Cincinnati Steps up, but Contradictions Continue to Hurt All-Star Game

As the first week of MLB’s unofficial second half winds down, I would like to take a look back at the All-Star game and festivities that went with it in my hometown of Cincinnati.

I will start with the good. Overall, the city of Cincinnati did a fantastic job with this event. From zip lines to celebrities, a little bit of everything was featured. I was also impressed with how well the city handled several major sports talk shows emanating from the city throughout the entire week. Also, to see the history of Reds honored so often was nice. Even Pete Rose did not make an idiot out of himself. Most important, the city and its fans seemed to be well received by the players. It was a great week for the city of Cincinnati.

While the game itself was a rather bland but convincing 6-3 win for the AL, the highlight of the festivities was without question the Home Run Derby. The new timed, bracket, and single elimination format completely rejuvenated an event that had become stale. Home crowd favorite Reds third baseman Todd Frazier won the event edging Dodgers phenom outfielder Joc Pederson 15 homers to 14 in the final round. This provided a nice bright spot in an otherwise lost season for the Reds.

The parts of this year’s All-Star game that bothered me are the same things that bother me every year. They have nothing to do with the city of Cincinnati. In fact, I have never been prouder of my hometown than I was during All-Star week. However, Major League Baseball continues to send mixed signals about what it actually wants the All-Star game to be. After the infamous 2002 tie in Milwaukee, then Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the winning league in the All-Star game would secure home field advantage for its representative in the World Series. For the first time in its history the All-Star game actually meant something and was no longer simply an exhibition.

Personally, I think the institution of the rule was an overreaction to an unfortunate one-time event. Both sides ran out of players in 2002. It made no sense for the players to continue for God knows how long in an exhibition game when there was still a second half of the regular season to play. I would like to see the game go back to being an exhibition. Unfortunately, this likely is not happening. The people who run the sport seem to really like the rule.

Assuming my last two sentences are true, there are a couple fundamental changes that must be made to the All-Star game for it all to make sense. First, the fans deciding who goes to the All-Star game means to become a thing of the past. This was all well and good back when the All-Star game really was “the fans’ game” and a true exhibition. However, if you are going to put something as potentially valuable as home field advantage in the World Series up for grabs, the best players should play… period. Fans do not vote for the best players. They vote for players on their hometown team. At one point in the voting this year, The AL starting lineup consisted of 8 Kansas City Royals and Mike Trout. This cannot happen. If something is going to be at stake, managers, scouts, and media members should decide who gets the nod. I am not bashing fans, but most do not follow all 30 teams closely, myself included.

The other thing that must stop is the rule that mandates every team must have an All-Star. Aside from the fact that I hate that we now make sure no one gets their feelings hurt whenever possible in any walk of life, having every team represented virtually assures that at least one deserving player gets left out to comply with the rule. Additionally, if the game “matters” managers should treat it as such and not concern themselves with trying to use all players available to them. If the starter is pitching well, let him go 7 innings, instead of maybe 2. Baseball continues to have the best All-Star Game in sports by a long ways, but does it “matter” or is it an exhibition? Major League Baseball cannot have it both ways and needs to make up its mind.

Wimbledon 2015: Grades for top stars

We are a little more than a week removed from Wimbledon. Most of the tennis world is now on a break until early next month when big events in Toronto, Montréal, and Cincinnati serve as a lead up to the final major of 2015, the U.S. Open in New York City. Here are my Wimbledon grades for all the major players.

