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Games a unique experience for tennis players

Posted: Tuesday August 3, 2004 11:14PM; Updated: Tuesday August 3, 2004 11:14PM
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LONDON, Aug 4 (Reuters) -- The Olympics offer top tennis players a unique experience -- to represent their countries as part of a team but win medals and ranking points as individuals.

They also get to "slum it" in the athletes' village which, for many used to the loneliness of five-star hotel comfort, is the highlight of their Games.

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"My greatest memory is the life in the village," said Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui of his time at the Sydney 2000 Games. "I spent 15 days there and I was amazed at all these athletes together, living for the same goals."

"I absolutely had a blast, I met a lot of other athletes from different countries," said American Monica Seles about her experience four years ago.

"It is really one of the few times in an athlete's life that you are around other athletes who have gone through similar training regimens and lifestyles that you have undergone."

World number one Roger Federer says gold in Athens would be the perfect climax to his year after winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open. The Swiss lost in the semi-finals in Sydney and then in the bronze-medal match to France's Arnaud di Pasquale.

"It was very hard for me, I remember crying a lot after that," he said. "But I had a great time in 2000, it was where I met my girlfriend.

"(Staying in the village) was just the best thing. I stayed there in Sydney and I am staying there again in Athens."

Federer's main challenge is likely to come again from American Andy Roddick, the man he beat in the final at Wimbledon and in Toronto last weekend when he sealed his eighth title of the season and his 23rd match win in succession.

Roddick will travel from Athens to defend his U.S. Open title which will be played on the same hardcourt surface.

SHARAPOVA MISSING

Unfortunately for Olympic organisers the women's champion at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova of Russia, will not be in the Greek capital.

The hottest property in women's tennis has missed out because she was not one of the top four Russians in the rankings on June 14, the cut-off date for the Games.

French Open champion Anastasia Myskina and runner-up Elena Dementieva -- silver medallist in Sydney -- will lead the Russian contingent and they will pose the biggest challenge to the United States, who have won the last three women's golds.

Venus Williams will be back to defend her Sydney title and she will be accompanied by her younger sister Serena.

World number one Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium has been out of the game with a virus since late May but said on Tuesday she would be fit to compete in Athens.

Also in the American party is Martina Navratilova, the oldest tennis player to compete at an Olympics at the age of 47.

The Czech-born player plays in the doubles alongside Lisa Raymond, making her debut in an event she could not find time for when she was at the peak of her powers.

Many players consider the Olympics as just another tournament, echoing the views of Russia's Marat Safin who says: "Tennis doesn't need the Olympic Games."

To make the Olympic tournament more attractive, ranking points will be awarded to both men and women in Athens but those who doubt the worth of an Olympic medal should ask the sport's golden couple, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi.

Agassi won the men's singles title in 1996 and the American said it meant as much to his father, who represented Iran as a boxer at the Olympics, as any of his grand slam titles.

Graf won the singles gold in 1988, the same year the German won all four grand slam tournaments. For her the Olympic gold medal was the pinnacle.

"Throughout my career there was nothing quite like winning a gold medal for my country," said Graf.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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