The Podgorny Cup

To the dismay of millions, Britain's biggest sporting event will not take place this year. In just three short years, Helmsdale's Podgorny Cup has become one of the best-loved tennis competitions in the world, blessed consistently with glorious weather and providing a fitting finale to any summer. However, the 2009 staging has had to be cancelled.

For once, this is nothing to do with the economic situation, but the fact that the two main draws - Steven "Andrews Murray" and Liam "Henman"ingshaw - are on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Their epic battles in 2006, 2007 and 2008 attracted crowds of up to two small children and a cat, and have gone down in the annals of Scottish tennis history, but, sadly, the logistical challenges could not be overcome, and no name will be engraved on the trophy this September. Unless one of the oiks who hangs around the Bannockburn Inn gets to work with his Stanley knife, of course.

Podgorny Cup (or, a cup of tea photographed by Sasha Podgorny)

The legions of Podgorny fans will be thrilled, however, to learn that prospects look good for a 2010 resurrection. So, in the meantime, let's soften the blow of disappointment with a detailed look at the history of this great tournament and the legends that have quickly grown around it.

The History of the Podgorny Cup

Overlooked by the magnificent Belgrave Arms Hotel, Helmsdale Lawn Tennis and Bottle-Smashing Club has two courts, both of the hard, undulating, litter-strewn, tarmac surfaces so beloved of British public facilities. It was to this famous old venue that the organizers of the most prestigious tennis competition in the Strath of Kildonan region turned when they realized it was the only one available. Named in honour of the only Scotsman ever to win the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships, the Podgorny Cup was born.

It was a shockingly sunny afternoon in late September 2006, and the rules were quickly cobbled together. Competitors had to be postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers assisting with the University of Aberdeen geology department trip to Caithness and Sutherland, had to have limited tennis-playing ability, and had to be at least moderately hungover. The unavailability in Helmsdale of adult tennis equipment for hire further leveled the playing field, as the tiny handles on the children's rackets precluded the use of poncy double-handed backhands. They also precluded anyone over 4' 3" tall from hitting a ball bouncing lower than knee height.

As such, the first round match was also the final, as only Steven Andrews and myself were eligible for competition. In an epic tussle lasting what seemed like hours, possibly because of the amount of time spent retrieving wild mishits from the nettles behind the court, Professor Andrews was finally vanquished. This was despite the partisan support (e.g. "Why dinnae ye feck off back to Tain, ye lang-haired Beatnik!") and his expert use of a forehand slice with such prodigious spin that the ball would often turn round and head back over the net whence it came, especially if it clipped the edge of a passing earwig.

In 2007 there was much controversy as young Scott Thackratilova (below) entered the fray, despite clearly being in possession of a garish pair of shorts not approved by the HLTBSC committee. Fortunately, he defeated himself in a thrilling battle in the first qualifying round, allowing Andrews and Herringshaw to proceed once more to the final. The home favourite put up another valiant fight, but eventually lost 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

The shots, the shorts: Scott Thackratilova at his best

2008 was a different story altogether. On the back of some epic performances in Aberdeen*, and fired up by talk that a lad from Dunblane might soon win Wimbledon, Andrews came to Helmsdale with only one thing on his mind. Devonian laminites. However, after nine pints of strong local ale, he recalled vaguely the Podgorny Cup and began his training regime. His hand-eye co-ordination was recalibrated thanks to a few games of Killer on the pub dartboard, his lightning reflexes sharpened further in the quick-fire 60s music round on the quiz machine, and his upper body strength by having to carry a comatose fieldtrip leader up the stairs of the Bridge Hotel. Poor Thackratilova never stood a chance.

So the afternoon of the final arrived. The sun beamed down on the arena like a Martian death ray, whilst juggernauts slowed their progress over the Helmsdale bridge to shout a few words of abuse at the players. Focused only on his gameplan, Andrews heard nothing until the umpire beckoned the players onto court for the start of the match.

With his customary elan, Andrews (below) began spraying powerful shots around the arena. Some of them landed within the lines painted on the tarmac, others landed within the lines painted upon tarmac by council vehicles improving the street markings in Golspie. It was thrilling.

He wasnae so much a man as... a blancmange!

Rallies lasted fifteen, sometimes twenty seconds. As many as two first serves in a set found the correct half of the opponent's service area. Herringshaw was even less accurate. It was tennis of the very highest calibre, of the kind seen in Helmsdale but once a year. To crown a winner seemed almost churlish, a damnable insult against the British sense of fair play, but Andrews magnanimously threw in the towel, probably because it had been stolen from the hotel bar and reeked of beer. The Podgorny Cup remained in English hands for another year.

With the abandonment of the 2009 competition, that year becomes two, and Scottish desperation to reclaim the trophy will only increase. With Alex Salmond seeking an SNP re-election in 2011, funding for Scottish tennis talent must surely rise dramatically and the children's bats in the Strath Ullie craft shop might get upgraded. But will the pressure tell? Will new rackets affect the Andrews forehand slice? Or will a passing Argentinian hitch-hiker blag his way onto the fieldtrip and crush everyone in his path, wresting the coveted trophy from British possession? You'll just have to wait till 2010 to find out...

*The Press and Journal sports section still recalls with admiration his interminable victory over the French on-court mathematician Fourier Analysis.