Commentary

Disputes erupt in Olympic choices

Originally Published: June 19, 2012
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

The Olympics are about peace, harmony and international goodwill, but no one said anything about the Olympic selection process. That -- if tennis is any example -- is more about acrimony, conflict and resentment.

Controversies erupted last week as national bodies began announcing their choices, sometimes to the surprise and dismay of the players. The Indian team is locked in all-out warfare over who will be playing with whom in the doubles, while a Fed Cup feud has left Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli sitting at home and the country with no direct entries the women's singles.

Players from several countries, including Belgium, Germany, Sweden and New Zealand, are angry that their Olympic associations are imposing additional criteria for qualifying for the Games, keeping out those who would otherwise be eligible to go.

[+] EnlargeLeander Paes
Mark Kolbe/AFP/Getty ImagesLeander Paes was the subject of irate letters in the Indian delegation.

With the event now carrying ranking points as well as taking up a spot on the calendar, many feel the extra restrictions are exclusionary and unfair. Unlike regular tournaments, where all players need is a high-enough ranking, getting into the Olympics involves a complex combination of ranking, meeting Davis Cup or Fed Cup requirements, beating out any rival compatriots and getting nominated by the national Olympic committee. Given the international ties many players have, sometimes it's not even clear which country they're entitled to represent.

Add in doubles, wild cards and the possibility of withdrawals and last-minute appeals, and there are plenty of players who are still waiting anxiously to learn their final status. The singles draw consists of 56 direct entries and eight wild cards. Spots will be announced June 28.

In the meantime, nations are submitting their selections. The Indian tennis federation sprung a surprise on its players by announcing it was nominating the team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi for the men's doubles. The two have won Grand Slams together in the past and were once nicknamed the "Indian Express," but their relationship has been derailed by personal conflict. Bhupathi made it clear he expected to be paired with Rohan Bopanna, with whom he has played regularly this season.

It's resulted in a storm of leaked emails, scathing comments and even government intervention as Bhupathi and Bopanna have fought to change the selection before final nominations are submitted Thursday. Both are refusing to play with Paes, arguing that their top-15 rankings mean they can both play only if nominated together, while No. 7 Paes has direct entry and could play with any ranked player. The federation's decision "defies logic," Bhupathi argued, because India would be sending only one team instead of two.

But India has no strong fourth doubles player, leading Paes to counter that it would "not be fair" to leave him with a second-string partner when he was the highest-ranked of the three and would be playing his sixth Olympics.

In contrast to this last-minute twist, Bartoli's exclusion was a long time coming, stemming from her refusal to play Fed Cup without bringing along her father and coach -- or, depending on the viewpoint, the French Federation's refusal to let her play Fed Cup if she brought her father and coach along.

As Bartoli remarks, that means she'll be sitting on the grass in her front garden instead of playing on the grass at Wimbledon, where the tennis Olympic tournament will take place just over three weeks after the Championships. The ITF requires players to make themselves available for Davis Cup or Fed Cup twice in the past four years to be eligible for the Olympics, including once in the past two years.

Fellow Frenchwomen Pauline Parmentier and Alize Cornet failed to secure spots when they lost in the first round of the French Open, the last tournament to add ranking points before entries closed on June 11. Cornet broke down in tears after her match, but may be in a good position to get a wild card after winning a tournament last week.

Kevin Anderson (South Africa) and Alexandr Dolgopolov (Ukraine) also have not met Davis Cup requirements on the men's side. Alex Bogomolov, who would now represent his native country of Russia, might need an exception from the ITF to be able to participate. Ksenia Pervak, who began representing Kazahkstan last year, has reportedly run into some problems, while Tamira Paszek, who for various reasons didn't play Fed Cup between 2003 and 2011, looks to be applying for an exception. Players need the support of their federation for such applications.

It's something the U.S women could be relying heavily on. Even Serena Williams isn't official yet. She hasn't met the Fed Cup requirements because of her 2010 injuries and illnesses, though she has hurriedly played the past couple of ties. There is a presumption that the ITF will grant her an exception, particularly because medical problems made it difficult for her to fly at times. Then there's newly minted American Varvara Lepchenko, who has resided in the United States for years but only attained her citizenship last year.

The American men are still in suspense over who might play with Serena Williams if she partakes in the Olympics. Andy Roddick, John Isner and Bob Bryan have all volunteered, though Bob's French Open tryout with her didn't go that well, with the two losing in the first round. The mixed doubles draw is only 16 teams, which will be chosen from those who are already on site for one of the other events.

