Wednesday 28 January 2015


There were not many who could stop Martina Hingis at the Australian Open from 1997-2002
Twenty years ago in 1995, a circumspect teenager entered the courts of the Australian Open with lots of confidence and a talent in plenty. It was the debut year at the Grand Slams for Martina Hingis and little was expected from a player who had turned fourteen barely few months ago.  She lost at the first hurdle in doubles and went one step further in singles. In the next seven years, Hingis would enter the quarter-finals each time - and from 1997 till 2002  she never missed a finals appearance in both singles and doubles.

She once said on Australian Open - "Even though I hated the preparation in December, I was always ready afterwards. The Australian Open was a real welcome tournament; everyone is happy to see everyone. This series of six consecutive finals is one of my greatest achievements. The surface helped me; you could win with any kind of game. I also loved playing in front of that audience".

Hingis's first set in her maiden appearance in Australian Open was a statement in itself. She won 6-0 against the Austrian and five years her senior, Barbara Schett. That confidence and momentum was sufficient to win the next set and with it the match. She made the headlines and was termed as 'a future champion' by many experts as long as she would turn up consistently on globetrotting tournaments. Her fairytale start was cut short by the Japanese Kyoko Nagatsuka in straight sets in the next round. However, Martina Hingis had arrived on the big circuit and her first round win ensured she would be the youngest player to win a Grand slam match.

A year later, she was more experienced by playing on the mean courts with more seasoned professionals. She won four consecutive matches which took her to the quarter-finals without dropping a set and there she lost to the South African Amanda Coetzer, nine years her senior.

Ranked fourth coming into the Australian Open 1997, Martina had already tasted many successes on the WTA circuit and had a Grand Slam title to her name (Wimbledon doubles in 1996). The 16-year old sensation from Switzerland steadily made her way to the second week with a dominant display of smart play and placement of strokes.

Like the previous year, she did not drop a set and overcame the final three hurdles to claim her first singles Grand Slam title. I had a laminated poster of hers posing on a Melbourne tram with the Daphne Akhurst trophy. At 16 years and 3 months, she was the youngest Grand Slam winner in the Open era. (Lottie Dod won the Wimbledon as a 15-year old - however it was way back in 19th century before the Open era). She paired with Natasha Zvereva to win the doubles title as well.

With two more titles at Wimbledon and US Open - and a narrow miss at the French Open (lost to Iva Majoli in the finals), she was undoubtedly the favourite to defend her title. And defend she did, in a dominant fashion winning her second consecutive Australian Open defeating Conchita Martinez in straight sets. It was a twin delight as the duo of Hingis and Mirjana Lučić won the doubles second year running.

Having been displaced to number two by Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis was faced with a sizeable opponent who had outplayed her in many of their contests in 1998. The odds of Hingis-Davenport was the talk of the town in 1999 and it looked good going into the last two rounds of the tournament. While Hingis breezed through Monica Seles in the semi-finals, Davenport was stunned by the French sensation Amélie Mauresmo. Mauresmo was the dark horse of the finals - but Hingis had a better day on the court and won her 3rd consecutive Australian Open in straight sets. She teamed with Anna Kournikova for the first time in a Grand Slam and the 'spice girls' of tennis had their hands on the winner's trophy at the end of it all.

Martina Hingis with her winning doubles partners at the Australian Open 

Things started to go downhill after the victorious start in 1999. It was evident Hingis lacked power in her repertoire and was found wanting when she played the likes of Davenport and the William sisters. French Open 1999 was a disaster when she lost the plot completely after having Steffi Graf's number for two-thirds of the match. She wept in presence of her mother and wished she had not exhausted mentally over a controversial line call during the match. She had not moved on from that disastrous evening at Roland Garros. The scars of French Open was evident as she exited in the first round at the Wimbledon two weeks later; and the loss at the hands of Serena Williams at the US Open made her vulnerable to the game of power tennis. Move over chess-tennis.

At the start of 2000, Hingis returned to what she calls 'happy slam' and it certainly was a paradise. A defending champion for the past 3 years, she breezed into her fourth consecutive Australian Open finals. The two top ranked players faced each other and Davenport prevailed to dethrone Hingis in straight sets. This was a jolt to Hingis. She once said "If an opponent could blow me off the court, things got dangerous for me" and precisely this was the case whenever she played against Davenport and the William sisters. Very soon, another American would join the list. Hingis lost the doubles finals and for the first time in four years, she left without a title from Australia.

