I enjoyed it all enormously. Let’s examine the highlights and relive it before the dust settles and as the players move on to different destinations and aspirations. In my view, the Olympic Games showcased the sport spectacularly and demonstrated that these athletes can stand up to those from any other sport—and then some.
MURRAY DEFENDS TITLE
On his way to the final, Andy Murray found himself in some dire predicaments. He trailed 0-3 in the final set against the mercurial Fabio Fognini. The inspiring yet infuriating Italian even had a game point for 4-1 in the last set but Murray collected himself honorably in the clutch, sweeping six games in a row to reach the quarterfinals.
He then crushed the appealing American Steve Johnson without the loss of a game in the first set of their quarterfinal, but the British stalwart had to fight ferociously to take that match 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (2). Murray won essentially on big match experience and sheer willpower. In the final set, Johnson broke Murray for a 4-3 lead, lost his serve in the eighth game, but then the American had a break point in the ninth game. He stood just that single point away from serving for the match, but Murray was unbending, prevailing in a 26 stroke exchange, demonstrating that he will not miss in such a situation. From there, Murray held on steadfastly and then was unerring in the ensuing and decisive tie-break.
Murray played his finest sustained tennis of the tournament to oust No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinals, putting a remarkable 76% of his first serves in play, not even facing a break point. This was top of the line stuff from the No. 2 seed, carrying him into the final round contest against Juan Martin Del Potro in the right state of mind. He had halted Nishikori in under 80 minutes while the tall Argentine had needed more than three hours to stop Rafael Nadal in the second semifinal.
Murray is one of the game’s consummate professionals, and his self conviction was decidedly bolstered by being on an 18 match winning streak that started at the Aegon Championships in London, continuing through Wimbledon and on to this monumental opportunity in Rio. No man or woman had ever secured two singles gold medals in the history of the Olympic Games, and, of course, no one had ever successfully defended the singles title before.
And yet, he knew full well not to expect anything less than the best from a revitalized Del Potro, who had withstood three surgeries on his left wrist between late March 24, 2014 and June 18, 2015. That 15 month span would have destroyed the morale of many men, but not the towering Del Potro. The 27-year-old has taken his lumps graciously, refusing to give up on his dreams of returning to the forefront of the game and rising to the level he reached in 2009 when he captured his lone major title at the U.S. Open.
Del Potro has been playing sparingly this year to preserve his strength and protect his wrist. He did upend Stan Wawrinka at the All England Club after bypassing the French Open, but did not compete after he lost in the next round at Wimbledon until Rio. But he promptly sent shock waves through the tennis world by knocking out top seeded Novak Djokovic in the first round, taking that match in two tie-breaks without even facing a break point in 12 service games. Del Potro played his best tennis since 2013.
Although the big man dropped sets in his next two matches, he did not despair. In the quarterfinals, he won a hard fought, straight set clash with the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut before moving past Nadal. And that put him into the title round meeting with Murray. Understandably, Del Potro looked fatigued and somewhat apprehensive in the early stages of the final. Playing this many matches in a row was a foreign feeling to him these days; he had not been through that kind of extended physical warfare for a couple of years.
After six deuces, the Argentine was broken in the second game of the match by an unrelenting Murray. The 29-year-old made a delayed approach to his opponent’s backhand, anticipated the sliced reply from Del Potro, and confidently put away a high forehand volley. That fifteen minute game yielded a break to Murray for 2-0.
Murray dropped his serve in the third game, but broke at love for a 3-1 lead. Murray was rolling now, holding immaculately at love for 4-1, doing so with persuasive variety, including a brilliant low backhand passing shot that drew an errant volley, a drop shot that set up a forehand volley winner, a clean winner off the backhand down the line, and another superb backhand up the line that was unanswerable.
Murray had swept eight consecutive points to widen his lead. Del Potro, however, held at 30 for 2-4 and broke Murray in the seventh game, aided there by a double fault at 30-30 from the British competitor. Del Potro held at 15 for 4-4. He had captured three games in a row, winning 12 of 17 points in the process. In the ninth game, Murray was down 0-30 but he eventually held on for 5-4. A love hold from Del Potro made it 5-5.
Del Potro needed the first set more than Murray, and he fought for it wholeheartedly. Yet Murray tenuously held for 6-5 and then sealed the set in the twelfth game with temerity and precision. With Del Potro serving at 30-40, the Argentine approached behind a sliced backhand. Murray directed a gorgeous backhand down the line passing shot winner. The set had gone to Murray 7-5, narrowly yet irreversibly.
