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Going All In

( As poker players know, ” Going all in” means betting everything you have on a single pot. In the larger sense, it means giving it all you have and not holding anything back, of risking everything and not keeping anything in reserve).

A couple of Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the Villagers Theater in the Franklin Park Municipal complex to watch ” Altar Boyz”. It is an off-Broadway musical that ran for over 2,000 performances ending in 2010 and is now playing the small town circuit. It’s about a touring Catholic boy-band that is out to save the lost souls in the audience, one soul at a time, and has catchy music and spectacular dancing. We enjoyed it thoroughly.

But this post is not about the musical itself. It’s about the five dancer-actors who play the members of the band ( Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham). They are all young guys in their twenties or early thirties and it is apparent that acting is their life. While on stage, they show such verve and enthusiasm and are so fully in their roles that it is beautiful to watch. I looked at their bio-data and it was impressive. All of them have spent years honing their craft, singing, dancing and acting in a number of plays  at community theaters, Knights of Columbus Halls, YMCAs and other small town venues. Typically, such productions pay performers very little and , out of curiosity, I tried to figure out how much they could possibly be earning.

The Villagers Theater is larger than it appears from the outside. It seats about 240. For Sunday’s performance it was almost full. Say 220 viewers. The performance was to benefit charity, so tickets were only $ 15. Normally they are $ 22 apiece ( $ 20 for seniors).  At $ 15 per ticket, the total gate comes to about $ 3,300. In addition to the five actors, there were five musicians and three production staff… a total of 13 people to be paid. After deducting expenses, it is doubtful that each performer got much more than $ 150. Considering that these productions are limited engagements, I don’t think the actors could be earning more than $25,000 a year each. Even if they make it all the way to Broadway later in their careers ( very inlikely), they will never strike it rich. Yet, in spite of the meager pay, the  poor prospects, they persist in their craft, giving it everything they have.

I mentioned this to my wife as we were driving back and she had a different perspective. She felt that the actors were doing what they wanted to do, enjoying every moment they spent on the stage or even in rehearsals. She went on to say that they were living their lives fully, in a way that the rest of us cannot even imagine.

She has a point but I also know that I could not do what they are doing, even had I the talent. Most of us are like that, conditioned to think of  steady employment,  a good career, security. I am too but I respect those young men and I admire them. I admire them deeply.

Tennis and Longevity

At the recently concluded Australian Open, 82 year- old tennis icon Rod Laver presented the trophies to Federer and Nadal. A good  of mine from Malaysia watched the match and the trophy presentation and was moved to send me a list of Aussie greats from the fifties and sixties who are still with us. It is a remarkably long list. Here it is :

Frank Sedgeman  …89

Rod Laver               … 82

Roy Emerson         … 80

Neale Fraser          … 83

Mervyn Rose           .. 87

Mal Anderson         .. 81

Ashley Cooper       … 80

Fred Stolle              … 78

Bob Hewitt              … 77

This is by no means a complete list. Others include Margaret Smith Court ( 74), John Newcombe ( 72), Tony Roche (71) , Colin Dibley( 71) and Owen Davidson (73). The only Aussie players of that era who passed away early are Lew Hoad , who died at age 59 of leukemia, and Ken Fletcher who succumbed to cancer at age 65. I can’t think of anyone else.

When I got this list I  marveled at it.  What was the secret of the longevity of these players ? But as I thought about it, I began to understand that it was not all that remarkable, that were plenty of good reasons . Here are some:

