There are two ways to view the 2016 Olympics: cynically, as witnessed by sluggish ticket sales, civil unrest, a noisily creaking infrastructure and the absence of many of the world’s best athletes, or with a kinder eye, as championed by Andy Murray.
His commitment is palpable. After the draw he said being asked to carry the flag for the Great Britain team in the opening ceremony on Friday was “by far the proudest moment of my professional career” – which should have persuaded cynics that he is here because retaining the gold medal he won in London four years ago matters hugely to him, personally and for the country.
Privately the Scot is disappointed that five of the world’s top 10 tennis players are missing. Publicly his voice bristles with pride and anticipation.
Only triathlon and marathon swimming join tennis as sold-out attractions in Rio, testament to the sport’s pulling power, and the two players who matter most – Murray and the world No1, Novak Djokovic – will probably meet in the final. To get there, they will work their way through a weakened field but the Serb has a slightly trickier route.
Murray and Juan Martín del Potro had an infamous bust-up at the Italian Open in 2008 when the Argentinian foolishly stirred the Scot over the courtside presence of his mother, Judy. However, Murray will be quietly wishing Del Potro all the best when he takes on Djokovic in the first round of this tournament on Sunday.
They have long since healed their flickering rift and, if Del Potro, whose recovery from a lingering wrist injury looks to be nearing completion, could rediscover some of the form that won him the 2009 US Open, as well as his bronze-medal victory against Djokovic in London four years ago – he might seriously inconvenience the world’s best player. He remains circumspect. “If I play hard, if I serve well and if my forehands work in a good way, then maybe I’ve got a little chance to win,” Del Potro said. “This match is going to be completely different from four years ago.”
Unlike Murray and Djokovic, Del Potro is staying in the Olympic village, rooming with his compatriots, the NBA stars Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola.
Djokovic is the tournament’s No1 seed and Murray’s obvious main rival for a second gold medal. Murray beat him in the Italian Open final this summer and the Serb went curiously off the ball at Wimbledon, where Murray won his third major. Since then each of them has recuperated in his own way. Murray’s only sightings near a tennis court have been practising with Rafael Nadal in Mallorca after supporting Great Britain as a fan in their quarter-final win over Serbia in Djokovic’s home town, Belgrade. (Djokovic, curiously, did not attend.)
Djokovic returned to tournament action to win the Rogers Cup last month but his form there was not entirely convincing. Murray, meanwhile, declined to jeopardise his preparation for Rio by withdrawing from the Canadian event. He opens his campaign on Sunday against Djokovic’s compatriot, Victor Troicki, and should add his eighth win against the world No35 in their eighth meeting. Troicki, like Djokovic, missed Serbia’s Davis Cup quarter-final, so he will be fresh and dangerous.
In the women’s event, Serena Williams sounds up for defending the medal she won so spectacularly in London. There she demolished Maria Sharapova – absent here through her drugs ban – in the final for the loss of just a single game. “Sometimes when I look at that match I don’t think I’ve ever played like that before or after,” Williams said. “I’m hoping to get to that level again. Maybe it will happen here in Rio but it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
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