kenny hodgart


Leave a comment

Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.


Leave a comment

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens diary

These entries appeared in the South China Morning Post

SATURDAY

Is it ever OK to make light of tragedy? If it is, sometimes, then when? And if not, why not? And who decides?

Perhaps those in the audience at the Hong Kong Sevens attired as airline pilots – channeling, to adopt the fashion industry’s argot, the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 with 239 people on board – mulled the moral niceties long and hard before dressing yesterday.

Or perhaps they didn’t. Topicality is king in the domain of fancy dress; it’s like Twitter, only with costumes instead of keystrokes. No point getting done up like Colonel Gaddafi – that’s so 2011.

Funny or not, there’s a gory instant celebrity about pilot garb, as the amiable Kiwi gentlemen I spoke to recognised. They had, they said, ordered their outfits for this weekend’s tournament – for which they have flown to Hong Kong specifically to attend – some time ago. When news of the plane’s disappearance broke three weeks ago, they hesitated, but their qualms were easily mastered. Their next thought was to incorporate a black box recorder into the ensemble, “but it was doubtful that would get past security.”

One imagines the same impulse drives the popularity of the website Sickipedia, where currently a tab advises: “Click here for all the best missing Malaysia MH370 jokes.”

There is a theory that empathy in the wake of a tragic event diminishes the more geographically or culturally remote people feel from it; or, to put it more directly, “westerners” mourn less for disasters in places where there are fewer white people.

Not an easy thing to gauge, I don’t suppose, but on the other hand studies have confirmed that 9/11 jokes originated – in America – the day after the attacks, so it’d be wrong conflate dubious taste and discrimination. Either way, if avoiding the former is a priority, the Hong Kong Sevens may not be your thing.

******

It comes to our attention that the most read “Sevens story” on Friday was about an Australian chap who was, it seems, dispossessed of “almost HK$100,000 in foreign currency” after he met three African ladies in Wan Chai.

Police were keen to warn other tourists in town for the rugby that “butch African women” operating in the area are deliberately targeting drunken expatriates in pubs on Lockhart Road and Jaffe Road. The man in question apparently realised he was being robbed and tried to resist, whereupon he found himself deposited in a rubbish bin, his wallet considerably lighter.

Perhaps understandably the fellow did not come forward with more details of his misadventure and his identity remains a mystery. Instead, the reports stressed the intimidating scale of his assailants, who, we learn, were “powerfully built” and “stood about 1.8 metres tall” – proportions which would not preclude them, you might well think, from engaging in a more legitimate form of scrimmage this weekend.

Scientists announced the other day that they have discovered a new planet. Or at least they think it’s a planet; they’re not quite sure. Their uncertainty will be familiar to followers of rugby. Seeing an actual, fully-formed rugby player can induce a kind of wonder, even terror, similar, it might be supposed, to that engendered by the movement of tectonic plates.

Similarly, the rugby-going populace is little known for its “shrinking violet” tendency, either in appearance or temperament.

What I am driving at is this: could it be that our Australian friend, accustomed to being able to handle himself, magnified the immensity of his muggers out of embarrassment? It is to be hoped so. Visitors to Wan Chai must not succumb to fear. Keep calm and carry on drinking is probably the best advice.

******

With Fiji going for their third hat-trick of wins at the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, one face in the crowd will be that of former captain Samisoni Rabaka Nasagavesi. The 44-year-old played in the Sevens here four times but hasn’t been back at the event since 2003, his last appearance. When we bumped into him on Friday he told us he was here on a “sort of pilgrimage, with my missus and her mate”, both of whom had gone shopping but would join him at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday.

Now living in Australia, the former scrum-half won 29 caps for Fiji at XVs but lamented that even now rugby was not as lucrative a career prospect for Fijians as in other nations. “There is more support than there was when I was playing but there’s still not a lot of money or sponsorship,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone in Fiji plays from the moment they can run.”

Rabaka’s first experience of the Hong Kong Sevens came in 1992, when he played in the Fiji side that beat New Zealand 22-6 in the final, the second time they had won three tournaments in a row here. His main memory of the game is that it was raining.

