Sport

A pristine stage for Olympic tennis: Wimbledon

Saturday, July 28, 2012    

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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — The Olympics at Wimbledon means Roger Federer going for gold on grass.

It also means pouring seeds and a rooting hormone into hot water tubs, which are then placed in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

That’s to make the grass grow.

Today, lawn tennis will be played in the Olympics for the first time since 1920. The games will be staged at the All England Club only three weeks after Wimbledon ended, which gave groundskeepers little time to repair damage to the courts.

They now look as pristine as ever, thanks to a reseeding plan formulated through two years of trial and error.

“To the outside world it looked like an impossible task,” said Neil Stubley, senior groundsman at the club. “The players all seem to be sort of amazed we’ve been able to do it. It’s a good feeling.”

On the surface, the profile of Olympic tennis has achieved a new level. After a 64-year hiatus, tennis rejoined the Games in 1988, but has since struggled to generate a Grand Slam-style buzz — until now.

Even jaded professional athletes get excited about the chance to chase an Olympic medal on the sport’s grandest stage.

“That’s all I’ve fought for this whole year, so I hope that I can play well,” said Venus Williams, who made the US team only after an early-season climb in the rankings. “For me, it will just be an honour to be here and try to capitalise on that moment.”

Virtually all top players seem to feel the same way. Defending singles gold medallist Rafael Nadal pulled out last week because of recurrent knee trouble, but the men’s field still includes Federer, Serb Novak Djokovic and Brit Andy Murray. Among the medal contenders on the women’s side are Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.

“It’s luck, really, for the tennis players in this era to actually experience such an Olympic Games,” Federer said.

He and Swiss teammate Stanislas Wawrinka are back to defend the doubles title they won four years ago in Beijing. The Williams sisters will also try for another gold in doubles, which they won in 2000 and 2008. Serena has a third shot at a London medal in mixed doubles, which is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924.

Serena and Federer added to their Wimbledon trophy collection earlier this month. Williams then showed up at the champions dinner wearing a gold dress, as if her focus was already redirected toward the medal chase.

She and Federer play first-round matches today, and both seek their first singles medal. Federer is 0 for three, although he takes some consolation from meeting his wife at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Now 30, Federer hopes to play in the 2016 Games, but acknowledged this could be his last shot. He bristled at the suggestion a gold in singles would plug the biggest hole in his resume.

“I don’t feel like this is a must-win for me or anything like that,” said Federer, the winner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles. “I think if you start looking at it like that and really picking out stuff that’s missing for you in your career, this is not the way to go after it. Especially when you’ve had so much success like me.”

“It’s going to be a great tournament. I want to enjoy it, you know, not just crumble under pressure and just talk about that if I don’t win, how bad it will be. That’s not how I see it.”

A festive atmosphere should make the event easy to enjoy. There are rumors of a concert by the Pet Shop Boys on Saturday morning, and entertainment is planned between matches on the show courts, a big change for Wimbledon.

Because the club is a 90-minute commute from the hub of Olympic activity in east London, most top players plan to stay in Wimbledon village rather than the Olympic Village.

But at least eight tennis players — an unofficial Olympic record — planned to make the trek across town to serve as flag bearers at the opening ceremonies: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Sharapova, Marcos Baghdatis of Greece, Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, Max Mirnyi of Belarus, Horia Tecau of Romania, and Stephanie Vogt of Liechtenstein.

Then their stage becomes Wimbledon’s ryegrass, immaculate as ever. Using heated seeds that were already germinating, groundskeepers this month reseeded 2 or 3 per cent of each court, mostly along the baseline, and those areas were often barren from heavy use.

The recovery of the turf was accelerated by cooperative weather — mild and wet for 10 days after Wimbledon, then warm and sunny the past week.

“There were a couple of sleepless nights,” groundsman Stubley said. “Fortunately Mother Nature came through for us.”

Now the Olympics at Wimbledon can begin. They might be even more exciting than watching grass grow.

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