Tokyo Olympics: Golden goal for Djokovic but tennis at the Games has a history of shocks

By Sports Desk July 22, 2021

Novak Djokovic has leapt from one bubble into another as he attempts to become the first man in tennis history to win all four grand slams and Olympic gold in the same year.

The only men to have won each of the singles majors across their careers, plus Olympic gold, are Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, and now Djokovic aims to move to the brink of winning all five in his remarkable 2021 season.

Fresh from dominating at Wimbledon, and with the Australian and French Open titles already in the bag, Djokovic heads into the Tokyo Games as a red-hot favourite, seeking to set himself up to complete a historic campaign at the US Open.

Naomi Osaka will enter the Games with almost as much expectation behind her too, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion eyeing glory for hosts Japan.

But tennis has thrown up a host of shock results in its short Olympic history. Here, Stats Perform looks at the sport's place in the Games.

 

WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT, AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all opted out of the Olympics.

Williams made her mind up prior to suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon, although she is already a member of the career Golden Slam club.

Federer reached his decision after revealing he also suffered a physical setback at the All England Club, and Nadal elected to take a two-month break after relinquishing his French Open title.

Don't expect to see them again at the Olympics, given Williams and Federer will be pushing 43 by Paris 2024, and Nadal will be 38. Federer won a doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, but his singles peak was the silver medal he earned in 2012, Andy Murray crushing Swiss hopes in the final at Wimbledon.

Dominic Thiem, Bianca Andreescu, Nick Kyrgios, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Denis Shapovalov are among other confirmed absentees, with fitness issues a factor for some, less so for others.

The COVID-19 crisis is a mitigating factor in why so many stars are staying away, and directly responsible in the case of some players, such as Britain's Johanna Konta and Dan Evans, who both tested positive recently.

But tennis was only fully restored to the Olympic programme in 1988, after being dropped post 1924, and if players are seen to be favouring the grand slams over the Games, that is not such a great look for the sport.

At a time when the International Olympic Committee has shown it is willing to shake up the sports on its programme, tennis could perhaps do with a headline-making Tokyo 2020.

Murray, the two-time defending men's champion, will target an improbable hat-trick. A hat-trick for the injury-hit former world number one would be a sensation, and Osaka landing gold in the women's tournament would surely be one of the great moments of the Games.

 

DJOKOVIC FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GRAF

When Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini in the women's singles final at Seoul, it completed what we know now as the calendar 'Golden Slam'. She had already won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, and the feat of the then 19-year-old West German has yet to be repeated.

Now Djokovic is three-fifths of the way to a similar clean sweep of the majors and the Olympics, with the US Open getting under way on August 30 in New York.

He teetered on not going to Tokyo, and perhaps he is to some extent endangering his chances at Flushing Meadows by spending more time travelling and enduring bubble life, while others rest up.

But Djokovic is a fiercely proud Serbian and could not resist a great chance of winning gold for his country. He landed bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing but in 2012 he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze-medal match, and a cruel draw at Rio four years later saw him assigned Del Potro in the first round.

Top seed Djokovic bowed out in two tie-breaks to the powerful Argentinian, describing the outcome as "one of the toughest losses in my career".

There is no danger of a hat-trick of defeats to Del Potro, which may help Djokovic. Del Potro has been battling for two years to get back to fitness, undergoing four rounds of right knee surgery in a bid to get back on tour.

 

RAISING THE BAR AT THE OLYMPICS

How the Olympic village functions in Tokyo will be distinctly different to at previous Games, given the pandemic restrictions in place that could be a real buzzkill.

But in the past there have been countless cases of athletes becoming inspired by their surroundings and going on to perform above their usual level.

It can be a party village, and it can also be an eyebrow-raising experience as global superstars rub shoulders with competitors who might struggle for recognition in their home towns. More than anything, the shared team experience, fighting for a collective cause, can make a middling athlete believe they can be great.

Monica Puig was a massive tennis outsider in 2016 but the then world number 34 won the women's singles, stunning Angelique Kerber in the final after beating Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza en route. That gave Puerto Rico their first ever Olympic gold medal.

In 1992, a tournament that featured the likes of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker finished with a staggering final match-up of Marc Rosset versus Jordi Arrese, who in his home city of Barcelona was edged out 8-6 in the fifth set by the Swiss world number 43. Nobody would have predicted that head to head for gold.

Similarly, at Athens 2004, Nicolas Massu beat Mardy Fish in the gold medal match of a tournament that featured Federer, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Tim Henman.

In the 1996 Atlanta Games, Lindsay Davenport, who had just turned 20, took inspiration from being the daughter of an Olympian, with dad Wink having played volleyball for the United States at Mexico City in 1968.

Davenport was beginning to make an impact on the WTA Tour but was only the ninth seed at the Olympics, yet she swept through the rounds before sinking Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 7-6 (10-8) 6-2 in the final.

"It's like one of those things I look back on and I'm like, 'Was that me?'," Davenport told The Tennis Podcast last year.

"It doesn't seem like it was real. I'd made the transition to the pro tour pretty well, but I liked hanging out between eight and 16 in the rankings. I was very insecure, unsure of what could I do. I liked doing well but I wasn't sure I wanted to do too well because it seemed really overwhelming to be one of those top players.

"Here I go at 20 years old to Atlanta for two or three weeks, in a setting that seemed so comfortable. Look at all these athletes, you have all different shapes and sizes, you have players that are really working hard but have so much in common and you get to hang out with them, breakfast, lunch, dinner in the village."

