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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1I08YMUBVoI

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.

Wimbledon 2015 Gentlemen’s Preview: Time to Kick Some Grass

Wimbledon is now under 24 hours away. The gentleman’s singles draw is out, and much like in Paris, it is unbalanced. There is one big name with a great draw, and I believe he needed just that to make a deep run here.

Top half- Djokovic catches a break

The disappointment felt by world number 1 and defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic after being denied his career Grand Slam in Paris was obvious to everyone watching. By his own admission, Djokovic did not leave his apartment for a week after his loss in the final. I had been expecting the disappointment to carry over into Wimbledon, but after seeing the draw, I think the Serbian ironman will be fine. His 3 chief rivals (2) Roger Federer, (3) Andy Murray, and (10) Rafael Nadal are all in the other half, meaning he cannot face them until the final.

There are a few dangerous players in this half that the top ranked Serb may have to deal with. Most notable is the man who shocked him in the finals of the French Open (4) Stan Wawrinka. However, the powerful Swiss has never been that comfortable on grass, and would not oppose Djokovic until the semis. The most realistic threat is (15) seed Kevin Anderson in the 4th round. The big serving South African is capable of hitting 30+ aces in a match, which makes it tough for any opponent. If the racquet is taken out of your hands, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Speaking of big serves, (7) Milos Raonic is back after missing the French Open due to minor foot surgery. He reached the semis here last year, and is well-positioned to do so again. Despite the injury, he is confident and reportedly practicing well. All of his massive shots are made more massive by the grass courts.

Another story here is the Wimbledon farewell of former world number 1 and 2 time major champion Lleyton Hewitt. The likable Aussie was a winner here in 2002. The 34-year-old step away from the game in early 2016. He is one of the most beloved players worldwide, but will need to turn back the clock to get beyond a possible 2nd round meeting with Djokovic. I think everyone is hoping for Hewitt to catch lightning in a bottle, but it isn’t likely. His backwards hat and trademark “come on!” after winning big point will be missed. There is also (5) Kei Nishikori in this half. The Japanese counterpuncher is talented, but battling a litany of injuries.

Americans here with a chance to make noise- Steve Johnson, Donald Young, and (17) John Isner.

Semifinal prediction: Djokovic d. Raonic

Bottom half- The legend and the homegrown favorite on a collision course

If form holds in this half, it will be (3) Andy Murray vs. (2) Roger Federer in the semis. At 33, even Federer would admit that Wimbledon is his best chance to his record 17 majors. His aggressive net game and precise serve are perfect for this surface. He was a few shots away from notching an 8th title here last year. Murray grew up on the grass and ended 70+ years of British futility of Wimbledon with his victory here in 2013. Murray is healthy and married now, 2 big changes from this time last year. He has handled the pressure of playing at home remarkably well in the past, I expect this year to be no different. His return game and movement are his big weapons.

I mention (10) Rafael Nadal here more out of respect than reality. He has been dethroned in Paris and despite winning a grass court tune up in Germany is clearly still searching for answers. The left hander’s groundstrokes are landing alarmingly short in the court right now. His draw is really kind, and was made kinder by the withdraw of (8) David Ferrer due to an elbow injury. I think he can reach the quarters here, but no further.

I think the biggest threat to the Federer/Murray showdown is (6) Thomas Berdych. The former Wimbledon finalist has a really solid year and could await Federer in the quarters. They have had great battles in the past. If Berdych gets hot, he can blast Federer off the court, but I don’t see it. T.V. coverage begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. on ESPN, which is the ONLY place for LIVE coverage of the event. Enjoy it folks.

Possible sleeper in bottom half- Unseeded American Sam Querrey

Semifinal prediction- Murray d. Federer

Final- Murray d. Djokovic

Wimbledon 2015 Ladiies Preview: Competition or Coronation?

There really is only one story going in to the ladies singles event at Wimbledon. It is Serena Williams and her quest for her 2nd career “Serena Slam.” Wimbledon is the only major title she does not hold at the moment. As always, she is the favorite. However, she will have her work cut out for her. It has only been three weeks since her French Open triumph. As I begin to reveal my predictions, I will tell you all right now that I am either crazy like a fox or just plain crazy.

Top half- Familiar foes and dangerous floaters for Serena

This is by far the tougher half. Serena is joined by 3 former world number ones and multi time grand slam champions. More specifically, 4th seed Maria Sharapova, (23) Victoria Azarenka, and her big sister (16) Venus Williams. Venus is a five-time Wimbledon champion in her own right and the one name Serena did not want to see anywhere near her own. They will play in round 4 if form holds. Playing her sister is always tough on Serena not only from a tennis standpoint, but also an emotional one. We have seen the Williams sisters play each other countless times, often times the winner comes out flat the next day. Despite their mastery of big hitting grass court tennis, I think playing each other so early will be a death nail for both their chances.

