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Recharged and Almost Ready to Go!

11 Aug

Our three-month sojourn back in Brisbane, Australia, ends in one week. Trips to Melbourne and Cairns with family, and a couple of weeks spent renovating Tristan’s Toowong townhouse with Tristan and Jenny (they flew out from Scotland for this DIY project and Cam came up from Melbourne for a weekend) made the weeks go too fast.


Stuart has been working almost full-time planning ‘Gypsy Hill House Mark Three’ so it’s ready for the end of year holidays. The house will be built off site in two sections, trucked down from the Sunshine Coast and assembled on the ridge, after our 200 metres of driveway is complete. You can imagine the degrees of difficulty involved in that enterprise. I try to keep out of it but when it comes to the kitchen I can’t help myself.

Most of this time we’ve been camping at Tristan’s. And when I say camping I mean camping. His house is for sale unfurnished. We can be contacted by the agent with a few hours notice to have it ready for inspection any day, plus two open houses each Saturday. We’ve become adept at removing all traces of our habitation including mattresses on the floor. Kind friends loaned us a minifridge, others have had us to stay a couple of times (TV! Wifi!) and we escaped to Ballina for a few days so it hasn’t been a hardship. About half the planet sits, eats and sleeps on the floor, why not us?

We made a concerted effort, despite disagreements about what goes and what stays, to sort our storage unit. We got rid of a fair bit of excess by recycling, selling and giving things away. There is still far too much to furnish a two-bedroom house however I’ve been over-ruled several times. Who needs 38 china tea cups, saucers and side plates besides a tea shop?!

With Stuart immersed in planning I’ve organised most of the upcoming nine-week trip, a ‘quickie’ by our standards. There’s a dash of nostalgia plus some bucket list items and a fair chunk of family and friend catch ups. It goes something like this:

Melbourne, West Coast Scotland, London, Southampton to board the Queen Mary 2 (travelling with friends) for the Fashion Week crossing to New York, US Open Tennis Men’s Semi Finals, Flushing Meadow, Queens, Princeton, Savannah to Charleston, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for the Celtic Colours festival then back to London and Edinburgh before returning to Melbourne at the end of October.

 

Pretty fabulous wot?! Stuart’s on Atlantic iceberg watch, well he has to worry about something so it might as well be that!

Look, no ski boots, flamenco shoes or hiking boots, just your standard 20s flapper outfit and two other ‘formal’ outfits for the QM 2 plus reading material for my poolside deck chair lazing!

Surviving Pat Rafter Arena: A Spectator’s Guide to the Brisbane International Tennis Tournament

6 Jan

This blog isn’t intended to put you off attending the Brisbane International, it’s a fantastic event and getting better every year. To have Williams V Azarenka in the women’s singles final and Hewitt V Federer in the men’s was unprecedented. However it’s scheduled at a hellishly hot time of the year. The January 2014 event saw the temperature hit 40 degrees celsius on Saturday January 4 during the day session for the men’s doubles semi finals and men’s singles semi finals. I watched three seated spectators keel over and be treated for heat stress. Heat stroke was a real possibility for players and spectators alike.

The catering is also ridiculously expensive. Seven dollars for a slushy?! C’mon! You can’t be serious!

Enjoying the Pat Rafter Arena experience by day takes careful planning and preparation starting with choosing your seating in the 5,700 seat covered arena. The ideal is to talk your way into corporate hospitality. Call in favours or make friends with those who have access to the air conditioned corporate glass fronted rooms and comfy seating below them and you’ll have a wonderful day. Be aware though that even some of those seats cop the late afternoon sun.

Next best is to choose your seats based on shade and breezes. I could lie and say I did just that when I bought our tickets this time around (we did score corporate seats four years ago) but actually it was dumb luck.

Take a look at the seating plan. The higher the seat the more breeze. Every seat has a decent view, but the only blocks that don’t cop the sun are 206-208, 305-308, 312 and 313. The sunshine sneaks under the roof and creeps right across the court.

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Our seats were second to back row R302 and R303 and back row S401 and 492 and whilst we sweltered we didn’t have direct sun. I actually prefer the top row as you have more freedom to move, stand, there’s greater scope for people watching and you get maximum breeze. I’ll tell you about the crazy Federer fanatic another time.

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Pre-purchased tickets include free public transport. The stadium is a ten minute walk from Yeerongpilly Train Station so getting there and away is easy.

