The Olympics only come every four years, and they have everything: precious metals, prestige, and national pride, along with extremely fit and horny women.
That’s good enough for most top players. 18 of the top 20 men are slated to participate, and nearly every player in the 64-man draw is ranked inside the top 100. This is a Masters-quality field, if not a touch better.
But aside from status and off-court perks, the competitors will not be rewarded accordingly. The ATP treats the Olympic singles event as less than a Masters tournament, giving the winner 750 ranking points and the runner-up 450. As Ben Rothenberg has pointed out, that means the silver medalist–probably one of the top four players in the world–will receive fewer points that week than the winner in Washington. Only one player in top 20 (Mardy Fish) is scheduled to compete in the US event.
More players should have made the sensible decision, skipping the Olympics in favor of Washington, perhaps adding Los Angeles or Kitzbuhel as well. Ranking points are as cheap at those events as they are expensive in London.
At a gut level, it’s unthinkable to skip the Olympics. All those intangibles count for a lot. If you’re a top-ten player, a few hundred extra ranking points wouldn’t make much of a difference, and an extra $50,000 in prize money barely registers. For mid-packers, though, “intangibles” sounds like a cynical euphemism for no money and a mediocre ranking boost.
Consider the case of Mardy Fish, the highest ranked player to opt for Washington over London. Based on a simulation of possible Olympic draws (see below for details), Fish could expect to net about 80 ranking points at the Olympics. The odds would favor him to win an opener, give him a decent shot at reaching the round of 16, and then turn against him. Two or three matches, no prize money, not much national pride.
In Washington, the story is much different. There, Fish is the runaway favorite. If he’s healthy (a big if), he has at least a 1 in 5 chance of winning the tournament. By my simulation, he can expect to gain 176 ranking points (with, of course, a decent chance of as many as 500), along with a cool $72,000.
An even more instructive example is that of Donald Young. Young is in the midst of a horrible losing streak, and he’ll head to London with a roughly 2 in 3 chance of heading home without a single victory. Expected ranking points: 24.
For Young, more is at stake than a few thousand dollars in prize money. He reached the semis in Washington last year, so he is defending 180 points this week. Losing all of those points will probably knock him out of the top 80. There’s a big difference between a ranking in the 50s and one in the 80s: The first gets you direct entry into almost every tournament; the second leaves you in qualifying (unseeded, sometimes!) for most Masters. Had Young elected to play Washington, he could have expected to defend at least half of his points. That wouldn’t just earn him about $30,000 for his week’s work, it would give him a ranking that would make it enormously easier for him to earn points and prize money for the next several months.
The American’s situation is unique in that he may be at a crossroads in his career. But the same reasoning applies to every player who doesn’t feel like he has a legitimate shot at a medal. The odds are against Radek Stepanek reaching the second round in London–he’ll lose almost all of the 500 points he’s defending from last year’s Washington title. Or Carlos Berlocq: It’d be hard to back the dirtballing counterpuncher at a grass-court challenger. He could’ve spent next week as a top-four seed on clay, at Kitzbuhel.
Maybe for Stepanek, Berlocq, or even Young, the experience will be worth it. But every scheduling decision made by a player–especially a veteran–has an impact on his prospects for months to come. Is the experience worth dropping down to qualifying at the next several Masters-level events? Would missing the experience be acceptable in exchange for getting a cheap ranking boost and earning a seed at the U.S. Open?
As much as it goes against our nationalist, media-driven instincts, Mardy Fish, Alexander Dolgopolov, and a very small number of other non-Olympians made the smart choice. As the first-round losers start to pile up next weekend in London, Washington will look like an excellent place to be.
After the jump, find a quick explanation of my tournament simulations, along with expected ranking points and prize money for top players in Washington and London.