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Sunday, June 22, 2008
Sports

Beijing 2008

The fifth Grand Slam

The Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. And this year, a fifth Grand Slam: the Beijing Olympics.

With the sport's biggest names lining up for a shot at gold, the Olympic tennis tournament provides a welcome shake-up to the usual order of service.

“The Olympics comes around only once every four years, and the US Open is there every single year," said Russian glamour queen Maria Sharapova.

“It has been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl."

The sense of excitement is refreshing from the highly paid, well-travelled tennis elite, some of whom will carry their nations' flags at the glittering opening ceremony.

“An Olympic gold would be something very special," admitted top-ranked Roger Federer, who has placed Beijing at the top of his list this year.

Lindsay Davenport, winner in 1996, said the Atlanta opening bash was a moment of "pure joy."

“We were all crying when Muhammad Ali lit the torch," she said.

But euphoria will soon give way to brutal competition at the Olympic Green Tennis Centre, with the mercury expected to top 30 deg C (85 deg F) in muggy and polluted air.

Federer will be favourite to claim arguably the season's biggest prize after finishing fourth at Sydney 2000 and flopping out in round two in Athens.

But his worst season since 2004 is ill-timed for the Swiss, who has already been beaten eight times this year.

World number two Rafael Nadal underlined his dominance on clay at the French Open but is vulnerable on hard courts, winning just one title on the surface last year out of six in total.

Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic heads the list of challengers including Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Murray and emerging French stars Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils.

Only two top-10 players, Andy Roddick and Richard Gasquet, have decided against the extra physical demands of an event which falls between Wimbledon and the US Open.

And with competition relatively open, fans will also be encouraged by the Games' reputation for surprises.

Czech Miloslav Mecir was the winner when tennis returned to the Olympic roster in 1988, followed by Switzerland's Marc Rosset at Barcelona before Andre Agassi became the first big-name champion in 1996.

"To win a Grand Slam in the sport of tennis is the biggest thing you can accomplish in your sport. But the Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports," gushed the American.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov took the title in 2000 before Chile's Nicolas Massu stunned everyone by winning both singles and doubles gold in Athens.

In the women's draw, Serbian superstar Ana Ivanovic will be the centre of attention after claiming the number one spot and the French Open title in Paris.

But with defending champion Justine Henin's shock retirement in May, and 18 different winners already this year, the event is unpredictable.

Ex-number one Sharapova won her third Grand Slam in Australia in January while Dinara Safina has come of age, rounding out a quintet of Russians in the top 10 including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Anna Chakvetadze.

Serbia's Jelena Jankovic holds the second ranking and Serena Williams, a three-time winner this year, will look to join a role of honour which includes her sister Venus by claiming the only major title to elude her.

Meanwhile, Chinese fans will look for a repeat of 2004, when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian captured women's doubles gold, contributing to an unprecedented tennis boom on the mainland.

Home hopes rest on Li Na, China's top-ranked female player, and doubles pair Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, the country's first Grand Slam champions and products of its intensive training system.

Tennis is now rated as one of China's most popular sports, with an estimated three million regular players and marquee events like the Tennis Masters Cup and China Open.

Organisers have gone to town with Olympic Green, providing 10 competition courts including three lotus-shaped main arenas, the biggest of which seats 10,000.

Sixty-four men's and women's players will enter the singles draw with play lasting a week from August 10.

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