More discomforting was the Scottish rain he experienced the following April, when he played in the very first World Cup Sevens at a muddy Murrayfield, losing to England in the final.

Rabaka recalled fondly, however, that “in those days you just ran from one end of the pitch to the other, just like playing touch,” adding that Sevens is now more of a structured game. “It’s become more physical, there’s more breakdown, more stoppages. And the players are more muscular.”

Standing 6’2”, Rabaka weighed 14st in his playing days. A skelf of a lad.

 

SUNDAY

Tales abound of amatory trysts of every stamp at the Hong Kong Sevens. Some (including former Scotland captain Andy Nicol) have even met their future spouses during the event.

Love is a many-horned beast, however – and chance encounters often play out less providentially. Or at least so it was for two Canadian men whose eyes met across across the rows at Hong Kong Stadium on Friday. After several glances to and fro, the penny dropped that they knew each other; or rather they knew of each other – from having had the same girlfriend; non-concurrently, I understand.

Of course, for all we know this may be an everyday occurrence in Canada, where the winters are very long. Equally hard to verify was the boast, heard second hand, of a man who claims to have achieved sexual congress one year at the Sevens with seven different women – in one day – and that, furthermore, several of these conquests occurred inside the stadium itself; in the environs of the South Stand, inevitably.

However implausible such figures may seem, it cannot be truthfully said that prudishness holds sway in that area of the stadium. One American expat lady – stressing, in that way that girls do, that she doesn’t normally do these sorts of things – recounts one year taking home a Smurf. Having painted herself red for the occasion – she had dressed as a ketchup bottle – she awoke to find the mingling of colours had left purple smudges all over her apartment.

No doubt you are wondering whether Mr Seven at the Sevens wore a costume. Sadly I have been unable to settle that question; but anyway it strikes me that the age of smartphones and social media may have put the brakes on such activities. One imagines there are downside risks to it, if you will, for people “high up” at Standard Chartered.

Incidentally, our source reports back that “actually, it turns out seven might have been closer to two.”

******

They come from all corners of the globe for the carnival of rugby that is the Hong Kong Sevens – albeit mainly from Anglophone rugby strongholds like New Zealand, Britain and, erm, the United States. The roster of nations able to compete at Sevens suggests, indeed, that it may in fact be more of a genuinely global game than XVs.

On a personal level I have been frustrated in my search for visitors from Germany. It may be simply that they are more reserved than people from countries like Wales and Australia, who tend to festoon themselves in national insignia even for simple endeavours like nipping out to the shops for a loaf of bread. But the Germans’ absence is another missed opportunity to address one of the great sporting mysteries, namely the non-existence of rugby in Teutonic nations.

Also untraceable so far have been spectators from either the Cook Islands (population 19,569) or American Samoa (55,159), both of whom are represented in the qualifying competition this weekend. It would seem counter-productive that these territories compete in both rugby union and rugby league and no doubt they would be well-advised to consolidate operations; but clearly the very fact that they are putting out teams of players capable of not always getting completely trounced (I’d back them against a German select, certainly) is remarkable in itself.

As an aside, I note that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a significant presence in American Samoa, with 37 congregations. If any of their members have taken the pulse in the South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium this weekend, we would love to hear from them.

******

The phrase, I think, is “well-intentioned”. There exists a branch of the Hong Kong government called “the environment bureau” – perhaps you are dimly aware of it – and it has teamed up this weekend with the HKRFU and (don’t laugh) Sevens co-sponsor Cathay Pacific to mutter about about environmental impacts and the like.

Their big idea, according to our information, is “to minimise the environmental footprint of the event and trial new ideas and best practices that could be applied to other major events in Hong Kong in the future.”

Seemingly this involves sending out the bureau’s new mascot, “Big Waster” – who has a very large, swollen-looking head, presumably from inhaling bus fumes or something – and some student volunteers, to harry people about recycling. There are also a few recycling bins, somewhat indistinguishable from the other bins, dotted around the stadium. And that’s about it. Maybe some shrubs have been consecrated – I don’t know.

