Serena, Maria, Novak, Andy, and the Super Bowl

Serena Williams continued her race with destiny this morning as she defeated a very game Maria Sharapova 6-3 7-6(5) for her 6th Aussie Open title and 19th overall major. She now trails only Steffi Graf’s 22 singles majors in the modern era. The serve was the difference. 15 aces left Sharapova nothing more than a human being with a tennis racquet who just happend to be on the court. At 33, Serena’s assult on the record books will continue as long as she wants it to. For Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Serena in 11 years, it tough to imagine where she’ll go from here. She is still fairly young and driven as ever. However, she cannot play much better than she did in this match, and even that level of play wasn’t good enough to take a set, much less the match. Sharapova remains the clear-cut world number 2 in both ranking and reality and will become the favorite at the three other majors, if Serena stumbles. One fact though, still remains true. Sharapova and the rest of her peers are gunning for Serena until further notice, even after all these years.

Men’s final preview- (1) Novak Djokovic vs. (6) Andy Murray-(Head to Head Djokovic leads 15-8)

3 a.m. on ESPN (re-airs at 9)

There are no secrets between these two good friends and rivals. They play a very similar style based around defense and wearing their opponent down over the long haul, but are both more than capable of playing offense and finishing points at this stage in their careers, which wasn’t always the case. Djokovic is 4-0 in Aussie finals, Murray is 0-3. In this particular tournament, Djokovic hasn’t really found his best tennis, but his “B” game has been plenty good enough to get him to this spot. Murray finally looks healthy and is rejuvenated under the guidance of Amelie Mauresmo, and he clearly put in the hard work over the off-season.   Like all of their other matches, this will be a close, long, and grueling affair. I just like the way Murray is playing a little bit more than Djokovic right now. Expect Djokovic in the winner circle of a major this year, but not this one. Murray in 5 sets.

Super Bowl preview- Patriots vs. Seahawks

Honestly, I am really looking forward to this game. Once it kicks off, football will become the focus once again rather than “deflategate”, the most overblown story football has seen in years.   I expect a highly competitive game. When Vegas cannot decide who they think will win a game, it says a lot. I just don’t see New England being denied a 4th Super Bowl yet again. Seattle has gotten by with an average offense all year long. Also, I don’t care how good the defense is, Brady and company will score. I think a healthy Gronk will be the difference. Seattle has relied on game changing plays from their special teams and defense all year long, I can’t see the Patriots allowing themselves to be beaten in that way. Russell Wilson will keep Seattle in it, but fall one magic trick short.   Save all the Brady/Belichick legacy talk until after the confetti falls, but they will get there 4th ring together tomorrow night. NE 24 SEA 17

Aussie Open Semifinal Previews

Women:
(2) Maria Sharapova vs. (10) Ekaterina Makarova-Head to Head (Sharapova leads 5-0)

Since saving 2 match points with forehand winners in the 2nd round, Sharapova has been a different player, confident, aggressive, and ruthless.  She has dropped just 5 games against quality opponents, Genie Bouchard and Peng Shuai to get here. She wants a 6th major bad, and wants it now.  Makarova has improved as much as anyone over the last 6 or so months, breaking into the top10.  She notched a minor upset over 4 seed Simona Halep in the quarters. Her lefty serve and sweeping forehand will keep her in this. However, as long as Maria moves her feet and connects on a few big returns, look for the Ice Maiden to improve to 6-0 vs. Makarova and reach her 10th major final in 2 tight sets.

(1) Serena Williams vs.  Madison Keys-Head to Head (first meeting)

Serena is still Serena she had not played her best tennis until the last round, but all the sudden the booming serve started to click and she finally looked 100% focused. Beating her here, is going to be a tall order for anyone. However, I give 19-year-old Madison Keys a punchers chance to shock her countrywoman. The Keys’ serve is good enough that even Serena won’t have too many chances to break. Keys is battling some sort of calf injury.  It would be a real shame if that became an issue here, and ended her fairytale run. The other thing working against the young American is beating Serena’s big sister Venus yesterday. The sisters always play well when family pride is on the line. This is the first of many major semifinals for Keys. There will be a changing of the guard, just not yet. Serena in 2  tiebreak sets.