Next year, a resolved Hingis approached her play better. If there was one surface she felt at home, it was the hard courts of the Melbourne Park. En-route to her fifth consecutive finals, she won a marathon battle against Serena Williams and followed by a walk in the park victory over her elder sister, Venus. The finale was Swiss vs. America and this time against the revived Jennifer Capriati. Capriati in search of her first title made a great come back to tennis after having lost her way in the wilderness in the late 90's. She had it easy against Hingis in the finals. 6-4, 6-3 in favour of the American who had to wait a good 11 years for her first Grand Slam title. The year 2001 was the time when Hingis called off her coaching relationship with her mother for a brief time, lost her number one ranking to Capriati and a surgery to her right ankle. She would have another first round exit at the Wimbledon the same year.

After having recovered from the injury, Australian Open 2002 was the right place Hingis hoped to revive her career. She made her sixth consecutive Australian Open finals and it was a re-match from the previous year. Hingis started off well and took the first set and at one stage led 5-1 in the second set. Capriati saved three championship points and forced a tie-breaker. Capriati would save one more championship point before taking the second set. How would Hingis come back from this?
Hingis breaks Capriati's serve and goes 2-1 up in the third set. And that was that for Hingis as Capriati took control of the game there onwards winning five games in a row to win the championship. I remember watching the game with disbelief. Well, that's tennis!

Her sixth consecutive doubles finals at the Australian Open ended on a happy note as she took her fourth Australian Open doubles title. However, this victory was shadowed by the missed chances in the singles finals. Would have we lost Hingis at the age of 22 if she had won that title?  If she had won, would it have kept her in good spirits when she soon underwent a surgery to her left ankle? Tennis was no longer fun for Hingis as she was constantly in pain physically - and mentally with those 'missed opportunities'. The two aspects of her life were out of sync and Hingis, the girl that she was (22) did not want to give up the 'fun' aspect. She chose horse riding, her passion and decided to complete her studies when she announced her first retirement in 2003.

Martina Hingis winning the mixed doubles title in 2006 with Mahesh Bhupathi 
She was not the same when the audience saw her return to her favourite hunting ground, Melbourne. It was in 2006 and Hingis was just 25! Although she was beaten at the quarterfinals in singles, she did go on to claim her maiden mixed doubles title partnering with Mahesh Bhupathi. For Hingis, it was good to be back, winning just like she did so many times in the past in Australia. In 2007, she lost to Kim Clijsters once again in the round of eight. She retired once again that year and this time she was under the investigation for testing positive for a metabolite substance of cocaine. ITF suspended her for two years later that year.

As it stands, Martina Hingis in 2015 is focusing on doubles and mixed doubles. After winning the Brisbane Open partnering Sabine Lisicki. A third-round exit in doubles (with Flavia Pennetta) and still in the race with Leander Paes (in semi-finals) for the mixed doubles title. 


How I wish to see her win this trophy one last time!
And memories they are, my time as a teenager when I used to wake up to watch those matches of Hingis at the Australian Open. Call me a victim of the past, I just cannot stop the fact of recollecting Hingis and her many a victories at the Australian Open. For six years from 1997 to 2002 - I watched women's tennis for Hingis and Hingis alone - and if I look at it now, I feel I have lost the 'attachment' which binds a fan crazily, living the emotions of the stars, constantly enthralled by  their play and presence on the court. What happens when it all ends, all of a sudden without any notice? you drag yourself forward and that's all we fans can do. It happened to me when Hingis retired in 2003 and I moved on slowly recollecting those wonder years once in a while. 

Thursday 22 January 2015


Daphne Akhurst and Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup presented to ladies singles winner at the Australia Open

There was a girl, a lady who stormed her way onto the tennis field, won many of her battles and stormed away from the scene - forever. Those 29 years of which the last decade she captured many a hearts by her domination in Australian women's tennis. A five-time singles and doubles winners - and add four mixed titles to her name, this was Daphne Jessie Akhurst's achievements at the Australian Open. If not for a complication during her pregnancy, who knows, what destiny had in store for this talented New South Wales player after whom the ladies singles title of Australian Open is named after.

