Tokyo 2020: Women's tennis preview
A photo of the main court at the Ariake Tennis Park/Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Tennis gets underway on Thursday at the Olympics with two clear favorites in the women's competition: four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, who lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony and world number one Ashleigh Barty, winner of her second major at Wimbledon.

Monica Puig, who stunned the field in Rio to capture the gold medal, won't defend her title as she failed to qualify. Silver medalist Angelique Kerber withdrew, citing fatigue, leaving Petra Kvitova as the only returning medalist from 2016 where she won bronze.

Top half analysis

Barty has had a brilliant 2021 so far, widening her lead on the top spot in the rankings and claiming titles on all three surfaces (hard court, clay and grass). Her win at the All-England Club only cemented her status as the player to beat whenever she is entered into an event.

Barty hits a forehand during practice at the Olympics/Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Barty hits a forehand during practice at the Olympics/Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images


The main challenger in Barty's half of the draw appears to be third seed Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarusian reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon and looks to carry that momentum over to Tokyo. 

Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza is also in the top half and if she can navigate a tricky opening-round matchup with Russian Veronika Kudermetova, the Spaniard is capable of reaching the medal rounds.

Other players to watch are Kvitova, eighth seed and reigning Roland Garros double champion Barbora Krejcikova and ninth seed Belinda Bencic, who may have the toughest first-round draw in rising American Jessica Pegula.

Bottom half analysis

Osaka headlines the bottom half of the draw and should be rested and ready to go after withdrawing from Roland Garros before her second-round match and Wimbledon. The fact that it's in her home country and on her best surface (hard court) makes it all the more likely she is going to reach the gold medal match.

Osaka plays a backhand in practice in preparation for the Olympics/Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Osaka plays a backhand in practice in preparation for the Olympics/Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Sixth seed Iga Swiatek could be a quarterfinal opponent for the number two seed as the Pole possesses all of the firepower and confidence to keep up with Osaka. 

The other quarter is quite possibly the toughest with Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady, Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina all potential medal round opponents for the Japanese superstar.

Darkhorses

If I had to name three players who could replicate Puig's run through the Rio draw, the first player that comes to mind is Paula Badosa. The Spaniard reached her first WTA Tour final in Charleston and her best results in Slams, a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros and fourth round at Wimbledon. Her power game is suited for any surface.

The next player is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Long known for having an immense amount of talent, but always coming up short in the biggest matches of her career, the Russian Olympic Committee athlete made the final in Paris, losing to Krejcikova. If she can find that consistency once more, she is a serious threat to almost anyone.

Jelena Ostapenko is another player who has even more bouts of inconsistency than Pavlyuchenkova. Her talent is undeniable and when she is on, very few players can match her firepower. She's capable of hitting winners from anywhere on the court. Her serve is her biggest liability, but if she can fix that, a medal is not out of the question.

Protected rankings and ITF entries

Notable players using a protected ranking are Carla Suarez Navarro, returning from a battle with cancer, former Wimbledon semifinalist Elena Vesnina and two-time major quarterfinalist Yaroslava Shvedova.

ITF entries are used for players who have a high ITF ranking, but are otherwise unable to gain direct entry into the main draw. Headlining this group is 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, 2020 Roland Garros semfinalist Nadia Podoroska and former Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani.

Predictions

Gold Medal: Barty

Silver Medal: Osaka

Bronze Medal: Muguruza

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