LONDON (Reuters) - Twenty-four years after it was reintroduced to the Games, Olympic tennis may well have peaked.
Hosted at Wimbledon, featuring its strongest ever starting line-up and wrapped up with the crowning of a home champion, London will be a hard act to follow for Rio de Janeiro.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be another Olympic Games in such a venue. So it’s definitely a very special moment,” said Victoria Azarenka of Belarus after collecting bronze in the women’s singles and gold in the mixed doubles.
Dropped from the Games after 1924, Olympic tennis has gradually risen in prominence since making its return in 1988, despite regular questions about its inclusion.
London saw 18 of the world’s top 20 men and 19 of the top 20 women among the competitors.
Of the four players who reached the singles finals, three - Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer - were looking to complete the ‘golden slam’ of adding an Olympic gold to all four grand slam titles.
“Tennis really belongs at the Olympics. We are athletes just as all these other amazing athletes are,” said Williams, who won gold in both the women’s singles and, with sister Venus, in the doubles.
“There are so many great tennis players that deserve ... to have an event at the Olympics and come and have a chance to compete for what I think is the biggest prize for an athlete, which is a gold medal.”
Despite grand slam titles being viewed as the real hard currency in tennis, player after player gushed over how much winning a medal for their country would mean.
For Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, making her Olympic debut despite being 15 years into her career and on the verge of retiring for a second time, it was the passion of big name players such as Federer which motivated others.
“It’s like a virus, it spreads,” said the 29-year-old.
“You hear someone like Roger Federer talk about it, he has won so many grand slams but he wants a gold medal.”
Without the presence of the Williams sisters and 17-time grand slam champion Federer, in most people’s book the greatest player of all time, Olympic tennis may lack the same pull.
While none of the three has ruled out competing in Rio, they are likely to be well past their peak if they do.
The Williams sisters, the first tennis players to win four Olympic golds each, have both battled injury and illness, with 32-year-old Venus returning to the tour in March after seven months off struggling with Sjogren’s Syndrome, a fatigue-inducing autoimmune disease.
The men’s doubles winners, U.S. twins Bob and Mike Bryan, described their Olympic gold as “the biggest win of our career” despite already having 11 grand slam titles under their belts. They will be 38 by the time Rio comes around.
While others will come up behind them, the likes of Federer, who has spent more time as world number one than anyone in the Open era, will be hard to match.
The 30-year-old, who already had a doubles gold medal from Beijing, missed out on an elusive singles gold after losing in the final to Britain’s Andy Murray.
Although Rio will host an ATP World Tour event from 2014, Brazil is not yet home to any significant tennis tournaments.
In contrast, the All England Club, which has held the Wimbledon championships since 1877, is the only grand slam venue to have hosted the Olympics - a huge draw to players.
“It’s the best tennis venue in the world,” said America’s Andy Roddick. “It’s a place that I know well ... All things combined, it was a great opportunity.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan