The focus, before the Olympic tennis event began, was on who was NOT in Tokyo.
But as it finally got under way, the spotlight rightly returned to those who made the trip in search of Olympic glory.
Front and centre among them was world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, in quest of the elusive Golden Slam.
He didn’t make it. In fact, he’s leaving Tokyo without a medal. But more on him elsewhere.
Women’s singles: Bencic is queen
The spotlight in the women’s singles fell squarely on Naomi Osaka.
The Japanese world No. 2 returned to the court after a two-month break and one of the faces of the Tokyo Games, as she was the one chosen to light the flame.
It wasn’t as though Osaka could skip the Games. Her dozens of sponsors awaited this spotlight. It was in the country she was born in and represents. And she had been chosen to light the Olympic flame back in March.
Osaka out early in premature return
But it was clear she wasn’t ready. She didn’t look particularly fit. Even the braids she had done for the occasion – very long, heavy and totally impractical for tennis to the point where they got caught up in her racquet more than once – were more fashion than function. It was a lot.
She will come back stronger.
So will Ashleigh Barty, who had to navigate a very quick turnaround on a different surface after a bucket-list moment at Wimbledon.
And so it was left to some lesser lights to carry the torch. And any of the final four. Bencic, Marketa Vondrousova, Elina Svitolina or Elena Rybakina – any of them could have been holding up gold at the end.
But it was Bencic who prevailed over a very gracious Vondrousova in the final. And Svitolina, who was down and out in the third set against Rybakina, who took the bronze.
These were bucket-list moments for all of them. All may yet win Grand Slam titles. But even if they don’t, they will always have this.
Men’s singles: No. 4 Zverev impressive in golden run
Many had already handed the gold to Djokovic before the men’s event even began.
Or, if not him, Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas.
But it was Zverev, whose best-of-five record against top players is mediocre, but whose success in the best-of-three format is unquestioned – who won gold.
The stifling, unbearable, unhealthy weather appeared to play a bigger role on the men’s side than the women’s. That’s probably because they’re displacing more volume, although Spain’s Paula Badosa left in a wheelchair.
But it was cruel and inhuman for a lot of the week. And Medvedev might have been its biggest victim, along with an already-on-fumes Djokovic.
But this was Zverev’s to win. Lose it, and he might have continued to doubt himself in the biggest moment. Winning it as emphatically as he did might well give him wings.
Zverev the man vs Zverev the player
Alexander Zverev the man appears to have a lot to answer to off the court. Notably, credible accusations of abuse by a former girlfriend, that he has denied.
But Zverev the player – diffident and borderline impudent as he might be in his workplace at times – had himself a WEEK.
As far as the tennis itself, the inexcusably slow court hurt this event the most. The men’s final was just the last example.
Two huge, powerful guys were unable to even put the ball away half the time. Grinding in the heat and humidity (37C for the final, without the humidex) was borderline dangerous.
They knew what the weather would be like. And they had plenty of lead time to decide what kind of courts they were going to have.
So the organizers missed a golden opportunity to help tennis take a step back to where it needs to be by laying down quicker courts.
Women’s doubles: Bencic aimed for the double
It says a lot about the depth of Czech women’s tennis that Katarina Siniakova, a fine singles player, didn’t come close to making the cut in singles with the four-player maximum.
So, her Olympic hopes were in doubles, while partner Barbora Krejcikova, the hottest player of the spring and early summer, did double-duty.
If Krejcikova didn’t have it against a surging Bencic (she, too, had to come into Tokyo on fumes), it left her with more energy for the doubles.
And even with that, the pair had to win match tiebreaks in the second round, quarterfinal and semifinals.
Congratulations to the three doubles teams who captured gold in Tokyo!— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 1, 2021
🇭🇷 Nikola Mektic/Mate Pavic
🇨🇿 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova
(ROC) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/Andrey Rublev#TokyoOlympics pic.twitter.com/6GKCFwl5Rb
Czechs show their doubles mastery
But in the final against the Swiss pair of Bencic and Viktorija Golubic, they showed why they’re the best. Bencic, having won the gold medal the previous day, gave what she had.
