Tokyo Olympics: Golden goal for Djokovic but tennis at the Games has a history of shocks

By Sports Desk July 22, 2021

Novak Djokovic has leapt from one bubble into another as he attempts to become the first man in tennis history to win all four grand slams and Olympic gold in the same year.

The only men to have won each of the singles majors across their careers, plus Olympic gold, are Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, and now Djokovic aims to move to the brink of winning all five in his remarkable 2021 season.

Fresh from dominating at Wimbledon, and with the Australian and French Open titles already in the bag, Djokovic heads into the Tokyo Games as a red-hot favourite, seeking to set himself up to complete a historic campaign at the US Open.

Naomi Osaka will enter the Games with almost as much expectation behind her too, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion eyeing glory for hosts Japan.

But tennis has thrown up a host of shock results in its short Olympic history. Here, Stats Perform looks at the sport's place in the Games.

 

WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT, AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all opted out of the Olympics.

Williams made her mind up prior to suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon, although she is already a member of the career Golden Slam club.

Federer reached his decision after revealing he also suffered a physical setback at the All England Club, and Nadal elected to take a two-month break after relinquishing his French Open title.

Don't expect to see them again at the Olympics, given Williams and Federer will be pushing 43 by Paris 2024, and Nadal will be 38. Federer won a doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, but his singles peak was the silver medal he earned in 2012, Andy Murray crushing Swiss hopes in the final at Wimbledon.

Dominic Thiem, Bianca Andreescu, Nick Kyrgios, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Denis Shapovalov are among other confirmed absentees, with fitness issues a factor for some, less so for others.

The COVID-19 crisis is a mitigating factor in why so many stars are staying away, and directly responsible in the case of some players, such as Britain's Johanna Konta and Dan Evans, who both tested positive recently.

But tennis was only fully restored to the Olympic programme in 1988, after being dropped post 1924, and if players are seen to be favouring the grand slams over the Games, that is not such a great look for the sport.

At a time when the International Olympic Committee has shown it is willing to shake up the sports on its programme, tennis could perhaps do with a headline-making Tokyo 2020.

Murray, the two-time defending men's champion, will target an improbable hat-trick. A hat-trick for the injury-hit former world number one would be a sensation, and Osaka landing gold in the women's tournament would surely be one of the great moments of the Games.

 

DJOKOVIC FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GRAF

When Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini in the women's singles final at Seoul, it completed what we know now as the calendar 'Golden Slam'. She had already won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, and the feat of the then 19-year-old West German has yet to be repeated.

Now Djokovic is three-fifths of the way to a similar clean sweep of the majors and the Olympics, with the US Open getting under way on August 30 in New York.

He teetered on not going to Tokyo, and perhaps he is to some extent endangering his chances at Flushing Meadows by spending more time travelling and enduring bubble life, while others rest up.

But Djokovic is a fiercely proud Serbian and could not resist a great chance of winning gold for his country. He landed bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing but in 2012 he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze-medal match, and a cruel draw at Rio four years later saw him assigned Del Potro in the first round.

Top seed Djokovic bowed out in two tie-breaks to the powerful Argentinian, describing the outcome as "one of the toughest losses in my career".

There is no danger of a hat-trick of defeats to Del Potro, which may help Djokovic. Del Potro has been battling for two years to get back to fitness, undergoing four rounds of right knee surgery in a bid to get back on tour.

 

RAISING THE BAR AT THE OLYMPICS

How the Olympic village functions in Tokyo will be distinctly different to at previous Games, given the pandemic restrictions in place that could be a real buzzkill.

But in the past there have been countless cases of athletes becoming inspired by their surroundings and going on to perform above their usual level.

It can be a party village, and it can also be an eyebrow-raising experience as global superstars rub shoulders with competitors who might struggle for recognition in their home towns. More than anything, the shared team experience, fighting for a collective cause, can make a middling athlete believe they can be great.

