Saturday, February 1, 2014

Our last day in Melbourne

Our last day in Melbourne was just as full of activities as all our other days. Our plane didn’t leave until 10:30pm so we had a full day. Our first stop…The Victoria Mounted Police. Did you really think we would leave here without seeing some horses??? Sadly, all the horses had the day off, but our tour of the facility was very special. Horses have been a part of the Victoria Police since 1836. Their barn, built in 1912, is located in the heart of downtown. The horses are brought here from the farm as they are called to duty. Unlike our Houston Mounted, they are not on duty everyday. More of an as needed basis. Also, the barn is only open to the public one day each year. A special thank you to the Houston Mounted and Smash, for getting us this connection! The barn is massive, with 3 sections for horses. There was a breeding program up until 2006, but now they purchase their horses. Uniformity is everywhere, even in the storage areas. I could have gone through boxes and boxes of photographs and ledgers of material dating back to the 1800’s. Katherine presented them with a Houston Police charge and a Smash rookie card and they gave her a Victoria Police patch. If we are able to come back, we have an open invitation for a day of training and visiting the farm. Next stop, the MCG. If you remember we visited here at the beginning of our trip. Peta Phillips, one of the sponsors with The Lord’s Taverners, is also the Research and Administrative Officer with the Melbourne Cricket Club. She was kind enough to invite us back for a tour of the library which is located in the stadium and the bowels of the stadium. Don was thrilled to see how this stadium compared to Reliant. Strangely, if you were in the basement of this stadium and didn’t know what city you were in, you would guess Reliant. It was almost a mirror image of ours. Even the grass company for the field was the original one reliant used! Back at the library…..Established in 1873, the collection is one of the most sport’s comprehensive in the world. It is primarily for the Cricket Club members, but can be used by non members on non match days, by appointment. Some require gloves to read. The collection of tennis items was amazing and we had a good time trying to find people we knew. The large table was formerly used for a massage table for cricket players back in the early 1900’s. We briefly lost Katherine. The entire trip was wearing on her, so she just decided to go to one of the stacks, pull out a book and start reading! I profusely apologized, but Peta said to leave her alone. All Katherine wanted to do was stay there and read. So, Katherine is exempt from the white gloves! Another very special invitation was extended the players and their families. a visit to the office of the Consul General of the USA, Mary Bruce Warlick. Mrs. Warlick and her staff were so excited about having a USA delegation in The Open, they came over to watch us play earlier in the week and invited us to her office. There are not any photographs because of security reasons. After going through several security sections and I am sure a through background check, we were taken up to the Offices. More scanning and questions because we were going behind the “hard line.” The best way to describe the yellow line across the carpet is extremely secure!! Very thick steel doors and bullet proof glass are on the other side. There are so many fascinating things that go on the other side of that yellow line, but the one I will share with you is about a visa. Visa applications are reviewed by 3 people in this office. They get about 1000 requests a month. A face to face interview happens and after that it is determined if a visa will be granted. It takes about 2 minutes for the interview. Most of the time the person being interviewed is not even aware the interview is taking place. The people performing the interview have had hours of facial expression and body language training, so they can tell pretty quickly if this person will be allowed a visa. I suggested parents get a modified version of this training! Blank visa paper is quite a commodity. Each 8x11 sheet has a black market value of up to $50,000. The sheets are kept in a safe at all times, only taken out to print a visa. We got to hold a sheet and I have to tell you the paper in nothing more than peel and stick sheet. However the layers of ink and threads printed on it are extremely detailed. All I could think about was how many tennis events we could attend if we sold just one sheet. Gabrielle and Nicola continued our tour. We were allowed to look at the small building on top of the roof which is where all mail is opened. Everything is hazard material tested before it comes into the building. A little creepy, but necessary. At this point Mrs. Warlick, this is how you speak to her, but if you are addressing an envelope it would be The Honorable J, invites us to her office. Katherine and Ben take a seat on her couch and that was just about it for them. Since Katherine see everyone on one level, why wouldn’t it be just fine to catch a nap on her couch! We had a lovely visit and after 2 hours it was time for us to head to the airport.

Kanagoos, Wallabies and Penguins, oh my!

