How Olympic momentum is powering Alexander Zverev and Belinda Bencic

NEW YORK — Belinda Bencic has already lived her biggest dream.

One month after winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, the 24-year-old was frank when she said she didn’t think anything else could ever compete with her podium-topping performance.

“For me, it’s forever, and for me, it’s probably going to be the biggest achievement I will ever have,” Bencic told reporters ahead of the US Open, still smiling as she spoke about it.

But presumably with many years remaining in her tennis career and a surge of momentum that seems to grow by the match, Bencic might need to make room for some other accomplishments. And while she was insistent about the place the Olympics held in her heart, she did admit that it wasn’t her only goal.

“But of course I want to achieve more things, and I have more dreams,” she said.

While she didn’t explicitly state winning a major was one of those dreams, she’s now just three matches away from the US Open title following a dominant victory over 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek on Monday.

Bencic isn’t the only player who is extending Olympic success. Alexander Zverev, who took home gold in men’s singles and is seeking his first Grand Slam, is into the quarterfinals after a straight-sets win over Jannik Sinner.

“Winning gold definitely changes things,” said Monica Puig, who won the Olympic singles title in Rio in 2016. “For me, it gave me the confidence that I could beat anyone after doing it in the Olympics. The difference for Bencic and Zverev is that they were obviously already very established and have gotten very far at tournaments, but now having this title could give that extra little push.”

If Bencic or Zverev, also 24, were to win a title this weekend, it wouldn’t be the first time a player followed up Olympic triumph with a breakthrough major title.

Andy Murray had already reached four major finals, but had never won, by the start of the 2012 London Olympics. With the event held at the All England Club, where he had fallen in the Wimbledon championship match just weeks earlier, Murray earned the biggest title of his career with a victory over Roger Federer.

The always-pragmatic Murray told reporters the victory at the Games gave him “a bit more confidence, probably,” and was important in other ways.

“I think all experiences like that help,” Murray said during his run at the 2012 US Open. “You know, in some ways maybe took a bit of pressure off me.” Murray defeated five seeded players during his time in New York, including No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the US Open final, for the first of three Grand Slam titles.

Like Murray following his podium appearance, Bencic and Zverev have shown no signs of slowing down.

Bencic, who also won the silver in doubles with partner Viktorija Golubic, followed her two-medal showing with a quarterfinal run in Cincinnati before coming to New York. As the No. 11 seed at the US Open, she’s put together some of the best tennis of her career — and has yet to drop a set.

She routed Jessica Pegula, the No. 23 seed, in the third round and held off a relentless Swiatek in a first-set tiebreak on Monday. She fended off three set points before winning the tiebreaker 14-12 and convincingly took the second set 6-3. The first set lasted 84 minutes — 22 minutes longer than their entire previous meeting during the final in Adelaide in February in which Swiatek won 6-2, 6-2. Swiatek said there was a noticeable difference in Bencic’s game.

“For sure, she’s more solid,” Swiatek said. “In Adelaide, she just made, you know, mistakes. I was really solid. I just gave back some balls so she can make a mistake. Also, I had more winners. I mean, it felt like I had more winners there because I was in control.

“But here, in really important moments, she backed out and she also was pretty solid. … The level of her game was better than in Adelaide and her level was just great.”

Bencic will take on 18-year-old sensation Emma Raducanu on Wednesday with a chance to reach her second US Open semifinals. She said she feels more comfortable in such a situation thanks to her experience in Tokyo.

“I feel [the] Olympics helped me a lot in this,” Bencic said. “I played big matches there, as well, and I kind of know now how it feels, you know, to go for, yeah, to go deep in a tournament and an important tournament.”

Zverev, the No. 4 seed, hasn’t lost a match since the fourth round at Wimbledon. At the Olympics, he didn’t drop a set until the semifinals, where he faced Djokovic. But even with Djokovic being the most accomplished player in the tournament, and on the much-heralded quest for the Golden Slam, Zverev rallied after losing the first set 6-1 and lost just four games in the final two sets. He defeated Karen Khachanov 6-3, 6-1 in the gold-medal match.

He won the title at the Western & Southern Open in his lone lead-in tournament ahead of the US Open. Zverev’s play has been overshadowed by allegations of domestic violence by his former partner, originally made in October 2020 with additional details released last month. He has denied the accusations.

Going into Wednesday’s quarterfinal match against Lloyd Harris, he’s riding a 15-match winning streak. Zverev credited the match against Djokovic as a turning point in his career.

“I think the Novak match gave me a lot, because I was down and out basically from the match,” Zverev said after his fourth-round victory Monday. “Coming back against the world No. 1 the way I did and I won what, 10 out of 11 games, then after being a breakdown in the second set, that did give me something.

“I’m hoping to use it and continue using it here.”

Zverev reached the final in New York in 2020, where he lost to Dominic Thiem in five sets, but will likely have to get past Djokovic this week in the semifinals, yet again, in order to make a return trip — and take it one step further.

Puig didn’t fare as well as Murray, or Bencic and Zverev, in her first Grand Slam following her star-making turn in Rio. Playing at the US Open as a seeded player (No. 32) for the first time, she lost in the opening round. But her experience makes her even more appreciative of what Bencic and Zverev have been able to do. She knows firsthand how difficult it can be.

“It does change your life,” Puig said. “It puts a lot of eyes on you. You get more media requests, you get more attention, you get more sponsors, you get followers — instantly overnight. The minute that final ball went out, the minute they put the medal on my neck, it was just so different.

“So for me it was definitely hard, because all of a sudden I had a target on my back that I never had. So dealing with that was tough. I was nervous and put a lot of pressure on myself. The fact that they’re able to go out onto a crowded center court with people screaming and chanting their names and are doing what they’re doing is incredible.”

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