Now to preparation. This was our ‘keep cool and hydrated kit’:
A sun hat to wear getting to and from and venue and outside the arena.
A 1.5 litre bottle of frozen water per person. By the time you get to the arena it will have melted enough to drink. Bottled water costs AUD3 for 500ml and that’s discounted from AUD5. There is a water fountain but the queue can be long. Doors stay closed during play so you can end up waiting a long time for the break in play to re-enter.
Go easy on the alcohol, beers start at AUD8.50 and alcohol is super dehydrating.
A spray bottle of frozen water to spray yourself with. Add a few drops of floral essence to make it even more pleasant. I like lavender but lemon or tea tree are refreshing too.
A scarf or large handkerchief to wet and apply to neck or head. Keep it wet with the spray bottle.
A hand held fan.
Panadol in case you end up with a dehydration head ache despite these precautions.

Suncorp sponsors a sunsafe campaign, there are pump bottles of sun screen around the stadium.

Take your own food unless you love expensive fish and chips and hot dogs. Management imposes restrictions on what you can take in though…..quite a few restrictions, some quite odd….

Prohibited Items:

“For the comfort and safety of patrons and players the following items are not allowed into the Queensland Tennis Centre:

Alcohol; animals except service animals (e.g. seeing eye dogs); any item that could be used as a weapon; beach balls and other inflatable devices, audio recorders; bicycles, scooters, skateboards and roller-blades/skates; camera tripods, monopods, telephoto camera lenses with a focal length capacity of greater than 200 mm; video cameras and handy-cams; drink and food cans; chairs and stools; eskies and hampers; fireworks; frisbees; helium balloons; glass (including bottles); large containers in excess of 1.5 litres; flags, banners or signs larger than 1.2 m wide or with handles longer than 50 cm in length; musical instruments and/or amplification equipment; unauthorised advertising or marketing material or flyers; laser pointers, distress signals, whistles or loud hailers; dangerous goods and any other item prohibited by legislation.

Note: prams and strollers are not permitted in seating areas.”

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Having experienced all the Grand Slams except for Flushing Meadow (roll on August 2015!) I rate the Brisbane International Tennis Tournament tickets as good value for money. AUD193 per person for both the men’s semis and final plus the men’s doubles semis and finals with free transport made for a fantastic weekend. To see Lleyton Hewitt outplay Roger Federer in my home town was gold!

Here are a few moments from a memorable weekend of tennis.

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A finals fan with split loyalties.

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I cheered for the Colombian pair in the finals. They fought well but went down in three.

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The Fed is in the building!

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Who gives a toss? For the record Roger won and chose to serve then lost the first game….

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Federer changed shirts three times during the match to the delight of many of us.

The partisan crowd led by ‘The Fanatics’ nearly lifted the roof off with chants and cheers for ‘Rusty’ Hewitt and when Rod Laver awarded the trophy to Hewitt we knew we were witnessing history.

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Paris Encore!

9 Jun

Our goal is to experience three of the four tennis Grand Slams this year. With the Australian Open under our belt we now have Roland Garros and Wimbledon in our sights. Flushing Meadow will have to wait for 2015.

We missed the Roland Garros first week matches as we had to be in Wales for Stu’s offroad motorcycle training course. That bumped the ticket prices up enormously. The only tickets I could buy online in February when they went on sale was for Thursday in Philippe Chatrier Stadium for the Mixed Doubles final and both Women’s singles semi-finals. Cost a shedload of money but it’s worth it!

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Since we were splurging on the tennis we balanced it with modest accommodation for our four-night stay. Stephane’s ground floor studio in Rue St Dominique in the seventh arrondissment is 12 standard floor tiles square, I counted. Room for a sofa bed, kitchenette, table for two and a very narrow bathroom. No fat people allowed! Our courtyard entry shares with two hair salons and a bookshop. Workers were renovating an adjacent building but since no one starts before 8am we weren’t disturbed.

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Our concierge has a tiny flat outside the main building’s entry that looks so much like the concierge in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ I expected to see plump Renee Michel walk out the door.

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The real beauty of this location is stepping into the street to see the Eiffel Tower looming large in the distance. By day the majestic grey pylons bestow a grave dignity. By night the lights make us feel festive. I hadn’t realised the tower sparkles for five minutes on the hour. I feel a child’s joy watching it glittering in the distance when I come and go.

