For some the Olympics will never be a major event on the tennis calendar. For some it was seen as almost an inconvenience this year, arriving amidst a pandemic to create more disruption and travel issues. Yet for those who have won medals in Tokyo it has clearly mattered - a lot.
Even those who won bronze were elated. World No 6 Elina Svitolina said it “meant the world” to her to secure a medal in the women’s singles, while Pablo Carreno Busta said his bronze in the men’s singles was “even more incredible than winning a tournament”.
Belinda Bencic will leave Japan with similar emotions after winning gold for Switzerland.
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Bencic was a prodigious talent as a youngster, reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open at the age of 17 and a year later beating four top-10 opponents, including world No 1 Serena Williams, to win the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Ranked No 12 in the world after the title run, Bencic looked to be set to climb higher and challenge for even bigger prizes. Yet injuries have held her back, most notably a wrist problem in 2017 that required surgery and saw her plummet out of the top 300 in the world. Bencic has persevered and won two titles since returning – both in 2019 – and reached two finals this year. But winning Olympic gold is the biggest achievement of her career by far.
“For me it’s not 'this tournament', it’s the freaking Olympic Games,” said an emotional Bencic after battling past Marketa Vondrousova in three sets.
“If I end my career now without winning any additional matches, then I would still be happy. What I have reached today no one can take away from me. I'm incredibly grateful for everyone who made this happen.”
Even for those who doubt the merits of tennis at the Olympics it can’t be too hard to see why this matters so much to Bencic. She is only the ninth woman in modern tennis to win a singles gold - joining the likes of Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, and Venus and Serena Williams – and only the second Swiss singles player to stand atop the Olympic podium. The only other player to win singles gold for Switzerland was Marc Rosset in 1992, with Roger Federer and Martina Hingis never managing to do so.
"I'm so happy. It's a dream coming true for sure,” said Bencic, who also won silver in the women’s doubles.
“I have no words how this happened and this is for sure the biggest thing I ever achieved and I will ever achieve.”
If this is indeed to be the biggest achievement of Bencic’s career, the question is whether it will also be a springboard to further success.
While Federer and Hingis both won multiple Grand Slams, Rosset was unable to follow up his gold in Barcelona with any major victories. The closest he came was making the semi-finals of the French Open in 1996, the only time he made it past the quarters of a Slam. Bencic’s results at majors right now look similar to Rosset’s. The 24-year-old has only made one semi-final – the US Open in 2019 – and in the last four years has only made it past the third round on two occasions. For a player with such talent that seems like an underachievement.
She has shown in her career that she can beat the best; she owns a 24–22 career record against top-10 players, which includes a 4-1 head-to-head record against Naomi Osaka. Even though her draw could have been tougher in Tokyo, she still beat both French Open finalists on her way to the gold medal match and avenged defeat from her previous match against Vondrousova earlier this year.

'What a win!' - Emotional Bencic clinches stunning tennis singles gold

But her 17-14 record this year shows her struggle for consistency. She has suffered disappointing defeats – losing in the first round at Wimbledon to world No 102 Kaja Juvan and the Berlin final to qualifier Liudmila Samsonova – and also several early exits at tournaments. Her comments after a first-round win at the Australian Open somewhat summed up her last few years. “It was extremely frustrating because I know how I can play but I cannot show it.”
Bencic dedicated her gold in Tokyo to Federer and Hingis, who was her inspiration growing up.
"I think I accomplished it for them. 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.”
It seems unlikely that Bencic will ever accomplish the same success in her career as either Federer or Hingis, but will she add at least one major to her Tokyo gold?
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