By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - The prospect of competing for Olympic gold on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon during the 2012 London Games has the world's top tennis players salivating in anticipation.
Since the sport was slotted back into the Olympic programme in 1988, its exponents have relished the opportunity to rub shoulders with other athletes in the Olympic village. Until this year, though, the venue itself was hardly significant.
Roger Federer, a 16-times grand slam champion, has taken part in three previous Olympics and he believes the 2012 edition could be the best ever for tennis fans.
"It's a beautiful thing that it's being held at Wimbledon, and you can imagine what that means for the players," the 30-year-old Swiss said. "This is maybe going to be the biggest Olympic Games for tennis players in our lifetime.
"It will be the fourth time I am part of it, if I'm healthy in July, and it's something which I am really looking forward to. It's been something very special every time I have had the chance to show up."
Arguably the greatest men's player ever, Federer carried the Swiss flag at the 2004 Athens Games and also four years ago in Beijing where he was reduced to tears after unexpectedly winning a doubles gold with Stanislas Wawrinka.
"Competing in Athens was a dream come true for me and I come out of the Olympics with amazing memories every single time," Federer said at the Indian Wells ATP tournament which he won on Sunday.
"I experience things over there at the Olympics that nowhere else you could," added the Swiss who lost the bronze medal match to Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale at the 2000 Sydney Games and was upset by American James Blake in the quarter-finals in Beijing.
Russia's former world number one Maria Sharapova cannot wait for the London Games to start, having never previously competed at the Olympics.
"For me, the Olympics are huge," said the 24-year-old who was nominated for the 2008 Russian team in Beijing but had to withdraw to have shoulder surgery.
"Growing up in Russia, the Olympics was the only thing that I ever really watched on television. Not so much tennis ... but sports like skating, (ice) hockey and gymnastics.
"To now see tennis on the map in such a big way and to know the history of Russia and how important it is to be part of the Olympics, it's something I really want to experience in London."
The tennis component of the 2012 Summer Olympics will be held on the grass courts at the All England Club from July 30-August 5, just three weeks after the end of Wimbledon.
"It will be extremely interesting to see that transition of how it will feel coming from Wimbledon and then a few weeks later competing in the Olympics at Wimbledon," said Sharapova, Wimbledon champion in 2004.
"I hope the grass recovers," the tall Russian smiled.
Serbian world number one Novak Djokovic clinched a bronze medal in the singles at the 2008 Beijing Games and would dearly love to strike gold for his country in London.
"It's one of my biggest priorities this year," said the Serb, who beat Spanish left-hander Rafa Nadal to win last year's Wimbledon crown and take over as the sport's top player.
"I'm very happy to be representing my country again and going back to the Wimbledon grass where I played so well in 2011 and achieved one of my biggest goals. I hope that I can perform well again and bring a medal to Serbia."
Djokovic loved staying in the Olympic village during the Beijing Games but said he and his Serbian team mates would be renting a house close to Wimbledon for the London Games.
"It's more convenient for us to be closer to the Wimbledon tennis courts and be able to come in time for practices and matches and not be worried about the traffic in London that can be horrible sometimes," he said.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)