Who we put on the podium in Rio wasn’t who we thought …but maybe exactly who we needed. (in other words, we’ll take that mixed-doubles gold!)
Written by Kyle Magin
These weren’t the Americans you expected in Rio.
The 2016 Stars and Stripes tennis contingent looked like star(s) and scrubs on paper.
We sent our best–maybe the best ever–in World No. 1 Serena Williams, plus sister Venus Williams (No. 6) and Madison Keys (No. 9). I don’t have to tell you which gender supplied the scrubs, with Steve Johnson (No. 22) taking the courts in Brazil as the U.S. standard-bearer.
The narrative was expected to go something like this: Serena winning gold in singles and maybe doubles, too, with her sister’s stiff-but-animated corpse accompanying her to the podium for a second time. Maddie and Venus would put on a good show and maybe make it to the medal rounds in singles, given a good draw, savvy play and some luck.
On the men’s side–well, play hard, boys. See what you can do.
Instead, Serena, and the Williamses as a duo, were bounced early. What emerged in their wake was a bloody, bruised–and proud—roster of misfit toys, a collection of brawlers who weathered some of the most devastating shots the world had to offer and acquitted themselves quite well in the process.
Steve Johnson, 26, the former USC Trojan who is probably the greatest NCAA singles competitor in history, teamed with Dickensian
scamp 22-year old Jack Sock for a straight set men’s doubles bronze in a tournament that seemed to favor hand-to-hand combatants rather than tennis players, with most of the points decided within feet of the net rather that clean aces or artful volleys.
(Also, sock = best dude ever — see: below.)
Johnson’s fight wasn’t contained to the doubles court. In the semifinals, he stared down Great Britain’s Andy Murray in a beast of a three-set match where he pushed the defending gold medalist, a three-time major champion, to the brink of elimination in a frankly exhausting-looking final frame before losing 7-6 (7-2). For Murray it looked every bit as taxing as his great showdowns with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Johnson didn’t leave Rio with a singles medal, but he did leave with his head held high.
His isn’t the most unlikely story of an American tennis man in Rio, though. That would belong to Rajeev Ram, who you will now Google and guess to be neither a Carmel, Indiana native nor a 32-year old who is anything besides a remarkably spry economics professor. Ram–appearances and name recognition notwithstanding–is one half of one of the American mixed-doubles duos vying for a gold medal in Rio. His counterpart? None other than Venus Williams. The 36-year old Williams is chasing what will likely be her last title of any sort in her likely last Olympics. Ram is everything Williams is not; namely known.
The former NCAA doubles champion, at Illinois of all places, is a career back-court tournament player, a doubles specialist who has never been past the semifinals at any major in that capacity, and some guy who gets knocked out early at every tournament in singles, where he’s ranked No. 56 worldwide. Yet somehow, this persistent journeyman has earned the quietest $3 million in American professional sports and stands as a weird testament to finding one’s niche and working your ass off at it.
If tennis had timecards, Ram’s would be the first one into the ATP’s accounting office every other Friday.
Together with the other Williams, the mixed-doubles duo forms a collective 12-foot 5-inch wall of limbs and rackets on the doubles court. Few things have been as oddly pleasing as watching Ram lope over to return serve before Williams pounces and puts opponents away in the forecourt. What’s most impressive is the two have never played together before. If the pair beats Sock and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final, it’ll be as satisfying as any weird off-brand medal can be during the quadrennial.
Keys–as the tall, dark Floridian is apt to do–stands out as the one true Cadillac in the sea of F-150s that were America’s late-round competitors in Rio. The 21-year old played like a 21-year old, blowing the doors off her competition throw the quarterfinals, dropping just two sets in as dominating a tournament as she’s put together so far in her bright young career. From there, though, she managed to win just one set between a semifinal loss and a 2-1 defeat in the bronze medal match. Her losses were plagued by inconsistent brilliance, but there’s no question that she’s the future of US women’s tennis, and that future is bright.
So, even if the Johnson-Sock bronze and the mixed doubles gold is the only hardware US tennis leaves Rio with, keep a chin up. The young Americans earned their black eye in the most lunchpail possible way–WITHOUT Serena–on Brazil’s lime-green everything courts. That’s something to be proud of.