kenny hodgart

Australian Open diary

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These entries appeared in The Herald

Monday 17/01/11

JOURNEY time to Melbourne (owing to an almighty cock-up at Heathrow): almost two days. Luggage: lost. Weather on arrival: frankly Scottish. Poise regained with the help of a few drinks your diarist faced up to the facts – even if offered a late wild card for this year’s Australian Open a distinct lack of freshness would put accepting it out of the question.

MELBOURNE’S Herald Sun newspaper yesterday demanded of a cross-section of local people to know who is the hottest female tennis star. No doubt everyone has their own thoughts on this important matter, but certainly tennis fans will be pleased to learn that the press corps takes the subject seriously on their behalf. At Maria Sharapova’s press conference here the other day, a hairy-looking Kiwi fellow piped up with the question: “Do you and Anna Kournikova have a hot Russians club where you get together?” Her response: “You’re the guy from New Zealand, huh? Oh God, you’re stalking me.”

ANDY Murray has to contend with his own stalking horses. One hack was very interested on Saturday to know whether Murray had enjoyed watching the Ashes, whether he would be inspired by England’s plucky example on Australian soil, whether he would be popping over the road to the MCG to watch the lads play in the One Day International. And so on and so forth. To all of which he replied that for most of the duration of the Ashes series he was in Miami, where (I’m paraphrasing) it is widely known that there is no such thing as cricket. Not the platitudes the English scribblers were looking for, I suspect.

THE police have announced they won’t be standing for any nonsense from fans bent on causing trouble at Melbourne Park this year. The last three Australian Opens have seen flares thrown, drunkenness and even mass brawls. Now Serb, Croat and Greek visitors are to be put under close surveillance. Which seems a bit rich, and somewhat akin to blaming Chelsea fans any time there’s trouble in the football grounds of Europe. After all, isn’t most of Australian sport predicated on violence anyway?

ON the subject of trouble and its making, I note that one Oksana Kalashnikova of Russia did not make it through qualifying.

Tuesday 18/01/11

IT is hard not to like Elena Baltacha. A set down to Jamie Hampton of the US and toiling slightly in the second yesterday she responded to a call in her favour – after several agin her – with a sarcastic “thank you” to the umpire. After which point she proceeded to break Hampton’s serve and close out the set, before rattling her way through the third to win. The Americans, as the saying goes, were not liking it up ’em.

VENUS Williams has taken to wearing “flesh-toned” underwear on-court. Maria Sharapova likes to talk about going to the shops. There is a large hairy man here at Melbourne Park, introduced to readers of this diary yesterday, who likes to make the stars of the WTA feel a bit uncomfortable in press conferences. Yes, indeed, the case of the Kiwi stalker continues. Attired somewhat in the manner of Jack Black in School of Rock, he was on hand after Sharapova’s match yesterday to ask whether she had had problems with stalkers before. “Not until you, no,” replied the Russian. “I don’t know why you’re here today. That shouldn’t have happened.”

THE poor fellow should perhaps seek lessons from Novak Djokovic. During the benefit match for victims of the Queensland floods on Sunday the Serbian “Djoker” at one stage hopped it into the photographers’ pit, grabbed himself a camera and set about snapping away at Caroline Wozniacki. “This is going to be in the English Sun,” he informed her, adding “I can see a lot more than you think.” Good grief.

THE toilets in the bowels of the Rod Laver Arena are equipped with boxes, apparently for the safe disposal of “used syringes”. I have yet to ascertain whether they are intended for tennis players or journalists.

IT is always good to see children put to good use. At the slightest hint of a drizzle at Melbourne Park, the ball boys and girls are sent out on court to dry off the surface. With towels. Generally once the task is completed there is cheering from the audience – but one is never sure whether it is the industry of the kiddies or the genius of Australian organisation that is being applauded.

