An unusual pairing

NIRMAL SHEKAR

Day Seven: Monday, July 1: Weeping Ronaldo. Smiling Ronaldo. Exulting Ronaldo. Jumping Ronaldo. Dancing Ronaldo. The Brazilian icon with the boyish face and goofy smile is everywhere in the newspapers this morning as Samba Soccer is hailed as a panacea for everything that ails the world of football.

"Good for him. I felt so sorry for him in Paris four years ago. I was there when it happened," says Matthew at the Hotel Reception.

He then looks out through the glass doors and says: "Ah, there's London for you. I told you. It was too good to last."

So, after a week of brilliant weather, the rain arrives. Office-goers hurrying along the pavements outside in raincoats, umbrellas handy, onrushing vehicles spraying rainwater on to the pavement edge. Familiar scenes, familiar sounds.

And, not the least at Wimbledon, where the court covers are in place and the groundstaff in red alert. But the morning rains cease in time for play to begin at 12.15 p.m., only a 15 minute delay.

As the two top-seeds, Lleyton Hewitt and Venus Williams, go about the business briskly, our attention is drawn by a pair of remarkable young men who have made the front pages of newspapers as far apart as Lahore and Tel Aviv, merely by making the third round of the men's doubles event here.

But, then, it is not every day that you get to watch a Jew from outside Tel Aviv play alongside a Muslim from Lahore! That's Amir Hadad and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi for you.

The partnership, struck before the qualifying event - the pair won three tight matches to make the main draw - has caused ripples here, and waves elsewhere.

The Pakistani Foreign Minister Mr. S. K. Tressler and that country's Director of Sports Board, Brigadier Saulat Abbas, have reacted strongly. And on the internet, there are hate messages too.

But Hadad, 24, from Ramla, and Qureshi, 22, vow to stay together. Today, they lose in three sets to the experienced Czech pair of Martin Damm and Cyril Suk in the third round. And playing together again at the U.S. Open is a real possibility, they say.

"Why not? " says Qureshi, a charming young man with a ready smile. "We played well together here. You cannot let politics and religion interfere with sport. You have to keep sport as sport and enjoy it."

Hadad agrees. "I mean, like Aisam says, we came here to play tennis. When he asked me to play, we didn't think it was going to get so big. There are some people who want to make headlines, say bad things about this. I can only see it as a positive. We are good friends and we are going to keep playing together in the future."

Asked if there was any pressure from home, Aisam says, "We are not here to change anything. Nobody has contacted me from Pakistan. I just read stuff on the internet and I am shocked. But the media there is backing me up. That's the positive thing I have heard."

What if the sports authorities in Pakistan were to take action against him?

"That's their own loss. If they want to stay in Group II (in Davis Cup) or lower levels, that's fine. I am going to stay with them and play for them. If I believe I could do well with Amir I will stay with him and play with him. Why not?" says Qureshi.

They are asked about how religious they are and whether they practice their religions and the two young men speak with remarkable candour.

In a world where so many lives are lost almost every day because people cannot reconcile their religious and political differences, this is indeed a touching tale of friendship and camaraderie in the world of sport.

Soon, of course, the gloom descends. Tim Henman, fighting a stomach upset, labours to what seems a winning lead in the third set against Michel Kratochvil of Switzerland on the No. 1 court when the rain arrives.

After an interruption that lasts almost two hours, Henman is back on court and Kratochvil threatens to pull the rug from under the feet of the Great British Hope as he wins the third set.

But, cheered on by thousands of fanatical supporters, Henman digs deep to reverse a 0-2 start in the decider to win six games in a row and keep the dream alive on an afternoon when he is administered smelling salt to fight his stomach condition.

Elsewhere, Greg Rusedski and Xavier Malisse are locked at two sets apiece when bad light stops play.

Match of the day: Tim Henman beat Michel Kratochvil 7-6, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "I can't quite understand how I won that match." - Tim Henman to his coach Larry Stefanki.

Day Eight: Tuesday, July 2: As you walk into the All England Lawn Tennis Club this morning, an unrelenting drizzle spraying your face, a sportswriter from Argentina greets you and says: "I don't know how they maintain the grass courts here and get them ready for play so soon after the rain. It is impossible (what he means is amazing)."

A lot of hard work and scientific research go into it. But it is truly amazing. Most of the courts have been created by Inturf and are made up of 4ft square pallets which are locked together in Wilberfoss, near York, and then transported to Wimbledon. And it is made of rye grass grown in polythene trays.

