Monday, August 6, 2012

Checking in with the Olympics: Murray Breaks Through

Image via TechJost

My personal history with the Summer Olympics is a bit different from my history with the Winter Games.  Growing up, the Winter Olympics were the one time when my family would share my sports mania.  We would only ever watch TV over dinner for two things: political conventions and Olympic figure skating.  Interest in the Summer Games was nowhere near as strong.

The first Summer Olympics I ever watched were the boycotted Los Angeles Games in 1984.  I went to visit my indulging grandmother in Cleveland rather than going camping with my parents and sister so that I could watch the Olympics.  The family has given me no end of grief for that decision over the years but it was totally worth it.  I blissfully immersed myself in the Games whereas it rained all week in central Pennsylvania.

For me, the great fun of the Summer Games is the astonishing variety on offer.  While Olympic tennis, my usual spectator sport of choice, has become increasingly important to the overall narrative over the years, I believe in using the opportunity to explore other sports as much as possible.  Tennis has the worldwide-broadcast Majors.  For even what we think of as high profile Olympic sports like gymnastics and swimming - not to mention sports like archery, judo and weightlifting - the Games are by far the biggest stage.  Think Michael Phelps is a big star?  Without the Olympics, the casual fan would never have noticed. Without the Olympics, he might have played basketball instead.

My own interests tend toward the team sports, particularly the ones that don't get much exposure on American television - namely volleyball, team handball, field hockey and water polo.  As a tennis fan, I am also curious about the other racquet sports, badminton and table tennis.  But before we dig into those, I can't deny that the narrative that grabbed my attention by the end of the first week was, as ever, men's tennis. 

There is great debate among the pundits as to whether or not professional tennis players should be a part of the Olympics at all.  Apart from being obscenely wealthy, larger than life figures such as Roger Federer and Serena Williams detract from the attention which should be showered upon all of those Phelps-like athletes who only get this kind of adulation every four years.  For the players themselves, on the other hand, the Olympics have become a very big deal indeed.  There's far less money and esteem at stake than there is at the Majors and there always will be.  But more and more, careers are being planned around this quadrennial affair.  When the Games were awarded to London and the announcement was made that tennis would be held at Wimbledon, it was hailed as a huge moment for the sport.

In 2012, men's tennis is the best sports story going.  The game is ruled by three athletic geniuses who spilt the first three Slams of the year between them: Djokovic won the Australian, Nadal the French and Grandmaster Federer Wimbledon.  Whoever won the Olympics would be seen as the frontrunner to win the US Open and take the year-end #1 ranking.  Sadly, Nadal pulled out so the focus turned to Federer: could he complete the Career Golden Slam?  Just about the only thing that could make the story better would be for Andy Murray of Great Britain to finally make his break through and win gold for the home team.

Photo via Daily Record

Well, what do you know?  Just a few weeks after leaving Wimbledon heartbroken, Murray returns to topple two of the Big Three, including the King of Grass in straight sets.  He won silver in mixed doubles, too, alongside the mega-talented Laura Robson.  Is this what he needed to get over the hump?  The next test comes soon.  The US Open looms in three weeks.

The plot thickens for the rest of the field, too.  Djokovic has failed to live up to the ridiculously high standard he set for himself last year.  He'll head to New York with champion points to defend but hungry for redemption.  He is still the best hard court player in the world until proven otherwise.  Juan Martin del Potro has fought his way back into the conversation.  His semifinal match with Fed was the second-best match I've watched this year (after the Aussie men's final), then he took down the Djoker for the bronze.  What's going on with Nadal?  He's only 26 but given his ultra-strenuous style of play, he and everyone else knows the window of opportunity for him will be relatively small.  Are his recent troubles a sign of permanent decline?

Photo via buzzbox

The big question now, though, is Federer.  This was his last best chance to win singles gold.  While he's certainly proven that he's got plenty left in the tank, it's hard to imagine him still contending at the age of 34.  They won't be playing on grass in Rio, either.  So, what's left to keep him motivated?  Not long ago, I predicted he would call it a day after this year's US Open.  That seems unlikely now but there would be a certain poetic lilt if he did.  My guess is that as long as he continues to contend at Majors, he'll stick around.  You know what I'd love to see?  A Federer-Nadal team on the doubles circuit for a year.  It won't happen but a man can dream.

