Sunday, July 14, 2024

Young tennis stars rolling the dice by passing up allure of playing in Paris Olympics

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On Saturday afternoon, 21-year old American Ben Shelton reached the fourth round at Wimbledon with a five-set victory over Denis Shapovalov.

It’s the third time in just eight career Grand Slams that Shelton, a former NCAA champion at Florida, has reached the second week.

Roger Federer didn’t do that so early in his career. Neither did Rafael Nadal nor Novak Djokovic.

That doesn’t mean Shelton is destined to achieve those heights, much less win a single Grand Slam title. The climb from where he is to where he wants to go is brutally difficult. At this level of professional tennis, nothing is guaranteed.

But Shelton’s results at Wimbledon this year continue a trend that has been obvious since he turned pro in the fall of 2022: The bigger the tournament, the better he plays.

So why won’t see see him in a few weeks at the Paris Olympics?

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Shelton, along with fellow Americans Frances Tiafoe and Sebastian Korda, elected to skip the Olympics to enter hard court tournaments in America. And they’re not the only ones. Top-30 players such as Andrey Rublev (Russia), Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria), Karen Khachanov (Russia) and Adrian Mannarino (France) are skipping the Olympics on the men’s side, while the women’s event will be missing No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka (Belarus), No. 10 Ons Jabeur (Tunisia) and 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu (Great Britain).

The number of high-profile absences pretty much says it all about what a strange place the Olympics occupies in the tennis calendar.

On one hand, being part of the Olympics is a rare and highly-treasured opportunity that resonates internationally beyond the typical tennis audience. At the same time, nearly any tennis player would tell you that their primary goal is to win one of the four Grand Slams, and wedging the Olympics between Wimbledon and the US Open is not necessarily the best preparation.

“I care way more about the Open, being as prepared for the Open as possible,” Tiafoe told the Washington Post this week. “It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy, for sure. It still isn’t. I probably won’t be able to watch any (Olympic tennis), to be honest with you.”

It’s also a physical challenge to switch surfaces from the slow, grinding clay to the low-bouncing grass and then back to clay. Jabeur, who would have had a chance to win a rare medal for Tunisia, pulled out citing health concerns after knee surgery last year.

“After consulting with my medical team … we have decided that the quick change of surface and the body’s adaptation required would put my knee at risk and jeopardize the rest of my season,” Jabeur posted on social media.

There’s yet another factor for players to consider: While the chance to win an Olympic medal may be priceless in a historical context, there’s no tangible incentive for players either in ranking points or prize money.

So while the Olympics are taking place, some players such as Tiafoe and Shelton will be back on tour in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars and precious world ranking spots that help them get better seeds in the US Open.

“I think they fit (the Olympics) into the tennis schedule in a complicated way,” Shelton told reporters earlier this year, effectively ruling Paris out of his schedule months ago.

But is that a reasonable stance when the Olympics – the biggest global stage for sports – only come around once every four years?

If you’re someone like Shelton, it’s probably easy to rationalize the notion that skipping an Olympics is no big deal. He’s only 21, after all, and he likely thinks he’ll have a better opportunity to medal in front of a home crowd in Los Angeles four years from now, or even 2032 in Brisbane, Australia.

At the same time, it’s not easy to qualify for an Olympics. The United States only gets four slots in the men’s singles draw. What if there’s an injury in 2028 or a poorly-timed slump or a raft of young American players that emerge and pass him?

Anyone who passes up a chance to play in an Olympics needs to understand that they might be missing their only shot to be part of the Games. 

That’s why you really have to respect someone like Daniil Medvedev, the world’s No. 5-ranked player who has called himself a hard court specialist in the past and knows that he’s a longshot to win a medal on clay.

As a former US Open champion and three-time finalist, you’d expect the Russian to be among those heading to North America. But he told reporters this week it was a “very easy decision” to go to Paris after getting his first taste of the Olympics three years ago in Tokyo.

“I loved the atmosphere,” he said. “I loved being there, playing there. It’s going to be even different in Paris because Tokyo was like COVID so no people, so it was a little closed atmosphere and I (still) loved it. So I’m sure it’s going to be even more fun in Paris.

“I know if I’m thinking strictly about my personal career, it’s better to go to Canada and prepare on hard courts, et cetera. But when I’m 40, if I can say I played in Tokyo Olympics, Paris Olympics, Los Angeles Olympics and I had a lot of fun in my life and my career, I’m going to be happy.”

This is the third consecutive Olympics where a significant number of top players have defected for unusual reasons.

In 2016, fears about the Zika virus discouraged some players from making the trip to South America. The COVID restrictions in Tokyo – and some positive tests, including for American Coco Gauff – prevented some of them from playing three years ago. And this time, the unconventional surface switch is either a factor or an excuse depending on your point of view.

The truth is, Shelton, Tiafoe and Korda were not likely to do much in the Olympics given their poor track records on clay. It may not seem like a big deal to them to miss it. 

And though it may not have the same prestige as a Grand Slam within the tennis world, everyone on the planet – tennis fan or not – understands what it means to be an Olympian and win a medal. 

That’s one reason why Nadal, who won gold in 2008, even skipped Wimbledon to prioritize preparations for Paris, where he’s won the French Open 14 times. And it’s why Djokovic, who has never won an Olympic medal, pushed so hard to come back from knee surgery in what’s almost certainly his last Games. 

Those differing priorities make the Olympics hard to peg in the hierarchy of tennis. Hopefully the young American stars like Shelton who are skipping this rare opportunity don’t regret it down the road. 

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