Archive for July, 2018

Wonder Gadot: History or Glory?

July 27, 2018

by John Furgele (The Nostalgic 228)

For the second time this year, a Triple Crown is on the line!   That’s right! We already saw Justify take Triple Crown honors when he captured the Belmont Stakes way back in June.  Now, Wonder Gadot has a chance to capture the Canadian Triple Crown.

The filly seems to be hitting her form at the right time.  She had not yet won a race this year when she ran against the boys in the 159th Queen’s Plate, Canada’s biggest race.  She breezed there and then, on Tuesday, she captured the second leg when she cruised through the slop to win the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie.

The Canadian Triple Crown is similar and different than the American version.  The Queen’s Plate, like the Kentucky Derby is run at 1 1/4 miles.  The Prince of Wales, like the Preakness is contested at 1 3/16 miles and the Breeders Stakes, like the Belmont is 1 1/2 miles.

The difference is the racing surfaces.  The Plate is run on tapeta, a synthetic surface that many US tracks tried before changing back to dirt.  The Prince of Wales is run on the traditional dirt and the Breeders Stakes is on the turf.  Both the Plate and the Breeders Stakes are run at Woodbine.

In most cases, the natural move would be to run Wonder Gadot in the Breeders, but both the owner and trainer have said all along that they were going to use the Prince of Wales to prepare for the Grade 1 Alabama States which will be run on Saturday, August 17 at Saratoga.  The $600,000 race is run on dirt at 1 1/4 miles, a distance rarely contested in  filly-only races.  And, we know Wonder Gadot can handle it based on her dominant performance in the Plate.

What do we root for here?  Trainer Mark Casse wants this talented filly to earn Filly of the Year honors, but to do that, he knows that she has to impress in the States and would likely have to beat Monomoy Girl in the Breeders Cup Distaff.

A win in the Alabama would set the stage.  Monomoy Girl recently dominated four others in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but it looks like she will skip the Alabama for the Cotillion at Parx in mid-September.

For Wonder Gadot to earn Filly of the Year, she has to win the Alabama, hope Monomoy Girl falters in the Cotillion and then has to beat her in the Distaff.  To me, the odds of that happening are not good–not good at all.

The Alabama certainly has more sex appeal than the Breeders.  The race is at Saratoga, will be televised by NBC and will have over 40,000 fans in attendance.  If she wins, the NBC crew of Laffit Pincay III, Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey will fawn over her and assess her potential against Monomoy Girl–and the others–in the Distaff.  The advantages are many for this excellent filly.

But, there is another side, a historical side.  Maybe because I majored in history, I lean towards historical events and traditions.  How many Triple Crown winners are there?  The answer–not many.  We know that there have been 13 in the United States and even though we have seen two in three years, it is still an amazing and rare feat.

North of the border, there have been 12 winners; the last being Wando in 2003. Of course, a Canadian Triple Crown winner will not get the attention that a Justify or American Pharoah did, but still, when the history is written, those 12, 13, 14, or 20 horses will be cited forever.  That should count for something.

Wonder Gadot would also have to start training on turf for the August 17 race.  While some may fret at that, I do not.  Horses are great animals; they can adapt and adapt quickly and I have no doubt that this filly could run and win on grass.

Casse may use this as a reason for shipping to Saratoga and running the Alabama and as the trainer, he is far more qualified to know what’s best for his horse.  The Alabama offers more money and allows her to run against the best fillies in North America.

The Breeders Stakes is a restricted race.  Only Canadian bred horses can enter and even though she will face the boys again, she has already toyed with and beaten them twice. We all know that where a horse is born is irrelevant when it comes to quality, but still, most believe that Canadian horses are not as good as those bred in the USA.  Maybe if more of them tackled the American classics we would feel differently.  Northern Dancer was pretty good, right?

She would be a prohibitive favorite and if she loses, it certainly would knock a few petals off her rose.  She could still run in the Distaff, but her chances of capturing Filly of the Year would be over.

The signs say Alabama, but to me, I think history should be tackled and the Breeders should be next.  If she wins there, it will be expected, but it would cement her as a Triple Crown champion; one of just 26 in North America thoroughbred racing.

 

 

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In Tennis, Championship Anxiety is Real

July 18, 2018

by John Furgele (The Dejected 228)

It happens every time. The upstart pulls some upsets, plays an epic match and reaches a Grand Slam final.

