French Open men’s preview: Changing of the guard?

I am taking a slightly different approach with my men’s preview of the French Open. Instead of four quarters, I will be breaking the draw into the top and bottom half, while still occasionally referencing quarters of the draw. My hope is that this will make the post shorter and easier for you all to follow. The draw for this event has created a ton of pretournament hype. It is also placed one legend in prime position to perhaps steal glory in the French capital one more time. Allow me to elaborate.

Top Half- Group of death

Men’s tennis has been dominated by the so-called “Big 4” for nearly a decade now. We are used to Roger Federer, Rafael (Rafa) Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic battling it out for the big trophy during the final weekend at the majors. However, this major will be a bit different. Nadal owns this event with 9 titles and 1 career loss. Read that line over again. However, the “King of Clay” has not won a European clay court title leading into Roland Garros for the first time in his career. This has landed him with a career low French Open seeding of number 6 and in the quarter of top seeded Djokovic. Nadal vs. Djokovic has been the matchup in 8 major finals as well as 2 of the last 3 in Paris. Nadal has denied his Serbian rival a French Open title countless times over the years. The French Open is the only major missing from Novak’s mantle. A quarterfinal matchup between the two here is unfortunate, inconceivable, and inevitable. Expect yet another long grueling affair between the two best movers and defenders this sport has ever seen. The only stern test for either man in the early rounds could be 20th seeded Frenchman Richard Gasquet for Djokovic in the 4th round.

This half gets even more ridiculous when you consider that the winner of the Rafa/Novak match will likely have to contend with British 3 seed Andy Murray in the semis. Murray has finally figured out a winning clay court formula, snagging two titles on the red dirt this year. He is as fit as he has ever been to make a deep run here. He may have to deal with big servers John Isner of the US and Nick Kyrgios of Australia early on, but he is solid as a rock in all aspects at the moment. Murray is poised to pick up the scraps in the semis after Rafa and Novak beat the holy hell out of each other in the QFs. Remember, the men play best 3 out of 5 sets at the 4 majors.

First round match to watch here: I like young American Jack Sock to upset 11th seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in what is sure to be an entertaining first round affair.

Semifinal prediction: Murray d. Nadal.

Bottom half- A highway to the final for Federer?

Roger Federer must be pinching himself right now. In order to add to his record of 17 major singles titles, the Swiss maestro only has to be one of his chief rivals. Better yet for Federer, that wouldn’t have to happen until the final. He has only won this event once (2009). However, the 30+-year-old will never have a better chance to snatch another major. The only 2 names that could challenge Federer before the final are flashy Frenchman (13) Gael Monfils in round 4 and 5th seeded Japanese backboard Kei Nishikori in the semis. Federer must serve big and keep points as short as possible to stay fresh for the later rounds. TV coverage begins tomorrow at 5 a.m. on ESPN2 and will be split with Tennis Channel and NBC throughout the 15 day event. Semifinal prediction- Federer d. Nishikori.

Final: Federer d. Murray

Queens of Paris: French Open ladies preview

The French Open begins in less than 48 hours. The red clay of Paris is ready to provide interesting and stunningly beautiful setting for the second major of the year. I am breaking down the ladies draw first. Like I did for the Australian Open, I will split the draw into quarters. Let’s dive in.

First quarter- Stumbling blocks for Serena?

Like every other major, world number 1 Serena Williams is the favorite. However, she is not the overwhelming favorite here. She had a so-so lead up to the French Open. Losing to big hitting Czech lefty Petra Kvitova in the Madrid semis and withdrawing after a single match in Rome with elbow issues. The draw here has done Serena no favors. A 3rd round meeting with 27th seed Victoria Azarenka could be in the offing. Azarenka has the right mix of offense and defense in her game to trouble Serena on any surface. Azarenka is a two-time major champion and possesses wins over Serena. Injuries are the only reason for her low seed. Should Serena survive that possible hurdle, a 4th round meeting with big sister Venus is a possibility. It is quite rare to get 3 huge names like Serena, Venus, and Azarenka in the first 16 lines of a grand slam draw. The early rounds in the top half of this quarter will be very interesting. A very convincing argument can be made that the biggest obstacles between Serena and her 20th major can be found before the quarterfinals.

The bottom half of this quarter is a bit calmer. The 2 seeds projected to meet in round 4 are (10) Andrea Petkovic and (5) Caroline Wozniacki. However, Petkovic is not healthy, having only played 2 complete matches since March, and Wozniacki always struggles on clay, as the slow conditions take even more sting away from her already average groundstrokes. She makes her money by being a human wall and getting every ball back. Clay does not make this easy. However, she has shown recent improvement, and that may be enough for her to grind through a few rounds.

