Peter Bodo, Tennis
ClosePeter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic The Courts of Babylon and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), A Champion's Mind. His new book on the 1975 Wimbledon final between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors will be out in June of 2015.
Roger Federer's long-standing decision to play full time on tour until at least the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro appears to be a signature combination of precise and sensible reasoning with dazzling ambition and breathtaking optimism.
After all, Federer was fast approaching 30 years of age when he first said he hoped to play a starring role in Rio. He had just won his 17th major at the 2012 Wimbledon championships, his first major in 2½ years. It was a time considered by many to be the twilight of his career, a glorious supernova after which Federer would gracefully fade. It would be the classy, Federer-esque thing to do. It was logical -- but not Rogical.
When he declared his intentions, some scratched their heads: "What, this guy wants to play full time for four more years?" Even some of his devout fans were skeptical he could last. After all, Federer will be deep into his 17th year on tour during the Brazil games. He could well arrive in Rio treading water somewhere deep in the rankings pool -- if he even lasted that long.
Roger Federer came up short against Andy Murray in 2012, settling for the silver medal. Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
It may turn out that way yet, but not based on the evidence at hand. Federer has cemented his position as No. 2 in the world. He's the recent Wimbledon finalist, where he joined Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and surprise semifinalist Richard Gasquet as the class of the field. Federer is healthy, fit, happy and ... playing the best tennis of his life.
And there's this: Federer still has some Olympic scores to settle. First on the list is adding the checkmark in the last remaining box on a great champion's to-do list: a singles gold medal.
Federer caught a nice break when the organizers of the Rio games decided to host the tennis event on hard courts rather than the most ubiquitous surface in Brazil, clay. Predictably, Rafael Nadal wasn't entirely pleased with this decision, given the overwhelming preference for clay in South America. He said at a media conference during the Rio ATP 500 (ironically, it's a clay-court event): "I am surprised that in a country which has clay specialists the Olympics are going to be played on hard court."
Although Nadal advocates detected conspiracy on behalf of the hard-court maestro Federer, the larger issue is that the Olympic games will take place two weeks before the US Open. There seemed to be no reasonable choice but to host the games on the same surface that the players will find so soon thereafter at Flushing Meadows.
The surface may be a boon to Federer, but his own Olympics singles history will not necessarily be a confidence-booster.
Federer had just turned 19 in 2000 shortly before his first Olympics appearance at the Sydney games, but he already had a ranking of No. 32. Nevertheless, he lost the bronze-medal match to a player whose ranking was nearly double his own, France's No. 62, Arnaud DiPasquale. The winner did not go on to win 17 Grand Slam titles, but he's got some tale to tell his grandkids.
In Athens in 2004, Federer was the top seed and No. 1 in the world. He cruised past Nikolay Davydenko in the first round but was upset in the second round to a tall Czech ranked No. 79 in the world -- an up-and-coming youngster named Tomas Berdych. In 2008, in Beijing, Federer was again No. 1, but he was simply blasted off the court in the quarterfinals by seventh-ranked James Blake.
His consolation prize for what amounted to roughly a decade of frustrated Olympic ambitions? A doubles gold medal he earned in yoke with Stan Wawrinka seven years ago.
The most bitter pill yet was forced down Federer's throat in 2012 in London. Softened up by the stiff resistance Juan Martin del Potro had offered in the semifinals (Federer won it at great cost, 19-17 in the third), Federer was beaten in three tough sets by local hero Andy Murray, who until then was a chronic major final washout. The aftertaste of that loss was alleviated only by the fact that just weeks earlier, Federer had won Wimbledon on the same Centre Court at the All-England Club against Murray.
Still, Federer finally had a singles medal to go with his doubles gold.
Whatever else is in play a year from now in Rio, it's hard to imagine Federer will have any more chances at singles gold. He'll be dealing with more pressure than some of the other competitors in an event that already has many of the same anxiety-invoking elements as Davis Cup, the other high-profile international tennis competition.
Roger Federer has been going for gold since his first Olympic Games in 2000. Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images
Much like Davis Cup, Olympic tennis is partly about striking a blow for national pride rather than mere personal accomplishment. The opportunity -- or burden -- affects people in different ways at different times. But one thing is obvious: Davis Cup and Olympic tennis results are often unpredictable. All bets are off when it comes to these non-tour events. These are the times when a journeyman who can't keep pace with the elites on a day-in, day-out basis gets his chance to strike a resounding blow -- one that can transform him overnight into a national hero.
Just ask Nicolas Massu, the Chilean whose career-high ranking was No. 9 but who won Olympic gold in singles in Athens in 2004.
When tennis first rejoined the five-ring family in 1988 (after a hiatus of more than 60 years), the organizers (the ITF, answering to the IOC) had one significant problem: Unlike, say, boxing or marathon running, tennis was dominated by a handful of countries, led by the U.S.
In order to ensure an adequately broad representation in the tennis draws, the organizers came up with a quota system, which is why the first few Olympic singles draws of 64 (no byes) contained so many unfamiliar names. The effect was somewhat surreal, but it was anxiety-inducing for established players. That contributed to the form-busting results.
The first two men's gold medalists were Miloslav Mecir of (then) Czechoslovakia in 1988 in Seoul, followed by Marc Rosset of Switzerland in Barcelona. Only Mecir would go on to play (and lose) in a Grand Slam final, and that was just once.
The beaten finalists? Mecir defeated Tim Mayotte of the USA. Rosset took out Jordi Arrese of Spain.
The global growth of the game and the concomitant decline of U.S. tennis, along with the fine-tuning of the qualification procedure and format (the best-of-five format was dropped after Barcelona), have helped make Olympic tennis a little more like a typical ATP Tour event. But the overarching vibe is different, and the impact is has on a player's ability to perform is hard to assess.
One thing is certain, though: Federer's decision to plug away through Rio isn't based merely on cold, hard ambition. As he said in a media conference as the London Olympics got underway in 2012:
The chance to play for Olympic gold again is "a dream http://texastennisopen.com come true, I would say, because I definitely get inspired by the 1992 victory by Marc Rosset. He won the Olympics. That was huge news in Switzerland. I definitely was inspired by that.
"So when I got to be part of the Sydney Olympics 12 years ago, I stayed in the village. I was there for over two weeks. I had the best time following sports, being there with the athletes, playing so well. I almost overachieved in that tournament."
"Almost" is the operative word there. For it was DiPasquale who walked away with an Olympic medal. Federer didn't exactly walk away empty-handed, though. Sydney is where he firmed up his relationship with the young Swiss WTA pro who would become his wife, Mirka Vavrinec.
Federer is still living that dream, the way he was still living it London. It goes on partly despite the fact that he has a gold medal now, as well as a silver. You might think that would be enough for one man, but he's still got his heart set on another gold, and this time the one in doubles won't do.