Will Novak Djokovic finally be able to win Olympic gold when the postponed Tokyo Olympics tennis happens in 2021?
Olympics tennis predictions
Postponed by a year due to the global health crisis, the Tokyo Olympics will now take place in 2021 with the tennis event played from 24 July-1 August.
It is always a struggle to fit the Olympics into the crowded tennis schedule, and 2021 is no exception: Olympics tennis in Tokyo begins less than two weeks after Wimbledon finishes, and the Rogers Cup in Toronto/Montreal begins a week after the Olympics finishes.
That said, there are many players who will prioritise the Tokyo Olympics. Three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka is one of the key faces of the Games; Kei Nishikori will also be desperate to be fit. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are among those who are probably at least partly postponing retirement to play Tokyo 2021; both Federer and Novak Djokovic have never won a gold medal in singles, a key achievement which has eluded them despite glittering careers. Dominic Thiem was not planning initially to play the Olympics, but has been turned around on the subject by coach Nicolas Massu, whose own greatest accomplishment was his gold medal in singles in 2004.
Andy Murray has been the gold medalist in men’s singles for the past two Olympics, but is very unlikely to be able to repeat the feat in 2021; Juan Martin del Potro is also unlikely to be able to play or be a factor, all but retired after so many knee and wrist surgeries. That opens up space on the men’s podium – who will fill it?
On the women’s side, Monica Puig’s gold medal run at Rio 2016 was stunning, but the Puerto Rican player has struggled to find anything like that level consistently. The pressure on Osaka will be immense, but the Japanese-Haitian player can be sensational when she’s got something to prove. Serena Williams heads a strong American contingent which includes Sofia Kenin, while Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep are among other players who would have to be hot favourites to reach the podium.
Men’s Olympic Tennis 2021: Tips
Two men who have played huge roles in the last two editions of the Olympics – two-time gold medalist Andy Murray, and Juan Martin del Potro, bronze medalist in London 2012 and surprise silver medalist in Rio 2016 when he beat Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – are unlikely to be playing at all at Tokyo 2021, or able to be factors if they are, and that opens up space on the podium.
Nadal is the only one of the ‘Big Three’ who has managed to secure gold, doing so in Beijing in 2008. Unable to play at London 2012 and defeated by del Potro in the semifinals of Rio 2016, Nadal’s chances at Tokyo 2021 are very much dependent on his fitness. The Games are on hard courts, the most punishing surface for his body; they follow hard on the heels of Wimbledon, which is in turn hard on the heels of the French Open and the European clay-court season, which sees him play a very heavy season. It might all be too much for 34-year-old Nadal and his knees.
Djokovic was devastated to have been beaten by del Potro at the Rio Olympics, but it came at a tough time for the Serb, when he had just completed the career Grand Slam by winning the French Open and began to struggle with injury and for motivation. That motivation no longer seems to be in question for Djokovic and although at 33, injury is more of a persistent issue for him than it used to be, he still lost only four completed matches out of the 45 he played in 2020. No one can doubt Djokovic’s passion when it comes to playing for his country and although th schedule, particularly the closeness of the Olympics to Wimbledon which he has won the past two years, is brutal, he should absolutely be expected to be among the final four at least in Tokyo. And if he can get that far, than he will have the advantage in the men’s final that he has never lost a best-of-five sets match on hard courts to the younger generation players who are likely to be among his opponents. Djokovic also won the Tokyo 500, played at the same venue as the Olympics tennis will be, in 2019.
Federer’s fitness is more of an unknown after two knee surgeries in 2020, and best-of-three matches are a double-edged sword; less of a physical drain, but also less time for Federer’s experience and savvy to tell over a longer match. Strange as it seems to think of Federer finishing his career without an Olympic gold medal in singles, I can’t see him coming through the field. Kei Nishikori, a bronze medalist at Rio 2016 (when he beat Djokovic in the third-place play-off), will have the support of the home crowd, but he has struggled too badly with injury in 2020 to back at this point.
