At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the WTA saw three Russian medalists sweep the podium. Elena Dementieva, the 5th seed, defeated Dinara Safina to win the gold medal, arguably the biggest accomplishment in her career (en route to her gold medal, Dementieva defeated Serena Williams in the QF). Vera Zvonareva defeated Li Na to win the bronze medal.
Fast forward four years, and the WTA line-up for the Olympics is sure to pack as much excitement. The tennis landscape has changed — Dementieva has retired from tennis, and Safina has been a on a prolonged break from the game, with rumors of her retirement all but confirmed. Zvonareva went on to be a 2-time finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010, although her ranking has tailed off to a no. 13 today, down from a previous high of no. 2 in 2010.
That brings us to the likely contenders for the gold medal in Women’s Singles at the London Olympics this year: Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova, Vika Azarenka.
In 2008, Serena had a QF, R3 and Finalist appearances at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. This year, Serena reached R4 at AO (losing to Ekaterina Makarova) and lost in R1 at Roland Garros to Virginie Razzano. However, she put in a commanding and gutsy performance to win her fifth Wimbledon Championship at 30 years old. This shows the longevity of her career and her ability to perform at the highest level in the women’s game through different generations.
Serena was seeded 4th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Four years later, she is currently ranked 4th in the WTA rankings and is the reigning Wimbledon champion. That she’s been able to return to her former greatness is a marvel, given the life-threatening condition and injuries she dealt with in 2010-11.
She’s had a slightly inconsistent season but has performed very well at the Premier Mandatory and Grand Slam tournaments. Given her biggest win this year came on Wimbledon grass, this is all the more reason to expect a gold medalist performance from Serena — wow would be the perfect occasion for her clinch the rare title missing from her CV (Serena is a two-time gold medalist in doubles with sister Venus Williams). Serena is currently playing the Bank of the West tournament in California — the greatest concern for her Olympics prospects is whether or not she can steer clear of injury or fatigue, after her emotional win at Wimbledon.
Azarenka, who returned to the no. 1 ranking after Wimbledon, has been having a career year. After losing a close final to Petra Kvitova at the 2011 WTA Tour Championships, she capitalized on her consistency and convincingly defeated Maria Sharapova in this year’s Australian Open final, winning her first Grand Slam and the no. 1 ranking. Since her maiden Grand Slam, she also went on a 26-match winning streak that saw her win Indian Wells (defeating Sharapova).
At this point in the season, Azarenka only has 4 losses on her record. All of those losses have come at the hands of top-notch opponents (2 losses to Serena, 1 to Sharapova, and 1 to Cibulkova). Her loss to eventual champion Serena at the Wimbledon SF means that Azarenka has reached the final four at Wimbledon for two consecutive years. She will be a very credible threat for the gold medal at the Olympics, given her grass court credentials and her newfound confidence. Still, assuming Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova reach the later rounds at the Olympics, will Azarenka have the game to beat the two players she’s lost to this year? The odds seem somewhat stacked against her, but it would be rash to overlook her as a threat for the gold medal. She is definitely a podium candidate.
Surprisingly, London will be the first Olympics games that Sharapova plays. Due to her shoulder surgery in 2008, she did not participate in Beijing. As flag-bearer for Russia this year, Sharapova will be aiming for another career milestone.
She earned the Career Slam when she won Roland Garros on her least favorite surface of clay. That marked her short return to the no. 1 ranking. Prior to that, she reached the final at the Australian Open, defeating Petra Kvitova along the way. Sharapova’s competitiveness and her ability to reach the later rounds at big tournaments are her hallmark traits. She’s had the best season since her comeback, after the shoulder surgery that required her to make changes to her service motion. Does her R4 loss at Wimbledon to an impressively on-form Sabine Lisicki mean there is now a question mark over Sharapova’s gold-medal prospects at the Olympics?
Sharapova has played Fed Cup for Russia since 2008. Playing at her first Olympics may make her an even tougher opponent than usual. She will likely be aiming to improve her grass season performance this year, given that it has not been as stellar as her finalist run at Wimbledon last year. Although her losses this season have come to Azarenka, Radwanska, Kerber, Williams and Lisicki, Sharapova is still very much a threat for the podium and the gold.
Petra Kvitova & Agnieszka Radwanska:
Two dark horse contenders for the gold medal are Kvitova and Radwanska. Much was expected of Kvitova after she won Wimbledon in 2011 and went on to play dominantly on indoor HCs to take the year-end championships. Her flat shotmaking and aggressive mentality create a base level of volatility that is far higher than other players. In spite of that, Kvitova has performed well, having reached the SF at the Australian Open and Roland Garros. She lost in straight-sets to Serena at the Wimbledon QF, thus marking the end of her title defense. Whether Kvitova can maintain her “A-game” against a top player will be crucial to whether or not she can medal at the Olympics — so far this season, she hasn’t reached a QF or beyond at the bigger tournaments. That said, Kvitova has been a Fed Cup stalwart and her efforts played a huge role in the Czech Republic’s Fed Cup win in 2011.
In terms of overall consistency, Aga Radwanska has an edge over Kvitova. Her run to the Wimbledon final showed the fruits of her new coaching partnership with Fed Cup coach Tomasz Wiktorowski. Radwanska, currently ranked no. 2, won a big title in Miami this year, where she defeated Sharapova in the final. That said, Radwanska has lost six times in a row this year to world no. 1 Vika Azarenka and her latest defeat was to Serena Williams at Wimbledon. People will likely not be surprised if Radwanska makes it far at the Olympics, but they probably wouldn’t bet on her to take the gold medal.