After a yearlong delay thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 17-day athletic gala that showcases 33 sports and 46 disciplines kicked off in mid-July. It is Tokyo’s most humid, and then moving into August, the city’s hottest month of the year. An individual, who grew-up in similar conditions said she, after competing in her running event on a day that began at 9 a.m. with the temperature at 91 degrees and the humidity at 73%, felt “really soupy…”. A canoe slalom contestant, following his afternoon row, proclaimed the water in the manmade lake was like the water found in a bathtub…a hot bathtub at that.
Supposedly no spectators were permitted, but television stadium scans of various venues showed more than a “few people from the neighborhood” in attendance. Just to make sure there was international representation, a select group of close to 1000 VIPs, were sprinkled amongst the “non-crowded” venue sites. In January, Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister claimed holding the Olympics would prove “that humanity has defeated the Coronavirus.” Yet, on Friday, July 30th, when the country’s daily infection rate had soared beyond 10,000, he sought advice on extending Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency. Even Shigeru Omi, the country’s leading medical advisor said it was not wise to hold the Olympics. But, after altering the title of the hit song, “The ‘Disease’ Played On…” (On August 1st the case count was over 4,000 a day, which was a new record for Tokyo.)
Since the spring Delta variant spike, combined with the low vaccination rate throughout the country, there has been an almost universal chorus – Why aren’t the Games being postponed? That was what the “people on the street” wanted. Even more striking, in a country where “saving face” is critically important, contrary to cultural dictates, demonstrations against the Olympics regularly took place. (Seiko Hashimoto, President of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, put “faith on face” saying, “We promised the world to host the Games…we have to complete our mission”.)
Because of the almost daily gaffes supported by the regular mixed messaging, Tokyo became the world’s punching bag for the unhappiness with the entire undertaking. In truth, the city, and the country, for that matter, “saved face” for the International Olympic Committee. The IOC under the autocratic leadership of President Thomas Bach, (former Olympic fencer), now a German lawyer, made sure that the Games were in parade formation and marched along as commanded.
In May, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said it best when he offered, “We listen but won’t be guided by public opinion.”
And the reason – Billions of dollars of television broadcast money were at stake. Supposedly had the Games been canceled again the IOC would have had a shortfall that hovered around five billion dollars. To put the almost “Monopoly money” like figures into perspective, in the US, NBC, which holds the broadcast rights, has paid more than $12 billion to show the Games in this year and then the Olympic years that lead up to 2032. One can only guess what other countries are paying. What is staggering – 73% of the IOC’s revenue is derived from broadcasting. (It must be noted that Olympic sports federations benefit, receiving funds from the Lausanne, Switzerland based IOC. In addition, Japan is deeply in debt, thanks to the IOC’s unbending organizational approach which forces a host city to become nothing more than a name on a banner for the year’s activities. But when it comes to the bottom-line, the IOC is the keeper of the books.)
Fortunately, there was Naomi Osaka and the Opening Ceremonies…It is a shame, and this is not to slight those who enjoyed medal success, that the Olympic tennis story couldn’t solely focus on the glory of having a “hafu” (not completely Japanese) individual do so. It was almost as if Osaka, who this past spring opened her heart and exposed her soul, as she discussed her mental health struggles, was preordained to be the one to ignite the Cauldron. She is the only tennis player in Olympic history to do so.
On her Instagram account she defined her feelings about the event, “Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life. I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now, but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
Prior to the beginning of play, the major point of discussion, if not the only one, was Novak Djokovic’s being on the cusp of scoring a Golden Slam. Having won the first three majors of the year, all he needed to complete his collection was the Singles Gold Medal and follow-up with the US Open championship.
