Top 10 tennis moments at the Olympic Games

  • Matt Trollope

Tennis at the Olympic Games has delivered us some of the most incredible scenes in the sport’s history.

Whether on clay in Barcelona, grass in London or hard courts elsewhere, these moments have inspired fans and forever changed the players who created them, making them national heroes and often altering the course of their careers.

Who could forget Justine Henin’s comeback from 5-1 down in the semifinals against Anastasia Myskina, on her way to gold in Athens? Or Russia’s domination of the women’s singles medal podium in Beijing 2008, led by Elena Dementieva? Or Juan Martin del Potro’s epic run to the Rio 2016 final, including wins over Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal?

Those are just some of the iconic moments that have unfolded since tennis returned to the Summer Games in 1988 after a 64-year absence. 

And here are the 10 that have stayed with us most.

Seoul 1988
Graf’s Golden Slam

How could Steffi Graf’s 1988 season get any better when she had already won the calendar-year Grand Slam? It seemed impossible, given the teenager had scooped the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US titles and lost only two sets in doing so. 

However, as luck would have it, tennis was back in the Olympic program of events that year, and Graf headed to Seoul just a week after her US Open triumph brimming with confidence.

It showed on the hard courts of the Seoul Olympic Park Tennis Centre; she dropped just one set in winning the title, claiming the gold medal with a 6-3 6-3 victory over Gabriela Sabatini, whom she also beat in the final at Flushing Meadows. 

Graf remains the only player in tennis history to have completed the calendar-year ‘Golden Grand Slam’. 

Barcelona 1992
Capriati’s coming of age

American 16-year-old phenom Jennifer Capriati boosted her superstar status even further by claiming the women’s singles gold medal on clay in Barcelona.

After upsetting second seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals, Capriati faced No.1 seed Graf in the final, who was playing for back-to-back Olympic singles golds. Yet the teenager recovered to win 3-6 6-3 6-4 – marking the first ever victory over Graf, and the only win she scored over the mighty German in 11 career meetings.

It also remained the biggest milestone of her career until she completed an inspirational comeback triumph at Australian Open 2001. 

Atlanta 1996 
National pride for Agassi, Davenport

Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport’s victories in Atlanta marked only the second time in tennis’ Olympic history that two players from the same nation have scooped the men’s and women’s singles gold medals.

The fact this achievement came on home soil made it even sweeter.

Agassi was an established champion with three Grand Slam singles trophies already in his cabinet, but his 6-2 6-3 6-1 thrashing of Spaniard Sergi Bruguera earned him a new milestone, and with his victory three years later at Roland Garros, he became the first man to ever complete the career Golden Grand Slam – all four major singles titles, plus Olympic gold. 

Davenport, meanwhile, was a big-hitting rising star who beat four top-10 players – including Sanchez Vicario in a straight-sets final – to capture her then-biggest career title.

“It definitely changed my life because then every time I was going into a tournament or a major, it was, ‘Well, why not? I can do this.’ It was a great first step,” said Davenport, who later won three Grand Slam singles titles and reached world No.1.

Sydney 2000
Vintage Venus

Venus Williams’ run to the Olympic singles gold medal in Sydney was a demonstration of the American at the peak of her powers. 

She had recently broken through for her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon and followed that up with a US Open triumph. She then headed Down Under and, after being stretched to three sets by Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles in the quarters and semis, dismissed Elena Dementieva 6-2 6-4 in the gold medal match. 

The result was part of a magnificent 35-match winning streak that took in six tournament titles. 

She also won doubles gold with sister Serena to complete a stellar campaign in the Harbour City. 

Athens 2004
Massu’s double gold

Emulating Venus’ feat at Sydney 2000 was Nicolas Massu in Athens. 

The Chilean had never been beyond the third round at a Grand Slam event, or ranked in the top 10, yet played inspired tennis on his way to the finest triumph of his career. 

World No.1 Roger Federer was stunned in the second round by 18-year-old Tomas Berdych, and four of the top five seeds were gone by the end of the third round. Massu ousted the last of that top five – No.3 seed Carlos Moya – in the quarters before storming back to beat American Mardy Fish 6-3 3-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 in the gold medal match.

