Chelsea owner Abramovich looks at another sports club

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The Independent Online

Every time Roman Abramovich approaches a "for sale" sign, the rumour mill churns out excited reports that he's adding to his property portfolio.

Interesting, then, to hear that London's most famous Russian immigrant has just visited the Queen's Club in west Kensington, the high- profile tennis club on the market for £20-£40m.

Although "sources close" to Abramovich, above, have repeatedly denied rumours that he's keen on purchasing the site - currently being sold by the Lawn Tennis Association - the Chelsea owner was spotted there last Thursday.

He is said to have arrived with a party of associates in the middle of the day, when the club is usually fairly quiet and (during winter) all the majority of its outside courts are deserted.

However, the entourage was spotted by a group of ladies' doubles players, who were taking an early lunch on the terrace.

"He was with eight people, some of whom were minders," says one. "As far as we could make out, the entire party was Russian, except the gentleman showing them round."

The LTA has so far refused to disclose any of the bidders for the historic club, citing "confidentiality agreements". Roughly six are said to have made it through to the final round of bidding, which is scheduled to conclude in February.

Members of Queen's, who are also hoping to buy the club as a consortium, have but one crumb of comfort: they are hoping that Abramovich was merely interested in joining.

* Padma Lakshmi, who last year became the second Mrs Salman Rushdie, is about to take a leggy step away from her husband's shadow.

The former model and occasional cookery writer, left, has been given a prominent role in the next series of ITV's Napoleonic war drama, Sharpe's Challenge.

Getting her on board for the series, which has just been filmed on location in India, was not without its challenges, since the role is said to have originally involved several fruity scenes.

"Padma is in two episodes, playing a local baddie called Madhuvanthi," says my man at ITV.

"She's supposed to be an evil seductress, but when Padma was cast we had to tinker with the script a bit to make sure that there wasn't any nudity."

It was obviously a bit of a disappointment for her co-star Sean Bean.

"Sadly for him, she wants to prove she can act, rather than just being a pretty face."

* Right on the bell, a final celebrity Christmas card flutters onto Pandora's doormat. It's from pint-sized Formula One magnate Bernie Ecclestone and his statuesque Croatian wife, Slavica.

The card harks back to this summer's Indianapolis Grand Prix, in which - to the despair of Ecclestone's regime - only six cars competed, following a management cock-up over the tyres supplied to the racing teams.

It is rather splendidly adorned with a cartoon of wee Bernie, right with Slavica, standing on the track with steam coming out of his ears and his arms raised in horror. In the background, half a dozen drivers attempt to negotiate the course.

Mr Ecclestone's seasonal message: "Have a very democratic Christmas, and an uneventful New Year". Cheery stuff!

* Jacques Chirac might have bounced Tony Blair into surrendering the EU budget rebate last week, but that particular £7bn isn't the only British wonga to be on its way back over the channel.

The French newspaper Le Monde reports that England's richest landowner, the Duke of Westminster, has just spent €50m (£34.2m) buying the historic flea-market at Saint-Ouen in Paris.

Its news item describes His Grace as "The Duke of Westminster, alias Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, Marquis of Westminster, Count Grosvenor, Viscount Belgrave, Baron Grosvenor of Eaton, pour les connaisseurs."

All very sweet, but what's wrong with using the old chap's nickname? I'm told that friends call him "Gerry".

* The Sun editor Rebekah Wade - who celebrated Elton John's nuptials with the headline "Elton takes David up the aisle" - takes a keen interest in the gay rights movement.

Last week, her newspaper included a pair of "lesbian" Page Three girls, Melanie and Becky, who are supposed to be contemplating marriage.

Not everyone was convinced, though. Indeed, one grizzled hack quizzed Wade about the matter at fellow editor Andy Coulson's Christmas bash on Wednesday.

"A colleague told Rebekah he didn't think they're really lesbians," I'm told. "He'd spent the day going through all the pictures of the lesbians getting married, and said none of them look remotely like Melanie and Becky."

Wade stood doggedly by her story. "She insisted Melanie and Becky were planning on a civil partnership very soon, but admitted there had been a slight problem, because one of the lesbians' boyfriends was objecting."