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Opinion: Olympic golf and tennis need to be reimagined under team formats

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TOKYO – Before he even told us, you could tell what it meant to Pablo Carreno Busta to win the bronze medal in men’s tennis by the way his body was shaking. He had just beaten Novak Djokovic in three sets, just laid down beside the Olympic rings painted on the court and all he could do was sit down, hands covering his face, where it seems he still couldn’t quite comprehend the magnitude of what he had achieved.

Even for a seasoned pro on the ATP Tour, someone who has spent a lot of time ranked in the top 10 in the world, someone who has made the semifinals of two Grand Slams, the bronze was everything.

"I didn't win the tournament, but it's like the best title of my career,” he said, a simple sentence that captured why the Olympics are just different.

But as beautiful as that moment was, it was completely overlooked in the bigger picture of the Olympics, which has become increasingly the case for the entire tennis event. You can throw golf in there, too, which only returned to the Games in 2016 after more than a century hiatus.

While those sports will never be as intrinsically connected to the Olympics as swimming, gymnastics and track and field, there’s got to be a better way. If they’re only going to register just a few degrees above irrelevance during these two weeks, it’s time to either reimagine how they fit into the Olympic lineup or get rid of them.

Novak Djokovic reaches for a shot in his loss Pablo Carreno Busta in a bronze medal match.
Novak Djokovic reaches for a shot in his loss Pablo Carreno Busta in a bronze medal match.

The potential solution, though, seems fairly simple. If you want to make Olympic tennis and golf matter more than they do now, why not try turning them into team-oriented, mixed gender events?

There are two inherent problems with golf and tennis as they exist now in the Olympic universe. First is that both sports are already built around four Grand Slam or major tournaments that happen every year, meaning a gold medal is – at best – the fifth biggest prize players care about winning. For pretty much every other sport here, the Olympics are the pinnacle.

Second, if you’re a tennis or golf fan, there’s not much that distinguishes the viewing experience from a whole lot of tournaments throughout the year other than the Olympic rings and players wearing national colors. It’s pretty much the same product packaged a different way – which is fine, but not necessarily worthy of grabbing the attention a sport should strive for on this worldwide stage.

Team formats, though, would be invigorating. They’d be fun. If nothing else, they’d be different.

Why is the Ryder Cup so compelling every two years? Because you see golfers in a totally different context than they’re used to on the tour, playing under a totally different kind of pressure and in unusual formats where so much strategy and teamwork goes into every hole.

Now imagine that in a tournament where countries are represented by both their top men and women’s players on the course together, even having to play their partner’s ball in an alternate shot format? That seems infinitely more interesting than just another stroke play event that you can see almost every week on the PGA Tour.

Tennis, meanwhile, can easily be converted into a country vs. country team event where men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles are scored in a five-match series.

MEDAL COUNT: Full list of each country's medal total at the Summer Olympics

This format already has a proof of concept in World Team Tennis and the Hopman Cup, the latter of which once featured Roger Federer vs. Serena Williams in a mixed doubles match in 2019. But that event, which takes place right before the Australian Open, almost has an exhibition feel. It’s a niche novelty product.

But if you put that matchup under the banner of the Olympics? It becomes a must-watch event, which Olympic tennis could use a lot more of. Between Zika virus concerns (albeit overblown) in 2016 and the COVID-19 restrictions this year, it’s not too surprising that a significant number of top players opted out of the past two Olympics.

This year tennis was counting on Naomi Osaka to carry the banner in Tokyo, but she lost in the third round. Had Djokovic made the final to continue his march to the so-called Golden Slam, it would have been a huge story. But with each passing Games, it feels like tennis is fading more and more into the background as players and fans invest more energy into the majors.

Golf and tennis have been added to the Olympics in the modern era primarily for one reason: They can bring a lot of star power. And along the way, you can get great stories and moments like the one Carreno Busta provided this weekend. But if all that can’t be leveraged into something more than second-tier status both at the Games and within their own tour seasons, what's the point?

With just a little bit of imagination and a format centered around teams instead of individuals, both sports would instantly be more compelling to watch.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Golf, tennis need to be reimagined under team formats