Former Dores in the Land of Oz

Three former Dores were in action as professional athletes in Melbourne, Australia, last week. Tennis players Bobby Reynolds and Julie Ditty were competing in the Australian Open, while basketball player Jenni Benningfield was on the court for the Dandenong Rangers of the WNBL. Whitney D. saw them in action and shares these photos.

First, in case you need a quick geography refresher, Australia is located in the Southern Hemisphere on the other side of the International Date Line. So from the USA-centric point of view, everything is backwards. Summer comes in our winter, day comes in the middle of our night, and even the cars drive on what we call "the wrong side of the road."

Melbourne is located on the southernmost coast in the state of Victoria. The implications of "south" and "north" are backwards to us, too. Generally speaking, in Australia, the farther south you go, the cooler the climate; the farther north, the hotter, just the opposite as in the USA.

Sydney is the biggest city in Australia; Melbourne is second. Spacious parks and gardens are scattered throughout the city, even in the Central Business District.

To the west of Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road winds along the Pacific coast line.

Among many other natural wonders in Victoria, there's a temperate rain forest in Otway National Park.

Koalas (not "koala bears") are native to the area and can be seen in the wild munching on the leaves of gum trees.

In Nashville, you can see rainbow lorikeets in Lorikeet Landing at the Nashville Zoo. In Melbourne, you can spot them in the mornings and evenings, flying around the parks or perching in trees or on power lines.

Over the last two weeks of January, the eyes of the sports world are on Melbourne as the city hosts the Australian Open, the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific, the first Grand Slam event of the tennis season.

Most of the televised matches seen in the USA take place in the Rod Laver Arena, which is the top tennis venue in Melbourne Park. Watching matches inside the arena and Hisense Arena requires specific tickets for the venues.

Most of the fans lounging around on the grass, however, have the popular "ground passes", which allow them to go to all the other matches in the complex or watch the high profile matches on gigantic outdoor TV screens.

Besides the two big arenas, there are three "show courts" plus 19 other outside courts. In the first week of the tournament, there's tennis on all of them.

During the first week of the tournament, the weather was hot and sunny, but nothing like the record-breaking heat that would hit Melbourne during the second week.

On the first day of "the tennis", as they say in Melbourne, former Vanderbilt star Bobby Reynolds lost to #21 Tommy Robredo in men's singles on Court 18 on the outside courts.

Bobby played three years of tennis at Vanderbilt before turning professional in 2003. In 2003, he led Vanderbilt to the national championship match and finished his collegiate career with the #1 ranking for men's singles. He's now married to former Vanderbilt track and field star Josie Hahn, who is in dental school in Charleston.

On Thursday morning, Julie Ditty, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2001, and her partner Carly Gullickson were in action in the first round of women's doubles. Last year Julie also competed in women's singles, but this year lost in the qualifying rounds.

Julie and Carly met when Julie was at Vanderbilt and Carly was a 12-year-old tennis phenom living in Brentwood. They trained together, and they've been friends ever since.

Last summer, Julie and Carly reached the third round of women's doubles at the US Open, the first time either had reached the third round of a Grand Slam event. Unfortunately, that finish wouldn't be repeated in Melbourne, as they lost to the 14th ranked team in the first round.

Julie wasn't the only former Dore in doubles competition. After losing in singles, Bobby was still in action, this time in men's doubles with his partner Rajeev Ram.

After defeating the 15th ranked team of Travis Parrott and Filo Polsasek in the first round, then Dusan Vemic and Lovro Zovko in the second round, Ram/Reynolds advanced to the third round. With the size of the field shrinking as the tournament progressed, the match was played on one of the show courts.

Although the scorching weather that forced the closing of the retractable roof at Rod Laver Arena hadn't yet settled on Melbourne, the heat and blazing sun still drove spectators to huddle in the limited shade that was available at the court.

Bobby and Rajeev lost the first set against the #2 men's double team of Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, known throughout the tennis world as the "Bryan Brothers", but came back to win the second set 7-6..

But in the decisive third set, the Bryan brothers prevailed. Subsequently they'd go on to claim the men's doubles title on Saturday.

Switching sports and switching venues, about an hour by train from central Melbourne, 2004 graduate Jenni Benningfield is playing professionally with the Dandenong Rangers in the WNBL, the top level of women's basketball in Australia.

Dandenong (pronounced "Dandy-nong") is a suburb southeast of Melbourne. The team's name, "the Rangers", is derived from the Dandenong Ranges, a set of low mountain ranges nearby.

After four seasons in Spain, Jenni is playing her first season in Australia. One of the few seasoned pros playing on a very young team, she's averaging 15.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

Jenni was poked in the eye in early January, resulting in a scratched eyeball, a fractured eye socket, and double vision. After sitting out one game, she returned to limited action on January 17 wearing eye protection. The good news is that surgery won't be necessary to repair the damage.

Jenni isn't the only former SEC player playing in Australia. Katrina Hibbert, a native of Melbourne who played for Sue Gunter at LSU, plays for the Bulleen Boomers. Although their SEC careers didn't overlap -- "Hibby" graduated in 2000, just before Jenni arrived at Vanderbilt -- they've been friends since the days when Katrina and Jenni were both in training camp with the Indiana Fever in 2005.

During her last season in Spain, Jenni suffered torn muscles in her calf on three different occasions. Then, right after she returned to the USA for training camp with the New York Liberty, yet another torn calf muscle brought training camp to an abrupt end for her. The recurring, frustrating injuries took their toll on her, sapping her love of the game.

So this season was a fresh start for her, in a new exciting country, and to make things even better, she isn't alone. Jenni's partner, Mary Thomas, has been in Australia with her, which not only cures the sense of isolation and loneliness that professional athletes often experience when they're playing long seasons oceans away from friends and family but also allows her to share the fun of exploring a fascinating and wonderful new country.

There's still basketball left in Jenni's sneakers, but she has begun to seriously consider her options after her professional career comes to an end. At this point, it looks like when the day comes to hang up her basketball shoes for good, it's likely that graduate school in sports psychology will be her next adventure in life.

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Photos copyrght 2009 by Whitney D. for

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