Popular players and match schedules

Shahar Peer of Israel came close to stopping Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.-AP

Sport and television are wedded for life. There might be the odd flare-up, but neither can do without the other. And both, together, cannot do without something that makes for ratings success — not just super sport with all the drama, but star quality in the performers, writes Nirmal Shekar.

DAY EIGHT, MONDAY, JANUARY 22: Scheduling Grand Slam matches for a global tennis audience is never easy. And it is the toughest when you are running the Australian Open with most of the audience spread across the United States and Europe.

When Andy Roddick plays, you have to look at a time that is convenient for the U.S. fans, when Andy Murray plays, you have to think whether fans in Britain would get it in good time... so on and on.

Sport and television are wedded for life. There might be the odd flare-up, but neither can do without the other. And both, together, cannot do without something that makes for ratings success — not just super sport with all the drama, but star quality in the performers.

Some have, some don't. And, no matter the rankings, it is the ones with popular appeal who get a lot of time under lights.

Not surprisingly, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal are pencilled in for the night matches today.

"How about dinner tonight? When will you finish?" an old friend who's been a Melbourne resident for over 20 years asks on the telephone.

"Maybe breakfast tomorrow. That's when I expect to finish `tonight'," I tell him.

So, through all the women's matches, Fernando Gonzalez's straight sets defeat of the fifth seeded American James Blake, and then Sharapova's victory over Vera Zvonareva, we wait for the big one: Nadal versus Murray.

Well done Kim. Martina Hingis shakes hands with Clijsters after going down in three sets to the Belgian in the quarterfinals.-AP

The British media, many of whose members are my neighbours at the media writing room, wait for the moment anxiously. Murray has, after all, come a long way since losing in the first round to Juan Ignacio Chela here last year.

Brad Gilbert has obviously helped the talented 19-year-old from Dunblane move up a level or two in a short time.

In the event, Scotland's finest is off to a great start, announcing himself with the sort of nonchalance that you might find charming in one of those old James Bond movies starring Sean Connery, the greatest living Scotsman.

Soon, Murray, offering Nadal no clear targets at all by mixing things up intelligently, is up two sets to one and 40-0 on the Spaniard's serve in the fourth game of the fourth set.

That, of course, is as far as the great Murray challenge goes. Quickly Nadal pulls up his socks, belts out blistering winners and the British youngster is overwhelmed in the fifth set.

"I had my chances to win. I am going to learn a lot from this," says Murray. "I was happy with the way I fought. I felt the standard of tennis was excellent the whole way through."

After filing my daily report for The Hindu, I walk along the Yarra river to the Federation Square near the Flinders Street train station and finally find a taxi.

"Back from the concert? How was it?" asks the Punjabi taxi driver taking me to my hotel at 2.45 a.m. in the morning.

Too tired to be drawn into a conversation, I say, "Yeah, concert. Very enjoyable."

Enjoyable, indeed — 16-hour days, three or four days in a week is good fun, if your body can take it.

Hey, what day is this?

DAY NINE, TUESDAY, JANUARY 23: "What time did you go to bed?"

Rather than the usual greetings, this is what we ask one another at the media writing room today as we arrive to resume work like groggy, punch-drunk boxers.

"The one consolation is, Roger is playing tonight. Unlikely to go beyond three (sets)." As I try to cheer my neighbour up with these words, he turns around and says, "Don't be too sure."

Meanwhile, Serena Williams is sure in her mind that she's back in business. The 2005 champion, who played only four events last year because of injuries, outlasts Shahar Peer of Israel in three tough sets and then declares, not for the first time: "I am my greatest fan. I always believe in myself."

World ranked 81 and nowhere as fit as she was in her prime, the seven-time Grand Slam champion says, "I don't think anyone thought I'd get this far, expect for me and mom."

Later in the day, Andy Roddick races past his good friend Mardy Fish for the loss of only six games in a match in which he makes just four unforced errors. It is an awesome display of attacking tennis.

Looking forward to the semifinal match against Federer, Roddick says, "For the past five or six months, the gap [between him and Federer] has been closing a little bit or just he hasn't been extending it."

Federer himself acknowledges Roddick's recent progress after beating Tommy Robredo in straights sets.

But, then, Thursday is another day. I feel this is Roddick's best chance to beat the great man. I may be wrong.

DAY TEN, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 24: By 10 a.m. there are already 40 to 50 young men and women in front of the giant screen at the Federation Square near the Flinders Street railway station.

"Sharapova is playing first today," says one young man to his woman friend. "I hope she wins."

"It is not going to be easy for Maria," says my Czech journalist friend as we go past the square and walk along the Yarra river to Melbourne Park.

"But her opponent today [Anna Chakvetadze] is no world beater," I remind him.

"But she is young and talented and Russian. All the other Russian girls hate Maria," says my friend from Prague.

Two hours on, with Sharapova in the thick of battle with Chakvetadze, my Czech friend drops by and flashes a I-told-you-so smile.

Of course, Sharapova goes through to the semifinals but only after a tough battle during which she is given a code violation warning and fined $2000 for receiving illegal coaching signals from her hyperactive father Yuri.

"I didn't see anything. I did not even look at him," says Shaprapova in her own defence.

On Thursday, she will take on Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. The Belgian makes 62 unforced errors but shows steely resolve to get past good friend Martina Hingis in three sets.

