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Alexandra WillisColumnistsFeaturesMelting pot‘Tennis belongs at the Olympics … Both singles finals at London 2012 got better US TV ratings than any Slam in a decade’

‘Tennis belongs at the Olympics … Both singles finals at London 2012 got better US TV ratings than any Slam in a decade’

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ALEXANDRA WILLIS is a multimedia tennis journalist who flits between WimbledonSportingIntelligence, the TennisSpace and a few other outlets, while tweeting copiously and trying to improve her backhand in her spare time. If you happen to bump into her court-side, she’ll probably tell you that she went to Oxford (and not just shopping).

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By Alexandra Willis

13 August 2012

The Olympics have finished their two-week stint in London, the pink 2012 hoarding that dominated the skylines and structures of so many venues now being dismantled as quickly as it was put up. The tennis world though, which pit-stopped in London’s south west SW19 corner  for the second time in a month for the Olympic tennis event, had already moved on well over a week ago.

While an audience of millions watched as athletes, entourages, popstars and politicians partied long and hard at the Olympic stadium last night, Novak Djokovic was winning his 31st tournament title in Toronto, while Petra Kvitova and Li Na were making their way to the final in Montreal. Forgotten in their absence from the closing festivities, were the tennis players really a proper part of the Olympic experience?

The answer has to be yes.  From Sharapova getting mobbed at the Olympic village, to Serena and Venus glued to the archery and gymnastics, to Ryan Lochte tweeting about Serena, to the Brits staying in the Olympic village,  it is fair to say that for tennis players, being part of London 2012 is something they’ll never forget. The hullabaloo surrounding pin-trading told you all you needed to know about how much players enjoyed the Olympic experience.

And as for the weight of their results? With 18 of the world’s top 20 men, and 19 of the top 20 women, the fact that the three Grand Slam champions of 2012 scooped the women’s singles medals, the men’s semi-finals featured three of the top four, the men’s and women’s doubles were won by two of the most dominant doubles partnerships in history, and the mixed doubles by former mixed doubles Grand Slam champions, proves that the Olympic tennis was by no means a lightweight event.

“Tennis really belongs at the Olympics. We are athletes just as all these other amazing athletes are,” said Serena Williams, who won the singles and doubles gold medals, a month after winning the singles and doubles titles at The Championships.

It’s hard to argue with Serena at the best of times. But there are numbers that back it up too.

NBC revealed last night that the 2012 Olympics was the second-most watched sporting event in the channel’s history, and tennis shared a considerable slice of the audience quiche.

The 103-minute final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, in which the Russian managed just one game, was watched by an extraordinary 7.9m viewers on NBC, with 18% of homes with televisions in use watching it. Earning a rating of 5.6, the last time any women’s tennis Grand Slam final earned a higher rating was way back when in 2001, when Serena lost to Venus in the US Open final, drawing a rating of 6.1

The men’s final figures were similarly impressive. A month after just under 4m Americans tuned in to watch Roger Federer beat Andy Murray in four sets to win his 17th Grand Slam singles title, more than double that number watched Murray exact his revenge on Federer in straight sets to win gold. Some 8.2m viewers watched with a  5.5 rating, the highest for a men’s Grand Slam final since the 6.2 received during the US Open final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in 2002.

For an audience as fickle as the Americans can be, in tennis terms, certainly, the numbers speak for themselves.

It was the same in this country too. The two singles finals were the most-requested livestreams on BBC Sport’s Olympics website, for example, and 10m viewers tuned in to watch Murray win gold on the BBC.

Naturally, in the context of Olympic fervour, there is bound to be an overall spike in audience numbers as patriotic fervour inspires the casual fan to watch sports they wouldn’t dream of. The pull of a player like Sharapova, as opposed to Agnieszka Radwanska, whom Serena faced in The Championships, must also make a difference too.

But perhaps most importantly, was the way the fans who came to Wimbledon embraced the occasion. Yes, there were crying babies, but there were also flags, team tracksuits, chants, and an atmosphere the like of which you could only have during an Olympics.

“The atmosphere in all of the stadiums, when everyone’s won gold medals in all of the sports, everyone’s just been so happy and pumped. I’m just glad I’ve been able to contribute to that,” Murray said.

“That’s one of the reasons why the Olympics is so great.  Everybody gets into it. Everybody gets into sports that they maybe never have watched before, never seen. You know, I’m no different.”

It does beg the question, of course, whether it will be the same in Rio in four years time. Without the added appeal of being at Wimbledon, and likely to be on a purpose-built clay court, will the tennis have the same appeal?

One would only hope so. Among the players, a gold medal certainly seems to mean more than it used to. But then again, four years is a long time in sport.

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