Meanwhile, the highly regarded international team competitions—Davis Cup and Fed Cup—are spread out across the year and these forums offer the players a chance to play for their countries, to look beyond their personal pursuits. Unfortunately, however, Davis and Fed Cup can sometimes can get lost in the shuffle because the public is hard pressed to keep abreast with the scheduling and timeframes of those prestigious showcases.
But the Olympic Games—which is commencing now in Rio De Janeiro—is different. It is tucked into a compressed timeframe in the middle of summer. It is a part of a larger sporting mosaic. The players can build their dreams and aspirations around the notion of representing their nations over a short span, and treat this unique event with the utmost of seriousness. The Olympics holds another distinction that makes it stand apart from anything else that is significant in tennis: it is not staged annually but every four years.
That is the reason why many top competitors care so much about collecting medals. They can give everything they have in a quest for a rare achievement and come away with a large and lasting reward. And this year’s festivities should be fascinating as the players assemble in Rio. To be sure, there are some big names missing: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka are both out with injuries. Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic is staying away, as is perennial underachiever Tomas Berdych. Among the women, world No. 3 Simona Halep is the most notable absentee.
And yet, the cast in both the men’s and women’s fields is sterling. 2008 Olympic gold medalist Rafael Nadal plans to play all three events in Rio, not only looking for a second singles crown but competing with Marc Lopez in men’s doubles and Garbine Muguruza in mixed doubles. The 30-year-old Spaniard is seeded third behind Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Kei Nishikori is No. 4. Rounding out the top eight seeds are the charismatic Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, the slumping Spaniard David Ferrer and the enterprising Belgian David Goffin.
As for the women, 2012 singles gold medalist Serena Williams is the top seed, with Australian Open victor Angelique Kerber at No. 2, French Open champion Muguruza in the No. 3 slot, and the guileful Agnieszka Radwanska one place behind the Spaniard. Venus Williams—the singles gold medalist at the 2000 Olympics—is seeded fifth, followed by Italy’s Roberta Vinci, Madison Keys of the U.S. and the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. Having three American women among the top eight seeds will heighten interest considerably in the United States.
In my view, Djokovic and Serena Williams are the heavy favorites this year for different reasons. Djokovic was a semifinalist in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. He lost a hard fought encounter with Nadal at Beijing 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, missing an exceedingly easy overhead at match point down. He then ousted James Blake in the third place contest to secure a bronze medal. Four years ago in London, he was beaten in the semifinals by Andy Murray and upended by Juan Martin Del Potro in the battle for the bronze.
At 29, having won seven titles including two majors across a scintillating 2016 campaign, knowing exactly what is at stake, utterly determined to succeed, Djokovic will not want to let an opportunity get away from him to secure a gold medal on the hard courts of Rio. I like his chances. After suffering a shocking third round loss against Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, the Serbian bounced back decidedly in Canada last week to capture the Rogers Cup title in Toronto. He will be primed for this occasion.
He will play his first round appointment in Brazil against none other than Del Potro. The big Argentine remains a dangerous adversary for anyone in the upper echelons of the sport, a fact he demonstrated inarguably this year on the Centre Court of Wimbledon when he toppled Wawrinka. But Del Potro has been hindered by too many wrist issues over the years. He is not the player he was in 2012, when he lost a dandy 19-17 in the third set to Federer in the semifinals, yet still rallied to stop Djokovic for the bronze. He is also not nearly the fearsome competitor he was in 2009, when he halted Federer in five sets for the U.S. Open title.
I believe Del Potro can test Djokovic for a while with his magnificent forehand and underrated first serve, but Djokovic will ultimately take control of that match with his returns and backcourt craftiness. He could meet the American Jack Sock in the round of 16 to set up a likely quarterfinal against the ever dynamic Tsonga, but the Serbian figures to be elevating his game by then. Nadal is expected to meet Djokovic in the semifinals, but no one knows precisely what to expect from the Spaniard now.
The nine time Roland Garros champion pulled out of the third round at the French Open with a wrist injury. He has not played a tournament since, and the status of his wrist was unclear as he set off on his Rio journey. He has made comments indicating that the left wrist pain lingers. I would be pleasantly surprised if this dynamic performer arrived safely for a semifinal showdown against Djokovic. He happens to have a reasonably favorable draw, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he won’t make it that far. I believe Goffin might be the man confronting Djokovic in the semifinals, with the Serbian prevailing.
On the opposite half of the draw, Murray should move comfortably into the semifinals, and meet the winner of a potentially intriguing quarterfinal between No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori and No. 6 Monfils. Nishikori is my pick to defeat Monfils in a stirring contest. I see the Japanese stylist coming through in a riveting skirmish. Murray and Nishikori in the semifinals would be a blockbuster, going down to the wire with the Wimbledon champion narrowly avoiding defeat before garnering an uplifting victory.
