If 2020 went on as planned, the stars of the ATP and WTA tours would be battling it out over the weekend for Olympic glory in Tokyo. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll instead have to wait until next summer to chase gold.
Until then, we thought we’d take a trip down memory lane to celebrate the 10 best Olympic tennis players in the Open Era. It dates back to when tennis became an official medal sport in 1988, and everyone on the list is a member of a very exclusive Olympic singles champion club.
Before she became the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion, Davenport won the first huge title of her career at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Ranked No. 10 at the time, a 20-year-old Davenport upset four of her fellow Top 10 players in a row—No. 5 Anke Huber, No. 4 Iva Majoli, No. 8 Mary Joe Fernandez and No. 3 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario—to capture the gold medal and take her career to a whole new level. She broke the Top 5 later that year, then spent time at No. 1 in eight of the following 10 years.
“This means everything to me,” she said afterwards. “No matter what happens in my life, I’ll always be a gold medalist. Especially doing it in my country, when the crowd was really for me, it was great.”
Even though she was just 16 at the time, Capriati was already one of the top players in the world, reaching the semifinals at three of the four majors and No. 6 on the rankings. But her run to the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was her biggest breakthrough yet. In the semifinals. she beat No. 3 Sanchez-Vicario, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, then outlasted No. 2 Steffi Graf in the final, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“It was so emotional,” Capriati told the New York Times about hearing the national anthem being played during the medal ceremony. “I had chills the whole time. I just couldn’t believe it. All week I watched the other athletes up there and I was with them and I thought, ‘Wow, that would be so cool.’”
8: Miroslav Mecir
The Slovak was extremely successful on tour, reaching two Grand Slam finals and getting up to No. 4 in the ATP rankings. But he’s best remembered for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where he not only won gold in men’s singles—stunning then-No. 3 Stefan Edberg in the semifinals ahead of a final triumph over Tim Mayotte—but also picking up a bronze medal in men’s doubles with Milan Srejber.
“When I won I felt all sorts of emotions at the same time,” Mecir told the BBC during the London Olympics in 2012. “It’s difficult to realize at the time what’s really happened, but I felt great happiness. These days I feel it a little more when people ask me about it. I still have my medals back home.”
The Russian is best known for reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2004, at Roland Garros and the US Open, but she played some of her very best tennis at the Olympics, too. Dementieva not only won gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, ousting Serena Williams along the way to anchoring a Russian podium sweep, but she also won silver as an 18-year-old at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, falling to the No. 1 player on this list in the gold medal match.
“It’s very difficult to explain the way I feel right now. I think it will take a few days before I realize I’m an Olympic champion,” Dementieva said after beating Dinara Safina for the gold medal in Beijing. “But this is, for sure, the biggest moment in my career, in my life. I will never forget this moment.”
6: Steffi Graf
Like Dementieva, Graf has one gold and one silver in singles. She won the Seoul Olympics in 1988, which completed the only calendar-year Golden Slam in tennis history, and she was a runner-up to Capriati at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. But the German has a third medal, a bronze in women’s doubles in Seoul alongside countrywoman Claudia Kohde-Kilsch.
Her historic 1988 season, including her Olympic triumph, may never be repeated.
“I came here very tired. I was not expecting too much of myself,” Graf said in Seoul, having just come from winning the US Open. “I’m very excited. It’s something not many people after me will achieve.”
5: Rafael Nadal
Of the Big 3, Nadal has had the most success at the Olympics. Roger Federer has a silver medal in singles and gold medal in doubles, while Novak Djokovic has a bronze medal in singles. But the Spaniard has gold in both disciplines—he won gold in singles at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a run that propelled him to No. 1, and he won gold in doubles at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with Marc Lopez.
He nearly won a singles medal in Rio, too—he barely lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5), before narrowly falling to Kei Nishikori in the bronze medal match, 6-2, 6-7 (1), 6-3.