By my own admittedly rough estimates, Hong Kong Sevens weekend produces enough plastic waste (from beer cups alone) to litter all of American Samoa, methane (from various sources) equivalent to half the annual emissions of Argentina’s cow population and an asteroid cloud’s worth of other gases from whatever it is planes run on these days; not to mention frazzling Shenzhen’s power grid in the mania for fancy-dress costumes.

In short, minimising the Sevens’ “footprint” will be far from straightforward. It is to be hoped Big Waster understands the magnitude of his responsibilities.

 

MONDAY

My colleague Tim Noonan averred yesterday that the attraction of rugby for many female spectators is in large part to do with watching physically fit men run about. His thesis was supported by comments from one interviewee, a girl called Jessica (not her real name), who referred in glowing to terms to the “specimens” on show.

It is be hoped none of the players read Tim’s column – the objectification of men is a serious issue and can be very damaging to male self-esteem. It got me thinking about the levels of actual rugby fandom at the Hong Kong Sevens, though. My own observations tell me that sections of the audience have little interest in rugby and come primarily to ogle each other.

With this in mind, it seemed to me the best way to further probe these very pressing questions would be via what is referred to as the off-side test: asking women to explain how the off-side rule works. It is widely accepted that off-side in football is quite beyond female comprehension. Would they fare any better with the rugby version?

A selection of the best answers: “When there’s a yellow card”; “Something to do with passing forward when the other team is behind; “If you’re about to score nobody can be in front of you”; “When the ball goes out on the touchline”; “f*** off you sexist ****”.

For the record, none of my colleagues who write regularly about rugby know any of the rules. In fact, such knowledge is generally avoided by sportswriters and those who claim it are viewed with great suspicion.

******

You don’t hear them quite so much nowadays, those jokes that start off with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – and sometimes also a Welshman – walking into a bar, and end with each of them confirming some national stereotype or other: thick Paddy, drunken Scot, English toff, that sort of thing. Political correctness – or more likely the exhaustion of the genre – has probably done for them.

I only mention this as of course the whole scenario will have played out in a thousand ways and with a thousand punchlines this weekend in Hong Kong. And as a Scot living abroad, I was curious to know how the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom might play into the social brew, as it were.

My findings were somewhat disappointing. Nary a Scot I encountered wanted to “go there” – so divisive has the question become, I gather, that people are on eggshells in social situations lest they unloosen a hail of brickbats from the other side.

It used to be that Scots exempted themselves from the old rule about no talk of politics or religion in company. What has happened to them? They cannot be accused of drinking any less, certainly.

******

I had hoped to report tales of anti-Russian sentiment at Hong Kong Stadium over the weekend. Foreign correspondents will know the feeling – “tensions” at least furnish you with copy; sadly for the news cycle, however, players representing the world’s newest pariah nation received only the most half-hearted smattering of boos as they took to the field to face Japan yesterday.

Not to worry. I will, instead, convey the major incidents from the match, which the Japanese won 19-14 in extra-time.

Hostilities got underway with the Russians well fired up – they considered that one or two of their opponents looked a bit effeminate; seeing the Japanese engage in conversation with players from European teams before the game had also riled them somewhat.

After racing in front with two tries, they attempted to camp on the Japanese 10 metre line, calling a plebiscite on the question of whether they should remain there (the results are still being counted). The Russians then came unstuck as the Japanese mounted a comeback and ultimately clinched it on sudden death. Vladimir Putin declared his team’s elimination unacceptable, however, adding that all options for settling the score would be considered.


Leave a comment

Polyester politics

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

In all the recent controversy over colonial flags and British Council MTR advertisements, it is curious that the vast yarns of polyester clothing the citizenry of Hong Kong in the livery of English football clubs have escaped mention.

It would be a stretch to label the English Premier League neo-colonialist. For a start most of its clubs’ owners, and players, are foreigners. But as Britain ‘s biggest cultural export these days, it is unsurpassed in its global reach; and for the ex-pat that means fending off one-word questions like “Chelsea ?”, or ” Liverpool?”.