Davenport was a future world number one and three-time grand slam singles champion, but at this point in her career being an American at an Olympics in the United States was just a thrill.

"You're sharing this with your team-mates who are some of my best friends in Mary Joe Fernandez, Monica Seles. It was the best time ever," she said.

"By the time the tournament actually started we were like, 'Yeah, I'll go play my match and then we'll go back to the village and we'll hang out', and everything went so fast in those few weeks.

"And there I was left standing, winning at the end because I was so incredibly happy and excited with everything that was going on. I kind of forgot what was my job.

"When it became a reality of even just making the team in '96, it was so huge also for my family with having a second generation Olympian."

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    Following their respective victories, the Chiefs are viewed as having a 37.84 per cent chance of taking the silverware back to Missouri. The more likely outcome, at least according to ROS, is that the trophy stays at SoFi Stadium with the Rams, whose odds of winning it for only the second time in franchise history have ballooned to 38.21.

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  • Vlahovic primed to be Serie A's new poster boy as he ignores pull of Premier League for Juventus Vlahovic primed to be Serie A's new poster boy as he ignores pull of Premier League for Juventus

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    Roberto Baggio

    Having begun his career at Vicenza, The Divine Ponytail's move to Fiorentina saw his star rise as he spent five impressive years in the purple shirt.

    However, after he helped Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to be defeated over two ill-tempered legs by their great rivals Juventus, salt was very much rubbed into the fans' wounds as the Bianconeri paid a then world-record fee to take Baggio.

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    After being dismissed by Fabio Capello at San Siro in 1997, Baggio had an impressive season at Bologna where he scored a personal best 22 league goals, before moving back to the city of Milan with Inter.

    Things did not work out at the Nerazzurri but he still went on to enjoy four final seasons in Serie A with Brescia, where he reached double figures in each campaign before retiring in 2004.

    Gabriel Batistuta

    There is arguably no more iconic player in Fiorentina history. A striker who football fans of a certain vintage remember banging in goals on Sunday afternoons during the nineties.

    Unlike most of the players on this list, Batistuta actually spent the majority of his career at Fiorentina, staying for nine years before his big-money move to Roma.

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    Though he had won a Coppa Italia, Batistuta wanted a Scudetto and moved to Roma in 2000 in order to get it. It was the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30, a record which stood until Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan from Juventus in 2017.

    It seemed like a justified move when Batistuta scored 20 goals, including netting against his former club, on the way to winning the title in his first season in the Italian capital, but was unable to reach those heights again, scoring just 11 over the following season and a half before a loan move to Inter.

    Rui Costa

    The Portuguese maestro had made a name for himself at Benfica before moving to Italy in 1994 and making 230 appearances in seven years with La Viola, winning two Coppa Italia titles.

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    Rui Costa spent five years at San Siro where he won six trophies, including the Champions League in 2003 and Scudetto a year later. He moved back to Benfica in 2006 after the emergence of Kaka saw his minutes reduced.

    Federico Bernardeschi

    Bernardeschi came through the youth ranks at Fiorentina, with big things expected of him as he burst onto the scene after an impressive loan at Crotone in Serie B in the 2013-14 season.

    During three years in the first team, Bernardeschi scored 23 goals in 93 games and registered 11 assists, which unfortunately for Viola fans saw old enemies Juve come swooping in again.

    He has claimed three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia trophies in Turin, as well as being a part of the Italy squad that won the rescheduled Euro 2020 last year.

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    Federico Chiesa

    Another Fiorentina youth product, Chiesa had all eyes on him as soon as he broke through due to being the son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico Chiesa.

    Chiesa Jr made his first-team debut, somewhat ironically, against Juve at the age of 18, and over the next couple of years began to establish himself as the potential future of the club.

    More suited to playing out wide than his father, who was a traditional central striker, Chiesa's managed 34 goals and 19 assists in 153 games at Fiorentina but it his tenacity, pace and skill that sets him apart.

    That was enough to tempt – yes, you guessed it – Juve to come along and take him on a two-year loan, with an obligation to make it permanent at the end of the current campaign.

    Chiesa had an impressive first season at Juve, including scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, before starring for Italy in their successful Euro 2020 campaign, scoring twice in seven appearances and making the team of the tournament.

    He started 2021-22 in sharp form, only for a serious knee injury to end his season early.

     

    There also must be honourable mentions for the likes of Luca Toni, whose emergence at Fiorentina earned him a lucrative move to Bayern Munich, and Francesco Toldo - he was sold to Inter at the same time that Costa was packed off to Milan to ease club debts.

    Juan Cuadrado (now at Juventus) and Marcos Alonso were both sold to Chelsea for decent money two years apart, while Felipe Melo (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) and Matias Vecino (Inter) continued Fiorentina's philosophy of buying low and selling high.

    The path well-trodden out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi has often led to bigger and better things, and that bodes well for Vlahovic now that it appears he will be the next in line.

    He seems to have all the tools to be the star striker this current, rather dour, edition of the Bianconeri require. Indeed, Vlahovic's 33 goals in Serie A last season matched the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve in 2020.

    It might be tough to take (again) for Viola fans, but if history is anything to go by, their next hero won't be far away.

    Of course, he'll probably also sign for Juve eventually, but that will just be a case of crossing the Ponte Vecchio when they come to it.

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