|Venus Williams hopes to get the chance to chase down a fourth gold medal. (US Presswire)|
Thanks to her recent play, 31-year-old three-time gold medalist Venus Williams has moved closer to qualifying for the Olympics.
For casual fans, the news might be a surprise, given Williams' stature and 17-year career on the court. But until Monday, when she moved up to No. 47 in the world rankings, Williams' chances at making the U.S. team for the London Games were in doubt.
According to Olympics rules, the top 56 singles players earn an automatic berth into the Games, granted each country gets its limit of four candidates into the field. Williams makes for the third representative from the United States; her sister, Serena (No. 5), and Christina McHale (ranked 29th) will likely also make the trip to London.
The fourth American in women's singles is expected to be Varvara Lepchenko, an Uzbekistan native who became a U.S. citizen in September. She's ranked 52nd to edge out Sloane Stephens, ranked 57th, and Vania King, ranked 59th. Because of injuries and players declining to take part, the cutoff for making the Olympics has traditionally been in the high 60s.
Williams earned a gold medal in Sydney in 2000 in both singles and doubles play, then also won a doubles gold in '08, again with sister Serena.
According to the Associated Press, the invitations for the Williams sisters and all tennis players are an something of a formality from the International Tennis Federation (ITF):
The USTA now awaits official invitations for its top players from the ITF. The ITF has yet to rule whether the Williams sisters and Lepchenko made themselves available for enough Fed Cup matches to be Olympic-eligible, but approval is anticipated this month.
Venus' participation in Fed Cup this year has been more than a little spotty. When the U.S. faced Belarus in early February, captain Mary Joe Fernandez did not name Venus to play in one of the singles matches, but after tapping her for doubles play, Venus helped the U.S. team clinch a 5-0 win that weekend. She sat out April 21-22, when the U.S. took on Ukraine; Serena told reporters her sister was recovering from playing tournaments in Miami and Charleston.
The men's team is expected to include John Isner (10th in the ATP Tour rankings), Andy Roddick (32nd), and two first-time Olympians, Donald Young (48th) and Ryan Harrison (52nd). Mardy Fish, the silver medalist in 2004, is ranked 12th but has said he plans to skip the Olympics.
In doubles, the U.S. team is expected to include third-ranked Bob and Mike Bryan and top-ranked Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond. The men and women will each have one other doubles team, with the contestants chosen from those competing in singles. If the USTA indeed welcomes Venus Williams back into the Olympic fold, it remains a possibility she could be picked for both singles and doubles.
Team USA also expects to field two teams in mixed doubles, an event returning to the Olympics after an 88-year absence. Those teams will be determined after competition in the other events begins.
To get a scope of this Olympic bid -- and what good it does for American tennis -- just know that Venus Williams' career has dipped in recent years, with her WTA ranking plummeting to No. 134. That poor play and standing was attributed to the autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome, though, and she's done a heck of a job coming back from it. All the while, she's aimed to make it back to the Olympics, which has remained her primary objective in this late stage of her career.
"The Olympics is just the ultimate in sports," she told the AP at the French Open. "I grew up watching those documentaries. My dad had us watch those. It was his dream for us to play there. Once I got a taste of it, it was just amazing. Every time I leave the Olympics, I go through withdrawals. It's the pinnacle of sports. I love it there."
Given how the Olympics have so many quirky, niche sports, it's sometimes easy for tennis to get lost in the shuffle. Getting as many big-time names into the Games will be a boon for the sport, which gets a rare chance at showcasing itself not only in a quasi fifth-major kind of way, but also using the legendary Wimbledon grounds to play it all out.And if you're curious as to how the Olympics and Wimbledon will take place: tennis competition for the London Games will be held on Wimbledon's grass courts at the All England Club from July 28-Aug. 5. Wimbledon will be held this year from June 25-July 8.