Has it really been 11 years since a baby faced 17 year old named Maria Sharapova won this title? She has struggled here since that magical run, only going beyond the quarterfinals once since 2007. This year, she has had some extra time to prepare by virtue of her early French Open exit. The early rounds will tell the story for the fiery Russian. If she doesn’t mess around, she has a shot to go deep again. She could potentially face her kryptonite Serena Williams in the semis. As for (23) Victoria Azarenka, it is nice to see her back playing at a decent level after dealing with injuries for the last year or so. She will pull a minor upset to reach the 4th round, but her seeding will prevent her from going further.

In this half, there is one first-round match that I think will decide a lot, (30) Belinda Bencic vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. Bencic is a teenager with lots of talent and Pironkova is a veteran who possesses big shots, but also can put wicked slice on all of them. They stay nice and low on grass. She is among the top 10 players in the world on the surface. She has had more than one deep run here in the not-too-distant past. I like the winner of this match to get all the way to the semis and upset Serena in the quarterfinals. It is a coin flip, but Bencic could suffer a letdown after winning her first title at a smaller event this morning, I’ll take Pironkova. I may be the only person in the world predicting an unseeded semifinalist. This match will be played Monday.

Other seeds here worth noting: (7) Ana Ivanovic, (11) Karolina Pliskova, and (6) Lucie Safarova who I think is in first round danger against American grass court specialist Allison Riske.

Semifinal prediction: Sharapova d. Pironkova

Bottom half- Wide Open

The big name seeds in this half all have questions. Defending champ (2) Petra Kvitova is the closest thing to a safe bet, but she struggled in Paris with an illness that is still bothering her. Even so, it’s hard to pass up her raw power and ability. She is a two-time Wimbledon champion, capable of making it three. For (3) Simona Halep, she is still stinging from her 2nd round French Open exit. She can get overpowered on grass very easily. She has made a coaching change the week before a major, which is unheard of. She is lost at sea and searching for answers. I don’t expect her to find them here. Last year’s finalist Canadian (12) Eugenie Bouchard is rail thin and has lost 10 of her last 12 matches. She will fight hard, but it is difficult to have much faith in her right now. The door is wide open for former finalist (18) Sabine Lisicki to make that kind of run again. She broke the record for aces by a female in a match last week with 27. She has a love affair with these courts and will be a tough out for anyone. Also here is 2012 finalist (14) Aga Radwanska who possesses the variety and movement to frustrate any opponent on any surface, but particularly this one. Her projected 4th round match with Kvitova will go a long way towards deciding the finalist from this half.

Other seeds: (15) Timea Bacsinszky- The hotel worker turned French Open semifinalist has a dangerous first round against hot and cold German Julia Gorges. She is joined by (8) Ekaterina Makarova- The Russian lefty is having a breakout year. Speaking of breakouts, 21st seeded American Madison Keys has yet to really back up her semifinal round in Australia. She should stick around for at least a few rounds here.

Semifinal prediction: Kvitova d. Lisicki

Final: Kvitova d. Sharapova

Traditions of Wimbledon

The toughest stretch of the tennis calendar ramps up again on Monday with the start of this season’s 3rd major, Wimbledon. It is known for being steeped in tradition like no other sporting event on earth. Here are just a few of the many Wimbledon traditions that make the event the biggest in the sport. I hope this knowledge will enhance your viewing of The Championships.

All white everything- This tradition is fairly straightforward. The tournament venue, The All England Club strictly enforces an all-white dress code. No one knows just where this tradition started, but it is been around since the 1800s. Former rebel child and American legend Andre Agassi once said the early 90s that the dress code was “stupid” and that he would where jean shorts to Wimbledon. The club said that he would not be allowed to play, Agassi backed down and went all white. He eventually won the event in 1992. The dress code was briefly lifted in 2012 for the London Olympics in which players were allowed to where the colors of their countries.

Naming of courts- All of the main courts at the other 3 majors are named after former players. Not at Wimbledon. The main court is Centre Court, the next court is Court 1, and so on. This tradition has also been around since the 1800s and is going nowhere. The club feels naming courts after players’ borders on advertising. There is zero commercial advertising on the grounds of Wimbledon, unless it is for the venue or event itself. I cannot tell you how much I love this tradition. It is a fantastic change of pace from the overly corporate world we live in. For these two weeks, is all about tennis, as it should be.

