August 18, 2004: The day US tennis lived a nightmare in Athens
- 18 Aug 2020
Disaster for US tennis : What happened exactly on that day
On this day, August 18, 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 Bob and Mike Bryan, who were the No 1 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 at tennis now relied on unseeded players Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent in men’s singles, and on 47-year old Martina Navratilova who was competing in doubles with Lisa Raymond.
The players : An impressive US Olympic team
Andy Roddick was born in 1982. He had been world No 1 in 2003, his best year on the tour with a highlight victory at the US Open where he defeated Spaniard 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, he could not enjoy the No 1 spot very long. In August 2004, he was still 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 kmh) bomb on Alex Volcthkov 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 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, and her ranking dropped down to No 15.
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 she 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 was born in 1976. She climbed as high as world No 1 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 Arantxa Sanchez, from Spain. Although injuries prevented her from consistently staying in the top 10, she remained a solid top 20 player, clinching 7 titles and reaching the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros in 2000 and 2004.
The Bryan brothers were the No 1 doubles team in the world in August 2004. In the past 18 months, they had claimed 10 titles, including Roland-Garros 2003, which was their first Grand Slam success. They had also finished runner-up at the 2003 US Open as well as the 2004 Australian Open. They were the No 1 seed at the Athens Olympic Games.
The place : The Olympic Tennis Centre, Athens
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the tennis event took place on hardcourt, at the Olympic Tennis Centre, which housed ten courts. For the first time, the Olympic tournament allocated ATP ranking points to the players, hoping to attract the top players, without much success : 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 (n°6), Lleyton Hewitt (n°8), David Nalbandian (n°9) and Gastón Gaudio (n°10). In the women’s draw, former world No 1 Serena Williams had withdrawn at the last moment. In total, 172 players competed in 4 events.
The facts : The worst-case scenario
At the 2004 Olympics, in Athens, the United States had arrived with good hopes of obtaining a couple of medals. The country had dominated the men’s game in the 1990’s, producing several No 1 players and numerous Grand Slam winners, while the Williams sisters dominated the first years of the 2000’s. At the 2000 Olympics, in Sydney, 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 and Mary Joe Fernandez had won the doubles event. In one word, leaving the Olympics without a medal was not something that the American team could have imagined.
Yet, on August 18, the worst-case scenario suddenly looked highly possible. In the men’s draw, world No 2 Andy Roddick, America’s best hope for a medal, especially since his nemesis, Roger Federer, had lost in the second round, was eliminated by Fernando Gonzalez, from Chile. Gonzalez, one of the hardest punchers 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 French two-time Grand Slam champion (she had triumphed at the Australian Open in 1995 and at Roland-Garros in 2000) delivered a vintage performance, firing winners in every direction, to edge Williams, 6-4 6-4.
Another French player, Amélie Mauresmo, No 2 seed, put an end to Chanda Rubin’s adventure in Athens, 6-3 6-1, while Lisa Raymond was defeated by Alicia Molik, from Australia (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 world No 1 team, 7-5 6-4.
According to post-gazette.com, Zina Garrison, the captain of the US 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 running for a medal in doubles with her partner, Martina Navratilova.
Lisa Raymond and Martina Navratilova were defeated in the quarterfinals of the doubles event by Shinobu Asagoe and Ai Sugiyama, from Japan (6-4 4-6 6-4).
In singles, not only would America clinch a medal, but the worst-case scenario would be close to turn into a dream for Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent. Dent would lose a close bronze medal match against Gonzalez (again!), 6-4 2-6 16-14.
Meanwhile, 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.