For What It’s Worth

Gulls on court

Even if you are not a tennis fan, you may be aware that the Australian Open, one of the four tennis Grand Slam events, is under way in Melbourne, but you may not be aware that all the focus is not on the players all the time.

This year especially, some graceful gulls (that’s gulls, as in seagulls, not girls) are attracting attention and having adverse effect on some key players.

Seagulls enjoy dining on locusts as tasty treats, and locusts have been flying around the tennis courts. Occasionally, gulls swoop down to feast on locusts.

Unlike at football or basketball games, where noises and disruptive behavior such as waving of signs or near throat-damaging yells are encouraged, tennis sees itself as a more genteel sport, where disruptive behavior is definitely discouraged during play. Apparently, the seagulls are unaware of this.

Monday night during the third set of a match between No. 1-ranked and defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and Australia’s own Lleyton Hewitt, a group of gulls swooped in for some locust hors d’oeuvres, thereby bringing play to a temporary halt. What nerve! How dare they interrupt such a distinguished pairing!

It might not have bothered Hewitt since he was losing and the delay gave him a momentary reprieve. But apparently Djokovic was a bit unnerved. He smiled, but then lost six of the next seven games before righting his ship and sailing through the match in four sets. Hewitt may have wished that the first two sets had also been mealtime for the gulls.

Djokovic was not the only player affected.

The next evening the world No. 2-ranked player, Rafael Nadal, became a victim. Surely, it was by coincidence, not design, that those miscreant gulls swooped in on the top two players in the world. Either way, though, the result was the same. Both players experienced a losing binge right after the gulls stopped play while they munched on locusts.

Nadal was leading Tomas Berdych 5-4 in a first set tiebreaker when the gulls arrived, and after they departed he didn’t win another point in the tiebreaker, thus losing the set. No long-term harm done, though. Nadal went on to win the match.

What the gulls may not realize is that they are engaging in potentially fatal behavior. No, they are not in danger of locust poisoning; they are in danger from something else flying through the air—tennis balls. Ten years ago, a small bird was chasing a moth across Rod Laver Arena, the site of this week’s gulls’ locust banquet, when it was struck and killed by a tennis ball on a forehand shot by Frenchman Michael Llodra during a men’s doubles semifinals match. Last year, Jamie Murray, brother of No. 4-ranked Andy Murray, admitted on Twitter to being shocked that, while practicing serves, he accidentally killed a bird.

Seagulls aren’t the only birds that prey on tennis tournaments. At stately Wimbledon in London, a tournament attended by her majesty, the Queen, pigeons (are they distant cousins of seagulls?) have been a problem. They became such a nuisance a few years ago that tournament officials employed a hawk to scare off the pigeons. Named Rufus, the bird of prey even has its own accreditation pass.

Seizing on that idea, Australian Open tournament officials now have handlers walking the grounds of Melbourne Park, site of the tournament, with birds of prey on their arms. But obviously that’s not scaring off these seagulls.

They aren’t that gullible.


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