No play on the middle Sunday- The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens are all held in massive metropolitan cities. Wimbledon is held in a village. So every year, six days after the tournament begins, it stops for a day to allow small village and its residents to attend church and catch their breath without a single tennis ball being struck. The men’s final is traditionally played on Sunday, but that is the only Sunday play there is at Wimbledon each year. Even if weather forces the tournament behind schedule, there will be no play on the middle Sunday. This tradition can be kind of a buzz kill, but is highly practical.

Defending champs first up- Every year, the reigning gentleman’s singles champion opens up playing the first match on the first day of the event on Centre Court. The reigning ladies singles champion is given the same honor on day 2. This is a nice feather in the cap of the previous year’s winner. This year, the honor will belong to top ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day 1. and second ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic on day 2.

Rain early and often- Ok, so this one isn’t exactly a tradition in the prototypical sense. However, rain is a part of any United Kingdom summer, and Wimbledon is not spared. Every year, fans can pretty much bank on at least one rain soaked day, and usually more. By now, everyone has a good sense of humor about it. Watching the players hustle off the court and almost get run over by ground crew as they race to get the covers on has almost become part of the fun. The days of total washouts ended in 2009 with the addition of a roof over Centre Court. So, those matches are sure to be played every day. However, when you consider the frequency of rain in the area and how quickly the grass surface can become slick and dangerous, nothing else is guaranteed.

Some may call these traditions unnecessary or overly particular, I call them refreshing and a crucial part of what makes Wimbledon so special. I hope you now feel a bit more knowledgeable about the most prestigious event in tennis before it begins on Monday. The ESPN family of networks will have exclusive live coverage from first ball to last. Coverage will start at 7 AM for the first several days of the tournament. My previews are coming tomorrow and Sunday.

French Open 2015: Finals Wrap Up and an Eye Towards the Grass

The 2015 French Open ended a little over a week ago. Both finals had a healthy dose of drama in their own way. Here is some historical perspective on each champions’ victory.

Stan the spoiler- Once Novak Djokovic dismantled Rafael Nadal in the QFs at the event the Spanish left-hander had previously owned to the tune of 9 titles. Most people assumed that this would be the year Djokovic would finally capture the French Open title that had eluded him so many times and complete his career Grand Slam. However, Stan Wawrinka had other ideas. The Swiss former Australian Open champion tallied just a 6-4 clay court record leading into Roland Garros, but something clicked when got to Paris. It is no secret that Wawrinka has huge weapons that translate well on any surface. He really started to believe after bashing his countrymen and occasional doubles partner Roger Federer in straight sets in the QFs. Despite only 7 spots separating Wawrinka from the top-ranked Serbian, he was a decided underdog against Djokovic in the final. The 8th seed was unfazed, winning in 4 sets, 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4. Despite a slow start, Wawrinka was able to begin dictating with his gorgeous one-handed backhand, one of the finest shots on the planet. By the last few games, the underdog was in “the zone” blasting winners from everywhere. Djokovic wasn’t done any favors by having to play his semifinal over 2 days, but you play the cards your dealt. This was truly about Wawrinka playing the match of his life. As far as Djokovic is concerned, if he cannot seal the deal after taking out his chief rival, it is fair to ask if he will ever have his day in the Paris sun.

 

Serena stumbles, but gets number 20- Serena Williams notched her 20th major winning in 3 sets 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2 over 13th seed Lucie Safarova, but the score line does not even begin to tell the story. Serena had battled an illness and had several near misses leading into the final. Early on, it looked like there would be no such drama. The American smashed her way to a 6-3 4-1 lead. Then the American self-destructed, spraying double faults and errors everywhere. It look like the moment was eating her alive. The surprise left-handed finalist from the Czech Republic sensed her chance and began to loosen up. She was able to steal the second set in a tiebreak and even went up a break of serve in the 3rd set. A lesser player would have folded like a cheap tent, Serena rose to the occasion. She was able to find that same gear that got her through 4 other 3 set matches in the French capital. This victory is as impressive as any of Serena’s previous 19 majors, simply because she was far from her best and simply refuse to lose. She is now just 2 majors shy of Steffi Graf’s modern era record. Even at 33 years of age, there seems to be nothing that can stop Serena from this record. For Safarova, a doubles title and a single runner-up trophy will serve as mementos of a dream tournament. She is now a member of the world’s top 10. It will be interesting to see how she handles the expectations that come with that.

