Indian Tennis has a considerable following, especially with Mirza, Bhupathi and Paes winning almost every Grand Slam that there is. Although it is limited to urban areas, it is still counted among the most popular sports in the country.
Sania Mirza is the number one ranked doubles player in the world. On the other hand, Leander Paes continues to defy father time by racking up Grand Slam wins one after another.
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Here, we take a look at how tennis takes place at the Olympics. At the same time, we analyse India’s medal winning chances at this summer’s Olympics.
Tennis at the Oympics
Tennis was part of the Summer Olympic Games program from the inaugural 1896 Olympics. It was dropped after the 1924 Summer Olympics due to disputes between the International Lawn Tennis Federation and the International Olympic Committee.
Tennis returned as a full medal sport at the 1988 Summer Olympics and has been played at every edition of the Games since then. In 1896, 1900, 1904, 1988, and 1992, semifinal losers shared bronze medals. In all other years, a playoff match for the bronze medal was staged.
From the 2004 Athens Olympics till the 2012 London Olympics, results from the Olympics was counted towards both the ATP and WTA world rankings for that calendar year. However, no points will be awarded for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Olympic tournaments have increased in perceived importance since their reintroduction in 1988. Nowadays, winning an Olympic Gold is considered equivalent to winning a Grand Slam. A player who wins an Olympic gold medal and all four Grand Slam events is said to have won a Golden Slam.
The United States have been the most successful nation in tennis at the Olympics. They have won a total of 36 medals, including 20 gold. They are closely followed by Great Britain, 44 medals (17 gold).
India in Tennis
In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Lenader Paes won the bronze medal in men’s singles. He beat Fernando Meligeni in the 3rd place payoff. Paes thus becoming the first Indian to win an individual medal since KD Jadhav won bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
With the rise of the Paes- Bhupathi duo in men’s doubles, there were expectations of an Olympic medal. However, they had a disappointing second round exit at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Paes Bhupathi failed again at the semifinals stage.
The tennis tournaments at the 2016 Summer Olympics will be staged at the Olympic Tennis Center, from 6 to 14 August. The competition will be played on a fast hardcourt surface.
For the singles competitions, the top 56 players in the world rankings on June 6, 2016 of the WTA and ATP tours are qualified for the Olympics. However, entry has been limited to four players from a country.
Of the remaining eight slots, six of them have been determined by the ITF’s Olympic Committee. This is done, taking into account ranking and spread of nations represented. The final two slots are awarded by the IOC to players from small nations.
In the doubles competitions, twenty four teams are automatically qualified for the Games based on the rankings on June 6, 2016. This is subject to a maximum of two teams per country.
Players in the top ten of the doubles rankings could reserve a place, provided they have a partner to compete with. Meanwhile, the remaining eight teams are decided by the ITF’s Olympic Committee.
The tennis competition at the Olympic Games consists of a single elimination tournament. The size of the singles draw, 64, means that there are six rounds of competition in total. There are five rounds in the doubles owing to its smaller draw size of 32, and 4 for mixed with its draw size only being 16.
All matches will be the best of three sets except for the men’s singles final which will be the best of five sets. The tie break operates in every set except the deciding set. In the mixed doubles the third set will be played as a match tie-break (10 points).
Unlike the 2012 Games, the team selection for this summer’s Olympics was much less dramatic. In 2012, Bhupathi and Bopanna had teamed together, ignoring Leander Paes. Sania then had to pair Paes in the mixed doubles against her wishes. This had led to her accusing the Indian Tennis Federation of using her as bait.
This time India has entered four tennis players into the Olympic tournament. Mirza (world no. 1) is teaming up with Prarthana Thombare in women’s doubles. While Bopanna (world no. 10) will partner six-time Olympian Leander Paes in men’s doubles.
This is by virtue of their top-10 ATP and WTA Ranking as of 6 June 2016. Mirza and Bopanna are also teaming up in mixed doubles.
Women’s doubles: Sania Mirza and Prarthana Thombare
Men’s doubles: Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes
Mixed doubles: Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna
Previewing India’s chances
Leander Paes may have gotten his wish of participating in his 7th straight Olympics. Truth be told, one cannot begrudge him that, given his sensational form and longevity. However, a medal looks far off the horizon.
Even without the Bryan Brothers or Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, the men’s doubles category looks tough for Paes and Rohan Bopanna. This is without considering any friction which could exist between the duo due to past events.
The same holds true for women’s doubles pairing of Prarthana Thombare and Sania Mirza. Mirza has already gone on record saying that it is unfair to expect the unheralded Thombare to compete against world class players.
The mixed doubles combination of Bopanna and Mirza do have a strong chance of stepping up to the podium. The same has been stated by Mirza. “I feel that mixed doubles is where our hopes truly lie in,” Sania said at her book launch last month.
Mirza and Bopanna have previously played mixed doubles together in 2014. This occurred during their stint at the International Premier Tennis League in 2014. It remains to be seen whether they can draw upon their vast wealth of experience and produce a positive result.
It would also be a delightful story if Paes and Bopanna could somehow eke out a medal. This would provide the perfect swansong to Paes’ career, although he doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.