Serena Williams- Much like the French Open, she had to come back from brink occasionally, but she got the job done. She has every chance in the world of winning in New York and becoming the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all 4 majors in the same year as well as tying Graf’s modern era record of 22 majors. In sports, nothing is a foregone conclusion, but I wish the 127 other ladies who will try to knock off Serena in New York good luck, they will need it. A+

Novak Djokovic- No one impressed me more over these two weeks than the Serbian world number 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion. After being blasted off the court by Stan Wawrinka in the finals of the French Open and being denied the career Grand Slam, most players would have folded playing a major 3 weeks after that kind of disappointment, not Djokovic. He was consistent throughout the tournament and seemed to relish playing the role of villain in the final against Roger Federer, who was/is everyone’s sentimental favorite. He has had rough summers on the North American hardcourts the past few years, but look for that to change this year. There really is not a high enough grade I can give here. A++++

Maria Sharapova- I am not sure why many people are selling their stock when it comes to the Russian ice queen. She did what she usually does at the bigger events. Annihilated everyone in her path until she played Serena. Then she fights hard, but loses handily and bows out gracefully. The only difference this time was playing Serena in the semis as opposed to the final. When you put it all together, Sharapova reached the Wimbledon semis for the first time in 4 years and moved back up to number 2 in the world rankings. That is a pretty solid two weeks. She is a major threat this summer. B+

Rafael Nadal- Alright folks, this is the part you have all been waiting for. Now, I get to be critical. The Spanish left-hander was the victim of yet another early upset. This time it was in round 2 against German Dustin Brown (and his dreadlocks). We always expect Rafa to find his footing on the clay. That did not happen this year, and it carried over to the grass. He just does not seem to be hitting the ball as hard as he used to. I wish I had something more analytical to offer. I do not think he is playing hurt. The 14 time major champion may need to bring in a coach from outside his family, something he has never done. Despite winning 2 U.S. Opens, Nadal has never been comfortable in North America, his body often breaks down once we leave the grass. He has taken wildcards into smaller clay court events, which he will play before coming to this part of the world. That should help a bit, but it is time to start worrying. D

Petra Kvitova- The lefty from the Czech Republic was certainly someone who I thought could challenge Serena here, but the defending champ could not get out of her own way. She crumbled in round 3 to Serbian veteran Jelena Jankovic. She has so much power that she is a threat anywhere, against anyone. However, when she cannot harness it, she is in trouble. C-

Roger Federer- The Swiss maestro finished runner up to Djokovic for the 2nd straight year at Wimbledon. He served beautifully in this tournament, but just ran out of gas in the final. At almost 34, you can see how bad he wants to add to his record 17 majors. It is foolish to write him off, but no one knows how many more chances he will get. A-

Eugenie Bouchard- I have never seen a player as lost as the Canadian is at the moment. She finished runner up at Wimbledon last year. This year, she lost any opening round to a qualifier. Worse yet, She has won just 2 matches since March. Her weight continues to cause people to whisper. She seems out of answers. Her press conferences have become a bunch of I don’t knows. She gets points for playing Wimbledon injured, I admire toughness. Also, she was on stage with Shania Twain this week. So, that bumps the grade up. In all seriousness, I hope this is rock bottom for her. However, with her ranking dropping, she will face tougher draws this summer. D-

Simona Halep- A finalist in Paris and a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, the stealthy Romanian failed to get through the first week of either European major this year. She is at the mercy of bigger hitters. If they are on their game, she is helpless. Also, she needs stability. She has had 4 coaches in a bit more than a year, even letting one go after winning back to back titles in February and early March. She has had a strange year. Wimbledon was a total bust. However, in the long term, I think she will be fine. She just needs to hit the gym and find one voice to hear consistently. F

Garbine Muguruza- The Spaniard has arrived. She blazed her way through the draw, taking out 4 higher seeded players on her way to the final. She handled herself well against Serena. She may struggle this summer with new expectations, but she is the real deal. Her run here was not just a one-time fluke. A

Andy Murray- The British hope and 2013 champion was outclassed by Federer in the semis. There is no shame in that. A year and a half removed from back surgery, he is almost back to his best. He continues to handle the pressure of playing at home really well. He is at the top of the list as far as contenders this summer. B+

Young Americans- American tennis is finally becoming about much more than the Williams Sisters. CoCo Vendeweghe and Madison Keys reached the quarterfinals. On the men’s side, wildcard Dennis Kudla enjoyed a dream run to round 4, and 6’ 10” Reilly Opelka won the boys singles junior event. The future is bright at last. A.