But first things first. The International Tennis Federation (IFT), which is the IOC’s twin when it comes to dogmatic decision making, dictated, in conjunction with the Olympic Committee, that play would begin each day at 11a.m. and there would be only one-minute (instead of the usual minute and a half that the pro circuits use) taken for side changes. From the beginning of the competition, the heat and humidity at Ariake Tennis Park was dangerously unhealthy. Conditions forced players to call for trainers time and again. Several ended up with apparent heat stroke. Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, the No. 1 and No. 2 Serbian and Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) seeds, were vociferous in addressing the need for a change that could offer relief from the heat. But, as was made clear at Roland Garros in dealing with Osaka, the ITF follows the rules, which is the reason that nothing was done to alter the format until July 28th when it announced…
The same day, after defeating Fabio Fognini of Italy, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, Medvedev told AP he had spoken to chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, who had asked if he could continue playing. He responded, “I can finish the match, but I can die…If I die, are you going to be responsible?”
He went on to explain he felt “darkness” adding that he had no idea what he could have done to feel better. “I was ready to just fall down…”.
In his next match, a quarterfinal, Medvedev was defeated by Pablo Carreno Busta, the No. 6 seed from Spain, 6-2, 7-6 (and as one “wag” journalist said, “…at least he didn’t have to die…”)
Djokovic’s end came in the semifinals. He sprinted out of the gate taking the first set against No. 4 seed, Alexander Zverev, 6-1. He was up a break in the second set then nearly disappeared, losing the next two sets to the German, 6-3, 6-1.
Adhering to the strangeness of the Olympics, how many people who follow the game would have guessed, given the depth of the competitive field, that the ROC would have a finalist in the Men’s Singles and the player would be – Karen Khachanov? He stopped Carreno Busta, 6-3, 6-3.
Zverev, who had been relentless after dispatching Djokovic, was again exacting in the Gold Medal round. He dominated Khachanov, 6-3, 6-1. Of all the legendary Germans, such as Boris Becker and Michael Stich, the champion became only the second player from his country to win the Olympic Singles prize. In 1988, Stephanie Graf claimed the Seoul Singles trophy (and finished the year with a Golden Slam).
Carreno Busta earned the Bronze Medal handing Djokovic his second straight defeat. This time the score was 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. The performance by “The Game’s Best Player”, as he has ordained himself, was comparable to that of a 10-year-old losing the final of a tennis event at his public park. “TGBP” destroyed two racquets, (and for some reason didn’t receive a Code Violation). He pulled “a New York”, driving a ball into the stands – possibly a return of his “Open Karma”, since his opponent was the one he faced in 2020 when he was disqualified for striking a ball that struck a line umpire in the neck. His “racqueting” performance included throwing his “bat” into the stands after losing a breakpoint rally. He finished his day in deplorable style, pulling out of the Bronze Medal Mixed Doubles match giving John Peers and Ashley Barty a walkover for the Bronze.
He claimed the decision was made because of a left shoulder “owie” (but didn’t say if it resulted from his racquet destruction derby). Peers and Barty explained to Australia’s Channel 7, after the medal announcement, that when told they had won in a walkover, they thought the individual was “funning them”. When the fact was verified, neither could believe that such a result would ever happen in Olympic tennis.
Djokovic’s “Bad Vibe Day” continued when ESPN sports news commentators, among others, showed clips of his racquet smashing then took him to task, bringing up the fact that he believed, “pressure is a privilege…” when he had been asked about gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from events because of mental health concerns. In the end, Osaka’s dealing with similar issues further underscored that his behavior didn’t exemplify the optimum way to handle pressure. The ESPNers pointed out that his reaction was certainly contrary to his earlier pronouncements. It was hardly a surprise, when trying to explain his way out of another self-dug canyon, Djokovic returned to his US Open soliloquy explaining that he wasn’t proud of what he had done; there was a lot at stake; he would learn…he was only human. It seems we have heard this before from “The Greatest…”
(Zverev said it was the “most significant victory” of his career. Ironically, the Gold Medal was presented to Zverev by an IOC representative from Serbia. Proving once again that plans are plans and reality is reality.)
