Sunday, January 31, 2010

Federer wins another major, but that's not even the story


Roger Federer won another grand slam Sunday night in Melbourne, defeating Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11) to give him 16 for his career. At 28, he now owns two more than Pete Sampras — and he's showing no signs of slowing down or deciding to take a break from such pursuits.

But don't be mistaken — the Federer who kissed another trophy Sunday wasn't the same player who a few years ago crushed opponents with an intimidating assortment of serves, groundstrokes, volleys and fist pumps. Federer might be the world's No. 1, but by no means is there a large or even small gap between him and the rest of the world's best such as Murray, Rafael Nadal (when healthy), Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, who thwarted Federer, surprisingly at the time, in last September's U.S. Open.

Rather, Sunday was about another missed opportunity for Murray, the 22-year-old Brit who is trying to win a grand slam for the country that hasn't celebrated one since 1936. Murray, as he's shown in lesser tournaments, is physically capable of beating Federer, but in the spectacle of Rod Laver Arena he was clearly far from his best.

Which is why Federer won. Sure, he played very impressively and consistently, hitting the big groundstrokes and volleys when he needed them — fighting off five set points in the third-set tiebreak — but if Murray had played like he did in his quarterfinal dismantling of Nadal (who withdrew down two sets and a knee injury), he probably could have beaten Federer or at least pushed him for more than three sets.

For instance, Murray's backhand is considered the best in men's tennis, but he only matched Federer with six backhand winners. And his 55-percent serving percentage Sunday won't win many grand slam finals.

What Federer does better than ever now is take advantage of his opponent's mistakes. Whenever Murray hit a lazy backhand to Federer's forehand, the four-time Aussie Open champ made sure to pound it toward a corner of the court and won most of those points. He didn't waste his chances. 

Murray, on the other hand, had a handful of opportunities to win the third set and put a little pressure on Federer. But at 6-5 in the tiebreak, he muffed a short forehand into the net, and he blew another four opportunities to win the set during the ridiculous 13-11 tiebreak. 

Federer hardly showed a hint of emotion during the tiebreak, simply going about his business like a convenience-store clerk. He attacked Murray when he had opportunities and played defense when he had to. He was completely comfortable, while Murray — feeling the burden of an entire country's hopes on his shoulders — clearly looked stressed as desperate as he was to win his first set against the world's No. 1 in a major (he's now 0-6 in sets).

Of course, it should be noted that this match might have been decided well before the epic tiebreak. Murray, admittingly, came out with little aggressiveness and lost the first set quickly, 6-3. That brought into play this ridiculous Federer statistic (and he owns many): He is now 172-5 when he takes the first set of a grand-slam match.


"I should have come out with a little more vigor at the beginning of the match," a tearful Murray said on the trophy stand. "I came out a little bit nervous."

(On a side note, Federer knows how to trash talk. On Friday, Federer mused that England hadn't produced a grand-slam winner in "150,000" years and bad-mouthed Murray's defensive style, saying that he had lost rather than Murray won the Brit's previous defeats of Federer in lesser tournaments. Who knows how much the banter affected Murray, if at all, but it certainly didn't hurt Federer, who, obviously, is far from "just talk.")

When he dropped the second set 6-4, Murray knew the mountain he had to climb, but he didn't get rattled and rolled to a 5-2 advantage in the third set. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and prepared for a fourth set. However, Federer is never one to concede a set, or point, or game, and he showed this by battling back and winning two service games sandwiched around a break. And a few minutes later, a tiebreak in Melbourne was imminent.

And that's where talent and athleticism take a backseat to experience and savvy. Murray showed a lot of guts to fight off two match points, including one in which he looked toast before hustling to slap a one-handed backhand past Federer at the net. But Federer showed off his own defense — easily the most underrated part of his game at this stage of his career — throughout the tiebreak and especially on a set point where he could barely get his racket on a huge forehand and survived a wide Murray volley.

