August 15, 2016
Andy Murray and Monica Puig both struck gold in scintillating Olympic singles tournaments at Rio 2016.
Super-consistent Murray’s victory might almost have been expected. He was one of the favourites and the reigning Olympic champion.
But that mounting pressure, which intensified after the early exit of Novak Djokovic, made his task harder at times.
Eventually tears of relief flowed from Murray’s tired eyes. The GB flag carrier’s sense of pride at his latest achievement was clear for all to see.
Explaining those tears, he said later: ‘It’s been an amazing ten or twelve days, emotionally and physically draining, and I feel incredible relief.
‘I don’t know exactly what is was – I’m very proud to have done it – especially after a match of four hours or so. I’m just glad to win a gold medal.
‘I hadn’t defended a singles title before. I had to fight unbelievably hard to get this one.’
His much-loved adversary in the final, Juan Martin Del Potro, made millions of new friends around the world for his sportsmanship and superb tennis.
He hugged Murray warmly at the end and then sat alone to cry tears of disapppointment.
However, Del Potro can be immensely proud of his silver medal. It was thoroughly deserved and a measure of how far he has now come from that dark place where he feared he would never play again due to injury.
Meanwhile Puig’s triumph was nothing short of sensational, as she defeated one big name after another. Petra Kvitova, twice Wimbledon champion, was the penultimate scalp, brushed aside in the semi-final.
Then the unstoppable Puig claimed Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal by seeing off Angelique Kerber in three sets in their final showdown.
Those of us who thought the German’s big-match experience might prove crucial were wrong.
It had looked as though Kerber might have regained the momentum, after Puig won the first set 6-4 but the favourite hit back to claim the second by the same score.
Incredibly, Puig then ran away with the decider like a force of nature and closed out 6-1 to clinch one of the most unlikely golds in Olympic tennis history.
You just never know what is going to happen next in women’s tennis these days. That’s why it has fast become one of the most fascinating watches in world sport.
As we had suggested might be the case, Juan Martin Del Potro had eventually proved too much for Rafael Nadal in their pulsating semi-final. That bruising battle had nevertheless remained one of the highlights of the tournament.
Murray had overcome Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who then showed great spirit to beat Nadal to the bronze medal.
So the Olympic final was the one we had anticipated, between the ever-reliable Murray and the resurgent and equally popular Del Potro.
The atmosphere in Rio was electric. A large following from Argentina supported the underdog. The Brazilians, who always back Argentina’s opponent, joined the British presence in cheering for Murray.
The Scot broke first. But Del Potro broke straight back and looked capable of pulling off a suprise. Murray showed enough composure to take the first set 7-5, though he needed all his skill and precision to do so.
Yet Del Potro always looked in control of the second, which he bagged 6-4 with a blend of booming forehands and impressive mobility for such a big man.
The world number two showed too much craft and consistency when it really mattered, however. He seized the all-important third set 6-2 and edged towards a fresh place in Olympic history in the fourth.
Del Potro gave everything he had, though he must have been drained by the long battle with Nadal.
Ultimately, Juan Martin failed to find the energy and poise he required to return a probing Murray forehand and stay in the match.
A good-natured, punishing physical fight had run its marathon course with Murray’s 7-5 clincher. Suddenly both men were emotionally vulnerable for different reasons.
Andy buried his face in his hands and wept. His body shuddered with the outpouring of emotion, relief and pride swamping him at the same moment.
Del Potro was red-eyed too, as he reflected on how close he had come to crowning his comeback year with something truly remarkable.
Nishikori later stood proudly on the medal podium with the two finalists. His bronze came through a typically determined 6-2 6-7 (1), 6-3 victory over the combative Nadal, who will be disappointed that all his brilliant efforts in Rio didn’t earn him a singles medal.
At least still Rafa went away with an Olympic gold, from winning the doubles alongside Marc Lopez, defeating the Romanians Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau in style.
The gold medallists in the mixed doubles were always going to be American, as Jack Sock and Bethanie Mattek-Sands came back to beat Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams 6-7 (3), 6-1, 10-7 (in the unusual first-to-ten-points tie-break decider).
Venus Williams had been looking to become the first tennis player to win five Olympic gold medals. But it wasn’t to be as she watched a healthy lead in the crucial breaker evaporate.
Russian pair Irina Visnina and Ekaterina Makarova had defeated Switzerland’s Martina Hngis and Timea Bacsinszky in the gold medal match to win the women’s doubles earlier at the Olympics in Rio.
Once again, the presence of tennis at the Games had proved highly successful. And if Rio 2016 will be remembered for the arrival of one player alone in the big time, that rising star must be Monica Puig.