- 11 Aug 08, 03:39 PM
Beijing's Olympic Green Tennis Centre
There were perhaps 200 people watching the first-round match between Andy Murray and Lu Yen-Hsun of Chinese Taipei (that's "made in Taiwan" to you and me but not the IOC and certainly not our hosts) on Monday, and, to be honest, I have no idea why any of them were there.
OK, I can guess why Judy Murray was there - she was probably killing time before her elder son Jamie had his big moment in the doubles tournament.
Lu seemed to be enjoying himself too but then he had only won seven of his 19 previous matches in 2008.
But the rest of us? Murray the younger was clearly experiencing the same confusion.
He turned up, fresh from a superb (British) win in the US, under the illusion he was a rising star, playing an unheralded also-ran for a place in the last 32 of the most important, most ancient, most magnificent event in the sporting calendar.
Sadly, it seemed to dawn on the (by now) Scot he was miserably out of sorts and probably wasting his time against a mediocre but far more up-for-it opponent, in an event he shouldn't be playing in anyway when the US Open is only a fortnight away.
"The US Open?!? Why didn't you tell me?" I imagined Murray to be muttering when the game against Lu started to go down the toilet.
"That's one of the four biggest events in my sport and if I win that I'm made for life. It will be a glorious new start for British (again) tennis and my name will be up there in lights with Roger's, Rafa's and Novak's. What on earth am I doing in Beijing?"
The list of names finding reasons not to be here was growing right up until the tournament started on Sunday. It seemed getting the sport's biggest stars to come to Beijing was no guarantee they'd actually take part in the tournament.
Federer and Nadal (the two names are just said together now) played and won today, which frankly saves the tournament as a serious competition, and the Williams sisters appear to be up for it. But what about the others?
Former world number one Andy Roddick made it clear his priority was the US Open, his national championship, and not the Games.
Ana Ivanovic, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova and former champion Lindsay Davenport have all made their excuses, and defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne would not have risked aggravating her asthma in Beijing even if she was still playing the game.
At least the women's event has a grand slam-calibre honours board - since its Olympic comeback in 1988, the female champions have been Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Davenport, Venus and Henin-Hardenne.
The current Olympic men's champion anybody?
It's Nicolas Massu, in case you'd forgotten: before him the winners include Marc Rosset and Miloslav Mecir.
Massu had to be given a special invite to be able to defend his title, so bad has his form been since Athens. It was Mardy Fish he beat in the final in 2004, by the way, but he's stayed at home with Roddick.
The debate about what should and what shouldn't be an Olympic sport has been going on so long it's almost an Olympic sport itself, but it is actually quite simple.
If winning an Olympic gold medal is not the highest accolade in your sport, you're playing a non-Olympic sport. Tennis fails this test by some margin - are the Games even the fifth biggest event on the sport's schedule?
Watching Murray throw away a winning position in the first set, sulk his way through a tie-break and then battle the voice in his head telling him to give up in the second set was actually quite depressing.
Depressing because I didn't really blame him. If I were struggling with my game and not really feeling the Olympic buzz, I would have started thinking about Flushing Meadows too. It is about priorities.
Of course, the equation is a little different for doubles specialist Jamie and there is a school of thought that says the pairs format should be spared from any Olympic chop, the rationale being doubles is a neglected event that needs the Games' exposure.
It's an interesting idea but I'm not sure I buy it. Would that really raise doubles' profile (Massu and Fernando Gonzalez won the men's doubles in Athens, in case you were wondering)? Wouldn't we just be left with a tournament with even fewer top players?
I think there is a chance that would widen the gap between the two formats, effectively creating two sports: a popular/professional one called singles, and an Olympic one called doubles. Players who chose the latter would probably need funding.
Hold on a minute, this sounds a bit like that other great Olympic anomaly, "amateur" boxing. Best not go there, we've got medal hopes.
The really annoying thing about the inclusion of tennis (and basketball and football, to name two other star-studded but distracted "Olympic" sports) is that it queers the pitch for those sports that really do need and value the Games.
It was interesting to see how the TV cameras kept picking out the tennis players, NBA superstars and top footballers during Friday's opening ceremony. Most Olympic athletes are totally foreign to us; the International Olympic Committee and the people that pay for this whole shebang know that.
But that is precisely why these four-yearly gatherings are so precious for the archers, badminton players and canoeists - this is their life's ambition and shop window rolled into one. And I believe the viewing public gets that.
The IOC and ad-men need not fear our lack of familiarity with the back stories of the boys in the coxless four or girls in our 4x200m freestyle team.
Which is why tonight I will be raising a glass to our real Olympic stars Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson, and doing my best to forget Andy Murray's tennis campaign.
He won't lose too much sleep over it. He's got his sport's fourth and final big event to look forward to in New York in a couple of weeks.
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