Men:
(6) Andy Murray vs. (7) Thomas Berdych-Head to Head (Berdych leads 6-4)

There are a lot of subplots here. Most notably, Berdych is now being coached by Murray’s former coach from 2006-2014. However, I actually think the result here will be fairly straightforward. Berdych beat Rafa Nadal last round after 17 consecutive losses to the Spaniard. Translation: he’s just happy to be here. Meanwhile, Murray finally looks to be back at his best after playing while recovering from back surgery most of last year. I particularly like the way he is moving. He has a real shot to claim the Australian Open title that he has come so close to on multiple occasions in the past. I like him to at least reach the final. Note, the men play 3 out of 5 sets at the 4 majors. I’ll take Murray in 4 sets here.

I will preview the 2nd men’s semi tomorrow along with the women’s final. I have a Super Bowl preview coming Friday. In the meantime, enjoy these matches tonight starting at 9:30 on ESPN2. They are all intriguing in their own way.

Looking backward (and forward) at the Aussie Open

Just eight men and eight women remain in contention for the coveted singles trophies at the Australian Open. Before looking ahead to the second week. I want to look back at week one. Here are 4 major storylines that will impact the rest of the season.

  1. Age finally catching up to Federer?-My pick to win the men’s title is the only one of the top 8 seeds to not reach the quarterfinals. He lost to Italian veteran unseededAndreas Seppi in the 3rd round. Every tennis fan admires the beauty with which Roger Federer plays this game. However, he is 33 now, and father time is undefeated. Seppi played a fantastic match, but the story was/is Federer. That is the first time I can ever remember thinking that he looked old and slow on a tennis court. It would be foolish to write him off completely, but I can’t see him adding to his record 17 majors anywhere outside of the lightning quick grass courts at Wimbledon. He has started coming to net more, which will lengthen his career a bit. Unfortunately, the sad reality is we should all enjoy watching him play while we can, because he is on about the 17th or 18th hole of his illustrious career.
  1. The Azarenka rebuild won’t take as long as most think-Victoria Azarenka won the Aussie Open in 2012 and 2013. Yet, she came into this event unseeded after a year of injuries and bad losses. Her return has always been rock solid. However, it was her good movement and serving that helped her notch wins over Slone Stephens and 8 seed Caroline Wozniacki. These have been question marks for the Belarusian these last 12 months. She fell in the round of 16 to the small but mighty 11 seed Dominika Cibulkova. Great players are never happy to lose, but her performance down under is certainly something for her to build on.
  1. Generation Next is finally here- We have had a few young guns pop up and challenge the old guard at majors over the last few years. Genie Bouchard reached the final weekend of 3 out of 4 majors last year and Marin Cilic came from nowhere to win the U.S. Open on the men’s side last year. However, the young guns had yet to hijack a single event and wreck the draw. One man and one woman are doing just that In Melbourne. American Madison Keys has used her massive serve and booming groundstrokes to upset 2 seeds in the ladies draw, including my projected finalist, 3 seed Petra Kvitova. Keys has a real shot in the QFs against a resurgent Venus Williams tomorrow. Now being coached by Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport. It is a question of “when” not “if” for this young American. On the men’s side, home crowd favorite Aussie Nick Kyrgios has electrified the men’s draw with his big serve and somewhat cocky attitude. He was the main beneficiary of Federer’s misfortune. His run will likely end tonight vs. Andy Murray, but this kid is the real deal.
  1. Looking ahead- On the women’s side, Serena and Maria Sharapova are the only ones getting talked about. They cannot meet until the final. However, Serena’s big sister Venus, Madison Keys, Maria’s opponent tonight Genie Bouchard (the discount version of Maria), and maybe even unassuming Romanian Simona Halep all have something to say about that. If they do play, I give Sharapova a real shot to knockoff Serena for the first time in 11 years. I picked Maria before the event, why change now? The men are tougher to handicap. With 7 of the top 8 seeds through to the QFs, There is no clear favorite. I am shocked at how little defending champion Stan Wawrinka is being talked about. There’s always the trio of Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray, I really like the way Murray is playing,

Thanks for reading as always. With school back in full swing, I cannot promise anything. However, my goal is to preview both the semis and finals on both sides, as well as the Super Bowl later this week.

Leading Ladies: Aussie Open womens preview

It is now time to tackle the fairer sex in my Aussie Open previews. This is as wide open a major as we have had on the women’s side in quite a while. Despite not being the clear favorite, Serena Williams is certainly in the conversation. However, she has been far from untouchable at majors lately. This means Maria Sharapova, Aga Radwanska, Simona Halep, and Petra Kvitova all have a very real chance here. Let’s dive in. I will follow a similar, but not identical format to yesterday.

