You Can Learn an Awful Lot From a “Meaningless” Game

After being in a creative rut for a month, I am back to blogging. However, I have been very active on the blog’s Facebook page and have done a lot of different things. Please take a look and give it a like here: https://www.facebook.com/dylansdosesportsblog/?pnref=story.

My inspiration came from an odd place. The Monday Night Football matchup between hopeless Cleveland and slightly less hopeless Baltimore ended with an improbable game winning blocked field goal returned for a touchdown as time expired by Baltimore’s Will Hill. This “meaningless game” spoke volumes about both franchises.

The Ravens have had issues from day one this year. They had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. In fact, I picked them to win it before the season. However, key injuries and close losses mounted quickly. QB Joe Flacco, WR Steve Smith, LB Terrell Suggs, and RB Justin Forsett have all suffered season ending injuries. Thus, the Ravens are playing with backups and spare parts everywhere, but no one could tell on Monday. Head coach John Harbaugh was joking with the media in pregame and seemed genuinely excited about building a game plan around journeyman backup QB Matt Schaub and rookie 6th round pick RB Buck Allen. To Harbaugh’s credit his team was motivated and played a smart game. They were rewarded with a win. When a team preforms like that when their season is lost already, it is no wonder why John Harbaugh has never missed the playoffs as a NFL head coach. Even though he likely will this year, Harbaugh and the Ravens will no doubt be back.

Then there is Cleveland. It was night that summed up the state of the Browns perfectly. Dropped passes, poor QB play surrounded by drama, and high priced free agent signings sitting on the sidelines ruled the evening. Johnny Manziel losing his starting QB job due to bye week partying helped no one, but he did not commit a mortal sin. This organization needs to find out what they have in the former Texas A&M star, and they refuse to play him. I do not get it. The Browns secondary was carved up by QB who hadn’t thrown a meaningful pass in two years. One more thing remained constant for the Browns Monday night. They found another creative way to lose. So many of Cleveland’s issues are effort related, like dropped passes and penalties. No coach can fix that. However, at 2-9 head coach Mike Pettine is destined to take the fall. So, the Browns will likely continue to play coach and QB carousel as another awful season wraps up. As long as they do, they will go nowhere. They could learn a lot from their opponents Monday night. Since returning the NFL in 1999, the Browns have changed head coaches an average of every 1.2 seasons. No coach in the history of man can turn this mess around in 1.2 seasons. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for Browns fans and they deserve much better. From what I saw, fans took this loss harder than the players and coaches. That may be the most concerning thing of all.

Trick or Treat? NFL Week 8 Preview

Happy Halloween to all! As the World Series rages on, The NFL’s week 8 slate features more “tricks” than “treats”. In my estimation, there are four really interesting games this week. Two are obvious. Let’s take a look.

Bengals (6-0) at Steelers (4-3)- Have the Bengals finally arrived? If they win this game the answer is yes, but Big Ben is back and the Steelers are at full strength for the first time in over a month. This is typically bad news for Cincinnati as the Steelers have won eight of ten meetings this decade. Unlike recent years, this will be a high scoring affair. Big Ben, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown vs. Andy Dalton and his bevy of weapons is enticing. However, the winner here will be the team that gets a late defensive stand. I’ll go with the Steelers until the Bengals show me they can knock off big brother. Even with a loss, Cincinnati would still control the division, but objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear. Pit 28 Cin 24

Packers (6-0) at Broncos (6-0)- Believe it or not, Sunday Night Football really does feature two undefeated teams this week, despite the talking heads on TV and the internet already putting Green Bay in the Super Bowl and writing Denver’s eulogy. If you have read this blog or know me at all, you know where my allegiance lies. The keys to this one are as follows. Denver must find a run game similar to the one they had in Cleveland two weeks ago. It may come from CJ Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, or both, but it has to come from somewhere. They must also rush the passer and continue to get sacks at will. Aaron Rodgers will make this harder than it has been with his lightening quick release. Peyton Manning is actually playing okay. He just needs to cut out the turnovers. My head: GB 31 Den 20. My heart: Den 24 GB 21