Del Potro remained resolute, though, breaking Murray in the opening game of the second set with a neatly executed backhand passing shot winner up the line. In the following game, Del Potro was down break point three times, but the man was playing with increasing vigor. He was driving his fearsome forehand with the velocity he once did so routinely. He was serving big on the points that mattered. Moreover, his two-handed backhand had improved markedly all week long, while his slice off that side was still a mainstay. He was keeping Murray largely in a defensive mode. Del Potro advanced to 2-0 after facing the danger. Both players held comfortably over the next three games, and then Del Potro moved to 4-2 after releasing some of his most thunderous forehands of the match.
Two games later, Del Potro held at love for 5-3 and then reached set point on the Murray serve in the ninth game. Murray saved it gracefully, employing a backhand drop shot, drawing Del Potro in, and then moving in for a backhand volley past his adversary for a winner. Murray held on, forcing Del Potro to serve out the set in the tenth game. Del Potro was made to work hard, but he got the job done. On his third set point, Del Potro released a big first serve to the backhand, opening up an avenue for a forehand inside in winner. Set to Del Potro, 6-4. The match was locked at one set all. The crowd was roaring.
Yet Murray remained calm, believing that his masterful percentage play and superior fitness would ultimately put him in good stead. The match was almost two hours and twenty minutes old, and that clearly worked in his favor. Nevertheless, both men held up until it was 3-2 for Murray. In the sixth game, Del Potro served consecutive double faults, his first two of the match. He fell behind 0-30. Eventually, Murray broke through for 4-2 as Del Potro misfired off the forehand. Murray was in command, taking eight of the next eleven points with outstanding ball control and tactical savvy. He had won the set 6-2, sweeping four games in a row to seal it. Now he led two sets to one, and Del Potro’s stamina was being called into question.
Oddly, neither man held serve across the first four games of that fourth set. Then Murray moved ahead 3-2, but Del Potro was unmoved. In holding at love for 3-3, he was downright dazzling, producing four sizzling forehand winners in a row, delighting the audience, giving Murray cause for concern, rekindling his inner belief. A rejuvenated Del Potro broke Murray at 15 for 4-3, scampering forward swiftly to chase down a Murray drop shot, steering his shot back down the line, setting up an easy overhead winner. From 0-30, Del Potro swept four consecutive points to reach 5-3, one game away from a fifth set.
Murray remained composed and quietly confident. The British player held at 15 for 4-5. Twice in the following game, Del Potro made it to deuce, standing two points away from claiming the fourth set. On the first deuce, Murray won a debilitating 35 stoke exchange, pulling Del Potro forward at the end with a short slice. The Argentine dug it out awkwardly, but his forehand approach was weak and Murray beat him with a bruising backhand passing shot. At deuce for the second time, Murray drop-shotted down the line off the backhand, and then closed in behind it to put away a backhand volley. He broke back for 5-5 forthrightly.
In the eleventh game, Murray encountered more trouble, falling behind 15-40 on his own serve. He wiped away one break point with an ultra-aggressive backhand, then saved the next one with an ace. Another ace gave the British man game point, and he advanced to 6-5 by coaxing an error off the Del Potro backhand. Serving to stay in the match, an unwavering Del Potro got to 40-30, standing one point away from a tie-break. He never got there, though. Del Potro would save one match point but a cagey Murray came through on the second, playing chess on the tennis court, outmaneuvering Del Potro, approaching on the Argentine’s backhand. Del Potro netted a feeble backhand slice. Murray had triumphed 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in four hours and two minutes of high caliber tennis.
And so he defended his Olympics singles title, taking a second gold medal in a row, making history with that achievement. What he has done since late last year is nothing short of stupendous. Murray led the British to their first Davis Cup victory since 1936 almost single-handedly in December of 2015. He reached the final of the Australian Open this year, went to the final of the French Open, and won Wimbledon for the second time in July. Now he has done it again at the Olympics. Andy Murray is reaffirming that he is a great champion who must not be taken for granted.
PUIG STARTLES EVERYONE, INCLUDING HERSELF
Close followers of the women’s game were well aware of Monica Puig’s progress during the 2016 season. She had concluded 2015 at No. 92 in the world, down 32 slots in the WTA Tour rankings from where she stood at the end of 2014. But she had played the finest sustained tennis of her career in 2016, heading into Rio up at No. 34 in the world. The 22-year-old worked hard to reach that level, and elected to represent Puerto Rico rather than the United States at the Olympic Games. It was an opportunity to compete against the best players in the world, and a chance to find out precisely what she could do against them.
Here was a woman who had never been beyond the fourth round at any of the Grand Slam events. How could she make a deep impression in Rio at the Olympic Games? The only way she could answer that question was to take it moment by moment, match by match, day by day. And that is exactly what she did. In the second round, she upset No. 14 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 6-3, 6-2. Then she routed French Open champion Garbine Muguruza by the barely credible scores of 6-1, 6-1. She followed with a 6-1, 6-1 quarterfinal triumph over Laura Siegemund of Germany, and that put her improbably into the semifinals.
