RIO DE JANEIRO – The best American men took a pass on Olympic tennis this time. But the best American women are here.
The result is the largest tennis contingent in Rio, a smorgasbord that spans the gamut from multi-medalist icons Venus and Serena Williams to a journeyman who is playing the best tennis of his life late in his career and jumped at the opportunity with barely 24 hours’ notice.
The 11 players (Team USA captains Mary Joe Fernandez and Jay Berger were no-shows, their name cards quietly removed from the podium moments before the team finally arrived) were strategically laid out along the table at a press conference Wednesday. The configuration was exactly like the lanes of the 100-meter freestyle or a 100-meter dash: the hot shots got the middle lanes, and the strivers had to start from the outside.
Venus and Serena Williams were in the middle; Madison Keys (ranked No. 9 on the WTA Tour) and Sloane Stephens (No. 22) flanked them. Jack Sock, the 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion, was next to Keys.
Rajeev Ram, Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla and Bryan Baker? Relegated to the outer lanes.
Absent from the Games will be two of the country’s top four singles players, John Isner and Sam Querrey, and the country’s top men’s doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan, who announced they were pulling out only last Saturday.
Isner said “logistics and scheduling conflicts” were behind his decision to withdraw last April. Querrey, who pulled out in June, has been pretty outspoken in saying the Olympics wasn’t a priority for the tennis players and golfers. The Bryans cited the health of their families as their “top priorities.”
“The fact that it was always going to be my first (Olympics), and those guys I think would have felt the same way, John and Sam, the two guys who turned it down, they’ve already played the Olympics before,” said Rajeev Ram, a 32-year-old who played at the University of Illinois and who, late in his career, is playing the best tennis of his life.
He is ranked a career-high No. 22 in doubles this week.
“I think it’s great that we have a team of rookies that are really excited to be here. And the fact that we also have Venus and Serena, who have been here so many times and done so well, as sort of mentor figures, if you will – because it is different to compete in this situation,” Ram said. “I think it’s a really cool combination, and I think it’ll be really successful.”
Ram said he ended up being just one spot out of making the singles draw with all of the various pullouts on the men’s side. He was about to leave Canada for the next tour stop in Atlanta when he got the call from Berger.
“Obviously it was a pretty easy decision to not play there. I was in my hotel room in Toronto and Jay called and said, ‘Bob and Mike aren’t going, so we’d like to offer you the spot,’” Ram said. “The Bryans decided they didn’t want to come – they couldn’t come for personal reasons, I guess … and I jumped at the chance. I’m really proud to be here, part of this team. It’s a great honor.”
The team also includes another collegian, USC’s Johnson, who quietly has leaped over everyone to become the No. 2 ranked American men’s player at age 26. It includes Ukraine-born Kudla, currently ranked No. 120 but close to his career best of No. 56 at the entry deadline in mid-June, allowing him to make the cut.
It also includes one of the worst hard-luck stories in tennis, that of Bryan Baker. Baker, 31, had an excellent junior career but his road through the pros is littered with broken body parts – his own. Currently ranked No. 334, Baker was able to get in on a protected singles ranking earned during one of those lengthy injury absences. With the withdrawal of the Bryans, he now also finds himself in the doubles with Ram.
“Sure, I’ve had a rough go throughout my career with injuries, and missed a lot of time I wish I could get back. This is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Baker said. “I didn’t know when I was doing my rehab last year and the year before that I was just gearing up for the Olympics. But … having all those hard times when you don’t feel like you’re going to be able to get back and play and you feel like your career is slipping away, it does make it worth the while in putting in all that extra effort.”
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, also 31, is in her first Olympics. Coco Vandeweghe is a 24-year-old who is a second-generation Olympian. Her mother Tauna, a former swimmer, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of her Olympic experience in Montreal and will come to Rio.
The team is a diverse one, in every sense. And Mattek-Sands pointed out that it’s a great opportunity to get to know players they see every week on Tour in a different context.
Just like those lanes in the pool, the ATP and WTA Tours are hierarchical places. They are divided between men and women. There is the rare air breathed by the Williams and the rising-star air that both Keys and Stephens have inhaled. There is the quality air inhaled by the likes of Sock and Johnson (both of whom ended up among the 16-seeded players in the men’s draw). And there is the weekly struggle for air for the likes of Ram, Baker and Kudla.
In Rio, all of them will breathe the same air. They’ll eat breakfast together, they’ll attend events together to cheer each other on. They’ll be on the same buses.
It’s a humbling experience for the very best, an upwardly mobile week for those who never thought in their wildest dreams that they’d be here.
“Just to be in this team and this group is an honor, and I’m really going to try to make the most of the situation,” Johnson said.