Call me churlish – I’m Scottish and nobody ever says “Aberdeen?” – but it seems obvious to point out that in embracing English football, Hong Kong has spurned its own footballing heritage. After all, the city has the oldest professional league in Asia, had a handy “national” side when most other Asian countries still couldn’t kick their grannies, and, pre-EPL, important local matches could attract crowds of 30,000. Nowadays, the average first division gate is just over 1,000. Heavens above, in the 80s fans even had the cojones for the odd riot.

It doesn’t help that those in charge of football in Hong Kong – the same small group of people who seem to have a hand in most of the city’s sporting initiatives – have such a knack for making a Horlicks of everything, or that national coaches rival David Beckham’s hairdos for getting the chop. But consider this: EPL sides make a total of some £1 billion in broadcasting revenues every season; in Hong Kong, clubs pay NowTV to show games. Time to get back to watching football in the flesh. Polyester optional.


Leave a comment

An interview with Yao Ming

A version of this article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

Yao Ming isn’t for talking about his basketball career today. Not directly, anyway. That’s the message from his phalanx of PR go-betweens – and the man whom the sport made probably the world’s most famous living Chinese before his retirement a year ago this month is on it.

Okay, so it seems a bit like talking to Steven Spielberg and not asking about films but let’s roll with this. China’s most feted athlete (and until recently its wealthiest celebrity, according to Forbes magazine) has long been exercised by matters other than his own greatness, whether on or off the basketball court. And he has often seemed a more complex individual – private, considered, even at times conflicted – than his very public, billboard-friendly image might suggest.

His reluctance to dwell on the past, then, speaks of what, exactly? “Slightly, I feel like I wish I still played basketball,” is all he offers when Tatler disobeys instructions by venturing to ask whether or not he regrets his career ending – at the relatively tender age of 30 – following a gruelling sequence of injuries to his feet and ankles. So there may be lingering dismay, but what else? In another interview recently Yao spoke of how being a celebrity sportsman created “discrepancies with real life”. Not the kind of insight you’d expect from, say, David Beckham, but a smart reflection, certainly, on the realm of stardom which they both, and few others from the world of sport, inhabit.Those who become, for want of a better phrase, “public property” without necessarily asking for it often find their predicament self-alienating. And there can be little doubt Yao knows the feeling: no extrovert by nature, he is forced to live in a world that offers few hiding places when you’re 7’6″ tall and everybody knows your face.

Be that as it may, there is a very clear sense that in “retirement” he wishes to take fuller ownership of the Yao Ming brand. His request, last August, to have his nomination for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame put on hold on the grounds that it was “too soon” is one indication of that. His restlessness in terms of applying himself to other endeavours since is another. “Former NBA star Yao Ming” might always be the calling card but there will be no resting on laurels.

Right now, the focus is seemingly on building on the charitable work Yao has involved himself with for a number of years. “It’s taking up a lot of my time after basketball,” he says of his own Yao Foundation and his partnerships with a network of other philanthropic organisations.

His visit to Hong Kong, arranged in collaboration with local businessman and socialite Moses Tsang, finds him participating in a charity basketball event for children and families in order to raise funds for the international conservation charity Rare. According to the literature, the Yao-Rare partnership aims to engage “an army of young, motivated conservation ambassadors” across China.

“We share the same dream of making a difference in the world,” says Yao, stretching out his enormous frame on a suddenly incommodious-looking drawing-room chair on the top floor of Upper House in Admiralty. “I share Rare’s vision of protecting the environment and young people have to be [the guardians] of that.”

The desire to “make a difference”, or, if you like, “give something back”, is hardly new to him. In his first off-season as a Houston Rockets player, in 2003, he responded to the SARS pandemic by hosting a telethon in Shanghai to raise funds for treatment and research. His now longstanding involvement in HIV and Aids advocacy and awareness campaigns began soon after and in 2007 he held an auction that raised ¥6.75million for underprivileged children. Later, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he donated US$2million to relief work and established the Yao Foundation to help rebuild schools destroyed in the catastrophe.

Since then the foundation has funded the construction of 14 schools in rural areas and improved facilities at many others, including installing computer rooms and equipment, libraries, sports and exercise areas and kitchens. And this year sees the start of a new initiative: the Yao Foundation Hope Primary School Basketball Season aims to introduce the sport to thousands of youngsters across China. “Hopefully this will run for many, many years,” he says. “Basketball will always be part of what I can offer to young people.”

