All the stories here of sacrifice, heroics and commitment to the Olympic spirit have pretty much bypassed the tennis venue. After all, how great a sacrifice is it to take a couple of weeks off the tour and maybe have your annual income slip just under $300,000?
Headlines in the Korean press have consistently referred to the tennis Olympians as “the Millionaires,” which is kind of unfair, since there are still half a dozen or so who aren’t.
There is, however, one story of tennis heroism that stacks up pretty well against the others told here. The main character is Ken Flach, who with Robert Seguso won the men’s doubles gold medal Saturday, beating Sergio Casal and Emilio Sanchez of Spain in a dramatic match, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
Flach played the entire tournament with an injury that would have kept most players on the sideline, a torn muscle in his right shoulder.
He was injured the day the team arrived in Seoul, and although his shoulder improved during the tournament, he was never able to hit all out, nor to play without a lot of pain. Nor is he sure that he didn’t do permanent damage, or at least enough to keep him off the tour for a while, at the cost of quite a bit of money.
Trainer Todd Snyder described the injury as a torn rotator cuff. Flach said it was not so much on the top of his shoulder as behind it.
“I did it the first day, playing a practice set against Brad Gilbert,” Flach said. “Ever since then, I’ve been having treatment twice a day. We really worked to keep it together.”
Tom Gorman, the team’s coach, said that he had given Flach opportunities to drop out. He said that in the team’s first-round match, Flach could barely get his arm up high enough to serve.
“They would have been in big trouble if they hadn’t drawn a fairly weak team for that day,” Gorman said.
Gorman said Flach refused to quit, and Saturday, after the final victory, Flach said: “This is the Olympics. It only happens every 4 years. No way I’d pull out.”
The U.S. team did its best to keep Flach’s injury a secret while Flach and Seguso gritted it out. Against Casal and Sanchez, true grit was needed. The Spaniards had lost all three of their previous meetings with Flach and Seguso, but the previous two had gone 5 sets. And that was with Flach uninjured.
The quick 6-3, 6-4 start was exactly what Flach and Seguso were hoping for. And even though they were forced to a tiebreaker for the third set, all looked well at 5-3 of the tiebreaker, and even at 5-4, with Flach ready to serve twice. But the Spaniards got 2 points against Flach’s serve--an omen of things to come--and went on to take the tiebreaker, 7-5.
In the fourth set, each team broke the other’s serve once, and then held all the way out to another tiebreaker, which Casal and Sanchez won handily, 7-1.
“They really played well in that second tiebreaker,” Flach said later. “No excuses on that one. They just went out and did it.”
By the time the fifth set began, Flach’s serve was little more than a gesture. Casal and Sanchez, apparently not knowing why that was so, were eagerly attacking it, nevertheless.
“At the end, all the pop was gone,” Flach said. “It got better during the week, but it never got to 100%, and I just couldn’t really reach back and pop it when I wanted to.”
And he certainly wanted to after he and Seguso broke Sanchez’s serve at 1-1 and held all the way out to 5-4, Flach’s serve. This is exactly where a player of Flach’s caliber wants to be: serving for the match at 5-4. This time, however, he wanted to be at the net and have Seguso serving for the match.
The Spaniards broke Flach at 15-40, then held so that Seguso had to hold for 6-6, which he did. Then Flach and Seguso, among the game’s finest ever at putting returns together and breaking service, went to work again, beating Casal’s serve for 7-6.
So Flach, aching shoulder and all, served for the match again. And lost. Again.
“I was really depressed at that point,” Seguso said. “I was thinking about all the chances we had had, and about getting on the airplane to go home and how depressed we’d be. And about having somebody else’s song playing when we got up on the victory stand.”
But Flach and Seguso, unbeaten veterans of Davis Cup play and accustomed to bailing themselves out of tight spots in foreign places, scratched back again. This time, it was Flach’s perfectly executed topspin lob that got the game to 15-40 on Sanchez’s serve and led to yet another service break.
And this time, Seguso would serve for the match. Clearly the man with golden arm on this team, he won the game at love.
“Winning this tops them all,” Flach said.
And Seguso echoed: “When you win at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, you win all that money. But this is far better.”
The Americans, especially Flach, had gritted it out, giving the U.S. tennis team a total of five medals, the best per capita showing of any U.S. Olympic team.
In addition to Flach and Seguso’s gold, Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison won a gold in women’s doubles; Tim Mayotte a silver in men’s singles, and Garrison and Brad Gilbert bronze medals in women’s and men’s singles, respectively.
Ironically, the only U.S. tennis player competing here who didn’t get a medal was Chris Evert, probably the team’s most likely prospect coming in.