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Wednesday, 17 August 2016 11:12 AM BST
What's next for the Rio 2016 success stories? takes a look at what's next for some of the biggest winners at Rio 2016. READ MORE

The Olympics are obviously unlike any other pro-tennis event. There are no ranking points to be earned and no money to be won. It’s all about having the chance to represent your country, and trying to take home that ultimate “something to show the grandkids” item, an Olympic medal. 

As we saw last week at the Rio Games, the pursuit of one of those medals will inspire tennis players to go to lengths they wouldn’t go anywhere else. Rafael Nadal put in 20 hours on court and came away with a gold medal in doubles. Was it worth it? Do you have to ask?

Now that the Olympic tennis event is over, the next question is: will the medal winners in Rio remain as inspired? Will they be able to carry their success with them when they come down from their Olympian heights and return to the weekly grind of the tour? Here’s a look at what the biggest winners at this year’s Games should take away from their experiences in Rio.

Monica Puig: By the middle of the third set of the women’s gold-medal match, Puig, who began the year ranked No.92, looked like a top five player. She suddenly had it all: the powerful serve, the killer forehand, the versatile backhand, the mix of thoughtfulness and aggression, all wrapped up in a polished package. And while it took her a few tries to close out her opponent, Angelique Kerber, Puig never flinched or looked unsure of herself; she was in control against the world No.2 for all three sets.

The Puerto Rican, who targeted the Olympics at the start of the year (she dreamed of making it into the draw, not winning it, and even named her dog 'Rio' before the start of the tournament) should now realise that she can play with anyone. Given the scale of her acheivement, it would be understandable if she experienced something of a comedown at the US Open, but her ceiling is obviously much higher than most would have guessed before Rio.

Going forward, Puig should realise that she can beat anyone, without having to do anything other than play her normal game.

Andy Murray: The world No.2 is on a serious roll this summer. He has won Wimbledon and an Olympic gold, and he played the best clay-court tennis of his life in reaching the French Open final. In Rio, even when he appeared to be out of a match, he found a way back in. During his first spell with Ivan Lendl, Murray won Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the US Open, and looks well placed to repeat that feat with the 56-year-old back in the fold. There is, however, just one more (very tall) hurdle for him to climb: Novak Djokovic. At Wimbledon and the Olympics, Murray took advantage of Djokovic’s early defeats. Winning breeds confidence, they say, but can it change the dynamics of a match-up against a particular player? The question, in Murray’s case, is whether winning titles against other players can make him more confident against Djokovic specifically. That’s going to be the million dollar—and No.1 ranking—question at the US Open and beyond. 

Juan Martin del Potro: The Argentine’s 2016 comeback, after two years away due to wrist problems, had been a halting one before Rio. But it was full speed ahead at the Games, where he beat Novak Djokovic and Nadal, and, despite looking ready to collapse for the better part of three hours, nearly pushed Andy Murray to a fifth set in the final. Del Potro, who has since been awarded a wild card into the U.S. Open, is back where he belongs, with the game’s heavyweights.

Aside from the rapturuous welcome he received upon his return home from Rio, what should make Del Potro happiest is that his new, slightly-hindered, post-surgery game was enough to get him there; he won a silver medal despite not being able to hit his two-handed backhand at top speed. Instead, he has learned to win by slicing that shot soft and low, and looking for his forehand whenever possible. Delpo may be like a baseball pitcher who has lost his fastball, but reinvented himself as a clever junk artist. Now he has more variety, and he’s able to hit his best shot, his forehand, more often.

Maybe it’s the way he should have been playing all along.

Steve Johnson: Speaking of slicing your backhand and trying to hit your forehand whenever possible, Delpo could learn a thing or two from Johnson. That’s essentially how the Californian, who is on the verge of becoming the top-ranked U.S. player for the first time, wins matches. The 26-year-old Johnson is winning more of them than ever right now, and he came within a few points of knocking Murray out of the medal hunt entirely in their quarter final match in Rio. Despite that defeat, he played the match of his life. There is a sense that Johnson, who didn’t join the pro tour until he was 22, after playing four years of college tennis at USC, is only now getting used to the idea that he can play with the game’s upper echelon. He brought the match to Murray, physically and emotionally, in a way that he hadn’t against a top player before. That aggression, and emotional investment, will be key for him in the future.

Angelique Kerber: Another tournament, another final for Kerber. At the age of 28 she has reinvented herself to become one of, if not the most consistent threat to Serena Williams' dominance on the Tour. While her defeat to Puig will no doubt sting, in Rio she showcased the same hard-court mastery that saw her triumph in Melbourne at the start of the year, reaching the Olympic final without dropping a set. 

Next up on the German's agenda is an opportunity to take it to Serena in a way no woman has done for 183 weeks. With the world No.1 withdrawing from Cincinnati in a bid to recover from a shoulder injury in time for the US Open, Kerber can usurp her at the top of the rankings by taking the Western & Southern Open title. Do that, and she might just be considered the favourite at Flushing Meadows.

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