Wimbledon 2015 Final Previews

The Wimbledon finals are set. Both matches feature a decent historical backdrop. Familiar foes will square off for the men’s title, while a fresh face looks to dethrone the queen of the ladies game. Ladies first.

(1) Serena Williams vs. (20) Garbine Muguruza- Saturday 9:00 a.m. ET (ESPN)

Head to head- Williams leads 2-1

Serena now stands one match win away from holding all four major titles at once, completing the “Serena Slam”. Additionally, a win tomorrow would put her one major shy of Steffi Graf’s modern era record of 22. She has had to battle back from the brink twice. However, she found her best game in the semis yesterday, as she always does against Maria Sharapova. She is close to unbeatable in major finals with a 20-4 career record, but her opposition tomorrow should not be taken lightly. Muguruza shocked me with how well she handled her first major semi yesterday. No one expected her to be here. She was a 66 to 1 longshot to win the title prior to the event, and had just one career Wimbledon match win. Despite that. her power based game can trouble anyone. She is one of few players who can match Serena in that department. Consistency and nerves will be the major questions for the 21 year old Spaniard. She has blasted Serena off the court at a major before, beating her in straight sets at last year’s French Open. Serena will feel the pressure, but that massive serve will bail her out. Muguruza will play well, but I can’t see one of the bigger upsets in recent memory. Prediction: Williams in 2 close sets.

(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (2) Roger Federer- Sunday 9:00 a.m. ET (ESPN)

Head to head- Federer leads 20-19

Roger Federer played his best match in a long long time as he overwhelmed British hope (3) Andy Murray in the semis today. The Swiss master is after his record 8th Wimbledon title. He has dropped serve a grand total of once in the entire tournament. At almost 34 years old, he is as ready as ever to add to his record 18 major titles. Even Novak Djokovic may not able to handle Federer if he plays like he did against Murray. Djokovic has had to battle to get here. Most notable was comeback from 2 sets down against (14) Kevin Anderson in round 4. I expect this to be close, real close. If it is half as good as last year’s final between these two, sports fans everywhere should rejoice. That one was won in 5 sets by Djokovic. I just can’t see the top ranked Serb doing much on return with Federer serving the way he is. Granted today was just today and Sunday is a new day. There will be multiple tiebreaks. I picked Federer to win the first 2 majors of 2015, I was wrong. I did not pick him to win this one… Until now. We’ll see what happens. Prediction: Federer in 5 sets.

Wimbledon 2015 Ladies Semifinal Previews:The Alpha Females and the Outsiders

We are at the business end of Wimbledon 2015. The men’s semis are being determined as I type this. However, tomorrow is about the ladies. We have 2 familiar faces and 2 mild surprises that will compete for a spot in Saturday’s final.

(1) Serena Williams vs. (4) Maria Sharapova- Approx. 10 a.m. on ESPN

You could not wipe the smile off Maria Sharapova’s following her quarterfinal win over American Coco Vandeweghe, but her joy had to be tempered a bit when Serena battled back yet again to book her spot in the last 4. Maria hasn’t beaten Serena in 11 years. Despite stunning Serena to win this title in 2004, the matchup is problematic for Maria. Everything she does well, Serena does better. Serena has finally dialed in her serve these last 2 rounds. Sharapova will have to play the match of her life to get this monkey off her back. She has played Serena tougher in recent months. Three things must happen for her to have a shot. She needs to protect her serve at any cost, make the most of the few looks she will get on Serena’s serve, and use the drop shot to get Serena moving. See an example from the Australian Open final below.

I have only half-jokingly suggested that Sharapova play this match left handed. She has thrown everything else at Serena for the last 11 years, it hasn’t worked. So why not? Underestimate Sharapova at your own risk, she will leave it all on the court. However, she is up against a better player in every way, not to mention a player that is playing for history. Prediction: My head Serena in 2 pretty close sets. My heart says Sharapova in 3 sets. Pay more attention to my head.

