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Archive for the ‘Tennis’ Category

The Thing with Women’s Tennis

In Tennis on August 29, 2011 at 1:13 PM

When Maria Sharapova won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati against Jelena Jankovic on August 21, I breathed a sigh of relief—not because I particularly love Maria Sharapova, but I prefer her aggressive playing style in comparison to Jankovic’s mostly-defensive game. At one point, when Sharapova was down a set and serving in the second at 5-6 and 30-love, the screen flashed a shot statistic—Jankovic’s 9 winners to Sharapova’s 26. Sharapova won the set, albeit with 10 more unforced errors than Jankovic.

Both players have solid groundstrokes, but the most exciting points of the match were Sharapova’s winners, when she hit her absolute hardest, ending a routine, ho-hum rally with one massive swing (and shriek)—her opponent’s racquet clanging to the ground as it reached for the ball, head dropping in defeat, Sharapova pumping her fists on the other side of the net. Those are the kinds of points you watch tennis for. Those are the kinds of points you see so much more in the men’s game than the women’s.

Watching a defense-based match sucks, which is why I’m not enthused about Caroline Wozniacki’s #1 world ranking. The 21-year-old is often criticized for being a “moonball” player—standing behind the baseline and casually hitting balls back over the net, waiting for her opponent to flounder. She’s also never won a Grand Slam—something that has caused many fans to question the sport’s rankings system.

Maybe they’re onto something. Prior to Wozniacki, the most recent additions to the world #1 club were Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic—both unremarkable players, both also Slam-less. Ana Ivanovic, the newest world #1 before that, won one Grand Slam before slipping out of the top 20 by the end of the following year.

In Wozniacki’s defense, she tries—her ranking has everything to do with the amount of tournaments she plays. She at least played through Cincinnati until she lost (one match total). Serena Williams crushed her first-round opponent, then promptly pulled out with a toe injury (and was later seen on a roller coaster and then attended Kim Kardashian’s wedding); Venus Williams had a virus; Victoria Azarenka hurt her hand; Kim Clijsters had a stomach injury.

The fading quality of women’s tennis is only magnified by the increasing excitement on the men’s side. For one, the men seem to play with a higher level of athleticism and much more consistently. You don’t have to worry that you’ll end up watching an error-prone match that’s lost rather than won—something that’s relatively par for the course with the women.

The men also have better stories—Roger Federer’s legacy, possibly leaving the sport as The Greatest of All-Time; Rafael Nadal’s clay dominance turning into all-surface dominance, and his role as Federer-kryptonite; and now Novak Djokovic, who’s evolved over the years from a whiny, easily winded, bottom-of-the-top player to a fiercely talented new world #1, breaking up the Federer/Nadal rivalry. And let’s not forget poor Andy Murray, whipping boy of the British press every time Wimbledon rolls around each year. Even Mardy Fish, with his recent victory over Nadal in Cincinnati, has added new drama to the men’s top tier.

The women’s game has the second rise of Sharapova (though she hasn’t won a Slam this year), and Serena Williams looks to be climbing the rankings again (though her earlier-than-expected loss at Wimbledon was kind of a downer). Petra Kvitova and Li Na, winners of this year’s Wimbledon and French Open, respectively, have brought back a bit of life to women’s tennis—but until they prove themselves not to be one-Slam wonders, most fans probably still won’t know who they are.

As the U.S. Open gets underway today in Flushing, hopefully the women’s final doesn’t end up like last year, when Kim Clijsters steamrolled Vera Zvonareva—she’s the world #2 and also Slam-less—in under an hour: 6 -2, 6-1. (It was almost insulting to watch after the epic five-set, almost four-hour men’s semi-final between Federer and Djokovic.) So ladies, please: Bring your A-games and leave the moonballing at home. Restore some dignity to the sport you love.

Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Golf, Perfecting the Top 10, Soccer, Tennis on July 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century