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Olympic Tennis Players Sound Off On Playing With The Threat Of Zika

Tomas Berdych, Sloane Stephens, Alex Zverev, Eugenie Bouchard CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tomas Berdych, Sloane Stephens, Alex Zverev, Eugenie Bouchard CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS

This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The main topic of conversation at the Citi Open tennis tournament in Washington, D.C. last week wasn’t the prevalence of big servers or the unbearably hot temperatures. Instead, it was Zika, the mosquito-bone virus that can damage the brains of unborn babies.

The illness has been prevalent in Brazil, leaving athletes who plan on playing in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with a big decision to make. Do they participate in the Games, the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, or do they stay home because of the small risk that something bad might happen.

For most athletes, this is not a hard decision.

“For me, I don’t care,” Benoit Paire, a French tennis player ranked No. 28, told ThinkProgress. “I can play Olympics.”

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“I heard about [Zika] a lot… but I really want to be there,” said Shuai Zhang, a 27-year-old Chinese player whose ranking has risen 130 spots in the past year. “This is my dream.”

Malek Jaziri, a Tunisian athlete headed to his second Olympic Games, said he simply wasn’t going to let fear run his life. “When your day comes it comes. Zika or no Zika,” he said.

I felt like tweeting the other day, ‘At least I didn’t claim Zika.’

In the last few months, 14 male golfers, including three of the top five players in the world, have pulled out of the Olympic Games. The majority of them cited the Zika virus as a reason. Recently, a few high-profile tennis players have joined them, including last month’s Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic, top-10 mainstay Tomas Berdych, and the No. 5-ranked female tennis player in the world, Simona Halep.

But not everyone is buying that these athletes, who play sports that don’t revolve around the Olympics and compete for millions on a week in, week out basis, are being scared off by the virus.

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“I felt like tweeting the other day, ‘At least I didn’t claim Zika,’” said John Isner, the top-ranked American male tennis player, who withdrew from the Games months ago because they won’t help him improve his ranking. “I never did. And that’s not the reason why I’m not going to the Olympics.”

“I think it is a little bit overblown,” American Denis Kudla, who will be participating in his first Olympics due to Isner’s withdrawal, said.

It’s easy, even tempting, to judge millionaire athletes for citing the Zika virus — which experts now predict will only impact between 3 and 37 out of the 500,000 people traveling to Rio for the Olympics — as a reason to pull out of a tournament that doesn’t offer any substantial prize money or ranking points. After all, this decision doesn’t seem to be one plaguing athletes in sports that don’t get much attention outside of the Olympic Games.

However, after talking to 24 athletes from 18 different nations, it became clear that privilege or not, there’s more to this decision than mere statistics for some players.

Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov was the first tennis player to withdrawal from the Olympics citing the Zika virus. He made the decision because he already suffers from Gilbert’s syndrome, a disorder that impacts his blood and liver. So it’s likely that his recovery from Zika would be more complicated as as result.

“Still, it was a tough decision,” he said.

Alexandr Dolgopolov, CREDIT: Alan Diaz, AP
Alexandr Dolgopolov, CREDIT: Alan Diaz, AP

Berdych, meanwhile, was concerned about the future of his family. He got married last year, and while he and his wife are not planning on having children immediately, he’s still worried.

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“It was a very difficult decision,” Berdych said in Washington. “I’m not saying that we are trying to make the family right now, straightaway, but it’s definitely in the future. Tennis, I’m going to play two, three, four years, and then the rest of my life will be another 60 years, something like that. If something happens that makes that not the way you want it, because of one week or one tournament, you might have a sad life. No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to take that risk. Even if the risks are possibly small or whatever, that’s why I decided this way.”

Meanwhile, players who decided to make the trip to Rio are left wondering whether there will be any consequences for their decision.

Alexander Zverev, a 19-year-old German ranked No. 25 in the world, said he was a “little worried” about the virus, especially since he became ill after a mosquito bit him at the U.S. Open last year. He was sick with an undiagnosed virus for two weeks, lost a lot of weight, and therefore struggled mightily throughout the rest of the season.

“Obviously, you think about [withdrawing],” Zverev said, “but the Olympics is a very big event and obviously it’s exciting to play.”

Zika Isn’t The Biggest Mosquito-Transmitted Disease Plaguing BrazilAsk anyone in the United States what the biggest health risk is at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and they…thinkprogress.orgThe decision is more pressing for women, of course. While male players who are very concerned about the virus can just leave their wives or girlfriends at home, female tennis players don’t have that best-of-both-worlds option. The mixed messages out there from doctors and experts don’t help the case.

“It’s tough to make a decision,” Romanian Monica Niculescu, playing in her first Olympics, said.

“I mean, some people, one doctor I talked to said, ‘You shouldn’t go because we don’t know what’s going to happen.’ The other doctor said, ‘If this is your dream to play in the Olympics, go,’” American Sloane Stephens said. “I’m obviously not having kids any time soon, so I think I’ll be okay.”

“I know some people say there’s a lot worse things than Zika and that well may be true but I think because you don’t know much about it, and if you are infected nobody knows how long it should be until you have a baby or get pregnant,” 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, headed to her fourth Games, said. “To be honest, this is the first Olympics where I’ve been a little concerned about things, and asked more questions about health and safety and security.”

I’m obviously not having kids any time soon, so I think I’ll be okay.

“It’s scary seeing everyone pull out,” Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, who won the singles and doubles titles in Washington, said. “It’s still new, the virus hasn’t been out long so the research hasn’t been that good yet so we only know what happens to the babies, not what happens to the people later on.”

“I don’t know if the health of my future babies is worth it,” Genie Bouchard, a Canadian who only just made the decision to go to Rio on Monday, said.

But while the worries likely won’t go away completely, the players going to Rio know that it’s imperative to push Zika concerns to the back of their minds and not let it overshadow what could be the experience of a lifetime.

“I’m going to take my precautions,” Caroline Wozniacki, the former No. 1 player who will be the flag bearer for Denmark during the Opening Ceremonies, said. “Spray a lot. Wear anti-mosquito bracelets.”

“I know it’s a very serious thing and obviously we’ve been schooled on the Zika virus and the people that it’s affected and families it’s affected, it’s tragic,” John Millman, an Australian making his Olympic debut, said. “But the opportunity to represent my country in the Games, I’d take just about every virus under the sun, and that’s the honest truth. I’d sacrifice a lot to represent my country. To me it’s a no-brainer.”