Also here- (17) Sara Errani- a finalist here 3 years ago, who should not be overlooked. And 25th seed Jelena Jankovic,

Sleeper- Young American Christina Mchale is comfortable on clay and could make a run to the 2nd week.

First round match to watch- (15) Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens- An all-American battle and tough draw for both. Venus has only been beyond the quarters here once in her storied career.

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

Second quarter- Can Kvitova keep it together?

4th seed Petra Kvitova heads this quarter. As we saw in her title run in Madrid, her best may even be better than Serena’s best. However, when her big hitting game is off, she can lose to anyone. It is difficult for me to trust her to make a deep run at any major other than on the lightning quick grass courts of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time champion. I do not see anyone who can trouble the lefty before the quarters. 16th seeded American Madison Keys shocked Kvitova in Australia. They could meet again here in the early rounds, but Keys has been struggling. If Kvitova plays to her capability, she should be unbothered early on. However, that is a sizable if.

The bottom half of this quarter is where I think we will see a fresh name emerge. (12) Karolina Pliskova has shot up the rankings quite rapidly in the last 6 months. The only thing missing from her ascendancy is a deep run at a major. She does not have a prototypical clay court game. Her shots are flat, but big enough to hit through the grit of a clay court. The biggest reason I like Plskova’s arrival to come here is a great draw. 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova may await in round 3. Kuznetsova had a shocking run to the final in Madrid. However, she has struggled to recover from deep runs in tournaments in the late stages of her career. The other high seed in this section is last year’s semifinalist 6 seed Genie Bouchard. However, 6 losses in her last 7 matches makes it hard for me to see anything other than an early exit for the young Canadian.

Sleeper: Look for talented youngster Anna Karolina Schmiedlová to take advantage of Bouchard’s woes and reach the 4th round.

Semifinalist: Pliskova (d. Kvitova in QFs)

Third quarter- Halep’s to lose

For me, this is a fairly straightforward section. I’m not even going to separate it into halves. The 4 high seeds are as follows (3) Simona Halep- a great mover who reached the final here last year and has 3 tournament wins in 2015. (7) Ana Ivanovic- the 2008 Roland Garros champion is under .500 on the year and struggling with injuries, but may make a decent run based on her draw. (14) Aggie Radwanska- the crafty Pole has had a similar year to Ivanovic, but lacks the confidence on clay to make any kind of run here. (9) Ekaterina Makarova- the Russian lefty struggles with the sliding movements necessary to navigate a clay court. If we were not playing in France, I may peg hometown girls Alize Cornet or Caroline Garcia for a deep run. However, I do not see playing on home soil as an advantage for these two emotional players. If Halep does not reach the semis from this quarter, I will be shocked.

Semifinalist- Halep (d. Ivanovic in QFs)

Fourth quarter- Queen Maria defends her crown

Maria Sharapova is the defending champion and 2nd seed here. In fact, the woman who once called herself a “cow on ice” on clay has won 2 of the 3 three French Opens, as well as every other clay court event of significance at least once since 2011. Her transformation on this surface has been remarkable. It begins and ends with her footwork and ability to slide into shots. I truly believe the only women capable of taking her title from her is Serena. Maria’s 3rd round opponent if form holds is Aussie Sam Stosur, who was my pre draw sleeper to go deep. So, that could be a real test. However, Maria to play the final weekend in Paris for a 4th straight year. My men’s preview is coming tomorrow.

One to watch here- 21 seed Garbine Muguruza

Semifinalist: Sharapova (d. 9 seed Carla Suarez Navarro in QFs)

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

Final: S. Williams d. Sharapova for a 17th straight time

The reality of “Deflategate”

This story is one that I swore I would never post about, because I, thought it was much to do about nothing. Quite frankly, I still feel that way. However, when a sports story is the lead on Fox news, I must chime in. I am talking about “Deflategate.” In case you have been living under a rock, this has to do with the Patriots use of underinflated footballs in this year’s AFC championship game against the Colts.

The findings of an NFL investigation into this matter were released in a report earlier this week. Investigators concluded that not only were the footballs underinflated, but that Tom Brady and members of New England’s equipment staff engaged in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules. However, the actual wording of the report is far more ambiguous than I was above. All the report says is that it is “more probable than not probable” that the things I just mentioned happened. Head coach Bill Belichick is basically absolved of any wrongdoing by the report. Ohis story took another turn a few days later when penalties were announced. Tom Brady has been suspended for the first 4 regular season games of the upcoming season and the Patriots were fined $1 million as well as docked 2 future draft picks, including a first rounder. I am far from a Patriots fan. In fact, they have been the biggest obstacle between my Broncos and the Super Bowl for nearly half a decade now. However, these penalties are ridiculously excessive and here is why.