In that round, Puig knocked out No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova 6-4,1-6, 6-3. She had beaten three seeds, and had guaranteed herself a medal, but I could not imagine that she would beat No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber. Kerber captured her first major at the Australia Open this year. She was runner-up to Serena Williams at Wimbledon, and played an excellent final there. In Rio, Kerber had been in sparkling form and had not dropped a set. The left-hander seemed primed for the gold and ready to reassert her status as the second best player in the world. She had looked just about unstoppable all through the tournament and had won ten sets in a row before her skirmish with Puig.
But the astonishing Puig revealed no timidity and not a sign of trepidation as she commenced her appointment with Kerber. From the very beginning, Puig was setting the tempo with her searing, flat shots off both sides. She seemed to catch Kerber off guard with the onslaught, and yet I wondered how long it would take for the German to adjust and for Puig to start misfiring. They exchanged breaks in the first two games. The set was locked at 4-4, 30-30 when Puig propitiously hit a let-cord winner that dribbled over the net and landed safely on the other side for a winner.
That was an awfully big point. Had that shot not gone over the net, Kerber would have had a break point for 5-4. She might have taken the set and gone on to victory. Instead, Puig held to lead 5-4 and Kerber opened the following game with a double fault. She then sent a forehand tamely into the bottom of the net for 0-30. Puig broke at 15 with a scintillating backhand down the line winner.
Kerber left the court and went to the locker room for an injury/medical timeout. She soon found her range when play resumed, building a 2-0 lead, breaking in the first game, serving a pair of aces in the next game. Kerber missed a forehand down the line return when she had break point for 3-0 but she still advanced to 3-1 and then 4-2. Yet Puig kept swinging freely, blasting winners almost effortlessly, stepping inside the court and taking control of the rallies.
Puig got back to 4-4, but nerves set in. On the penultimate point of the ninth game, the Puerto Rican double faulted, and then Kerber invented an angle from the middle of the court and connected impeccably for a superb backhand winner. Ahead 5-4, she moved to 40-0 but needed five set points to make it one set all. The No. 2 seed was back to one set all.
Kerber left the court again, but Puig was unruffled. She produced three winners and an ace in a love hold for 1-0, broke Kerber at 30 for 2-0 and surged to 3-0. Puig was soaring now, and soon it was 5-0. Kerber saved a match point on her way to 1-5. The German had 0-40 on Puig’s serve in the seventh game but Puig never stopped dictating. After six deuces, on her fourth match point, she prevailed. Puig was thoroughly rewarded for her ceaseless aggression and sound execution.
She was phenomenal, releasing 54 winners in her 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 victory, an average of two per game. Kerber inexplicably never found sufficient depth on her shots for the entire match, and for that she has only herself to blame. Why she could not add length to her ground strokes is beyond me. But the explosive Puig deserves full marks for her daringly assertive performance. It was an exemplary display against an adversary who expected to win. Puig establishes herself as the first player representing Puerto Rico to win a gold medal in any sport, male or female.
That is no mean feat. The hope here is that she can play the same brand of uninhibited tennis at the majors over the next five years, and add Grand Slam titles to her Olympic gold. That would be very fitting.
DEL POTRO TOPPLES NADAL IN MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT
No match was more electrifying in the entire Olympic Games of 2016 than the Rafael Nadal-Juan Martin Del Potro semifinal. They played a whale of a contest in front of a boisterous crowd, and the outcome of this skirmish was in doubt until the final ball was struck. Nadal had been gone from the game for 73 days after his withdrawal from the third round of Roland Garros until his start in Rio. He managed to round into good form quickly, and dropped only one set on his way to the appointment with Del Potro.
But the 2008 Olympic gold medalist was on double duty this time around. He had planned to play all three events, but elected in the end to pull out of the mixed doubles with Muguruza. Yet he joined forces with close friend Marc Lopez and they won the gold medal in the men’s doubles the night before he faced the Argentine in the singles. He might have asking too much of himself, both physically and emotionally.
And yet, the Spaniard rallied from 1-3 in the first set and stopped Del Potro 7-5. He was strategically sounder. As Del Potro overplayed the Spaniard’s backhand side to avoid the renowned whirlwind topspin forehand of his opponent, Nadal stung the Argentine time and again with flattened out backhands that rushed the bigger man into mistakes on the run. But Del Potro broke for 2-1 in the second set with some singularly monstrous forehands, and made it count, taking the set 6-4. Early in the third set, Del Potro saved a break point on his way to 1-1. Nadal saved two in holding for 3-2. But, at 4-4, Del Potro struck with ferocity and broke for 5-4. Serving for the match, he made two tame errors for 0-30 and then a highly charged Nadal made a nifty backhand drop volley winner followed by a vintage forehand passing shot down the line into the clear.