Then……wilts.

Now, before you go crazy, let’s give kudos to Kevin Anderson.  He played six great matches, beat the King of Grass, Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, survived a 50-game final set marathon against John Isner in the semifinals before bowing to the now 13-time major champion Novak Djokovic.  He certainly has nothing to hang his head over.

But, we see this all the time in tennis.  The upstart gets to the final and then gets boat raced.  Yes, Anderson had plenty of opportunities to win the third set, but he didn’t and sure, he had to be exhausted after his match on Friday.  Anybody who works out knows that you feel better the day after the major exertion.   Two days later is when the stiffness really sets in.  That said, Djokovic had less recovery time after his 5-hour plus semifinal win over Rafa Nadal that finished on Saturday.

How many times have we seen a Miloslav Mecir, a Cedric Pioline or a Mal Washington play brilliant tennis through the semifinals only to get creamed in the final?  Look, we know that these unheralded guys aren’t supposed to beat the Lendls, Federers, Djokovics and Nadals of the world, but when you see them play so well for six matches and then so mediocre in the final, it makes you sad.

Bjorn Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976-1980.  He was tested in all five matches; twice by Jimmy Connors and once each by John McEnroe and Illie Nastase.  In 1979, he played the semi-unheralded Roscoe Tanner—that match went five sets.  In the end, Tanner lost, but he scared the bejesus out of the guy who had won three straight times.

Why does this happen?  Most would say nerves; I say anxiety.  The anxiety of being so close to winning a major championship overwhelms guys like Anderson, Pioline and Mecir.

Mecir might take the cake.  En route to the 1986 final, he beat some great players and then in the final against Lendl, he lost 6-4, 6-2 and then 6-0.  That really shouldn’t happen in a final.  Why?  Because players like Mecir played—and won—six matches prior to reaching the championship match.  For six matches, momentum is gathered and then in the ultimate match, the player shrivels up like a prune.

Anderson had anxiety for sets one and two and it showed as he was throttled 6-2, 6-2.  In the third, figuring he had no chance to win, he relaxed and truth be told, should have won the set.  He squandered numerous break chances against the superior Djokovic.  If Anderson wins the third set, who knows what happens, but “championship anxiety,” entered the psyche and before you could blink—game, set and championship to The Joker.

Fans love to root for the underdog.  But, the savvy fans don’t do this.  If you have a final four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and say Sam Querrey, the last thing the fan wants is Querrey in the final.  If he wins his semi, the fans, commentators and writers will use words like courageous and gritty, but that same courage and grit turns mushy in the final.

The fans would rather see a Djokovic-Nadal final because they know that there will be no anxiety between the two combatants in that title match.  This year, once there was Isner and Anderson in one semi, most fans knew that the real championship match was the Nadal-Djokovic semifinal.

Many will give Anderson a pass because he had to play a 6 hour 36 minute semi against Isner.  I am not one of them.  As endless and draining as that match was, the points were not very long as the match was dominated by serving.  And, let’s not forget that Nadal and Djokovic played over 5 hours—albeit over two days—in their semifinal.  Not only were they out there for a long time, there were more rallies than the power semi that preceded them.  Anderson didn’t lose because of fatigue; he lost because of that championship anxiety.

Anderson seems to be a likeable guy and has a very solid game.  He serves well, has a good forehand and battles.  Like Isner, his return of serve is suspect, but he has reached two Grand Slam finals and has lost them both.  In the 2017 US Open final, he was routed by Nadal in three sets. Nadal played well, but Anderson was far from sharp.

Unfortunately, Anderson has twice suffered from championship anxiety, but he is not alone.  It has happened to many players over the years and the next time an upstart reaches a slam final, it is likely to happen again.

There’s a reason why three guys—Federer, Nadal and Djokovic— have 60 Grand Slam titles between them.  Sure, they beat each other, but when they face guys like Anderson, Berdych, Gonzalez and Baghdatis, they make quick work of them because they’re great and because the other guys have that anxiety.  There are a couple of guys in Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka that seem to keep their anxiety in check.  That is evidenced by both men having three Grand Slam titles.  Let”s chew on that stat:  66 titles split between five guys.