Later, after a quick, early dinner at The Gaylord Indian restaurant — whose sports loving owner has photographs of every Indian sportsperson visiting his restaurant framed and on display at the entrance, with the pride of place going to Sunil Gavaskar — I watch a strangely wilted Rafael Nadal being blown off the court by Fernando Gonzalez.

The red hot Chilean, coached by the experienced Larry Stefanki, plays point-perfect tennis on a night when the Spanish world No. 2 looks drained of all energy after the marathon five-set win over Andy Murray in the earlier round.

"There goes my 100 quid," says an old man on the concourse, tearing his betting slip, as I make my way back to the media writing room.

Surely, there is no such thing as a sure thing in sport (HRH Roger Federer excluded?).

DAY ELEVEN, THURSDAY, JANUARY 25: As much as a resurgent Serena Williams' dazzling performance on court, the focus is on all the dazzle in the box for players' guests. Channel Seven cameras zoom in on a young man raising his right arm and tilting his wrist to deflect sunlight off his watch face to Serena's opponent Nicole Vaidisova's eyes.

The incident makes headlines on television and the players are asked about it during the post match press conference.

"It was sunny, of course. But not really crazy that I noticed," says Vaidisova.

Serena laughs at the suggestion. "Ha-ha-ha, that's the most outrageous thing I have ever heard. As if anyone would want to do that on purpose," she says.

Tennis Australia officials say that they were going to look at the footage but that there was no formal investigation.

Serena, of course, gets past Vaidisova comfortably, if not quite as easily as Sharapova races past Kim Clijsters in the other semifinal.

Ahead of the night's big match — Federer vs Roddick — the great Rod Laver is asked to rate the Swiss master. Laver says that he thoroughly enjoys watching Federer and that the world champion could go on to become the greatest player of all time.

A few hours on, after Federer's 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 thrashing of Roddick — the great man winning 35 of 42 points in a 11-game win streak midway — we wonder if Laver was a little too conservative. Is he already the greatest, in terms of pure shotmaking skills?

The modest champion himself puts the question in perspective.

"There is plenty I need to do before I am the best of all time. So far away from beating the [most] weeks at No. 1 record. Slams I am still five away. Jimmy Connors has 108 titles. I have 45. How can you put me in front of him? It's still farfetched. If I go at the pace I'm going right now, of course I'll break all records. That's why I say, let's wait and see," says Federer.

Roddick is asked how it felt to be at the other end of the Federer master class.

"It was frustrating. It was miserable. It sucks. It was terrible. Besides that, it was fine."

DAY TWELVE, FRIDAY, JANUARY 26: It is Australia Day and Swanston Street in Melbourne wears a festive look. Thousands watch the parade in which men and women who have become citizens most recently — some even today — are prominent.

"What's this nonsense about Australia being 200-odd years old?" asks a bearded man standing on my right as we watch the procession from the pavement. "Human beings have lived here for tens of thousands of years."

Not long after he says that, a rather vociferous group marches by, advocating a better deal for the country's indigenous people.

"It was, and it will always be, Aboriginal land," shouts one young man.

Unfortunately, that, it never will be. Later at night, at the Rod Laver Arena, Fernando Gonzalez, playing the finest tennis of his life, blows Tommy Haas off the court in an hour and 31 minutes to set up a final appointment with Federer.

Gonzalez hits 42 winners and makes just three unforced errors.

DAY THIRTEEN, SATURDAY, JANUARY 27: A car alarm goes off in the parking lot outside my hotel room window shortly after dawn and I wake up to a wet morning. As I stroll down the pavement on Elizabeth street to the nearest Starbucks, I realise it is a wintry morning.

That's Melbourne for you. A little over 10 days ago, Maria Sharapova and Camille Pin were toiling in impossible temperatures at the Rod Laver Arena and today I wonder if I have been magically transported to a street in London on a January morning.

But, then, believe me, there have been times when I have left the hotel in my shirtsleeves in perfectly good summer weather (temperature in the high 20s) and then left Melbourne Park shivering in a wintry chill, all in under 12 hours.

At Melbourne Park, the roof has come on for the women's final as it is still drizzling. A smile crosses Serena Williams's face. She has played two finals here in the past, and won both when the roof was closed.

As it turns out, the hat-trick under a closed roof takes all of 63 minutes as Serena blasts her way to a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Sharapova to win her eighth Grand Slam title.

"The greatest satisfaction is in proving everyone wrong," says the champion. "Tell me `no' and I will show you I can do it."

DAY FOURTEEN, SUNDAY, JANUARY 28: As I make my way to the press box, I realise this was going to be a tough one — it is windy and it is cold.

As we wait for the players to come in, Sportstar columnist Rohit Brijnath and I revisit the past — Davis Cup matches, Grand Slam events...

"Hey, that is Leander's wife, is it not?" asks Brijnath.

I turn around, take a look to my right and say, "Of course it is Rhea Pillai."

Sitting right next to Rhea is Serena Williams.

"Serena, shout `Chile, Chile, we supported you yesterday,'" says a woman with a Chilean flag.

Things go well for the Chileans for almost an hour before Roger Federer takes control of the match to beat Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets.

"Disappointing. I thought I would be here till midnight," says a Chilean fan as I leave the Rod Laver arena a little past 10 p.m.