Anyone who doubts the huge desire of today’s tennis players to compete in the Olympic Games need only raise the subject with any one of them. Some are speechless, some are gushing, but the common characteristic is that all want it very badly indeed. But among these Olympic tennis players, there is a super-elite who have been chosen out of all their country’s competing athletes for one of the most extraordinary roles global sport can bestow – carrying their national flag and leading in their compatriots during the Parade of Nations in the Opening Ceremony itself.
Naturally, the sport’s record-breaker-in-chief Roger Federer was the first tennis player ever to be accorded this incomparable accolade, in Athens eight years ago, and he repeated it in Beijing. He is in the running do it a third time for Switzerland just three weeks hence when London 2012 gets underway; while Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Max Mirnyi and Horia Tecau are certainties to carry the flag for Russia, Spain, Serbia, Belarus and Romania, respectively, on 27 July. It is only when you see these players speak about it that their starry-eyed thrill at the role leaves no doubt that they are knocked sideways to have been chosen.
Nadal, the 2008 singles gold medallist, describes carrying the flag at his third Games as “a true honour”. Sharapova, competing in her first Olympics in the year she has completed her career Grand Slam, was also “so honoured”. Djokovic, a bronze medallist in 2008, smiled that he “need hardly say what a great honour it is”. Mirnyi is “very honoured”. Tecau told the Wimbledon website that he “can’t describe the honour”. Federer, whose doubles gold with Stanislas Wawrinka in Beijing was his first Olympic medal from three Games, has called it “an incredible honour”. Keen-eyed observers will have spotted they all use the same word – because it is simply true.
The latest to learn he has been chosen to carry the flag is doubles specialist Tecau. A Wimbledon finalist with Robert Lindstedt for the last two years, he won the mixed at the Australian Open with Bethanie Mattek-Sands this year.
“My family rang me to say that it was official and it’s going to be me,” smiled Tecau. “I was in shock. Last week a few of us were asked if we would be willing to do it – not everyone can say yes because of the competition schedule. I said yes right away, and it was an honour even to be asked but I never thought it would actually be me. All I can think about is how incredibly
emotional the experience is going to be, and how nervous I will be. It was absolutely my dream to compete in the Olympics, but in doubles the system is that you qualify automatically if you are ranked in the top 10. I am No.11, and I was so glad when I got a wild card into the Games from the ITF. Now this. It is amazing to have been chosen for this role, alongside these other huge names in our sport.”
Sharapova will be the first woman ever to carry Russia’s flag at the Opening Ceremony, and also the first female tennis player from any country. There were plenty of other Russian candidates, not least because Sharapova has lived in Miami since the age of seven, rarely returns to Russia and has only played Fed Cup a few times. But she was instrumental in publicising Sochi’s successful bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and her utter delight at being chosen is transparent.
“It was a huge moment,” she says of the day she received the news, after her third round victory at Roland Garros. “I had to read the text message five times and read it to other people to make sure I got it correct. I was very happy to accept. I had to keep it hush-hush for two weeks and keeping secrets is not my best quality.”
The idea that any Serb other than Djokovic might have been selected was frankly outlandish. Such is his stratospheric popularity in his home nation that compatriot Janko Tipsarevic refers to him as “the President”. Yet there is no mistaking Djokovic’s pride and sense of humility when he describes the Games as “the pinnacle of all sports”, adding: “It is very emotional because it is not just you who matters there, it’s the whole nation.” Djokovic was so moved to win bronze in Beijing that he wept, as did Federer after his doubles gold.
But Federer is not yet a certainty to carry the flag for a third time; the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Fabian Cancellara is a popular choice, but he races the next day so the schedule is against him. Few can doubt how much Federer wants gold at London 2012, where the tennis will be played at the All England Club.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be playing at Wimbledon in the Olympic Games,” he says. “It’s just a really big deal for us to be living that Olympic spirit, right there at the most incredible arena we have in tennis. I’m super-excited and can’t wait.”