Remembering tennis at Seoul ’88


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Steffi Graf shows off her gold medal in 1988

''I wanted the tennis players to rub shoulders with (Edwin) Moses, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, top athletes making money. I pleaded that our professionals not be discriminated against. When I hear about the money these others are making in track, I hope it will make people get off my back, leave my millionaires alone." Former ITF president Philippe Chatrier in 1988

With Wimbledon in the books, tennis fans are now looking forward to the next big event - which is at, well, Wimbledon.

Olympic tennis has now been fully endorsed by the game's top stars and ranking points are being awarded, but that was not the case when the sport returned to the Games after a 64-year absence in Seoul in 1988.

It had been a dream of Chatrier's to get tennis back in the Games and at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 it was presented as a demonstration sport with players under 20 years of age allowed to take part.

The winners of the singles events in LA were a then little-known duo by the names of Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf. By the time 1988 came along, they were superstars who had just won Wimbledon and keen to experience the Games again as full-blown Olympians.

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm, though, with no ranking points or money at stake: Edberg was the only male player who would finish that year in the world's top eight that competed in Korea.

"We do not want a third-class player as Olympic champion,'' said Chatrier in the build-up to the event in Korea, but even people within the sport were questioning whether the sport's top stars should be travelling.

Owen Williams, who was head of World Championship Tennis (the ATP of its day) told the New York Times back then: "I have mixed emotions. Personally, I wouldn't have thought tennis belonged in the Olympics, that a Boris Becker, earning $5 million a year, could play.

"But the IOC is two-faced. The members have deluded themselves for 50 years that they are running an amateur event.''

One player who did not take part was John McEnroe. He still questions just how much the Games actually means to tennis players, but he admits that he regrets not travelling to Korea.

"In a way, I wish that I had played and won a gold, I can't deny that," he said earlier this year.

"But I don't think that any of the players think that it's at the same level - certainly not like the Slams."

Chris Evert did compete in the event, losing in the third round, and admitted she felt like "a kid in a candy store" walking around the Olympic Village - but she also conceded that it was a strange experience.

"I almost felt like an imposter because the other athletes were looking at us tennis players as if they were saying, 'What are you doing here?' because we had our Wimbledon and US Open and French and Australian, and our million dollars," she told the Miami Herald this year.

"These were supposedly amateur athletes who only had one chance every four years."

For the winners in Seoul, though, it proved to be an experience they would never forget; Graf, for one, certainly wouldn't agree with McEnroe's view that the Games means less than the Slams.

She famously won the 'Golden Slam'  in 1988 and says it was her victory in the women's final in Seoul against Gabriela Sabatini and the whole experience in Korea that she remembers most fondly from those amazing 12 months.

"Winning the Olympics is a different experience to winning a Grand Slam. But I have to say that I rate the Olympics higher, I really do," she told the Tennis Space last month.

"The feeling of playing for your country, the camaraderie, all the different sports — it just feels more special.

"I have different memories from that year, and could go through all the matches at the Grand Slams, but arriving in Seoul, and being part of that Olympic feeling, and being in the Village, and being with the other athletes, that was very special. Those are probably my strongest memories."

The winner of the men's event was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia and he was never going to turn down an invite to the Games. In fact, he was annoyed that he did not get to take part in LA four years earlier.

"I had been looking forward to going (to Los Angeles) but the Eastern Bloc was boycotting," he told the BBC.

"I could never mix politics with sports - it goes against my mentality. I was really unhappy that I couldn't go. I was playing a tournament in the US during the Olympic Games and it was a sad time. It was strange that I could play in the ATP tournament but I couldn't go to the Olympics.

"The atmosphere at the Games when I finally got there four years later, well, I felt everything. I didn't feel like a tennis player in Seoul, I felt like a sportsman."

It seems like word of mouth from the players who have competed at the Games as much as anything else has made the Olympics so popular with the biggest names on the circuit.

Megastars of the game like Andre Agassi (Atlanta 1996) and Rafael Nadal (Beijing 2008) have cited winning Olympic gold as highlights of their career.

Having tennis in the Olympics has also been credited as one of the key reasons why it has become one of the globe's most international of sports.

"As recently as 1980 the ITF only had 104 member nations — of which 51 were competing in the Davis Cup. Now we have 205 member nations and have had as many as 130 countries competing in the Davis Cup," ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti told the Wall Street Journal two years ago.

"One of the reasons for that boom was tennis's return to the Olympics. The Games holds a special place in many countries, such as the old Eastern Bloc and also in Asia, and in those places a lot of the public funding is centred on the Olympic sports."

Whether tennis should be in the Olympics is a different debate. Tramlines has said in the past that it does not really think it worthy of a spot, but there is no doubt it has come a long way as an Olympic sport since the pre-tournament controversy in 1988.

Certainly Mecir, the first post-war men's Olympic champion, says that today's players should be excited about going back to SW19 so soon after this year's Slam at Wimbledon.

"It's great that Wimbledon will host the Olympic tennis in London. I think combining the tradition of Wimbledon as a Grand Slam with the Olympics coming to the venue will be fantastic.

"I cross my fingers for the players at the Games, it's a fantastic feeling to be there, to compete and to be part of the biggest sports movement in the world. If I had to say one thing to them it would be 'give your heart to the Games'."

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