Jets (4-2) at Raiders (3-3)-These last two games are fairly cut and dry for me. After playing New England to the wire on the road, the Jets cemented themselves as the most underrated team the league. The Raiders may be the most improved, but this is a mismatch. Young QB Derek Carr was shelled against Denver. That is the only defense he has faced that is anywhere close to the caliber he will see tomorrow. Look for the Jets to run over Oakland behind Chris Ivory. NYJ 31 Oak 13

Panthers (6-0) at Colts (3-4)-The Colts are a mess. 40 year old Matt Hasslebeck has been more effective than golden boy Andrew Luck who still doesn’t look quite right and it’s not 2008 anymore for high priced signings RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson, but they are in first place. This test on Monday night against the hard hitting Panthers led by freakishly talented QB Cam Newton will either bring them together or spark a mutiny. I’ll go with the option B. Car 24 Ind 10.

Mets/Cubs NLCS should give hope to fans everywhere

There is something going on in baseball that is truly amazing. After pulling out a tight game five last night, the Mets will advance to the NLCS to face the Cubs. Think about that… The team that has spent most of its existence as the redheaded stepchild of the mighty Yankees will face the team that has not sniffed a championship in well over a century and whose fans believe the team is cursed for the right to go to the World Series. This will not be longest post I write, but it will be my favorite. I am writing this not as an analyst or predictor, but as a fan. At my core, that is what I am.

Across sports, many franchises either have horrendous overall histories or are currently in really tough 8-15 year stretches. The Raiders, Brewers, Chiefs, Lions, Vikings, Browns, Wizards, Clippers, and Twins all fall under at least one of these two umbrellas. In some cases, both are applicable. The two teams from my hometown can be added to this discussion as well. You have the Bengals, who have never won a Super Bowl and are winless in the playoffs since 1990, and the Reds who have never recaptured their glory days of the 1970s. Despite winning it all in 1990, they have been a below .500 team for most of the last 20 years. They were tantalizingly close to building something special 3 to 5 years ago, but got impatient, blew it up, and are now back to being a grease fire.

The two teams who will play to represent the National League in the World Series fit the description in the last paragraph as well as any two franchises in all sports. I see it all the time. Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, Yankees, and Red Sox fans coming out of the woodwork. My point? If you have spent years rooting for a bad team who breaks your heart time and time again, do not change your colors and move to the front of the line now. Stick it out, because if the Cubs and Mets can play for trip to the World Series, every sports franchise and fan will have their day in the sun. No one knows when, but it will happen. Even the New Orleans Saints whose fans invented the concept of covering their faces with paper bags have won a Super Bowl in the last ten years. So, all sports fans should stick with their teams through thick and thin, because someday your team will be on top. For the record, I like the Cubs to reach the World Series in 6 games.

NFL Early Season Buy, Sell, or Hold

The second quarter of the NFL season got underway Thursday night with the banged up Colts knocking off the Texans for their third straight win. The Texans are finding out the hard way that in the modern NFL, if you do not have a QB, you do not have anything. In this blog, I will be buying, selling, or holding on some storylines from around the league.

The impressive Bengals- We have seen great starts from Cincinnati before that have fallen by the waist side when the weather turns cold. However, this team sure looks different. They are blowing teams out… Good teams. Everyone is contributing and much talked about QB Andy Dalton is not making mistakes. They have not really been hit in the mouth by an opponent yet. Seattle and Buffalo will do just that in these next two weeks. I need to see how they respond to that before judging if this team can finally make a deep playoff run. Verdict: Hold

The Eagles being a mess- At 1-3, Mess is an understatement. Mad scientist/head coach Chip Kelly shipped his starting QB from last year’s playoff team out of town along with the top RB and WR. The replacement are all having their issues. Mainly RB DeMarco Murray. He led the league in rushing as a Cowboy last year, but most QBs have more rushing yards this year. It is not all his fault. Most Eagle runs start out six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Chip Kelly’s ego is killing this team. He is learning the hard way that no matter how good the “system” was/is, if the players do not fit, you are screwed, and they are. QB Sam Bradford seems to be afraid to get hit. After missing the last two years with ACL tears, I do not blame him. Also, no one in the receiving core has distinguished themselves. All this leads to turnovers, making things that much harder on an already mediocre defense. They will play meaningful games into December because the rest of the division is flat out bad or dealing with injuries, but they have too many issues to get out of their own way. Will Chip Kelly survive this? I do not know. Verdict: Buy