Monica Puig was a massive tennis outsider in 2016 but the then world number 34 won the women's singles, stunning Angelique Kerber in the final after beating Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza en route. That gave Puerto Rico their first ever Olympic gold medal.

In 1992, a tournament that featured the likes of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker finished with a staggering final match-up of Marc Rosset versus Jordi Arrese, who in his home city of Barcelona was edged out 8-6 in the fifth set by the Swiss world number 43. Nobody would have predicted that head to head for gold.

Similarly, at Athens 2004, Nicolas Massu beat Mardy Fish in the gold medal match of a tournament that featured Federer, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Tim Henman.

In the 1996 Atlanta Games, Lindsay Davenport, who had just turned 20, took inspiration from being the daughter of an Olympian, with dad Wink having played volleyball for the United States at Mexico City in 1968.

Davenport was beginning to make an impact on the WTA Tour but was only the ninth seed at the Olympics, yet she swept through the rounds before sinking Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 7-6 (10-8) 6-2 in the final.

"It's like one of those things I look back on and I'm like, 'Was that me?'," Davenport told The Tennis Podcast last year.

"It doesn't seem like it was real. I'd made the transition to the pro tour pretty well, but I liked hanging out between eight and 16 in the rankings. I was very insecure, unsure of what could I do. I liked doing well but I wasn't sure I wanted to do too well because it seemed really overwhelming to be one of those top players.

"Here I go at 20 years old to Atlanta for two or three weeks, in a setting that seemed so comfortable. Look at all these athletes, you have all different shapes and sizes, you have players that are really working hard but have so much in common and you get to hang out with them, breakfast, lunch, dinner in the village."

Davenport was a future world number one and three-time grand slam singles champion, but at this point in her career being an American at an Olympics in the United States was just a thrill.

"You're sharing this with your team-mates who are some of my best friends in Mary Joe Fernandez, Monica Seles. It was the best time ever," she said.

"By the time the tournament actually started we were like, 'Yeah, I'll go play my match and then we'll go back to the village and we'll hang out', and everything went so fast in those few weeks.

"And there I was left standing, winning at the end because I was so incredibly happy and excited with everything that was going on. I kind of forgot what was my job.

"When it became a reality of even just making the team in '96, it was so huge also for my family with having a second generation Olympian."

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    VITALI KLITSCHKO

    The baton passed from the famed heavyweights of the 1990s to the coming generation when Lennox Lewis uncharacteristically slugged his way to victory over Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles in June 2003. The last man standing from his era after comprehensively beating Mike Tyson, Lewis was given hell by "Dr Steelhammer" but managed to inflict enough damage for the challenger to be stopped on cuts after six gruelling rounds.

    Lewis never boxed again and Klitschko never lost again, winning 13 fights in succession either side of a four-year retirement. He lifted the WBC title and settled a family grudge by stopping Corrie Sanders in April 2004. He was never without the famous green belt in the ring up until he hung up his gloves in 2012 to focus full-time on a political career than now sees Vitali serving at the Mayor of Kyiv.

    WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO

    The younger Klitschko was the first eastern European to lift a heavyweight title in the 21st century when he twice floored Chris Byrd on the way to a unanimous decision to win the WBO belt in October 2000. Byrd became champion in his previous fight when, way down on the cards, Vitali withdrew on his stool due to a shoulder injury. It meant Vitali was returning a favour against Sanders, who demolished Wladimir over two harrowing rounds in March 2003.

    Another knockout loss followed a little over a year with the vacant WBO strap on the line against Lamon Brewster. At that stage, it was impossible to foresee the imperious dominance that would follow a second win over Byrd for the IBF and 18 successful defences. Closing out his career with losses to Fury and Joshua carried a heavy sense changing eras, as with his brother and Lewis a decade and a half earlier.