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Our block on Rue St Dominique is a handy mix of boulangeries-/patisseries, fashion stores, pharmacies, optometrists, cafes, bars and restaurants, two supermarkets, fruit and veg stalls and of course hair salons. I booked a wash, trim and blow dry in the salon by our door to the street. My stylist, Sandrine, ate her lunch in the courtyard outside our apartment. Couldn’t resist giving my hair a bouncy little flick in her direction as I walked by.

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The sunshine came with us from Wales. Marble faced buildings, gilded domes and statues gleam and the warmth encourages sidewalk cafe sunbathing, evening picnics and ball games on the lawns by Hotel Des Invalides.

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We watch a stream of smartly uniformed military officers file into the War Museum for a morning ceremony.

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We have no interest in rushing around Paris preferring to explore our neighbourhood. Five minutes walk west brings us to the Rodin Museum in Rue Varenne. Born to working class parents Auguste Rodin was no starving artist. By the age of 40 his commissions funded a lavish and louche lifestyle and eventually the purchase of this grand house and garden which he donated to the state with the proviso that it be a museum to his art. The sculptures, drawings and paintings by Rodin, his lover Camille Claudel and others are worth a leisurely visit and the grounds invite contemplation.

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Bust of Gustav Mahler

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Camille Claudel’s ‘The Waltze’

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A Renoir

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A Van Gogh

We were impressed by a group of well-behaved French primary school children sitting cross legged on the floor enthralled by their teacher explaining the sculpture ‘The Kiss’. No wonder they are so good at it when they grow up.

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Our closest church is lovely Basilique Sainte Clotilde with its magnificent stained glass windows and Duret sculptures of the stations of the cross.

We caught the tail end of a practice session by the organist and later listened to snatches of a Brahms concert through the door. We had a prior appointment that night as we were celebrating in Le Basilic, the restaurant behind the church. Last Wednesday with the help of our sons and my father, Don, we successfully concluded the purchase of a new house in Brisbane. We are cashed up gypsies no more, we have a home! Whilst I’m happy about it I confess I relished my time without the responsibility of a house.

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But back to the Tennis. In glorious sunshine we set off early to squeeze as much out of the experience as we could. Compared with week one last year the venue was almost empty as there are only championship matches in the two main stadiums. No queuing today.

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Information with smiles!

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Still the most stylish uniforms.

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We watched the under 45s legends men’s doubles exhibition match. Our favourite golden oldie, Goran Ivanisovic, was playing with Argentinian Gaston Gaudio against Spain’s Carlos Moya and Alberto Costa. They were more serious than the legends game in Melbourne but Goran was the same lanky larrikin. At one point he wacked a zinger of a cross court return of service only to be told the service was out, second serve. He shrugged his shoulders, grinned and said to the umpire, ‘That was my best return of the match!’

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The doubles match started at midday in intense heat. French-Canadian pair Daniel Nestor and Mladenovic began strongly but the Czech Republic pair Lucie Hradecka and Frantesek Cermak overpowered them. Hradecka must be one of the strongest women on the circuit.

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We had time in the break before the semifinals to visit the Roland Garros museum. It’s slightly odd that this tennis venue should be dedicated to a man who had absolutely nothing to do with tennis. The French revere solo aviator and war hero Roland Garros for his daring crossing from San Raphael to Tunisia, the first person to fly across the mediterranean and his subsequent war exploits.

The tennis artifacts are well curated, especially the evolution of tennis clothing and examples of the four different grand slam court constructions. I much prefer the red dirt of RG and the green grass of Wimbledon to the harsh manmade surfaces.

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The first travel set for tennis.

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The original, the one and only – Bjorn Borg.

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Stuart was fascinated by the artwork created in 1995 by Jean-Pierre Rives, the former French rugby great. Proof that not all former sporting legends become commentators or coaches.

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Back in our seats for the first semifinal between screaming baseliners Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka we began chatting with a New Jersey couple sitting beside us about the different tournaments and the best way to buy tickets. In the course of the conversation I realised that our tickets probably entitled us to more than the seats.

The first set went to Vika and Maria came back strongly to take the second. At that moment the few rain drops became a heavy shower and the match was suspended. We ran for shelter and took our tickets to the information booth where we were told, yes, we should go to the hospitality area under our stand for complimentary food and drink. Oh, well, better late than never.

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A few glasses of Mercier champagne later play recommenced and we watched Maria overpower Vika to take the match 2:1.

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Back down the stairs we trotted for more champagne and canapes. It’s probably fortuitous we hadn’t known earlier or we’d have been legless before the second semifinal.

