- Chris Wilkinson
A golden opportunityChris Wilkinson July 24, 2012
The world's best tennis players return to Wimbledon this week in search of a prize rarer than grand slam glory. The majors come around four times a year, but the opportunity to win Olympic gold occurs but once every four years.
It may lack the glamour of the grand slams, but playing at the Olympics is a unique opportunity to be involved in a truly global event. I was lucky enough to represent Team GB at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where I played in both the singles and the doubles.
We stayed in the athletes' village, which was a fantastic experience, hanging out with the other athletes and seeing a mix of characters, from tiny gymnasts to powerful weightlifters three times their size.
We had the chance to check out some of the other sports - I remember going to see the gymnastics and some of the gymnasts were on our bus on the way back to the Olympic village. Most of them were young girls and there was such a contrast in emotions - some elated at winning a medal, others devastated at missing out.
In those days tennis wasn't as big as it is nowadays - it had only returned to the Olympic roster in 1988 and took a while to get going. I lost to Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui in the first round, and my doubles partner Andrew Castle and I were beaten by the eventual bronze medallists Javier Frana and Christian Miniussi of Argentina. To be honest though, it was more about just being at the Olympics than the results - it didn't count towards rankings in those days and I was just happy to be a part of the biggest sporting event on the planet.
There are some people who believe sports like tennis and football - where Olympic gold is not the pinnacle of a sportsman's career - should not be in the Games, but I strongly disagree. Tennis was one of the original sports in the 1896 Olympics and has a rich history and deserves to play a part in the ultimate celebration of sport. Thanks to the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal we are enjoying a golden era in the sport and that can only enhance the Olympic experience.
The Olympics used to celebrate amateur sport and was purely about participation but that is no longer the case - every Olympian is a professional athlete these days. I remember in 1992 the USA basketball squad - the original Dream Team with the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson - stayed in a top-class hotel just outside Barcelona rather than the athletes' village, but nowadays every athlete can expect first-rate facilities.
Victory at the Olympic Games is worth 750 ATP ranking points which is less than a Masters title, but players see the Games as the fifth slam. For the top guys especially, it is all about records. They have achieved so much, what else is left for them to win?
The fact that this year the tournament is being hosted by a grand slam venue adds to the sense of occasion, and it being on grass for the first time adds a bit of spice - especially so soon after such a memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.
The All England Club is going to seem very different from usual - the dark green synonymous with Wimbledon will be replaced with the dazzling purple London 2012 branding. The players will be wearing their national team kit rather than the traditional white. It will seem strange for sure, but when Queen's Club changed from the red branding of Stella Artois to the blue of AEGON it was a bit of a shock but now everybody has got used to it.
The average age on the tour has risen in recent years, and for some of these players, it could be their last Olympics. For Federer in particular, who seems to set a new record every time he steps on a tennis court, he is very conscious of his legacy, with Olympic singles gold one prize still to elude him, although he won the doubles title with Stanislas Wawrinka in Beijing.
He's got a record 17 grand slams, 288 weeks (and counting) at world No. 1. He's won virtually everything there is to win - if he can turn his career grand slam into a golden slam, that truly would be the icing on a spectacular career. Having just won his seventh Wimbledon title to return to world No. 1, Federer will be highly motivated on his return to the All England Club.
Djokovic may still be reeling from the disappointment of losing out on the No. 1 spot, while Nadal will not defend his title after failing to shake off his latest knee problems. I wouldn't be surprised to see another Federer-Andy Murray showdown. Murray would be a hugely popular champion, he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win Olympic gold on home soil and he will be boosted by the home support.
The usual crowd at Wimbledon know their tennis and also are quite respectful, but it will be a very different crowd at the Olympics - the atmosphere will be electric. Although I am sure Federer and the others will have support, I expect the crowd to be very vocal in favour of Murray - more like a football match than the usual spectators at the All England Club.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1