You can watch top-tier tennis just about every weekend for 11 months of the year, so what makes Olympic tennis special?
Here’s what you need to know about the Olympic tennis competition ahead of Tokyo 2021.
2021 Olympics: Tennis and the Olympic spirit
It’s no secret that tennis players earn a lot of money. Many of them choose to forego the Olympics in order to prioritize other events on the summer tennis calendar. But the tennis stars who show up to the Games often treat us to some of the most intense matches you’ll see in a given year. National pride is on the line, and no matter your earnings from other tournaments, this one is just special.
One of the awesome things about Olympic tennis is we often get to see top-ranked singles players participate in doubles, which as an event are not always given the attention and respect they deserve. Doubles matches are incredibly exciting, relying less on power and more on finesse and quickness. It’s a fascinating tactical event as well, and the opportunity to watch some of the sports’ biggest names team up with doubles specialists adds extra intrigue.
In Tokyo, all singles matches will be formatted as best of three sets with a standard tiebreak. On the men’s side, matches are typically best of five at Grand Slams. Simply put, the more sets played, the more chances for the favorite to exert their superiority. Upsets are far more likely when you only have to beat your opponents twice instead of three times. The prospect of more upsets adds to the appeal of men’s Olympic tennis.
Previously, tiebreaks were not used in the final set of an Olympic tennis match, which resulted in some epic battles. At London 2012, the third set between Milos Raonic and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga ended 25–23. Days later, Roger Federer and Juan Martín del Potro played the longest three-set match in the Open Era – a grueling four-hour, 26-minute effort to decide the Olympic semi-final.
Suffice to say that even though there are plenty of other events on the tennis calendar, these athletes are willing to put it all out there at the Olympics.
2021 Olympics: Tennis athletes to know
In women’s singles, all eyes will be on Japan’s Naomi Osaka. The world No. 2 no doubt faces enormous pressure to win at home. She even gave up her U.S. citizenship in order to compete for Japan, the country she was born in. Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete on the planet and a force to be reckoned with on the tennis court. She won the Australian Open earlier this year, her fourth major title. The 23-year-old has taken a well-publicized break recently, prioritizing her mental health over bids for recent Grand Slams.
We have no doubt that Osaka will be ready to hit the court in Tokyo. Her biggest challenger is likely Australia’s Ash Barty, the World No. 1 who is fresh off her first Wimbledon title. Don’t count out a few others who are in top form recently, such as Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina, and Wimbledon runner-up Karolina Pliskova.
On the men’s side, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is chasing a historic tennis feat no other man has ever accomplished: a Golden Slam. Having already won the Australian Open, the French Open, and most recently Wimbledon in 2021, Djokovic needs “only” an Olympic gold and a US Open title to complete the rare feat. The only person to have won a Summer Olympics gold medal and all four Grand Slams in the same year is Germany’s Steffi Graf back in 1988.
Interestingly, an Olympic gold is the one championship that seems to have eluded Djokovic thus far. The now 20-time Grand Slam champion won a bronze medal back at Beijing 2008, lost in the bronze medal match at London 2012, and was taken out in the first round at Rio 2016.
2021 Olympics: Tennis records in jeopardy
In addition to Djokovic’s aforementioned attempt at a Golden Slam, Great Britain’s Andy Murray has a chance at a special accomplishment in Tokyo. At Rio 2016, Murray became the only man ever to win two Olympic gold medals in singles events. A proud feminist, Murray was quick to remind journalists that Venus and Serena Williams still had more overall gold medals than he does.
However, with the Williams sisters not competing at the Summer Olympics this year, Murray has a chance to break both the overall men’s tennis record for most medals (four) and potentially equal Venus’ five medal haul. With the two golds and a silver in mixed doubles to his name, Murray has an opportunity to tie the elder Williams sister as the most decorated tennis Olympian of all time.
It will not be an easy quest for the Scotsman. The former World No. 1 had a second hip surgery in 2019 and seriously considered retiring from the sport. A three-time Grand Slam singles champion, Murray has not advanced past the third round of a major tournament since 2017. That said, some of his finest moments have come in Olympic competition, and three-set matches are easier to win than best-of-five, so we cannot rule out a podium return for Andy Murray in Tokyo.
The Tokyo 2021 Olympic tennis events will run from Saturday, July 24 to Sunday, August 1 Japanese Standard Time (July 23-31, 2021 here in North America).