Wednesday 19/01/11

NATURE abhors a vacuum. Just when you thought maybe a Grand Slam without Serena Williams might also be short on bragadaccio, epic self-regard and David Brent-style monologues, her sister returns from injury to try out for the part of sorority princess all on her own. Yesterday we heard rather a lot from Venus about the zipper on her dress, her book (the title of which, Come To Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession is probably long enough for me to have just single-handedly lost this sports section most of its readers for good), and how she wants to get into interior design and business development next. You just wonder what Serena will have up her sleeve when she returns from her sore foot. A cure for cancer?

NOVAK Djokovic claims Serb and Croat players are the very best of friends off court. The same cannot be said of Balkan ex-pats here in Melbourne. Past years have seen mass brawls between fans of Serb and Croat allegiance, with Aussie police weighing in with batons to separate them. Think West Ham v Millwall on centre court at Wimbledon and you’re getting close. When Djokovic faces Croatia’s Ivan Dodig today, your intrepid diarist may well decide he has a pressing engagement on one of the outside courts.

PEOPLE wishing to become Australian citizens are graded according to occupation. There hasn’t been an Australian winner in the women’s event at this Open for 33 years, so you’d imagine tennis players might be ranked up there alongside important vocations like medic, sandwich-maker and so on. Not so. Russian-born Arina Rodionova, sister of naturalised Australian Anastasia Rodionova and much-admired by tennis beaks here, has been denied citizenship. In fact, a letter from the immigration authorities informed her she was “not the same calibre as [her] sister.” Ouch.

JAMIE Murray, who recently married, has always been popular with the ladies, but it seems he also has his eye in for birds of the feathered variety. Apparently some poor winged blighter got itself in the way of a wayward Murray shot during practice the other day and paid the ultimate price. It is with no small degree of dramatic irony that the incident has been reported on Twitter.

Thursday 20/01/11

“OHHH la la. Mon dieu! Woweee, what kind of shot this is?! Heeheehee, oh my god!!!” One is never entirely sure when listening to the commentary of Henri Leconte for Channel 7, the Australian sports channel, whether the Frenchman has been shot, stuck in the posterior with a hot poker or merely shown a racy photo of Carla Bruni.

IT may not have escaped your notice that many women tennis players are similarly opprobrious to the ear. Now an Australian scientist has explained that they are justified in braying like jackals every time they hit the ball as this increases the force of their shot, or something. What’s more he is offering to give them opera training to make their shrieking and grunting even louder. In separate news, the cast of the hit musical Hairspray are to perform at next Saturday’s women’s final. Before protesting about all this bedlam, however, it is worth putting things in perspective: at least we will be spared Cliff Richards getting up for a warble.

ANDY RODDICK, ever a forthright sort of chap, yesterday summed up Tuesday night’s five-set slogging match between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian more eloquently than any of the world’s sports hacks could attain to in all their surging torrents of heady prose. His verdict: “I fell asleep during the third set.”

ASKED about what has changed on the men’s tour in recent years with the swing towards European dominance and simultaneous slump in American fortunes, Roddick also offered this nugget: “If there are more Italians and French people, they will be speaking more Italian and French.” Needless to say there is truth in this, but if one looks at the world rankings it is clear that while there are four Americans in the top 50, there is only one Italian: world No.48 Potito Starace. Go figure, as they never tire of saying in the US.

Friday 21/01/11

PEOPLE seem to have grown tired of the Maria Sharapova “stalker” saga. Not least the stalker himself, James McOnie, the TV reporter from New Zealand whose show The Crowd Goes Wild is, sources tell me, wacky, and who, you may recall from previous diary entries has been asking Miss Sharapova in press conferences about what she and Anna Kournikova get up to in their spare time, declaring his love for her, and so on. Conspiracy theorists among you may suspect FSB involvement, but the official word is that McOnie has gone home.

BILLY CONNOLLY, who is fond of toilet humour, was at Melbourne Park to watch the tennis yesterday. No doubt he is hardly able to control his mirth when players have to take toilet breaks, but for some they are no laughing matter. Britian’s Anne Keovathong was ahead by a set the other day when her opponent Andrea Petkovic took herself off for a little private meditation in the “dunnies”, as Australians term their lavatories. The Serbian then came back out and won 2-6 7-5 6-0. “I can’t control what my opponent does,” said Keovathong magnanimously, but surely it is not asking too much of people to go before they are due on court.