Looking ahead to the grass- Believe it or not, Wimbledon begins a week from Monday and grass court tune up events are in full swing, Rafael Nadal bounced back to form with a title in Germany last week. Even so, on the men’s side it is hard to say who the favorite heading in to Wimbledon is. I’d expect a letdown from Djokovic. He put so much into winning the French. For the ladies, it is all about Serena, if she can win Wimbledon for a 6th time, she will be the current title holder at all 4 majors, A feat not accomplished since Serena herself did it in 2003, it was dubbed “The Serena Slam.” Given what the French took out of her, the quick turnaround, and the quality and depth of the field these days, I’d bet against it. Don’t ask me who will beat her or how until the draw comes out.

Finals weekend at the French Open 2015: Illness, Trophies, and Confusion

The final weekend of the French Open is upon us. However, a significant wrench has been thrown in to things from a scheduling standpoint. The two players in tomorrow’s ladies final match have no clue when they will take the court, and here’s why.

The 2nd men’s singles semifinal between (1) Novak Djokovic and (3) Andy Murray will resume tomorrow at 7 a.m. ET with Djokovic leading 6-3 6-3 5-7 3-3. A 3 hour 32 minute first semifinal, the threat of bad weather, and the lack of a roof and/or lights at the French Open led to this unenviable position. Djokovic shocked everyone with the way he dismantled 9 time French Open champ Rafael Nadal in quarterfinals on Wednesday. He continued that other worldly level of play through the first two sets against Murray. However, the Brit did a great job of digging in and turned the match around with more aggressive returns. He managed to steal the third set and stay level in the fourth before play was halted. The feat is especially impressive when you consider that once he dropped the first 2 sets, Murray had to know that if he was able to turn the match around, they would have to finish tomorrow. If you are familiar with tennis scoring, you know that this match was stopped at a point where it could take 10 minutes to finish, or 2 hours. This strikes me as the kind of match that Djokovic wraps up quickly tomorrow, or Murray turns in to an epic battle. You have to wonder how much Djokovic has left in the emotional tank. Between what he was able to pull off Wednesday and playing for the career Grand Slam, (this is the only major he has not won) it is a fair question to ask.

One man who hopes this match turns in to a long battle is the big hitting Swiss man (8) Stan Wawrinka who is through the final after a 4 set win today. He has found his game out of nowhere after a so-so lead up to the French Open. His most impressive scalp of the week by far was a straight sets win over his friend and countryman Roger Federer, who was also my pick to win the event. Wawrinka will be an underdog in Sunday’s final, no matter who he faces, but should not be taken lightly at all. While the Swiss finalist hopes for a long battle in the other men’s semi, the participants in tomorrow’s ladies final hope for the exact opposite. They will not take the court until the men’s match finishes. Here’s a look at the final.

(1) Serena Williams vs. (13) Lucie Safarova

Head to head- Williams leads 8-0

The match will begin on NBC when the men’s match concludes. The network that will carry the conclusion of the Murray/Djokovic match is NBC Sports Network.

These two ladies are in completely different spots in their careers. This is Serena’s 24th major final and she is chasing her 20th major. Safarova, despite being a veteran, is in her first career major final. Moreover, they have had vastly different but equally surprising paths to this championship match. Safarova is in the midst of a dream week. She has not dropped a set on her way to this stage. Her road to the final includes upset wins over grand slam champions (2) Maria Sharapova and (7) Ana Ivanovic. Additionally, the Czech is in the women’s doubles final with American Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Safarova has gotten here by being precise in the area of locating her lefty serve and controlling points with her big forehand. She will need to do a lot more of this to have a chance at shocking Serena.

Serena has dropped the first set a mind-boggling 4 times in 6 matches at this tournament. She has looked sluggish and downright disinterested at times. However, each time, she has been able to flip the proverbial switch in a nick of time and find that level no other woman can match. In the later rounds, the big serving American has had to deal with a flulike illness that is claimed several players this week, including Sharapova and 4 seed Petra Kvitova. She had to be helped off the court after her semifinal win. The illness remained severe enough that Williams canceled her pre final practice today. If Serena can finish the job, this will be among the more impressive of her grand slam victories, simply because nothing has come easy. Safarova is helped by a few things here. She has spent much less time on court this week than Serena, even when you add in her doubles, she is the healthier of the two, and she is a lefty. There aren’t many lefties around at the moment. Sometimes it takes players a while to adjust. Does the underdog have a chance? Absolutely. Am I gutsy enough to call it? No way.

Prediction: Williams in 3 sets