Thursday, December 20, 2007

Olympic Hopefuls: A Tale of Two No. 1's

Exhibit A: Justine Henin, world No. 1, reigning Roland Garros and US Open champion, defending Olympic gold medalist in singles. About a month-and-a-half ago, she announced that she might not participate in the Olympics next year in Beijing because of her asthma. Air pollution being what it is there and her concern made some sense. Of course, there were many who speculated that there were other, more pertinent, reasons why she would skip the 2008 Olympic games.

But now she intends to participate, says her coach Carlos Rodriquez. Problem is, she doesn't intend to play Fed Cup and the ITF says that a player must be available to play Fed Cup in order to play the Olympics. So what does the Belgian tennis federation do for their top player? Apply a liberal interpretation of the rules to give Justine an exception. All she has to do, according to the deal, is make herself available for Fed Cup, she doesn't have to play, and her spot on the Olympic team is a foregone conclusion. "We called on the goodwill of the federation and the Olympic Committee so that Justine can play the Olympics in the best possible circumstances," Carlos said. Given Justine's up-and-down history with the Belgian federation, this represents a happy ending.

Exhibit B: Marion Bartoli, world No. 10, Wimbledon runner up, top Frenchwoman. The first Fed Cup tie France plays in 2008 will take place is none other than Beijing. Bartoli has no intention of traveling there in February, choosing to stay home and prepare for the winter European indoor swing. Just as Amélie Mauresmo also intends to do.

So what does the French tennis federation do for their top player? Publicly announce that if Bartoli doesn't play Fed Cup in Beijing, she won't play the Olympics either. "If Marion Bartoli was selected by the captain and she refused this selection she would exclude herself from participating in the Olympic Games," explained national technical director Patrice Dominguez.

Here's the thing: I have no idea if Bartoli even wants to play the Olympics since her camp has made no announcement of any kind. Safe to say, though, that she has probably made her intentions clear to someone in France, otherwise why a public announcement of the ultimatum by the federation?

I know Bartoli is unwelcome on the Fed Cup team because she wants her father around and the French federation does not. And while I certainly don't know Dr. Bartoli personally, I've never seen him do anything untoward in any of Marion's matches, nothing at all to suggest he would be a problem for her French teammates, in the same way that Yuri Sharapov might have been for his daughter's Russian teammates on the Fed Cup squad.

But at the end of the day, wouldn't France want to put itself in the best possible position to win Olympic medals in Beijing? Outside of Amélie, doesn't Marion stand as good a chance as anyone else the French would select to bring home some hardware?

There's always more to every story than meets the eye and a lot can happen between now and next August, but I find the French federation's public ultimatum tacky at best.

What say you?


MMT said...

My guess is the money's in Beijing for the Belgian federation, but for the French federation it's in Fed Cup.

For the players, I'm sure none of them are too interest in Fed Cup, but the Olympics could be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, so they all want Beijing.

Since Belgium are in World Group II and Henin will probably never play Fed Cup again, this deal makes sense to get her to China where they have their best shot at a medal. She make herself available, but doesn't get selected, and she goes to China - everybody wins.

For the French, they've got a shot at the Fed Cup, so she would get picked, but she's likely to come up with a fake injury. To avoid this, they put public pressure on her to do both Fed Cup (which they really want) and the Olympics (which she really wants). They don't want to be holding the bag, if she comes up with a phony injury, so they pressure her publicly. It will work, because Bartholi's 15 minutes could be up any day now, and any athlete would love to play in the Olympics.

MMT said...

Sorry to be a cynic, but that's my take.

Craig Hickman said...

I love cynics.

Especially when they make sense. ;)