  1. Tennis is a non-contact sport. There is no danger of life threatening injuries as in football, wrestling or boxing. Since the players are on opposite sides of the court, there is no chance of collisions as in soccer,basketball or baseball. And because the ball is not being hurled at a player, there is little chance of getting beaned and seriously injured as in baseball or cricket. When a tennis player does get hit ( a rare occurrence), the ball is comparatively soft and doesn’t result in lasting injury.
  2. Tennis requires a combination of speed, agility, strength  and endurance. Players are not oversize, overweight behemoths as in football. They don’t have to be excessively tall as in basketball. They are slightly bigger and taller than the average and the combination of attributes required to play tennis ensures that they are very fit.
  3. Tennis players do not have guaranteed contracts or signing bonuses. In other pro sports many athletes, unaccustomed to having large sums of money, go berserk. They start spending like there is no tomorrow, acquire a coterie of hangers-on and not infrequently take to drugs or drink as they party. They run through their cash very fast and live the rest of their lives in poverty, lucky to get jobs if at all. The stress takes its toll and shortens life spans. In tennis, on the other hand, the players have to continue to play well to make a good living. They do not get sudden windfalls but their careers are longer and the money comes in regularly.
  4. Tennis players compete almost year round. In the U.S, football, basketball and baseball seasons last between six and eight months ( including training camp). The extended off-season means plenty of time for players to indulge in their appetites, get overweight and out of shape.. and then go on a crash diet to get fit for the coming season. Not good for their bodies or their health.
  5. Tennis is a game that can be played almost to the end of one’s life. Many tennis pros continue to be associated with the game even after they retire. They become coaches, run training academies or camps. Even when they don’t, they keep playing  for love of the game, often well into their seventies. Tennis doesn’t require much in the way of equipment or facilities and it is not difficult to find another friend or two or three to play regularly. It shows. Did you see how trim Rod Laver looked at eighty-two?
  6. . Tennis players, in general, have a more stable family life. Because of the almost year round playing season, they travel with their wives and are not subject to the same temptations as , say, pro football or basketball players.Lest you wonder if this applies only to Aussie players, here are some stats about tennis players from other countries. Among those still alive: Vic Seixas  93, Budge Patty  92, Bob Falkenburg  91,Dick Savitt 89 and Tony Trabert 86. Don Budge died at age 84, Ted Schroeder 85  Ellsworth Vines 82, Jack Kramer 88,Bobby Riggs 77 and Fred Perry (England, 85). Almost the only ones who died comparatively early were Chuck Mckinley ( d. 45) Bill Tilden( d. 60) and Pancho Gonzales ( d.67) but they were not the norm. McKinley succumbed to brain cancer. Tilden was dogged by suspicions that he was gay and it ruined his later life. Gonzales had a tumultuous life during which he was married and divorced six times and died in poverty.The reasons then  for the longevity of tennis players are  no secret. They would seem to be regular exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, stable finances, a fulfilling family life and continued devotion to exercise and fitness even in retirement.

    Happily, these are things that we all can do or aspire to.

After his splendid performance in Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady is being hailed as the Greatest QB of All Time. It seems we sports fans are not just content to watch a great game; we have to grade our sports heroes, compare them to those of previous eras, make up lists of the all-time greats and select The Greatest. In tennis we have Federer camps and Nadal  camps, each avowing that their man is the Greatest. In NBA basketball, Michael Jordan sits alone at the top but in a few years LeBron James will no doubt be touted as  the Best ever. And in NFL football, Tom Brady is being anointed the Greatest Of All Time..

It is bad enough to try to choose the Greatest in an individual sport; in team sports, it is just plain ridiculous. As I had written in one of my previous posts, there are many factors that make it impossible to compare players from different eras. In the case of tennis, these include equipment, playing surfaces, quality of opposition, Open era or not, travel conditions and training methods but at least we are comparing one individual player to another. In team sports, the player is only one of many on a team. No matter how great he is, he cannot win unless he has a good supporting cast. Many elite players never played on a good team and never won even one ring. On the other hand, some so-so players won multiple rings though they were only bit players championship teams. Robert Horry was part of six NBA championship winning teams but no one would consider in the same class as Michael Jordan who won ” only” five. My point: Don’t use stats to declare someone the Greatest, particularly in a team sport.

Tom Brady is a terrific passer, a fierce competitor, a great decision maker with a wonderful feel for the game situation and has had a long glittering career. But don’t tell me that his seven Super Bowl appearances, his five Super Bowl rings and his four Super Bowl MVP awards qualify him as the best ever. Consider how much his career has been enhanced by having Bill Belichick as the Coach -GM of his team. Belichick is a masterful coach who has no peer when it comes to making in-game adjustments and confounding opposing teams who thought they had the game won ( Think Atlanta Falcons). He is not just a defensive genius, he is also a master motivator who consistently gets the best out of his players.  As  good a coach as he is, Belichick is an even better judge of talent and of working within the salary cap limitations. Time and again, he has picked up players from the scrap heap and coaxed one or two more good seasons out of them. He has also used trades and lower round draft picks to build the team and he has no peer in knowing when to cut a player. As a result, Brady has had a good supporting cast throughout his New England tenure. How many fewer rings would he have had if he was playing in San Diego ? How many more Super Bowls would Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning have won if they had Bill Belichick in their corner?

