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Olympic tennis headed for Wimbledon

Chris Evert played in the Olympics only once, and she recalls taking the court at 9 a.m. and losing a third-round match to an obscure opponent in front of 50 spectators.

Her memories of the opening ceremonies aren't any better.

"I felt very uncomfortable," Evert says. "I almost felt like an impostor, because the other athletes were looking at us tennis players as if they were saying, 'What are you doing here?' Because we have our Wimbledon and U.S. Open and French and Australian Opens, and we had our million dollars. These were supposedly amateur athletes who only had one chance every four years."

That was in Seoul in 1988, when after a 64-year hiatus and amid considerable scorn, tennis returned to the Olympics as a medal sport. Many thought pros that competed for Grand Slam titles had no place at the Games.

But in the years since, tennis has gradually gained acceptance as an Olympic sport, in part because the world sees how much the players value a medal.

Andre Agassi ranked his 1996 gold medal as the pinnacle of his career. Roger Federer cried when he lost a second-round Olympic match. The Bryan brothers angrily grabbed the first flight out of Athens after their upset loss at the 2004 Games.

This year, virtually all of the top players plan to compete at the Olympics. And the world is sure to pay attention, because the event will be held at Wimbledon.

"The buzz is going to be phenomenal," said Patrick McEnroe, the coach of the U.S. Olympic men's team in 2004. "The All England Club has been preparing for this for a long time. It will be awesome to see.

"The profile of Olympic tennis has been raised considerably since tennis came back into the Olympics in the '80s. In my mind, that will just continue. Having it at Wimbledon is a huge boost to the event."

Olympic tennis bolstered the popularity of the sport in such host countries as China and Greece, and now tennis returns to its birthplace.

Competition will begin July 28, three weeks after Wimbledon. The grass will be the same but the look will be different, with Wimbledon's all-white dress code waived, and Olympic logos replacing the traditional dark green backdrops.

"It will be surreal," 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova said. "It will be a completely different experience. I don't know what I will feel when I'm out on the court playing on grass at Wimbledon and knowing that it's not Wimbledon. It's just a unique opportunity for all of us, but I'm extremely thrilled that it's at Wimbledon. It's my favorite place to play tennis."

Fans can expect some colorful tennis, and not just because of the clothing and setting:

— Three-time Olympian Federer has won a record 16 Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon six times, but is seeking his first medal in singles. He and Swiss teammate Stanislas Wawrinka did win the gold in doubles in 2008.

"As you can imagine, with the history I have at Wimbledon, it's going to be super exciting," Federer said.

— Serena Williams, winner of 13 Grand Slam singles titles, tries for her first singles medal. She teamed with her sister Venus to win the gold in doubles in 2000 and 2008.

— Venus Williams, who won the gold in singles in 2000, mounted a career comeback after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and made the Games her top priority.

"It's just, you know, the pinnacle of sports," she said. "So for me, any medal in any event, even if it was the javelin, that's a medal."

— Sharapova, who completed a career Grand Slam by winning this year's French Open, can become the second woman to claim a career Golden Grand Slam if she wins the Olympics, joining Steffi Graf.

Olympic tennis has come a long way since Seoul. Gold medalists in singles have included such surprising winners as Marc Rosset, Nicolas Massu and Elena Dementieva, an indication top players didn't always put a priority on the event. Second-generation Olympian Agassi took part just once, and then only reluctantly, but came to cherish his victory.

Today, many top players appreciate the rarity of an Olympic opportunity — and speak of the unique pressure that comes with it. Bob and Mike Bryan have teamed to win 11 major titles in doubles, but they've come up short twice trying for a gold medal.

"The pressure is big," Mike Bryan said. "Some of the players buckle, and some of the players respond well to it."

John Isner didn't qualify for the 2008 Games, but he's now the highest-ranked American on the men's side, and his big serve on Wimbledon's grass makes him a medal contender.

So it's no surprise he's eager to make his Olympic debut.

"This is something that I've been looking forward to for a very, very long time," Isner said. "To have it at the Mecca of tennis, really, at Wimbledon, makes it a lot more special, in my opinion. It's really like the fifth Grand Slam this year."

That's becoming the case every quadrennium.

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Medal projections:

Men's Singles

Gold: Roger Federer, Switzerland

Silver: Novak Djokovic, Serbia

Bronze: Andy Murray, Britain

Women's Singles

Gold: Serena Williams, United States

Silver: Maria Sharapova, Russia

Bronze: Petra Kvitova, Czech Republic

Men's Doubles

Gold: Mike and Bob Bryan, United States

Silver: Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, Switzerland

Bronze: John Isner and Andy Roddick, United States

Women's Doubles

Gold: Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia

Silver: Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki, Germany

Bronze: Serena and Venus Williams, United States

Mixed Doubles

Gold: Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka, Belarus

Silver: John Isner and Serena Williams, United States

Bronze: Tomas Berdych and Petra Kvitova, Czech Republic