What is more, experiments are on to blow dry the grass under the canopy so that they are ready for play immediately after the rain stops.

Already there is a lot of criticism vis a vis Wimbledon's reluctance to either construct a roof over the two main show courts or switch from grass to an artificial surface. But the Club itself is doing its very best to protect a great tradition and no matter all the frustrations touched off by the unpredictable (perhaps all too predictable) summer weather here, it would be a pity if Wimbledon should move from grass to something else.

Meanwhile, the secret is out. Well, it is not really a secret. But what we thought yesterday was common smelling salt - something that the trainer Bill Norris had Henman, who was feeling faint during the five-setter against Michel Kratochvil, catch a whiff of during changeovers - was actually a tiny capsule containing a mixture of ammonia and alcohol.

"It is a legal stimulant and it is commonly used in the world of sport,"says Norris who worked with the Indian Davis Cup team for more than two seasons.

It appears that the capsule is used often by boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters, not to speak of the hunks who play grid iron football in the United States.

Of course, Anna Kournikova has never had any need for them. It is actually the teenaged boys who tend to swoon at her very sight that might need them!

Today, Kournikova does some damage limitation work after all the fuss over her angry exchange of words with a BBC television interviewer last week.

Speaking to the press after her doubles match today, Kournikova says, "There was no spat. It seemed to me that when we started he (Garry Richardson) had answered his own question so I thought we might as well start again. I didn't do anything bad. My only mistake was in thinking it wasn't live. Often when you are recording and interview they stop and start again. I think the whole issue was overblown.

"The only thing I wasn't thrilled about was the comments from former players (Pam Shriver and John Lloyd). Obviously they have never been in my situation. That's something I have to deal with."

Answering a question about her commitment to working hard and playing well, Kournikova says, "If I weren't committed why would I be putting myself through so much by playing badly? I don't have to prove anything to anyone that I am working hard or that I am paying 100 per cent attention to my tennis."

Monica Seles, on the other hand, was never once asked in her entire career about her commitment. She always gave 200 per cent on court. But at age 28, after everything that has happened in her life and tennis career, Seles may be close to the end of the road.

Today, in between showers, she is shown the exit by last year's beaten finalist Justine Henin in two close sets in the quarterfinals even as Xavier Malisse from Belgium, not long ago Jennifer Capriati's boyfriend, wins the deciding fifth set against Greg Rusedski to go through to the quarterfinals.

Obviously, with all the talk about the possibility of an all-British men's final - the first in 93 years - the pressure gets to Rusedski who nets a simple volley to lose serve in the seventh game of the decider.

Elsewhere, in a battle of giants, two men who serve rocks - Mark Philippoussis and Richard Krajicek - win two sets apiece, each of them on tiebreak, before rain stops play.

Match of the day: Justine Henin beat Monica Seles 7-5, 7-6(4).

Quote of the day: "I have not done anything on purpose to create the publicity." - Anna Kournikova.

Day Nine: Wednesday, July 3: Never is the journey from hope to despair quite as short as it is in Wimbledon. Mood can switch from one to the other in the time it takes for Greg Rusedski to dump an easy putaway volley into the net, in the time it takes for seemingly blue skies to be replaced by a massive dark pocket of clouds with a huge black underbelly.

In the event, as rain turns what might have been a glorious July day into what looks like a wet, gloomy January day swept by Siberian winds, thousands of spectators and dozens of anxious players spend most part of the early afternoon swinging from hope to hopelessness.

At least twice during the early part of the afternoon the covers come off as the sun manages to escape the claws of the all-consuming dark clouds. But each time, no sooner than the wonderfully manicured grass courts become visible another spell of rain arrives.

So, for fans hoping to watch the match of the day - the men's quarterfinal between Tim Henman and Andre Sa - billed as the second big England-Brazil clash this summer season, it is a long and frustrating wait. There is only so much you can do waiting for the play to begin. Maybe pick up a punnet of the most expensive strawberries this side of the Ritz in Paris or try a glass of Pimms or a bottle of beer.

And when it is raining, you cannot even hope to sit on what is popularly known as the Henman Hill and watch BBC's telecast of recorded matches on the big screen, although quite a number of fans actually do that, with an umbrella in hand.

And the rainfall pattern here is nothing like you might have experienced in India. It doesn't pour for a few hours and then stop for a number of hours. It is a sickly spitting rain that can go on for three hours, then stop for 30 minutes to make way for brilliant sunshine, before arriving again on the back of a monstrous pack of dark clouds.