Then, suddenly, it was over — on an easy backhand that Murray plopped into the net. And Federer's celebration was brief and, it seemed, one of relief. He thrust his arms into the air, tears welling in his eyes. And at that moment, he knew how great of a victory No. 16 was, he knew the caliber of player he'd just defeated.

"I think I played some of my best tennis (of my career) the last two weeks," Federer said during the trophy presentation. 

And later during his press conference: "I feel like obviously I'm being pushed a great deal by the new generation coming up. They've made me a better player, because I think this has been one of my finest performances in a long time, maybe forever."

Now that's saying something.

Best performance ever? I can't name a match, but I'm sure Federer has played plenty of flawless ones. However, his statement still resonates. He knows that there will be no more easy-earned majors, no more coasting over inferior, intimidated opponents. And that's perfectly fine with the man who now has two twins, a beautiful wife and, oh, those 16 majors.

The young guns will get theirs, at some point — think about how many majors players such as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic, the older Andy Roddick (27) and others would have if not for Federer — but for now, Federer unspectacularly remains the best winner in men's tennis.

Even if his competitors are mostly quicker and, you would think, hungrier.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Serena Williams simply the best


If I had any doubt before, it's now completely squashed, nonexistent, gone until I see a change.

Serena Williams, to put it bluntly, is the best women's tennis player in the world — and no one's really that close to her. As people are waking up on the East Coast this morning, they're reading or hearing that Williams won her 12th grand slam much earlier in Melbourne, defeating Justine Henin in three sets 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. And they might sarcastically mutter, "Big deal. She's ranked No. 1 in the world. Henin isn't even ranked!"

True. But if you watched Williams during this Aussie Open, you know that she faced some of the stiffest competition she's had to go through to claim a major. In the quarterfinals, Williams put on an absolutely spectacular and dominant display of tennis to overcome a seemingly insurmountable one-set, 0-4 deficit against seventh seed Victoria Azarenka, who was playing the match of her life. 

It was truly incredible, because Williams looked dead for the first 14 games of the match. She had no life, no energy. Her groundstrokes had the power of an elderly couple's at the local recreation center. I mean, she was getting run off the court by the young 20-year-old from Belarus. 

But then Williams hit a couple strong shots, dropped a few aces and all of a sudden, she was unstoppable. She won eight of the match's final 10 games, including a tiebreaker in the second set. And it wasn't as if Azarenka's play dropped off. She was still pounding the ball, still hitting her spots.

It didn't matter, however. 

In the course of an hour, Williams showed that when she's on her game, she's unbeatable. And she never chokes, never shows chinks in her armor (side note: doesn't it look, sometimes, like she's actually wearing armor the way she's built?)

The day after the Azarenka match, which lasted well over two hours, Williams was back on the court taking on the surprise No. 16 seed Li Na, one of two Chinese women in the semifinals — an unprecedented feat. Li had come back to defeat the other Williams sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals. So she wasn't afraid of Serena, not intimidated by the name. And she, like Azarenka, played the match of her career, pushing the tired Williams all over the court.

But when it mattered most, Williams found that extra gear, didn't show any signs of fatigue, and dominated two tiebreaks 7-4 and 7-1.

(Side note: One of the most impressive things about Williams' most recent feat is that she also won the doubles title with Venus. This meant that on many occasions she played two matches on the same day, and by no means did she and Venus breeze to to the championship; they faced stiff competition along the way. Williams could have told Venus she needed to focus on singles, needed to narrow her outlook to matching the great Billie Jean King with her 12th major. But despite signs of fatigue in the later rounds, she stuck with the doubles and helped win that title a day prior to taking out Henin for the big trophy, the win that will receive much more attention in her bio.)

So get this — over the course of four days, Williams won three singles matches that all spanned three sets AND won two doubles matches. Not bad for a player, 28, who has played professionally for all or parts of 16 seasons and has never been considered one of the most physically fit players on the women's professional tour. 

But she found the energy again in the final, against the seasoned Henin, who won seven majors and was a thorn in Williams' side before retiring in May 2008.  Henin returned to the professional ranks last September and while not ranked, is widely considered, at 27, still one of the best to play the game. Not to mention, one of the toughest.