And so, I am expecting a Djokovic-Murray final. Nothing would be more fitting. This would present the public with the No. 1 player in the world against No. 2. Djokovic defeated Murray in the finals of both the Australian and French Opens this season. He has been victorious in 13 of his last 15 duels with the British standout. Undoubtedly both men would be fully motivated as Djokovic is going full force after a first gold medal while Murray wants to hold onto the title he won over Federer in 2012.
I envision another stirring showdown between two men born one week apart in the spring of 1987. I see Djokovic winning the first set and Murray retaliating to take the second, but thereafter Djokovic’s physicality will rule the day. He will start controlling more rallies, hitting out more freely, serving with extraordinary precision and wearing his adversary down methodically. Novak Djokovic wins the gold medal in my view over Andy Murray.
Serena Williams may struggle inordinately early on. She has been idle since Wimbledon, healing some wounds, getting some much needed rest. She commences her campaign against a capable foe, facing world No. 46 Daria Gavrilova. That has the potential to go three sets, but Williams will be ready, and her serve under pressure will carry her to victory. She is expected to face No. 15 seed Elina Svitolina in the round of 16 but, by then, the 34-year-old American will be finding her range and executing more soundly off the ground. Williams succeeds in straight sets.
Williams figures to play either Roberta Vinci or Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. The Vinci confrontation would be highly entertaining and enticing because the Italian stunned the American in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year when the American was ever so close to winning a Calendar-Year Grand Slam. History will not repeat itself. If Serena comes up against Kvitova, the left-hander (seeded eleventh) could make it enormously interesting. The two-time Wimbledon champion is a shotmaker supreme, but she has made a habit out of beating herself. In the end, whether Williams confronts Vinci or Kvitova makes no difference: the American wins.
In the semifinals, the guess here is that Williams meets Muguruza. Who could not wish for that? Muguruza gave a first rate account of herself against the American in the 2015 Wimbledon final, and then at Roland Garros a few months ago she captured her first major with an often dazzling performance, cutting down Williams in the final there on the red clay of Paris. Muguruza was abysmal in a 6-3, 6-2 second round loss against Jana Cepelova at Wimbledon. She seemed unable to summon any inspiration.
But now is the time for the Spaniard to reignite her game and recover her spirit. She opens against Jelena Jankovic, a masterful strategist who closed 2008 at No. 1 in the world but is now well past her prime at the age of 31. If Muguruza reaches the quarterfinals, she would presumably have an appointment with either Timea Bacsinszky or Venus Williams. I am picking the 36-year-old Williams to overcome Bacsinszky in three tumultuous sets, but then lose in the quarters to Muguruza in straight sets. But Serena will have revenge on her mind when she steps on court against Muguruza. On the hard courts, the setting is essentially neutral. Muguruza will hold her own from the backcourt, and she will put pressure on Serena’s second serve with some searing returns. Serena wins the first set before Muguruza rallies from a break down to seal the second. The third and final set is hard fought, with the score locked at 5-5. Down 15-40, Williams releases a pair of clutch aces and then holds on. She then breaks with some blazing winners. On to the final goes Williams.
On the bottom half of the draw, Kerber is in impressive form. Having gained immeasurable confidence from reaching the final of Wimbledon after a difficult late winter and spring, Kerber makes her way through some arduous contests in Rio. She stops the cagey Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Radwanska plays Madison Keys in a spellbinding quarterfinal pitting a wily tactician against a big hitter. Keys blows Radwanska off the court in the first set, drops the second in a tie-break, and then pulls away to win 6-2 in the third and final set.
And so Keys and Kerber collide in the semifinals. It is predictably unpredictable from beginning to end, with Kerber defending skillfully and Keys explosively exploring every inch of the court. Kerber wins the opening set but a highly charged Keys starts blasting one winning return after another, taking the second set easily. Keys rolls to 4-1 in the final set, establishing a two break lead. But the tenacious German lefty sweeps five consecutive games for a stirring victory. In that stretch, she makes only two unforced errors.
And so, it is time for Kerber and Williams to contest their third crucial final of 2016. Kerber upset Williams in a sparkling three set Australian Open but Williams struck back boldly to win their Wimbledon final in straight sets, largely on the strength of her incomparable first serve. Now, on the hard courts in Rio, playing for their countries, back on hard courts, both women are at the peak of their powers. But, as was the case at Wimbledon on the lawns, Kerber can’t break the prodigious serve of the American. Williams wins a second straight gold medal with a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
That is how I see it all unfolding, but surely there will be some notable surprises in both the men’s and women’s singles draws. Meanwhile, there will be some compelling teams competing in all three doubles events. The Bryan brothers are not competing in Rio but Andy and Jamie Murray are the No. 2 seeds, Nadal and Lopez will be formidable as the No. 6 seeds, and Tsonga alongside Monfils will be an arresting combination. In the women’s doubles draw, the sisters Williams are the top seeds and the clear favorites to win the gold together for the third consecutive time and the fourth time in the last five Olympics. And if Nadal and Muguruza make a run in the mixed doubles, they will be an immensely attractive pairing. The fans will find them irresistible.
I am more than ready to watch the tennis day after day at the 2016 Olympic Games. How about you?