World No.12 Belinda Bencic is into the gold medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics after defeating Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-3 in the semifinals Thursday. The Swiss star will face the Czech Republic's Marketa Vondrousova, who beat Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-1.
On Saturday, Bencic, 24, will look to win Switzerland's first singles gold medal since Marc Rosset won the men's event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Bencic's run to the gold medal match also ensures Switzerland will medal in a fourth 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.
"My emotions right now ... it's too high,” Bencic told the ITF. "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."
After 2 hours and 44 minutes, Bencic closed out a tense rollercoaster duel to hold off an in-form Rybakina, who had not lost a set in Tokyo heading into the semifinals. Coming back from the brink, Bencic rallied from 2-5 down in the first set and saved six set points to steal the opener, and then overcame an early break in the decider to win the last four games of the match. The win is Bencic's third consecutive three-set victory in Tokyo, having also beaten Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova and Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Playing in her first Olympic Games after having to skip Rio 2016 due to injury, Bencic, a former junior No.1, has a shot at two medals in Tokyo. Bencic has also advanced to the doubles semifinal with Viktorija Golubic. It's been a memorable Olympic debut, one that a certain Swiss great is following closely from home.
"For sure, [Wawrinka and Federer] are both following everything. Especially Roger,” Bencic told the ITF earlier in the week. "I know he’s following from Futures to Challengers to Olympics to everything. … He definitely knows what’s going on and how we play. He messaged us after the doubles yesterday, so I’m sure he’s watching.”
In their first career meeting, it was Rybakina who looked prime to seal a spot in the final. Bencic was able to secure an early break at 2-1 in the first set, but a trio of double faults on game points allowed Rybakina to get the break back and level at 2-2. From there, the Roland Garros quarterfinalist reeled off three more games to lead 5-2.
Rybakina came within a point of sealing the first set six times, but Bencic found a way to fend her off. Having lost four consecutive games, Bencic finally stopped the Kazakh's run with a hold to 3-5. The Swiss followed it up with a break and then wiped out two set points in the following game to level the set at 5-5.
The 12th game proved to be the turning point of the tumultuous opening set. Rybakina's steady baseline game earned her four more set points, but the 22-year-old could not break through the Bencic serve, which wobbled but was not broken. After saving set point No.6 with a clean ace and finally holding serve, Bencic played a composed tiebreak to race away, winning 7-2.
Rybakina, who still has a shot to win Kazakhstan's first Olympic tennis medal in the bronze medal match, will surely regret her missed opportunities. After bouncing back to take the second set 6-4, Rybakina broke early to lead 2-0 in the deciding set. The big-hitting Kazakh had a sitting forehand to retain her break advantage in the third set at 3-1, 40-15, only to sail it well long and give Bencic more chances to get the break back, which she did. Then at 3-3, 30-all, Rybakina got a second serve to hit and sent the forehand return needlessly long, allowing Bencic to ultimately hold serve.
Having retaken the momentum after digging out of her 0-2 deficit, Bencic would win the last four games of the match. After breaking Rybakina to 5-3, the Swiss closed 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. She is now 10-4 in three-set matches in 2021 and has made the final in two of her past four events.
🇨🇭 Switzerland is guaranteed a tennis medal of any colour for the FOURTH #Olympics in a row!— ITF (@ITFTennis) July 29, 2021
Beijing 2008: 🥇 for Federer/Wawrinka in doubles
London 2012: 🥈 for Federer in singles
Rio 2016: 🥈 for Hingis/Bacsinszky in doubles#Tokyo2020: 🥇 or 🥈 for @BelindaBencic#Tennis
Vondrousova defeats Svitolina, books Czech Republic's first Olympic singles final
Like Bencic, Marketa Vondrousova has spent her career looking up to a plethora of national tennis icons. And like Bencic, the 22-year-old took a step toward joining them in her own right with a 6-3, 6-1 dissection of No.4 seed Elina Svitolina in the Tokyo semifinals.
Vondrousova's victory guarantees the Czech Republic its best singles tennis medal. Previously, Jana Novotna and Petra Kvitova were bronze medallists, at Atlanta 1996 and Rio 2016 respectively, while Slovak Miloslav Mecir was the men's gold medallist playing for the former Czechoslovakia at Seoul 1988.
Vondrousova also has the opportunity to bring home the first tennis gold for the Czech Republic. The country's best tennis medals to date are a duo of silvers in women's doubles: Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova at Atlanta 1996 (the pair also won silver for Czechoslovakia at Seoul 1988), and Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Sestini Hlavackova at Rio 2016.
"I can't believe it," Vondrousova told the ITF. "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.
"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."
World No.42 Vondrousova, who only gained entry into the Games via a protected ranking, trailed Svitolina 1-3 in their previous head-to-head. But she had dominated their last meeting, winning 6-3, 6-0 in the 2020 Rome quarterfinals, and picked up where she left off there.
The drop shot, Vondrousova's trademark weapon, inevitably played a significant role in proceedings. A clean winner with one paved the way to an immediate break of the Svitolina serve. Though a pair of netted attempts handed that straight back, Vondrousova garnered far more success with it overall.
Her ability to mix up play with the shot played havoc with Svitolina's rhythm; frequently, even when the Ukrainian got up to it in good time, she was unable to control her next shot.
First woman from #CZE to reach an #Olympics singles final: Czech ✅@VondrousovaM was flawless in a 6-3 6-1 semi-final victory against No.4 seed Elina Svitolina and now stands one win away from #Gold#Tokyo2020 | #Tennis— ITF (@ITFTennis) July 29, 2021
Vondrousova's positioning following every drop shot was also impeccable. Having regained her first-set break lead courtesy of two consecutive Svitolina double faults, Vondrousova came up with a pair of breathtaking passes to break the 26-year-old again to capture the set.
Svitolina's first serve percentage is often the key to her victories, and landing only 47% of her first serves in the opening set didn't cut it. This improved in the second set, but not enough, as her overall percentage came in at only 56%. As Svitolina fell behind 0-3, she attempted to reverse the passage of play by upping her aggression - but her foundation wasn't solid enough to execute this successfully.
Instead, Svitolina found herself going for too much at the wrong points in rallies, and consequently burying herself with 29 unforced errors to only 13 winners. The midpoint of the set saw a potential turning point: trailing 0-3, 0-30, Svitolina found her best serves of the day to cling on for a hold, and found the door ajar in the next game as Vondrousova coughed up a nervy double fault and netted drop shot.
But Vondrousova stepped up to slam the door shut. She came up with a superb volley to extend her lead to 4-1 and thence ease to victory, nailing a forehand pass on her first match point.
The gold medal match will be a reprise of a 2-hour, 24-minute marathon in the third round of Miami this March, which Vondrousova won 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 over Bencic. Vondrousova has just one tour-level title to her name thus far, having won Biel 2017 in just her second WTA main draw and overall is 1-3 in finals. But she has competed in a bigger title match than Bencic, having been runner-up to Ashleigh Barty at Roland Garros 2019.
Bencic's record in finals is 4-8. She has lost both that she has played in 2021 so far, in Adelaide to Iga Swiatek and in Berlin to Liudmila Samsonova. Her last title came at Moscow 2019.
Svitolina, meanwhile, will get an opportunity to bring home Ukraine's first Olympic tennis medal against Rybakina in the bronze medal match. The pair have split two previous meetings, both within the past year, with Svitolina winning on clay in the 2020 Strasbourg final and Rybakina avenging the loss on grass in Eastbourne.