First Quarter- Serena, Wozniacki, and the young guns.

This section is loaded. Top seed, world number 1, and 5 time Aussie Open champ Serena Williams leads it. Look, we all know she has the weapons to win it. However, she failed to reach the QFs at 3 of the majors last year and hasn’t gone deep here since winning in 2010. She’s joined here by two rising stars that everyone should take note of. 26 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and 24 seed Garbine Muguruza of Spain. Svitolina has a well-rounded game that looms for Serena in round 3. Muguruza is a massive hitter who I think will win majors someday. Also, she dismantled Serena at the French Open last year. She could oppose Serena in round 4.

If Serena gets through the young guns, she could run in to her good friend Caroline Wozniacki in the QFs. However, Wozniacki has a tricky draw herself and could run into Victoria Azarenka in the 2nd round. Azarenka has won this title 2 of the last 3 years, but injuries and losses have left her unseeded and ranked outside of the top 50, but she is still dangerous. This quarter could go MANY different directions. It will be fun to watch.

Sleeper: Muguruza

Matches to watch: Wozniacki vs. talented young American Taylor Townsend. Azarenka vs hot and cold American Sloane Stephens and any 2nd round match between the winners of these 2 matches.

Semifinalist: S. Williams (d. Wozniacki in QFs)

Second Quarter- Kvitova’s big chance?

Two time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova is the top seed in this section. The big hitting Czech lefty may finally be ready to breakthrough outside of Wimbledon after winning in Sydney last week. She is capable of beating anyone, but also losing to anyone. Young American Madison Keys may pose the first real test for Kvitova in round 3. Home grown Aussie Sam Stosur is also here, but she has never played well at home.

Aga Radwanska leads the bottom section here. Now being coached by Martina Navrátilová, what the Pole lacks in power she makes up for in speed and smarts. A resurgent Venus Williams is a real threat here after starting off with a title in Auckland. The other seeds in this section are very soft.

Upsets: Camila Giorgi d. 11 seed Flavia Pennetta (round 1) Kaia Kanepi d. 13 seed Andrea Petkovic (round 2). Kanepi d. 20 seed Stosur (round 3). Kanepi is a big hitter that will make noise here

Semifinalist : Kvitova (d. Radwanska in QFs)

Third quarter- Halep vs. Ivanovic?

2008 French Open champ Ana Ivanovic is on top here as the 5 seed. She has the biggest forehand in the world, but has struggled to peak at big events lately. Big server Karolina Pliskova is a trendy sleeper pick here. 32 seed, youngster Belinda Bencic and sneaky good 10 seed Ekaterina Makarova are also here.

The bottom half of this section is 3 seed Simona Halep’s to lose. The French Open finalist has sneaky power and speed. She is joined by 14 seed Sara Errani (winless on the year) and always erratic 28th seeded German Sabine Lisicki among others. I see no one who can really trouble Halep here. However, I really like unseeded German youngster Annika Beck and expect her to surprise people here.

Matches to watch: Julia Gorges vs. Bencic

Sleeper: Beck

Semifinalist: Halep (d. Ivanovic in QFs)

Fourth quarter- Maria’s to lose?

No one is coming in here in better form than 2008 Aussie champ Maria Sharapova. She started the year with a bang, taking out 4 top 50 players on her way to the title in Brisbane. 16th seeded Lucie Safarova always plays Maria tough and could await in round 4. Maria needs to NOT mess around early on.

The other seeds of note here are Canadian glamour girl Genie Bouchard (7), German Angie Kerber (9) and 2 time major champ Svetlana Kuznetsova (27) who has a way of randomly showing up at majors in the later stages of her career. I have to see Bouchard play before I make a judgment as to whether she can back up her breakthrough 2014. Also, I think Kerber lacks the firepower and confidence to do real damage here. So…

Matches to watch: Kuznetsova vs. dangerous Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia

Young gun who will make noise: Anna Schmiedlova

Semifinalist: Sharapova (d. Kuznetsova in QFs)

Semifinals: Kvitova d. S. Williams Sharapova d. Halep

Final: Sharapova d. Kvitova

Thunder down under: Aussie Open preview (men)

The first tennis major begins on Sunday evening from Melbourne Australia. Play begins nightly a 7:00 ET. Television coverage is split between the ESPN family of networks, including online coverage on ESPN3, and the Tennis Channel. This is the first of 2 previews I’m publishing between now and the start of play, I’ll start with the men. I’m breaking down each quarter of the 128 player singles draw. I’ll give my matches to watch, sleepers, and eventual semifinalist from each quarter.