First of all, the game in question here is a game that the New England won 45-7. Let me repeat that, 45-7. That game could have been played with beach balls (inflated or not) and it would have had zero impact on the outcome. The “integrity of the game” was not affected in any way. The situation also had no bearing on the Super Bowl that New England would go on to win two weeks later.

Secondly, are we really going to suspend a three time and reigning Super Bowl champion for a quarter of the season based on wording like “more probable than not”? The report the NFL released is a bunch of maybes. It never says that the Patriots definitively did anything. This would never stand up in a court of law and is certainly not grounds for penalties of this magnitude.

Lastly, fans and the media are piling on the Patriots simply because they are the Patriots. I realize that fans of the 31 other NFL teams are just taking pleasure in this because New England beats their favorite team every year. The Patriots is very easy to dislike, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated more harshly than the other 31 teams would be in this situation. Am I really supposed to believe that the penalties would be the same if this was Andy Dalton and the Bengals in a regular season game? Come on now. Also, you are lying to yourself if you think Brady and the Pats are the only team that has ever done this so their QB could better grip the football. The only difference New England got caught. Big-time sports are high-stakes and the most competitive thing on planet Earth. I’m not going to fault any or team athlete that pushes the envelope in an attempt to gain an edge. If you do not do it, somebody you are competing against probably will. I also have no issue with Brady and company not cooperating with the investigation. 99.9% of people would not have been forthcoming either.

None of this changes the fact that the Patriots did break the rules and should be punished in some way. While I think is more likely that the suspension will be cut in half on appeal and that will be the only change we see, I feel the suspension and loss of draft picks should be lifted completely and the fine should stand. I am hardly sympathetic to the Patriots or their cause, but they were completely railroaded and made an example of here. It does not sit well with me and I truly hope these penalties are brought down a few notches.

Baseball in Good Hands With Manfred

Now that school has ended for me, it is time to get back to blogging. The French Open begins two weeks from tomorrow. If you read my blog leading up to and during the Australian Open, you know that tennis majors are an obsession for me and take over my blog as they progress. In the meantime, baseball season is little more than a month old. While the mediocrity of the usually loaded AL East and the early-season revival of the league’s doormat of half a decade, the Houston Astros dominate headlines on the field. For me, the best story in baseball is occurring off the field.

New commissioner Rob Manfred is willing to at least look at tweaking several issues that baseball has ignored for too long. Baseball was still a great game during the 17 year tenure of previous commissioner Bud Selig. However, his run commissioner and its legacy are quite controversial. Under his watch, the game saw a 1994 work stoppage which resulted in no World Series that year. Also, the bulk of the so-called “steroid era” occurred under Selig, neither of these things were entirely his fault. I would even argue that in the short term, steroids helped the game of baseball more than they hurt it. What I remember most about Selig’s time as commissioner was baseball refusing to change even the smallest things and falling further and further behind football in terms of popularity. I would not consider Major League Baseball to be unhealthy right now, but it is not healthy either. New commissioner Rob Manfred seems to be the right guy to help baseball prosper in the future. His short time as commissioner has already seen an expanded use of replay as well as a shockingly efficient replay system that is quick and keep the game moving. Baseball did not have any form of replay until the tail end of Selig’s tenure. It is nice to see baseball joining other sports here in the 21st century in the area of replay. Also, Manfred has instituted a number of rules to speed up games. These range from limiting the number of warm-up pitches for new pitcher to not allowing hitters to step out of the batter’s box at will. These measures have resulted in a mixed bag when it comes to shortening games. However, the effort is refreshing. No one wants to be at the ballpark for five hours when beer sales end in the 7th inning.

In interviews, Manfred has also said he is open to reevaluating hot button issues that have been debated for many years. The topics that have come up the most are the designated hitter and Pete Rose. These are very serious topics to baseball people. At this point, I think the DH simply means to be uniform, meaning either present or absent in both leagues. Personally, I would like to see the DH added in the National League. Watching pitchers hit is just boring to me. However, uniformity is most important. Playing with two separate sets of rules no longer makes sense and is just too complicated. Only time will tell whether Manfred steers this issue one way or the other. As far as Rose is concerned, I do not think he should be in the Hall of Fame. I’ll save my reasons why for another blog on a day where I feel like having my Cincinnati readers throw things at me. However, I do think Rose deserves to have his lifetime ban situation fairly reevaluated. Selig never gave him this chance. Also, it appears Rose will have some kind of role in this year’s All-Star game in Cincinnati. Regardless of what he’s done, he is the best player in Reds franchise history and deserves to be involved in a special event like the All-Star game. It remains to be seen how much Manfred is talk vs. action. Also, there are a lot of politics at play when it comes to changing the issues I have discussed, mainly keeping the Players Association and owners happy. However, the early returns on Manfred’s time in charge of America’s pastime are encouraging.