Fact: In the Open era of men’s tennis, there has been only one occasion when two Grand Slam winners have met in an Olympic final. Atlanta, 1996, Andre Agassi (USA) vs Sergi Bruguera (Spain). Not fiction. As thunderstorms delayed the start of the gold medal match, Agassi stepped out of the arena in search of junk food. Halfway through his second spicy chicken sandwich, the sun poked through the thick clouds and the thin film of rain water below cleared.
“Now I have a spicy chicken sandwich sitting on my gut, it’s ninety degrees, and the air is as thick as gravy,” he wrote in his tell-all memoir, Open. “I can’t move – and I have to play for a gold medal? I’m in extreme gastric discomfort.”
Two questions here. What do you suppose happened to a squeamish Agassi when he took to the court just moments later? Did Bruguera mop the floor with him and clinch gold?
He triumphed easy – 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 – to bring his decorated nation its first gold in this particular sport. What? And more importantly, how?
To answer simply: Tennis at the Olympics is an event once played in a bubble of mediocrity. At the same time, in the real world, Agassi’s ranking was 3 to Bruguera’s 53 – a match-up more fitting of an early, inconsequential round of a major. This is also most likely to be the reason why Leander Paes, ranked 127th in singles at this point, finished with a bronze disk around his neck – India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years.
“It has nothing to do with tennis, or me,” Agassi wrote of his gold, “and thus it exceeds all my expectations.”
“Nothing to do with tennis.” So much so that seven of the top 10 players in the world, including three Americans, gave Atlanta a skip.
Tennis stars summon two watertight reasons for not taking the Olympics seriously. One, it breaks the rhythm of a tennis calendar, and two, in tennis, a Slam trophy carries substantially more mass than an Olympic medal. So, when the sport was reintroduced by the International Olympic Committee at Seoul, 1988, following a 64-year hiatus, only three of the men’s top 10 showed up (Miloslav Mecír won gold, Tim Mayotte silver).
That, though, wasn’t the case in the women’s section. Having incredibly won each of the four Slams that year, Germany’s Steffi Graf was on a mission to give one final polish of glitter to her sensational season. When she did, by winning gold, a term was coined: Golden Slam. Only two men have achieved this feat over their careers – her husband Agassi, and Rafael Nadal. Graf, to reiterate, knocked it off in the span of nine months.
Graf did perhaps inspire a few more top-ranked men to take Barcelona 1992 seriously. As many as seven of the top ten showed up. But none of them managed to carve a niche on the clay courts of Spain. Switzerland’s Marc Rosset knocked out defending French Open champ and world number one Jim Courier in the third round, and clinched the gold eventually. He was ranked 37th in the world.
Andrei Cherkasov, representing Unified Team, lived out the highlights of his career in Barcelona. He put Sampras away in five draining sets (never before or after did he take a set off the star American) and then rounded out the podium with bronze.
It was Sampras’ first and last showing at the Games.
“For me the Olympics was always track and field or boxing,” Sampras later said. “In my time, it was sort of on the fence as to whether you were going to play or not. I did and it was fun. I got to see a little gymnastics for an hour.”
Sampras is the first to acknowledge that the generation that succeeded his gave tennis the respect it always deserved at the Games. “In the last few Olympics, tennis has gotten more prestigious,” the man with 14 Grand Slam titles said. “Last time (London 2012), it was held at Wimbledon. It’s something I would have done if I had the opportunity.”
And why wouldn’t he? The immortal who had made Sampras’ achievements seem human in nature was competing for his Golden Slam. All Roger Federer needed to do at the London Olympics was repeat his act from a fortnight ago – win again at SW19.
But Federer and the Olympics seldom see eye-to-eye. His previous three stints at the Games were best known for meeting his future wife (Sydney, 2000), losing to an unknown teen called Tomáš Berdych (Athens, 2004) and settling for a doubles gold while his nemesis Nadal won the singles event and in turn stole his number one ranking after 237 weeks (Beijing, 2008).
The record books will tell you that Federer registered his best singles performance yet at the London Olympics with a silver. But you never “win” a silver; you only “lose” out on a gold – in this case to Britain’s Andy Murray.
Gold is an inert metal. But the gold around Murray’s neck reacted like it never had for any of its previous recipients. Within a year he had wrapped his hands around his first Slam (US Open) and his holy grail (Wimbledon).
Federer, meanwhile, has gone Slamless through the four-year period between London and Rio 2016. And today, came the shock announcement that he “made the very difficult decision to call an end to my 2016 season as I need more extensive rehabilitation following my knee surgery earlier this year.”
It niggles, but doesn’t matter terribly in the long run. Because for the hardcore tennis fan, Federer has at least 17 titles that mean so much more. He is, and always will be, the undeniable GOAT.To read more, subscribe to the print edition or get the single digital copy now.