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Looking Forward to American Tennis at the Summer Olympics (Part 1: Singles)


 

Unlike some sports at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, in which certain countries contend as the favorites in each event and seemingly dominate everyone else (USA Basketball for example), tennis stands out as a sport in which players from all around the world can compete for the Gold. Because competition qualification uses the top-rated professionals taken straight from the international rankings, a large variety of countries will be represented at the 5 different tournaments.

 

However, as an unapologetic American supporter, and seeing quality players in each of the draws, there is much to look forward to in viewing the American competitors. Singles allows a maximum of 4 players from the USA out of 64 on both the men’s and women’s sides, for a total of 8 singles players overall.

 

Looking into the chances of success for Americans, it is important to look at career records, and the other quality competitors that are playing in each draw.

 

Women’s Singles:

 

Serena Williams comes in as the top-ranked women’s player in the world, looking to repeat as singles champion after taking the gold in the 2012 London competition. She has won 22 grand slam titles, including the latest domination of the 2016 Wimbledon title, and 71 professional tournaments overall.

 

It is actually difficult to say much more about Serena analytically, because she does so much so well. She is as athletic and strong as anybody in the draw, even at 34 years old and with a whole career of tennis behind her. The courts in Rio are hard courts, and Williams has come through in 6 major tournaments to win on hard court, so the surface should not be a problem.

 

Though nothing is guaranteed, anything less than Gold for Serena would be a disappointment, and she should be considered the favorite.

 

Often overlooked as the secondary sister, Venus Williams is a quality competitor in her own right. At 36, she is one of the older competitors in the draw, but she recently reached the semi-finals appearance at 2016 Wimbledon. In her career she has won 7 majors, and 22 WTA tournaments.

 

Venus, in terms of major competitions, has proven that grass, rather than the hard court at this tournament, is her greatest surface, with 8 Wimbledon Final appearances and 5 titles. However, having won 2 US opens on hard court shows she is no slouch in that area.

 

She is ranked #7 in the world, so she should also be considered a real threat to challenge for a medal.

 

Because of the success and fame of the Williams sisters, Madison Keys could be one player a lot of non-regular tennis fans don’t recognize the name of, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a first-class competitor. Ranked #11 currently, at just 21 years old, she is one of the rising stars in women’s tennis.

 

She has never won a Grand Slam Major, but has won 2 professional titles since 2014, including the AEGON Classic this last June. And even though she hasn’t won a major championship, she has made at least the 4th round in each of the 4 majors since 2016, meaning she has what it takes to beat some of the better players in the world. Her best finish came when she lost in the semi’s at the 2015 Australian open, which is a hard fast court.

 

A really fast, athletic player with a really hard serve and tough groundstrokes, Keys should be a really tough out in the tournament. It is difficult to say that she will win a medal, but depending on the draw, she could be a dark horse.

 

The last of the 4 American Women’s singles competitors is Sloane Stephens. She is another young player, at just 23 years old, and has been a pro since just 2010. Stephens is ranked #23 in the world at the moment, and should not be looked over as such.

 

She, like Keys, has never won a Major, but her best finish was in the Australian Open in 2013 where she reached the Semifinals. She has reached the 4th round or better in each of the 4 Grand Slams. Since August 9 of last year, Stephens has won 3 hard court professional titles, so she has recent success on the surface of the Olympics.

 

As a defensive player, Stephens stands far behind the baseline regularly, not letting the pace and strength of shots on hard courts mess her up. She is as fit as anyone on tour and should provide entertaining points by turning her defensive play into aggressive shots the other way. Again, with the high quality of players in the Olympic draw, it is difficult to predict Stephens will be standing on the podium at the end of the tournament, but she will not be easy to take out.

 

 

Even with the high quality of the American Singles players, the Olympic tournament will be nowhere near easy to win for any of the competitors. 8 out of the top 10 players and 16 out of the top 20 players in the world, as of now, are primed to compete in the tournament.

 

Serena Williams seems the best opportunity for an American to win the Gold, but there are players who have succeeded against her and the other Americans in the tournament recently that are playing in the Olympics. In fact, there are two particular players who beat Williams in finals of Majors this year.

 

Angelique Kerber is the #2 player in the world at the moment, coming off a loss to Serena in 2016 Wimbledon. However, on hard court, the surface of the Olympics, she defeated Serena in the Final of the 2016 Australian Open. She is playing as well as any other player, and we could see her and Serena in another final for a third time this year.

