Go ahead, assess the propulsive value of earning an Olympic gold medal in singles. This is arguably an impossible task. Consider the last two winners of the women’s event. Monica Puig played magnificent tennis in Rio four years ago—and since then has only once reached the third round of a major. Serena Williams was fantastic at the London Games in 2012, adding yet another jewel to a glittering crown.

And what about this year’s winner, Belinda Bencic? Her six wins in Tokyo—not including her silver medal-finish in women’s doubles with Viktorija Golubic—were capped off with four straight three-setters, each with score lines that suggested ample drama and the case for grit over dominance. In the round of 16, victory over Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3. Next, Bencic beat Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-0, 3-6, 6-3. A semifinal win versus Elena Rybakina, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-3. And finally, in the gold medal match, Bencic took down Marketa Vondrousova, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.

It’s an odd thing about Bencic. Such assets as sharp groundstrokes and keen court sense suggest the capacity for consistency. And yet, her career has been punctuated by a rollercoaster-like quality: moments when Bencic surfaces brilliantly, followed by exiles from tennis’ main street.


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Six years ago, at the age of 18, Bencic beat four top six players, including Serena, to win the title in Toronto. But a wrist injury so derailed her that by 2017, she’d tumbled to No. 165 in the rankings. Two years later, Bencic reached the semis of the US Open, a run highlighted by a sparkling victory over defending champion Naomi Osaka. Since then, though, Bencic has floundered, in five majors only twice reaching the third round. Earlier this month, at Wimbledon, Bencic was seeded ninth and lost her opening match to 102nd-ranked Kaja Juvan.

Full disclosure here is that I have long had a zealous appreciation for those who play like Bencic—smooth and crisp, exceptionally able to feel the ball, address it early, disguise their intent and direct their shots artfully. Bencic’s mentor, Martina Hingis, did this magnificently and is one of my personal all-time favorites. Others of similar style include Daniela Hantuchova, Miloslav Mecir, Karol Kucera, Jiri Novak.

To a great degree, this approach requires exceptional attention, discipline, footwork and movement. Alas, there come times when Bencic loses that focus and becomes sluggish and passive, arriving to the ball late, misfiring on makeable shots. Her serve can go awry too. And it’s also the case that in the front part of the court, Bencic is mostly comfortable hitting swing volleys in lieu of traditional volleys or overheads. Still just 24 years old, might she be able to refine these skills?

As so many players have proven in recent years, the tennis journey holds the possibility of being far longer than was once the case—that is, so long as the athlete continues to devote time to everything from skills to fitness. In the latter category, Bencic proved superb in Tokyo, highlighted by winning a finals match that was played in oppressive, conditions, with the temperature nearly 90 and the humidity 70 percent. On its own, Bencic earned a fantastic triumph. As a tea leaf, extremely difficult to read.