Olympics no longer the priority it once was for tennis stars

Covid protocols and fitness issues have also forced many to pull out of Tokyo Games

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As the action continues to unfold at Wimbledon, a lot of the conversation off the court has been about the fast-approaching Olympic Games.

In recent weeks, withdrawal statements from players have been popping up on our social media timelines every couple of days, with the latest count showing that a third of the world’s top 30 and 16 of the world’s top 40 have pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics on the men’s side.

Top-20 players Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Roberto Bautista Agut, Denis Shapovalov and Casper Ruud have all opted out of a trip to the Games, while Roger Federer has been named on Switzerland’s Olympic roster but has left the door open for a possible withdrawal, depending on how he fares at Wimbledon.

“At the moment things are not as simple as in the past. With age you have to be more selective. You can't play it all,” the soon-to-be 40-year-old Federer said at the start of the Championships.

While it’s not surprising to see some of the older players pull out of Tokyo, it’s interesting to see the younger ones pass up on an opportunity to become Olympians. It’s quite a gamble considering they have no idea where they will be in three years’ time when the next Olympic Games come along.

Former world No 1 Lindsay Davenport once said that the gold medal she won in Atlanta 1996 is “the biggest thing in my whole career”. It seems that is not a shared sentiment among many players of this current generation.

The latest to announce his withdrawal is the 23rd-ranked Italian teenager Jannik Sinner, who said on Instagram that the reason behind his decision “is that I haven’t performed to the best of my ability in the last couple of tournaments and I need to focus on my development as a player”.

American Sebastian Korda, who turns 21 on Monday, is missing out on a rare opportunity to join both his golfer sisters Nelly and Jessica at the Tokyo Olympics.

“We kind of just sat down with my whole team, with my dad [former Australian Open champion Petr Korda], with my agent, Patricio Apey, and Andre Agassi, and what's the best thing for me? Going into the US summer, we thought it was best just to stay in the States and play some tournaments leading up to the US Open,” Korda said at Wimbledon.

There are many different reasons given by the players who have decided not to play in Tokyo; some are injured, others are not keen on experiencing the Games under strict Covid protocols, while some simply do not see it as a priority.

Nick Kyrgios is currently on Australia’s Olympic squad but he is also entered in the ATP tournament in Atlanta and is undecided on which way he’ll go. He also picked up an abdominal injury that forced him to retire while up a set against Felix Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon on Saturday.

“Ever since I was a player, I wanted to play, compete in the Olympics. But look, I've always entered Atlanta as well. I'm tossing up my options at the same time,” Kyrgios said last week.

On Saturday he added: “If I'm to play the Olympics, I want to do it the right way. I want to do it with full crowds, with my guests there. I want to do it when I'm able to watch other athletes do their thing. That's the Olympics for me. The Olympics, the way it's going to go on, is not the Olympics.

“That's not what it is for me. With these restrictions, that's not how I want to remember the Olympics either if I play it just one time. We'll see. We'll see what I do.”

World No 21 Grigor Dimitrov is also not going to Tokyo and notes how difficult life has been for the players during the pandemic.

“I’ve played the Olympics a few times already and this year it’s definitely not on my priority list to be honest, especially after the year that I had, last year, a little bit of this year, I just took everything under consideration, how my body has been feeling and of course I think Covid kind of got to all of us on many different levels. I just wanted to make the right decision for myself more so than anything else,” said Dimitrov, who caught Covid last year and struggled for weeks before recovering his full fitness.

It’s tough to assess whether there is a growing general apathy towards the Olympics by tennis players, or whether this year the withdrawals are higher than usual because of the unique circumstances that have resulted from staging an Olympic Games during a pandemic.

American teen Coco Gauff is looking forward to the Olympics.

“If you think about it, we’re competing every week; we’re not like some sports where they have to wait for their, sort of, ‘Slam’, every four years. I understand every player, not only in tennis, in every sport. I understand the importance of it and then how some players think, ‘it’s not on my priority list’,” explained Dimitrov.

“And of course, let’s not forget what’s been happening the past year and a half, it’s just the whole rhythm has changed on our end. Now we’re lucky we have the crowd [at Wimbledon] and we have people so we can enjoy that part a lot. But at the same time, it’s really, I don’t want to say discouraging, but it’s really not the most pleasant feeling to be out there.

“That’s why I’m saying I understand some players when they want to spend more time at home and prepare and play a certain amount of tournaments. I’m sure also certain priorities have changed for players.”

Of course many players are still very much committed to going to the Olympics and some even see it as the pinnacle of their season.

Egyptian duo Mayar Sherif and Mohamed Safwat earned their spots in Tokyo by winning gold at the African Games two years ago and have shaped their 2021 season around peaking at the Olympics. They have signed lucrative sponsorship deals on the back of their qualification for Tokyo, and will get more exposure back home than they would have ever dreamed of when they compete at the Olympics.

On the women’s side, 17 of the world’s top 20 have committed to playing in Tokyo, with the notable withdrawals being Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Sofia Kenin.

American 17-year-old Coco Gauff said she grew up in an Olympics-obsessed family and cannot wait to go to Tokyo.

“That's what made the decision I guess super easy for me to play the Olympics; every four years growing up, glued to the TV watching all the events, stuff that you probably - at least in my family - normally didn't watch like swimming or gymnastics,” said Gauff.

“I remember growing up that I just never thought that I would make the [Olympic] team, especially make it so early. It's super special that I'm able to go. I'm excited to go to Tokyo."

Updated: July 05, 2021, 3:41 AM