SPORTSWRITERS occasionally find themselves falling foul of the PR interests of powerful clubs or associations, not least in Scotland. Accusations of bias or inaccuracy are wont to plague journalists who go “off message”. But perhaps we should be thankful that not everyone is as litigious as Ron Gauci, CEO of Australian Rugby League club Melbourne Storm, who is currently threatening to sue a tram driver for defamation over comments he posted on a social networking website to the effect Gauci is a “puppet” for Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, Storm’s owner.

ROGER FEDERER claimed to enjoy being taken to five sets by Gilles Simon the other night. Of course, you’d never expect him to admit he was bricking himself at the prospect of a second-round exit, but one cannot but question his take on what is still a 2-1 head-to-head record in the Frenchman’s favour. “Well, the thing against Gilles, victory is in my racquet because I’m the aggressor,” he said. “[Against him] I’m in control if I’m going to win or lose.” Eh?

Saturday 22/01/11

THE man who ghosts Andy Murray’s column for The Australian newspaper is known to his friends as “The Cuddler”. He has also had a stinking cold all week. Should Murray succumb to the sniffles at some point at this Open, you’ll know who to blame, then.

PEOPLE with money to burn deserve it because they’re never done taking risks, or so the City of London would have you believe. But certainly there was an element of derring-do about the guy who stuck A$2.5m on Rafael Nadal to beat US qualifier Ryan Sweeting on Thurday. When Nadal fulfilled his end of the bargain, the generous punter donated his A$25,000 profit to the Queensland flood relief fund. All well and good, but some people are asking why he did not simply make the donation in the first instance. Which may be why he has A$2.5m to place on a bet and they do not. Had Rafa actually lost, though…

KIM Clijsters had a bone to pick with her on-court interviewer, the former Aussie tennis player Todd Woodbridge, after beating Spain’s Suarez Navarro the other night. The issue stemmed from a text message Woodbridge sent to the former world No.1 doubles player Rennae Stubbs during last week’s Sydney International. “It said you thought I was pregnant,” Clijsters announced, adding as Woodbridge went crimson, “You said ‘she looks grumpy and her boobs are bigger’.” Oo err missus.

AT six foot, four and a half inches, Australia’s Bernard Tomic is not what you would call a wee boy. But he is not even sure whether he has stopped growing, which, as everyone knows, can be a tiring business. In last year’s Australian Open the young tyro lost in five second round sets to Marin Cilic then complained about the match having gone on well past his bedtime. Now 18, he is through to the third round of this year’s tournament and faces Rafa Nadal in today’s evening session at Melbourne Park. But Tomic has again voiced misgivings about the assignment, revealing that he generally likes to get his head down before 10pm. One hesitates to encourage athletes to drink fizzy juice, but a bottle of Irn Bru would surely be the correct tonic in this instance.

Monday 24/01/11

FOLLOWING Jamie Murray’s Reaper-like scything down of an unsuspecting sparrow while practising his serve last week, Caroline Wozniacki announced yesterday that she had been attacked by a baby kangaroo in a Melbourne park on Saturday. Seeing the poor beast lying on the ground, the Dane approached it, she told concerned journalists, the friar of Assisi’s very spirit coursing through her veins. Whereupon it scratched her on the shin. “As I went over, it just started to be aggressive and it actually cut me,” she said. “I was going to be nice and try to help it. But I learned my lesson and I just started running away.”

WOZNIACKI’S distressing tale confirmed in me the view that human charity is all too often wasted on animals. Had she only found me lying down in a park, I told myself, her charms would not have been so cruelly resisted. But these reflections were about to prove premature: by and by the press conference was recalled, so that the world No.1 could tell us she had made the story up and felt bad for lying. She had, in fact, sustained the cut on her leg by walking into a treadmill. “I made it up because it sounded better than what actually happened,” she said. “I was like, okay, we’re in Australia, so a kangaroo scratched me.” If there is a lesson in all of this, I don’t know what it is. The New York Times has decided Wozniacki is “wacky”. Which makes the Williams sisters what, exactly?