Can he see himself becoming more involved in the coaching side of the sport? “I
honestly don’t have experience in that aspect,” he answers, his low, deep voice competing for attention with chatter in the hotel bar. “But I try to share something with the kids I work with. What I share is what I have learnt from sport. You have to trust the guy who stands shoulder to shoulder with you, you cant just rely on yourself. You don’t want to let your team-mates down; you have to back them up and trust them to back you up the same way.”

And how do those principles apply to his own life away from basketball? “In sport, there is physical contact and competition, as well as the team work… If I am working in charity, sometimes competition has to be put to one side. You have to work together with other organisations to achieve things.”

Savvy commentators have opined that Yao’s achievements in the NBA – his incredible averages with the Rockets, his inclusion on the All-NBA Team five times – were all the more remarkable for the absence of an instinctively aggressive streak in his make-up. Sure, he learned about the pressure of competing in one of the world’s most demanding sports leagues but he also brought with him from China his own cultural standards and values and they were not found to be limiting. In the man whose proudest moment was carrying the Chinese flag and leading his country’s delegation during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a certain Confucian selflessness and humility are widely discerned.

Many, in fact, choose to see Yao – a gentle-seeming giant with his broad, kind features – as a sort of modern-day Chinese wunderkind. But if the Yao Ming success story is intoxicating it’s only half the picture. “Sometimes it can feel like there are a billion people on my shoulders,” he once said, and little wonder.

As the stress fractures and hairline fractures, the complicated surgical procedures and the months of rehabilitation proliferated in the latter part of Yao’s NBA career, there were those who made the link with his hothousing as a youth. It is claimed the government took an interest in Yao’s sporting potential from birth: both his parents were professional basketball players. By the time he was 13 – and already 6’5″ – he was training 10 hours a day at the the Shanghai Sports technical institute.

In his unauthorised biography of Yao, Operation Yao Ming, the former Newsweek journalist Brook Larmer alleges that his parents were induced to marry in order to produce a champion. He also describes in detail the quasi-scientific “special treatment”, harsh training and relentless testing the teenage Yao endured. If it is difficult to prove the ill-effects of his railroading, it is also hard to over-estimate the pressure it exerted on him to succeed – for his family and for the country. “People love Yao Ming, but no one wants to be him,” is one of Larmer’s observations.

And yet, if Yao has cause to resent aspects of the sporting crucible from which he sprang, he does a good job of hiding it. Now based again in his native Shanghai, where he lives with his wife Le Yi – who also played basketball for China at the Olympics, in 2004 – and their two-year-old daughter, Yan Qinlei, he says: “It’s like my crib. Everything feels very comfortable in Shanghai.”

Since 2009 he has even owned his former club, the Shanghai Sharks, who were then on the verge of financial collapse. That they have continued to make losses suggests there is a philanthropic dimension to his involvement to match his charity in other areas. Meanwhile, other vehicles into which he has poured some of his estimated US$105 million personal fortune – including a restaurant in Texas, a Shenzen-listed GPS tech company, a legal music download website and the recently-launched Yao Family Wines, an “artisanal” Napa Valley wine company targetting the Chinese market – seem destined be more lucrative.

Wine is said to be a passion Yao picked up from his Houston team-mate Dikemebe Mutumbo, but like the Rockets themselves, it’s off-bounds today. Perhaps it’s understandable: time is of the essence and Yao has many balls to juggle. But still, let’s throw another pass. Are his various commercial and humanitarian endeavours enough to fill the basketball-shaped void in his life? “I’ve played basketball for the last 20 years and basketball is in my blood; but it’s still part of my life with the Sharks, and that is time-consuming,” he protests. “The Shanghai Sharks is where I came from… But it’s no competition for my charity work.” Message delivered.


