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Race For U.S. Olympic Tennis Team Spots Intensifies With Australian Open Kicking Off

By Nick McCarvel | Jan. 16, 2020, 6:13 p.m. (ET)

Madison Keys serves at the 2020 Brisbane International on Jan. 12, 2020 in Brisbane, Australia.


MELBOURNE, Australia – “Oh, I know the cutoff date,” Madison Keys said, laughing at the question.

It’s the first week of the professional tennis season and Keys, a 2016 Olympian (where she placed fourth) and the No. 11 player in the world, was referring to the deadline to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

The date in question is June 8, when the International Tennis Federation (ITF), will take the rankings of the best tennis players in the world and produce the entry list for the Olympic tennis event, set to start July 24.

The race for one of the four coveted women’s singles spots for Team USA is seen to be one of the fiercest on the tennis tour. 

“It's definitely going to be interesting,” Keys said in Brisbane, where she started her 2020 campaign with a runner-up finish to world No. 2 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. “I think it's going to probably go down to like the last week to qualify for Tokyo. It's always such an honor to be able to play for your country. And to be able to go to the Olympics is always something that all of us dream of. It's definitely something that's in the back of my mind. I'm just going to try to not think about it too much and (therefore) put even more pressure on myself.”

The pressure is already immense for the U.S. women – and the men. Depending on rankings, each country could send up to four singles players per gender, plus two doubles teams per gender. Mixed doubles teams will come from athletes already qualified for singles or doubles play.

There is a maximum of six players for the men’s and women’s squads.

Players have to be 14 years or older for the men's event and 15 or older for women's by July 24, and must have made themselves available for Fed or Davis Cup play at least three times since the Rio Games in 2016, including once in 2019 or 2020. [There are some exceptions.]

Currently, nine American women sit inside the “cutoff” for the singles field, which is the top 56 ranked players in the world. In no surprise, Serena Williams, the 23-time major champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist, leads that charge, followed by Keys, 21-year-old Sofia Kenin and Alison Riske, who made the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year.

On the outside looking in is Serena’s sister Venus, a five-time Olympic medalist herself, who is currently ninth among the U.S. women at No. 55 in the world. Also in the running: 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens and former college standouts Danielle Collins and Jennifer Brady. 

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The Australian Open, set to start here on Monday, is one of the two most important events leading up to that June 8 deadline, with the points pool up for grabs being the biggest of the calendar, along with the French Open in late May.

While American John Isner leads the men’s singles standings, the world No. 20 skipped the 2016 Games to play an ATP Tour event in Atlanta. It’s unclear if Isner will do the same in 2020. The Olympics do not offer points for the tours’ respective ranking systems.

Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Sam Querrey and Frances Tiafoe are the Americans ranked behind Isner, all of whom currently fall in the top 56 cutoff. Steve Johnson rounds out the top six U.S. men.

Tennis rankings are based on a 52-week system: Players drop points for a tournament that is over a year old. That means players’ rankings from the week of June 10, 2019 to the present paint a slightly different picture than the 52-week system. 

Taking said factor into account, it’s actually 15-year-old Coco Gauff who sits in fifth behind Riske, according the NBC OlympicTalk reporter Nick Zaccardi. Gauff, a breakout star from Wimbledon and the US Open in 2019, has just half the ranking points as Riske since June of last year.

While Venus is 11th among American women on said singles rankings system, she could be handpicked for the team to play doubles (as well as mixed doubles, as she did in Rio). Should Serena be in the top 10 (in singles or doubles; she’s currently No. 9 in singles) she could elect to play with Venus in doubles.

In a rematch of their first-round clash at Wimbledon from last season, Gauff and Venus will meet in their opening match in Melbourne after the draw was completed here Thursday night local time. Gauff won that encounter last July.

The U.S. captains – selected by the U.S Tennis Association – will have a say in said handpicked team members, should there be any.

The U.S. won three medals in Rio: Venus teamed with Rajeev Ram for mixed doubles silver, losing to compatriots Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock in the gold-medal match. Sock also teamed up with Johnson for men’s doubles bronze.

Neither Mattek-Sands nor Sock are near their career-best rankings in doubles currently, meaning they’ll have to make a splashy run before the cutoff to have a chance to qualify for the U.S. team. Ram is ranked No. 22 in men’s doubles, while American Nicole Melichar is ranked No. 20 in doubles.

Melichar, knowing she’ll have to have a knockout start to the year, said she – like Keys – is trying not to put too much pressure on herself.

“I will not go out of my way to chase (ranking) points,” she said. “I give my body the priority to be healthy. If I want to be top 10, I have to perform at the biggest tournaments on the biggest stage. I’ll make the team if I perform well. But my focus is simple: Work hard each day to improve.”

Melichar was Wimbledon runner-up in doubles in 2018, and won the mixed doubles event that year, as well. 

Mattek-Sands could have a clear shot at the top 10 bye spot: She’s ranked No.25 with few tournaments on her ranking, meaning she could easily gain points in the next few months.

Mattek-Sands was out for much of the first half of last year with a knee injury, following a separate, gruesome knee injury in 2017 at Wimbledon.

Bob and Mike Bryan, the winningest men’s doubles team in history and 2012 doubles gold medalists, have announced that 2020 would be their final season – at age 41. While the twins will wrap up their careers in September at the US Open, they have not committed to the Olympics as of yet. 

They said they planned to make a decision later in the year.

Starting Monday, Serena Williams is once again one of the favorites to win her 24th major. Last week she won her 73rd singles title, but first since giving birth to her daughter in September 2017. She became the first player in the Open Era to win titles across four decades, having won her first singles crown in France in 1999.

She’s reached the final in four out of the last six majors, but hasn’t won a set in those four finals appearances, most recently at the US Open in September to Canada’s Bianca Andreescu. A 24th Grand Slam win would equal the all-time record, held by Australian Margaret Court.

Keys will take the momentum from a run to the Brisbane final last week. The 2017 US Open runner-up was a semifinalist in Melbourne in 2015.

The Australian Open runs through Feb. 2.

Nick McCarvel is a freelance reporter based in New York City. He is covering his eighth Australian Open. Follow him from Melbourne on Twitter: @NickMcCarvel.

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Madison Keys