First Quarter: The draw is headed by top seed, world number 1 and 4 time Aussie Open champ Novak Djokovic. A rock solid defender who can get to every ball and hit winners from anywhere, Djokovic has made Aussie land his personal playground over the years. However, poor form including an early loss to big serving Ivo Karlovic in Doha to start the year gives others some hope. Big servers surround the Serb in this quarter including American 21 seed John Isner, who looms in the round of 16, and Canadian 8 seed Milos Raonic. Isner has yet to breakthrough at a major. However, when you serve 140 mph no one wants to play you. The same can be said for Raonic, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year.

Matches to watch: Unseeded home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt starts vs a Chinese qualifier. Hewitt, a former multi time major champ and world number 1 will try to turn back the clock for one more good run down under in what could be his last Aussie Open.

It is great to see former U.S. open winner Juan Martin Del Potro back after a year of wrist issues. The big hitting Argentine starts against Jerzy Janowicz of Poland.

Sleeper: Isner.

Semifinalist: Isner (d Raonic in QFs). That’s right I like the American to wreck the draw and beat Djokovic in round 4. It is now or never for him to make a real run at a major.

Second Quarter: This section is wide open. 3 seed and defending champ Stan Wawrinka leads it. I love his game, a big serve and stunning one-handed backhand. The pressure of defending a major could eat him alive. However the other seeds here aren’t anything special. 9 seed David Ferrer is a pit bull who is tough for anyone to play, he could provide some resistance in the quarters, as could 9th seeded U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori.

Matches to watch: Former top 10 player Nicolas Almagro is a real threat to Nishikori in round 1.

Sleepers: Veteran American Sam Querrey won’t go deep, but could win a couple rounds.

Semifinalist :(nervously) Wawrinka (d. Ferrer in QFs)

Third quarter: 3 seed Rafa Nadal is the story here. He’s played just a handful of matches since the summer, due to a litany of injuries. He now claims he’s healthy, but no one really knows, including the 14-time major winner himself. He got an ok draw. His first match against veteran Russian Mikhail Youzhny will be his toughest early on. Youzhny has had success against Rafa in the past. Other seeds here include 7th seeded big hitting Czech Thomas Berdych and his compatriot Lukas Rosol, seeded 28th and always dangerous.

Sleepers: None

Matches to watch: Hot and cold 11 seed Ernests Gulbis vs. Aussie wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis who has a bright future.

Semifinalist: Berdych (d. Nadal in QFs)

Fourth Quarter: 2 time major champ Andy Murray and all time major title Roger Federer lead this loaded section. This may be Fed’s last best chance to win another major. Murray has rebuilt nicely this last year or so. Other seeds here include Maria Sharapova’s love interest, 10th seeded Grigor Dimitrov and big serving veteran Ivo Karlovic. Murray is slowly getting back to his best, but this is a death draw. Federer’s net game will be the difference in this section.

Matches to watch: Rising Aussie star Nick Kyrgios starting vs. lefty Fredrico Delbonis

Sleepers: Kyrgios

Semifinalist: Federer (d. Dimitrov in QFs)

Semifinals: Wawrinka d. Isner Federer d. Berdych

Final: Federer d. Wawrinka

And then there were 4: NFL conference championship weekend pereview

19 weeks ago, The NFL season started with 32 teams dreaming of a trip to the Super Bowl. Now we are down to just 4. There are clear favorites in both conference title games, but in the NFL this year, nothing has been a sure thing. Not only was I 0-4 last week after a 4-0 start to the playoffs, but another Broncos season has come to an end. The organization is now in disarray. Translation: it’s been a rough sports week for this guy. Anyway, let’s take a look at the title games.