“I know that in tennis, the Grand Slams are a little bit more important than here,” Nadal said after his triumph in Beijing. “But for sportsmen, the Olympic Games are more important than everything. The thing is, if I win here, I feel like I win for all the country. I win for a lot of people, not only for me.”
Like Nadal, Massu won gold in both singles and doubles. But unlike the left-hander, the Chilean won them both at the same Olympics, making him the only man in the Open Era to achieve the feat. Massu swept at the Athens Olympics in 2004, closing out both events in dramatic style: he first won the gold medal in doubles alongside Fernando Gonzalez, edging Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4, then outlasted Mardy Fish for the singles title, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“When I was young, I always watched the Olympic Games. It was a big honor just to be here, just to participate here,” Massu said afterwards. “So to win two medals, two gold medals, it’s something incredible. I’m so happy and I cannot believe this. It’s too much in two days. It’s like a dream.”
3: Andy Murray
As if winning gold in singles on home soil at the London Olympics in 2012 weren’t amazing enough, Murray successfully defending his gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 put him into the history books as the only tennis player ever, male or female, to win two Olympic gold medals in singles.
“I’m very proud to be the first one to do that,” Murray said. “It hasn’t been easy, because a lot can happen in four years, especially for tennis players. We have so many events. Since London, I’ve had back surgery, as well. My ranking dropped a lot during that period. I’ve gone through tough times.
“I’m happy that I’m still here competing for the biggest events. I’ll try and keep going. Who knows about Tokyo. But if I’m still playing in four years, I don’t imagine I’ll be playing the same level as now.”
And that’s not all. Back in London, he also picked up a silver medal in the mixed doubles alongside Laura Robson. Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka squeaked past the British pair in the final, 2-6, 6-3 [10-8].
2: Serena Williams
The 23-time Grand Slam champion doesn’t just have the most majors in the Open Era, she’s also tied for the most Olympic gold medals in the Open Era with four—winning the singles in London in 2012 and the doubles alongside sister Venus in Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. She’s one of just two women in the Open Era to sweep singles and doubles at the same Olympics.
She was particularly elated after winning her gold medal in singles in London, which made her the first player in tennis history to have the career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles.
“Oh my gosh, this one is so high up there. Being Olympic gold champion, being Golden Slam champion in singles and doubles, that’s pretty awesome,” she said. “I was just so focused here. I remember I was serving and I was thinking, ‘Serena, this is your best chance to win a gold medal. You played Wimbledon on grass. You played great. Pull it together.’ I was thinking, ‘I have to do this.’”
1: Venus Williams
When it comes to the Olympics, she’s got it: Venus is the only player in the Open Era, male or female, to own five Olympic medals. Like Serena, she has four golds, winning the singles and doubles in Sydney in 2000, as well as the doubles in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. But what separates her from Serena is she also won a silver medal in mixed doubles at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with Rajeev Ram, finishing runner-up to fellow Americans Jack Sock and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final, 6-7 (3), 6-1 [10-7].
“I grew up watching the Olympics,” the seven-time Grand Slam champion said. “My dad really loved the Olympics, and the first time I played in Sydney was because he loved the Olympics so much. Obviously, I had some great results there—after that, I began to love the Olympics because of that.”
Only one other player in the history of Olympic tennis has won five medals—Kathleen McKane Godfree won one gold, two silvers and two bronzes in Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924.
There are a lot of other Olympic singles champions who deserve big shoutouts.
Marc Rosset, who stunned then-No. 1 Jim Courier en route to the gold in Barcelona in 1992; Andre Agassi, who won gold in Atlanta in 1996, then completed his Golden Slam at Roland Garros in 1999; Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who won a five-set epic against Tommy Haas to win gold in Sydney in 2000; Justine Henin, who won in Athens in 2004 after having missed almost three months with an illness; and Monica Puig, who won in Rio in 2016 to become the first Puerto Rican ever, male or female, to win an Olympic gold medal.
And finally Sanchez-Vicario, who’s the only player other than the Williams sisters to have won four Olympic medals in the Open Era. The Spaniard won two silvers and two bronzes in the 1990s.