Daphne Akhurst was just a year old (b. 1903) when the national association of tennis in Australia was formed. Little did she know that one day she would have a long lasting connection with that sport. With a strong liking for music, she finished her studies in music and went to perform in few of the clubs and at concerts - and taught music.

While music was an integral part growing up - as a school girl she did participate in few of the locally held tennis competitions. A self-taught player, her natural ability towards the game was in display when she won the state schoolgirl's championships three years in a row (1917-1920). She balanced both music and tennis perfectly and went on to participate in many of the state and national level competitions. After winning her major title at the County of Cumberland in 1923, there was no stopping for this twenty-year old.

The year 1922 was a landmark one for women's tennis in Australia - as for the first time ladies competitions were added to the existing men's competition.

Though there was no shortage of talent, Daphne Akhurst however did lack in experience of playing big games. At her debut Grand Slam appearance in Australia, she reached the final four and lost to the eventual runner-up. However, her doubles play had no such problems as she took both the ladies doubles and mixed doubles title. Not bad for a 20-year old!

Next year, she took the title defeating Esna Boyd coming from one set down. She completed the trio of victories as she successfully defended doubles and mixed doubles title.

The same year, New South Wales tennis association sponsored the first overseas trip by the Australian women's team. It was to the tour of Europe. Overall the team achieved some great wins over Wales, Holland, Ireland and Scotland - while beaten by England and United States. At the Wimbledon, Daphne did well to reach till the quarter-finals.

Back in Australia for the 1926 season, her only success was at the singles title and was a runner-up at both the doubles event. In 1927, she suffered with an injury and hence did not take further part in the Australian Open.

The injury and the time away from tennis only strengthened her play as she came back to her dominating best in the following season. As expected, she won all the three titles and was ready for her second overseas trip.

A second tour to Europe would be a game changer for Daphne. While victories came regularly at home, it is often the overseas performances that adds merit to one's overall success. Her team defeated England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Holland, France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary and South Africa.  

At Wimbledon, she enthralled the audience and the members of the press with her stroke play. She reached the semi-finals at the both the singles and doubles event; went one better in mixed doubles by reaching the finals. She could not achieve the highest peaks at Wimbledon, however it was hardly a debate that she was the best tennis player Australia had sent that season. Her charming and attractive personality along with extreme modesty, earned her the nickname 'The Shy Girl of Wimbledon'.

She went on to win Australian Championships titles in 1929 and 1930; the same year in February, Daphne Akhurst married her childhood sweetheart Royston Stuckey Cozens, a tobacco businessman and a well-known Western Suburbs cricketer. She retired from the game after winning the ladies doubles the following year. Between 1924 to 1931 - she had won five singles titles, five doubles titles and four mixed doubles.

After having delivered her first child in 1932, Daphne Akhurst now known as Mrs. Cozens played a match with her friend and former doubles winning partner, Louie Bickerton at a local event in Pratten Park in January 1933.  A few days later, she was admitted to a private hospital and underwent an anaesthetic surgery for ectopic pregnancy. She passed away in the hospital leaving behind her husband and her five-month old son. The entire nation went silent and mourned for this tragic loss.

Later that year in 1933, the New South Wales Tennis Association presented a cup to the Australian Tennis Association for the winner of the Australian ladies singles championships. Since then, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup is presented to the winners of the Australian Open. Unlike the previous years where Daphne Akhurst retained permanently the Anthony Wilding Memorial Shield (for winning 5 Australian Open singles title), the Daphne Akhurst memorial cup will be held by the respective winners annually. Later in 1935, her good friend and doubles partner Louie Bickerton married Royston Stuckey Cozens (Daphne's husband) and they remained a married couple for 63 years until the time of her death in 1998.

Daphne Akhurst
What went away with her are nothing but those memories in many a people's minds and hearts. With time those souls who witnessed her play on the court too have withered away. Her athletic grace, perfect footwork, a consistent player who defeated her opponents through her rallies than brilliance, a clever finisher of a point, demeanour of great charm attributed to the truest of sportswoman of that era - her stoic expressions at winning or losing the games never came in the way of the fact that she enjoyed playing each game against her opponents. 