Upsets are great along the way.  Most sports fans like to see them when watching, but be careful.  Once we get into the deep end of the pool, the anxiety too often rears its ugly head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Tennis to Make a Change

July 14, 2018

Playing on and on is no longer sexy or fair to all involved.

by John Furgele (The Tired from Watching 228)

The world is pressed for time.  More than ever.  Of course, we created this monster.  We used to take our time, we used to relax.  Remember the Country Time Lemonade commercials?  They used to show people sitting on their porches drinking the tart, lemony taste of Country Time, a lemonade that you had to scoop into a pitcher and fill with water.  No longer is there time for that.  Today, we go to the convenience store and buy a bottle that is already prepared for us and gulp it down in the checkout line or in our vehicle.

There was a time when you called your insurance agent, sat down with him/her and discussed options.  Today, you call Geico and in 15 minutes, you just might save 15 percent –or more—on car insurance.

We are addicted to our phones, struggle to pay attention to our loved ones when they’re talking and for the most part, feel rushed every minute of every day.

In sports, we have seen baseball fall off.  The game has always been slow, but today, it is slower than ever; so slow that talk show hosts—people who are paid to watch and talk sports—don’t watch the games.  If you listen to national sports talk, there is nary a mention of what used to be the national pastime.  That’s because, simply, the hosts are not watching.

We like football because the action is sporadic.  It comes in quick and short bursts, but it comes.  There’s a play, then a break, a play and then a break.  We can program ourselves for it.  It plays to our very short and small attention spans.  Because of this, we love football, the new national pastime.  And, football is not immune to the struggles of the American person.  Ratings dipped in 2017 for many reasons—players kneeling, Trump criticism, sloppy play, poor officiating and yes—games that went on too long.

Every sport is trying to come up with ways to speed its games up.  They don’t really want to, but they know that anybody below the age of 35 will not devote four hours to most sporting events.  Does baseball commissioner Rob Manfred really want to put tacky pitch clocks in ballparks?  Of course not, but he can’t have 3 ½ hour ball games on a daily basis either.

Fast forward to tennis, specifically the Wimbledon semifinal between the South African, Kevin Anderson and the American, John Isner.  We knew coming in that chances were strong that the match would be full of tiebreaks.  When one guy serves 140 MPH and the other 128, it is very hard to break serve.  We were protected for the first four sets.  Once players win six games each, they play a first to seven by two tiebreak.  And, in three of the first four sets we got tie breaks.  Isner won two of the three and then Anderson took the fourth set, 6-4.

Like many, I had things to do on Friday, July 13, 2018.  The joy of Wimbledon—for Americans—is that you can watch tennis in the morning while your kids are sleeping and before the chauffeuring begins.  Because Isner served first in the final set, my hope was that he would take the lead at say, 6-5 or 8-7 and then break Anderson and advance to the final.  But, soon it was apparent that it wasn’t going to happen.  Finally, at 17-17, I bailed because I promised two of my kids a trip to the beach on the final day of my vacation.  I gave Wimbledon almost five hours of my time.  I could not give anymore.  In fact, I should have left after the fourth set.

The World Cup soccer final is Sunday.  The teams will play a 90-minute game.  If the scored is tied after 90 minutes, they will play 30 minutes of extra time.  If it is still tied, they will decide the game with penalty kicks.  While some loathe this, it is wise.  You can’t just keep playing.  There HAS to be some sort of time limit.

Tennis disagrees.  Except for the US Open, there are no fifth set tiebreaks at the other three Grand Slams; play continues until somebody has a two game margin.  On Friday, Anderson finally pulled it out, 26-24 in the final set.  It was not riveting tennis in the end; just two robots pumping out aces and service winners time and time again.  The fans, though respectful, tired of the spectacle for even they want a finish line.  Every match can be long, but with tiebreaks, you know that once a set reaches 6-6, the set will end sooner than later.

There have been epic tiebreaks.  If you were born in 1972 or earlier, you remember the “Battle of 18-16,” when John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in a fourth set tiebreak to even the 1980 Wimbledon final at two sets apiece.  Ironically, the fifth set was tied 6-6, but Borg won the next two games to claim his fifth straight—and last—Wimbledon title.

There is no beauty in 26-24 sets or for that matter, the 70-68 fifth set in 2010 when John Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut.  If soccer can end the World Cup using penalty kicks to break a tie, surely tennis could use a tiebreak in the fifth sets at Wimbledon, the French and Australian Opens.

