LIFETIME: Wimbledon stars keen to represent respective countries at sporting extravaganza
LONDON: MARIA Sharapova admits representing Russia in the Olympics at Wimbledon next month will be a dream come true.
Maria summed up the feelings of a host of top Wimbledon stars including Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, who are all thrilled to have the chance to play for a gold medal at the All England Club.
The grass-court Grand Slam event, which starts at the All England Club today, will be followed by the Games just three weeks later as Olympic tennis returns for the first time since 1908.
Maria just enjoyed one of the greatest moments of her career as she won her first French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam after several years battling to recover from shoulder surgery.
She also enjoyed an unforgettable moment at Wimbledon in 2004 when, aged just 17, she announced her arrival on the scene by beating Serena Williams in the final.
But even those glorious memories will pale in comparison to carrying the Russian flag at the Olympic opening ceremony and then taking part in the Games themselves for the first time.
"It will be my first one. It's been a dream of mine since I was very young," Maria said.
"Over the years, you've seen how successful tennis has become in my country and now how important it is to be a tennis player as part of the Olympics."
The Russian admits she was stunned to discover she had been selected as the flag bearer for the opening ceremony.
"It was huge. I had to read the text message five times and read it to other people to make sure I got it correct," she said.
Maria isn't the only star competing at Wimbledon this year who can't wait to get the back to the All England Club for the Games.
"It's amazing to me that this is already my fourth Olympics," 16-time grand slam title-winner Federer said.
"Always something special has happened at every Olympic Games I've taken part in. Obviously I learned a lot as well, like living in the Village, carrying the flag, responsibilities, seeing huge press rooms, facing a lot of pressure, winning gold.
"You name it, there were a lot of things that I was able to take away from the Olympic Games. I hope it's going to be something similar this time."
For French Open champion Nadal, who has won Wimbledon twice and took gold in the men's singles in Beijing in 2008, it is not so much the quest for victory as the experience that makes the Olympics so memorable.
"The Olympics is the most important competition in the world of sport. The experience is great for me," Nadal said.
"In Beijing I was able to spend all the tournament there. I enjoyed the experience in the Athletes Village. It was probably one of the greatest experiences I ever had.
"You really experience what it means to play just for the passion of the sport, for nothing else. That's the real spirit of the sport."
The Olympics has not always been kind to the Spaniard however.
"I have one record in Athens that I am the sportsman who spent less time in one Olympic Games, because the week before I played in Sopot. I won my first tournament. I arrived that Saturday night, I lost on Sunday, and I went home," he said.
Serena Williams, who hopes to win another gold after clinching the doubles title with her sister Venus in Beijing, is a veteran of two Olympics, but the experience remains a major thrill.
"It's getting closer and closer and I'm getting more excited. I was in London yesterday and I saw a guy with a USA jacket on. I was like, 'Oh, man, this is really happening'," Serena said,
"It's a great feeling, I'm getting little butterflies in my stomach. I played two Olympics, which is pretty awesome, and to have two gold medals is even better." AFP