(13) Agnieszka (Aga) Radwanska vs. (20) Garbine Muguruza- 8 a.m. on ESPN

Head to head- Tied 2-2

This half of the draw was wrecked by upsets, most notably the 3rd round exit of defending champ Petra Kvitova. That has led to this surprising matchup. It is a contrast in styles. Muguruza is a massive hitter. Radwanska is a player that relies on guile and verity to frustrate her opponents. Radwanska has been here twice before, losing at this stage in 2013 and reaching the final in 2012. Despite having a tough year leading into the grass court season, the Polish Ninja seems to be in good form. Muguruza has struggled on big occasions in her young career. A major semifinal debut is just that. The young Spaniard will have her day in the sun, but not here. Prediction: Radwanska in 2 comfortable sets.

Wimbledon 2015: A Sunday of Rest Leads to a Monday of Madness

We have come upon the traditional middle Sunday off at Wimbledon. Week 1 provided lots of drama and a few shockers including another head scratching loss by (10) Rafael Nadal and the self-destruction of ladies defending champion (2) Petra Kvitova against veteran Serbian counterpuncher (28) Jelena Jankovic. Kvitova was also my pick to win the event. The most dramatic moment of week 1 was the VERY near defeat of (1) Serena Williams by young British speedster Heather Watson. The home town girl was just 2 points away from ending all the “Serena Slam” talk. Serena once again found a way to scrape across the finish line. With no play today, all 16 players still alive in both singles draws will play tomorrow. Here are my top 3 matches to watch tomorrow.

(1) Serena Williams vs. (16) Venus Williams

Head to head- Serena leads 14-11. The match is first on Centre Court tomorrow and will begin at 8 a.m. on ESPN.

I don’t need to hype this one much. They are both 5 time Wimbledon champions. Serena is playing for history, and her big sister is one few people capable of taking it away from her. Their matches are always tough on them. From a tactical standpoint, this match will be all about who lands the first big shot in the rally. The pressure of history almost derailed Serena in Paris, and her last match here. If she comes out tight, I can’t imagine her sister letting her off the hook. Venus is playing with less on line, and may even be in better form. She hasn’t struggled to get here like Serena. This is probably her last go around in terms of a deep run at a major, she will make the most of it. Enjoy this one folks, who knows how many more time we will see this. Prediction: Venus in 2 close sets.

(3) Andy Murray vs. (23) Ivo Karlovic

Head to head- Murray leads 5-0. This will follow the Serena vs. Venus match on Centre Court (ESPN)

Don’t let that head to head fool you, Karlovic has a massive serve that is only accentuated on a grass court. He is a comfortable matchup for no one. His massive serve and ability to collect aces in bunches give him a punchers chance to upset Murray and sending all of Britain off a cliff, but I expect the hometown hope to defend his own serve well and make the most of the few chances he will get on Karlovic’s serve. This will be entertaining if nothing else. Prediction: Murray in 4 sets.

(13) Aga Radwanska vs. (30) Jelena Jankovic

Head to Head- Radwanska leads 4-2- This match is 2nd on Court 3 and will be one of several matches on the outer courts throughout the day on ESPN2.

Upsets have made the ladies draw ridiculously top heavy. The 8 ladies remaining in the top half have a combined total of 34 major titles to their names, the 8 players in the bottom half? Zero major titles. However, this battle of veterans features 2 of the best defensive minded players on the planet. Both have held runner-up trophies at majors before, expect long rallies. Radwanska is fresher and more comfortable on grass. I actually like Radwanska to reach the final from this half. Jankovic has had a nice run, but it come to an end here. Prediction: Radwanska in 2 sets.

You may have figured out from reading this, that TV coverage is unique tomorrow. ESPN will exclusively cover the 3 Centre Court matches starting at 8 a.m. ESPN2 will cover all other courts starting a half hour earlier. Matches on the outer courts will feature Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic, as well as young Americans Coco Vendewehge and Madison Keys. Tomorrow is arguably the best day of the tennis year, tune in or use your DVR to find out why.