Mike Vick keeping the Steelers in it while Big Ben heals- Look, if the Steelers make one of two 4th quarter field goal attempts, Mike Vick and the Steelers beat the Ravens last Thursday. He moved the ball and did not make mistakes. RB Le’veon Bell is any QB’s best friend. I could conceivably see the Steelers running the table for the next month or so until Big Ben gets back. Verdict: Buy

The surprising 3-1 Jets- I have said it for almost two years. The Jets defensive front seven is as good as any team in the league. The return of Darrelle Revis has made the secondary formidable again. Combine that with steady QB play from Ryan Fitzpatrick and a rejuvenated Brandon Marshall catching anything within his reach, a trademark tough running game, and this team is going nowhere. They will not challenge New England for the division, but they will fight with division rival Buffalo for a wildcard down the stretch. Verdict: Buy

The 4-0 Falcons- With weapons like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the offense did not need much work, but new head coach Dan Quinn has this defense playing with its hair on fire. They also found a running game behind a few good young backs. However, division rival Carolina is also playing above its head at 4-0. Despite having two undefeated teams, I cannot see this division sending two teams to the playoffs. The rebuilding process in Atlanta is miles ahead of schedule and they should notch another win against Washington tomorrow, but I think they will be a victim of the numbers game. If I have to pick just one team from the NFC South, I think Carolina is better. Verdict: Sell

Sharapova and Bouchard Search For Answers as Tennis Season Winds Down

Maria-Eugenie-Re

With the tennis world still in shock from Serena Williams failing to complete the Calendar Grand Slam at the hands of Roberta Vinci of all people, the world’s top women start the fall Asian swing in Wuhan, China this week. Serena is missing, but was never supposed to play. Russian icon Maria Sharapova and her Canadian counterpart Eugenie Bouchard were slated to return to the court after long injury layoffs, but neither did. These two feisty competitors and marketing tycoons have each had rough 2015 campaigns since facing off in the Aussie Open quarters in January as pictured above.  The story of each woman is worth a closer look.

For Sharapova, 2015 started as if it was going to be a banner year with a title in Brisbane and a runner up finish to Serena at the Aussie Open. After January though, it was a struggle for Sharapova to merely stay on the court. She withdrew prior to the semis of a small event in Acapulco with a viral illness. She followed that up by losing early at both North American hardcourt events in Indian Wells and Miami. She seemed to be hampered by a leg injury. Her struggles carried over to the clay. She lost her first match in Stuttgart, where she was previously unbeaten. Despite a brief resurgence that included a title in Rome, Sharapova failed to reach the 2nd week in her French Open title defense. The five time major winner grinded through to the Wimbledon semis three weeks later, where she was thumped by Serena. Shortly after Wimbledon, she suffered another leg injury in training. Despite terming the injury as “minor”, Sharapova eventually withdrew from events in Toronto and Cincinnati, as well as the U.S. Open. She finally returned this week in Wuhan, but was forced to retire from her opening match after a fall that injured her wrist. It is unclear when Sharapova will return to the tour. She has pulled out of Beijing next week, which means it may not be until 2016. Clearly, 2015 is a year to forget for Sharapova.

Bouchard broke through in 2014, reaching the semis or better in three of the four majors. She started this year with a solid quarterfinal showing in Australia. What happened after that is a total mystery. She won a grand total of 2 matches from February-mid July. She played a full complement of tournaments too, and was not injured as far as anyone knows. This stretch included first round losses at the French Open and Wimbledon. She enlisted the help of tennis legend Jimmy Connors for the U.S. Open and finally seemed to get back on track, reaching the 4th round. Then, she was hit by a cruel stroke of bad luck. Bouchard fell in the locker room after her mixed doubles match at the Open and sustained a concussion. She was forced to withdraw before her singles quarterfinal and has not played since.