Henin demonstrated her resolve early Saturday morning, coming back from a set down to grab the momentum with a flurry of pinpoint ground strokes. She steamrolled through the second set and then the first game and two points of the all-or-break third set — heck, she won five straight games and 15 CONSECUTIVE points!

She had all the momentum and looked more energized, less fatigued than Williams. My cousin texted me to say, basically, the match was hers.

Williams, however, had other ideas. First she held serve, buoyed by a couple of her big serves that she always seems to come up with in needy situations. Then she broke Henin, and didn't trail the rest of the match.

How did she do it, how did she summon the energy?

"Honestly, I don't know," Williams said afterward, suggesting that she reminded herself a slew of days off, and a trip to the Super Bowl, were next on her agenda. (Note: Later she said, "I feel like I save all my energy for the final." But really? She seemed to expend a ton of it during those quarterfinal and semifinal victories.)

Whatever the case, Williams showed heart and resolve during that final set, repeatedly pumping her fist after big points as if to remind herself that she'd been there before, that there was a reason she's now 12-3 in grand slam finals. And as she'd done, at different points in the matches, to Azarenka and Li, she finally took a clear advantage over Henin, winning the last four games of the match with an array of strong groundstrokes and un-returnable serves and capitalizing on each unforced error by Henin.

And now, Williams is clearly No. 1 in women's tennis — and could still be for a while longer. Winning both the singles and doubles titles in hot Melbourne proved that. Could she make a run at the 18 majors Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert share? That number seems a long shot, but every time we've doubted Williams, thought she was done, she's proven us wrong. 

So, more than likely, we'll see another handful of majors won by Williams. But for now, all she wants to do is rest — and watch the Super Bowl.

I can't say I blame her. Her last few days had me gasping for air from my recliner.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Breaking news: All-Star games are jokes


In case you were wondering, there are at least 1,269,568 complete idiots out there. Yep, they're the brain-less souls who voted Allen Iverson a starter in the NBA All-Star Game ahead of players such as Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Rajon Rondo and, oh, about 1,269,568 other more deserving guards in the Eastern Conference.

Out West, there was almost a repeat to an even more disastrous level, as Tracy McGrady racked up 1,022,492 votes for playing in six games and averaging 3.2 points. Damn, those must have been some impressive, high-flying, jump-out-your-seat-and-spill-your-Coke dunks T-Mac was throwing down. (Or perhaps the one assist he dished out per game was Magic-esque.) I'm sure people have their reasons.

But seriously ... this has gotten ridiculous. The only reason Yao Ming -- who has scored the same amount of points as me this season -- wasn't on the ballot was because he asked to be removed before the year began. Yao was so convinced that his countrymen would be patriotic enough to vote him in, even though he's out for that year, that he had to delete his name. Wow.

This has served as a final nail in the coffin of sports fans for me. NO MORE VOTING FOR ALL-STARS. Period. I wrote about this before the baseball Summer Classic, and this will be the last time I write about it. Because this problem has become so obvious, so glaring, that there's nothing more to be said.

It is 100 percent impossible to make the case that Iverson, even solely judged by numbers, deserves to be an All Star ... or on the second, or third, or even fourth team from the East. The dude's only played in 21 games and averaged 14.3 points. That's good for 78th in the league. I wouldn't even call Iverson a top-100 player this season.

So who cares? I mean, it's the stupid All-Star Game, right? Nobody plays a lick of defense and it's forgotten 6 hours later. And unlike the silly baseball game, it doesn't mean a thing when the playoffs come around.

Well, I don't blame Allen (no, not that Allen; Ray Allen) for speaking out against the Iverson Hypocrisy. Because like it or not, players are often judged, partly, on how many All-Star teams they make and start for. Especially 30, 40 years after they've hung up the sneaks. I've read many books about the all-time greats that played in the '60s and '70s and I've looked through their stats, but it's hard to know how many of their All-Star appearances were legitimate and who got snubbed.

