Surface tension: Why some tennis stars are bailing on the Paris Olympics

Surface tension: Why some tennis stars are bailing on the Paris Olympics

WIMBLEDON, England — Rafael Nadal’s special bond with Roland Garros and the record 14 French Open titles he has won there put him in a class of one when it comes to clay-court players.

His decision to skip Wimbledon this year to better prepare for the Paris Olympics, where the tennis tournament will be held at his favorite venue, makes him an outlier twice over.

While Nadal opted to forgo the physical toll of adjusting his body to playing on grass before returning to clay, several of tennis’s biggest names are doing the opposite. Aryna Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion and third-ranked women’s player in the world, had announced she would be skipping the Olympics before she withdrew from Wimbledon on Monday morning with a shoulder injury. Tunisian fixture Ons Jabeur, ranked 10th in the world, won’t return to Paris either, nor will English star Emma Raducanu.

Then there are the U.S. men.

The United States will be without three of its top five male tennis players in Paris. World No. 14 Ben Shelton, No. 21 Sebastian Korda and No. 29 Frances Tiafoe all elected to skip the Olympics in favor of continuing their summer schedule without the disruption it would cause to travel back to France after Wimbledon to play on clay in advance of the North America-based hard-court season, which culminates with the U.S. Open.

Playing in Paris will be No. 12 Taylor Fritz, No. 13 Tommy Paul, No. 46 Marcos Giron, No. 62 Chris Eubanks and world doubles No. 6 Rajeev Ram and No. 19 Austin Krajicek. Fritz will compete in singles as well as doubles alongside Paul, and Ram and Krajicek will partner for doubles.

The U.S. women, in contrast, will send four of the top five Americans to Paris: No. 2 Coco Gauff, No. 5 Jessica Pegula, No. 11 Danielle Collins, No. 17 Emma Navarro and world doubles No. 14 Desirae Krawczyk. Gauff and Pegula will team up for doubles, as will Navarro and Krawczyk. Only No. 13 Madison Keys, who competed in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, won’t play.

In tennis, competing at the Summer Games is a highly personal choice.

Novak Djokovic, who plans to play in Paris this year, wept after winning a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008; Andy Murray sobbed into his towel after claiming his second gold medal in Rio in 2016. Yet it isn’t unheard-of for players to skip out.

Tennis at the Olympics is prestigious but doesn’t carry the same clout as such events as track and field, gymnastics and swimming. Winning a gold medal does not necessarily equate to reaching the sport’s pinnacle. There is no prize money, nor are there rankings points to win, and playing an extra tournament in the middle of an already packed summer could leave players more vulnerable to injury.

This year’s tournament presents the added complication of taking place on clay, throwing off the natural rhythm of the season’s clay-to-grass-to-hard-court procession.

“I’m not going to lie to you: When I saw the Olympics was on clay, I wasn’t pumped about it,” said Paul, who won his first-round match at Wimbledon on Monday, 6-2, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, against Pedro Martinez.

The New Jersey native is nonetheless excited to get the full Olympic experience after playing in the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, which were held in a sort of modified bubble.

“It’s not ideal for anybody, maybe besides, like, Rafa,” he said, referencing Nadal. “It’s going to be another challenge. We’re playing on three surfaces in one month, if you think about it.”

Tiafoe, who also competed in the Tokyo Games, is choosing to skip Paris in favor of preparing for the U.S. Open as he attempts to turn around a disappointing season.

The Maryland native is playing Wimbledon while wearing a sleeve protecting a medial collateral ligament sprain in his right knee and came back from two sets down to beat Italy’s Matteo Arnaldi, 6-7 (7-5), 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, in the first round Monday to notch one of his more impressive victories of the season. His results have been substandard otherwise: He has a 14-14 record in 2024 and hasn’t advanced past the second round of a Grand Slam.

Clay also befuddles Tiafoe like no other surface. His best result at the French Open is the third round, which he reached for the first time last year.

For many Americans reared on hard courts, the stretch leading into the U.S. Open is the most important of the season.

“It just hasn’t been a year that I’ve wanted. I want to get some matches going in, playing on clay — I’ve been in Europe for way too long, I’m missing home a lot. I hate playing on clay. I hate Roland Garros,” Tiafoe said Monday. “… I care way more about the Open, being as prepared for the Open as possible. That was kind of it. But I love playing for my country. I love America, obviously, hence why I’m going back. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy, for sure. It still isn’t. I probably won’t be able to watch any [tennis], to be honest with you.”

For Naomi Osaka, playing at the Olympics is the realization of a childhood dream. The 26-year-old, who plays for Japan, plans to return after lighting the torch as a star of the Tokyo Games. Memories of crowding around the TV with her sister to watch the Olympics are so cherished that she will compete despite the arguable competitive disadvantage.

The four-time Grand Slam champion returned to tennis in January after taking 15 months off for the birth of her daughter, Shai. At Wimbledon on Monday, she needed three sets to beat France’s Diane Parry, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, in the first round.

“We mainly loved watching track. Basically all the sports were fair game,” Osaka said. “I just love being around other athletes. I love, I guess, the team spirit of it all.”

Missing out on that unique fellowship is what Tiafoe laments most about his decision. A die-hard NBA fan, he said he will miss participating in the Opening Ceremonies along with LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, all of whom are a part of the star-studded U.S. men’s basketball lineup.

There is one thing curbing Tiafoe’s fear of missing out: the fact that the 2028 Summer Games are slated for Los Angeles, where the tennis will be on hard courts.

“No question, L.A. for sure,” Tiafoe said, tipping his head back for emphasis. “I’ll be 30; I’m still pushing prime years at that point. L.A. is for sure.”

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