Dementieva d. Safina 3-6 7-5 6-3
Maybe it's not the most riveting match on this list. Or the cleanest. Or the most dramatic. But Elena Dementieva's memorable gold-medal victory in Beijing snags the No. 1 spot on my list because it exemplifies what the Olympics are truly about.
For Dementieva, often referred to as the best female player never to win a Grand Slam, the Beijing Games were the highlight of a long and prodigious career.
She broke through to the semis at the U.S. Open in 2000, reached two major finals in '04 and followed those up with numerous more clutch Slam semifinal appearances (including a few notable ones after winning the Games).
Even though she never bagged the big one, representing Russia on a grand stage and taking gold felt just as good.
In succession, she took down Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams, Vera Zvonareva and, in this classic bout, Dinara Safina to claim the gold. Not a bad lineup.
Extracting revenge on her countrywoman in the final must have been extra sweet for Dementieva, considering Safina came back from 4-6, 2-5 and match points down to beat her in the French Open quarters just a few months prior.
Despite riding an improved serve and a wave of confidence into the final, Dementieva was slow to start. She surrendered an early break as Safina loped around the back of the court, smacking winners with reckless abandon and hitting every corner of the service box.
The two kept up the big-babe tennis in the 66-minute second set, which had its share of unforced errors to balance out spectacular winners—but only because the two showed such athletic prowess, forcing each other to hit that one extra shot or go for just a little more than they were comfortable with.
Safina aimed to go behind Dementieva with her most explosive weapon, the down-the-line backhand. Dementieva, meanwhile, was content to engage Safina in long, grueling cross-court rallies hoping to break down her compatriot's long strokes and wacky serve.
It worked. In the third set, Safina held serve just once—succumbing to the nerves and exhaustion, owed in part to the fact that she'd been on court nearly double the time as her competitor due to doubles.
Dementieva only got stronger—I only wish I could find a clip of Dementieva's 26th and final winner, a huge forehand that sent her to her knees in celebration. It's one the greatest, most visceral reactions the tennis world has ever seen.
Following up on a silver medal earned in Sydney (and, ironically, taking advantage of 17 Safina double faults in the final), Dementieva lived out a dream.
After winning, she summed it up perfectly: "I can't even compare a Grand Slam to the Olympic Games, it's just so much bigger. This is what I was waiting for. This is what I was working for. This is the biggest moment in my career, my life."