The question on everyone’s mind is can these two megastars get their groove back? Sharapova has earned the benefit of doubt with 35 career titles, including five majors and an Olympic silver medal. I also like that she has not made any radical changes to her game or her coaching team. It is has worked for her for over a decade now. She clearly has the skill set, drive, and right people around her to get back to the top. In her press conference after her retirement this week, she said that she was “extremely frustrated” by all the injuries, but “could not wait to get back out there.” It may not be a straight line for Sharapova, but she will get back to the top. Write her off at your own risk. Bouchard is a tougher call. I think she is capable, but she has never been dealt with this kind of adversity before. She has been through three coaches this year and seems utterly confused as to why she has not won many matches. She needs to hear one consistent voice and stick with that person, even if the results do not come quickly. You do not accomplish what Bouchard did in 2014 without being talented and extremely mentally tough. I think she will get it all back as well, but it may take her a few years. She is still in her early 20s.

I wrote this post because watching incredibly talented athletes like these two struggle when they have is fascinating and their stories show you that it does not matter what you have done in the past in sports, you have to bring it at the highest level every single day. Trust me, Maria is aware of that. Genie is learning this the hard way. However, every athlete must learn at some point. Also, these two are extremely popular and marketable. Having them both off the tour hurts attendance and television ratings. Their faces need to be out front, just like Serena’s, not losing in the first round or on the trainer’s table. Love them or hate them, the sport needs both Maria and Genie back at their best in the worst way. Here is to hoping they get there and do it soon.

NFL Week 2 Preview: The Picture Gets Clearer

Week 1 of the NFL is in the books and the overreactions are abound. Every NFL fan and media member thinks they know everything about everything after 1 week, myself included. However, the reality is the picture comes more into focus each week. So, no one really knows much yet. If they say they do, they are lying. Week 2 got going Thursday with a miraculous victory by the Broncos over Kansas City at Arrowhead. For KC, this will be a tough one to swallow. Denver needed every one of their five turnovers to win. Say what you will about Denver, they have no run game and can’t put together more than two good offensive drives per game, but 2-0 is 2-0. With this win they, find themselves in control of the AFC West yet again. Here is a look at a few other interesting games on the week 2 slate.

Patriots (1-0) at Bills (1-0)-The best game of the week by far. Buffalo thrashed everyone’s AFC Super Bowl favorite Indianapolis last week. The Pats are as steady as ever and Brady and company are out to proof the AFC East is still their turf. The Pats may still win the division, but I love the edge the Bills are playing with on both sides of the ball under new coach Rex Ryan who will have his team convinced this is the Super Bowl. They have also finally found solid QB play from Tyrod Taylor. If the Bills can control the clock and make this a hardnosed game, they have the edge. I say they do. Buf 23 NE 20

Cowboys (1-0) at Eagles (0-1)-Dallas comes into this rivalry game without freakishly talented WR Dez Bryant for the foreseeable future. The Eagles were unable to overcome early mistakes in the season opener. QB Sam Bradford looked comfortable in coach Chip Kelly’s offense. I really just hate the way Kelly’s system takes players on and off the field, particularly RBs. They signed last year’s top rusher DeMarco Murray away from Dallas. When you sign a guy like that, you run him until his legs fall off. Instead. he split time with two other backs and was limited to just 12 touches. By the way, Philly still has no defense. I think Chip Kelly may have outsmarted himself with the makeup of this roster. Look for TE Jason Witten to step up big in Bryant’s absence for the Cowboys. Dal 31 Phi 28

Seattle (0-1) at Green Bay (1-0)-The Seahawks season it at an early tipping point. Safety Kam Chancellor who puts the “boom” in Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary is sitting at home due to a contract dispute. Aaron Rodgers and company are in midseason form. Seattle’s highly touted defense is a toothless tiger without Chancellor. They made Nick Foles look like Kurt Warner. With Rodgers, this will get ugly. Memo to Seattle, if you want a shot at defending your NFC crown… Pay the man. GB 38 Sea 17

Jets (1-0) at Colts (0-1)-The Colts are in trouble. They are exactly what they have been for most of the last 20 years. A really average team in a bad division with a great quarterback. The QB’s name has changed from Manning to Luck. That is about it. The last two are a copy and paste from my last post. I will get them in every Colt related post until they prove me wrong. Meanwhile the Jets have a pass rush that will be in Luck’s face all night. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be solid. Luck will likely be forced into a couple mistakes. I’ll take the seven point underdogs for the upset. NYJ 20 Ind 14

2015 NFL Predictions: Are You Ready For Some Football?

Are you ready for some football? I know I am. It all gets started tonight as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots look to put a controversial off-season behind them against the high-powered Steelers. I like New England tonight. However, instead of picking individual games this week, here are my season preview and predictions. The AFC is up first.