Some players have fulfilled all the ITF requirements, but their national Olympic committees, trying to keep costs down, are only willing to send those seen as reasonable medal hopes. Belgium is one of those that imposes higher standards and requires players to have reached at least the last 16 of a Grand Slam or a Masters 1000 quarters or be in the top 24. Until David Goffin came along, Belgium faced the prospect of having no men in the competition, because neither Olivier Rochus nor Steve Darcis looked like that had met all the requirements.

It's not an unfamiliar situation. Both had to battle through arbitration for the right to take part in the Beijing Games and might choose to do so again if they can't convince their associations to send them. "I'll pay for my ticket," Rochus said.

Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson appears to be in a similar situation, writing last week, "Been fighting so hard to get this spot in the Olympics and now it's being taken away from me by my own country."

It's the same for some of the German players: Florian Mayer, Philipp Kohlschreiber and perhaps Julia Goerges, who is just one spot short of the top 24 with compatriot Andrea Petkovic's participation in some doubt because of injury.

Ironically, however, the German federation may lobby for a wild card for Tommy Haas, who doesn't come close to meeting the top 24 criteria but won Halle last week and looks capable of making a run on the Wimbledon grass. Last time around, the Germans even managed to circumvent the ITF and grant an ineligible player into the main draw through appeal.

And then there's poor Marina Erakovic, who finds herself short on two fronts: When she and another player did not play a Fed Cup tie last year, New Zealand decided to forfeit the tie, which led to the ITF banning them from this year's competition and subsequently prevented Erakovic from fulfilling her Fed Cup obligations. The New Zealand Tennis Association is appealing, arguing that Erakovic was available, and it was the ITF's own decision that stopped her from playing. It's expected to be allowed, but that's not the end of the story. She also has to satisfy the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which wants to send only players it feels have a chance of reaching the last 16. "I'd really like to go. On a scale of 1 to 10, it is 10,'' she said.

The New Zealand Federation has asked for extended time to make the case for Erakovic's participation, which means her wait could be even longer.

Other players find themselves on the sidelines because they're not high enough in the national pecking order. No matter how many players are ranked high enough for entry, countries are limited to four players per event and six across the singles and doubles. That makes decisions tough for nations with deep fields such as Spain and France on the men's side and Russia and the Czech Republic on the women's.

[+] EnlargeBartoli
Jaxques DeMarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesDoes Marion Bartoli, the No. 9-ranked player, have a legitimate argument about her exclusion from the Olympics?

Spain has five notable players who are excluded by this rule: Feliciano Lopez, Marcel Granollers, Pablo Andujar, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Ramos -- though Lopez and Granollers will be taking part in doubles. The French have three: Michael Llodra, Julien Benneteau and Jeremy Chardy, though Llodra and Benneteau will also be going for doubles. Argentine Leonardo Mayer, the fifth-ranked Argentine, is also out.

The Russians have three notable women out of the top four spots: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ekaterina Makarova, while Iveta Benesova is the fifth-ranked Czech and Mona Barthel the fifth-ranked German.

But the Czechs did avoid one controversy. Like the Indian men, they have three strong doubles players, but avoided selection difficulties when veteran Kveta Peschke, who first played in the Olympics in 2000, stepped aside for the younger players. That will allow the Czechs to send a full complement of four singles and two doubles players.

And there have been some other positive experiences. Aleksandra Wozniak, who missed by one spot last time, just made it in this time by winning her second-round match at the French Open. Yaroslava Shvedova is up 88 spots after reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals as a qualifier, which means she'll get to compete for adopted nation Kazakhstan, which secured her services in 2008.

But for a few right around the cutoff, it's still a mystery. Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, who set the Olympics as his main goal at the start of the season, is one of those right on the bubble. "I still don't know how that thing goes for me," he told the ATP at Queen's. "I'm waiting to see."

But a 15-spot leap two weeks ago put him at No. 72 and gives Bulgaria a chance of being represented at the event, depending on what happens with some of the players whose status is unclear.

Right below him is Malek Jaziri. This would be a nice feel-good story, giving Tunisia its first Olympic spot in the men's singles and Africa its only direct entry.

Tennis' top names, meanwhile, will be prominent on the Olympic stage. The two world No. 1s, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova, have been chosen to carry the flag for Serbia and Russia at the opening ceremonies. Rafael Nadal is also strongly rumored to be Spain's flag bearer, and Roger Federer, despite having already done it twice for Switzerland, remains the country's biggest sportsperson and could well be chosen again.

Further down, however, there are more flags being raised than waved as the Olympic field takes shape.