Years: 2004 - 2012
An innovation for the Sydney tennis event was the introduction of ranking points for the men. There is a school of thought that says the Olympics itself is enough of an incentive without the need for a player to earn ranking points. But the counter argument is that, as the Olympic tennis championships are such a prestigious event, the best performances should be a contributory factor in a player’s personal ranking.
Four years later in Athens, where concerns that some of the Olympic venues wouldn’t be ready in time were thankfully unfounded, ranking points became available for women, too. Justine Henin, then playing under her married name of Henin-Hardenne, cashed in by taking the singles gold medal, confirming her position as the world’s top player.
Henin’s toughest match was a three-set battle with Anastasia Myskina in the semifinals, which spurred her on to gold but had a contrasting effect on her opponent. The Belgian went on to defeat Amelie Mauresmo 63 64 in the final, while a jaded Myskina fell to Alicia Molik in the bronze medal play-off.
The women’s doubles saw the emergence on the tennis scene of China, a good sign ahead of the imminent Games in Beijing. Li Ting and Sun Tian-Tian sealed the gold medal with a 63 63 victory over Spain’s Conchita Martinez and Virginia Ruano Pascual. Despite the loss it was a historic moment for Martinez, who became the first tennis player in Olympic history to win a medal at three separate Games (the Williams sisters have since equalled this record).
But the Athens tennis event will long be remembered for one country, Chile, and one man in particular, Nicolas Massu. The man from Vina del Mar stormed through the men’s singles draw, accounting for two former world No. 1s, Gustavo Kuerten and Carlos Moya, in the early rounds. After beating Taylor Dent in the semifinals, he found himself up against another American in the final, Mardy Fish, and it took all his effort to come from behind and win an epic encounter 63 36 26 63 64.
And there was more to come from Massu. After his compatriot Fernando Gonzalez overcame Dent to claim bronze in the singles, the Chilean pair teamed up to win the doubles gold medal. The Chileans again trailed by two-sets-to-one in the final and again found a way back, eventually overcoming German duo Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler 62 46 36 76(7) 64.
Next stop for the Olympic circus was Beijing, in 2008, and it was a case of Russian domination in the women’s singles event as Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva sealed an impressive clean sweep of gold, silver and bronze. In the final, Dementieva outlasted her fellow countrywoman Safina 36 75 63 to claim what is undoubtedly her biggest achievement in the game, having never managed to win an elusive Grand Slam title.
In the men’s singles, Rafael Nadal added an Olympic gold medal to his ever expanding trophy cabinet. The Spaniard surprisingly lost a set against the lowly ranked Potito Starace in the first round, but it was the last one he would drop on his way to Olympic glory. He defeated Fernando Gonzalez, who went one better than his bronze in Athens, 63 76(2) 63 in the final. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic took bronze with victory over James Blake.
The women’s doubles gold medal went, for the second time in their career, to American sisters Venus and Serena Williams, while the men’s doubles will stick long in the memory for something that happened off the court. The Swiss pairing of Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka won the gold medal after a four-set win over Sweden’s Simon Aspelin and Thomas Johansson, but it was Federer’s tears on the podium that captured the public’s imagination. Here was the most successful player in the history of the men's game crying through the sheer joy of winning for his country on the world’s biggest stage.
If Beijing was a success, then London 2012 took the Olympic Tennis Event to a new level. Played on the hallowed grass courts of The All England Lawn Tennis Club, home to the Wimbledon Championships, the world's best players gathered once more with Serena Williams and Andy Murray stealing the headlines by winning the singles gold medals, while they also enjoyed success on the doubles court.
Williams was completely dominant and swept aside all before her with consummate ease. The American lost just 17 games on her way to the title, including a comprehensive 60 61 victory over Russia’s Maria Sharapova in the final. Williams, fresh from winning her fifth Wimbledon title, dropped her serve just once during the tournament.
Serena also teamed up with her sister Venus to successfully defend the women’s doubles gold medal after defeating Czech Republic’s Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 64 64. This milestone result saw the Americans become the only tennis players ever to win four gold medals, following their past Olympic successes at Sydney and Beijing.
Murray delighted the British fans by brushing aside Switzerland’s Roger Federer in straight sets to claim the men’s singles gold medal. Just four weeks after he lost to the same opponent in the Wimbledon final, the world No. 4 turned the tables to win 62 61 64 in 1 hour 56 minutes. It was an astonishing change of fortunes for Murray, who had so often played second fiddle to Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the preceeding years. The Scot became the first British tennis player to win a singles gold medal since Major Josiah Ritchie achieved the feat over a century before at London 1908.
Murray wasn’t finished there, either. Teaming up with teenager Laura Robson, the British duo came within a whisker of winning the mixed doubles event, eventually losing to No. 1 seeds Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi 16 63 [10-8]. It was a historic moment for the Belarus pair who claimed their country’s first ever tennis gold medal. It was also a historic moment for the mixed doubles event, which was being contested as a full medal sport at the Olympics for the first time since Paris 1924.
The men’s doubles gold medal went to twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, who had long coveted the top Olympic prize. The Americans, seeded No. 1, overcame France’s Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 64 76(2) to win the title, improving on their bronze medal finish at Beijing 2008.
Tennis is well and truly back in the Olympic family. And when one observes the joy and pride on the faces of those tennis players, like Federer, who have had the honour of carrying their country’s Olympic flag in the opening ceremony, it is clear that, even in a sport where the top players can do so well financially, the five rings really do mean something very special. Roll on Rio 2016…
First written by the late John Parsons and updated by Chris Bowers and Chris Archer.