Packers (13-4) at Seahawks (13-4)-First off, I don’t care what the rulebook says, Dez Bryant caught that ball last week. Thus, Green Bay has no business being here. Russell Wilson has significant shortcomings as a QB; lack of arm strength and height among them. However, when you combine his mobility, great decision making and insane supporting cast, those shortcomings are made up for and then some. He is a nightmare to defend. Seattle will also pound Marshawn Lynch again and again. I have a whole new respect for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers after toughing it out with a torn calf and leading his team here, despite not being able to move. However, a QB who can’t move against Seattle’s top ranked defense… This will get ugly. Sea 33 GB 14

Colts (12-5) at Patriots (13-4)-I have a whole new respect for the Colts after last week. Andrew Luck is simply amazing, and Dan Herron has filled in admirably for Ahmad Bradshaw keeping the edge Bradshaw gave this team early on. The Colts defense is better than most realize, but may be missing Vontae Davis at the back end. That spells major trouble. I honestly think the Pats’ toughest game on the road back to the Super Bowl was last week. Brady has all his weapons healthy and is playing as well as he ever has. They’ll need more than the 17 yards rushing they managed last week, but if they can get a lead early, that should take care of itself. Of the two underdogs this weekend, Indy has a much better shot, but I still can’t see it. NE 38 Ind 28.

The first tennis major of the year starts Sunday evening! Be on the lookout for my Aussie Open previews tomorrow and early Sunday. Tennis majors are like Christmas for me. So, please read just as much you all have been reading the football stuff.

NFL Divisional Playoff weekend preview and picks: I’m out on a limb or two.

It is getting colder. This means the NFL playoffs are heating up. Some call this the best football weekend of the year. I was 4-0 last week. The “experts” and I don’t agree on much this weekend. This means I’m either crazy like a fox or just plain crazy. Let’s dive in.

Ravens (11-6) at Patriots (12-4)-The first game to be played this weekend is in my view, the most interesting. John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens are real comfortable in Foxborough in January. They’ve gone in there twice in the last 5 years and knocked off heavily favored Pats teams in the playoffs. The Pats can’t be too happy to see the Ravens again. The Pats have been so good at everything this year. A healthy Rob Gronkowski has stabilized the passing game. They’ve used a myriad of tailbacks to keep defenses honest, and they have all done a good job. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady. The Ravens’ Justin Forsett has been quite the find. The journeyman RB got the starting gig out of necessity, 1,200+ yards later, he has kept it. I just hate this matchup for New England. I expect their undersized wideouts to be tossed around by Baltimore’s physical defense, led by Terrell Suggs. The Ravens always elevate their game this time of year, and the Pats haven’t the last few years. I’ll take the upset here, but have enough respect for New England to realize I could eat major crow. Bal 24 NE 20

Panthers (8-8-1) at Seahawks (12-4)-Why is Seattle an 11.5 point favorite here? They should be favorite. However, has anyone watched Carolina this last month? Cam Newton is playing as good as any QB in the playoffs, they can run the ball on anyone, and Seattle won’t be the only great defense on the field in this game, Don’t let all the winning fool you, ranked 28th in the league in passing, Russell Wilson is Andy Dalton with a ridiculously better supporting cast. I think LB Luke Kuechly and company stuff Marshawn Lynch and the run game and the offense scores just enough to shock the world and make sure there is a new world champ on February 1. Car 17 Sea 13

Cowboys (13-4) at Packers (12-4)-This game sells itself. Two of the NFL’s most iconic franchises grinding it out in the playoffs at Lambeau Field. The fact that it is going to be freezing actually benefits Dallas who has the more consistent run game behind the league’s leading rusher DeMarco Murray. We all know Green Bay’s defense is average at best. They will get some stops, but not many. Aaron Rodgers will have to put the Pack on his back. Given his health and the conditions, I don’t see it. I picked Dallas to reach the Super Bowl last week, no reason to change. Dal 27 GB 20

Colts (12-5) at Broncos (12-4)-Denver comes off a much needed bye week and may be as healthy as they have been all year. C.J. Anderson continues to give the offense the balance it has strived for since some guy named Manning arrived in Denver in 2012. The aggressive Broncos defense needs to simply stay home and guard against the Andrew Luck to Dan Herron checkdowns that were responsible for Cincinnati’s slow and painful death last week. I see a straightforward win for my Broncos here. Den 31 Ind 17.

There you have it folks, I said I was crazy. By the way, I’ll take the Bucks over the Ducks by a field goal in an underwhelming title game on Monday. Happy weekend to all.