Brady’s situation reminds me of Bill Russell’s career with the Boston Celtics. Russell was a terrific defensive player, relentless on the boards and possessor of a fierce desire to win. He was limited offensively but he didn’t need to worry about scoring points. Red Auerbach, the coach- GM pf the Celtics, was the basketball version of Bill Belichick. A shrewd horse trader and a great judge of talent he was consistently able to put together great teams that meshed into unbeatable juggernauts. Good as the L.A. Lakers were, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor just did not have the supporting cast to compete against the Celtic teams of Russell, Cousy, Sharman, Nelson, Heinsohn, Havlicheck, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and others. Bill Russell was a great player but I would not consider him the Greatest. Even among centers of his time, I would rate Wilt Chamberlain ahead of him.

This is not to put down Bill Russell or Tom Brady. If you want to say they are the most successful players in their respective sports, I would agree with you absolutely. The numbers of rings they each won prove that beyond a doubt. If you want to call them the Greatest ever, you are entitled to your opinion, but don’t expect me to agree with you. There is no such thing as the Greatest, and definitely not in a team sport. .

What a strange, strange game! Has there ever been another like it? I shouldn’t have phrased that as a question because the answer, everyone will agree, is ” Never”.  Super Bowl LI  was really two games in one. In the first, Atlanta blew out New England 28-3. In the second , that took place over the last twenty-or-so minutes,. New England scored thirty one unanswered points to win 34-28 in overtime. Two blowouts and yet so much drama that many are calling this the best Super Bowl ever.

I was watching the game at a friend’s house in Edison and when the score got to 28-3 everyone watching, Atlanta  fans as well as New England supporters, agreed that it was over. As the commentators kept reminding us, no team had come back from such a large deficit so late in the game. My wife and I said our farewells and drove home to Somerset. I was rooting for Atlanta and wanted to get home in time for what I KNEW would be a Falcons triumph. I got home and the first thing I did was to switch on the TV. What a shock!  The score was 20-28 and the Atlanta lead was down to 8 with plenty of time on the clock ! As I watched , Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to the Patriots 23, aided by a miraculous catch by Julio Jones, How Jones caught the ball at full stretch  as it passed through the defender’s hands and yet managed to keep both feet  in bounds I will never figure out.

Perhaps there was still hope! A field goal would make it a two- possession game and put the game out of reach. What followed will, I am sure, be the stuff of nightmares for the Falcons and their fans. First, the Falcons were called for holding and then the Patriot defense sacked Matt Ryan for a huge loss pushing the Falcons well out of FG range. About then, I began to give up hope. Even when the Pats took over on their own 8, needing to go 92 yards for a TD and then make a 2-point conversion just to tie the game, I KNEW Atlanta was done. At this point, the Falcons were shell-shocked and completely demoralized. It showed in the costly penalties that they committed time and again on the New England drive. (BTW, the catch that Julian Edelman made was out of this world. The way he grabbed a batted ball in a forest of arms and legs and pulled it in mere inches from the ground… simply amazing.) It was also evident in the ease with which the Patriots drove down the field to score the game clinching TD in overtime.

How such a dramatic turnaround took place will be the subject of much discussion and analysis by football fans in the coming months. For much of the game, Matt Ryan was picking the Patriot defense apart and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were tearing off huge chunks of yardage. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s 27th ranked defense was playing like gangbusters, knifing through the patriots O-line, sacking Brady five times and knocking him about. And then it all changed. The Falcons offense stalled and Brady found his mojo, throwing  pinpoint seeing-eye passes to his receivers. Perhaps the Falcons relaxed just a little bit when they  had such a big lead but that should not take away from the Patriots performance. I have no idea what Bill Belichick said to the Patriots in the locker room at halftime or what adjustments he made but they worked. The Patriots raised their game, shook off  memories of their first half spanking and completely dominated the Falcons  to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Yes, yes, I know that’s a cliché but it exactly describes what happened !

Football fans everywhere will be grateful to both teams for giving us such a classic. New England was magnificent  but spare a thought for the Atlanta Falcons. They played their hearts out and they were classy in their post-game comments, none more so than Matt Ryan.

Hasn’t 2017 gotten off to a great start? First, an aging Federer recaptures his youth to defeat his arch rival Nadal in a match for the ages. Then the Falcons and the Patriots give us a wonderful Super Bowl.

What next?

