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Sharapova, Federer eager for Olympic experience

Tennis greatness is measured in Grand Slam triumphs, but that doesn’t make the game’s best players immune to the lure of Olympic gold.

Top United States player Andy Roddick has decided to skip the Beijing Games in August in order to prepare for a run at the US Open, but for most of the top players on the ATP and WTA tours, the Games remain a key event in the 2008 calendar.

Maria Sharapova, who captured the third Grand Slam title of her career at the Australian Open in January, is eager to soak up the Olympic atmosphere.

”The Olympics comes around only once every four years, and the US Open is there every single year,” she said.

”It has been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl.”

Part of the appeal, Sharapova said, is that the Games will be so different from the events that tour professionals encounter week after week.

”Usually, you have sort of an idea of what things are going to be like, but I’m really clueless,” she said.

”One of the things I’m really looking forward to is the opening ceremony and walking with athletes from my country in front of thousands of people.”

Sharapova said she would love a chance to attend another sport, especially gymnastics or rhythmic gymnastics.

”When I was younger I wanted to be a rhythmic gymnast,” she said.

”In Russia, rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating are an art form and I was always intrigued by that,” added Sharapova, who recalled rollerblading with a makeshift ribbon as a youngster.

”I’d be rolling around my garage,” she said. ”I’d just be rollerblading and waving the ribbon. I thought I was in the Olympics.”

American Lindsay Davenport, who won the Olympic singles gold in front of home fans at the 1996 Atlanta Games, has more concrete memories to draw on. According to Davenport, Sharapova’s youthful imaginings are not far off the mark.

”Obviously, my best memory is winning the gold, but on top of that I always think back to the opening ceremony in 1996,” Davenport said.

”It was in Atlanta, and the United States were the last country to come out. I was with Mary Joe [Fernandez] and Monica [Seles], two of my best friends on the tour at the time, and it was just a moment I’ll never forget.

”We were so excited, giddy — like pure joy.

”Normally you don’t really see that from professional athletes, and we just thought we were the luckiest people in the world. We were all crying when Muhammad Ali lit the torch. I wish I could go back and feel the happiness that the three of us felt at that time.”

Tennis was one of the original nine Olympic sports when the modern Games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896.

But tennis withdrew from the programme after the 1924 Games, only being reintroduced as a medal sport in 1988.

Roger Federer, who has reigned as the number one player in the world since 2004, has made two Olympic campaigns and says he is looking forward to another chance to add a gold medal to his resume.

Federer finished fourth in 2000 and was knocked out in round two at Athens.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion acknowledged, however, that for many the Major tournaments of Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Australian and US Opens remain the benchmark of success.

”You’re going to be judged on the Grand Slams you win and number ones,” Federer says. ”The Olympics are a new thing to tennis.

”That’s one of the reasons I understand decisions like Andy’s. Maybe in 50 years’ time it will also become one of the big tournaments to win. For me it is already, but maybe some players and some fans need more convincing that the Olympics is big for tennis.”

While the overall experience, including bonding with teammates from more traditional Olympic sports, is part of the attraction of the Games, stars such as Federer face the problem of being celebrities in the Olympic Village.

Federer has said he will consider foregoing the village in order to prepare better for his matches.

American Mardy Fish, who captured the men’s singles silver in Athens, said he wasn’t surprised.

”We had Venus Williams on the team at that time and she stayed in the hotel,” Fish recalled.

”But she came one afternoon and ate lunch with us in the athlete’s lunch place, and she was having a hard time walking around without having to sign an autograph every 10 seconds.

”I read that he [Federer] probably wants to stay in a hotel — I imagine that would probably be a pretty good idea for him.” — Sapa-AFP

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