WHILE WATCHING THE 1992 OLYPMICS from her home in Sochi, Russia, a 5-year-old Maria Sharapova took to doing pirouettes around her garage and dreaming of one thing: being a rhythmic gymnast. Although she was already playing tennis, the sport had yet to gain a foothold at the Games. It wasn't until Sochi's Yevgeny Kafelnikov won gold in Sydney in 2000 that her Olympic dreams began to change. "That was my first clear vision of tennis as part of the Olympics," Sharapova says. "Watching him made me really visualize myself playing for Russia."
Olympic tennis used to be a tough sell. A who's who of pros, including Pete Sampras and Anna Kournikova, declined invitations to Sydney, claiming the Games were simply too close to the U.S. Open (separated by a mere week) and too far from home. Even Martina Hingis, who'd competed at the 1996 Games, opted out in 2000, citing a lack of tradition. "Tennis has only been played three times," the Swiss star said. Indeed, the sport made its official return to the Games in 1988 after a 64-year hiatus.
That was then. For those currently atop the rankings, the Olympics are as compelling a draw as the slams. Today's stars watched as Justine Henin won gold in 2004 and followed closely in 2008 as the Williams sisters (women's doubles) and Rafael Nadal (men's singles) stepped to the top of the podium -- all of which helped tennis's five-ring tradition get momentum.
Of course, another factor is making the Games irresistible this year: The matches will be played on Wimbledon's sacred grass. Says Roger Federer of the location, "These might be the biggest Olympic Games for tennis players in our lifetime."
So for the first time in history, players are jockeying for Olympic opportunity. Serena Williams, who rarely travels to international team matches like the Fed Cup, is scrambling to play enough Cup matches to qualify for the Games. Meanwhile, Alex Bogomolov Jr., who is Russian by birth but has played as an American since turning pro in 2002, went so far as to switch flags in December to better his Olympic chances -- to the protest of the USTA, which pointed to the significant financial support it provided to develop him.
Adding a tournament to an already rigorous schedule will require sacrifices too. Most players will opt to rest the three weeks between Wimbledon and the Olympics, meaning that smaller tournaments during that period such as Stanford and Carlsbad (women), Stuttgart and Hamburg (men) and Bastad
Whether it's all for the greater glory or just for the glory of the All England Club's grass, the stakes have never been higher. Novak Djokovic could become the first player to win the golden slam -- all four majors plus gold -- since Steffi Graf in 1988. And Sharapova will be representing Russia for the first time, having been forced out of the running in 2008 by a shoulder injury. As for Federer, he's out to fill the one missing spot in his trophy case. In March, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver asked him what he wants most this year: winning a major, reclaiming No. 1 or winning the gold medal. Federer didn't hesitate: "The gold medal," he said.