What we saw on Friday was not fair to all involved.  It is not fair to the players and in particular, Anderson, who has to somehow find the resolve to play the championship match on Sunday.  It isn’t fair to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who had to wait and wait and wait for their match to begin.  And, because of the wait, their match was suspended after three sets and has to resume on Saturday.  How is this fair?  Their match will now precede the Ladies’ Final, meaning that this 50-game final set has affected the Ladies final.  What if Nadal and Djokovic play an 18-16 fifth set?  What effect does that have on Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber?

And, what about injuries to the players?  If you follow tennis enough, you will notice that many matches end when one player retires due to injury.  We all know that when you play tired, injuries are more likely to happen.  A fifth set tiebreak has to help here.

Not only is it not fair to the fans, it is cruel to them as well.  Tennis isn’t like football, baseball and hockey where you can get up at any time to walk around, visit the latrine, buy a snack or make a phone call.  There is etiquette that has to be followed.  Asking fans to sit for 6 hours and 36 minutes and then stick around for another match?  Not fair and not right.

It’s time to make a change.  It would be great for the three Slams to follow the US Open and play tiebreaks in all five sets (and all three for the women).  But, the leaders of tennis are staid and set in their ways, especially those at the All England Club.  They would never bow to a country that broke away from them some 242 years ago.

So why not compromise?  Why not play a fifth set tiebreak when the score reaches 10-10, 11-11 or 12-12?  And, to distinguish things, maybe it could be a first to nine points.  Or 11.

My suggestion is once the score hits 6-6 in the fifth play a first to 11 points by two tiebreak.  In this way, you are honoring the past by making the players face some attrition, but you’re also telling your fans, both live and watching at home, that there is an ending point.  We know that there will be tiebreaks that end up 25-23, 29-27, or who knows, maybe 51-49, but eventually they will end and end in a reasonable time.  When a fifth set tiebreak comes, we all know that the end is coming, ala penalty kicks in soccer.  That’s the fair and right thing to do.

We understand why there haven’t been fifth set tiebreaks.  Sometimes, tiebreaks are decided by net cords, lucky shots and one particular point.  When you play on and on, you’re making the player win eight points to win that set—four on his serve and four on the other’s serve.  The thinking here is that the better player will win most of the time.  But, today, it was a battle to see which player wilted.

Times have changed.  The world is moving; faster than it ever has and it will continue to do so. In fact, it will move even faster.  Remember Dial-Up internet?  In some ways, tennis is still there, using AOL and Prodigy while the other sports are using lightning fast operations.

Let’s hope that this match is not remembered fondly for its 50-game final set, but rather, as the catalyst for change—a change that can benefit everybody that likes or is associated with tennis.

 

 

Nadal and Federer: Beating Father Time Or Inferior Competition?

July 10, 2018

by John Furgele (The Pondering 228)

What is wrong with tennis, specifically, men’s tennis?  As Wimbledon nears the deep end of the pool, the usual suspects remain.  It looks like Novak Djokovic has found both his game and his passion, but here again, remain the two men that have dominated the game for more than 15 years—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

We all love athletes and teams who dominate.  We may not root for them, but we love them.  When the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983, they either received your appreciation or your scorn.  The same went for the Edmonton Oilers from 1984-1990, the Jordan Bulls 1991-1998, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (2000-2002) and of course, the current Golden State Warriors.

It’s tougher in individual sports.  I was in the minority when I rooted against Lance Armstrong as he won the Tour de France year after year.  I didn’t like his arrogance and personally believed that he was doping.  I took a lot of criticism because I was rooting against an American—a cancer survivor no less–in an international event.

My answer was simple—if finishers 2-50 were testing positive for PEDs, how can the winner be clean?  If Armstrong had finished 25th every year, I would have believed that he was competing cleanly.  And, we all know how things turned out.  I’m not looking for apologies, but because he was so good, I rooted against him, and even if he was clean, I still would have rooted against him.

I also rooted against Tiger Woods; not because I don’t like him, but I tend to root against the dominant athlete/team.  Others go the other way; they like to see dominance and truth be told, time helps their cause.  I never liked the 1996-2000 Yankees, but now, 22 years later, I’m glad I got to see that dominance.  It’s something to tell the kids, something to file in your history folder.

