It doesn't take a genius to identify the most compelling storyline at the upcoming Olympic tennis event at Wimbledon. At least not when you don't need to choose between two competing, equally singular ones. Just package them together and ask: "Can Roger Federer and Serena Williams capture the single outstanding honor that has thus far eluded both of them -- an Olympic gold medal in singles?"
This is like one of those "bogo" (buy one, get one free) sales. The consumer (of tennis) wins. The similarities between the two players are somewhat narrow, given that Roger is a Swiss male who really -- really -- cares about his hair, while Serena is an American female who really -- really -- cares about her hair. But the parallels, starting with their joint history of Olympic singles frustration and success in doubles, is real.
Federer earned doubles gold with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka in Beijing in 2008, while Serena and her sister, Venus, carried off doubles gold twice -- in Sydney (2000) and Beijing. Federer is 49 days older but both are 30. Each of them has hit double digits in Grand Slam titles (Serena has 14, Roger 17), and each is mentioned in the same breath as the greatest players ever to swing a racket. And neither is likely to get another chance to add the only choice résumé item lacking from his or her CV.
And both of them have fairly tough first-round assignments, given that the International Olympic Committee, under the advisement of the International Tennis Federation, has elected to give places in the elite singles draw to the likes of, oh, Canada's Vasek Pospisil (a British Columbia native whose world ranking is No. 84) and Mariana Duque Marino (of plain old Colombia, the nation), who's No. 117 on the WTA rolls.
Oddly enough, Federer is playing a countryman of Marino in the first round. He's Alejandro Falla, and he took Federer to five sets at Wimbledon in 2010. After winning the first two sets, Falla served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth, but his nerve failed.
Serena, meanwhile, gets no British Columbian in her first assignment -- much as that might have pleased her. The highest-ranking Canadian at the moment is Alexandra Wozniak (no relation to the swooning Dane and former two-time year-end No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki). But if you're looking to work the parallels, think of it this way: Wozniacki (the almost great Dane) was unable to win a Grand Slam during her tenure at the top and shares the dubious distinction of having been a Grand Slam-less former year-end No. 1 with Serena's first-round opponent, Serbia's Jelena Jankovic.
Bottom line: Both Roger and Serena have first-round matches that make you go, hmmmmmm.
Serena can take comfort in the fact that while she hasn't won gold, she's faltered at the Olympics only once -- when she lost to Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals in Beijing. A knee injury forced her to miss the games in Athens, and she didn't compete in singles in Sydney (although she did win doubles gold).
Roger lost to Tommy Haas in the semifinals at Sydney, his first Olympics event. In Athens four years later, he was ambushed by Tomas Berdych in the second round. And in the next games, in Beijing, he was rubbed out in the quarters by James Blake.
So which one has a tougher row to hoe? I have to go with Serena, who doesn't share Roger's luxury of a No. 1 seeding. In her path to the finals: No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka and a number of other Grand Slam champs or former No. 1 players, starting with Jankovic and including her sister Venus (the two could meet in the semifinals).
The only Grand Slam champion in Roger's half of the draw is Juan Martin del Potro, who upset Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. But that was on hard court, not on Wimbledon grass, on which Federer has won seven Grand Slam titles. It's his gold medal to lose.