THERE were frayed tempers in evidence on court here on Saturday, when the Indian doubles duo Mahesh Bupathi and Leander Paes put their hispanophone opponents, Feliciano Lopez of Spain and Argentina’s Juan Monaco to the sword. At the end, all four had to be separated at the net, with Paes claiming he had had a serve aimed at his head during the match. Seemingly Lopez in particular was annoyed at Paes’ repeated use of the Spanish phrase “vamos”, meaning “come on”. The more likely explanation is that Spaniards nowadays find it a strange and unnatural thing to lose.

ONE sometimes wonders what umpires think about, up there all on their own, during the quieter moments. Probably their tea, I think.

Tuesday 25/01/11

THERE was an eeyorish column in yesterday’s Melbourne Age, mainly about how life used to be better, but the sign-off, I think, captured the essence of everything that is civilising about tennis. “Give me a warm, still day, a few friends, no temper tantrums, no grunting, and a well-matched game of doubles,” demanded David Campbell. “That’s my idea of sporting heaven.”

WHO can stop Rafael Nadal? Maybe, just maybe, the International Tennis Federation. In a fascinating article in the magazine The Atlantic this month, Joshua S Speckman reports that scientists have finally been able to prove that the copolyester strings used by today’s players generate 20 per cent more spin that nylon string and 11 per cent more than natural gut. These differences explain how a muscular, top-spinning player like Nadal can generate twice as much spin as Andre Agassi did. Intriguingly, the only time the ITF has ever blocked a technological innovation in the sport was when, in 1978, it banned so-called “spaghetti strings”, which had produced a factor-of-two increase in spin. It is now believed copoly strings, in the hands of today’s players, can generate at least as much spin as spaghetti racquets.

THE Swiss are hard work sometimes. Where the Dane Caroline Wozniacki’s entertaining press conferences have stolen the show at this year’s Australian Open, at the other end of the scale is Stanislas Wawrinka. After beating Gael Monfils in the third round, he was asked to consider why Europeans were dominating the main draw. “I have no idea,” he replied. “Sorry. I have no idea why.” There were no follow-up questions.

ONE naturally sympathises with those who queued for up to three hours to spend $A7 per can of Heineken lager here at the weekend. In Scotland such duress would be enough to spark a riot, of course, but stiff penalties pertain to any and all instances of unruly or indeed drunken behaviour at this Grand Slam. How times have changed. Friends tell me that the old Melbourne Cricket Ground, just over the road from the tennis, used to sanction a Bring Your Own drink policy. At some point in the late 1980s, however, a new and Draconian ruling came into force – patrons were thenceforth restricted to a solitary crate of beer each.

Wednesday 26/01/11

ONE wishes Alexandr Dolgopolov well, wherever his career takes him from here. Like Boo Weekley in golf, the world No.49, who has taken this Australian Open by storm, admits he doesn’t really follow tennis when he’s not playing. “I don’t like to watch sports, I don’t even watch TV when I’m off the court,” he revealed the other day. “I just like to relax with my friends, drive my car [a Subaru, apparently].”

DOLGOPOLOV is so relaxed, indeed, that one day last week he was setting busily about a burger, chips and a can of Coke in the players’ canteen, when, as I understand it, he was beckoned over the Tannoy to report to Show Court Three for his match. He turned to his coach, Jack Reader, but seemingly the Australian hadn’t bothered to check the schedules either.

MAYBE sports nutrition is a load of old piffle after all. Usain Bolt lives on chicken nuggets, Wayne Rooney clearly exists on pies, now there is Dolgopolov and his hamburger lunch. And here, over the top, comes Andy Murray, toppling in a trice the whole corrupt edifice of hydration theory and a thousand pseudo-scientific dissertations with the war yodel: “I don’t drink much water any more. It’s not good for you.” It may be relevant to note that Murray is no longer sponsored by Highland Spring.