 

Two days after Roger Federer’s historic win at the Australian Open, I am still on Cloud Nine as I relive it. Rarely does something happen that is so perfect. Consider what COULD have happened:

  1. It could have been a one-sided match, something that happens every now and then. Remember the 2012  Olympic final when Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in straight sets.It was unimaginable , particularly since Roger had defeated him in the Wimbledon final just a month earlier. By contrast, Sunday’s final was a pulsating affair as first one and then the other player appeared to have the advantage. Even in the fifth set, Nadal appeared to have the match in hand when he went up 3-1, only to see Federer claw back and snatch an improbable victory. What fighting spirit Nadal exhibited as he contested every point and staved off a break again and again!
  2. The quality of play could have been humdrum. Even when matches are close, the standard of play may not be that great. This match was remarkable for the skilled shot making, amazing court coverage and tenacity displayed by both players. The shot -of-the-match when Nadal ran down a certain winner and rifled an unplayable forehand return past Federer was unbelievable. Even Federer was moved to applaud the shot and it will be replayed by tennis fans over and over again in the months to come.
  3. The weather could have been a factor. At a past Australian Open, the temperature fell a whopping seventy degrees in the course of the match. When the match began, the temperature was a sweltering 110 ; at the end, it had dropped to 40 degrees. Swirling winds also had an effect on the play. I vaguely remember that Ken Rosewall was one of the players and that it happened sometime in the seventies. This time around, the weather was ideal for tennis.
  4. The players may not have been so likeable. Federer and Nadal are probably the two best liked players in the sport and they are good friends. This was reflected in the post match speeches at the presentation ceremony. This loss must have been a crusher for Nadal, so close was he to winning, but he was the epitome of class. He could have claimed fatigue from the almost five hour semifinal when he prevailed over Dimitrov the previous day. But he didn’t. No excuses, no whining as he congratulated Federer on his victory. Federer too felt for his opponent and was equally gracious as he accepted the cup.
  5. The stakes were never higher. Had Federer lost, his lead in Grand Slam titles over Nadal would have been reduced to two ( 17-15). With Nadal’s favorite tournament coming up next, the margin would most probably have been further reduced to one. Nadal would have been the odds-on favorite to eclipse Federer’s record and lay claim to be the “Greatest of All Time”… a meaningless title, but one which many fans value and argue over. With this victory, Federer’s lead in GS titles jumps to four, making it that much more difficult for Nadal to eclipse him. The race is by no means over since Nadal is only thirty and has three or so good years left in him. He could still overtake Federer if he is able to remain healthy.
  6. The result. No matter who won, this would have been a wonderful contest. Two all-time greats, # 1 and #2 in Grand Slams, both coming off injuries and not expected to reach the final …  but they did. If Nadal had won, this would have been a great, great match but Federer’s win put it over the top. The aging lion fighting off fatigue and reaching deep down to edge his greatest rival… It was so right… so perfect.It would be unrealistic to expect that we will ever see such a match again , and certainly not between these two. Father Time can be put off only so long but thanks to DVRs and YouTube it is a match which can and will be re-played again and again. Thank you Roger ! Thank you Rafa !

 

An Enjoyable Evening

On Saturday evening we went to ” The Frank Sinatra Show”, a live musical show based on the music of Frank Sinatra. It was presented by the Italian American Club of our Active Adult community and the ballroom was filled almost to capacity with about 240 people.

The show featured two seventyish singer comedians who took turns singing hits from the fifties and sixties while engaging in some light- hearted banter. One of them sang only Sinatra songs while the other warbled hits by Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Johnny Ray, Pat Boone and others. The advertising flyer didn’t give their names and I missed the on-stage announcement, so I will call them ” Frank” and ” Dino”. Frank was pretty good, Dino not quite, but it didn’t matter. The two of them were very engaging sustained the audience’s interest throughout the 90- minute show.

Even their introductions were funny and had the audience laughing. For instance, Dino said about Frank, “Give this man a great big hand, folks. He came here  today straight from a hospital bed. Last Wednesday, he was doing some work on his roof and  fell off a forty-foot ladder. Frank, why don’t you tell them about it ? “

” Well, it’s like you say, Dino. Trying to clean the gutters of my house, I got out my forty foot ladder and leaned it against the roof. I made sure the ladder was secure and began to climb up. I remember getting on the bottom step but not how I fell off. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground and the EMTs and my neighbor were leaning over me. True story ! !”.

The words ” True story” were a refrain we heard throughout the evening. They were repeated even after the most outrageous anecdotes, the ones that were patently ridiculous. Here is Frank explaining what a considerate husband he is, ” One time, I was watching my wife coming back from the grocery store. She was struggling to carry four bags of groceries as she climbed up the front steps. I opened the door and said to her kindly,’ Next time, try carrying them  two at a time.’ But she got me good in return. The other day, she was in a sexy negligee I’d never seen before. I opened the door and asked ‘ Where have you been, woman?’ True story !!”