Division winners:

New England- Their division rivals have all gotten much better. However, a full year of Brady and Belichick is good enough for me. They will not have the division wrapped up by Halloween like they typically do, but they will get the job done. The Patriots are as good as any team in sports when it comes to replacing players, but their chances of a Super Bowl repeat are hurt by the loss of both their big physical corners, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency.

Indianapolis- Everyone else likes Indy much more than I do. They are competing with Houston, Tennessee, and Jacksonville for their division. Jacksonville will be better than people think. Despite that, I am fairly certain that if you replaced Colts with Ohio State, the Buckeyes would win this division going away. There is no doubt Andrew Luck is amazing. However, the offensive line is still below average and acquisitions like veteran RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson would have been great in 2008. The current versions of Gore and Johnson are not a significant upgrade over what they had last year. While the defense has some of the best players you have never heard of like CB Vontae Davis and LB Jerrell Freeman, the Colts are exactly what they have been for most of the last 20 years. A really average team in a bad division with a great quarterback. The QB’s name has changed from Manning to Luck. That is about it. Talk of this team doing anything more than winning one playoff game is ridiculous.

Denver- In the interest of full disclosure, for those of you who do not know already, the Broncos are my favorite team and have been since I was about five. Yes, Peyton Manning is 39 and he fell apart at the end of last year, but John Elway has done all he can to give Manning what I feel is the best team he has ever been on. Look for new coach Gary Kubiak to have a much more balanced offense than the pass happy mess that got the Broncos into trouble late last year. I feel C.J. Anderson is the kind of back that will allow the Broncos to play “smash mouth” football when needed and take some pressure off of the aging QB. He also allows Kubiak to have Peyton line up under center more and call a wider variety of run plays. The weapons are still there at receiver and new tight end Owen Daniels should fit nicely. The defense got a great pass rush all last year. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are back. So, that will not change. They will ultimately be judged on what happens in the playoffs, but thoughts of this franchise completely falling off a cliff this year are a major overreaction.

Baltimore- In a conference where all the major contenders have big questions, the Ravens do not. They are well coached and have a solid run game and defense. Also, they have this generation’s best road QB this side of Tom Brady in Joe Flacco. They are the safest bet in the NFL to be around in January.

Wildcards:

Kansas City- Expect this team to still be built around running the ball with Jamaal Charles and short and quick passes that play to Alex Smith’s strengths, but one free agent signing has made this team much more dangerous. Speedy wide receiver Jeremy Macklin will be able to take the top off of defenses and go deep once in a while. No one knows how to use him better than Chiefs coach Andy Reid who also had Macklin in Philly. The defense is about the steadiest you will find in the league. They are a real threat to end Denver’s streak of five straight AFC West titles. Even though I do not see that happening, they are very capable of reaching the playoffs and maybe knocking someone off on the road.

Buffalo- I am tormented by what to do with this team, but I have decided I really believe in Rex Ryan. They have added a ton of talent with Lesean McCoy, Charles Clay, and Percy Harvin. Should these three injury prone ball carriers and pass catchers stay healthy, Buffalo will cause problems for anyone. They have arguably the best defense in the league. All they need is decent, not great quarterback play. Despite the GM saying that they were in “a quarterback purgatory” in training camp, I saw enough good things from former Virginia Tech option quarterback and career NFL back up Tyrod Taylor in the preseason to convince me that Buffalo will make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. My conference champ will be revealed later. Now, on to the NFC.

Division winners:

Seattle- They are the defending conference champs for a reason. Their defense will not be as invincible if defensive back Kam Chancellor’s holdout lingers into the regular season, but they are still plenty good enough to decimate opponents. The human magician that is Russell Wilson is still at the helm of the offense, but make no mistake this offense is still centered around tailback Marshawn Lynch. Combine that with the fact that the Seahawks were able to add a weapon like TE Jimmy Graham and the level of talent on this roster goes from outrageous to unfair.