THERE are lots of characters on the ATP and WTA tours, sure there are. The Italian, Flavia Pennetta, for instance, who is like a swarthier Gordon Strachan. After losing to Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, she was addressed as follows: “You won the first set, what happened after that?” Pennetta: “She won the second and the third.”

YOU may or may not be aware that Show Court One at Melbourne Park is called Margaret Court Arena, after the former Australian world No.1, who in 1970 won all four grand slams in the same calendar year. So why not call it Margaret Court Court? When I put this probing line of inquiry to no less a personage than a Tennis Australia media officer, she looked at me as if I had just said something derogatory about Kylie Minogue’s bottom.

Thursday 27/01/11

YOU can travel just about anywhere in North America and find people who will tell you they are Scottish. There are, of course, many ties to the old sod in Australia as well, but generally Australians are busy enough feeling pleased about being Australian to bother much about that kind of thing. And so there is a degree of ambivalence towards Andy Murray here. One woman told me she thought he had a bit of an “attitude” and preferred “classier” players. But he also has his backers, some of them now even prepared to empty their wallets on him becoming champion. “All he needs to do is throw the ball up and think of England,” another local said. Hmm, well, whatever it takes.

AND then there was Rafael Nadal, genius, whom everyone loved, especially the women. Oh how they cooed at him when he spoke in his broken English or removed his shirt, happy to overlook his constant bottom-scratching. Which, in fact, calls to mind a story about James Joyce. When asked by a female admirer if she could shake the hand that wrote Ulysees, the old devil declined the request, explaining that it had done other things as well.

WHY is Nadal’s mother never seen at tournaments? Perhaps she is too embarrassing. “Ugly parent syndrome” as the Australians are calling it, has reared its head in Melbourne this year, with the WTA banning the father of French player Aravane Rezai from all future events pending an investigation into an alleged “incident” last week. Monsieur Rezai has previous form: in 2006 he was investigated after headbutting the father of another player and accidentally smacking his own daughter in the face with a racquet at Roland Garros.

ANOTHER man in the bad chair in Melbourne is the former Rangers defender Kevin Muscat. The blazers at the A-League are currently mulling over an appropriate sanction for the Melbourne Victory player in the wake of his season-ending tackle on Adrian Zahra of Melbourne Heart at the weekend. Even the Aussies are branding it thuggish, and they play something called Aussie Rules. At 37, his own playing career seems to be winding down in any case. Perhaps M. Rezai requires a henchman.

Friday 28/01/11

SO it’s college jocks (the Bryan brothers) v Indians (Leander Paes and Mahesh Bupathi) in the final of the men’s doubles. There is something nostalgic about Mike and Bob Bryan, their chest-bumping and their exceptional teeth and their 18 Grand Slam titles (together and in mixed doubles) recalling an era of American dominance and John McEnroe and Ronald Reagan. But they’re 32 now, the Bryans, so what will they do when the day comes to retire from tennis? Bob has a plan: he will send the wife out to work. “I’ll kick her in the butt and be a house husband,” he said yesterday.

IT is for their sensibility and great sense of humour that Americans are loved throughout the world. But one wonders if they mightn’t try a bit harder with the Australians, who are, after all, a proud bunch. What with it being Australia Day on Wednesday, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert was made to try Vegemite on his sandwich. His reaction? “That’s god awful. There’s nothing good about that. That is horrific. I got to get some water – that is rough.”

WHO does Shane Warne think he is? Well, okay, he did take a total of 708 test wickets in a long cricketing career, but after his chat show was recently voted Australia’s worst TV programme (and that is an achievement in itself), the spin-bowling beefcake, whose giant face is currently pictured biting into a Big Mac on advertising hoardings all over the country, is now in a monumental huff with the Herald Sun newspaper, for whom he writes a column. On Tuesday the rag reported that he had turned up to the tennis on Monday night demanding VIP treatment for 14 of his poker buddies. Which vicious lies sent Warnie into a Tweeting fury. “Followers if you agree with me that the herald sun has lost reporting – fact and what the public wants to read then write or call them,” he posted yesterday. No doubt the paper’s mailbags are bulging with petitions of support as I write.

