Players dreaming of Olympic gold

WIMBLEDON, England -- She left Uzbekistan for Miami, Fla., as a 15-year-old junior to play in the Orange Bowl.

And Varvara Lepchenko never went back.

A decade later, when she became a U.S. citizen, Lepchenko said it felt like getting a diamond placed on her finger. On Tuesday, when she learned she had been named to the U.S. Olympic tennis team, she forced back the tears because she had a match to play. Back in the locker room after victory, she sobbed.

In less than a month's time, the world's best tennis players will reconvene here at the All England Club for an unprecedented back-to-back run. The Olympic tennis tournament stretches across nine days, from July 28 to Aug. 5. It will be the first time the Games have been played at a Grand Slam venue.

"The world comes together in our sport every week," Lepchenko said. "But this is bigger than that. All of the world's best athletes are in one place. We are just a small part of it.

"I can't wait."

In tennis, every week produces an Olympics of sorts. But the combination of this classic setting (strawberries and cream were not available four years ago in Beijing) and the chance to mingle with their counterparts from sports like track and field, swimming and, say, basketball, has the players stoked, almost giddy. Although tennis, with the exception of Davis Cup and Fed Cup play, is largely an individual sport, the Olympics also offer the opportunity to be part of a team.

U.S. women's coach Mary Joe Fernandez calls her two gold medals -- earned in doubles in 1992 and 1996 with Gigi Fernandez in Barcelona and Madrid -- the highlights of her career.

"Everybody watches the Olympics when they're little," Fernandez said. "You root for the Americans. You get goose bumps when they play the national anthem.

"You have an image in your head of what it's like and then all of a sudden, you're there. The opening ceremonies were that moment for me.

"You're adding to the total tally of medals for your country and you can feel the patriotism. I remember when Andre Agassi won in Atlanta, compared it to all of his majors, he said it was the most meaningful. And people said, 'Wow.'"

No less an authority than Venus Williams thinks along the same lines. She already has two gold medals for doubles and another for singles back in her Florida home, as well as an extensive Olympic pin collection.

Last fall, when she disclosed an autoimmune condition that left her chronically fatigued, Venus made the Olympics her priority. The effort to raise her singles ranking to the necessary level may have cost her at Wimbledon when she crashed out in the first round -- her earliest exit here in 15 years. But at 32, she made the singles squad and will play in her fourth consecutive Olympics. She and Serena are the defending doubles champions.

"It's just the ultimate level in sports," Venus said. "It's about participating. It's about having that experience. It's about having the honor to be good enough to be there."

When she won the singles gold medal in Beijing as part of a Russian podium sweep, Elena Dementieva said it meant more to her than the Grand Slam singles title she never won. This, of course, was met with skepticism.

Well, here's some news: Roger Federer concurs. At Indian Wells, he was asked by ESPN analyst Pam Shriver which he would prefer: a return to No. 1 or adding a major to his record total or Olympic gold? Federer, in a surprise to some, went for the gold.

In Beijing, after exiting the singles draw, Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka won the doubles gold for Switzerland. Federer's emotional actions -- he comically waved his hands over a prone Wawrinka and then fell on top of him in a warm embrace -- were a wordless example of the power of the rings.

For Federer, London will be "super-exciting" because "for us, the tennis players, we'll never see that again in our lifetime."

True colors

Maria Sharapova and her Nike clothiers put a great deal of thought and effort into her stylish outfits at the Grand Slams.

They know the one hard, fast rule: All white at Wimbledon. Always. That's how it's been for 126 years now.

"When we were going over all the outfits for this year," Sharapova said, "it was just so strange to be going from Wimbledon and two weeks later going back to the grass and I'm wearing a red shirt.

"That will be quite unique."

Yes, 59 years after RCA first broadcast color television, the All England Club has ceded its control of the players' white wardrobes to the International Olympic Committee. National colors -- like Sharapova's Russian red -- will be on display.

No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic was asked about the Olympics back in March in Miami.

"The first thing that comes on my mind," he said, "is the color difference. This is going to be interesting to see, because we all know that Wimbledon has a long tradition and history of all white on the court. We'll see how that's going to look."

Said Federer, "Playing at Wimbledon in color for me is not going to be a shock. I think it's more just the banners and seeing the whole Centre Court in different colors. I can imagine they're going to have the Olympic rings somewhere, probably with blue."

A new family history

Lindsay Davenport probably could have been an Olympic volleyball player. Probably should have been.

Her father, Wink, was a member of the U.S. squad in 1968. Davenport, too, played volleyball in her early years. But when she swiftly surpassed an older sister, her parents thought that family harmony was more important than family history. And so Davenport was moved into a new sport, tennis.

Eventually, it all worked out.

"I was 8 years old when my dad was playing," said Davenport, an analyst for the Tennis Channel here at Wimbledon. "My parents would talk to me, step by step. The opening ceremonies, who lights the torch and so on. I was so curious and I was so into it, it became part of the household."

Russia won the volleyball gold at those 1968 games; Wink Davenport's squad finished seventh. Twenty-eight years later, his daughter won the gold medal in singles at Atlanta. Two years later, in 1998, she won her first major, the U.S. Open.

"My biggest thrill?" she asked. "It's a tie -- the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Seriously I think Rafael Nadal ranks his gold medal [in Beijing] right up there, too. When they play the national anthem, it hits you. You know you've done something special."

