An eventful week

"What can you say? It is disappointing. I have been playing well the past two months. But today I just did not have the feel,'' said Sania Mirza after losing to Aiko Nakamura.-AP "What can you say? It is disappointing. I have been playing well the past two months. But today I just did not have the feel,'' said Sania Mirza after losing to Aiko Nakamura.

We tend to over-rate the importance of sport when we talk of an Indian sportsperson's fortunes on the field being faithfully followed by a billion people, writes Nirmal Shekar in his diary.

THE DAY BEFORE: They are all over the place: quickly putting together your order at the local McDonalds, smiling from behind the counter at the 7 Eleven, ushering you to your table at a popular Indian restaurant, Indian students pursuing higher education in Melbourne are as ubiquitous this summer as Japanese tourists armed with handy cams.

"You here for the tennis?'' asks one young man from Chandigarh while running up the tab at a local Convenience Store. "When is Sania playing? Can you get me a ticket for that match?''

A Google search leads me to the website run by the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. According to figures quoted there, over 27,000 Indian students enrolled in Australian Universities in 2005, the second largest from a single country.

Obviously, life here is not a joyride. It is a lot of hard work for these young men and women. They have to put in long hours, working part-time to support themselves.

* * *

I run into Mahesh Bhupathi near the indoor practice facility. Mahesh says he is very optimistic about his new partnership with Radek Stephanek of the Czech Republic. "We are committed to playing together the whole year. I am really looking forward to it,'' he says.

Mahesh says that his hard work with fitness trainer Heath Matthews — who also trains Sania Mirza — has improved his fitness remarkably.

* * *

Melbourne Park — formerly Flinders Park — must rank among the finest sports facilities anywhere in the world. Not only is it state of the art when it comes to addressing player comfort issues — Roger Federer calls it the Happy Slam — but also nothing is left to chance when it comes to providing the fans value for money.

If you hold a ticket to the tennis, then you can ride free in the city trams to get to Melbourne Park and back. This is a very sensible arrangement because it means fewer people will want to drive to the venue and pay a lot of money to park cars and then walk some way to get to the Rod Laver or Vodofone arenas.

It not only eases the pressure on parking slots but also helps avoid traffic congestion and possible chaos before the start and after the end of the day's play. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, richer than any other national cricket body, can learn from Tennis Australia.

* * *

DAY ONE, MONDAY, JANUARY 15: Old world, a different set of values... they don't come like Alan anymore. Australia's best-known tennis writer from the golden age of Aussie tennis — Alan Trengove — comes by to say hello. The man who has watched and reported some of the finest action in the unforgettable era of Hoad and Laver and Emerson and Stolle is even now a very active columnist.

Alan enquires about Sania Mirza's popularity in India and about Bhupathi and Paes.

I remember the first serious conversation I had with Alan. It was in October 1987 at the White City stadium in Sydney. As Ramesh Krishnan was dismantling Wally Masur's game with clinical precision on grass — the courts have since been relaid as hardcourts — Alan turned to me, in the pressbox, and said: "Ramesh's backhand is so much like his father's. I used to admire Ramanathan Krishnan's backhand.''

Always courteous, Alan would make sure that everything was going right for a visiting journalist, from the facilities in the press room to hotel accommodation and transport.

Alan covered his first Australian championship in 1953, in his own words "for a paper called Argus which doesn't exist now.'' For tennis fans with a keen sense of history, there may not be too many better books to own than Alan's History of the Davis Cup.

* * *

Early in the day, an ugly brawl breaks out at Melbourne Park between Croatian and Serbian fans. Security personnel at Grand Slam tournaments are not used to such situations but they react quickly and with police help manage to evict the brawlers from the stadium. Over 150 young men, many of them drunk, are thrown out of Melbourne Park.

Football-type hooliganism is the last thing that you might expect in a major tennis tournament. But, increasingly, as the game is being sold as an entertainment package, it has begun to attract people whose values are not really the sort that my friend Trengove would approve of.

* * *

Andy Roddick is in a spot of bother. The man who ended a long losing streak two days ago, beating Roger Federer in the final of the Kooyong invitation event, finds in the big Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a formidable opponent. Tsonga, serving rocks, outlasts the American in a thrilling first set tiebreak (20-18).