There will be that same issue down the road when kids read about the amazing Allen Iverson and all the appearances he made. (Granted, he has had an astounding career. But still -- wouldn't it be nice if all the statistics were accurate?) Of course, that's wishful thinking, but what isn't is that it'd be easy to snap voting away from the fans.

How many NBA fanatics would honestly stop following the league if they were stripped of their voting privileges? And if any did, then so long suckers! Thankfully, the coaches get to select reserves -- and they'll pick the most deserving players. But that'll still leave one or two deserving players on the outside looking in.

Of course, if Iverson wasn't so selfish he'd give up his spot, knowing he doesn't deserve it. But that, again, might just be asking too much. It ain't happening.

So while I had no intention, really, of watching the All-Star Game (maybe the final 2 minutes, 37 seconds, when the players realize they hate losing and begin to dig down defensively), I feel a tad of remorse for those players denied the privilege because of the 1,269,568 complete idiots out there (and others).

And, I promise, I'll never write about this inane silliness -- yes, redundancy needed -- again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Harris gets Beilein's message, leads Wolverines to must-have victories


Much was made of the effort by Michigan's complementary players after the Wolverines upset No. 15 UConn Sunday, giving the team its first "quality win" of the season, really, and inciting a ferocious court-rushing by 13,000-plus starving-for-something-to-celebrate blue and gold-wearing fans.

And rightly so. Because yes, the Wolverines wouldn't have won the 68-63 barnburner without the three 3-pointers from bench player Anthony Wright or the four points, four boards, two assists, two steals and a block registered by Zack Gibson against UConn's massive, twice-as-strong-as-Michigan's front line.

So good work, bench. The Wolverines will need such contributions the rest of the season if they're going to somehow, someway turn this disappointment into anything closely resembling the preseason expectations surrounding the squad that won an NCAA Tournament game a year ago and returned almost everybody.

But let's be honest. Wright could have the game of his life and Gibson could outmuscle 7-footers for 11 rebounds a night, but it wouldn't matter if Manny Harris played the way he did during the first half of Michigan's game against Indiana the other night. Playing at home, in an absolute must-win, the Wolverines' leading scorer looked listless, bored, unconcerned while shooting 0-for-5 and failing to contribute in any tangible manner.

So coach John Beilein did what sparked the Wolverines less than a year ago during a crushing -- at the time -- loss to Iowa. He benched his star with no intention of immediately reinserting him into the lineup even in what was a tight game. Harris needed to get the message that the way he was performing was unacceptable for a player of his stature, of his talent, of his experience.

Message received.

After observing his teammates while getting cold on the bench, Harris finally was called upon by his coach and delivered a dazzling display of Manny being Manny -- the good kind. He entered the game with Michigan ahead by six and soothed the tense Crisler Arena crowd by scoring 17 of his team's next 23 points to turn the Big 10 defensive battle into a blowout. He finished the contest with 21 points.

Of course, that was against Indiana -- a team that has won games based on heart, not talent. After losing their best player for the season before conference play began, the Hoosiers would be excused for packing it in and settling for three or four home wins.

So, no, a similar 11-minute effort wouldn't cut it for Harris, and the Wolverines, against the Huskies Sunday. Which is why although I doubt Beilein was looking ahead with his benching of Harris, it was a smart, portending move. Harris got the message at the right time and didn't need to be sat down Sunday.

Instead, he played a team-high 38 minutes. And Michigan needed him for all 2,280 seconds he was on the court. He scored 18 points, including a clutch 8-for-10 performance from the free-throw line, and grabbed eight huge rebounds against bigger UConn players, including five on the offensive end which helped Michigan score an astonishing 20 second-chance points.

Most importantly, Harris was strong with the ball and patient. Whenever he looks as if he's considering taking a contested 3-point shot, I cringe because, and Harris must know this, he's simply not a good long-range shooter. He often fades away when shooting 3s, and the results aren't pretty. But when he takes his time and sets up the offense, he's at his best -- and that was the case Sunday.