Dallas- I would argue that the Cowboys were screwed out of a potential trip to the Super Bowl in Green Bay last year. Yes, they lost DeMarco Murray. However, that offensive line is good enough to make any running back at least serviceable. The return of a field general like linebacker Sean Lee on defense cannot be overstated. Also, fans just have to accept that Tony Romo is really good. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are still around. So, Romo will be really good again.

Green Bay- They lost WR Jordy Nelson for the year in the preseason and are average on defense. Only one thing matters though. They have Aaron Rodgers, the other teams in the division do not.

Carolina- Honestly, I have no clue about this division. The Panthers won it last year with a losing record. It could happen again this year. I could see any one of the four teams winning it, even Tampa, but Carolina has the best defense and Cam Newton finished last year really strong.

Wildcards:

NY Giants- Speaking of finishing last year strong, no one did that better than the Giants. They were scoring 30+ points a game over the final month of the season. This will be the first year we get to see Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz healthy and on the same field. That has defensive coordinators everywhere wetting the bed. With the experience and track record of head coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning, they will be a force year and can win on the road in the playoffs.

Arizona- Where would this team have ended up last year with a decent and healthy QB? We will never know. Carson Palmer is back this year and healthy. The Cards are rock solid everywhere and do not beat themselves.

Conference Champs: Baltimore, NY Giants

Super Bowl: Baltimore

U.S. Open 2015: Making Sense of All the Chaos in NYC

As the second week of the U.S. Open gets underway in NYC on this holiday Monday, many intriguing stories have developed. However, Serena Williams and her chase of the Calendar Grand Slam remains THE story. It has taken a turn that if pitched to the most creative writer in Hollywood, even he or she wouldn’t believe.

It is not so much that Serena and her big sister Venus are meeting yet again on one of the biggest stages in the sport, in this case a Grand Slam quarterfinal. It is all the subplots that make this so unbelievable. Mainly the fact the Venus may be the only one left with a real shot at stopping Serena’s race to tennis immortality. Imagine for a moment if the player to deny Serena the Calendar Grand Slam and tying Steffi Graf’s 22 majors is her sister… Awkward. Also, with both well into their 30s now, who knows how many more times we will see these sisters do battle. Serena has had two tough battles to get here, Venus has coasted. Serena took a set and a half to get going in the third round against Bethanie Mattek-Sands. If she comes out flat tomorrow night, she is toast. This really is too close to call. It is always difficult for Serena, Venus, and the fans when they play. However, given what is on the line, this will be torture. I would like to think this is a match no one wants to see, at least from a human perspective. It all happens tomorrow night 7 ET on ESPN2.

On the men’s side most of the usual suspects still have a shot at this title. Federer has looked the best to this point, not dropping a set. Djokovic and Murray have each had minor scares. In fact, Murray is working his way into quite a hole against big serving South African Kevin Anderson as I type this. Defending champ and 9th seed Marin Cilic has done well to reach the last 8, but plays Djokovic next. I see no issues for the top ranked Serb on his way to another U.S. Open final. Federer will likely be the opposition, but powerful American John Isner cannot be taken lightly by the Swiss master tonight. French Open champion Stan Wawrinka and streaky Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga are both still in the draw and have a shot if they can catch lightning in a bottle on the right day.

Other week 1 stories have included the dismissal of seven of the top ten ladies seeds before round three, a shocking third round collapse by 14 time major winner Rafael Nadal, another dramatic and unfortunate turn in the twisted tale of Eugenie Bouchard that will get its own blog post later this week, and a slew of mid match retirements due to heat illness. Happy Labor Day to all and enjoy all the action from NYC as it continues to unfold each day/night on ESPN family of networks.

2015 U.S. Open Ladies Preview: Bright Lights, Big City, and Even Bigger Pressure

As the tennis world descends on New York City for the last major of the year, there really is only one story dominating the headlines. It is Serena Williams and her pursuit of the Calendar Year Grand Slam. She is aiming to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in the same year. She is also bidding to tie Graf’s of 22 career majors. Second-most all-time. What Serena is doing is nothing short of remarkable. She is the overwhelming favorite, but that is why they put the nets up. Here is a look at the draw.