When it came to the doubles, Croatia dominated the medal round. Nikola Metic and Mate Pavic, the top seeds, faced unseeded countrymen Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig. Metic and Pavic, the best men’s doubles team in the game in 2021, played up to their standing, defeating good friends and London 2016 Olympians, Cilic and Dodig, 6-4, 3-6, 10-6. The result netted their country its first Olympic Gold and Silver tennis medals.
The Bronze Medal contest called attention to two sets of “out of the limelight” unseeded teams. Austin Krajicek and Tennys Sandgren of the US took on Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus of New Zealand. As expected, the Kiwis won 7-6, 6-2 to earn their country’s first Olympic tennis medal.
The women’s Gold, Silver and Bronze Medal Singles events were similar. Both went the three-set distance and were error filled bonanzas. Belinda Bencic added her name to the Swiss tennis hierarchy by defeating unseeded Markéta Vondroušová of the Czech Republic, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3. In winning Singles Gold, the No. 9 seed accomplished something that Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka or Martina Hingis never achieved. Her Gold Medal victory matches Marc Rosset’s in Barcelona in 1992.
Elina Svitolina became the first Ukrainian tennis medal winner claiming the Bronze. The No. 4 seed overcame a start matching the heat and humidity by Elena Rybakina. The No. 15 seed from Kazakhstan ran off with the first set 6-1. Svitolina regrouped to take the second and third sets, 7-6, 6-4 to secure the victory. Having married French tennis star Gael Monfils on July 17 in Geneva, she will now have another trophy companion to take on their November honeymoon.
Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková, the Metic and Pavic of the women’s game, played Bencic and Viktorija Golubic for Gold Medal Doubles honors. Bencic was hoping to score the first Olympic Singles and Doubles “double” since Venus and Serena Williams did it in 2000 and 2012 respectively. Justifying their No. 1 seed, the Czech Republic team was 7-5, 6-1 better than the Swiss tandem.
The Women’s Bronze Medal Doubles match was what Olympic competition should be about. It involved Russian Wimbledon finalists, Veronika Kudermetova and Elena Vesnina, (a Gold Medalist in Rio in 2016 with Ekaterina Makarova when Russia was Russia). This time, they (Kudermetova and Vesnina), had to play under the ROC anacronym after their country had been banned for repeated Olympic doping violations. Their opponents were from Brazil and for the most part were unknown and were the last team to gain a spot in the doubles draw.
Laura Pigossi, whose full name Laura Pigossi Hermann de Andrade, is almost as long as she is tall. She turns 27 on August 2nd and doesn’t play the WTA tour. She became a professional in 2012 and has enjoyed success on the ITF circuit winning six Singles and 38 Doubles titles.
Luisa Stefani (Luisa Veras Stefani) was a three-time All-American playing intercollegiate tennis at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. An inch taller than her partner, Stefani will turn 24 on August 9th. Though friends, they had never played together before and their combined career earnings amounted to a tad over $506,000.
The “Unknowns” escaped with the first tennis medal in Brazil’s history. Pigossi and Stefani surprised the favorites, Kudermetova and Vesnina, 4-6, 6-4, 11-9, saving four match points and winning the last six in the Tiebreak.
The All-ROC Mixed Doubles Gold Medal encounter ended the tennis competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Andrey Rublev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova seeded No. 4, confronted Roland Garros finalists, Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina. Pavlyuchenkova was the best player on the court and is the reason her team was a 6-3, 6-7, 13-11 winner. The ROC was impressive, securing two spots in the final out of a 16 team draw. Vesnina, through no lack of effort on her part, lost both her medal matches, but happily this one still resulted in a Silver Medal.
The ITF handles Olympic participation as if those seeking to play were attempting to qualify for a Nobel Prize. The organization follows its rules for player selections. It also had eight wildcards to dispense in both the men’s and women’s Singles 64 draws. (The doubles was a 32 team draw and as noted above, the mixed was a 16 team event.) To clearly understand the permutation and combinations relating to “Who gets…”, main draw spots, as well as wild cards, requires advanced game playing skills. Simply stated – The ITF stands alone.