But Roddick gets his act together quickly to win in four sets. Coach Jimmy Connors, who lost his mother two weeks ago, is not in Roddick's corner here (at least, not yet) and the young man says that he was not sure if the former great would join him in Melbourne.

* * *

DAY TWO, TUESDAY, JANUARY 16: It's a scorcher. The two-minute walk from the media work room to Show Court No.3, where Sania Mirza plays her first round match against Olga Savchuk from Ukraine, is enough to send you scurrying for cover. In the open stands, quite a few spectators use big bath towels rather than hats to protect themselves from the scalding sun.

A few dozen Indians shout themselves hoarse as Sania begins well, overcomes a mid second set slump and then races to a 6-3, 7-5 victory.

"The last thing I wanted was a third set,'' says the 20-year old from Hyderabad. "It was really hot out there. You could feel the heat on your legs sitting down. It was burning.''

Predictably, she faces the usual questions at the post-match press conference.

Coming from India, you must be used to the heat, right?

What is it like being a role model in your country?

How do you deal with the expectations from more than a billion people?

The last question has always flummoxed me, whether I hear it in India or anywhere else in the world, whether it is in a tennis press conference or in the context of cricket, a sport far more popular than tennis in India.

Expectations of a billion people? You must kidding! A good majority of the billion has bigger things to worry about day after day than Sachin Tendulkar's batting form or Sania Mirza's ranking.

We tend to over-rate the importance of sport when we talk of an Indian sportsperson's fortunes on the field being faithfully followed by a billion people. Perhaps we — the ones in sport — do this because it makes us feel good, makes us think that we — the sports media — are part of something that is an integral part of everyone's life. This, surely, is a myth.

* * *

In the air-conditioned comfort of the media work room, Sania watches Maria Sharapova toil against Camille Pin of France. "It is getting hotter and she's struggling, isn't she,'' says Sania.

Indeed, Sharapova is in trouble. While the tournament's Extreme Heat Policy has come into effect and no new matches are about to begin, the ones that are already in progress continue. It is a rule that doesn't make sense. For, if the idea is to protect players from suffering, then matches in progress should be stopped too.

"It is humanly impossible to play in that kind of heat for three hours,'' says Sharapova, three hours after beating Pin in three sets. "Our bodies were not made for that.''

While the maximum temperature of the day is 40.8 at Melbourne Park, on court temperatures soar dangerously, touching a high of 61C.

David Nalbandian is furious. "Why they didn't call off the match after 40-something? Why they didn't stop all of them (matches)?'' he asks.

* * *

DAY THREE, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 17: "What is (the meaning of) adulation? '' asks Roger Federer.

A reporter explains, pointing to all the drooling over his game in the television commentary box during the Swiss master's second round defeat of Jonas Bjorkman.

"I hear it when you guys tell me. I mean, it is nice,'' says the man who might begin to suspect that he was the owner of supernatural powers if he listened to everything that is said on TV during his matches. "I appreciate it most from former great players, fellow players and experts,'' he says.

* * *

"Hey, happy new year.'' I hear that and turn around and it is Leander Paes flashing a big smile. "Good to see you here again,'' says the Indian Davis Cup captain.

"Remember the first time we met here?'' asks Paes.

That will be hard to forget. It was January 1990 and I even remember the court number (17) on which Paes upset Jan Kodes Jr. — son of the 1973 Wimbledon champion Jan Kodes — then seeded two, in the second round of the boys singles event. Paes went through to the final that year.

Eminent Sportstar columnist Rohit Brijnath, then writing for the Sportsworld weekly in Calcutta, and I watched every single match that Paes played that week. That was the beginning of a long journey for Paes and today he is a proud father who says, "Come to my (first round doubles) match tomorrow. I want you to meet my little daughter.''

* * *

Who are the stars of the future in men's tennis? We get a fair idea today. The leader of the pack must surely be the gifted Serb Novak Djokovic, who dismisses experienced Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in straight sets in the second round today.

"I have a lot of expectations behind me,'' said Djokovic. "There is pressure but I don't feel it too much.''

Djokovic's progress has not escaped Federer's attention. "Of course, I follow him a little bit more closely. He is definitely playing well. He is confident and everything.''

So are a few other young men, not the least Andy Murray of Britain. Frenchmen Richard Gasquet and Gael Molfils and the Czech Tomas Berdych are the others in the elite group of young men.