Thiem, the player of the year in 2020, was not initially keen on the Olympics and skipped Rio 2016, but his coach Nicolas Massu has apparently now fired him with enthusiasm – which could be trouble for the rest of the field. Thiem has never played well at Wimbledon, which could give him a bit more rest before Tokyo; he’s become as formidable on hard courts as he is on clay – perhaps more – and his hard-court results over the past two years, which include winning the US Open, Indian Wells, Beijing and Vienna as well as reaching two ATP Finals finals and finishing runner-up at the Australian Open, arguably make him a favourite to win gold, although we should note that he has never won a match in Tokyo.
That’s not the case for Daniil Medvedev, who won the Tokyo 500 in 2018 and triumphed at the Paris Masters and ATP Finals in 2020. Medvedev is still a bit mercurial, but his game is wildly effective on hard courts when he is feeling good, and he now has three Masters 1000 Series titles to his name and victories over Djokovic and Nadal in best-of-three matches under his belt. Indeed, between Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, who went 41-10 in 2020, Russian athletes have an excellent chance at Tokyo 2021 – if they are allowed to compete.
Other players who are important to mention as potential outsiders include Stefanos Tsitsipas – who takes a great deal of pride in representing Greece – and Nick Kyrgios, who plays well in Tokyo.
Women’s Olympic Tennis 2021: Tips
Unsurprisingly, the women’s podiums at the last few Olympics tennis events have featured nine different women, and the event looks much more open than the men’s.
Naomi Osaka is certainly the favourite. She’s made the final of the Pan-Pacific Open twice and won it once, so clearly has no difficulty playing well in front of her home crowd or in those conditions. Her game on natural surfaces is still a work in progress, but she’s superb on hard courts and, when playing well and motivated, almost unbeatable – and she should be plenty motivated by her status as one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics.
The pressure on Osaka will be immense, but she has played some of her best tennis when she feels like she’s got something to prove – witness the 2019 Australian Open, when she was trying to prove that her US Open win the previous year, and the 2020 US Open, when she was pushing back against those trying to tell her to stick to sports.
Victoria Azarenka, if she is able to play with her personal issues not interfering, is another player to keep an eye on – a mixed doubles gold medalist and singles bronze medalist at London 2012, her resurgence midway through 2020 could position her well to put together a big run at Tokyo in 2021.
It’s tough to know what to expect from Serena Williams, who has won four Olympic gold medals, but went out early in an error-strewn display at Rio 2016 and hasn’t won a title bigger than the Auckland 250 since returning from maternity leave. The schedule, and the brutally quick turnaround from Wimbledon to the Olympics, might well rule her out for Tokyo 2021. I could see Williams being eclipsed by younger Americans, specifically Sofia Kenin – she showed in 2020 what an adaptable and impressive competitor she is, and that could be absolutely key; she will make herself very difficult to beat.
Simona Halep did not play the Olympics in 2016 because of concerns over zika virus, but she actually tends to have some of her best results on post-Wimbledon hard courts – and she might be revitalised by getting the pressure of defending her Wimbledon title off her shoulders, as she was when she followed her unsuccessful Roland Garros title defense by winning Wimbledon. The conditions in Tokyo might not suit her, though.
Russia’s powerful Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova plays well in Tokyo, making the Pan-Pacific Open final twice in the past three years; Karolina Pliskova won Tokyo in 2018, but opted to skip the Olympics in 2016 and it’s not certain whether she would do so again in 2021.
Current world no. 1 Ashleigh Barty is another player who would have to be considered as a potential contender for an Olympic medal, but after playing little in 2020, her form is unknown; the case is similar for Canada’s Bianca Andreescu, who did not play a match in 2020. Finally, there is Rio 2016 gold medalist Monica Puig, who beat Pavlyuchenkova, Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber to claim that medal. Puig is currently ranked outside the top 100, but if she gets an Olympic wildcard or is able to otherwise enter, could she find that same form again? It’s unlikely, but she could certainly pull off a few upsets.