If it is tough for the fans, consider the plight of the players, especially at the business end of the tournament with so much at stake. There are so many things to be taken care of. What to eat and when, how to relax while still trying to retain some focus on the match ahead.

While experience does help, it is still a very difficult situation which needs to be handled with a tremendous amount of professionalism. Consider, for instance, this pattern of starting and stopping in the quarterfinal match in which an inspired Amelie Mauresmo knocks out the third-seeded Jennifer Capriati today.

Centre court: scheduled start, 12 noon: Play on at 2.43 p.m. Off at 2.48 p.m. On at 3.48 p.m. Off at 4.13 p.m. On at 4.45 p.m. Off at 4.56 p.m. On at 5.10 p.m. Finishes at 5.52 p.m.

"In the first set there was no rhythm at all because we had to go off so many times," says Capriati, who is beaten 6-3, 6-2 by Mauresmo. "Everyone's got to go through it. You have to know this is Wimbledon."

"This is Wimbledon and the top players know how to handle the rain breaks," Boris Becker, the three-time champion who played in seven finals here, says on BBC television talking to Sue Barker.

Becker says he was a touch disappointed watching Germany lose to Brazil in the World Cup final.

"But at home the celebrations were as if they'd won. We were not the favourites, and yes, we lost. But getting to the final was a big thing," says Becker.

Talking about the presence of three South American players in the men's quarterfinals - Andre Sa of Brazil, Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador and David Nalbandian from Argentina - Becker says that the principal reason was baseliners were feeling more comfortable here this year.

"Maybe the courts are different, the ball bounces higher this year and the balls are heavier too. This gives the clay courters a chance," he says.

So, on this dank day of dark clouds and intermittent rain, Mauresmo apart, the significant winners are Serena Williams, who races past Daniela Hantuchova, and the 1996 champion Richard Krajicek, who wins the fifth set from Mark Philippoussis.

The Dutchman's is a remakable story indeed. Although he has a protected ranking of 37, if it weren't for that, he would not even have got into a Challenger event, actually ranked outside the top 1000 because he had not played in 20 months, recovering from an elbow surgery and all sorts of other ailments.

This week he was planning to take a break with his family in his holiday home in Majorca, Spain, but instead finds himself three match victories short of emulating his 1996 feat. "Miracle," he says. And that is exactly what it is.

Match of the day: Amelie Mauresmo beat Jennifer Capriati 6-3, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "I will win this tournament one day." - Mark Philippoussis.

Day Ten: Thursday, July 4: It is nice to catch up with Nirupama Vaidyanathan again. The charming young woman - arguably the most accomplished Indian woman player of all time, one who created history a few years ago by winning a main draw singles match at the Australian Open - got married recently and did not play the qualifying event here, as she normally does.

But she is here this fortnight as part of the Star Sports commentary team along with Vijay Amritraj.

"It's been hectic but very interesting," says Nirupama. "I am sure the viewership was good in India, although the first week did clash with the World Cup."

Today, of course, the first match on centre court would have viewership figures that would make BBC very happy. Tim Henman resumes his quarterfinal contest (he won a set yesterday) against Andre Sa of Brazil and it is seen as a revenge game or sorts.

How can a top English player beating a little known Brazilian with a world ranking of 90 make up for England's loss to Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinal?

But, then, logic seldom has any place in English sport. Asked, after he gets past Sa in four sets, if it was sweet revenge, Henman smiles. "I hope so. It is nice to get something back for that," he says. Ha, ha!

Well, jokes apart, this is the kind of day that Alan Mills, the weather-beaten Wimbledon chief referee, must have been praying for. Every single match scheduled for the day is completed, most of them in brilliant sunshine.

Hewitt faces his first serious challenge of the tournament as Sjeng Schalken erases four matchpoints in the third set to stretch the match to a thrilling fifth. And there again the stiff-backed Dutchman is twice up a break but Hewitt is not a player who turns away from a fight.

In situations that might trigger nervous outbreaks of error-prone tennis in other players, the gutsy Aussie finds moments to define himself and his character as a champion. And he does exactly that today to go through in five.

Will he be tired after the five-set labour and perhaps a little jaded for tomorrow's semifinal against Henman?

"I am 21. I am not going to worry about my body. I will be ready when the bell rings," says the top-seed.

The other semifinal pits two unlikely candidates for Wimbledon glory as Xavier Malisse beats Richard Krajicek in five sets and David Nalbandian of Argentina becomes the first South American semifinalist in the men's singles since Peru's Alex Olmedo won the championship in 1959. He beats Nicolas Lapentti in five sets.

