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Gold Medals and Grand Slam Titles

June 07, 2008, 6:27 p.m. (ET)
It wasn't a well-placed volley or an ace that marked Lindsay Davenport's entrance into the upper echelons of tennis. It was a ball, hit by her two-handed backhand, that struck the white net cord, paused, then fortuitously bounced onto her opponent's side at 7-6 in the first-set tiebreaker, thus turning around the 1996 Olympic gold medal match in women's singles.

Davenport, then 20 and a relative unknown (she had never advanced beyond a quarterfinal in a Grand Slam tournament), went on to win the second set 6-2. After winning the match, she told the press: "It's definitely the most proud I've been in my life. No matter what happens to me, I'll always be a gold medalist."

Davenport has since won three Grand Slam singles titles, including the U.S. Open. She took time off to have her first child, Jagger Jonathan Leach, born June 10, 2007. But with the Olympics again beckoning, Davenport, who will be 32 on June 8, perhaps wants to close out her career where it began.

"The first thing that really got me thinking about making a comeback was the Olympics," she has said in almost every press conference since last July.

"[The Olympics] and the U.S. Open are definitely [my] top two (career highlights)," Davenport said at the Sony Ericsson Open in March 2008. "In tennis, it's measured in Grand Slams, so winning the U.S. Open was like a huge, huge achievement. ... But the Olympics being the first big thing that I won, it always has a special place in my heart."

Although tennis was one of the original nine sports included in the modern Olympiad, it was not contested as a medal sport from the 1928-1984. Instead, tennis's heroes and heroines have won Wimbledon and more recently, the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens-the four tournaments now considered the sport's Grand Slam.

When tennis was reinstated as a medal sport at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, it took a few years for some of the top players to warm to the event-particularly the men. Steffi Graf completed her "Golden Slam" by winning all four majors, plus the 1998 Olympic gold. Miloslav Mecir, who had never won a Grand Slam title, won the men's gold, beating Tim Mayotte, who twice made it to Grand Slam semifinals.

Although top players Pete Sampras and Boris Becker skipped the 1996 Games, Andre Agassi arrived in Atlanta to represent the U.S. He ended up winning the first gold for the U.S. in men's singles since Vincent Richards won in 1924.

Agassi summed up his win by saying, "To win a Grand Slam in the sport of tennis is the greatest accomplishment inside the sport. To win an Olympic gold medal is the greatest thing you can accomplish in any sport."

Now, most of the world's top players are prioritizing the Olympics. Roger Federer considers the Olympic and French Open titles as the two jewels missing in his crown. The Swiss player, who has held the top ATP rank since February 2004, played at the 2000 Olympics, losing the bronze medal match to France's Arnaud De Pasquale, and again in 2004, losing in the second round to Czech player Tomas Berdych.

In April 2008, when asked where winning an Olympic gold medal would rate, Federer responded, "For me, it ranks on a Grand Slam level."

Although not all U.S. players would agree with Federer, most are targeting the Olympics this year. The U.S. team won't be named until June 23, 2008, but leading candidates are Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, James Blake, Sam Querrey, and since making it to the fourth round in the French Open, Robby Ginepri. Top doubles players are Liezel Huber and the Bryan brothers-identical twins Mike and Bob.

The top 56 men and women in world rankings (as of June 9, 2008) qualify for the Olympics, with only six men and six women allowed from each country.

As of June 2, Maria Sharapova (Russia) leads the WTA rankings, with Serena Williams in fifth, Venus in seventh, and Davenport 26th. They are the only three Americans in the top 56.

In ATP rankings, Andy Roddick is the top American in sixth. James Blake is eighth, Mardy Fish 39th, and Sam Querrey 40th. Robby Ginepri was 88th before the French Open, but U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Tim Curry says Ginepri is expected to make the cut.

Both Roddick and Fish have chosen not to play in the 2008 Olympics.

For Venus Williams, who owns six Grand Slam titles, her two Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles at the 2000 Olympics were "the epitome of athletics." She also played in 2004, losing in the third round to Mary Pierce (France). This year, Venus has said, "I'm planning my summer around the Olympics and U.S. Open."

Sister Serena, who was Venus's golden doubles partner at the 2000 Games and has eight Grand Slam titles of her own, is also prioritizing the Olympics. If she stays healthy, she will be a gold-medal favorite in Beijing.

Four-time Grand Slam doubles titlists Bob and Mike Bryan hope to avenge their quarterfinal defeat in Athens with a win in Beijing. "The Olympics only come around once every four years," Mike told the U.S. Tennis Association. "If you get a gold medal, I mean, that's just icing on everything. You show a gold medal to anyone in the world, they know what it is. Some people don't know what Wimbledon is, but a gold medal is unbelievable."

Number-one-ranked doubles player Liezel Huber gained American citizenship in July 2007 and hopes to compete in Beijing. The former South African player has three Grand Slam doubles titles: Wimbledon (2005 and 2007) and the Australian Open (2007). Her partner in the three Grand Slam tournaments was Cara Black from Zimbabwe.

For Blake, who-like Davenport in 1996-has yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam, he seems conflicted about the Olympics. In March, he told the press that he is looking forward to competing in Beijing, "but I don't know if it would be the same as winning a U.S. Open or a Wimbledon."

"I think a Grand Slam title in this sport is what's viewed historically as a bigger deal," he added.

Still, he said he is looking forward to meeting athletes from other sports. "Because for them, it's the biggest thing in their careers, and to see how hard they've trained and just talk to them about how much they've sacrificed to get to that point is going to be a lot of fun."

Blake excels on hard courts, and U.S. men's Olympic coach Rodney Harmon thinks the DecoTurf II surface on the Beijing courts-the same hard-court surface at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is held-will play in the American's favor.

While the Olympic tennis matches won't start until five weeks after Wimbledon concludes, there's "a bit of a log-jam" with the U.S. Open, says Harmon. Opening rounds of the U.S. Open start on August 25, just over a week after the women's and men's singles titles will be contested in Beijing (Aug. 16 and 17, respectively).

"You have to make a decision which to prepare for," Harmon says. Although the hard-court play at the Olympics against the world's top players will be excellent preparation for the U.S. Open, Harmon says the distance to Beijing and time change "make it a little trickier" (than preparing in the traditional stateside U.S. Open Series matches in August).

Andy Roddick has made it clear that the U.S. Open, not the Olympics, is his target this year. Harmon speculates that Roddick, who played in the 2004 Olympics and lost in the third round, is thinking, "been there, done that, it's maybe time to let others have a chance."

"Andy respects the Olympics, he had a great experience in Athens," Roddick's agent Ken Meyerson said via email. "I am expecting him to play in London four years from now. Andy's goal this year is to play well and be ready for the U.S. Open. Rodney's statements reflect our position."

Roddick, who backed out of the French Open with a shoulder injury, was unavailable for comment.

Olympic tennis may not garner the spotlight like women's gymnastics or men's swimming. But a medal-and even the Olympic experience-is special.

"The gold medal is a sign that you're the best at your particular sport," Harmon says. "You can win the U.S. Open or French Open, but they come up every year. This doesn't come up every year."

Or as Roddick said after losing in Athens: "You can't say ‘next year.'"

 

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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