Upon learning that tennis will be contested on the grounds of Wimbledon as part of this summer's Olympic Games, many sports fans may have already conceded the gold medals to Serena Williams and Roger Federer after their impressive victories on the grass of the All England Club this past weekend.
Yet for all his success - 17 career titles at all four Grand Slam tournaments, 7 Wimbledon singles trophies, and his newly restored ranking as the all-time leader in weeks at No. 1 - Federer has yet to win an Olympic gold medal in singles. Indeed, he has not yet won a singles medal of any color, having lost a bronze medal contest twelve years ago to a player even die-hard tennis fans may have a difficult time remembering, Arnaud di Pasquale of France..
Federer surprised many people by winning the gold in doubles with his Davis Cup partner Stan Wawrinka on the hardcourts in Beijing four years ago -- a surprise primarily because he has played so comparatively few doubles matches in his pro career (less than 200 compared to more than 1000 in singles). But Federer has made no secret of his desire to complete a career "Golden Slam" as a singles player. The day after his win at Wimbledon this past weekend, Federer told a gathering of reporters that, after a brief rest, "Obviously, the next goal is the Olympics."
Federer's Olympic History
At his first Olympic games in Sydney in 2000, where he met his now-wife Mirka, world No. 38 Federer lost to then No. 48 Tommy Haas of Germany in the singles semifinal and then lost the bronze medal match to No. 62 Arnaud di Pasquale of France.
In 2004 in Athens, Switzerland showed its pride in its new world No. 1 by asking Federer to carry the Swiss flag for the first time in the parade of athletes during the opening ceremonies. However, he was shocked in three sets in the second round of the singles tournament by then No. 79 Czech Tomas Berdych, one of the first times the sports world heard of the player soon destined to become a solid resident of the Top Ten and a Wimbledon finalist.
In Beijing four years later, Federer again carried the Swiss flag, and this time defeated Berdych in three sets in the round of 16. But then the world No. 1 lost his quarterfinal match in straight sets to then no. 7 American James Blake, one of the biggest wins of Blake's career.
Federer Now Has the All-Time Best Winning Percentage on Grass
With his seventh Wimbledon title, Federer has proven himself to be the King of Grass in the present tennis generation, and there seems little doubt that the surface makes him the prohibitive favorite going into the Olympic matches beginning July 28. However, his record is even more impressive when compared with that of earlier generations. With 112 career wins against just 16 losses, Federer is the all-time leader in winning percentage on the surface at 87.5%, just a few points ahead of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Pete Sampras, in that order. According to the ATP Web site, the next highest active player in the career Top Ten list is Rafael Nadal at just over 80%, with Andy Roddick and Andy Murray rounding out the list.
In addition to the surface, the other big issue likely to be discussed as the Olympic men's tennis tournament nears, is the format. For the men's singles at the Games, matches will be best two of three sets until the men'[s final, which will be the best of five.
Nadal, "There's No Favorite"
One of the first players to talk about the potential impact of the format at the upcoming Games was two-time Wimbledon and reigning Olympic champion Rafael Nadal. On June 26, after his opening round Wimbledon win over Brazil's Thomas Bellucci, Nadal expressed serious reservations about the best of three sets format on grass: "It's not great that you play in a very important competition on grass the best of three. That makes the tournament a little bit more crazy. You know, everybody can win over everybody even more than in hard or clay, because playing best of three the match can be decided in just a few points. So that's probably the negative thing. In every match, you are at the limit."
In attempting to explain that by "crazy" he meant less predictable, Nadal went even further, saying that given the format and the surface he believes, "there's no favorite then."
The history of recent winners would seem to bear him out, generally speaking, despite his own unsurprising win in Beijing. The 2004 gold medalist was Chile's Nicolás Massú, and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, briefly a world No. 1, took home the gold in Sydney in 2000. It's easy to see why one of Federer's chief rivals would want to believe that "there's no favorite" going into the Olympics, of course. (These comments were made even before Nadal was ushered out of Wimbledon in the second round this year at the hot hand of Lukas Rosol in a match that Nadal took into a fifth set, even though he would also have lost it if the match had been best of three.)
But it's tough to bet against Federer this year on grass, no matter what the format or the disappointments in his previous Olympic resume, given the kind of roll he has been on.
Or is it?
Surprisingly, on the day after Federer's historic Wimbledon triumph, the London oddsmakers at Betfair gave him a 100/30 chance of winning Olympic gold - just behind Novak Djokovic, the only player who presently "trades shorter" than the new world No. 1. That is, at least for now. It will be interesting to see how those numbers change over the next three weeks, as Federer's latest Wimbledon win sinks in -- and even more interesting to see whether the world's top player can manage to claim the only major title to elude him.