In the women's semifinals, the all-conquering Williams sisters sweep aside the meagre opposition offered - by Justine Henin against Venus and by Amelie Mauresmo against Serena - to bring up the first final between sisters here since Maud Watson beat her older sister Lilian in the inaugural year of the women's championship in 1884.

The Williams sisters are actually more concerned about an off-court incident today as news trickles in of the arrest of Albrecht Stromeyer, a German student from near Frankfut, outside Wimbledon.

Stromeyer, 24, is an obssessed fan of Serena and has been following her across Europe. He says he would never do anything to hurt his idol. He is fined about Rs. 21,000 and banned from Wimbledon.

Serena makes a bold face. 'Him being arrested has not affected my game. I am a strong person. I try not to let things like that affect me," she says.

Match of the day: Lleyton Hewitt bt Sjeng Schalken 6-2, 6-2, 6-7, 1-6, 7-5.

Quote of the day: "I am playing okay, aren't I?"

- Tim Henman after beating Andre Sa.

Day Eleven: Friday, July 5: 'Day of reckoning'. 'Match of the tournament'. 'The Big Event'. 'Timbledon'. Headline writers have had a field day. On the front page of every single newspaper - tabloids as well as broadsheets - you see a picture of Tim Henman.

From coaches to former players to phychologists to the average fan, everybody has been interviewed seeking their views about Henman's chances of beating Lleyton Hewitt this afternoon.

It's been a helluva ride for the Henmaniacs over 10 days but any outsider capable of a dispassionate assessment is sure in his mind that it would most probably end some time this afternoon with Henman running into a wall of despair.

About the only sportswriter who shows some sort of willingness to see through the hype is Simon Barnes of The Times. In a preview of today's big match, he suggests that the English fans get ready for "the dark tea time of the soul".

But, then, soul-searching doesn't come easy in English sports circles. Not even after all the lessons are handed out time after time after time.

Of course, Hewitt does come up with a masterclass to outplay Henman in three sets in a little over two hours, hitting some of the finest passing shots and lobs seen in this great event since Andre Agassi won the title in 1992. Henman is never in the match and for the fourth time in five years he fails at the penultimate hurdle.

But, will this put an end to Henmania, a phenomenon witnessed in these parts for two weeks each year? Highly unlikely.

For one thing, led by the British media, both newspapers and television, the public has come to believe that English sportsmen are mighty world-beaters. In a commerce-driven world, it suits everybody to paint a rosy picture of the stature of teams and individuals.

Take the English football team. Before the clash against Brazil, almost every commentator, every columnist here, identified England as the favourite, as the better team. Two strokes of genius from Ronaldinho and Rivaldo settled the issue.

Now, take Henman's case. Outside Wimbledon, he has not even made the quarterfinals of any Grand Slam. He has never been ranked in the top four in his career and he has rarely beaten a world beater on a big stage.

Coming into today's match against Hewitt, the Englishman had beaten five players with a combined world ranking of 581, and the highest ranked player he managed to get past was Michel Kratochvil, 45.

And he was playing a man who at age 21 was time and again coming up with the finest tennis of his career and is ranked the best in the world.

In the light of all this, all the talk about English under-achievement on the sports fields is sheer nonsense. The simple truth is, they are not good enough to match and surpass the very best.

David Beckham's men did not under-achieve. On the other hand, they over-achieved, beating Argentina en route to the quarterfinals. And they lost to the world champions in the making.

Ditto Henman. He has not under-achieved at Wimbledon. Given his limitations, he has actually done far better than he might have been expected to. He has played four Grand Slam semifinals, and all of them have been at Wimbledon.

Meanwhile, the two forgotten men of the championship, the other two semifinalists - Xavier Malisse and David Nalbandian - do battle on court No. 1 which witnesses plenty of drama. Malisse thumps his chest and complains of palpitations and breathlessness and is led out of the court by a doctor after losing the first set tiebreak. It turns out to be a long wait for his Argentine opponent who asks the chair umpire: "Where is he? Why is not back on court?"

Rules provide for a three-minute medical time out. But it is more than 10 minutes before Malisse appears on the court again. It appears that the doctor made a thorough examination to rule out any serious heart problem and the treatment itself did not take more than three minutes. So he is allowed to continue.

Nalbandian goes on to take the second set too but the Belgian fights back to win the third and the fourth before play is called off because of bad light.

