We all know that the French Open is the most prestigious clay court event in the world, and it will probably stay that way as long as the sport of tennis exists. Careers of elite players are determined by Grand Slam victories. Even though Andy Murray is a far superior tennis player, Gauston Gaudio is still a member of an elite club that Murray has not yet joined.
However, for the lower-ranked players the Slams don’t quite mean as much. While a player like Federer or Murray (or any of the top 5-10) would happily trade away a few smaller titles for farther runs at Slams, that’s not so true of lower players. A top 50 player would much rather win his only 250 event than reach his only Grand Slam quarterfinal. Indeed, we have seen players in the past, especially those not so formidable on clay, pass up the French Open to play Challengers and gain some confidence and ranking points.
This year, however, the French Open signals something much bigger to the lower-ranked players. The cut-off date for qualifying for the Olympics is June 11th. This means that the top 56 players when the rankings update after Roland Garros ends will be invited to the Olympics. (In actuality, it will be more than 56 players because there is a limit of 4 players per country, so many players outside the top 56 will qualify due to there being more than 4 Spaniards, Frenchmen, etc. in the top 56.)
Currently, Alejandro Falla sits in the final Olympic qualification spot with 576 points earned since the end of Roland Garros last year. The number of points the last player that qualifies for the Olympics to have will probably be around 700. That means that any player than can hit around 750 points will definitely be safe, while those with less will be sweating things out a bit during Roland Garros.
Now, there is nowhere on the tour to earn as many points as quickly as at a Grand Slam. Winning one match gains 45 points. That far down in the rankings, where the players at the edge of Olympic qualification will be, that one win can be worth as many as 5 spots. A second win (90 points) can be worth up to ten spots. Three wins and a fourth-round appearance could take a player from outside the top 100 into the Olympics.
Why is this so special though? First of all, the Olympics is the best chance that many of these players will have at doing well at a prestigious event. The Olympics may not be as prestigious as a Slam or even a Masters to some of the top players, but it carries its own type of meaning for a lot of players. Also, the Olympics have historically not been as dominated by the top players as the Slams have. And this year’s Olympics will matter more than in any previous (and probably most future) years because the tournament is being played at Wimbledon.
Being at Wimbledon means a few things. For starters, the almost-sacred grounds of the All-England Club are a place where every win is meaningful. Also, it will be on grass, which changes the dynamics of the match for a lot of players. Grass and clay are closer surfaces to each other than what they used to be, but we’ll still have the interesting case of good grass-courters having to play well on clay to get their chance on grass.
Also, we may see a little sneakiness in the rankings here. Yes, a Grand Slam is the easiest way to gain a lot of points, but winning matches at a Slam is never easy, We usually have at least one qualifier or low-ranked player who can make it a few rounds, but it’s far from a guarantee for any individual player. We may see some players on the very edge opt out of playing in Roland Garros so that they can gain some insurance points in a Challenger tournament. While there is much, much fewer points and less money there, to some players more of a chance of making the Olympics at Wimbledon will be worth it. It will be very interesting to keep an eye on and to see just what these players ranked 60-80 will do to try and get into the Olympics, especially those who are better on grass than other surfaces.