Our last days in Melbourne were just as packed with activities as the all the other days. We returned from Benalla around noon and boarded a bus for Phillips Island. We drove along the coastal highway which gave us a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean. Our guide was exceptional. He had a thorough knowledge of the history of Australia, past and present. I wish I could his presentation on tape. He was that good. Even when he was talking about the plant life, he took the time to stop the bus, get samples of what he was talking about so we could actually see and touch the plant. He also brought photographs and maps to pass around. This extra effort on his part made for lasting impressions on Katherine. Flies are a problem for this part of Australia. Mostly due to the increased cattle population and the fact they are not allowed to use any pesticides. Bats were imported but they soon found out the vast, flat land and lack of trees and foliage for the bats, made it difficult for them to fly long distances. The farmers willingly gave up parts of their pastures to allow the government to build bat refuges for them to land in. As you drive along you can see sections of pastures fenced off and large bushes and plants for the bats to land. Our first stop was the Koala conservation Center. I thought Katherine was going to get off before the bus came to a stop! She has wanted to hold a Koala for as long as I can remember. After playing with the Koala we went into the petting zoo. It was full of kangaroos, wallabies, kookaburras and Cape Barren geese. It was a hot day so many of the Kangaroos were under a porch. No problem for Katherine. She just climbed under it to be surrounded by them. A girl and her animals! Check out the albino one. Our next stop was a favorite surfing spot and a point where there is a hole in the ozone layer! Our driver said you can burn in just 5 minutes and a bad one at that. Did you know Australia is boarded by 2 oceans and 3 seas? This stop is the Tasman Sea and a segment of the Pacific Ocean. The water is cold but that didn’t stop the surfers. We arrived at Phillip Island’s famous penguin parade. Home the penguins, smallest of their species. You are not allowed to photograph so I have included a video so you can see what we saw. Our front row seats on the beach made us feel like we were in a Disney movie. You stared so hard at each wave and just as the wave breaks, the penguins just pop up. They waddle to the dunes and some how manage to find there own burrow, every time. Katherine had her own penguin encounter. A penguin came up to within 1 foot of her and they just stared at each other. I wish I could have had a photo of that. I have included a link so you can see what we saw. Our day ended at 1:00am. Way past my bedtime but well worth it!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Our trip to Benella

Team USA went to Benella, which is about 2 hours outside of Melbourne. The population is around 9,000. The countryside looks very much like traveling through south Texas in July. The only differences were the hills and a few kangaroos. Plenty of sheep and cattle filled the “pastures” On the outside of town, we stopped at the golf course. You think our gophers are a problem, try getting rid of kangaroos! The are all over the course and like eating the grass. They don’t dig, but do like green grass and leave a lot of “chocolate almonds” . Many of the local birds are parrots. They would like to get rid of all of them. You should have seen the look on their faces when I told them the white ones sell for $600-800 in our pet shops. They were ready to box them all up and send them back to the states. Like our squirrels, these birds get to the walnut trees, eat a bite and let the rest fall to the ground. Very destructive and messy. Our next stop was the Benella Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Established in ???, the club has 20 grass courts and a large croquet field. We were greeted by the President of the club and our host families. After dinner everyone got their luggage and headed to their host’s homes. Katherine and 2 of the Australian team girls, Kelly and Sharon, stayed with Liz and her husband while Don and I stayed with Doris, Bruce and their son, Tom. Bruce’s family has been a part of Benella’s history since the 1800’s. Doris is a party planner. They had purchased a home that needed extensive remodeling. We had so many things in common, we stayed up really late talking. It was fun but 6:00 am came very fast. January 26th is Australia Day and is much like our July 4th. Team USA were the guests of honor at the town breakfast. Our team looked great and all tattooed up courtesy of the Australia Team. The breakfast was attended by 200 and over looked a river which is used for Australia’s top triathlon. Both teams enjoyed several rounds of Waltzing Matilda. I am not sure why that song is so popular, but they all love it. When breakfast was over, the players left for the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t see Katherine until 3. She had lunch in town, went swimming and played volleyball. Don and I walked around with Tom, Doris and Bruce’s son. He took us through the park and told us about the things he and his friends like to do. He did ask me if we were going to spend another night because his friends wanted to come over and meet us and see what we were like. They have never met Americans from Texas. Wish I would have brought a hat and some boots, ya’ll! At 3, we all met at the Benella Club and it was time to play on grass courts. They have about 20 courts. Very well maintained, which must be hard when it is so dry and there isn’t any humidity. Also, the nets don’t touch the ground, so they are able to turn the courts if they need to. Playing on grass has been one of my bucket list items so I was really excited. Boy was I bad!!! Serves were just fine, but once that ball hit’s the grass, it can be anybody’s game. Take it on the rise doesn’t work very well because there isn’t much rise. Timing is everything. You REALLY have to move to the ball because that ball it NOT coming to you. Let’s just say Don and Katherine picked it up faster than I did. If you are a tennis player, this is a must, a least once. Team USA and 4 members of Team Australia played singles and mixed doubles for the people of Benella. After those matches everyone was invited to get on the courts and play. I think the boys had the best time making Don run all over the court! They couldn’t believe he could play tennis and they talked about it all day! I played with Tom (Doris and Bruce’s son ) and helped him with his forehand. He really loves swimming but we had a good time and he did get several over the net. His friends came and decided “the Americans were pretty fun and they should come back again and play more tennis.” We had grilled onions, sausage and lamb on the “barbie”, a beautiful cake and a couple of native desserts. After dinner, there were several speeches and exchanging of many gifts. The Mayor spoke as did Robyn and Barry. Their were some happy tears. The bond between all of us is something special and it was evident as you watch the interaction. It was more like a family reunion than meeting for the first time. We all hated our experience to end.

