Growing up in Poland, Iga Swiatek loved hearing those stories about the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Her father, Tomasz, was a member of the men’s quadruple sculls entry that won the “B” final and finished seventh overall.
“One of his experiences was when he was standing in line to get food and he was standing next to Steffi Graf and [Gabriela] Sabatini,” Swiatek recently told ITFtennis.com. “So that was pretty cool.”
In the final, Graf defeated Sabatini – her partner earlier that year in winning the doubles at Wimbledon – and completed the historic Golden Slam.
Thirty-three years later, the narrative has swung full circle. Swiatek, 20 and already a Grand Slam champion, is likely to draw attention in the food line at Tokyo. She’s among the women’s tennis favorites at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s going to be nice playing with Poland on my T-shirt,” Swiatek said, “but if I could win a medal, it would probably be the highlight of my career.”
The Olympic difference
While most of the countries in eastern and central Europe were getting behind the sport of tennis, Poland and its population of 38 million were more focused on soccer, volleyball, motorcycling, cycling and ski jumping. Less than a year ago, Swiatek thrust tennis into the conversation. National television ratings of her run at Roland Garros 2020 last fall broke records. “Poland Garros” was the headline in the Polish sports daily Przeglad Sportowy. She now has nearly a half million Instagram followers and the ongoing event in Gdynia – the first Polish WTA tournament in 10 years – is a direct result of her success.
Swiatek’s not the only one with the support of an entire nation.
Consider four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, who will be playing before a home crowd with great expectations.
“I have allowed myself to dream that dream of winning the gold medal,” she said at the Miami Open.
This is the ninth Olympic competition for women’s tennis since 1988, and the field includes each of the top nine players in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen. Competition begins Saturday in Tokyo’s Ariake Tennis Park, and the medalists will ascend the podium one week later. The top three-ranked players – Ashleigh Barty, Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka – are all appearing in their first Olympic Games.
Monica Puig (shoulder surgery) won’t be able to defend her 2016 gold medal performance from Rio de Janeiro, but Russia’s Elena Vesnina (doubles gold), Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States (mixed doubles gold) and Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova (singles bronze) are all on hand to defend medals.
Joining a rich history
Barty watched from Down Under as fellow Australians Alicia Molik (singles bronze medal, Athens) and Casey Dellacqua competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympiads.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of players, tennis players, about their experiences in the Olympics, I think Alicia and Casey probably the most,” Barty said at Wimbledon. “And to be able to hear nothing but positivity, I just wanted to grab that opportunity.
“It was always a dream of mine. To be able to be officially named is awesome. I’m proud. I’m bloody proud to be able to be a part of an Australian Olympic team.”
After winning Wimbledon, Barty comes in with massive momentum; she’s the sixth active woman to record two major wins.
“Any time you get to represent Australia and wear the green and gold, obviously I just love it,” Barty said. “I really, really love it. I think I’ve had a bit of a taste of it at Fed Cup. The Olympics obviously has so much history. For Aussies in particular, we have such a rich history in our Australian Olympians doing exceptionally well.
“I hope that this team, not just the tennis team, but all of us can do Aussies proud at home.”
Something new for Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka was 18 when she first represented Belarus in Federation Cup play. She beat Michaella Krajicek that day and helped Belarus get to the 2017 final. There, Sabalenka beat Sloane Stephens, but Belarus fell 3-2 to the United States.
Sabalenka has taken every opportunity to wear red and green, appearing in eight Billie Jean King Cup ties and producing a 10-6 record.
“I’m really happy to represent my country, my people and I want to do everything I can to make sure that Belarus is proud of me,” Sabalenka told the ITF website. “I want to represent my country as strong people who can fight through everything.
“It’s my first Olympic Games and I’m really looking forward [to it]. This is something new for me.”
This year, Sabalenka, 23, has risen to new heights. She’s ranked a career-high No.3 and advanced to her first career Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.
“This is something unbelievable,” she said, “and I can’t really think about this.”
Taking the next step?
Five years ago, Elina Svitolina scored a remarkable victory over Serena Williams in the round of 16 at Rio de Janeiro. Although she lost to Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, Svitolina has long been looking forward to a return to the Olympics.
The only thing that’s occupied her thoughts to a larger degree? Her marriage to fellow tennis professional Gael Monfils.
Svitolina wed last Friday, and four days later – fear not, the honeymoon is scheduled for November – the world No.6 was hitting balls at Ariake Park.
“It’s unbelievable to be fair,” said Svitolina, the 26-year-old Ukrainian. “So many exciting events in my life. Now it’s so nice to be at the Olympics. “It was unbelievable to have a wedding and right now, with the Covid restrictions, it was unbelievable to have two families join together.
“But now we are here. We have to prepare and hopefully to play well here in Tokyo.”
Svitolina is hoping to improve on that quarterfinals effort of five years ago.
“The goal, for me, is to get that Olympic medal,” she said. “For my country, Olympics is a big thing. They really support you unbelievably when the athletes are competing in the Olympics, so it’s very special for Ukraine.
“I definitely will do my best to prepare to get that medal.”
Finding that Olympic edge
For someone who was a teenager less than two months ago, Swiatek has amassed an impressive international portfolio.
In 2016, she led Poland to the junior Fed Cup title. Two years later, she was a French Open junior doubles champion with Caty McNally. Later Swiatek won doubles gold in the Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires with Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan.
One of the key factors in her championship fortnight in Paris – and the recent fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon – is mental strength. She’ll try to convince herself that her country’s fervent sports fans will not be willing her to win gold.
“I’m trying to keep my expectations low and think of it as just the next tournament,” Swiatek said. “It doesn’t happen often, playing an Olympics, so it may stress me out.”
For Svitolina, there will be extra motivation.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Billie Jean King Cup or if it’s Olympics,” she said. “It’s always something extra and you find this edge to fight more and try to play better. Olympics for me is always an important event and I’m extremely proud to represent Ukraine.
“All the time when we have Olympic year, I look forward to that and I try to prepare as best as I can. For me, it’s very special when I play for my country.”