I HAVE a theory about why Sam Stosur was so rubbish at the Australian Open and it as follows: on one of her many TV commercials we learn that she dines on Healthy Choice frozen meals. Can they really be enough to sustain a top-level athlete?

Saturday 29/01/11

BEST answer to a stupid question of the fortnight comes from women’s finalist Li Na. Journalist: “Is it true you’re not a typical Chinese in the sense that you’re more extrovert? You like to have fun, make jokes, you’re not shy. I mean, many Chinese don’t talk that much.” Li Na: “Oh, yeah, maybe they couldn’t speak English so they didn’t know how to talk. Yeah, if you guys can’t speak Chinese, of course they can’t make a lot of jokes.”

ANDY Murray is known to punish himself for underperforming by wearing pink tops in training. However, that is as nothing to the depredations suffered by a young David Ferrer, his opponent in Melbourne last night. Javier Piles, who has coached Ferrer man and boy, revealed through the week how he took a firm line on indiscipline when his charge was a teenager. “When he didn’t want to work I would lock him up in a dark room of two-by-two metres,” Piles claims. “It was the room where we would store the tennis balls. I would tell him that his working schedule was from nine to 12 and that if he didn’t want to work he would remain there, punished. I would give him a piece of bread and a bottle of water through the bars of a small window.” I seem to think the NSPCC would have something to say about this kind of thing if it happened on our shores. Maybe we’ve gone soft.

WHAT do you say to a tennis player when you’ve run out of other questions? One American journalist here is obsessed with finding out how they may or may not have invested their prize money. I’m not sure if this is how Americans normally decide what to do with their money, but if so it might help to explain how their economy went so spectacularly loony.

THE Swiss, on the other hand, may be a tad dull, but they are not daft. Roger Federer admitted to Jim Courier the other night that he likes the Australian Open towels so much he took four of them away with him after each of his matches. In the Open shop they cost $A55 each. Four towels x five matches x $A55 = $A1,100. A tidy sum on top of the $A420,000 he got for reaching the semi-finals.

Monday 31/01/11

“A WHOLE new career could open up if he wins”, wrote Boris Becker before Andy Murray lost yesterday’s Aussie Open final. But what can he have meant? After he won the US Open in 2008, Novak Djokovic was apparently approached by Serbian television to play the part of King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, Yugoslavia’s first monarch, in a A$4m ten-part series. Djokovic declined, but one wonders which parts might be suitable for Murray. I can’t see him doing stirring oratory, so William Wallace might be out of the question, but he might make for a decent Hamlet. Being Danish, his new best friend, Caroline Wozniacki, could play the love interest and his mother, well she could be what’s ‘er name, his mother.

AS for Becker himself, he has several interests, including a deal with Vodafone that requires him to answer selected text messages from fans. Seemingly he has promoted the service at various events throughout Europe, including one in Airdrie. But beaten finalist or not surely Murray cannot be expected to go there.

AS noted previously in these dispatches, Billy Connolly – a comedian noted for talking a lot about “jobby” – was a fixture in the crowd at this year’s Australian Open. Another face around the place was that of Mark Philippousis, who is fondly known to his fans as the “Poo”. The former Australian world No.8 tennis player (never, sadly, No.2) was often described, without irony, as “a dangerous floater”. It would be nice to think the two men got together, perhaps with a view to writing a sitcom. No doubt BBC Scotland would find the money to commission it.

DO British sports administrators lie awake at night thinking of new ways to thwart Australian sportsmen and women? Judging from the rhetoric in the Australian press, it may be time they were less complacent. Apparently a “war chest” of A$2.5m has been assembled to help Australian athletes take medals from their British “enemies” in next year’s Olympic Games. “Every medal we take from them is worth two, because we gain one and they lose one,” reasons Craig Phillips of the Australian Olympic Committee secretary-general. Incoming fire! How are those defences coming along, chaps?

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