I got such a thrill seeing Serena stride confidently onto the court with her fluoro orange wristband and headband, she looked magnificent. Sara Errani never stood a chance. The match was over in two sets with only one game going to Sara.

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Serena impressed the crowd with her response to the post match interview questions in French. She tried hard to please and they loved her for it.

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Our return to Paris and Roland Garros was, if anything, even more enjoyable than last year (sorry John). In addition to the tennis and the pleasures of the seventh arondissment we were able to catch up with Maryse over dinner at Le Grand Journal du Pas-Sage Oblige and Stuart lunched with former Tioxide colleague Jean-Claude whom he had not seen for thirty years. A lot of years to fill in!

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The only sad note this week was news of the death of Georges Moustaki, a much loved French guitarist, singer and songwriter of Greek and Italian heritage. Stuart has adored Moustaki’s ballads since he first heard him in the 60s. Moustaki wrote for Edith Piaf and Francoise Hardy among others and left a wonderful musical legacy.
George Moustaki’s wikipedia entry.

A tribute to George Moustaki.

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Great Sporting Moment Number Five: The 2013 Australian Open (The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific)

6 Feb

I was so shocked I was momentarily lost for words.

We’d travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne while the women’s quarterfinals of the Australian Open Tennis championship were under way. Our flight was delayed, we arrived tired and a little cranky, and I didn’t bother to chase up match scores.

Over breakfast early next morning I checked the newspaper for the day’s matches. We had tickets for the women’s and men’s semifinal scheduled that day in Rod Laver Arena and I expected to see my favourite, Serena Williams, listed. Strangely her name wasn’t there. I couldn’t grasp that she might have lost her match so I logged onto the championship website to double check. Horror of horrors. Serena had been knocked out by 19-year-old Sloane Stephens while we were in the air! I screamed louder than Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and John McEnroe combined. ‘Noooooooo, you can’t be serious!’

Since watching Serena play at both the Paris and Wimbledon Grand Slams I’d been planning a personal trifecta, three Serena Grand Slams within twelve months. Yes, I’d become a true Tennis Tragic.

The day the Australian Open tickets went on sale I’d fronted Ticketek and handed over an obscene amount of money to get the best seats I could for the women’s semis and the final expecting to see ‘my player’ in at least one or both matches. This was to be my first and probably last Australian Open and who knew how many more Serena had in her? Now the third ranked female player was about to board a plane back to Palm Beach and I had to find a new tennis heroine to cheer for pronto. Worse problems to have in life huh?!

Stuart generously donated his ticket for the morning session to my sister Maria, our host, so Day 11 was sisters’ day at The Open. The warm up event was a men’s doubles semifinal with the Bryan Brothers giving a tennis lesson to the Italian pair, Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini. It takes more than hunky looks and good hair to beat the Californian brothers!

By the time the first women’s semi of Li Na versus Maria Sharapova started at 1:30pm it was 32 degrees celsius in the sun. Thank God I went for end seats in the shade! Contrary to expectations Na wiped the floor with the number two, 6-2 6-2. The Chinese player looked confident, relaxed, grounded and strong. Maria appeared nervous, cranky and kept sending herself to her naughty spot when she missed shots. Interesting.

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The second semifinal, with number one ranked Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, was expected to be a cake walk for Vika. Vika did have her way most of the time and took the first set 6-1 but choked with match points in hand in the second. As is now a matter of public record Vika called for her trainer who seemed to attend to a spinal rotation problem but from where we sat Vika didn’t appear to be in pain, just rattled. As Vika walked off for what would be a ten minute medical time out my sister announced, ‘There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s choking!’ As Vika herself conceded in the post match interview that’s exactly what happened. Azarenka came back and served to beat Stephens 6-4 in the third set. While Azarenka may have won within the rules my sister and I were so upset for Stephens we sat on our hands and zipped our lips. Maria even made me promise I wouldn’t clap for Azarenka in the final. No chance of that, I had found my heroine. It would be Li Na I cheered for in the final!

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That evening’s men’s semifinal featuring number one Novak Djokovic against David Ferrer was an opportunity for Novak to hone his brilliant play. On a good day Ferrer can run down anything but the night belonged to Novak who whipped off winner after winner. The match was over disappointingly quickly at 6-2 6-2 6-1.

