LONDON (Reuters) - The last time Olympic tennis was played on the All England Club’s grass courts in south west London, Britain walked away with all of the gold medals and a handful of silver and bronze to boot.
Expectations are not that high 104 years later as the Olympics return to Wimbledon, but a medal for British number one Andy Murray could help ease the pain of the country’s long-suffering tennis fans, whose hopes of an end to the 76-year wait for a home-grown champion were dashed when Murray lost to the inimitable Roger Federer in this month’s final.
“Andy’s chances have increased,” Team GB’s tennis leader Paul Hutchins told Reuters, adding that the shorter matches - best of three sets until the men’s final which will be the usual best of five - could prompt unexpected outcomes.
“There can be more opportunities for surprise results when it is best of three.”
The returning Wimbledon champions, however, will be burning with motivation to notch a second summer triumph in London.
Swiss master Federer and American Serena Williams return to the grass courts aiming to claim an Olympic singles gold that would add a missing line to their prodigious resumes.
With champion Rafa Nadal of Spain and Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, who along with Federer have combined to win 29 of the last 30 grand slams, also on hand the men’s competition should be fierce at the top but odds on the fourth-ranked Murray have narrowed since his strong Wimbledon showing.
“In the men’s singles there are probably only four or five that could possibly win it. There is such a high standard,” said Hutchins, whose son Ross will compete for Britain in men’s doubles.
Big serving Serena Williams is favorite in the women’s event, but world number one Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, Russia’s Maria Sharapova and Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland also rate as serious contenders.
The singles field is the strongest ever, with 19 of the world’s top 20 players competing in the men’s and women’s draws. There is also extra gold on offer, with mixed doubles appearing for the first time since 1924 in addition to men’s and women’s doubles.
The 1948 London Olympics did not have tennis on the medals menu, as it was not on the Games program between 1928 and 1984.
While the setting will be familiar, the Olympics promises to be a different show from traditional Wimbledon.
“We are very fortunate for the tennis to be held at the club ... it is iconic,” said London 2012 tennis competition manager Clare Wood, a former player who has represented Britain at three Olympics.
“We don’t want to reinvent anything ... we are just going to add our own touch and flavor to it.”
Gone will be the players’ classic white attire and the demure navy blue Ralph Lauren uniforms of officials and ball boys and girls.
Instead, competitors will take to the Olympic-branded courts in their national colors, officials will sport a splash of turquoise and ball boys and girls, selected from local schools, will wear bold purple and red.
“It is going to look very, very different as an event,” said Wimbledon men’s final line judge Kevin Howell, who will be taking more time off from his day job as a clinical scientist to officiate at the games. “We are all enormously excited.”
Branding rules means it is out with the Pimms, although strawberries and cream will remain as part of a ‘Best of British’ catering range at the sold-out event.
The players, about half of whom are expected to stay an hour away at the Olympic village, will also have to get used to a little less pampering.
“They won’t have their car service which can pick them up and drop them off wherever they want to go. We provide buses that come in from the village and back,” said Wood.
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Larry Fine