A Brief History of Modern Olympic Women’s Tennis

Serena Williams Gold Medal

Ahead of the Olympic Tennis Finals this weekend, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, takes a look back at the history of the Women’s Singles in modern Olympic Tennis.

Seoul 1988: Steffi Graf (Germany) beat Gabriela Sabatini (Argentina) 6–3 6–3

Modern Olympic tennis began with something of a bang in 1988 when Steffi Graf won the fifth of the five titles that constituted her “Golden Slam”: all four Major titles in the same year and the Olympic Singles Gold. That was because the Seoul Olympics took place in late September and early October, rather than the customary late July and early August, and so came after Graf had already achieved a clean sweep in the four Majors in tennis. The Olympic Final itself was not overly dramatic, with Graf beating her great rival at the time, Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini, in straight sets, less than a month after she had also defeated Sabatini in the US Open Final. Nevertheless, for Graf to maintain her stranglehold on the sport for a further month, in order to complete a year of total dominance, was extraordinary. And in the wake of Novak Djokovic’s shock defeat in the Tokyo 2020 semi-final to Alexander Zverev, it remains ever more extraordinary.

Barcelona 1992: Jennifer Capriati (USA) beat Steffi Graf (Germany) 3–6 6–3 6–4

Graf made a second successive Olympic Singles Final in Barcelona in 1992, when the Olympic tennis was played on clay. However, she lost to a 16-year-old Jennifer Capriati, just over two years after Capriati had turned professional and embarked on a truly astonishing start to her career that culminated in her Olympic triumph. Of course, it would be nearly another decade before Capriati at last fulfilled the huge potential she had shown as a teenager, when she finally won her first Major (the 2001 Australian Open) and quickly followed it up with two more (the 2001 French Open and the 2002 Australian Open). For the rest of the 1990s, however, which also included her infamous 1993 arrest for marijuana possession and the subsequent mugshot that was flashed around the world, it was the memory of her Olympic victory that sustained her through her truly dark years.

Atlanta 1996: Lindsay Davenport (USA) beat Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (Spain) 7–6 (8) 6–2

Jennifer Capriati was still in her mid-1990s career slump during the Atlanta Olympics and so did not defend the title she had won in Barcelona. However, another young American, a 20-year-old Lindsay Davenport, stepped up to fill the void left by Capriati, in the process achieving the most significant victory of her career up to that point. After an epic first set that Davenport only won on a tie-break, she virtually cruised to victory in the second set, with her big serving and even bigger ground strokes setting up a comfortable 6-2 victory. For Davenport, it was just the beginning of a formidable career, as she would go on to win three Majors within the next four years. For her opponent, Sánchez Vicario, it was virtually the beginning of the end of her own stellar career, as she would win only one more Major (the 1998 French Open) to go alongside the three she had won previously (two French Opens and a US Open).

Sydney 2000: Venus Williams (USA) beat Elena Dementieva (Russia) 6–2 6–4

Venus Williams made it a hat-trick of Olympic Singles titles by American women when she won in Sydney in 2000, comfortably defeating Russia’s Elena Dementieva in straight sets. At the time, Venus was probably in her pomp, before sister Serena had fully emerged from her shadow, after winning the first of her five Wimbledon titles just a matter of weeks earlier. After her Olympic victory in Australia, Venus duly won her first US Open in September and retained both her Wimbledon and US Open titles the following year. By the end of the noughties, Sjögrens Syndrome (a severe viral illness) had begun to take its toll, even before it was formally diagnosed in 2011. However, for much of that decade she had been the dominant Williams sister, certainly at Wimbledon and the US Open. As for her opponent in Sydney, she would have to wait for eight years before getting another chance to win Olympic gold.

Athens 2004: Justine Henin (Belgium) beat Amélie Mauresmo (France) 6–3 6–3

For most of the noughties, the main opponents for the Williams sisters were “the Belgians”: Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. In fact, given that it took Clijsters until 2005 to win her first Major (the US Open) and she only won her other three Majors (two more US Opens and an Australian Open) after she had initially retired from tennis before returning to the sport, for much of the noughties it was Henin, “The Belgian” (singular), who was the main challenger to Serena and Venus. Her Olympic triumph in Athens came in the middle of her mid-noughties Imperial Phase, when she won seven Major titles between 2003 and 2007, including a hat-trick of French Open titles. The only Major to elude her was Wimbledon, as Mauresmo, the woman she defeated in Athens, gained ample revenge by defeating her in the 2006 Wimbledon Singles Final.

Beijing 2008: Elena Dementieva (Russia) beat Dinara Safina (Russia) 3–6 7–5 6–3

Eight years after losing to Venus Williams in the Sydney Olympic Final, Elena Dementieva finally won Olympic Gold, which would prove to be the biggest title of her career. In fact, the Beijing Final was an all-Russian affair, as Dementieva beat Dinara Safina, one of the few women’s world No.1s never to win a Major. Indeed, the Olympic defeat came alongside three defeats in Major Finals in 2008 and 2009 (two in the French Open and one in the Australian Open), as the hugely gifted Safina ultimately proved unable to match the Major-winning achievements of her elder brother, Marat Safin. For Dementieva, although she too would never win a Major (despite reaching the French and US Open Finals in 2004), at least she had the memory of Olympic glory to look back on at the end of her career, which is arguably preferable to “merely” making it to No.1.

London 2012: Serena Williams (USA) beat Maria Sharapova (Russia) 6–0 6–1

Twelve years after her elder sister Venus had won in Sydney, Serena finally won Olympic Singles Gold herself, easily defeating her supposed “arch rival” Maria Sharapova in the most one-sided Women’s Singles Final since tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988. Sharapova, of course, had famously defeated Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon Final and again later that year at the WTA Tour Finals. However, the Russian would never win another match against Serena for the rest of her career, which finally petered out after her infamous drug ban for meldonium in 2016. And her most comprehensive defeat against Serena came at Wimbledon in 2012, the unique setting for the tennis at the London Olympics, when Serena returned, as it were, to the scene of the crime (as she regarded her 2004 Wimbledon Final loss to Sharapova) and effectively blasted the Russian off court for the loss of just a single game.

Rio 2016: Monica Puig (Puerto Rico) beat Angelique Kerber (Germany) 6–4 4–6 6–1

Unfortunately, an Olympic triumph is not always the springboard to Major triumph. Andy Murray’s career as a truly great tennis player may have begun with his winning the London 2012 Olympic Men’s Singles title at Wimbledon. However, for Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig triumph in Rio sadly proved to be the highpoint of a career that had once promised so much. The extraordinarily hard-hitting Puig finally harnessed all her enormous power for a single week in Rio to reach the Women’s Singles Final, beating Garbiñe Muguruza and Petra Kvitová en route, where she defeated Angelique Kerber, who had won her first Major in Melbourne six months earlier, in a fine three-set final. However, Kerber subsequently recovered from her Rio loss to win the US Open the following month, whereas Puig has never come close to matching, let alone bettering, her Olympic achievement.

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