Just as we've seen for a good part of the 2021 season, the central storyline at Tokyo 2020 has been the unpredictable field down the stretch.
Only one Top 5 player is vying for a medal at this year's Olympic Games. But that certainly is no slight to the final four who will be competing Saturday.
In the gold medal match, No.9 Belinda Bencic takes on Marketa Vondrousova. Bencic has showed how mentally strong she is during clutch moments, while Vondrousova has dominated most of the week in Tokyo. Ranked No. 42, she has yet to drop a set since her first match.
"I was thinking that [to win] two or three matches would have been great, and then I beat Naomi [Osaka] so then I thought that I was playing well and that maybe I could even do better," Vondrousova told the ITF after her last match. "I'm now just happy to be in the final. It's an amazing feeling."
Elina Svitolina and Elena Rybakina will square off for the bronze medal in a nice contrast of playing styles.
How will these matches play out? We break it down.
Gold medal: No.9 Belinda Bencic (Switzerland) vs. Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
For Switzerland's Belinda Bencic, Saturday's Olympic final represents a chance at history, an opportunity to do something her own idols and mentors — Roger Federer and Martina Hingis — have never done: win an Olympic singles gold medal.
The World No.12 may not have been a pre-tournament favorite for gold, but she has now made the final of two of her past four events. She did so on the grass in Berlin last month. As she prepares to take on Marketa Vondrousova's crafty, lefty game, Bencic arrives at Saturday's gold medal match battle-hardened. Bencic has won three straight deciding sets, over Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Rybakina in the semifinals.
🇨🇭 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
It would be an incredible achievement for the former junior No.1. Much has been hoped for and expected ever since the whispers spread in the tennis world about a 7-year-old Swiss talent, who was so good that Hingis' mother, Melanie Molitor, agreed to train her. Bencic was the No.1 Junior at 16 years old, the youngest US Open quarterfinalist since Hingis at 17, and the first teenager to debut in the Top 10 in seven years when she was just 18. Before the pandemic upended the tennis calendar last year, Bencic had capped off a stunning comeback from injury to reach a career-high No.4 and qualify for her first Shiseido WTA Final Shenzhen.
No Swiss woman has ever won Olympic gold in tennis. Marc Rosset is the lone Swiss man to win the singles event, at Barcelona 1996.
Federer had to settle for silver in singles at London 2012, where he lost to Andy Murray in the gold medal match. Four years earlier in Beijing, Federer captured doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka. Hingis captured silver with Timea Bacsinszky in doubles five years ago in Rio.
Now comes Bencic, a prodigy in her own right who was shepherded through the pro tour by Federer and Hingis and now has a chance to sweep the singles and doubles events in her Olympic debut, having also made the doubles final alongside Viktorija Golubic. The last player to sweep at an Olympics was Serena Williams at London 2012. -- Courtney Nguyen
Yes, Marketa Vondrousova is ranked only No.42 in the world, but she has been absolutely lethal in the clutch moments. Break points are where you make your money in professional tennis, and the Czech Republic player has piled up a big stash in Tokyo.
In the semifinals against Elina Svitolina, Vondrousova created seven break points – and converted five. It wasn’t a fluke. Look at her four previous matches: Paula Badosa (3-for-5), Naomi Osaka (5-for-11), Mihaela Buzarnescu (5-for-14) and Kiki Bertens (3-for-5). It works out to a grand total of 21-for-42 (50 percent).
Bencic has some phenomenal break numbers herself, but she might be feeling the heat of trying to do something fellow Swiss athletes Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka couldn’t – win a singles gold medal.
And then there is Vondrousova’s forehand, a weapon that repeatedly overpowered Svitolina. Vondrousova isn’t afraid to move forward either, and is pretty handy around the net. She’s also playing with a chip on her shoulder after using a protected ranking to slide into the Czech lineup ahead of Karolina Muchova. Don’t discount this edge in her game.
Two year ago, Vondrousova surprised a lot of people when she reached the final at 2019 Roland Garros. She was 19. Saturday, she takes the final step to a breakthrough title. -- Greg Garber
Bronze medal: No.4 Elina Svitolina (Ukraine) vs. No.15 Elena Rybakina (Kazakhstan)
In a 2019 interview with the New York Times, Elina Svitolina described herself as a "hustler." The Ukrainian has no delusions about her abilities, but makes up for it with a determination to maximise and squeeze every last drop out of them. At times, she'll get overpowered and outplayed — as in the Olympic semifinals by Marketa Vondrousova. That's just how tennis is. But Svitolina can rarely be discounted completely, and she knows how to bounce back when least expected.
Few expected her to beat Serena Williams at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Or to be crowned WTA Finals champion in 2018. Or to reach back-to-back semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2019. Or even to reach the last four in Tokyo this week, considering she had not made a semifinal since Stuttgart in April.
But there's a reason Svitolina hasn't left the Top 10 since May 2017, and that's her sheer stickability. She clings on to opportunities like a limpet, and if she gets outhit then she recovers for the next one.
Svitolina will need all her resilience to bounce back this time. Rybakina is yet another taller, stronger opponent with more obvious weaponry. She used that to defeat Svitolina in Eastbourne just a month ago. But these are slower courts, which suit Svitolina more — and, paradoxically, it's often been the more straightforward Olympic semifinal loser who stands a better chance in the bronze playoff.
Rybakina fell in 2 hours and 44 minutes to Belinda Bencic, compared to Svitolina's 64 minutes against Marketa Vondrousova. And while the Kazakh has the power, Svitolina — as she has demonstrated time and again — has the hustle to scrap her way to a first tennis medal for Ukraine. -- Alex Macpherson
Elena Rybakina will be dictating the bronze medal match. This is no slight against the effective, cerebral play of Elina Svitolina — it’s just how this Olympiad has gone.
Rybakina has hit at least 16 more winners than her opponent in each of her matches this week, including her quarterfinal upset of Garbiñe Muguruza, and even in her semifinal loss to Belinda Bencic. Rybakina’s deep, powerful groundstrokes have been ably bolstered by her serve, which is averaging nearly four aces per set in Tokyo.
“I was hitting like this, hard and fast, since I'm young,” Rybakina said after ousting Serena Williams at this year’s French Open. “Of course, before it was many more mistakes, many more wrong decisions. So I'm trying to work on it. But it was always like this. I was hitting hard, and this is my advantage.”
As she noted, Rybakina can die by the sword. With a real chance to play for a gold medal, the powerful shots went awry at tense times against Bencic. Double faults and miscues cost Rybakina her serve while leading 5-3 in the first set, and she did not connect on multiple set points later in the opener. After dropping that set, Rybakina could not recover in a three-set battle.
However, 22-year-old Rybakina will be freed of much of that tension as the underdog against fourth-seeded and more experienced Svitolina. The winners will continue to flow from her racquet, and it will be up to her if they appear at pivotal moments. If they can, Kazakhstan’s first Olympic medal in tennis might be hers. -- Jason Juzwiak