Her playing skills, her splendid nature unspoiled by all the adulations showered on her made her an extremely loveable person. At the time of her death, few questioned when she was held in the same breath as the most famous Australian cricketer Victor Trumper (before Bradman). 

Thursday 15 January 2015


Changes in design of Stanley Cup from the original to the existing
It was in the winter of 1888, at the age of 47, Frederick Arthur received an offer to be the governor-general of Dominion of Canada, which he accepted without any hesitation. The next five years was all about travelling the country, aiding the political developments, supporting the military arrangements before he resigned his position to return to his homeland, London to become the 16th Earl of Preston. Before he left Canada, he donated a trophy for the best team in the Canadian amateur ice hockey - which we now know it as 'Stanley Cup'.

Born to a former prime minister of United Kingdom, it was evident Frederick Arthur Stanley would join the political affairs following his father's footsteps. However, being a poor orator when compared with his illustrious father, Frederick Arthur Stanley had other skills - most notably in matters related to administration. It is this 'skill' which impressed the political guardians of the United Kingdom and eventually landed him the post of 'Governor General of Canada'.

Three of his sons took early interest to the game of ice hockey whilst in Canada. Being a sports fan, Frederick Arthur Stanley was often seen to witness the local ice hockey matches. Together with James George Aylwin Creighton, the Nova Scotian law clerk of the Senate in a 'sporty' gesture formed a junior ice hockey team under the name of 'Rideau Hall Rebels' in 1889. A year later, his son Arthur would form the Ontario Hockey Association.

However, the matches that were played in the Dominion of Canada were sparse and had no definite structure and Frederick Arthur Stanley felt the need to have some sort of 'challenge' to ensure the fine sport of ice hockey would have a 'symbol'. In this context, he proposed the need of a 'challenge cup' held annually in a competition which had rules and structure - and in the end, the winners would claim the 'trophy'.

Montreal Hockey Club - 1st recipients of 'Stanley Cup' 
This proposal made at a dinner event for the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association in 1892 was heartily received by the members and Lord Stanley wasted no time in purchasing a silver cup 7" high and 11" wide for a sum of 10 guineas. He also formulated few rules which stipulated - the trophy never to become a private property of the winning team irrespective of the number of times a team wins and to oversee this and many other rules he appointed two 'trustees' - Ottawa Sheriff John Sweetland and Philip D. Ross to look after the matters pertaining to this 'Challenge Cup'. And like this, in 1893 the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association became the first recipient of 'Challenge Cup' when they topped the standings of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada.

Lord Stanley could not see the impact he had on the ice hockey community of Canada. He was back in England as the 16th  Earl of Preston, replacing his deceased brother. Meanwhile in Canada, the Stanley cup had become a popular annual event. Up until 1910, only amateur clubs took part in the competition and with the formation of National Hockey League the same year, Stanley Cup became a competition for the professional clubs while the amateur clubs competed for 'Allen Cup'. It took further 15 years and disbanding of two other professional associations for National Hockey League to prevail on its own. After a lot of change in the rules in awarding the Stanley Cup, since 1926, the winners of the NHL have been awarded with the 'Stanley Cup', a tradition which is followed till date.

If one looks at the modern Stanley cup design and compare it with the original - there is a striking difference. The trophy has grown in size, literally, after many experimentations with the design through the years. From a plain silver bowl with a band, it now has a replica of the original bowl made of silver and nickel alloy - and weighs close to 16 kg. And the height! - it has increased four folds from the original size and is now 89.54 cm tall!

After all the permutations and combinations for the most 'efficient' design, the Stanley cup has a five band barrel to support the bowl. 13 winning team entries can be made per band and each team entry consists of the winning players, coaches, management and club staff engraved on its chalice. To prevent the cup from growing, when the bottom band is full, the oldest band is removed and a fresh band is attached to the bottom. The removed band is treasured in the 'Hockey Hall of Fame' just like it houses the original "Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup" and the "Replica Cup".  To this date, NHL does not own the trophy and through agreement with the two trustees of the cup, NHL awards 'Stanley Cup' to the winners. The trophy is not made each year due to its complex nature; instead winners keep it until a fresh champion is crowned - a sort of rolling trophy, if you may call it.