Leave a comment

Interview with Rory McIlroy

This article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

If Rory McIlroy is feeling the pressure of being golf’s hottest young property since Tiger Woods first emerged on the scene, he is not showing it. The 22-year-old has come a very long way in rather a short space of time – quite literally in the case of his participation in last month’s Shui On Land China Golf Challenge, a seven-day whistle-stop tour of seven Chinese golf courses, including Caesars in Macau, but also in terms of his own bigger picture.

Little over four years ago McIlroy was still an amateur. Nowadays he’s the youngest winner of the US Open in almost a century – in June he wiped the floor with the field at Congressional Country Club in Maryland – and is currently being afforded all the fuss befitting that accomplishment, by sponsors, fans, media and tournament organisers alike.

It has been a good year for him, but it’s not one that’s about to fizzle out quietly. The McIlroy brand has been undergoing some serious exposure and there’s plenty more of it to come before 2011 is through, with commitments in Asia – including the Hong Kong Open at the beginning of December – dominating a heavy schedule.

And so one cannot but be struck by the diminutive Northern Irishman’s chirpiness as he bounds into a room overlooking a neon Macau evening to meet Tatler. He’s spent the last hour or so shaking hands with various people in suits in the lobby of the Venetian and charming inquisitors at a packed media conference. How’s that part of life among golf’s elite working out, then?

“Things have calmed down a little bit,” he insists. “The first tournament I played after winning the US Open was the British Open and I probably just wasn’t quite ready for the welcome I received, the attention, the hype and everything. Winning one of the majors at 22 – not a lot of golfers have done that. I think Seve [Ballesteros] won one at 22, as did Jack [Nicklaus], so that’s a nice bit of company. It does bring its own pressures and attention, but I feel as if I’ve adjusted to that now. For me, it’s actually nice to get on a golf course because you sort of get away from everything else. It’s where I feel most at home.”

Not that he is afforded too many opportunities to play the links courses of his native land this weather. After the week in China, he was due to fly to Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, a showcase involving only the year’s four major winners – of which group this year, astonishingly, two others (Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke), also hail from Northern Ireland. This month he will play at the World Golf Championship in Shanghai, then at the strokeplay World Cup of Golf at Mission Hills Haikou in Hainan – where he will partner McDowell – and after Hong Kong he has further engagements in Dubai and Thailand.

“It’s important for the development of the game in Asia that there are now so many big tournaments,” he says. “In China, golf is going to become so big, partly because of its inclusion at the Olympics in 2016. The point of doing the China Golf Challenge was to help promote the game here, and for the outside world as well, to showcase what China has to offer in golf. There are some really fantastic courses.”

The notion of establishing a fifth golf major, to be played in Asia, has been mooted recently. McIlory is sceptical about it happening any time soon, but says: “I think it’s good that there are now so many events co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. You even see the PGA Tour now moving into Asia – they have a tournament in Malaysia and are trying to branch out in this market. Personally I love playing golf in this part of the world.”

In fact, he claims to reserve special affection for Hong Kong, where he was beaten in a play-off in 2008 by Lin Wen-tang. “I played a couple of events as an amateur in Hong Kong and now the Hong Kong Open is probably one of my favourite events of the year,” he says. “And because I keep coming back, I get to know it better every time – restaurants that I like, places to go.”

Life on tour, he acknowledges, is not always conducive to letting down his considerable head of hair or sampling local cultures, but there is a sense that for all his determination to succeed on the golf course – he talks of becoming the best player in the world in the next three years – McIlroy is out to enjoy life along the way. Currently that involves making time for his new girlfriend, the world No.1-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, with whom he plans to spend a fortnight in the Maldives this month between tournaments. You might be forgiven for suspecting the sponsors of hijacking Cupid’s bow, but it’s clear the pair have no wish to parade themselves as some kind of sporting power couple.

“We have very similar lifestyles, so I think we understand one another more than anything else,” McIlroy says. “If I shoot a bad score, I feel as if she knows what to say. And you know what she would like to hear if she has a bad result. We’re both working hard to be the best in our sport, but you have to some sort of life outside that.”

If he needs a pep talk from a fellow golfer, on the other hand, McIlroy need only turn to the greatest of them all. Jack Nicklaus, who went on to win 17 more majors after his first fresh-faced triumph in 1962, has invited him to spend the beginning of next year practicing at his club in Florida. McIlroy has already proven his lack of physical stature to be no hindrance to his game, but perhaps there is still something to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.