Still with me?  Okay, a quick rundown of the other sports I've been following: 

Volleyball - Every four years, I wonder why volleyball isn't a bigger sport in the United States.  It has everything Americans purport to love in a game.  It's fast, high-scoring and favors the freakishly tall.  It is also, I think, an aesthetically pleasing game.  Volleyball was invented in Holyoke, Massachusetts, not too far from basketball's birthplace in Springfield.  And yet, while professional volleyball leagues thrive in other parts of the world, it has never grown beyond a niche sport in its homeland.  It has thrived as a college sport here, especially for women and I'm all for that.  I'm pro-Title IX big time - don't even get me started!  And yes, I was even before I had a daughter.  But as with any game, it's another matter to watch the best in the world play.  I prefer the indoor game to the one on the beach but I enjoy both. 

Team Handball - This is the one that looks like the most fun.  I understand why handball hasn't caught on here, though - too much competition from similar, more established sports.  How can one not love a sport in which Denmark and Iceland are world powers?  There hasn't been as much coverage for handball as for the other team sports because, of course, Team USA is not in the competition. 

Field Hockey - I have an interesting personal history with field hockey.  When I was 11, we took a family trip to Europe. We stayed with friends of my parents in a small town in Germany for several days.  They have a daughter about my age.  I spoke no German at the time and she only minimal English.  She did, however, have two field hockey sticks.  So, to amuse ourselves, we'd head to the park to knock the ball back and forth.  Looking back now, I'm amazed and grateful for her willingness to spend that time with me.  She would have been well within her rights to ignore me completely.

Fast forward to junior high PE class, we had a field hockey unit one week.  While others were trying to figure things out, I was already pretty comfortable with the stick.  I was the star!  I didn't have many athletic moments like that in my youth.  I savored it.

Alas, there was no field hockey for boys at the high school - they don't do that in the States.  Our girls' team, however, was and is very good.  They've been the dominant team in Maryland for a quarter-century now, making the state finals nearly every year and winning it more often than not.  My sophomore year, not only did they win every game but they did not allow a single goal all season.  All shutouts.  Every game.  It was one of the most dominating performances I've seen in any sport at any level ever. 

Water Polo - This one is surely the most strenuous - all of the demands of the other goal sports while having to tread water for the entire game.  No surprise they are the most beautifully sculpted athletes you'll ever see.  I would imagine this one is more fun to play than to watch.  Given the constraints of the water, there isn't nearly as much movement as in the other three - completely understanable, of course, but less satisfying as a spectator. 

Badminton and Table Tennis - If any devotees are still reading, forgive me for grouping these two fine sports together.  As far as the Olympics are concerned, I have the same problem with both: they are too thoroughly dominated by one country - China in both cases.  It seems anti-Olympic when that happens.  I'm not just picking on the Chinese, either.  I have the same problem with swimming.  And Olympic basketball is a joke.  Coverage of both badminton and table tennis has been sparse but I don't find either quite as compelling as my dear tennis.  Both are more fun to play than to watch, I feel.

As we head into the final week, I'm still hoping to get caught up in the narrative of one of these sports.  It hasn't happened yet.  None of the sports in the Summer Games are as charmingly quirky as curling, either.  Handball might have the most potential there.


  1. It was weird how the men's tennis in the Olympics ended with the same finals as Wimbledon just three weeks ago on the same court. Except this time the results were reversed.

    I watched a little of the swimming and a little volleyball, and the final of the USA-Lithuania men's basketball game just because I heard the US was losing. Other than that I don't care. I wish they had baseball back and that they would let the big league players play. I mean really the baseball season is so long that it wouldn't kill them to shorten it by two weeks so players could compete in the Olympics. I don't think it would bankrupt all 30 teams either to lose a few home games. There's just something nice about seeing players on "your" team with a gold medal even if they aren't on "your" country.

    1. I think baseball has a lot of potential on the international stage. The situation is very different from basketball's. You have at least four countries - USA, Japan, Cuba and Dominican Republic - which could field teams composed entirely of Major League-level players. The problem is two-fold. One is the schedule as you've noted. The other is softball. If they were going to kill one, they had to kill the other. Olympic softball would be one country against the world for a long time.

      I think they could make the schedule work. If hockey can do it, so can baseball. If Olympic baseball could match the excitement of Olympic hockey, they'd really have something. Then again, Crazy Man Bettman wants to keep NHL players out of the next Winter Games. That would be the stupidest decision ever.

  2. No interest in the divers, eh? This is the only Summer Olympic event I make sure I don't miss. In Winter, it's the ice skaters, whom I just adore.

    1. Suze, I can't bear the prime time coverage, which is when they've aired most of the diving. I just can't take all of the up-close-and-personals. I like diving, though. I followed Louganis back in the day - what an interesting story he has become over the years!