The Finals at Melbourne Park

The Finals of the tournament are played at Melbourne Park. The players who made the finals are picked up by a car and taken over to the park. Kia is the official car sponsor of the Australia Open. The matches began at 12, but we decided to go over early. Our credentials got us in and since there weren’t many people around AND we were early, it seemed to me to be the perfect time to sneak on a court and hit a little!!! Yes, we can all say we have officially hit on courts at the Australian Open! These weren’t the practice courts, but the real deal. Not only did we play, but a few of us climbed up in the chair and did some officiating. A special thrill for Don, was being made an honorary ball boy. I didn’t know this was a dream of his when he was young and played competitive tennis. Let’s call this picture, “One of these things is not like the other.” As I watched all the final matches being played, I kept wishing everyone could see this level of tennis. Adaptive players with 80mph serves and the ability to take on any 5.0 player and most likely win is out there and I am seeing it first hand. How does the USA look? We are good, but now we have a starting point. We need to train our higher level players all year long to be able to compete in the world wide tournaments. This tournament is a template. Over the next few years, work will to have all the Grand Slams include an Adaptive section. This is an exciting time to be a part of tennis!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Australian Open Day 4 and 5

In an effort to get caught up, I thought it would be best to combine a couple of days. Both days consisted of a lot of tournament play and I mean a lot! Each match was one set, but they were playing 3 and sometimes 4 matches each day. We were at the courts about 8 hours each day. It seems none of us can even figure out what day it is much less what time it is "in America" Team USA was privileged to receive a visit from the US Consulate General, Mary Warlick and her staff. They are tennis fans and when they heard the USA had a delegation, they came right over. Photos were taken and they stayed for quite a while, visiting and watching our group play. So exciting for all of us and very special for Team USA. On this day, which would be Thursday, Team USA did very well. Everyone moved on to the next round in both singles and double. The nerves had settled and they were feeling right at home. If you looked around the park you could see a lot of new friendships. Katherine's FB page is going to get another international boost! Our uniforms have been a huge hit! I hear how great they look at least 4 or 5 times a day and this is everywhere we go. We are a colorful, sharp looking group! Besides the interview and photo with 774 ABC Melbourne radio, the Australian Open radio station came over to the courts to interview Barry Holman and Katherine and Ben. This will air on Saturday. They will be sending us the link after it airs. Friday we attended a Sponsor's breakfast. Tennis great, Wally Masur spoke about the importance of having more players from all over the world compete in this section of the Australian Open. He also said having the USA participation shows The Open the commitment to growth in the Adaptive section. Wayne Bird, President of Ausrapid said, " Indeed 2014 is an historic year..... There are 2 players entered from Japan and in a first, we have a team of 4 players joining us from the United States. This is a significant step forward for the event. Steve Healy, Pres. Tennis Australia said, " this long standing tournament continues to attract talented local, interstate and an increasing number of international players to Melbourne to compete during the world's best Grand Slam tournament, The Australian Open." The Lord's Taverners Australia and Tennis Australia are presenting sponsors and have been committed to this event. All matches were pushed back until 1:30. Some of Team USA visited with another tennis great, John Alexander, who was staying in the hotel. I have know idea what they talked about, but I hope Katherine didn't try to help him with his strokes! She said he was very nice and asked a lot of questions about their team. And like magic, the sky cleared up and we were on the courts. Katherine had 4 matches. She won her singles, but didn't make the finals in the end. I haven't talked much about the competition, but I will in a later email. We arrived not knowing what we would up against. The competition is wonderful and is certainly a new level for us. I will say we are not at the bottom, but if I had to guess, would put USA around #4 or 5. Rankings will be out later and we will see. In doubles, the girls came in third. They did very well against the #1 team in the World, which was very impressive considering they have only played together once. When the day was over, Team USA did not have anyone in the finals. We are not discouraged, although it is hard to be so close and not able to play in Melbourne Park. A lot of new friendships have been made and our hosts for everything we did have been amazing. An amazing experience and we are so fortunate to have been able to be a part of it all. The finals are this morning, at Melbourne Park. This evening we leave for Benella. More tennis and celebrations. It is Australia Day on the 26th and Team USA will take part in all the celebrations. Still 3 more days of events for us!