Stanley with the original Stanley Cup at Hockey Hall of Fame 
What started as a mere gesture to encourage a sport which his children took liking to - and had an active interest, it was little known that a donation of a cup would be the lasting legacy of Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley. He never watched a single game of 'Stanley Cup' in his life and at the time of his demise (in 1907), the competition was an 'amateurs' only tournament. I am pretty sure little did he imagine the kind of evolution that would take place in the following years for a cup worth of 10 guineas (50 USD) would change the face of ice hockey in Canada and globally. 

Monday 12 January 2015


Panathenaic Stadium where I had the opportunity to run a few meters retracing Spiridon Louis route 
When I ran those 200 metres to the finish line on the Panathenaic stadium in Athens, I had only one motive - I wanted to retrace an historic path by Spiridon Louis whose victory at the Marathon event in 1896 heralded the beginning of modern Olympics.
Those humble beginnings to Spiridon Louis began in Marousi where his livelihood was earned through transporting fresh water to the inhabitants of Athens - a task that required endurance at a time when water filled tanks was a dream. It wasn't a surprise when he chose a horse and a cart from the Greek King as a part of a 'promise' which allowed winners to be granted with a wish. He knew 'fame' had an expiry date and he went about his usual business after being hailed as 'Greek's national hero' post the 1896 Olympics.

Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin used his knowledge of history to good use when the first modern Olympic Games were being planned in 1894. He suggested Coubertin to include long distance running competition (25.8 miles) for the Olympics which would add local interest. Not surprisingly, the organisers were delighted with this proposal. The legend of 'Pheidippides' would now be re-lived. The distance 25.8 miles equivalent to 40 km happens to be the approximate distance from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens. Pheidippides, in his role as a messenger ran 40 km to bear the surprise news of Greek's victory over invading Persians. He blurted out a message which is translated "Rejoice, we conquer" before he collapsed and died. This legend lived on through centuries from the time of Ancient Greece to the turn of 19th century and now an integral part of the Olympic movement.

Before the start of the Olympics, the locals had a disappointing games with no medals to their tally. All hopes were on the Marathon event. As a means to motivate their countrymen, a lot of rewards were promised for a Greek winner. Wealthy and noblemen in and around Athens threw in their offers before the event began. Odds for a Greek win were high as the 21 participants out of 25 finalists were from Greece. However, if anything to go by the performance of American and Australian athletes at the earlier events, a Greek win would surely be an extraordinary effort.

The initial part of the race belonged to the trio of non-Greeks who were the three medallists from the 1500m event. Frenchmen Albin Lermusiaux led the pack for more than 3/4th the distance. Behind him was the Australian Edwin Flack and the American Arthur Blake. The only other non-Greek participant was from Hungary and he was some distance away. The American was the first to pull out after 23 laps and then it was the Frenchmen nine laps later. Edwin Flack who already had two gold medals to his name from the games had eight more kilometers to claim glory. However, he was in an unknown territory of running this long a distance. He was stretching his physical limits and stopped his race just three kilometers from the finish. The news had spread - it was a Greek who was now in the lead and unlike others, his daily job allowed him to endure and not collapse like the other race favourites. He entered the Panathenaic stadium with crowd cheering every step he ran and finished the race just short of 3 hours. Spiridon Louis victorious and the first success story of Olympic movement was scripted!
Spiridon Louis at the 1896 Olympics 

Going by his grandson's words, Spiridon Louis accepted none of the cash rich rewards and instead opted just for a cart and a horse. Along with the unofficial rewards, he was presented with the Breal's Silver Cup for winning the marathon. He quietly went back to his hometown Marousi, married his girlfriend and led a low-profile life farming and later as a local police officer. His final public appearance also happened to be at the Olympics, in Berlin 40 years later where he was received with much fanfare. He recalled that hour which made him a Greek hero for life -  “That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream… Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air…” 

A Greek winning the prestigious and historic event positively pushed the cause of Olympic movement. For those scenes, the joyous crowd running short of praise for their newfound hero was just the final touch Pierre de Coubertin was looking for when he had envisioned the idea of 'Olympics' and its revival. If not for that emotional connection, I am pretty sure, Olympics as a concept would have taken a different course.