Not long after the turn of the 20th century, women’s tennis was featured at three Olympiads. Marguerite Broquedis, Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills all came away with gold medals. It was 64 years before it happened again – in spectacular fashion with Stefanie Graf’s golden performance at the 1988 Seoul Games.
Starting on Saturday at Tokyo’s Ariake Tennis Forest Park, the weeklong competition for gold will command the world’s attention. The three top-ranked players – Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka – lead a crowded field intent on joining a rich, robust history.
There have been eight modern Olympic singles champions, and six of them rose to the World No.1 ranking and won multiple Grand Slams. Graf and Justine Henin, along with Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, all won gold. Two of them were teenagers and two only 20. Elena Dementieva and, most recently, Monica Puig matched that achievement – the highlight of their respective careers.
“This is what I was waiting for,” Dementieva said after winning 13 years ago in Beijing. “This is what I was working for. This is the biggest moment in my career, my life.”
Here’s a look back at the those eight winners:
Stefanie Graf, West Germany, 1988
The 19-year-old Graf defeated Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 6-3 in the gold medal final in Seoul to become the first tennis player to achieve the “Golden Slam,” – all four majors and the Olympic gold in a calendar year.
The strain of winning the Grand Slam left her physically and mentally tired entering the fall event, but gradually she recovered a rhythm.
“I’m very excited,” Graf said at the time. “It’s something that not many people after me will achieve.”
Thirty-three years later, she’s still the only one.
Jennifer Capriati, United States, 1992
Capriati came back from a set down to defending champion Graf to win gold at the outdoor clay courts in Barcelona. She remains – at 16 years and 4 months – the youngest Olympic tennis champion ever.
“I got the chills out there,” Capriati said. “This is unbelievable. I mean, I can’t believe it. The last two weeks, I saw all the other athletes up there on the victory stand and I thought, ‘Wow, that would be so cool.’”
Lindsay Davenport, United States, 1996
After beating her best friend, Mary Joe Fernandez, in the semifinals, Davenport bested Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the final 7-6 (8), 6-2. Davenport, 20, won her home Olympic Games, in Atlanta.
“It definitely changed my life,” Davenport said, “because then every time I was going into a tournament or a major, it was, `Well, why not? I can do this.’
“I think in all the pictures I’ve seen, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, is this real?’ I couldn’t get over that feeling.”
Venus Williams, United States, 2000
After defeating Elena Dementieva 6-2, 6-4 to win her first Olympic gold medal, Venus went out with sister Serena a day later and secured her second gold in Sydney. The Williamses prevailed over Kristie Boogert and Miriam Oremans of the Netherlands – the first of three gold medals in doubles (preceding 2008 Beijing and 2012 London).
Venus, 20, was the first woman to win singles and doubles in the same Olympics since Helen Wills in 1924. A dozen years after Venus, Serena accomplished the same feat.
Justine Henin, Belgium, 2004
The 22-year-old Belgian had been fighting an energy-sapping immune disease and, after passing on Wimbledon, Henin didn’t think playing in Athens would be possible.
“I thought the Olympic Games are not going to be for me this time,” she said. “But then I decided to go because it was an experience you maybe live once.”
Henin had played only two matches in the past four months and was down 5-1 in the third set of the semifinals but rallied to defeat Anastasia Myskina 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. Henin beat Amelie Mauresmo in the final.
“After what happened in the semifinal, I felt like nothing could happen to me anymore,” Henin said. “I was sure I was going to win that match.”
Elena Dementieva, Russia, 2008
In her 12-year career, Dementieva would reach the semifinals of all four majors – and the finals at the 2004 French Open and US Open – but nothing would compare to her experience in Beijing.
Four years earlier, she lost in the first round in Athens but defeated fellow Russian Dinara Safina 7-5, 6-3 in the final to capture gold.
“I can’t even compare a Grand Slam to the Olympic Games,” Dementieva said, “it’s just so much bigger.”
Serena Williams, United States, 2012
The final was over in 63 minutes. Serena took down Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 at the All England Club in Wimbledon. It was the most dominant performance in a women’s Olympic final.
“Oh my gosh, I got the gold,” Serena said. “I’ve never played better. Playing against someone like Maria, you have to be at your best. I knew that, so it was like I had nothing to lose.
“I never expected gold in singles. I was so happy with my doubles golds. I thought, `If my career’s over I have my gold medal and now I have everything.’”
Monica Puig, Puerto Rico, 2016
She was ranked No.34 in the world, yet Puig left a trail of Grand Slam champions in her considerable wake in Rio de Janeiro. She beat Garbiñe Muguruza in the quarterfinals, Petra Kvitova in the semifinals and Angelique Kerber, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, in the final.
It was the first gold medal for Puerto Rico in the 68-year history at the Summer Olympics. Puig was also the first Puerto Rican woman to win a medal.
“I’m so proud to be part of history," Puig said. “It hasn’t hit me just yet, but I’m aware that one day I’ll look back and maybe add a little value to what just happened.”