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Tennis’ return to Olympics in 1988 faced skeptics, too

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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 AgassiJimmy 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 FedererRafael NadalNovak 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 fireVenus 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.”

VIDEO: Nicklaus, Player concerned about stars skipping Rio

World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

MORE: Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

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