But the IOC is even more formidable. It does what it does…because it does and that’s it. Still, it’s hard to fathom why 335 Russian Olympic Committee athletes took part in the Games, after Russia, in 2019, lost its attempt to have the country’s doping ban reversed. Trumpeting that all the possible Games contestants were not guilty, the IOC made the decision to allow the flagless competitors to participate. This included eight tennis players. Taking an educate guess, it appears the IOC was not about to exclude some of the world’s best athletes particularly since television viewership would increase, most likely resulting in more loot to fill the coffers.
The “they’re not all to blame” proclamation was not universally accepted. In 2016, Ryan Murphy of the US won Gold Medals in the 100 and 200-meter backstroke and the 4×100 meter relay. This year he was selected to be one of the US swim team captains. He again was a member of the Gold Medal 4×100 meter relay squad. And he earned a Silver Medal in the 200 meter and a Bronze Medal in the 100 meter backstroke contests.
Following his Silver swim, he initially commented – then walked his statements back a step or two – that he didn’t know if Olympic swimming was entirely “clean” because things had “happened in the past…” In actuality, “something may have been off…” (and it wasn’t because the Russian Olympic Committee was in charge of the testing as it was in Sochi 2014). At the time of Murphy’s post-swim presser 3,000 samples, from more than 2000 athletes in Tokyo, had been administered and there had been few positive tests. (Prior to the Games, testing was hampered by the pandemic.) Luke Greenbank of Great Britain, the Bronze Medalist in the race, also questioned the inclusion of a country that had time and again violated doping rules.
From a tennis perspective, the medal winners, along with the competitors, have added to their career resumes. Yet, this should not allow stark reality to be sidestepped. Those taking part did not earn a single ranking point. As the ATP brutally, but accurately notes – Olympic tennis is an exhibition. Looking beyond the emotional return that came from taking part, tennis administrators should resolve the situation and offer ranking rewards that match the competition’s status as a major…or do away with tennis as Olympic competition.
If there is a single takeaway from the Games, it should be the necessity of doing more for everyone’s mental wellness. After her startling first round 6-4, 6-3 loss to Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, Ashleigh Barty expressed profound unhappiness with her performance and hinted that maybe being the No. 1 seed and the Wimbledon champion had been a little too heavy of a load to carry.
When Osaka, resplendent in braids the colors of her cultural background, lost in the third round to Vondroušová, the No. 2 seed candidly said that she should be used to it (after all, her image appeared on buildings all around the city) “… but the scale is a bit hard [to deal with] …I’m glad I did not lose in the first round, at least.”
One of the obvious Games’ takeaways is that a hot or cold compress or a pain relieving patch, or a salve rub will not maintain or bring about mental health. It should be relevant in all walks of life. This should be a clarion cry for increasing awareness of the complex issues that can be listed under the topic – Mental health.
As we have explained when Tokyo agreed to be the site for the Games in 2013, things were different. Now, it seems courageous in view of all that the world is facing. The city and country deserve praise since both sacrificed their identity, along with almost all decision-making ability.
In the end, it was almost as if the actors dressed as the pictograms in the Opening Ceremonies (that represented each sport) left their images as the Games’ most distinct impression. The Olympics wasn’t just about the athletes and traditional camaraderie that results. It was mostly a “Must take place…” blitzkrieg led in the forefront by the IOC’s greed to support the money flow. In truth, it was cotton candy without the carnival…(It was good, but the fun was missing.)
(The IOC must be given “sort of props” for organizing the Summer and Winter Olympics. It is a task only for the hardy. That said, the time has long past when hosting bids are granted based on the financial arrangements and the availability of outstanding sports activity venues. This is particularly true since Global Warming is having such an effect on seasons. Tokyo in July and August is a sauna, a location fit for a winter activity, then a sake or two…of course, served on ice.)
Title photo of Naomi Osaka by the Olympic Cauldron by Michael Kappeler