Like golf today, tennis’ return to the Olympics in 1988 was met with mixed reactions from top players.
Tennis was eased back into the Games for the first time as a medal sport since 1924. It had been a demonstration sport at the 1968 and 1984 Olympics.
Some top tennis players missed the 1988 Olympics for various reasons one week after the U.S. Open ended.
Start with the men. Eight of the top 10 in the ATP rankings the week of the Olympics did not play in Seoul, but most absences were forced.
Top-ranked Swede Mats Wilander reportedly pulled out due to shin splints two days after winning the longest U.S. Open men’s final in history, a near-five-hour, five-set win over Ivan Lendl.
There was further reason to doubt the seriousness of Wilander’s injury based on comments earlier in 1988.
“An Olympic gold medal wouldn’t be like winning the Davis Cup or a Grand Slam tournament,” Wilander said, according to The Associated Press, conjuring recent comments from Adam Scott, the world No. 7 golfer who is skipping the Rio Games.
Wilander returned from his injury to the ATP Tour during the Olympics, winning an event in Palermo, Italy.
Lendl, then No. 2, didn’t play in Seoul due to reported citizenship issues. He couldn’t get cleared to play for the U.S. in time and wouldn’t play for Czechoslovakia.
The U.S. men’s team was actually chosen in December 1987. It did not include Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.
“There wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm in the U.S., and that kind of hurt the Olympic effort in general,” longtime tennis reporter Peter Bodo said. “On the other hand, the Europeans, as usual, were more Olympic conscious. The U.S. was a little more lukewarm. The Americans were a lot like the golfers are today.”
Agassi was ranked No. 4 the week of the Olympics but was outside the top 20 in December 1987, not high enough given nations could enter a maximum of three singles players per gender in Seoul.
Agassi could have been placed on the U.S. team later on in 1988, as Chris Evert was controversially, but that didn’t happen.
Agassi, Connors and McEnroe “all said they were not interested in participating in the Olympics,” according to The New York Times. McEnroe later said he regretted not playing. Agassi later won gold at Atlanta 1996.
Excluding Lendl, Connors and McEnroe were two of the top three U.S. men in December 1987.
The U.S. men’s singles team in Seoul instead included the other top-ranked U.S. men, Tim Mayotte and Brad Gilbert, and doubles star Robert Seguso, who was ranked in the 130s in singles in December 1987.
Two more top 10 players in 1988, Australian Pat Cash and Frenchman Yannick Noah, missed the Olympics with no widespread reports of injury.
Cash cited family and tournament commitments in July 1988 for backing out of the Olympics, according to The Associated Press, conjuring the recent Rio withdrawal of South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen.
Noah was indifferent toward the Olympics and said tennis players don’t belong at the Games, according to the AP.
In all, seven of the ATP top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul. Most of the absences were due to injuries or ineligibilities, such as the three-players-per-nation rule that limited Americans and Swedes.
Fifth-ranked Boris Becker reportedly said after losing at the U.S. Open with a foot injury that he would go to Seoul “with a broken leg” if he had to. Becker later withdrew due to injury but still planned on attending the Games as a non-participant before that idea was reportedly quashed.
Two more top-20 players — Argentina’s Guillermo Pérez Roldán and Austrian Thomas Muster — played other ATP tournaments instead of the Olympics.
No. 3 Stefan Edberg was the only player in the top nine left to compete in Seoul. He was upset by Czechoslovakia’s Miloslav Mečíř in the semifinals. Mečíř went on to beat Mayotte for gold.
“I don’t really know whether we should be here in tennis, but it is worth giving it a chance,” Edberg said in Seoul, according to the book, “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “It needs some time. … Now here, all the top players aren’t competing so that hurts it a little bit. Plus, we have all the Grand Slam events we play in, and those are the most important right now to us. But this is only played every four years, so there’s nothing wrong with trying it.”
On the women’s side, all but one player ranked in the WTA top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul if they were eligible.
The omission was No. 2 Martina Navratilova, who said it wasn’t essential and that Olympic sponsorship rules made it like the star tennis pros were being treated like children, according to the Chicago Tribune in 1988.
“I don’t think of tennis as a real Olympic sport,” Navratilova said, according to the newspaper. “It has to establish itself.”
Navratilova later did play in the Olympics, falling in the doubles quarterfinals at age 47 at Athens 2004.
Rival Evert wasn’t named to the initial U.S. team in December 1987, even though she was No. 3 in the year-end rankings.
Evert declined then because of a “tense political situation” in South Korea and a scheduled wedding in the fall, according to The New York Times.
Evert, who was engaged to U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Andy Mill, changed her view after watching the Calgary 1988 Winter Games.
”I watched the gold medals being hung over the athletes’ heads in Calgary and tried to relate to that,” Evert said, according to the newspaper. ”I imagined what it would be like for me. I know what it feels like to hold up the Wimbledon plate and the U.S. Open trophy — it’s a great thrill — but no one in tennis knows how it will feel to get a medal in the Olympics.”
Evert was controversially placed on the U.S. team in July 1988, moving up her wedding date and replacing Elise Burgin, who had fallen in ranking from the 60s in December 1987 out of the top 100 due to knee surgery.
Evert joined Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison, all ranked in the top 10, as the U.S. singles players in Seoul. Four more Americans in the top 20 couldn’t play because of the three-per-country rule.
But German Steffi Graf would take gold, completing a calendar Golden Slam after sweeping the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. No other singles player has accomplished that feat in one year.
“I’ve been trying to think about it, to decide whether I really feel included in this Olympics,” Evert said in Seoul, according to “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “So many of the other athletes here — well, for four years, their goal is the Olympics. They have other meets, but all their training is essentially for the Olympics. … We just finished the U.S. Open a week or so ago, and that makes me look around at the other athletes in other sports — they are so hungry for this — and wonder just how many of the tennis players are really that hungry.”
Tennis’ place in the Olympics is now secure, even if it is not seen as equal with the Grand Slams.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all played at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, save Nadal’s health problems that kept him out of London. All are expected in Rio.
Serena Williams has said she would save her Olympic medals first if her house caught fire. Venus Williams rushed her return from Sjögren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disorder, in 2012 to qualify for her fourth Games.
“It was a brilliant stroke to have tennis at Wimbledon [in 2012],” Bodo said. “It’s become legitimate.”