Transition time

One of the staples of NBC's Wimbledon coverage over the years was the time-lapse video segment that showed the slow, inevitable death of Centre Court.

Two light brown patches would appear a few days in on either side of the baseline's midpoint, where players landed on each serve. A few days later, two more spots appeared behind the baseline. Gradually, a harsh darker rut -- a trench, really -- developed behind the baseline.

Typically, the 28-man grounds crew at Wimbledon takes the day off after The Championships, then leisurely dismantles the scorched grass over a three-to-four-week period. Reseeding is a lengthy process, too.

This year, with the Olympics looming, they'll do it all in 24 hours.

Several days before this tournament ends, the perennial rye grass mixture -- roughly equal parts of Pontiac, Melbourne and Venice -- will be planted. Millions of seeds already will have started sprouting, saving three days of growing time when they are installed. The courts will be covered to produce a humid, greenhouse effect conducive to quick growth. Hopefully, in a little over a week's time, the grass will reach a height of 14 millimeters and be trimmed to the regulation eight millimeters.


Painful memories

In 2004, the Athens gold medal final featured two players who had never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam or been ranked in the top 10. In fact, Nicolas Massu came into the Olympics with a 0-7 record on hard courts, but won five straight matches to face American Mardy Fish.

Earlier that Sunday (very early), Massu and Fernando Gonzalez won the first-ever Olympic medal for Chile, taking the doubles title. And so it wasn't surprising when Fish won two of the first three sets. Massu, however, prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Fish, who smashed his racket at one point, had 105 unforced errors.

Fast-forward eight years to London. Fish is ranked No. 12 in the world and is the second American behind No. 11 John Isner. Fish had a heart scare last month, but doctors cleared him to play Wimbledon.

After skipping Beijing in 2008, though, Fish elected to pass on a return to the All England Club and a chance to erase that haunting memory

"I mean, I was going to win the whole thing," Fish said, "and even just thinking about it is really hard."

Patriotism never flags

Federer carried the Swiss flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the past two Olympics (meeting his future wife Mirka in Sydney), the highest honor a country can bestow upon an athlete. The Swiss Olympic Committee has not announced its flag-bearer yet, but there is a good chance it will be a rare hat trick for Federer.

Rafael Nadal I think carrying the flag will be one of the most moving moments of my entire career.

-- Rafael Nadal

Three other current and former No. 1 singles players will lead their countries in London: Djokovic (Serbia), Nadal (Spain) and Sharapova (Russia).

"Finally I can share some exciting news with you," Sharapova began a post on her Facebook page last month. She went on to say she received news from Russian Olympic authorities after her third-round victory at Roland Garros that she had been confirmed as the flag-bearer.

"I have had to keep this hush hush for two weeks and keeping secrets is not my best quality!" she wrote.

"I think carrying the flag will be one of the most moving moments of my entire career," said Nadal, who has had more than his share of moving moments.

Although the first day of tennis is the day after the parade of nations, none of these tennis players are likely to skip the ceremony.

There is one other former No. 1 player carrying his country's flag: Max Mirnyi, a doubles specialist, will represent Belarus.

Doubles trouble

The United States is a major threat for not just one medal in women's doubles, but two.

Venus and Serena Williams are your defending champions, overshadowing the current No. 1-ranked team of Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond.

"There's always a sense of pride representing your country," Raymond said. "But with it being played at Wimbledon there's an allure there that we've never had. This year, more than ever, players were vying for those spots."

In 2000, Raymond was part of the world's No. 1-ranked doubles team, along with Rennae Stubbs. But because Stubbs was born in Australia, they couldn't play together in -- of all places -- Sydney. Raymond was left off the team and the Williams sisters were gold medalists.

"I was No. 1 in the world and I assumed I'd be on the team," Raymond said. "I was not chosen. You'd like to see the rackets do the talking, but it didn't work out that way."

Raymond played in Athens with Martina Navratilova and lost in the second round. At the age of 38 -- the oldest No. 1 the sport has ever seen -- this is probably Raymond's last shot at a medal.

"If there's one thing we haven't accomplished in our career," Raymond said wistfully, "it's the elusive Olympic medal."

Trivia time

Tennis at the Olympics goes back to 1896, and the first woman to win an Olympic medal in any sport was Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain four years later in Paris. After the 1924 Games in Paris, tennis was removed from the Olympic lineup. After demonstration events in 1968 and 1984, tennis officially returned in 1988 in Seoul.

The women's singles draw features players from 38 different countries, while the men represent a total of 34.

According to International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti, this will be "the strongest ever field in the history of Olympic tennis."

The professional debate

Shriver's first Olympic memory was from the 1968 Games.

"I was 6 -- the age of my twins this summer -- and that's what my family watched. There were only three channels then, and the Olympics was on one of them."

The only year she played was 1988 in Seoul, when tennis returned to the Olympic fold.

"At the time, there was a huge discussion about a sport so professional as tennis being in the Olympics," Shriver said. "When we showed up at Seoul, we wondered if anyone going to talk to us because we have leprosy -- because we have money. But everyone was very welcoming."

Her roommate was Zina Garrison, with whom she won the doubles gold medal.

"In 1990 I gave it to the International Hall of Fame," Shriver said. "Every time I go, I look for it. It's a good thing they have it. I probably would have lost it by now. I guess the only downside is the kids won't get to bring it to school for show-and-tell."