Switzerland's Roger Federer waves to the crowd as he walks off the court after his semifinal loss to Mardy Fish of the U.S. at the Pacific Life Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, California March 22, 2008. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)
Although the 2008 season is barely three months old, Swiss world No. 1 Roger Federer and other leading players are already turning their thoughts towards the Beijing Olympics in August.
For Federer, the Olympic Games are close to the grand slams in importance while Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic believes they might rank even higher because they take place only once every four years.
American Lindsay Davenport will never forget the stirring memories of her triumphant debut at the Atlanta Games in 1996 and Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova says she would prefer to win an Olympic gold medal this year over any of the grand slams.
"For me, it's a big priority of the year," Federer, a winner of 12 grand slam titles, said.
"The (ATP) tour actually bases its entire schedule around the Olympics Games and I follow that scheme. I want to play in this year's Olympics and I'm going to be there.
"I've already had two great experiences," the 26-year-old Swiss added, referring to 2000 Sydney when he lost the bronze-medal match to Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale and Athens in 2004 when he lost to Czech Tomas Berdych in the second round.
Serbian world No. 3 Djokovic, who clinched his eighth ATP title by beating American Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open final last weekend, agrees.
"I rate them (the Games) probably on the top, one of the tops for sure," the 20-year-old said. "I mean come on, it's the Olympics. You get to play grand slams every year, four grand slams. The Olympics you get to play one time in four years and who knows what will happen in four years for us?
"So I will not risk that and I'll be very honoured and privileged to participate in such an event, an event with the most tradition in sport."
Russian former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova has long cherished competing at the Olympics.
"It's been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl, so it's been one of my priorities for a very long time," the 20-year-old said. "One of the things I'm really looking forward to is the opening ceremony and walking with all the athletes from my country in front of thousands of people."
Davenport was a gold medallist in the women's singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games, two years before she clinched the first of her three grand slam titles.
"It was the first big thing I won and a huge honour," the former Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open champion said.
"When I won the US Open in 1998, it seemed to give me more validity as a player. Those two were certainly big turning points in my career and it's hard to compare them. I can't wait to go back in early August.
"My best memory is winning the gold but I always think back to the opening ceremonies in '96. The US were the last country to come out and I was with Mary Joe (Fernandez) and Monica (Seles), two of my best friends on the tour.
"It was a moment I'll never forget. We were so excited and giddy and, like, pure joy. Sitting there, we were all crying when Muhammad Ali lit the torch. I always kind of think back to that moment."
Kuznetsova was brought up in a family where the Olympic Games represented the ultimate in sport. "For me it's very important," said the 22-year-old, who won her first grand slam title at the 2004 US Open. "It's like a grand slam or even maybe more important than that."
Asked whether she would prefer to win Wimbledon or an Olympic gold medal this year, Kuznetsova replied: "Olympic gold medal. No question."
(Shanghai Daily/Agencies March 30, 2008)