London Olympics: Tennis stars see special meaning in 2012 Games

With a red-white-and-blue tint in her braids and red-white-and-blue lacquer on her fingernails, Venus Williams was a portrait in national pride Tuesday at Olympic Park.

No American has won more Olympic tennis gold than the 32-year-old Williams. And none spoke more eloquently about the spirit of the Games just hours after a jet-lagged U.S. Olympic tennis team landed at Heathrow Airport.

“This is an event that brings the whole world together despite any differences we all have,” said Williams, the 2000 Olympic singles champion and a two-time defending doubles champion with her sister Serena. “We’re a part of that great movement.”

Among Olympic sports, tennis doesn’t have the same cachet as track and field, swimming or gymnastics. One of the nine sports contested in the first modern games in 1896, tennis was dropped after 1924. But since it was reinstated at Seoul in 1988, it has come to mean a tremendous amount to the world’s top players.

“Olympic Games are pinnacle of all sports, in my opinion,” said Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 2 player, who wept over winning bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. Serbia’s most famous athlete, Djokovic will carry his country’s flag in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies, an honor he has called “mind-blowing.” Russia’s flag will be borne aloft by world No. 1 Maria Sharapova, who reportedly was so shocked when informed of her selection that she had to re-read the text message multiple times, then read it aloud to friends, before believing it.

Former No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who won gold in Beijing in 2008, called it one of the saddest days of his career when he was forced to withdraw from the London Olympics earlier this month because of an injury. Like Djokovic and Sharapova, the Spaniard had been chosen to carry his country’s flag in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.

The Olympics represent a rare sort of motivation for tennis pros, whose rankings, fame and earnings depend almost entirely on their individual performance.

“You’re playing for something different; normally we deal in very selfish terms as a tennis player,” said Andy Roddick, 29, who competed in the 2004 Athens Games.

“You can say you’re a tennis player, and that will resonate with some people. You can say you’re an Olympian, and that will resonate with everybody.”

Tennis at the London Games will have particularly special meaning for players, with the venerable All England club, which hosts Wimbledon each summer, staging the nine-day competition. It will be only the second time in Olympic history that tennis has been contested on grass.

The All England club is the sport’s most revered setting. It ought to make favorites of the Williams sisters, who share 10 Wimbledon singles titles between them and teamed for their fifth Wimbledon doubles titleless than three weeks ago.

It ought to look favorably on seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, as well, who has won every significant title in tennis except Olympic singles gold. The London Games will be Federer’s fourth Olympics.

But restoring the club’s grass courts to suitable playing condition just 20 days after Wimbledon ended has been a monumental task, involving the painstaking planting of pre-germinated grass seed to speed things along.

The goal is to make the playing fields as emerald green and consistent as they were in late June, when Wimbledon’s recent fortnight began. By the time Federer hoisted his seventh trophy on July 8, Centre Court was more dirt than grass, its once lush carpet savaged by the thundering footsteps of so many players.

Still, even if the iconic look of the All England club’s courts can be restored for the start of Olympic tennis on Saturday, the overall look of the competition may be jarring for the purists.

Breaking with long-standing tradition at the club, Olympic hopefuls won’t be required to wear predominantly white outfits. That means a once-in-a-career opportunity for tennis pros to display colors — their national colors — on hallowed ground.

“It’s going to be different, but we have to be open to change,” Serena Williams said Tuesday. “We realize that this is the Olympics; it’s just played at Wimbledon.”

The Williams sisters are among seven current or former world No. 1 players on the 12-member U.S. team assembled for London. The others are Roddick, doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan, and doubles specialists Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber.

In many ways, the U.S. squad reflects the country’s diversity. Huber is a native South African who became a U.S. citizen in 2007.Varvara Lepchenko, who was born in Uzbekistan and received her citizenship the same year, said Tuesday that she simply didn’t have words to describe her pride in representing the United States in the Olympics.

Huber made an attempt, explaining that she and her teammates all felt “pretty ugly,” having just gotten off a long flight and badly in need of showers. But the moment she tried on the U.S. Olympic team outfit designed for the Opening Ceremonies, Huber said, she felt transformed.

“They are very pretty,” Huber said. “And it looks wonderful.”

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