March 28, 2008 / 12:23 AM / 10 years ago

Tennis champions catch Olympic fever

<p>Switzerland's Roger Federer plays a return to Britain's Andy Murray during their match at the ATP Dubai Tennis Championships, in this March 3, 2008 file photo. Although the 2008 tennis season is barely three months old, Swiss world number one Federer and other leading players are already turning their thoughts towards the Beijing Olympics in August. For Federer, the Olympic Games are close to the grand slams in importance while Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic believes they might rank even higher because they take place only once every four years. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil/Files</p>

INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - Although the 2008 tennis season is barely three months old, Swiss world number one Roger Federer and other leading players are already turning their thoughts towards the Beijing Olympics in August.

For Federer, the Olympic Games are close to the grand slams in importance while Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic believes they might rank even higher because they take place only once every four years.

American Lindsay Davenport will never forget the stirring memories of her triumphant debut at the Atlanta Games in 1996 and Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova says she would prefer to win an Olympic gold medal this year over any of the grand slams.

“For me, it’s a big priority of the year,” Federer, a winner of 12 grand slam titles, told reporters during the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells this month.

”The (ATP) tour actually bases its entire schedule around the Olympics Games and I follow that scheme. I want to play in this year’s Olympics and I‘m going to be there.

“I’ve already had two great experiences,” the 26-year-old Swiss added, referring to Sydney in 2000 when he lost the bronze-medal match to Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale and Athens in 2004 when he lost to Czech Tomas Berdych in the second round.

“For me it is already, but maybe some players and some fans need more convincing that the Olympics is big for tennis.”

Serbian world number three Djokovic, who clinched his eighth ATP title by beating American Mardy Fish in the Pacific Life Open final last weekend, agrees.

”I rate them (the Games) probably on the top, one of the tops for sure,“ the 20-year-old said. ”I mean come on, it’s the Olympics.

ONLY ONCE

”You get to play grand slams every year, four grand slams. The Olympics you get to play one time in four years and who knows what will happen in four years for us?

“So I will not risk that and I’ll be very honored and privileged to participate in such an event, an event with the most tradition in sport.”

Russian former world number one Maria Sharapova has long cherished competing at the Olympics.

”It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl, so it’s been one of my priorities for a very long time,“ the 20-year-old said. ”The Olympics comes around only once every four years and the U.S. Open is there every single year.

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

WTA Tour veteran Davenport was a gold medalist in the women’s singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games, two years before she clinched the first of her three grand slam titles.

“It was the first big thing I won and a huge honor,” the former Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion told Reuters.

”When I won the U.S. Open in 1998, it seemed to give me more validity as a player. Those two were certainly big turning points in my career and it’s hard to compare them.

”I can’t wait to go back in early August. It’s been on the calendar for my family for a long time. My aspiration is to do my best to win any medal. I really don’t care.

BEST MEMORY

”My best memory is winning the gold but I always think back to the opening ceremonies in ‘96. The United States were the last country to come out and I was with Mary Joe (Fernandez) and Monica (Seles), two of my best friends on the tour.

“It was a moment I’ll never forget. We were so excited and giddy and, like, pure joy. Sitting there, we were all crying when Muhammad Ali lit the torch. I always kind of think back to that moment.”

Kuznetsova was brought up in a family where the Olympic Games represented the ultimate in sport.

Her father, Alexandr Kuznetsov, coached six Olympic and world cycling champions, including her mother, Galina Tsareva, a six-times world champion.

“For me it’s very important,” said the 22-year-old, who won her first grand slam title at the 2004 U.S. Open. “It’s like a grand slam or even maybe more important than that.”

Asked whether she would prefer to win Wimbledon or an Olympic gold medal this year, Kuznetsova replied: “Olympic gold medal. No question.”

Pressed if she would change her mind if the French Open was the alternative, she said: ”It would come very close, you know. I hope I don’t need to choose this one.

“Well, if I have one grand slam and I would have one Olympic medal it would be good. I have chances to win (grand slams) next year, you know, but then there is no Olympics.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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