Harris attempted just two 3s -- and missed them both -- but got to the hole for a handful of big-time layups and runners, including the biggest one of the game which extended the Wolverines' tenuous lead to five with just over a minute remaining.

The biggest shot of the game was Zach Novak's 3-pointer that broke a 58-58 tie, but before that Harris had scored four of six Michigan points with a mid-range jumper -- more his cup of tea -- and a pair of hard-earned free throws.

So Beilein and company can only hope that the team's star junior -- and candidate for Big Ten player of the year -- got the message and is now off and running. Because the schedule turns brutal from here, with games at Wisconsin and Purdue followed by a home date with Michigan State, and the Wolverines can't afford many more losses if they want to sneak back into the Big Dance.

Many players will need to contribute along the way for such a thing to happen, but their efforts won't matter if Manny isn't consistently being Manny -- the good kind.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lack of leadership dearly costing Wolverines


Michigan hoops coach John Beilein is an honest, forthright guy. So it wasn't a surprise that after Michigan's debacle of a loss Sunday, 68-62, at home to the never-been-to-the-NCAA-Tournament Northwestern Wildcats, he came out and said exactly what's wrong with his underachieving squad.

And didn't waste any words.

"When things are going south, the leadership has to come from more than just me," Beilein said of his 8-7 team. "There has to be positive stuff from people within this team."

While he won't win any Pulitzers for using the noun "positive stuff," Beilein knows his basketball team inside and out and knows what's missing. To put it succinctly, leadership.

But why? I mean, the Wolverines returned virtually everybody from the team last year that took Michigan to the Big Dance for the first time in 11 seasons. They brought back their one-two punch of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Add up experience and the addition of a real point guard in freshman Darius Morris, and this team was supposed to be a great improvement on last year's team that won a tournament game.

Pundits bought the hype, with some even ranking the Wolverines as high as No. 15 nationally (and maybe higher in some polls; I can't keep track of all of them these days). What was there not to like?

Well, now it's clear. Michigan lost three players from last year's team, and two of them -- C.J. Lee and David Merritt -- had about enough talent to play at a lowly Division I school. Seriously. Dude's had no moves.

But the pair made the team and earned playing time. In fact, they each started 14 games -- with Lee averaging 16.4 minutes per game and Merritt 13.6. Forget the numbers, however. What the duo of old guys brought was leadership, confidence, enthusiasm. They helped pick up the young, inexperienced team during struggling times (of which there were many). They were vocal. They didn't allow meltdowns (or at least not as many as in previous years).

Bottom line: Sans C.J. Lee and David Merritt, the 2008-09 Wolverines don't make the NCAA Tournament, don't snap the horrifying drought. Hard to believe, but it's the truth. And now, as we wonder what the heck has happened to a team with such high expectations, it's becoming much easier to see.

Where's the leadership on this team? Who is getting into guys' faces when they make a lazy play, when they give up on a defensive transition possession (as was the case during a recent game). Nobody -- that's who.

One might expect it to come from Harris and Sims, who are averaging 53 percent of the team's points. But that's not their style. An ESPN analyst made a great point the other night when he applauded Harris for not going wild after making a big-time, clutch play late in Michigan's comeback win over Penn State. Harris simply waltzed back on defense, not muttering a word.

There's definitely a good side to that -- and Manny is one of the classiest, best kids you'll find in college basketball; he doesn't display the brazen antics that turn off so many fans to today's players -- but there's also the fact that Harris has not been a vocal player this season. Rarely, when watching a game, will you see him talk to a teammate after they commit an error.

The same can be said for Sims, who goes about his business and speaks only a little more than Harris while on the court. I wish he would, because Michigan is often at its best -- especially against small teams -- when it throws the ball down low to Sims to create inside-out action. Too often, even in games when the Wolverines couldn't hit a 3 if the basket became a hula hoop, Sims is ignored for long stretches. This can't happen. Someone needs to speak up.