A day earlier, Massu and Chilean partner Fernando Gonzalez – the singles bronze medallist – saved four match points in the fourth set, and recovered from 3-1 down in the fifth, to beat Germans Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler to win doubles gold. 

“The best two days in my life,” Massu smiled, after securing Chile’s first and only gold medals in Olympic history.

Beijing 2008
Summer of Nadal

In perhaps the most dominant stretch of his career across all surfaces, Rafael Nadal won both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and arrived at the Beijing Olympics having won 32 of his past 33 matches. 

And he left as the new world No.1 after winning his first gold medal in singles, ending Federer’s four-and-a-half-year reign at the summit.

The Spaniard defeated Novak Djokovic in a high-quality semifinal before beating Gonzalez – who had continued his impressive Olympic form from Athens – in straight sets in the final. 

“Nowhere in my best dreams I can imagine something like what I did this year, so I want to enjoy these moments, no?” Nadal said.

Beijing 2008
Dream team: Federer & Wawrinka win gold

While Federer may have lost his No.1 ranking to Nadal and fallen in the quarterfinals of the Olympic singles event to James Blake, he did experience joy in Beijing with his doubles triumph alongside Stan Wawrinka.

The two players, far more notable for their singles achievements, combined beautifully throughout the tournament, swatting aside Indian champions Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes in the quarters before stunning American legends Bob and Mike Bryan in straight sets in the semifinals.

They completed their dream week with a four-set win over Swedes Simon Aspelin and Thomas Johansson in the gold medal match – and delivered us this iconic celebration.

London 2012
Serena’s sensational sweep

Few players have produced as dominant a display as Williams at the London Olympics.

Serena was in the midst of a purple patch; she had won 28 of her previous 29 matches when she began her Olympic campaign, a run that included the Wimbledon title on the same surface and at the same venue.

And she mowed down everything in her path to the title – including Maria Sharapova 6-0 6-1 in the gold medal match. 

Round Opponent Score
1R Jelena Jankovic 6-3 6-1
2R Urszula Radwanska 6-2 6-3
3R Vera Zvonareva 6-1 6-0
QF Caroline Wozniacki 6-0 6-3
SF Victoria Azarenka 6-1 6-2
F Maria Sharapova 6-0 6-1

 

It was her first gold medal in singles, and she also secured her third gold in doubles for the United States with another magnificent performance alongside sister Venus. 

London 2012
Murray sends Britain into a frenzy

Less than a month earlier, Murray had appeared in the Wimbledon final, where he fell to Federer in four sets.

He turned the tables on the Swiss in stunning style on the same court to win his first Olympic gold. “It's been the best week in my tennis career by a mile,” Murray said after his 6-2 6-1 6-4 triumph.

Murray dropped only one set in progressing to the gold medal match, beating Djokovic 7-5 7-5 in the semifinals. And he overwhelmed Federer – who was depleted after beating Juan Martin del Potro 19-17 in the third set of their epic semifinal – in what was then the biggest result of his career.

Andy Murray celebrates his victory over Roger Federer in the men's singles gold medal match at London 2012.
Wimbledon's Centre Court erupts as Andy Murray seals victory over Roger Federer in the men's singles gold medal match at the London 2012 Olympics. (Getty Images)

It felt like a Slam victory, and beating Federer in a best-of-five format final on Wimbledon’s Centre Court paved the way for Murray’s US Open triumph just over a month later.

Rio de Janeiro 2016
Puig the pride of Puerto Rico

Almost out of nowhere, Monica Puig summoned the most inspired tennis of her career to win an historic Olympic gold medal for her country.

She beat Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber to become the first ever athlete representing Puerto Rico to win Olympic gold – a triumph sparking wild scenes of celebration in her homeland. 

Ranked No.34, Puig became the first unseeded female player win Olympic gold, and it marked just the second title of her career. 

The achievement saw Puig honoured as the Best Female Athlete of the 2016 Rio Olympics by the Association of National Olympics Committees.