Play for Pride, Not Points in Olympic Tennis

What does a combination of pure joy and absolute disbelief look like?

The look on Mónica Puig’s face as she flung her neon yellow Babolat Pure Aero onto hallowed Olympic ground, raised two fists in the air and marveled at her unbelievable achievement. The scrappy, passionate 22-year-old, ranked number 35 in the world at the start of Olympic tennis, had just become the Cinderella champion of a draw laden with major champions, including four-time gold medalist Serena Williams.

As Puig sank to the ground in amazement, she rejoiced not due to any gain in Women’s Tennis Association ranking points that would rocket her to the top of the tour, but because she was overwhelmed with the weight of the pride she had brought to the country she loves. Puig had just become the first ever Olympic gold medalist from Puerto Rico. She would hear her national anthem in an Olympic stadium. Her fellow Puerto Ricans would see their flag raised.

“I just wanted to tell them that this is for them,” a tearful Puig said to her compatriots. “I think I just united a nation. I just love where I come from.”

That is the magic of Olympic tennis. The Olympics don’t offer points towards players’ rankings or prize money — instead, the greatest players in the world play with the utmost sportsmanship for the love of the game and to bring pride to their countries.

However, not all of the greatest players in the world chose to compete in this year’s games. Three of the men’s tour’s top ten players did not compete in Rio. While some cited concerns about Zika virus, many also complained that because no ranking points or prize money were offered, there was really no point in competing.

John Isner, the highest-ranking American male tennis player, said that the lack of ranking points was a “very, very big factor” in his decision not to play in the Olympics. Isner instead chose to stay behind and take advantage of some depleted draws in tour events that occurred during the Olympics.

Sam Querrey, another American man who would have qualified for the Olympic team but abstained, said that not only did he not feel the need to play in Rio, he doesn’t believe tennis belongs in the Olympics at all. According to Querrey, tennis is not a sport like gymnastics, in which the Olympics is the pinnacle, and tennis’ inclusion just distracts fans from those sports that need the Olympics. Tennis players and fans care more about the Grand Slams anyway.

Isner and Querrey aren’t the only critics of Olympic tennis. Other detractors say that the method of formulating the draw is awed. No country is allowed to have more than four players in one draw. In 2016, this meant that France, which has eight players in the men’s top 50, was forced to leave four stars at home. But the limit on team size is meant to promote international diversity. It allows someone like Stephanie Vogt of Lichtenstein, who qualified for the draw in Rio even though she ranks 291 in the world, to give her home country a reason to tune in to tennis. The international diversity of the Olympics has boosted tennis worldwide. International Tennis Federation President David Haggerty cited the Olympic spirit as the reason that the number of nations who belong to the federation increased 40 percent between 1988 and 2016.

Some players implied that it is not worth it for them to take time out to play the Olympics during the grueling home stretch of Grand Slam season, between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. However, Andy Murray was more than able to handle the physical stress. Murray won a second straight gold medal in Rio, then immediately hopped on a plane to Cincinatti and made it to the final of a crucial U.S. Open lead-up tournament, the Western & Southern Open, earning a handsome $409,270 in prize money.

Others say that the Fed Cup and Davis Cup are international competition enough for tennis players, or that the Olympics should become a team event mimicking the Davis Cup format. But the beauty of the Olympics is that it allows players to compete for both individual and national glory. And it mixes up the multi-national doubles pairings usually seen on the tour in favor of putting together new combinations of players to compete under the same flag.

Naysayers who still believe that Olympic tennis is pointless without ranking points may have been surprised to see Mónica Puig’s reception at the U.S. Open. Thousands of Puerto Rican New Yorkers flocked to Flushing Meadows to see their star’s first round match. Even when Puig fell behind China’s Saisai Zheng, sailing balls long against Zheng’s biting slice, the crowd stayed behind her. With Puig down 5-2 in the second set, about to be defeated, the crowd swelled with chants of “Sí se puede! Sí se puede!” — yes we can.

Puig didn’t need the incentive of ranking points to fight for her country’s first ever Olympic championship. Today, she is still ranked number 35 in the world. But she has an army of adoring Puerto Ricans behind her wherever she goes. Even though they are struggling with an economic crisis and widespread poverty, her amazing run made them believe that anything is possible. All because one woman played, not for ranking points, but for passion and pride — and for gold.