August 18, 2004: The day American tennis lived through a nightmare in Athens
Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On this day in 2004, American tennis lost a majority of their medal contenders at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens
Disaster for American tennis : What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, August 18 in 2004, the United States Olympic tennis team went through a catastrophic day in Athens. Six of its members were eliminated on that terrible Wednesday : Andy Roddick (world No 2), Venus Williams (world No 13), Chanda Rubin (No 22) and Lisa Raymond (No 40) were all ousted of the singles event, while the Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, who were the top-ranked team in the world, were defeated by Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu, from Chile, in the doubles draw. The only hopes for an American medal in tennis now relied on unseeded players Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent in the men’s singles, and on 47-year-old Martina Navratilova who was competing in the women’s doubles with Lisa Raymond.
The players : A star-studded American tennis team
- Andy Roddick: the reigning US Open champion
Andy Roddick was born in 1982. He had been world No 1 in 2003, his best year on the ATP tour highlighted by a victory at the US Open where he defeated Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final (6-3, 7-6, 6-3). With the rise of Roger Federer as the new leader on the tour, Roddick could not enjoy the No 1 spot for very long. In August 2004, he was still ranked No 2 in the world, and he had just finished runner-up to Federer at Wimbledon (4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4). His main weapon was his massive serve. In fact, he was about to break the record of the fastest serve in tennis history by firing a 155 mph (249.5 kmph) bomb against Vladimir Voltchkov in a Davis Cup tie in September 2004. He also had a powerful forehand and displayed great athleticism and fighting spirit on court.
- Venus Williams: the four-time Grand Slam champion
Venus Williams was born in 1980. She had become world No 1 in February 2002, a few months after she had claimed two Grand Slam titles in 2001 at Wimbledon (defeating Justine Henin, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0) and at the US Open (edging her younger sister, Serena, 6-2, 6-4). She stayed at the spot for 11 weeks, before she was upset by her sister, who beat her in four consecutive major finals, from the 2002 French Open to the 2003 Australian Open. Serena edged her again in the 2003 Wimbledon final (4-6, 6-4, 6-2). Venus then missed the entire end of 2003, and in 2004, she struggled to come back to her best level, losing to Karolina Sprem in the second round of Wimbledon (7-6, 7-6). It was the worst result she had obtained at the All England Club since her first-round loss in 1997, as a result of which her ranking dropped down to No 15.
- Lisa Raymond: the former top-ranked doubles player with three-time Grand Slam winner
Lisa Raymond was born in 1973. In singles, she reached her best ranking as world No 15, in 1997. She claimed four titles and reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals, the first one at Wimbledon in 2000, and the second one at the Australian Open in 2004. She was much more successful in doubles. She had claimed three Grand Slam titles already, and became world No 1 in 2000, a spot she secured for 67 weeks at the time. In 2004, she was playing with Martina Navratilova, and together they reached the semi-finals at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon.
- Chanda Rubin: the former top 10 player and Grand Slam doubles winner
Chanda Rubin was born in 1976. She climbed as high as world No 6 in 1996, after reaching the Australian Open semi-final (defeated by Monica Seles, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5), which remained her best Grand Slam performance. That year, in Melbourne, Rubin triumphed in doubles, claiming her only major title, partnering Spain’s Arantxa Sanchez. Although injuries prevented her from consistently remaining in the top 10, she remained a solid top 20 player, clinching seven titles and reaching the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros in 2000 and 2004.
- The Bryan Brothers: the twins who topped the doubles rankings
The Bryan brothers were the No 1 doubles team in the world in August 2004. Over the past 18 months, they had claimed 10 titles, including Roland-Garros in 2003, which was their first Grand Slam success. They had also finished runner-up at the 2003 US Open and the 2004 Australian Open. They were the top seeds at the Athens Olympic Games.
The place : The Olympic Tennis Centre in Athens
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the tennis event took place on hardcourts at the Olympic Tennis Centre, which housed 10 courts. For the first time, the Olympics allocated ATP ranking points to tennis players, in a bid to attract the top players but this initiative was met with a mixed response : despite the presence of world No 1 Roger Federer and world No 2 Andy Roddick, many stars were missing from the men’s draw : Guillermo Coria (No 3), Andre Agassi (No 6), Lleyton Hewitt (No 8), David Nalbandian (No 9) and Gaston Gaudio (No 10). In the women’s draw, former world No 1 Serena Williams had withdrawn at the last moment. In total, 172 players competed in four events.
The facts : The worst-case scenario for U.S. tennis
At the 2004 Olympics, in Athens, the American tennis team had arrived with good hopes of winning at least a couple of medals. The country had dominated the men’s game in the 1990s, producing several No 1 players and numerous Grand Slam winners, while the Williams sisters dominated the early years of the 2000s. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Venus had clinched the gold medal in both singles and doubles, partnering with Serena. In 1996, in Atlanta, Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport had triumphed in singles, while Gigi Fernandez and Mary Joe Fernandez had won the doubles event.
The American tennis team leaving the Olympics without a medal was not something many would have imagined. Yet, on August 18, that worst-case scenario suddenly looked highly probable. In the men’s draw, world No 2 Andy Roddick, America’s best medal hope, especially after his nemesis, Roger Federer, had lost in the second round, was defeated by Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez. Gonzalez, one of the hardest hitters on the tour, played amazing tennis, taking high risks to upset Roddick (6-4, 6-4), who explained later : “When I saw he was playing offense on my offense, I knew it was going to be a long day.” A-Rod did not try to hide his disappointment: “I cared a lot. It’s not the biggest thing in our sport, but it’s the biggest thing in sports.”
Venus Williams was not as talkative as Roddick, after she had been defeated by Mary Pierce. The two-time Grand Slam champion from France (Australian Open, 1995 and Roland-Garros, 2000) delivered a vintage performance, firing winners in every direction to edge Williams 6-4, 6-4.
Another French player, Amelie Mauresmo, the second seed, put an end to Chanda Rubin’s adventure in Athens 6-3, 6-1, while Lisa Raymond was defeated by Australia’s Alicia Molik 6-4, 6-4.
In doubles, the Bryan brothers, who were the favorites to claim the Olympic gold medal, were as unlucky as Roddick, as they also crossed the path of Fernando Gonzalez. The Chilean, with his partner Nicolas Massu, played another great match to prevail against the top-ranked duo 7-5, 6-4.
According to post-gazette.com, Zina Garrison, the captain of the U.S. tennis team, commented succinctly : “Just a pretty rough day for Americans.”
At the end of this rough day, their hope for a medal in singles now relied on unseeded players Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent, whereas Lisa Raymond was still in the running for a medal in doubles with Martina Navratilova.
What next? Mardy Fish flies the flag high for American tennis in Athens
Lisa Raymond and Martina Navratilova were defeated in the quarter-finals of the doubles event by the Japanese pairing of Shinobu Asagoe and Ai Sugiyama 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
However, Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent turned it around for the Americans. Dent would lose a close bronze medal match against Gonzalez (again!), 6-4 2-6 16-14 while Fish would obtain the silver medal, finishing runner-up to another Chilean, Nicolas Massu, who prevailed after a five-set battle, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.