Another player who took out Serena this year in a Major is Garbiñe Muguruza, 2016’s French Open champion. She is ranked #3 in the world.

 

Muguruza is more of a star on grass and clay, as she has reached the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon, and has never made it to the Quarterfinals of the 2 major hard court Majors, the Australian and US Opens. This suggests that she might not be the greatest competitor for this particular tournament, but preparation and her increasing skill level should still make her a quality candidate to make a lot of noise.

 

 

Men’s Singles:

 

On the Men’s side, the chances for an American medalist seem much more slim than the women’s side. It is almost unfair to ask for a player with such transcendent talent as Serena Williams on the men’s side as well, but there are still some good players. A real prospect for competing for a medal would have been top-ranked American John Isner. However, according to this article in the Washington Post, he will not be attending the Rio Olympics to instead focus on the Summer hard court season and prepare for the US Open.

 

Out of the American men who are competing, Steve Johnson is the top-ranked representative, at #25. Unlike a lot of the top players on tour, Johnson played a full 4 years of college tennis for USC, winning the individual singles NCAA championship 2 times, as well as the team championship each year he was there, making him one of the more decorated college tennis players ever.

 

In his professional career, Johnson recently won his first singles Pro Tour title this past June at the Nottingham Open, a warm-up tournament for Wimbledon. However, he has reached a final in a hard court tournament, losing the Final of the Vienna Open to David Ferrer in 2015, proving he is not a weak hard court player.

 

Johnson’s game is based on a very powerful set of groundstrokes and a really fast serve. In the US, many players were raised playing on hard court, including Johnson, which serves well in this particular tournament.

 

In just the next spot on the world rankings, #26, Jack Sock is the next American singles competitor. At 23 years old, Sock looks like he is moving up and has a lot of potential, but he has not yet become one of the absolute top singles players on the planet like he could in a few years.

 

Though Sock has a number of doubles titles, with a championship at Wimbledon in 2014 along with Canadian partner Vasek Pospisil, Sock has yet to reach such success in his singles career. His one professional singles tournament championship came at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships on April 12, 2015, where he defeated another American not playing in the Olympics, Sam Querry, in the final.

 

Sock does play a style of tennis that could allow him to shock some viewers and maybe pull an upset or two in Rio. His strengths are his serve and groundstrokes, which fit a hard court well, and his mobility around the baseline should allow him to stay aggressive and look for his opportunities for winning shots.

 

The quest for a medal in men’s singles is hard enough for the aforementioned players. With a total of 64 competitors, Denis Kudla might call it a success if he is able to win a match or two. Currently ranked #100 in the world, Kudla is another young American, who was able to make his way into the field because Isner and Querry are not playing. He is just 23 years old, and this could be a great experience for him, but realistically not much more than that.

 

Anybody on Tour is a quality enough player to beat guys at the top of the draw, but it is going to take a lot of good bounces and a favorable draw for Kudla to advance anywhere deep into the tournament.

 

Brian Baker is in a very similar situation. At 31, he is not on some crazy upswing into the top levels of the rankings, but at #163 he is still a solid player. There really isn’t much more to say about Baker, other than that every single match win he can accumulate, if any, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

 

 

Like the Women’s side, the American men will have to face the top professionals in the world to advance in the Olympics. All of the top 6 players in the world, and 14 out of the top 18 will all be representing their countries.

 

The last two Olympic Tennis champions will be playing as well, so there are plenty of participants that have loads of experience. Rafael Nadal took the Gold in 2008, while Andy Murray won as the hometown hero in London in 2012.

 

The tournament, however, looks like it is for Novak Djokovic to win. With about double the world ranking points as Murray at #2 in the world, he has been on an absolute tear recently, taking down just about everyone he faces.

 

 

The singles tournaments at the 2016 Summer Olympics should be very interesting to watch, and could provide a lot of drama, with a smaller tournament than some of the Majors, while people are trying to represent their countries positively.

Eric Newman

Eric Newman

Eric has been writing with Sports Grumble since August 2015. He is studying at Arizona State University, pursuing a Master's Degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Eric aspires to be a full-time sports reporter and possibly make his way into radio or television broadcasting.
Eric Newman

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