It could so easily have slipped though her fingers but Belinda Bencic prevailed over Marketa Vondrousova to land the Gold medal at Tokyo 2020 on Saturday after 2 hours 30 minutes of fluctuating but captivating tennis.
I really don't know how it worked out for me. I really had a lot of belief in myself. I gave it my best, I gave it my all and I'm really proud now. It's a magnificent moment. Belinda Bencic
It was Switzerland’s 3rd Olympic Gold, and 5th overall medal, with Marc Rosset having taken Gold in the men’s singles at Barcelona 1992, and Roger Federer & Stan Wawrinka teaming up to win men’s doubles at Beijing 2008.
In addition, Federer was the men’s singles silver medallist at London 2012, while Timea Bacsinszky & Martina Hingis captured silver in the women’s doubles at Rio 2016.
Melanie Molitor, Hingis´ mother, coached Bencic as a junior.
“I think I accomplished it for them,” Bencic said. “They did so much in their careers. I don’t think I will ever be able to accomplish what they did.
“So it’s for Martina and Roger.”
Bencic had to dig deep to come through against the unseeded Czech, who had made it to the Roland Garros final in 2019 and put in an inspired performance to severely test the No 9 seed in a match of grit and guile on the part of both players.
There was see-sawing momentum and streaks from either side of the net and, in the end, it came down to who would keep her head and hit their marks when it mattered.
Bencic, who misfired in the second set, regained her precision in the third when the finish line came into sight, holding her nerve to claim the Gold medal.
The World No 12 is now one step closer to completing a remarkable quest for double Olympic Gold at Tokyo 2020, joining compatriot Viktorija Golubic to take on Czech top seeds Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova in the women’s doubles Gold Medal Match on Sunday.
“Its unbelievable to have two medals, to have one gold and the other still to be decided,” Bencic said. “I will give all the energy that I have left in me.”
This result marks Bencic’s first title since Moscow 2019 after losing both of her previous finals this season, in Adelaide and Berlin.
The 24-year-old trailed by an early break in the deciding set, but was able to execute her ultra-aggressive strategy in key moments to seal her victory.
Bencic’s keenness to take control was immediate, taking the ball early and ricocheting it from line to line and quick to move further into the court before swatting away a series of drive volley winners.
This strategy garnered her an opening break, but a flurry of errors came as Vondrousova immediately broke back.
Another exchange of breaks followed as both showed signs of nerves but it was Bencic who was sharpest at the end of the set as she came up with 4 beautifully struck backhand winners to take the lead.
Vondrousova tightened up her game in the second, taking the ball earlier and managing ro swing the momentum in her favour.
The Czech, already guaranteed to win the Czech Republic’s best singles medal, carved out an immediate break in a 4-deuce first game of the second, and rolled on from there, cutting off Bencic’s opportunities to open up the court with her own use of angles and heavy spin.
The World No 42 broke again with an exquisite drop-volley, and overcame a pair of double-faults to successfully serve out the second act.
The decider was on a knife-edge almost all the way as both pitted their best against each other and the momentum swinging between them.
Vondrousova gained the first break, before Bencic responded by taking 3 straight games for a 3-1 lead, but a pair of booming backhand returns set the Czech on her way to reducing the deficit to 3-2.
She held a point to break again at 3-3, but the 22-year-old’s forehand let her down and Bencic escaped to hold for 4-3.
Bencic then took a medical timeout for blisters at the end of game 7 and Vondrosouva appeared to lose focus as the Swiss resumed play in supreme form, breaking to love after eliciting a series of errors from the distracted Czech.
Serving for the Gold medal was an adventure, with Bencic having to save 3 break points with backhand winners, while Vondrousova, with her back to the wall, fired a marvellous forehand winner to stave off a first match point.
On the second, however, Bencic found a service winner that sealed Gold, and fell to her back in joy.
“I really don’t know how it worked out for me,” Bencic said. “I really had a lot of belief in myself.”
Federer was quick to congratulate his compatriot as the 20-time Grand Slam winner posted ‘history’ on Instagram.
“I gave it my best, I gave it my all and I’m really proud now,” said Bencic, who shed tears of joy on the podium. “It’s a magnificent moment.”
She is now is looking to become the 4th player to win singles and doubles Golds at a single Olympics, after Serena and Venus Williams and Chilean Nicolas Massu.
Vondrousova can console herself with the Czech Republic’s 3rd Olympic tennis Silver medal, with both previously coming in women’s doubles: Jana Novotna & Helena Sukova at Atlanta 1996, who also won Silver for the former Czechoslovakia at Seoul 1988 where Slovak Miloslav Mecir also took Gold, and Lucie Hradecka & Andrea Sestini Hlavackova at London 2012.
The country’s prior best women’s singles medals were a pair of Bronzes, won by Novotna at Atlanta 1996 and Petra Kvitova at Rio 2016.
“I think we are good friends, we practice a lot, we talk a lot,” said Vondrousova of her relationship with Bencic. “It was a great match from both of us, so I’m just happy that it’s the Belinda I know [who won].”
For both Bencic and Vondrousova, Tokyo 2020 has been vindication of their early, prodigious talent.
Both were stellar junior talents who rose swiftly into the Top 100, Bencic making the 2014 US Open quarter-finals at the age of 17, and a year later had also lifted prestigious trophies in Eastbourne and Toronto, while Vondrousova won the 2017 Biel title in just her second WTA main draw at the age of 17 and, two years later became the first teenager Roland Garros finalist in over a decade.
After those successes, both were derailed by wrist injuries, and have had to fight to regain their positions at the top of the game.
The Olympic Games has been a statement that for all the ups and downs in their careers, Bencic and Vondrousova possess talent that hasn’t been extinguished.
It has been a stellar Olympics at Ariake Tennis Park for both the Swiss and the Czechs, both nations guaranteed 2 tennis medals at these Games.
That the first should come from Vondrousova, the youngest of the ever-impressive Czech contingent in Tokyo, is testament to her spell-binding singles run this week.
From her seed-scattering opening victory over Kiki Bertens to the seismic win against No 2 seed Naomi Osaka, and a whirlwind victory to oust Elina Svitolina in the semi-finals, the Czech has been a force of nature in Tokyo, but just as she threatened to blow Bencic away, the Swiss 24-year-old drew her best tennis to recover from a break down in the decider, and close out a tense cat-and-mouse contest for Switzerland.