Leave a comment

Villas Boas – the new Sir Bobby

This article appeared in The Herald

Liverpool re-hiring Kenny Dalglish was described as a gamble. Rangers promoting Ally McCoist, their assistant these last four years, is explained in similar language. But few gambles in football seem on the face of matters as speculative as the punt taken on one Andre Villas Boas by Porto last summer.

His name was barely familiar even to his countrymen. He was 32, an age at which most players are still coming to terms with the idea that they are “experienced”. And, in fact, he had never actually been a footballer. For anyone.

There have been others who’ve been given their chance at managing big clubs without ever having played on any grand stage – Arsene Wenger is one who springs to mind – but usually there is a requirement to work one’s ticket in the lower divisions. Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, however, is a man who knows his own mind. The Porto president handed a spiky young Jose Mourinho his first major appointment and did not live to regret it; Villas Boas was, similarly, his personal choice to succeed Jesualdo Ferreira.

Once again he has been vindicated. Porto host Spartak Moscow in the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final tonight having eliminated CSKA in the last round and fresh from clinching the Liga Sagres title with a 2-1 win at Benfica on Sunday. Before they took that punt on Dalglish, Liverpool were sniffing around Villas Boas; more recently Roma were rebuffed. The Porto native – a supporter of the club as a boy – has made it clear he wants to guide them into the Champions League next season.

So far, so much a case of Mourinho Mark II. And Villas Boas’ relationship to the “Special One” seems almost umbilical. Before taking over at bottom-of-the-league Academica in October 2009 – from which position he led them to a safe 11th place – he spent years working under the current Real Madrid manager, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan.

The younger man has been keen to downplay this relationship, however. Rumours that his split from Mourinho 18 months ago was an acrimonious one may or may not be well-founded, but he has at times seemed annoyed at attempts to paint him as some kind of De Niro to his master’s Brando. “I am not a clone of anyone,” he has said. “I want to leave my mark on this club. We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently.”

“He’s very insistent that he’s not the new Mourinho,” the editor of the Portugoal football website, Tom Kundert, told Herald Sport. “He was in fact originally taken on at Porto by Bobby Robson and he is quoted as saying that he sees himself more as Robson’s successor. He said ‘I have English ancestry (his late grandmother was from Manchester), a big nose and I like drinking wine.'”

The story of Villas Boas’ conscription by the late Robson might well be the stuff of a Hollywood yarn. As a teenager he lived in the same building as Robson – who coached Porto from 1994-96 – and harassed the latter into reading some of his meticulous scouting reports on the team’s next opponents. The former England manager was impressed enough to offer the precocious youngster a role within the club’s observation department.

At 17, he achieved his UEFA C coaching licence in Scotland before, aged 21, becoming head coach of the British Virgin Islands. When Pinto da Costa appointed Mourinho in 2002, the latter brought Villas Boas in as an assistant, and so began his higher education in the managerial arts.

It would not be accurate to suggest the new Porto coach has simply transplanted Mourinho’s template, however. Like Mourinho he is adept at motivating players and impeccably organised, but there are major tactical differences: like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Villas Boas’ Porto play high pressure, passing football; his is a more fluid 4-3-3 than Mourinho’s was at Chelsea, with the wingers frequently becoming strikers.
“Where Mourinho is results driven and therefore traditionally quite defensive, Villas Boas gives his players a lot of licence,” says Kundert. “At the same time they lose very few goals. Tactically he has to be given credit.”

In the last four years, Porto have lost the likes of Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson. Benfica, meanwhile, looked a much stronger side than their domestic rivals this season: Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola would all walk into Villas Boas’ team.

In such circumstances, any manager who can put out a side as ruthless and tactically superior as the current Porto is bound to have Europe’s elite clubs taking note. He may not be able to keep him forever, but Pinto da Costa’s gamble has paid off. The risks for future suitors are beginning to seem negligible.


Leave a comment

Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”


Leave a comment

Australian Open diary

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?