LONDON – No one is insisting that the Olympic tennis tournament becomes an unofficial fifth Grand Slam once every four years. It is, however, the closest thing to a major tournament in 2012 away from the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and upcoming U.S. Open.
The action this past week at the All England Lawn Tennis Club demonstrated that the talent and the hunger to win on the grand stage of the Olympics is indeed fierce, with personal and national pride on the line and a dynamic list of competitors in the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles competitions. And it provided a splendid showcase for the game here, where Wimbledon has been a staple of British sporting life since the 1870s.
The men’s final — all-time great and world No. 1 Roger Federer vs. Andy Murray, the finalists at Wimbledon in early July — delivered the goods, though it had a different vibe than your run-of-the-middle Wimbledon final. The fact that Federer and Murray held a rematch here so soon after the Swiss star’s seventh Wimbledon title and record-breaking 16th Grand Slam title only added to the drama.
World No. 4 Murray, you may recall, had become the first British man in 74 years to reach the Wimbledon final. He, of course, ran into Federer, who rarely makes major mistakes in title matches; Spain’s Rafael Nadal has had Federer’s number, though. Federer’s 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Murray last month only created more intrigue for everyone who walked through the gates at Wimbledon on Sunday.
“(The atmosphere was) maybe more patriotic,” Federer said. “The buildup I think was completely different. . . . There’s so many things going on in the sporting world right now that the focus wasn’t obviously just alone on the tennis tournament and on Andy Murray.”
But remember this juicy tidbit: Murray was one of the busiest athletes in all of the United Kingdom on Sunday — on the court as well as handling the media duties on this second weekend of the London Games.
His 1-hour, 56-minute afternoon singles match against Federer, a methodical yet tidy 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 drubbing, was followed shortly thereafter by the mixed doubles final. Pairing up with Britain’s Laura Robson, they took on Belarus duo Victoria Azarenka, the world’s top-ranked women’s player, and Max Mirnyi. The host pair had to settle for the silver, falling 2-6, 6-3, 10-8.
Reacting to the mixed doubles loss, Murray praised his partner. “She played unbelievably well, great returns,” he said. “It was down to just one or two points. I would have signed up for gold and silver at the start. It was just annoying to lose in the super-breaker.”
The Glasgow-born Murray is winless in four Grand Slam singles finals to date. Federer, as any player on the pro tour can attest, has been a thorn in his side, beating him in three of those major finals.
But now he has the fond memory of beating Federer in a global showcase to remind him that the extraordinary is possible.
“I was expecting it to be an incredibly tough match every time I play him, especially in the big matches he’s played so well and made it so difficult for me,” Murray said, analyzing the action. “At the start of the match he was playing very well. Once I got through that first set and held at 2-0 in the second after a long game, I felt much better. . .”
Murray described the atmosphere as “unbelievable” and you wouldn’t find a spectator or Wimbledon official who’d argue with that assessment.
But then, finally, a significant victory over Federer prompted Murray to classify it as “the biggest win of my life.”
Federer survived an epic struggle in the semifinals, outlasting Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in a 4-hour, 26-minute showdown on Friday to clinch a spot against Murray in the title match. He didn’t have his best selection of shots, bordering on near-perfection most days, or as much quickness and power as he generally exhibits.
Nevertheless, the loss to Murray didn’t dishearten him.
“I’m very happy. I am satisfied,” said Federer, who was gracious in defeat. “I think this is as good as I can do during these championships. Andy was much better than I was today in many aspects of the game.
“For me, it’s been a great month. I won Wimbledon, became world No. 1 again and I got silver. Don’t feel bad for me.”
Murray’s passing shots were particularly impressive, according to Federer.
“That’s the best part of his game,” Federer noted. “If he doesn’t do those passing shots, he’s not going to win gold and he doesn’t win tournaments. He’s got to come up with those shots time and time again. He does it so well. I’ve always said he can absorb pace incredibly well. He has great balance and anticipation. That three-way combination makes it obviously tough to attack him, particularly on a poor attacking shot. . .”
For someone who has had such sensational success, Federer can recall with laser-sharp memory every detail from his matches, including Sunday’s defeat. “The result was a bit too brutal, I do believe, but credit Andy for making it happen,” he said.
Murray’s two-medal haul was a brilliant one-day effort, while in women’s competition Serena Williams teamed up with her older sister Venus to win the Olympic doubles title for the third time — first in Sydney in 2000 — by defending their Beijing crown and grabbing the gold just weeks after the same feat at Wimbledon. And, oh yeah, Serena pulverized Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 for the singles gold medal on Saturday.
The most consistently dominating women’s pair in tennis history, the Williams sisters held off Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic, prevailing 6-4, 6-4. It was clinical tennis, and a reminder of their staying power in the sport.
Their plan is to play doubles for Team USA at the 2016 Rio Games, too.
“I think for us, knowing that we have so much more to give, that we have great tennis in our racquets, is so motivating,” Venus said. “We want to be able to, when we’re done, look back and say we gave everything. That’s important to us.”
As great as the Williams sisters have been for the sport, raising the bar for all female players, Federer’s keen perspective and gentlemanly demeanor is always refreshing.
“I love watching sports because of the reactions of the people at the very end,” he said. “How do they take wins? How do they take loses? All those things.”