The current state of tennis is a head scratcher.  How can the 36-year old Federer and the 32-year old Nadal keep winning and winning?  As Joe McGrath said so beautifully in SlapShot, “Where are the new boys?”  You hear of them, but they never win; moreover, the never pull an upset of the Big Two at any of the Grand Slam tournaments.  At this year’s Australian Open, Federer won, beating Marian Cilic 6-1 in the fifth set.  Nadal was there, but retired due to injury in the quarterfinals.

At the French Open, the only reason Federer didn’t make the final was because he didn’t play there.  Nadal cruised to his 11th title in Paris, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.  Now, as the Wimbledon fortnight nears its conclusion, here we are with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and five others.

We hear great things about guys like Milos Raonic, Dominic Theim, and Alexander Zverev, but most of the time; these players are out before we reach the semifinals.

You never want to be that guy who says things were better “in my day,” but during the Pete Sampras Era (1990-2003), other players stepped up and won majors.  We all know Agassi won eight himself and off the top of my head, there was two for Lleyton Hewitt, two for Marat Safin, four for Jim Courier, three for Gustavo Kuerten, two for Pat Rafter, one for Thomas Muster, one for Petr Korda, two for Sergi Bruguera, two for Yevgeny Kafelnikov and even one for Andres Gomez.

Heck, even Boris Becker won the Australian Open in 1996 at age 28, and two of his six came after 1990.  We also have Stefan Edberg who won six Grand Slams, including three in the Sampras Era when he won Wimbledon in 1990 and the US Open in 1991 and 1992.

Cilic, Carlos Moya, Gaston Gaudio, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Costa, Thomas Johansson, Richard Kraijcek, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic and Andy Roddick join the Muster, Korda and Gomez camp of one slam win.

In today’s era, the only others that have slipped through have been Andy Murray (three titles) and Stan Wawrinka (also three).

Defenders of tennis will say that having five players—Murray, Wawrinka, and Djokovic– prove that the game is healthy.  But, look at the numbers—

Federer:              20 titles

Nadal:                   17 titles

Djokovic:             12 titles

Murray:                3 titles

Wawrinka:          3 titles.

I don’t agree.  The game needs an injection of youth, the next guy, the person to take the torch away from the greats to the point where they force the giants into retirement.  Connors had Borg, Borg had McEnroe, McEnroe had Lendl, Becker had Sampras and Agassi and so on.

When Nadal and Federer, and yes, Djokovic are done, I will miss them and so, too will the sport.  But, when you look at the others left in this year’s draw, do we think one of them can win?

Juan Martin del Potro is a great story.  He has one slam, but like Andy Roddick  (one Slam title), he can’t beat the Big Three in the big spot.  Isner has the big serve, but unlike Goran Ivanisevic (one Slam), is unlikely to even reach a Slam final.

Guys like Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, an admitted tennis lover will root for a classic Nadal-Federer final come Sunday.  And, yes, that’s what everybody probably wants to see.  There won’t be any nerves like there was last year when Federer dispatched Marian Cilic in three boring and uneventful sets.  They last played in the Wimbledon final back in 2008, yet here they are, on a collision course ten years later.  Now, a lot can happen in the quarters and semis, but the fact that 10 years later, we’re talking about the same two guys is an indictment not on the game, but the other guys that play the game.

There were defining moments that proved the torch was about to be passed.  I remember Safat destroying Sampras in the 2000 US Open final and the Hewitt doing the same to Pete in the 2001 edition.  Sure, Sampras would come back and win the US Open in his last ever match, but even Pete knew that his time was over.  I remember seeing McEnroe being blitzed in 4th rounds and he knew his time was over.  We saw Andre Agassi limping around against Benjamin Becker knowing that his time was also over.  But, for some reason, nobody is stepping up to tell Federer and Nadal that their time is over.

Eventually Father Time calls and usually the legends are pounded into submission.  It hasn’t happened yet and I wonder if it will?  Could Federer win Wimbledon at age 40 and decide to retire on top?  Could Nadal do the same at age 35 or 38 at the French?  Or, will somebody finally step up to tell these warriors that their time is up!

The most puzzled of all—Father Time.  Even he must be scratching his head.