First quarter- Serena may be tested early

I believe the biggest obstacles between Serena and history are most likely to come early in the championship. She is looking at a possible second-round matchup with veteran ball basher Mirijana Lucic-Baroni who can cause problems for anyone on the right day, and a potential round three match with 29 seed Slone Stephens. The young American has beaten Serena before and is one of few players who can hang with Serena from and athleticism standpoint. The high seed in the bottom part of this quarter is (8) Karolina Pliskova. The big server from the Czech Republic has a bright future, but has yet to go beyond round three at major. Even as a high seed something tells me she will get tripped up yet again before closing Serena in the quarters. Swiss upstart (12) Belinda Bencic is also in this section. She is one of just two women to knock off Serena this year. However, she is not happy to see her name near 31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian dismantled Bencic in Washington DC earlier this summer. With Serena coming off a win a week and a half ago in Cincinnati, is impossible to see anyone tripping her up here, but it will not be easy. The key for Serena is going to be staying relaxed.

Also here: 19 seeded American Madison Keys. Serena’s big sister Venus seeded 23, and 15 seed Aga Radwanska.

Semifinalist: S. Williams (d. Pavlyuchenkova. In QFs).

Second Quarter- The Return of Maria… or not

Third-seeded Russian glamour girl Maria Sharapova was due back from a mysterious leg injury that has kept her off court since Wimbledon, but she has just withdrawn less than a day before the event begins. With its highest seed gone, this part of the draw is WIDE open. 17th seeded young gun Elina Svitolina is my choice to take advantage. Tennis fans will get the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the talented Ukrainian. Sharapova’s scheduled first round opponent unseeded Daria Gavrilova now has a shot to make noise, along with American Lauren Davis.

The bottom part of this section is headed by 7 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. She’s joined by her compatriot 21st Jelena Jankovic. The winner of their possible fourth-round match becomes the favorite to oppose Serena in the semis. Both have given Serena issues in the past. Ivanovic has the power to hit with Serena, and Jankovic the defensive capabilities to frustrate her.

Also here: Struggling 10 seed Carla Suarez Navarro who has not won a match since the French Open. There is also slumping Canadian 26 seed Eugenie Bouchard. Her struggles are well-documented on this blog and any other sports media outlet can think of. She has enlisted the help of American tennis legend Jimmy Connors for this tournament. I sincerely hope she can do something here that she can build on.

Semifinalist- Ivanovic (d. Svitolina in QFs)

Bottom half- Full of opportunity

I mean no disrespect to the players in this part of the draw. However, all of the big names are on the other side. So, instead of breaking down two quarters, I am just lumping it into one big half.

A case can be made for many in this half of the draw. I lean towards 4th seeded Dane Caroline Wozniacki. The best defensive player in the world always plays well here, and despite not winning a match in Canada or Cincy, she looked pretty good this past week and reached the semis in New Haven, CT. 5th seeded Petra Kvitova is a threat, but she is streaky, battling Mono, and has never gone beyond round 4 here. Names like 18th seeded Andrea Petkovic of Germany and 22nd seed Sam Stosur of Australia are well positioned here. Stosur was the champion here in 2011.

The bottom part of this section is about names for me (2) Simona Halep, (11) Angie Kerber, and (20) Victoria Azarenka. Halep has a very balanced game and is a great mover. She collected runner up trophies in Canada and Cincy, but has been overpowered at majors this year. Kerber is a gritty left hander who gets better the longer matches go. She may face Azarenka in round 3. Azarenka is the only one who can regularly test Serena when she is in good form and healthy. However, she has been neither for a year now. Azarenka’s issues took a strange turn when she retired from her last match in Cincy leading by a set and 3-0 with no clear sign of an injury.

Round 1 Upset Alert in this section- Witthoft over (9) Muguruza

Coverage begins at 11 a.m. tomorrow at 11 a.m. on ESPN3 and TV coverage starts at 1 on ESPN2. The ESPN family of media outlets will have exclusive all day and night coverage throughout the event. Here are my full picks for the late rounds.

QFs:

S.Williams d. Pavlyuchenkova.

