Andy Murray and Mónica Puig show Olympic refuseniks what they missed

Tennis - Women's Singles Gold Medal Match

There was a suspicion Andy Murray might decide to skip Cincinnati and concentrate on resting his weary limbs for the US Open after he defended his Olympic title with a draining win over Juan Martín del Potro.

It must have been tempting for the world No2, not least because he heads to Flushing Meadows as the favourite and in the form of his life after a golden summer.

With Novak Djokovic a slight doubt to make it to New York after pulling out of Cincinnati with a shoulder injury and Roger Federer ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, the chances of Murray winning his first US Open since 2012 are high. Why not slow down for a moment or two? Why not have a tactical breather? But it is not in Murray’s nature at the moment. Having collected gold in Rio, he made the 5,000 mile journey by plane to Cincinnati.

His willingness to embrace the pain makes him a champion and perhaps that mindset helps to explain what gives him an edge over the players who turned down the chance to compete for an Olympic medal. Murray has never been afraid of a little hard work and, having touched down in Cincinnati, he sent a typically forthright message in the direction of the Rio absentees. “After watching the Olympics, I hope some of them regret their decision not to go,” the double Olympic champion said. “I felt unbelievably proud to play.”

It was not just the men who got cold feet. Romania’s Simona Halep, the world No4, pulled out because of concerns over Zika. The women’s singles event was won by Puerto Rico’s Mónica Puig, whose beaming smile must have melted the hardest of hearts after she beat Angelique Kerber, the world No2 and the Australian Open champion.

Tennis’s place in the Olympics has often been up for debate, with many questioning whether it belongs. Sam Querrey, the American who stunned Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, sounded less than sure about its worth after opting out. “I feel like the Olympics should only be sports where that’s the pinnacle of your sport: If you win the Olympics, there’s nothing better,” he said. “But I think for tennis, you ask anyone, they’d rather win a grand slam over the Olympics.”

Austria’s Dominic Thiem, the world No9, was even stronger, calling Olympic tennis an exhibition tournament. One can see where he is coming from. The scheduling in Rio has often been odd, plenty of matches have taken place in front of sparse crowds – tennis is hardly alone on that front, though – and it is less prestigious than winning a grand slam.

But try telling Puig the Olympics are insignificant. At a time of financial strife in Puerto Rico, it was a stunning achievement from the world No35, who become the first Olympic individual gold medallist in her country’s history. “It’s just amazing,” the 22-year-old said. “I know my country really appreciates this and I really wanted to give this victory to them.”

It was a brilliant weekend of tennis. Having won gold for Spain alongside Marc Lopez in the men’s doubles, Rafael Nadal, back in action after recovering from the wrist injury that wrecked his French Open and Wimbledon, played a pulsating semi-final against Del Potro. The Argentinian had almost been forced into early retirement because of a left wrist injury that cost him more than two years of his career. Try telling him his silver medal counts for nothing after the physical torture he endured at the hands of Murray. Or Kei Nishikori, whose win over Nadal in the bronze medal match secured Japan’s first Olympic tennis medal since 1920.

True, there were holes in the men’s draw at the start of the event. Federer’s dream of finally winning a singles gold was wrecked by the injury he suffered at Wimbledon. Stan Wawrinka, the world No4, was missing with a back injury. The USA’s John Isner was elsewhere, Spain’s Feliciano López too, though they did not cite Zika. Australia’s Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios were absent, the latter after falling out with the Australian Olympic Committee.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kyrgios’s case, what the 21-year-old and others failed to realise is the chance to win an Olympic medal only comes around every four years. Murray, Del Potro and Puig understood that. What they achieved will never be forgotten.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jacob Steinberg, for The Guardian on Wednesday 17th August 2016 12.20 Europe/London

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