It was 5-5, yet Nadal was down 0-40 after a cluster of Del Potro’s thundering forehands. Somehow Nadal came out of that corner and held on for 6-5 before Del Potro held at love for 6-6. The concluding tie-break was a credit to both competitors. Del Potro opened up a 3-0 lead. Nadal countered to win the next two points, one with a stunning, acutely angled backhand winner. Del Potro answered with a service winner and a glorious forehand inside in winner for 5-2 before Nadal took both of his service points. At 5-4. Del Potro served an ace but then Nadal saved a match point.
The Spanish left-handed dynamo served at 5-6, and got the short ball he wanted on the forehand side, going for an inside out winner. But he sent that shot wide. Del Potro had taken this crackling showdown 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5). It was a joy to watch.
BRONZE MEDALS GO TO NISHIKORI AND KVITOVA
When players lose in the penultimate round of tournaments all over the world—most notably at the majors—they realize they have reached the end of the line. Is is time for them to either move on to the next tournament or, in rare cases, turn their attention to the doubles. But at the Olympic Games, that is not the case. Losing in the semifinals can be anguishing and even lead to despondency, but the players are afforded the chance to play for a bronze medal in a third place match.
And so it was for both Kei Nishikori and Petra Kvitova. Nishikori took on Nadal. The Japanese stylist was clearly fresher after his decisive loss to Murray in the semifinals, while Nadal was coming off his three hour scrape with Del Potro. Nishikori opened up a big lead, moving ahead 6-2, 5-2, leading by two breaks in that second set. A typically obstinate Nadal roared back to win four games in a row and eventually stole the set in a tie-break, prevailing seven points to one in that sequence. But Nishikori withstood that piercing blow, and went on to break for 3-1 in the final set. He stopped the Spaniard 6-2, 6-7(1), 6-3 to claim the bronze. Kvitova must have been deflated after her three set upset lost to Puig, but she cut down Madison Keys in three sets for her bronze medal. Keys had performed admirably in a semifinal loss to Kerber, but she could not contain her left-handed adversary.
Kvitova and Nishikori both bounced back with gusto after suffering deep disappointments in the semifinals. They came away with well deserved honors. In particular, Nishikori must be applauded for earning his medal. The Japanese fellow survived a harrowing quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, rallying from 3-6, triple match point down in a third set tie-break to win five clutch points in a row for the victory. His brave stance was the definition of poise under pressure.
JACK SOCK IS LONE TWO MEDAL RECIPIENT
The Olympic Games did not start particularly well for the 23-year-old American Jack Sock. He was under the weather when he was beaten in the first round of the singles by Taro Daniel of Japan. Sock was the No. 14 seed and surely had hopes of going deep in the draw at Rio. But he put that loss behind him rapidly, and did some commendable work in the men’s and women’s doubles divisions. Sock joined Steve Johnson to reach the semifinals and they lost to the Romanians Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau, the No. 5 seeds. But Sock and Johnson had an impressive win in the third place match, eclipsing Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 6-4. Sock claimed a bronze medal with that victory. In the mixed doubles, he moved well beyond that feat. Competing alongside the zany Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sock garnered a gold medal. They upended fellow Americans Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram 6-7(3), 6-1, 10-7, taking that decisive ” Super Tie-Break” after trailing 6-3.
Venus Williams claimed a silver medal at her fifth Olympic Games. Given that Williams is 36, this will likely be her last hurrah. But Jack Sock is another story altogether. He will almost surely appear in two more Olympics, and don’t be surprised if he adds to his medal collection. Don’t be surprised at all.
A FINAL WORD
There was no prize money for the players in Rio, and I have no problem with that. Financial rewards they did not need; psychic rewards they got in abundance. But I believe the foremost achievers at this Olympic Games were sorely shortchanged by not receiving ATP and WTA computer ranking points for their efforts. Those hit the hardest were Del Potro and Puig. He is ranked No. 141 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. His run to the final in Rio was worthy of a big climb in the rankings to a place well inside the top 100, but he gets no such boost. Puig was No. 34 in the WTA Rankings going into the Olympics and is now at No. 35, for reasons I can’t now explain. With her Olympic gold triumph she should be well inside the top 20, but that is not the case. Finally, look at Murray. He is 1815 points behind Djokovic in the ATP Race to London. Had he been given the points he deserved for Rio, he would have closed that gap considerably and would now trail the Serbian by less than a thousand.
I believe it was a big mistake not to award points at this Olympics. In 2012, the players did receive those points. I hope this can be remedied in 2016 because we were reminded this year that the players hold the Olympic Games in the highest regard, as well they should.