Ivanovic d. Svitolina

Wozniacki d. Petkovic

Kerber d. Halep

SFs:

S.Williams d. Ivanovic

Wozniacki d. Kerber

Final: In a rematch of last year S. Williams d. Wozniacki

Why Cincinnati’s Western and Southern Open Tennis Event is Awesome

Well folks, my favorite week of the year has arrived. The world’s best tennis players have gathered in Cincinnati for the Western and Southern Open. It is the last major stop before the year’s fourth and final major, U.S. Open begins in two weeks. I spent the weekend at the tennis center watching the qualifying rounds. Here are some reasons why every Cincinnati native should make an effort to attend or at least follow the event.

History- Believe it or not Cincinnati is proud owner of the longest running tennis tournament in the world still held in its original city. Cincinnati has played host to world-class tennis since 1899.

You do not have to break the bank to enjoy yourself- Tickets for individual sessions are fairly well priced. While most sessions still have tickets available for both day and night matches, they are going fast. The alternative to this is a wonderful little thing called a grounds pass. A certain number of grounds pass are set aside for each day. A grounds gives you access to everywhere on tournament grounds except center court for $10.

Something for everyone- Not a tennis fanatic? No problem. The tournament features live music every day, and eclectic mix of options in the food court, and a full-service bar. The food court is incredible this year. It has everything from Skyline Chili to fish tacos to chicken and waffles.

The best of the best are here- Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Murray, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Azarenka are all in town this week. In fact 48 of the top 50 men and women have come to reach for glory this year. If this player field does not get you excited, nothing will.

Catch Serena as she chases history- Serena Williams’ last stop before attempting to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in the same year is right here in Cincinnati. Seeing this phenomenal athlete before she goes to New York City to chase tennis immortality is a very unique opportunity that all sports enthusiasts should not pass up. This week also marks the second to last pro tournament in the career of a man who spent much of his career as the top-ranked American in the world, Mardy Fish. Fish has dealt with a litany of physical issues over the last four years, limiting him to just a handful of matches Thus, the former world number seven has decided to call it quits after the U.S. Open. Fish is very well respected on tour and a two-time runner-up here. If you want to catch his Cincinnati swan song, I suggest you hurry. If he wins his first round match, Andy Murray awaits.

What to expect on the court this year- Roger Federer and Serena Williams are the defending singles champions. They both are certainly in the conversation to repeat. For Federer it would be Cincy title number 7. Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray will all have something to say about that. Murray won in Canada over Djokovic last week and Federer and Nadal could meet in the quarters. If you are looking for an outsider to make a run, keep an eye on big serving Canadian 9 seed Milos Raonic. I lean ever so slightly towards Murray this week. However, Djokovic surprisingly has never won here and will be hungry. Also, Federer will be fresh having skipped Canada last week.

For the women, Serena is the favorite. However, she is coming off just her second loss on the year to Swiss upstart Belinda Bencic in the Toronto semis. She seemed to be bothered by an arm injury, but she and her camp are not saying much. Maria Sharapova always plays well in Cincy. I would like to think that has something to do with the fact that I am usually in the stands. The Russian ice queen also has and health questions. She is making her first appearance since Wimbledon after straining her leg in practice. Like Serena, she and her camp are being stingy. After watching her practice Saturday, she seems ready to go to me, but no one really knows. Given the health questions surrounding the two biggest stars in the sport, we could see a surprise name holding the trophy. I will look at 6th seed Ana Ivanovic, unseeded former top ranked Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, or maybe even talented young American Slone Stephens.

I hope the city will back this amazing event like it does every year. Like I said, tickets are going fast, but do not forget about grounds passes. The men’s matches begin each day starting at 11 A.M. on Tennis Channel. Unfortunately, the ladies matches are not televised until Thursday. ESPN3.com will have extensive coverage of all courts from the start of main draw play (today) to the end of the tournament. The ESPN family of networks will share coverage with the Tennis Channel beginning Thursday. ESPN/ESPN2 will have exclusive live coverage of semifinal and finals on Saturday and Sunday. Night session matches typically begin at 7 PM. I will be spending a lot of time at the tennis center is this week, but will blog as much as I can.