Why tennis does not need the Olympics

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The Independent Online
Professional tennis demands that competitors are individualistic and self-centred, although an esprit de corps usually surfaces for team events such as the Davis Cup.

During the weekend there were four notable absentees beneath the Stars and Stripes. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Jim Courier declined to assist the United States, the defending champions, against the Czech Republic in their quarter-final in Prague. The Americans lost the tie 3-2.

Traditionally a cornerstone of the sport, the Davis Cup has been in American hands on a record 31 occasions since Dwight Davis, of Harvard, purchased the silver punchbowl from a Boston jeweller at the turn of the century.

Down the years, some American players have been more enthusiastic about the competition than others.

Jimmy Connors sued Arthur Ashe in 1975 for saying he was "seemingly unpatriotic" in refusing to play for his country. The action was dropped, and Connors later became a mercurial team member under Ashe's captaincy.

Each of the current crop of Americans has played a part in the nation's Davis Cup success to varying degrees. Sampras, for example, who froze when confronted with the French in the 1991 final in Lyon, heroically lifted his team to triumph against the Russians in Moscow last December.

Although Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang decided separately to opt out, the common reason, apparently, was fatigue control. With the tennis season virtually continuous nowadays, leading players endeavour to be at their best for the four Grand Slam championships and the main tour events on a crowded calendar.

Sampras and Agassi, who insist that the physical cost of participating in the Cup matches last year was more than they are prepared to pay, go so far as to suggest that the Davis Cup should be suspended during Olympic Games years and only be held once every two years.

The irony ought not to be lost on the International Tennis Federation. Having campaigned so hard for tennis to be restored as an Olympic medal event in 1988, the ITF now finds that the lure of gold is threatening to diminish one of its crown jewels.

It is understandable that Sampras, Agassi and Courier are keen to shine on home courts in Atlanta in July (the Olympics do not feature on Chang's itinerary), but excitement may have clouded their judgment.

Rather than raising doubts about the Davis Cup, which is an integral part of the sport's inheritance and has grown to embrace 124 nations - only one of them being the United States - perhaps we should review the relevance of tennis in the Olympics.

The chief benefit of being a part of the world's greatest festival of sport, the ITF points out, is that it affords tennis wider recognition and encourages funding for national associations in developing countries.

For the players, the Olympics offers an opportunity to mix with athletes from less privileged sports, many of whom have worked for years for one shot at glory. The highlight of Jennifer Capriati's unhappy professional life was not simply the winning of a gold medal in Barcelona four years ago, but the sheer joy of being a teenager among teenagers in the Olympic Village.

Fine. But any professional sport which boasts four major international championships and year-long tours for men and women, plus the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup, would appear to have more than enough already.

It is perhaps worth recalling why tennis left the Olympic movement in the first instance.

By all accounts, the tennis event was treated shabbily at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Afterwards the international governing body set out a list of proposals. These were rejected by the International Olympic Committee.

One proposal stipulated that the holding of the Olympic Games should not cancel or supersede any officially recognised tennis championships or competitions in the same year, and that the Olympic Games should not be regarded as the championships of the world in lawn tennis.

The crux of it was that the IOC had suggested that the Wimbledon championships should not be held in any Olympic year.