By Giri Nathan
So many seeds in the women’s draw fell early that the week was sure to unfurl some unexpected Olympic story lines. No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty, fresh off a Wimbledon title, lost her opener on Sunday. No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, whose dominance has neatly paralleled Barty’s this season, dropped dead on Monday, as did No. 6 seed Iga Swiatek, who wept on court well after her second-round match was through. This left lots of opportunity to be seized, though I could not have predicted that it would be seized by the Czech player Marketa Vondrousova, who blazed into the 2019 French Open final as a 19-year-old, shut down her season with a wrist injury shortly thereafter, and has held a 22–22 record across the two seasons since. But she has put together a star-making Olympic run, and I don’t think I’d appreciated it as one coherent tale until I saw it cheekily laid out as a “villain origin story” by the nimble tennis tweeter Bastian Fachan.
Her pseudo-villainy had set in before a single ball was served in Tokyo. Vondrousova only made the Czech Olympic tennis squad by calling on her protected No. 16 ranking, which was frozen in place from her long-ago injury layoff. Since her ranking had since plummeted outside the top 40, behind several other Czech talents, she would not otherwise have been one of the women entered into the singles draw under the four-per-country quota. While Vondrousova was obviously within her right to do so, her move happened to eject a surging countrywoman from the Tokyo-bound squad. Karolina Muchova, amid a career season highlighted by an Australian Open semifinal and Wimbledon quarterfinal, wrote that she was “disappointed” to be bumped, but “I have to respect the ITF rules.” At least she can see now that her usurper made the most of the trip to Japan, where she would get to spoil a bunch of other players’ dreams, too.
In her opening match, Vondrousova sent Kiki Bertens packing—permanently, it turned out, as the former world No. 4 retired from professional tennis after the three-set loss. In the third round, Vondrousova took aim at the face of the Olympics: Naomi Osaka, jewel of the host country, coming off maybe the heaviest media blitz in tennis history, who had lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony and was returning to competition refreshed after a mental-health hiatus. Oh well—Vondrousova rolled her 6–1, 6–4, with lots of off-speed shots and cool consistency, as Osaka sputtered 32 errors. In the quarterfinal the Czech went up a set on Paula Badosa before the Spaniard succumbed to heatstroke and left the court sunken in a wheelchair and draped under a towel in one of the more distressing visuals of the Games. (Later that day, ITF relented and pushed tennis start times back to 3 p.m. local, so players would be spared from the most brutal midday temperatures and humidity in Tokyo.) In the semifinal, Vondrousova booted No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina, who was in the middle of a literal honeymoon run after marrying Gael Monfils last weekend in Geneva. Having snuffed out so many flames, Vondrousova secured a spot in Saturday’s gold-medal match against Belinda Bencic.
Bencic, meanwhile, is so firmly ensconced in dreamland that no opponent could harsh her vibe. She might be in the most contented position of any Olympic athlete who still has to go out on court and compete for several hours. Swiss tennis didn’t need Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka to net serious hardware: Since Bencic also made the women’s doubles final with Swiss teammate Viktorija Golubic, she is guaranteed to leave Tokyo with two silver-or-better medals. When you’re that well positioned, not even Marketa Vondrousva can hurt you now.
Above: Marketa Vondrousova beams after beating Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in their Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women’s singles semifinal match. (Getty)