The 2016 Summer Olympics may impact tennis far beyond the shores of Rio de Janeiro. In fact, a slew of withdrawals from the Olympic Games and other major tournaments could spell disaster for tennis fans.
There's a growing list of top players who plan to skip the Summer Games for reasons varying from the Zika virus to in-country conflict. Meanwhile, some top players who committed to participating in the Olympics have withdrawn from ATP World Tour Masters and WTA Tour Premier events.
After being dropped from the Olympics in 1924, tennis was reinstated in 1988. This could be one of the worst summers for tennis since it returned to the Games.
Positioned between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the Summer Olympics have always presented a scheduling challenge for the International Tennis Federation. But this year's issues seem specific to Rio.
This past week, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova withdrew from the Olympics because of concerns about the Zika virus.
In 2014, Halep spoke with RomaniaInsider.com about how important it would be to bring home a medal for her country. She told the Insider, “I hope my results will stay in our country’s history, and future generations will remember me. There are two more years to Rio; it is a long period, I don’t know how I will be then physically, but if I will be healthy, I will compete."
Now she'll be a no-show.
Berdych told the Times of India (via AFP), "The rest of my life will be 60 years maybe. If something happens, it's the rest of your life with it. For one week, one tournament, you might have a sad life."
Even Canada's Eugenie Bouchard has expressed concern about the Zika virus. She's unsure if she'll attend.
Brazil's Bruno Soares accused players of using the Zika virus as an excuse to skip the games.
Meanwhile, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, all slated to compete in Rio, are skipping the Rogers Cup. Serena Williams won't be defending her title at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. The Rogers Cup and Olympics are the only tournaments on her schedule prior to the U.S. Open.
Federer told fans in a statement, "Toronto is one of my favorite events on the calendar, and I am disappointed that I won't be able to compete in front of the great tennis fans in Canada. Looking ahead, it is best for me that I take more time after Wimbledon. I look forward to coming back to Canada next year.''
The Olympics fall right in the middle of the U.S. Open Series of tournaments. This has forced some players to cherry-pick their summer schedule.
Multiple Grand Slam winners nearing the end of their careers seem to value Olympic glory over U.S. Open series tournaments.
Federer has never won an Olympic gold medal in singles. He's hoping to win three medals in Rio, teaming up with Stan Wawrinka in doubles and Martina Hingis in mixed doubles.
Serena and Venus Williams each have four gold medals (one in singles and three in doubles). Speaking to reporters during her Wimbledon run, Serena told Nick McCarvel of USA Today, “It's probably one thing I have that I love the most. For me, I look at the Olympics as a bonus opportunity.”
Perhaps future Hall of Famers have the luxury of attending the Olympics. They've got many tournament trophies at home and millions of dollars banked.
Others may see the Olympics as a liability, a detour away from their goals. This year neither the ATP nor WTA is awarding rankings points at the Olympics.
Latvia's Ernests Gulbis opted to pursue rankings points instead of traveling to Rio. He told Reuters, "I really don't like that in Olympic Games there is no points and no prize money. It's a little bit like tennis tourism, from my side."
American No. 1 John Isner chose to defend his Atlanta Open title instead of attending the Olympics. Dominic Thiem decided to play in the lower-level Los Cabos tournament in Mexico. Both tournaments take place during the Olympics. Spain's Feliciano Lopez also decided to bypass the Olympics to play in other tournaments.
It seems for some, the Olympics is just another event on an already grueling summer schedule. Players rarely skip Grand Slams for any reason other than serious injury, a doping ban or pregnancy. Yet they are opting out of Rio to pick up a few extra points.
When players withdraw from the Olympics, it impacts their teammates. The Czech Republic's Lucie Safarova was supposed to play doubles with Pliskova. Radek Stepanek had planned on teaming up with Berdych.
Romania's Horia Tecau is an ATP player ranked No. 326 in singles and No. 11 in doubles. He had hoped to play mixed doubles with Halep. When she withdrew, it left him scrambling to find another partner.
Tecau told the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg:
When I keep hearing about this virus, if you sit down and think about all the stuff that we go through during the year, with everything that’s happening in the world now, there’s a lot of risk everywhere. I think this Zika virus is a very small percentage out of that risk. It’s not a solid enough reason.
In response to a reader's question about how relevant the Summer Games are to tennis, Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim wrote that "commitment to the Olympics means “de-commitment” elsewhere, whether it’s Davis Cup or summer tournaments. Still, I would contend that it’s not a zero-sum. Tennis is stronger for having the Olympics; the Olympics is stronger for having tennis."
In the end, it matters little whether players are skipping the summer games to avoid Zika or withdrawing from other tournaments to rest up for the Olympics. The result is the same. Until the U.S. Open, tennis fans will witness a fractured summer schedule where the full complement of top players is never in the same place at the same time.