And then there were two left, out of 64, competing for Gold – Belinda Bencic and Marketa Vondrousova, who got past Elena Rybakina and Elina Svitolina in the semi-finals of the Olympic Tennis Event at Tokyo 2020 on Wednesday.
I was thinking that [to win] two or three matches would have been great, and then I beat Naomi so then I thought that I was playing well and that maybe I could even do better. I'm now just happy to be in the final. It's an amazing feeling. I can't believe it. Maybe it'll sink in later. This is amazing, even if it's silver or gold, it's amazing and I'm just very proud. Marketa Vondrousova
While there was joy for the two finalists, Rybakina and Svitolina will have to set aside their disappointment because they will compete for the Bronze medal on Saturday.
Switzerland’s Bencic, the World No 12, was the first to secure her place in the Gold Medal Match, defeating Rybakina, the 15th seed from Kazakhstan, in a tense 3-set battle that took 2 hours 44 minutes.
“My emotions right now… it’s too high,” Bencic told the ITF website after her remarkable 7-6(2) 4-6 6-3 win. “To have a medal, it’s the greatest thing.
“Even to be here as an athlete, in the Olympics, it’s amazing.
“To have a medal, it’s something I dreamed of, and I didn’t think it would become reality. I’m beyond relieved and happy.”
Winning a Gold medal in itself is something not even Swiss greats Roger Federer and Martina Hingis have managed to achieve.
“He [Federer] definitely knows what’s going on and how we play,” Bencic said. “He messaged us after the doubles yesterday, so I’m sure he’s watching.
“For sure, [Wawrinka and Federer] are both following everything. Especially Roger. I know he’s following from Futures to Challengers to Olympics to everything…”
On Saturday, though, she will look to emulate Switzerland’s Marc Rosset, who won the men’s singles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The 24-year-old’s run to the final also ensures Switzerland will medal in a 4th consecutive Olympics, adding her name to Switzerland’s storied group of recent Olympic medalists, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Martina Hingis and recently retired Timea Bacsinszky.
It was a tense rollercoaster of a match against the in-form Rybakina, who had not lost a set in Tokyo heading into the semi-finals.
Coming back from the brink, Bencic rallied from 2-5 down in the first set and saved 6 set points to steal the opener, and then overcame an early break in the decider to win the last 4 games of the match.
The win is Bencic’s 3rd consecutive 3-set victory in Tokyo, having also beaten Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova and Paris finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Having skipped Rio 2016 due to injury, Bencic now has a shot at two medals in Tokyo as she later won her doubles semi-final.
“I go now to the doubles and I hope to do it again, so it’s not over yet,” said Bencic, ahead of partnering Viktorija Golubic against Brazilians Laura Pigossi & Luisa Stefani, whom they beat 7-5 6-3 later on Wednesday.
Just 4 players have reached both singles and doubles finals since tennis returned to the Games in 1988 and if Bencic achieves the feat, she would echo the efforts of Venus Williams at Sydney 2000, Nicolas Massu at Athens 2004, and both Serena Williams and Andy Murray (the latter reaching the mixed doubles final) at London 2012.
In their first career meeting, Bencic secured an early break at 2-1 in the first set, but a trio of double-faults on game points allowed Rybakina to get back and level at 2-2 and, from there, the Roland Garros quarter-finalist reeled off 3 more games to lead 5-2.
Rybakina came within a point of sealing the first set 6 times but Bencic found a way to fend her off, stopping the Kazakh’s run with a hold for 3-5 and following it up with a break before wiping out 2 set points in the following game to level the set at 5-5.
The 12th game proved pivitol as Rybakina’s steady baseline game earned her 4 more set points, but the 22-year-old could not break through the Bencic serve which, although it wobbled, was not broken.
After saving the 6th set point with a clean ace and finally holding serve, Bencic played a composed tiebreak to race away, winning it 7-2.
Rybakina bounced back to take the second and broke early to lead 2-0 in the decider, but she missed a sitter of a forehand at 3-1, 40-15, before offering Bencic more chances to get the break back.