For now, that's the team's biggest issue, the main reason the Wolverines don't have a single quality win under their belts with just 15 regular-season games remaining. Beilein is especially perturbed with his team's lack of leadership on defense, and, again, that goes back to communication. To be a good 35-second defensive team, players need to talk, must yell out every screen, have to know where their teammates are.

That hasn't always been the case for this rollercoaster team. And if things don't come together ASAP, the Wolverines are almost certainly headed for the NIT (or worse). So who will step up? Who will become a leader and take the reins in trying to salvage the season? Beilein, for one, isn't sure, saying, "It's tough to change people's personalities sometimes, but we'll work at it."

And, I guess, we'll just have to keep waiting.

Monday, January 4, 2010

NFL playoffs preview: Finally a Super Bowl for the Chargers


Well, another crazy, ridiculous NFL regular season is in the books. Among the surprises?

The Steelers somehow missed the playoffs (I only picked them to win the Super Bowl again). The Titans also missed out on the postseason (they were only the No. 1 seed out of the AFC a year ago). And the Bengals won the AFC's North Division. See that one coming?

Side note: About the only thing I nailed head-on was another terrible Lions season. But, c'mon, if you're familiar with the team, making such a prediction is like taking a nap after Thanksgiving -- not too difficult.

So now we arrive at the postseason, which, to me, is the most intriguing one in years. Why? Well, both No. 1 seeds are interesting studies. The Colts started 14-0 ... and then finished with two losses. The Saints were 13-0 ... and lost three in a row. Of course, it should be noted that the Colts rested their starters for most of their two losses and the Saints rested 'em for the final game.

But recent history, especially Indianapolis Colts history, tells us that this strategy of respite might not work out well here in a couple weeks.

We also have the red-hot teams. The Chargers haven't lost, it seems, since Antonio Gates was grabbing rebounds for Kent State. They seem unstoppable at the moment. The same can be said of the Packers, who absolutely drilled the hapless Cardinals Sunday to win their seventh game in eight tries. They'll do it again in Arizona on Sunday, right?

Not so fast, my friends.

Anyone who remembers a year ago knows not to rule out the Cards, who slogged into the playoffs, were immediately written off by every pundit in the entire universe, and then went on to come within a play of, oh, winning the Super Bowl. Not too shabby.

And, obviously, don't write off the Wild Card teams -- yes, even the "How did they get here?" Jets. As any good NFL fan is aware of, three teams in the past nine years (the 2000 Ravens, the '03 Patriots and the '07 Giants won the Super Bowl as Wild Cards; only the Ravens played a game at home).

So what to make of all this? Well, I'll leave the X's and O's to the guys with hair gel on TV. These picks are more about feeling. Run with 'em or make fun of 'em.

(6) Philadelphia def. (3) Dallas 31-27
(5) Green Bay def. (4) Arizona 28-20

(6) Baltimore def. (3) New England 16-14
(5) New York Jets def. (4) Cincinnati 21-13

(1) New Orleans def. (6) Philadelphia 38-28
(2) Minnesota def. (5) Green Bay 30-26

(1) Indianapolis def. (6) Baltimore 21-16
(2) San Diego def (5) New York Jets 28-14

(2) Minnesota def. (1) New Orleans 28-27: With the game on the line, Brett Favre knows it's his last chance to get to another Super Bowl and engineers a 71-yard drive, capping it with a fade to Sidney Rice for the game-winning score.

(2) San Diego def. (1) Indianapolis 27-21: Like in recent playoffs, the Chargers will own the Colts at home, jumping out to a two-possession lead and then holding on at the end, getting a game-sealing interception of Peyton Manning in the waning seconds.

San Diego def. Minnesota 28-19: The dream stops here for Favre and begins for the Chargers, who win their first Super Bowl behind the tremendous and consistent play of Philip Rivers and a very underrated receiving corps. Ladainian Tomlinson adds a touchdown to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats, and fans riot in the streets of San Diego ... wearing T-shirts (or nothing at all)!