* * *

DAY FOUR, THURSDAY, JANUARY 18: Indian and Japanese fans fill the stands on Court No. 6 long before the start of Sania Mirza's second round match against Aiko Nakamura. There is cheering all around as the players walk in. There is the promise of seat-edge thrills as Sania and Nakamura slug it out in the opening game before the Indian breaks the Japanese player's serve.

But, that is about the extent of the contest, so to say. Through the rest of the match, lasting a little over an hour, there is only one player on court — her game having deserted her, Sania is a pathetic parody of the wonderful competitor she was two days ago in her first round match.

"What can you say? It is disappointing. I have been playing well the past two months. But today I just did not have the feel,'' says the Indian. "I have played and won on off days before. But today was not such a day.''

* * *

DAY FIVE, FRIDAY, JANUARY 19: This is a seamless fortnight; for the media, one of the toughest sports events to work at. The first matches of the day begin at 11 a.m. and the last one may sometimes go on past 1 a.m. the next day.

Over two decades, I remember many a time when I have staggered back into the hotel room, in a sort of sleepwalker's private haze, around the time early risers get off the bed. For many years, they had only eight night sessions, which meant the other six days ended in decent time.

But now there are 13 night sessions. The only day when there is no night play is on the second Saturday, the day of the women's singles final.

Of course, night sessions make for great drama at the Rod Laver arena. Some of the finest matches I have watched here were night matches, not the least a marvellous coup staged by that loveable rascal old rascal John McEnroe in 1992, when he beat the defending champion Boris Becker.

That was two years after McEnroe was thrown out of the competition after a row with the chair umpire and tournament officials.

Today, a few hours after the unseeded Serena Williams' splendid victory over the No. 5 seed Nadia Petrova, the night session — featuring Roddick and Marat Safin — holds some promise. But the American — with Jimmy Connors back in his corner — is really pumped up today and he goes through in four sets. A good match but not an epic, really.

* * *

DAY SIX, SATURDAY, JANUARY 20: This country is going through one of the worst droughts in its recorded history. Bush fires have ravaged the State of Victoria over the last four weeks and drinking water reserves in Melbourne are alarmingly down to just over 35 per cent of capacity.

In the event, today's rain would be welcomed by most — barring a few thousand people who have tickets to watch tennis on the outside courts. There is no play at all on the outside courts today. But there is plenty of action in the Rod Laver and Vodofore arenas indoors.

Sharapova quickly goes through to the fourth round and says that she enjoys adventure sports as much as she enjoys tennis.

"I am very adventurous. I am pretty fearless at those things,'' says the Russian diva. "I love to get an adrenaline rush. There is only so much sitting at the beach that you can do.''

She spent over 10 days in Costa Rica during the brief holiday season and she says, "It's so much fun. You see the trees and the waterfalls. So surreal. You are in a different planet when you do those kind of things.''

Lleyton Hewitt, too, is in a different planet now — as a tennis player — compared to three or four years ago. Tonight, all the vocal support in the stands is of little help as the 2005 finalist is beaten in four sets by Fernando Gonzalez of Chile.

* * *

DAY SEVEN, SUNDAY, JANUARY 21: My Czech friend is really excited. "She's done it. She beat Amelie. What do you think?'' he asks. Lucie Safarova, 19, has just beaten Amelie Mauresmo, the defending champion and second seed, in straight sets.

"Good win for Lucie, she has tremendous potential,'' I tell my Czech friend.

Not much later, in the media work room, a Belgian journalist interviews me on Kim Clijsters' retirement plans.

"Do you think she is quitting too early? She is only 24. Do you think she will attempt a comeback like Hingis three or four years later?''

I think that Clijsters knows what she wants. She is an intelligent home-loving woman who is not at all comfortable in the glare of spotlight. She is getting married later this year and she probably feels that she doesn't want to be part of the non-stop circus anymore. I believe, too, that Clijsters will never attempt a comeback. It's just not her. Clip this column and remember to say I was wrong, if she does come back!

Later, in the evening, Federer dismisses the much-hyped Novak Djokovic in straight sets to make the quarterfinals.

"I have only three words for Roger Federer: He is going down.'' This was Djokovic in a TV interview on the eve of the match.

That was stupid and ridiculous. He couldn't count the words right, for one; for another, you don't taunt great world champions like that and then hope to pull it off.