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Now the fun for Stuart and I really began. A feature of the Australian Open is the ‘Legends Series’. These are exhibition matches by past ‘greats’ of the tennis world. We were lucky to see Pat Cash pair with Goran Ivanisovic against Guy Forget and Henri Leconte. Most of the spectators left after the men’s semifinal so we dawdled down to the front and occupied seats in a corporate section in the third row. Any illusion this might be a serious match was dispelled when Goran sat on the net waiting while Henri hammed it up. The net became detached in the centre so the referee came down from his chair to assist, at which point Leconte climbed up into his seat and announced, ‘Time gentlemen’.

Play recommenced when a young ball boy was handed Henri’s racquet. The ball boy acquitted himself well. It got even sillier later when a fan threw down a giant tennis ball for Goran’s autograph and he switched to playing with it. The biggest laughs came for Novak Djokovic who came on court in a medic’s coat when Henri feigned illness. It was close to midnight and he had just paid three sets but Novak was up for fun.

Amongst all the laughter and clowning around we witnessed flashes of the brilliant play all four men are still capable of. Goran’s aces registered up to 216kph and Pat Cash, even with a gammy knee, is still a killer at the net. Guy’s reflexes and concentration were awesome and when Henri could be bothered he won all the points he went for. Fans who stayed to the end (Pat and Goran won) were rewarded by the players staying on court to sign endless autographs.

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We were back Saturday, for the women’s final. It was Australia Day so the children’s choir singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to open the match had extra significance. I could have done without the fireworks over Melbourne that caused play to be suspended for ten minutes but blowing up chemicals and minerals in the air seems obligatory on national holidays, New Year’s Eve and any major festival nowadays.

The Australian Open is promoted as a family-friendly Grand Slam with mini-tennis, face painting and such. I’m not sure how a regular family can afford to go with ticket prices well above AUD100 but there were plenty of kids around. The only other evening event scheduled was the finals of the women’s and men’s wheelchair tennis on an outer court. This was the first time we’d seen the sport. We were both blown away by the skill and upper body strength of the players, all from overseas. The only concession to the wheelchairs was that the ball could bounce twice. The speed of players turning and accelerating was amazing and when they crashed into the barriers they just bounced back, wiped their brows and set off again.

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At last it was 7:30pm, time for Li Na versus Victoria Azarenka (or ‘Azawanka’ as my four-year-old niece dubbed her). I had my war paint on; a Chinese flag and Lin Na’s name on my cheek. I was ready. I hoped Na was. She’d been so self-effacing and good humoured in all the interviews I’d seen I was really hoping she could pull off an upset. Our seats were in the nose bleed section but I still cheered and clapped every one of Na’s shots.

Na wasn’t making the same winners she hit against Sharapova but her form was good and when she took the first set 6-4 I started getting excited. That excitement turned to dismay when Na rolled the same ankle twice running the baseline and we watched her crumple in pain. After strapping she played on in pain. The second set slipped away 6-4, then the third 6-3. This was not to be Na’s Open but for the hundreds of longtime fans and new ones, like me, she has our lifelong loyalty for the way she comported herself; gracious in victory and brave in defeat.

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Again the spectators thinned and again we were able to take our pick of seats to watch the Bryan brothers dominate their Dutch opponents in the doubles final. Mike and Bob won their 13th Grand Slam title convincingly in front of an enthusiastic Kevin Spacey in the VIP seating and a whole box of sun tanned, blonde Californian family and friends.

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If I could only choose one of the three Grand Slams I’ve been to (I have yet to get to Flushing Meadows) I would have to choose Wimbledon. For its value for money, for the sheer variety of play for spectators on the outside courts, and for its well oiled organisation, Wimbledon takes the prize. In my experience the Australian Open is dominated by commercialism and corporatisation. So many seats are reserved for corporates and tour packages it’s slim and expensive pickings for regular folk. The great myth of Australian egalitarianism has never been more obviously on show.

There was, however, one great sporting moment in Melbourne I felt extremely privileged to witness. It came when the Japanese paraplegic, Shingo Kunieda, beat the below knee amputee, Stephane Houdet, in the final of the men’s wheelchair tennis. Slightly built Kunieda played an intelligent, patient, precise match to overcome his much larger French opponent in two sets. Game, set and match to wheelchair tennis!

Video Notes:
I captured the match point of most of the matches I saw, including the chest bumping Bryan Brothers. You can hear Sharapova and Azarenka’s exertional vocalisations loud and clear from high up on the opposite side of the stadium. Enjoy!

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