Rising star Thiem, top U.S. man Isner skipping Olympic tennis
PARIS — Mike Bryan panicked a bit, understandably, when he received a phone call about the burglar alarm sounding at his home back in the U.S. while he was at the French Open.
“The first thing I thought about is: ‘Where’s the gold medal? I don’t think my wife hid it in the sock drawer,’” half of the most successful doubles team in tennis history recounted with a laugh. “And it was still there. Thank God. If the house burned down, I’d probably try to save some pictures, but otherwise, the gold is the first thing you’d run for. Can’t replace that.”
For all of his duo’s records — 16 Grand Slam doubles championships, more than 100 tournament titles, more than 435 weeks at No. 1 — there is nothing Bryan cherishes more than the gold medal he and twin brother Bob won at the 2012 London Olympics.
Which is why he would never miss a chance for a medal, something six of the top 25 men in the ATP singles rankings will do by sitting out the Rio de Janeiro Games.
“It’s playing for your country. It’s playing for the glory of the Olympics,” Bryan said. “I’m a little surprised there are some big names skipping it.”
He wasn’t talking about two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry or Rory McIlroy, the four-time major golf champion who announced Wednesday that he wouldn’t go to Rio because of concerns about the Zika virus.
No one of their level of stardom withdrew from the Olympic tennis event, but there is a growing group of absentees, including Dominic Thiem, a 19-year-old rising star from Austria who is ranked No. 8, reached his first major semifinal at Roland Garros this month, and beat Roger Federer on grass just last week.
Also staying away: the top American man, John Isner, who is ranked 17th; Australia’s two best players, No. 18 Nick Kyrgios and No. 19 Bernard Tomic; No. 21 Feliciano Lopez of Spain; and No. 24 Kevin Anderson of South Africa.
“I would say (it’s been) 70 to 80 percent, probably, negative feedback I have received. The other 20 percent … recognized my feelings on it,” said Isner, who competed at the 2012 Games. “I have been told (it’s) ‘unpatriotic.’”
Noting that the field isn’t finalized, WTA CEO Steve Simon said Wednesday he is not aware of any female tennis players pulling out of Rio.
“We haven’t heard it yet,” Simon said. “To be open and honest, we could hear that from some players.”
Isner wants tennis players to earn ranking points at the Olympics; indeed, he thought the points offered in London four years ago weren’t enough. Novak Djokovic and others agreed.
But unlike at the past four Summer Games, players won’t get boosts to their ranking in Rio, the way they can at tournaments happening elsewhere at the same time (Isner, for example, will be in Atlanta).
“Players are independent contractors and they’re free to set their own schedules,” ATP Executive Chairman Chris Kermode said. “The ranking points are a valuable currency to us. It’s sort of what the tour is about. And the Olympics does create some additional challenges for us in terms of scheduling.”
Kermode said the ATP and the International Tennis Federation — which oversees the sport’s participation at the Olympics — discussed whether to include points.
“The overall consensus from both players and (ATP) tournaments was not to have points,” Kermode said. “The ethos of the Olympics is about playing for your country. It’s about playing for the gold medal.”
The WTA’s Simon echoed that sentiment.
ITF President David Haggerty said he would be open to returning to a points system for the 2020 Olympics.
“I can argue it both ways,” Haggerty said. “But I think the most important thing is that we really are open — and listening — to what the players want.”
Other tennis-specific explanations for bypassing Brazil include the chance to collect appearance money at other events, and the difficult prospect of earning a medal when the field features the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, defending gold medalist Andy Murray, 17-time major champion Federer and, if he recovers from a left wrist injury, 2008 gold medalist Rafael Nadal.
To some in tennis, none of those considerations matter.
The Olympics are the Olympics, and they say there’s no way they’d pass up a chance to go.
As 26th-ranked Jack Sock of the U.S. put it: “That’s kind of (on) the bucket list when you’re a kid.”
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Amid hundreds of cleat-footed little leaguers casually gathered along the first baseline, the glare of parents’ sunglasses deflecting the early morning sun, coach Troy Phillips began a trip down memory lane.