“It definitely will be weird playing in colours. Even when I'm playing on other grass courts I feel I should be playing in white.”Serena Williams
There’s something comfortingly stable and routine about the cyclical nature of professional tennis. Provided they’re healthy, players know exactly when and where they will be competing at a certain time of year, where to peak and when to take breaks, and have the luxury of knowing that if they under-perform at a tournament one year, it will always roll around again in 12 months time.
Yet that routine is broken once every four years in an Olympic season, a year when tennis players will significantly alter their schedules between Wimbledon and the US Open to give themselves a shot at a prestigious gold medal.
Some key differences between the Olympic tennis event and regular tour events and Grand Slams – the qualification system, tournament format and variable location chief among them – make for a different flavour and environment, possibly the reason the event has thrown up some unexpected champions over the years. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Chilean Nicholas Massu was ranked outside the top 10 yet went on to win gold in both singles and doubles.
So how exactly does tennis at the Olympics operate? We take you through the essentials of what you need to know.
History: Tennis was one of nine original sports that made up the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, and featured in the Games up until 1924. After a 60 year hiatus, tennis returned to the Olympics in the 1980s, first as a demonstration sport in Los Angeles in 1984, and then officially in Seoul in 1988.
With the four Grand Slam events representing the pinnacle of achievement in tennis, many have questioned the prestige of tennis at the Olympics. In Seoul, only 11 of the top 20 men competed. Yet with each Olympics the strength of the draws has increased, and come Beijing 2008, all top players competed before sold-out crowds. The introduction of ranking points in 2000 (for men) and 2004 (for women) made the Olympic tennis event even more attractive for players.
You now have a situation where players have openly discussed structuring their entire season around the Olympics, with the aim of peaking for the event in late July-early August.
Qualification: Getting to play at the Olympics is not such a simple task as it is playing in ATP and WTA events and Grand Slams, where a certain ranking will guarantee players direct entry into the draw. Players ranked inside the world’s top 56 will qualify for the Olympic tennis event, but the caveat is that a maximum of four players from each country can be accepted.
Pity Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the two-time major winner ranked well inside the top 56 at No.40. Unfortunately, due to the strength of tennis in her country, she is currently Russia’s sixth-ranked player, with compatriots Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva, Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova all getting the nod ahead of her.
Another criterion for qualification is that a player must be in good standing with their national association. That rules out Marion Bartoli – currently the top ranked Frenchwoman and world No.10 – who has had long-standing differences with the French Tennis Federation and as a result will not be making the trip to London.
The International Tennis Federation also awards six “ITF Places” to players based on their recognised world ranking and to ensure a spread of nation representation in the event, while two final places – invitational entries determined by the Tripartite Commission – complete the 64-player singles field.
In doubles, it’s 24 direct entries based on the team’s combined world ranking, plus eight ITF places to make up the 32-pair draw. In mixed, 12 nominated teams directly qualify based on their combined world rankings, with four ITF places making up the 16-strong field.
Player eligibility for the Olympics is determined by their rankings immediately following the French Open in early June.
Scoring: Play in the men’s and women’s singles will be contested in a best-of-three format with the exception of the men’s final, which will be a best-of-five set affair. The third – and possibly fifth – set in all singles matches will be decided using an advantage scoring system rather than a tiebreak. In men’s and women’s doubles, the same scoring format applies, with the men’s doubles final also a best-of-three set match. Only the mixed doubles bucks the trend – a match tiebreak will be used to decide the match if scores are locked at one-set-all.
Venue: Just three weeks after the conclusion of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, tennis will return to the All England Club for the Olympics. And there will be one significant difference – players are not required to observe the predominantly-white clothing rule that determines their attire each year at The Championships. “It definitely will be weird playing in colours. Even when I’m playing on other grass courts I feel I should be playing in white,” noted women’s great Serena Williams.
Dates: The Olympic tennis event will be held from Saturday 28 July to Sunday 5 August, with the action kicking off one day after the Opening Ceremony.
To follow all the Olympic tennis action during the London 2012 Games, visit our Olympics section at tennis.com.au.