- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Evening sessions at this year’s Australian Open are starting to resemble a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock horror movie, “The Birds.”

In search of locusts, swarms of seagulls have been circling Melbourne Park, occasionally swooping down to capture the tasty treats below.

On Monday, it was Novak Djokovic who seemed unnerved. The defending champion was in cruise control against Lleyton Hewitt, leading by two sets and 3-0 on Rod Laver Arena.

Then the birds came in.

Djokovic smiled at the unusual holdup but he lost six of the next seven games in dropping his first set of the tournament, before winning through in four sets.

The birds swooped again a day later. Second-ranked Rafael Nadal was leading 5-4 in the first-set tiebreak Tuesday against Tomas Berdych when the birds appeared. Nadal paused briefly and looked up at them _ and didn’t win another point in the set.

Wimbledon’s pigeon problem became so serious that the tournament employed a hawk to scare off the pests. Named Rufus, the bird of prey even has its own accreditation pass.

Handlers are often seen walking the grounds of Melbourne Park with birds of prey on their arms _ but they are only really for show and don’t seem to be acting as much of a deterrent.

Australian Open organizers say the swarms of seagulls are a “highly unusual occurrence and we are looking at ways of preventing it in the future.”

The birds are taking a risk by flying by a tennis court. Ten years ago, a small bird chased a moth across Rod Laver Arena and was struck down and killed by a forehand hit by French player Michael Llodra during a men’s doubles semifinal.

Last year, Andy Murray’s doubles-playing brother Jamie confessed on Twitter that he had accidentally killed a bird with his serve during practice in Melbourne.

“yes I was shocked … yes I hope it never happens again … but I hope my serve keeps being so accurate,” he tweeted.


DOUBLES TROUBLE: Veteran American doubles pair Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber are out of doubles after a marathon quarterfinal match against Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina.

The India-Russia pairing of Mirza and Vesnina won 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (6) Tuesday after 3 hours, 5 minutes on Margaret Court Arena.

Raymond, 38, and Huber, 35, served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and saved four match points in the tiebreaker to fight back to 6-all. But Mirza and Vesnina eventually closed out the 93-minute deciding set.

The match get testy on one of the match points when Mirza and Vesnina were convinced Huber had hit a shot after the ball had bounced twice.

The umpire didn’t see it and Huber denied it _ leaving the pair fuming. Mirza subsequently hit a forehand straight at Huber, knocking her to the ground.

Raymond became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam doubles title when she and Huber won the U.S. Open in September. Raymond tweeted it was a “devastating loss today to a great team.”

Vesnina responded on Twitter: “Thank you Lis! It was great match and u are better player and person on and off the court,then your partner!!!”

It sets up an intriguing last match at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday, when Mirza and her mixed doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi take on Huber and Colin Fleming.


YOUNG ITALIAN: Sara Errani is having the Grand Slam tournament of her life.

The 24-year-old Italian has advanced to the quarterfinals of the singles and doubles at the Australian Open _ the farthest she’s gone in either draw at a major.

Errani’s good form means she’ll have a busy day on Wednesday. First, she’ll play Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the morning. A few hours later, she’s scheduled to play doubles with Roberta Vinci against the seventh-seeded Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka for a spot in the doubles final.

She’ll also get a chance to play her first match on the premier court at the Australian Open _ Rod Laver Arena.

“What can I say? I’ve only seen it as a spectator,” she told the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. “All these situations are new to me and I seem to be able to manage them well.”

The 48th-ranked Errani, whose previous best Grand Slam result in singles is reaching the third round, is similarly not nervous about facing a player of Kvitova’s stature. The two have never met before.

“She’s a beast. The important thing is not to allow yourself to get eaten, trying to be more aggressive than her,” Errani said.


Associated Press writer Justin Bergman contributed to this report.

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