When you look at the past Olympic medalists, it's fairly obvious that the event doesn't follow the form chart. Since tennis returned to the Olympics after a 60-year absence in 1988, the Games produced three gold medalists who had not-and would not-win even a single Grand Slam title: Miloslav Mecir of (then) Czechoslovakia, 1988; Marc Rosset of Switzerland, 1992; Nicolas Massu of Chile, 2004.
That raises the logical question: will we see another Grand Slam have-not emerge triumphant from the unique Olympic cauldron? The leading contenders would be Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, but I see three other intriguing names in the mix. All of them have been playing excellent tennis lately, and for an extended period of time. Each of them won a title just last week. And each of them is seasoned, well built for exploiting the unpredictable nature of the event, and seem capable of handling the pressure of the Olympic assignment. Let's take them in order of ranking.
No. 5 David Ferrer is easily the most overlooked player in the Top 10 on a day-in, day-out basis. He lacks the firepower of Berdych as well as the creativity of Tsonga and the tensile athletic strength of a Murray. He often seems to retreat from the big occasion, instead of taking inspiration to lift his game and level of determination to meet the demand. But Ferrer also is among the most diligent and realistic of pros, and he's been on the cusp of a breakthrough so often that you must believe it could finally happen at the Olympics.
Ferrer is 51-9 on year and has won five titles. The 30-year old is having a career year. As he said after winning Bastad: "It has been the best season of my career. I have never done this well and I am very happy for that. I work hard, I always fight every match and every year I try and improve on my game. I don't work to be in the Top 4. I work to be a better player and nothing else."
Long a staple in that niche right below the Top 4, Ferrer had the best Wimbledon of his career a few weeks ago, with eye-opening wins over Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro before he lost a tense, tight four-setter to Murray (three of the sets went to tiebreakers). He'll be returning to the scene of those quality performances for the Olympics, but this time the matches will be best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five. I think that will be an advantage for Ferrer, who has to work extremely hard for every point he wins, and who seemed to wear down mentally (he simply doesn't break down, physically) in the protracted four-setter with eventual Wimbledon finalist Murray.
The other interesting factor here is that Ferrer's countryman Nadal, the defending gold medalist, has withdrawn from the Games. Overshadowed by Rafa for years now, Ferrer is in a great position to move into the limelight and make the big career statement that has thus far eluded him.
No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic could almost be called a poor man's David Ferrer, even if their styles of play are significantly different. Tipsarevic is consistent, but he's also had trouble producing the headline-generating breakthrough, and treads water one notch below Ferrer. He's also overshadowed by a superstar from his native land; in his case, it's Novak Djokovic. And, most important, Tipsarevic has established himself as a bankable Top 10 player, rather than one of those men who gets a hot hand, makes the big leap, but inevitably backslides to his true level.
Tipsarevic hasn't had outstanding results on grass and that qualifies his chances. His pinpoint shotmaking and low margin of error are better suited to hard courts. But he had a good win over David Nalbandian this year at Wimbledon, before losing in the third round to an excellent grass-court player, Mikhail Youzhny.
Like Ferrer, Tipsarevic returned to clay the week after Wimbledon and promptly won the Stuttgart title (d. No. 14 Juan Monaco in the final). Given that he's capable of electric shotmaking, the win last week ought to have a huge confidence dividend for Tipsarevic, who's apt to be no less stoked by the patriotic element of the Olympics than is his pal, Djokovic. Janko is 28 now, and like Ferrer, he's on the hunt for a career moment to go along with Serbia's 2010 team triumph in that other nationalistic enterprise, Davis Cup.
The best-of-three format also will help Tisparevic, both directly and indirectly. With his mercurial game, he can all but steal matches with a few bursts of shotmaking. At the same time, the main obstacles on the way to the podium, the players ranked above him, can't be penciled in to make the semis as confidently as they are at traditional Grand Slam and Masters events. If chaos reigns, Tipsarevic might benefit. However, you have to question the wisdom of decison to compete on red clay at Gstaad this week.
After his third-round loss to del Potro at the French Open (no shame in that), Cilic won Queen's Club on grass and made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon, losing to Murray. En route, he outlasted Sam Querrey in the second longest match (5:31) in Wimbledon history (after the Isner-Mahut 70-68 epic of 2010)-a marathon that helps explain his relatively meek straight-sets loss in the next round. Cilic then returned home and won at Umag to continue a surge that has lifted his ranking to No. 15.
No question, Cilic will be heading to the Olympics in a great frame of mind. His grass-court game has really clicked, and his powerful serve will certainly help him on the turf. Cilic beat John Isner in the second round of the Madrid Masters, taking a pair of tiebreakers on the red clay. But in general, though, his tiebreaker record this year is relatively poor for a player with such a good serve (9-12 by my count). If he can improve his success rate during the Olympics, he could end up on the podium-as his countryman Goran Ivanisvec did, a bronze medalist at the 1992 games.