, Navratilova, King, Laver, etc. None of them. And it is too late to get them in, so while the history of the Grand Slams runs deep with these names, symbiotically glorifying and granting credentials to each other, the Olympics will always have such gaps in their records. Yes, Nadal is there, Djokovic has won Bronze and Federer may get his medal this time around, but the Olympics simply are missing too many great ones to have legitimacy.
A simple story puts everything in perspective. It involved Lindsay Davenport, who played and won Gold at the Atlanta Games. Davenport won three of the four Slams (Wimbledon, and the US and Australian Opens) plus that one Olympic Gold medal. She was also renowned for being a "down to earth" champion, and a rather laid back person overall. And she casually told the story that she was once unable to find her Olympic medal because she had put it inside a Ziploc bag, inside a drawer somewhere.
So that is where her Olympic Gold belonged. In a bag. Inside a drawer. Somewhere.
The story was meant to show how unimpressed Davenport was with fame and glory, but it also showed something else. It showed the value Olympic Gold had for a Hall of Fame champion. Because if you think Olympic tennis Gold equates Grand Slam glory, then you would also have to believe that Davenport would also use the Venus Rosewater Dish she got for winning Wimbledon to toss her children's veggies every night.
And if you feel all patriotic and are going to the Olympics to represent your country, play Davis Cup. It also has more history than the Olympics.