Match of the day: Hewitt beat Henman 7-5, 6-1, 7-5.

Quote of the day: "Where are we? Quarters or semis?"

- Venus Williams after winning the doubles quarterfinal match with sister Serena.

Day Twelve: Saturday, July 6: "So, what do you think?" asks my friend from Connecticut, a tennis writer who has been on the circuit for a long time. "Venus or Serena?"

The question is directed to me over breakfast at the press restaurant this morning but the answer comes from a Dutchman - also a sportswriter - who is seated at our table.

"Don't know what Papa Williams has decided. Let's wait and see," he says with a wicked grin.

If that was hitting below the belt, well, he was saying that half in jest. Yet, the point is, the whiff of controversy is always in the air when the Williams sisters play each other in a major final.

It started with the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal match in which Serena appeared glum and played listlessly after getting there without losing a single set. Venus won that match handily and went on to take her maiden title here two days later.

Father Richard Williams was around then and it was generally believed that he had "picked" the winner ahead of that match. Since then, there have been plenty of conspiracy theories. Even John McEnroe joined the chorus when he said, "Apparently a couple of their matches hav been fixed beforehand or so it appears. Only they know that." But, then, perhaps the one reason why matches between these two do not rise up to expectations is merely because they are not only sisters but doubles partners, friends and two young women who are very fond of each other.

As Oliver Rochus, the Belgian who beat his brother Christophe in the first round here, said: "To play a brother or a sister like the Williams is just the toughest thing to do. You cannot play good tennis. You cannot be up for it. You play like it is practice. You just hit the ball and that's it." As it turns out, the sisters do more than that in the first set of their match today. It is perhaps the most competitive single set they have played and it produces top quality tennis, although, from the beginning, it is clear that Serena is playing with greater freedom and drive.

But once Serena wins the first set on a tiebreak, the match descends to the level of the pedestrian and the younger one runs away with it in quick time.

"This is wonderful, I wanted so much to be a part of history," says Serena and a half hour later, finds herself on the court again, playing and winning a doubles semifinal match with sister Venus.

Match of the day: Serena Williams bt Venus Williams 7-6(4), 6-3.

Quote of the day: "Just normal."

- Venus Williams, when asked if she was disappointed.

Day Thirteen: Sunday, July 7: My friend Roberto is very happy. Why wouldn't he be? After all, he is from Buenos Aires. "It's a big day for me today," he says with a beaming smile as he settles down in his seat in the press writing room.

"I have promised them I will sing again if Nalbandian wins today," says Roberto who sang on Radio Wimbledon yesterday after his countryman made the final.

"This is a big day for Argentine sport. Our economy is in shambles and we lost in the World Cup. But this is a big bonus. The spirits are up again," he says.

But it doesn't take long for Hewitt to dampen the spirits of the Argentines this afternoon. The Aussie wins the first four games of the match to threaten an unprecedented rout. But, in a match played in three parts because of brief showers, Nalbandian does make his presence felt in short spells. This, of course, is hardly anything that can make Hewitt as much as break into a sweat and the Aussie wins in straight sets. It is the most disappointing men's final witnessed here in a long, long time and, if you were not Australian, about the only amusing aspect of the afternoon might have been the visit of a male streaker!

It is the first Australian triumph here since Pat Cash won in 1987, the year Peter Doohan ousted Boris Becker in the second round and the German said famously: "Nobody died. I just lost a tennis match."

If the men's final falls flat, then the doubles events provide some compensation. Todd Woodbridge, winner of six doubles titles at Wimbledon with Mark Woodforde, takes his seventh with Jonas Bjorkman as the pair beat Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor 6-1, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5. And the Williams sisters bring up a wonderful climax to their six week stay in Europe by winning the women's doubles title, beating Paola Suarez and Virginia Ruana Pascual 6-2, 7-5.

For a handful of Indians on the centre court - including the cricketer Rahul Dravid - the best comes late in the evening, close to 9 p.m. as Mahesh Bhupathi and Elena Likhovtseva of Russia win the mixed doubles title, beating Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe and Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia 6-2, 1-6, 6-1.

This is Bhupathi's sixth Grand Slam doubles title. He has won three men's doubles titles with Leander Paes and two mixed doubles titles earlier, one with Rika Hiraki at the French Open and the other with Ai Sugiyama at the U.S. Open.

Match of the day: Lleyton Hewitt bt David Nalbandian 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "This is a beauty...this trophy."

- Hewitt.