Elena Vesnina has made good on her pre-Olympic promise to ROC(k) us.

In the hunt for two medals this weekend, the reigning Olympic doubles champion will play for a second gold medal on her 35th birthday after she and countryman Aslan Karatsev edged past Novak Djokovic and Nina Stojanovic, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

“It was amazing to play against such a champion like Novak,” Vesnina told me on WhatsApp. “To beat him is an amazing achievement and makes being in the Olympic final all the more special. It’s an incredible feeling, and I still can’t believe it, but this has made every second of this comeback worth it."

The opportunity to play a fourth Olympic Games was the driving force behind her decision to end a 33-month maternity leave; in the five months since she first returned to action, Vesnina reached major finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon—in mixed and women’s doubles, respectively—and roared into the medal rounds in both disciplines in addition to winning a maiden singles match over Jelena Ostapenko.


When people know you’re an Olympic champion, there’s an instant respect...because it’s something you did for your country. It’s not just a trophy, or a cup that you won; it’s a title on behalf of the nation. Elena Vesnina

“Since I was a child, it was always my dream to have an Olympic gold medal—nothing else, only gold!” Vesnina told me back in January. “When I was growing up, I watched all kinds of sports, but especially the Winter Olympic sports, oddly enough! I don’t know why, but I watched so much of the ice hockey, the figure skating, skiing. I was a huge fan. What I remember most was, of course, the Opening Ceremonies, when they would light the torch, and all of the athletes would match with their flags.

“When I was on tour, we had Grand Slams and many other tournaments to prioritize, but the Olympic Games was extra special because it only came once every four years. With the calendar, it’s always tough to prepare for that, but it was always on my mind.”

Though Vesnina and Veronika Kudermetova fell in the semifinals to top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, the Wimbledon finalists will nonetheless take on Brazilians Laura Pigossi and Luisa Stefani for bronze on Saturday before an anticipated all-ROC final with Karatsev against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev. Karen Khachanov rounds out the ROC athletes competing for medals in tennis, and will play Alexander Zverev in the men's final.

"I’ve been so happy to play with Aslan and even in general, our ROC team has been super successful. We’re all good friends, supporting and watching each other’s’ matches. Looking ahead to the finals, we’re going to give everything we have.”


By far the most experienced Olympian on a talented tennis team, Vesnina has assumed the role of de facto team leader and den mother in Tokyo, documenting her time in the Olympic Village on social media and in video diaries for Russia’s Первый Канал (Channel 1).

The former No. 1 has also enthusiastically taken on the challenge of cheering Karatsev through three mixed match wins without dropping a set, and is notably among the few capable of getting her super-serious partner to crack a smile.

“He’s a quiet guy, and he tends to be more introverted with his thoughts about his game,” she said at Roland Garros. “I do what I can to relax the atmosphere, so I’ll tell him, ‘You’re better. You’re so much better than everyone else on the court. Just play your game, and go with the flow, because you’re playing great and you’re the best.’”


In the semifinals they on one hand faced a Serbian team blunted by Djokovic’s shocking singles defeat to Zverev, but on the other a team doubly inspired to grab a gold medal now that the No. 1’s Calendar Year Golden Slam was ostensibly out of reach.

Vesnina and Karatsev navigated an early exchange of breaks and saved a set point only to unleash their best tennis for the ensuing tiebreaker, racing ahead 5-2 before ultimately sealing the Sudden Death with the unflappable combination of a Karatsev service winner and an affirmative Vesnina “Дa!”

Trailing 2-4 in the second, the Russians rallied once more and Vesnina successfully shook Karatsev out of a 0-30 slump to remain in front. With the set tied at five games apiece, they ripped through the final eight points, securing victory when a Vesnina return overpowered Djokovic at net.


WATCH: Vesnina made a winning return to action at the Qatar Total Open in February, her first tournament since giving birth to daughter Elizaveta in 2018.


Should Vesnina go undefeated in her medal matches she would tie the likes of Andy Murray in total tennis Olympic medals and rank just behind the Williams sisters and their combined nine medals—eight of which are gold. At a muted Olympics not only devoid of crowd energy but also the Russian flag and national anthem, her heroics have likely already earned her an unforgettable homecoming.

“When people know you’re an Olympic champion, there’s an instant respect,” she said. “The people thank you and give that respect to you, because it’s something you did for your country. It’s not just a trophy, or a cup that you won; it’s a title on behalf of the nation. This is important for you, but even more so for those around you.

"I felt this way right after the Olympics, and still feel that way now, four and five years later.”