At 3-3, 30-all, Rybakina got a second serve to hit but sent that forehand return long too, allowing Bencic to ultimately hold serve.
After digging herself out of her 0-2 deficit, Bencic won win the last 4 games of the match, breaking Rybakina for 5-3 and closing out the win to seal her spot in Swiss Olympic history.
It was a gritty effort from Bencic, who overcame 12 double-faults of her own and 14 aces from Rybakina, and wept tears of joy on securing her spot in the Olympic final.
In the second semi-final Marketa Vondrousova became the first Czech woman to reach an Olympic Gold Medal Match when she comprehensively defeated Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, 6-3 6-1, in just 4 minutes over the hour mark.
The World No 42, who stunned home favourite Naomi Osaka in the 3rd round, took another significant scalp on the biggest of stages at Tokyo 2020 to set up a showdown with Bencic on Saturday.
“I was thinking that [to win] two or three matches would have been great, and then I beat Naomi so then I thought that I was playing well and that maybe I could even do better,” she said. “I’m now just happy to be in the final. It’s an amazing feeling.
“I can’t believe it. Maybe it’ll sink in later. This is amazing, even if it’s silver or gold, it’s amazing and I’m just very proud.”
Vondrousova’s triumph saw her go one better than Jana Novotna and Petra Kvitova, who claimed singles bronze at Atlanta 1996 and Rio 2016, respectively.
Svitolina’s dreams of Olympic Gold were shattered as the Ukrainian found few answers to Vondrousova’s left-handed power game, having fought past Laura Siegemund, Alja Tomljanovic and Maria Sakkari, all in 3 sets, in the oppressive Tokyo heat earlier in the week.
“It’s an amazing feeling to represent my country in the bronze medal match, but I’m really disappointed today,” she admitted. “I tried my best but I expected to go further.
“Unfortunately there are other players who are playing well. It’s extremely tough and it didn’t happen today.
“Marketa played really well, a very solid performance and I couldn’t find my best tennis today and everything came together for her.”
Vondrousova had lost 3 of 4 career meetings with the 6th-ranked Svitolina, but that solitary victory had come in their most recent meeting in Rome less than a year ago when she dissected the Ukrainian, 6-3 6-0, and she did the same thing again here in Tokyo with a near-identical scoreline.
The Czech left-hander’s vast array of spins, speeds, angles and drop-shots utterly frustrated Svitolina, who finished the match with 29 unforced errors compared to just 13 winners.
The players exchanged early breaks before Vondrousova rallied from 0-30 down to dig out a hold for 2-2.
It proved to be an important moment as the Czech broke immediately after and kept Svitolina at bay before upsetting the Ukrainian’s serve once more as she looked to pose the serve-out question, to take the opener in just 34 minutes.
She maintained her momentum at the start of the second, following up a hold with a break from 40-15 down to leave Svitolina with it all to do.
The 4th seed never looked comfortable and let out an anguished cry when she was broken again for 5-1, allowing Vondrousova to serve out the match.
Vondrousova’s most notable career performance came in 2019 when she reached the Roland Garros final as an unheralded World No 38.
In fact Vondrousova was lucky to be at the Olympics at all, the World No 42 having leap-frogged her compatriot World No 23 Karolína Muchova to get to Tokyo by virtue of a protected ranking for a pre-pandemic injury dating back to 2019, despite not needing it for a year, and she has certainly made the most of her opportunities here, starting the Games as a rank outsider.
Now she is just one win away from winning Gold and making history for her country. by breaking Svitolina 3 times in the first set and twice in the second to claim a routine win in just over the hour.
“I mean my emotions right now are too high,” said the 22-year-old, who finished runner-up to Ash Barty at Roland Garros in 2019. “To have the medal, for me, it’s the greatest thing ever to be here as an athlete for the Olympics.
“It’s amazing, and also to have a medal, it’s something I dreamt of and I didn’t think it will become reality.”