    NIKOLAI VALUEV

    All the men on this list could lay claim to the moniker of "Beast from the East" but none would be able to pull it off as well as the preposterously proportioned Valuev. Standing at 7ft and tipping the scales at over 300lbs, he became the tallest and heaviest heavyweight champion in history. Valuev's skills were akin to a rudimentary club fighter, but he was just far too big for most opponents to handle.

    Each of his two stints as WBA ruler began with prophetically forgettable points wins over John Ruiz and after a 2008 loss to a pot-shotting David Haye he walked away to a varied post-fight career. Like Klitschko he entered politics, winning election to the State Duma in Russia's 2011 parliamentary election. He also became an unlikely face of children's television in his homeland, presenting the long-running "Good Night, Little Ones!".

    SIARHEI LIAKHOVICH

    Liakhovich's period reign as WBO champion lasted seven months. The Belarusian won a unanimous decision win over Brewster in April 2006, despite taking a knee in the seventh. He was up on the cards when Shannon Briggs dramatically knocked him through the ropes during the closing seconds of his first defence. Briggs was the last American to get his hands on any portion of the heavyweight title before Wilder's WBC reign began in 2015. Two years earlier, the "Bronze Bomber" left Liakhovich quivering on the canvas after a terrifying first-round KO.

    OLEG MASKAEV

    Three months before Briggs' late show against Liakhovich, Maskaev battered one-time Lewis conqueror Hasim Rahman to defeat inside the final minute of their August 2006 rematch in Las Vegas. A product of the Soviet amateur system, Maskaev based himself in the US for the majority of his professional career. He was 37 by the time he ripped the WBC crown from Rahman and, after a successful defence against Okello Peter in Moscow, the Kazakh-born fighter was knocked out by Samuel Peter - the "Nigerian Nightmare" who was himself stopped by a returning Vitali Klitschko next time out.

    RUSLAN CHAGAEV

    If the WBA was a sofa, Chagaev would be the loose change they continue to find lurking between the cushions. He first won the organisation's belt with a majority decision win over Valuev in April 2007, although subsequent illness and injury led to him being declared "champion in recess". As such, the WBA belt was not on the line when his corner waved off a June 2009 shellacking at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko after nine rounds.

    The organisation then elected to install Chagaev not as its champion but number one challenger, and he dropped an August 2011 decision to Alexander Povetkin for the vacant belt. The story did not end there, however, as Chagaev and the unheralded Fres Oquendo were selected to box for the WBA's vacant "regular" title in July 2014. Almost two years and one competitive round later, Chagaev was knocked out by Lucas Browne, who then failed a drugs test. The Uzbek was given back his title, only to be stripped in July 2016 for failing to pay the WBA sanctioning fees for that already barely remembered Oquendo contest, seemingly ending the saga.

    SULTAN IBRAGIMOV

    Not one to linger like Chagaev, Russia's Sydney 2000 heavyweight silver medallist Ibragimov outpointed Briggs in his 22nd professional bout to lift the WBO belt in June 2007. Under the tutelage of Jeff Mayweather, he comfortably beat the great Evander Holyfield in his first defence. A unification showdown with Wladimir Klitschko was most notable for the Madison Square Garden crowd booing a safety-first affair. With that sole defeat, Ibragimov was gone, retiring in 2009 due to persistent injuries to his left hand.

    ALEXANDER POVETKIN

    Another decorated amateur, Povetkin won super-heavyweight gold at the 2004 Olympics and made four defences of the WBA title after beating Chagaev. To repeat a theme, all roads led to an uncompromising Klitschko, with Wladimir sending him to the canvas four times during a landslide Moscow triumph in October 2013. Failed drugs tests did little for Povetkin's wider reputation and put paid to a proposed meeting with Wilder.

    A promising start unravelled to a seventh-round stoppage when challenging Joshua in September 2018, although Povetkin sensationally recovered from two knockdowns to ice Dillian Whyte this year. After losing the rematch, the Russian announced his retirement at the age of 41.

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