RIO DE JANEIRO – The day was supposed to belong to Venus Williams, but American teammates Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock had other ideas.
In the mixed doubles final, Mattek-Sands/Sock denied Williams a fifth career Olympic gold – and first in mixed – one Team USA duo beating another as Williams and partner Rajeev Ram went down 6-7(3), 6-1, 10-7.
It’s a second medal these Games for Sock, who paired with Steve Johnson for the bronze in men’s doubles earlier in the week, while Mattek-Sands won her first-ever Olympic medal. Both were making their Olympic debuts in Rio.
Williams, 36, however, was playing in her fifth Olympics and seeking a fifth gold medal, having won both singles and doubles (with sister Serena) in Sydney in 2000, then doubles golds in 2008 and 2012 – again with Serena.
Regardless of the loss, Williams becomes the first tennis player in the modern iteration of tennis on the Olympic program – having returned to the Olympics in 1988 – to win five medals of any color, breaking a tie at four with Serena.
“It’s been an amazing experience, five Olympics for me,” Williams told reporters. “It’s surreal every time I think about that I was able to come out with any hardware at all. … It has been beyond my dreams.”
The result capped off a successful, if not strange, week of tennis for the Americans, who saw early losses for world No. 1 Serena, the 2012 London champion, and Venus in singles, as well as in doubles for the sisters, who were the two-time defending Olympic champions.
Madison Keys, 21, finished fourth in the women’s singles event, while Johnson and Sock’s bronze was a bright spot after defending men’s doubles gold medalists Bob and Mike Bryan decided not to play the event. Johnson also made the men’s singles quarterfinals, losing in a third-set tiebreak to defending Olympic champ Andy Murray, who was in the men’s gold-medal match on Sunday.
Ram was a late entrant into the Games because of the Bryans’ withdrawal, and after Venus had gone out in the first round in both the singles and doubles, the two decided to enter mixed together. Saturday they celebrated a come-from-behind semifinal win over India’s Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, two doubles specialists, which assured them both a Rio medal – no matter the color.
Venus jumped up and down on the court, overcome with joy and smiling ear to ear.
On Sunday, they won the first set in a tiebreak having been down a service break twice, Ram hitting a backhand volley winner to close it out in 55 minutes, 7-6(3). But the momentum shifted from there, and Mattek-Sands/Sock cruised through set two to win it 6-1 and then went up 3-0 in the match tiebreak.
Williams/Ram had one more rally in them, going up 6-3 in the breaker (played to 10 points), but then their compatriots turned things around to take a 9-6 lead and winning the match on their second opportunity when Williams netted a backhand.
Mattek-Sands and Sock, both of whom have doubles Grand Slam trophies to their names, dropped their rackets and jumped into each other’s arms. Later Mattek-Sands would tear up as she sang along with the national anthem as they stood on the medal stand.
“This is on the top for me,” said Mattek-Sands, who is 31 and lives in Arizona. “This is my first Olympics. I don’t think it’s even comparable. I’m super proud of myself for my Grand Slam titles, but I think the Olympics is a different category altogether.”
The gold and silver were medals Nos. 24 and 25 for the U.S. in tennis since 1988. Mixed doubles came back to the Olympic program in 2012, having last been contested in 1924.
Will Williams be back at the Olympics? She’s had a storied career, including seven Grand Slam singles titles and 14 doubles (all with Serena) to go with those five Olympic medals. Venus – who will be 40 years old when Tokyo 2020 takes place – didn’t necessarily say no – or yes.
“God willing, I imagine if I really wanted to be there I could,” she said. “Tokyo is about if I want to be there and if I want to continue to work this hard. It’s a lot of hard work. I’m going to have to want to do the work. We’ll see.”
Sock, 23, had come to Rio feeling unwell, unable to shake a cough that he had had since Wimbledon. But after exiting in the first round in singles, he won a pair of medals, the only U.S. player to do so in tennis at the Rio Games.
“My expectations coming in were pretty low,” he said. “I was having some pretty major coughing attacks and I went to see my doctor. It showed I had walking pneumonia before I came down here. … Singles didn’t go how I wanted it to, but obviously I closed out the week pretty well. To have these gold medals around our necks, that is pretty special and something I’ll cherish.”
Ram was in Toronto at a tennis event when he found out last minute that he had been added to Team USA for Rio. After losing in men’s doubles with Brian Baker in the second round, he was paired up with Venus, winning three out of four matches.
“I’m happy to have achieved what we did,” said the Indiana native, who is 32.
Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic won the bronze medal. None of the medalists from the 2012 Games took part in the 16-team field, which included standout names like Mirza, Rafael Nadal, Agnieszka Radwanska, Andy Murray and Sam Stosur.
Mattek-Sands and Sock both spoke of not only getting the chance to face Venus on court, as well as being on a team with her and Serena.
“I grew up with them and Jack grew up watching them and we couldn’t be more proud of them as Americans,” said Mattek-Sands. “I think they’ve done so much for the sport and so much for women in general. I don’t see any signs of them slowing down.”
“They’re legends of the game and they’ve done so much for tennis,” Sock added. “It was an incredible experience today. But to come away with the win, that feels really great.”