But it wasn’t a lot. And the Czech are clearly superior doubles players.
One of the best stories in the tennis event was a medal by Brazil, their first at the Olympics.
The overlooked pair of Luisa Stefani and Laura Pigossi edged past Wimbledon finalists Elena Vesnina and Veronika Kudermetova 11-9 in he match tiebreak to earn the hardware.
But before that, they posted some REALLY good wins.
Men’s doubles: an all-Croat affair
It would have been a “better” story if veterans Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig had won the gold, in the late stages of their careers.
Two men from the same small village in Bosnia, Medugorje (population 2,300, even now) who come together to win Olympic gold for Croatia.
Instead, the best team in men’s doubles were rewarded for having made the commitment to each other two years ago to aim towards Olympic gold.
🎾 Los croatas Mektic y Pavic ganaron la final de dobles a sus compatriotas Cilic y Dodig— AS Colombia 😷 (@AS_Colombia) August 1, 2021
👏 En el podio se pusieron los cuatro juntos en el mismo escalón
📷 Una de las imágenes para el recuerdo que dejan estos Juegos Olímpicos es este gran ejemplo de deportividad y hermandad pic.twitter.com/43l3ISm446
They had to wait an extra year. But Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic got their reward. The Roland Garros champions had to overcome a positive COVID test ahead of Wimbledon. And that forced them to miss a Grand Slam they could also have won.
The U.S., absent its best players, shut out
Men’s doubles was also the only area where the American team, missing basically all of its top players, had a chance at a medal.
And it was an unlikely one, as Austin Krajicek and Tennys Sandgren were the ones playing for bronze.
They lost to the more accomplished doubles players, Kiwis Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus, who won New Zealand’s first tennis medal.
All in all, it was a bit of a tepid event. Having match tiebreaks instead of third sets in doubles made it seem somewhat inconsequential at times.
Perhaps if Andy Murray (who won the last two singles gold medals) and Joe Salisbury had been able to get to the medal stages, it might have been different. But they were defeated by Cilic and Dodig in the quarterfinals.
Mixed Doubles – the most fun you can have with #Beers
Maybe it’s the limited 16-team field, which makes the mixed event fast and furious and also entices the top singles players to play.
But the mixed doubles was star-studded and so much fun. It seemed tailor-made for the attractive Greek duo of Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari to shine.
Just imagine what the reception would have been like for them if they returned home with Olympic gold. They could have written their own ticket.
But, oddly enough (and despite the engaging chemistry they showed them they teamed up for the Hopman Cup exhibition a few years ago), they didn’t have it.
Perhaps it was because it wasn’t an exhibition, and they had so much more at stake and such high hopes.
Also – neither is a particular accomplished doubles player.
Not having much mixed doubles experience is not necessarily a drawback in this type of event, because most of the teams are pickup pairs.
All-Russian final (oops, all-ROC final) entertains
Only Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev – a contrast in temperaments – made the commitment and teamed up in Paris and at Wimbledon.
And they made the final. But in the end, despite having a match point, they were beaten by a jubilant Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev.
The all-Russian final was extra fun. Both men were teamed up with women who, in a sense, were of a different generation. They probably didn’t know very well at the outset. But they all enjoyed a once-in-a-career experience together.
And you feel for Vesnina, who has come so close in the last month.
She and Veronika Kudermetova had a match point for the bronze medal in women’s doubles. And they a match point to win Wimbledon, as well). Vesnina and Karatsev had a match point in this mixed-doubles final, as well.
Barty and John Peers (nicknamed Party-Beers on social media) won the bronze by default after Djokovic and Nina Stojanovic gave them the walkover.
(Screenshots and pics from Channel 7, RDS and ITF Tennis).