A Brief History of Modern Olympic Women’s Tennis


Ahead of the Olympic Tennis Finals this weekend, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, takes a look back at the history of the Women’s Singles in modern Olympic Tennis.

Seoul 1988: Steffi Graf (Germany) beat Gabriela Sabatini (Argentina) 6–3 6–3

Modern Olympic tennis began with something of a bang in 1988 when Steffi Graf won the fifth of the five titles that constituted her “Golden Slam”: all four Major titles in the same year and the Olympic Singles Gold. That was because the Seoul Olympics took place in late September and early October, rather than the customary late July and early August, and so came after Graf had already achieved a clean sweep in the four Majors in tennis. The Olympic Final itself was not overly dramatic, with Graf beating her great rival at the time, Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini, in straight sets, less than a month after she had also defeated Sabatini in the US Open Final. Nevertheless, for Graf to maintain her stranglehold on the sport for a further month, in order to complete a year of total dominance, was extraordinary. And in the wake of Novak Djokovic’s shock defeat in the Tokyo 2020 semi-final to Alexander Zverev, it remains ever more extraordinary.

Barcelona 1992: Jennifer Capriati (USA) beat Steffi Graf (Germany) 3–6 6–3 6–4

Graf made a second successive Olympic Singles Final in Barcelona in 1992, when the Olympic tennis was played on clay. However, she lost to a 16-year-old Jennifer Capriati, just over two years after Capriati had turned professional and embarked on a truly astonishing start to her career that culminated in her Olympic triumph. Of course, it would be nearly another decade before Capriati at last fulfilled the huge potential she had shown as a teenager, when she finally won her first Major (the 2001 Australian Open) and quickly followed it up with two more (the 2001 French Open and the 2002 Australian Open). For the rest of the 1990s, however, which also included her infamous 1993 arrest for marijuana possession and the subsequent mugshot that was flashed around the world, it was the memory of her Olympic victory that sustained her through her truly dark years.

Atlanta 1996: Lindsay Davenport (USA) beat Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (Spain) 7–6 (8) 6–2

Jennifer Capriati was still in her mid-1990s career slump during the Atlanta Olympics and so did not defend the title she had won in Barcelona. However, another young American, a 20-year-old Lindsay Davenport, stepped up to fill the void left by Capriati, in the process achieving the most significant victory of her career up to that point. After an epic first set that Davenport only won on a tie-break, she virtually cruised to victory in the second set, with her big serving and even bigger ground strokes setting up a comfortable 6-2 victory. For Davenport, it was just the beginning of a formidable career, as she would go on to win three Majors within the next four years. For her opponent, Sánchez…

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