Before they introduced each song, Dino gave a brief rundown of the singer’s background that segued into an introduction of the song he was about to sing. Example: “ Johnny Mathis was a star high jumper who cleared 6′ 5-1/2″ though only 5’7″in height. One fateful day in 1956, he found two envelopes in his mailbox. One was an invitation to attend the Olympic trials for the Melbourne Olympics; the other asked him to come to New York City for a recording session. He thought to himself’ Chances are I’ll never make the Olympic team… Ladies & Gentlemen,  here is Johnny Mathis’ greatest hit  Chances Are.”

Some of their anecdotes were re-workings of old jokes. Others were original, or perhaps I hadn’t heard them before. Here is a corny one, ” When I was a kid, we used to go to church faithfully on Sundays. The bells used to summon us to Mass and the pealing of the bells was a beautiful sound. One day the bell ringer quit and the priest was in a dilemma. He put an ad in the newspaper but only one man showed up in response. The priest looked at him and saw that he had no arms. ‘ How are you going to ring the bells without any arms ?’ he said. But the man pleaded for a chance and the priest relented. Together, they climbed up the steps of the bell tower. Once there, the man began to ring the bells bashing them with his head, his face. He was so good that the priest hired him on the spot. Next Sunday, the bells rang as never before but suddenly there was a thud and they stopped. The bell ringer had fallen out of the tower. Everyone rushed to the steps where the mangled body lay. ‘Who is it?’, one man wondered. ‘ I’m not sure’, said another , ‘ but his face rings a bell. True story ! ! “

If I have dwelt at length on the jokes and the patter, it is because it’s impossible to write at length about singing. Frank and Dino did a passable job singing all the old favorites. The ones that got the most applause were two Frank Sinatra standards. ” New York, New York” and , for a finale, ” My Way”. More than the singing itself, it was the relaxed patter, the stories about the singers’ early years and their own good humor that captivated the audience. I was watching the faces of the people around me and I could I could see that they were transported to another time, another place when life was simple, when they were young and strong and the world was their oyster.

Outside it was cold and blustery but , inside, in the company of people having a good time, sharing in the warmth and the camaraderie… nothing could have been finer. It was a most enjoyable evening.

True story!  I really mean it !!

 

 

The King is back! Roger Federer wins the Australian Open ( and his 18th Grand Slam) in epic fashion over his arch rival Rafael Nadal!

Who would have thought it ? Even his legion of supporters , of whom I am one, could not have hoped for such a fairytale ending. Last year at Wimbledon, when Roger made his improbable run into the semi-finals and came a cropper against Milos Raonic we all thought that was it: that there would be no more Grand Slams and that it would be his last hurrah before he rode off into the sunset. Instead, at age thirty-five, coming back from a six month layoff caused by injury, five years after his last Grand Slam win the Fed pulled off a remarkable triumph.

When the Open began, I thought , as most fans did, that Federer would win a couple of matches and then lose to one of the higher seeded players. Knowing how short of match practice he was, I didn’t think he stood a chance against younger, fitter players who could wear him down in a five set match. His first two matches, both against qualifiers, didn’t really prove anything but his three set demolition of 10th seeded Thomas Berdych, a player who had beaten him in the past, was food for thought. Against the fifth seeded Kei Nishikori, a tenacious returner, I thought he would finally hit the wall. Not only did Federer win, he seemed fresher than the younger Nishikori towards the end of the five -set match. By this time , of course, Djokovich and Murray had already departed and when the Fed outclassed Mischa Zverev in straight sets, I began to hope. When he defeated old friend and compatriot Stan Wawrinka, I began to root for Dimitrov to beat Nadal because I thought Roger had a better chance against him than Rafa. Didn’t happen, as Rafa prevailed in 5 sets. Could Roger pull it off ? The odds seemed against it as Rafa has had his number in recent years.

As Derek Cahill, one of the on-air commentators at the Open advised Federer fans, ” Relax and enjoy the match, if you can.” Luckily for me, I was watching the final in the U.S and knew the result even before the telecast began. I don’t think I could have been able to stand the tension of watching it live. As it was, I could watch the match secure in the knowledge that Federer had won. I was therefore able to relax and appreciate the amazing display that both men put on.

What a wonderful match! Unbelievable that two players in their thirties, both returning from injuries, could play a five set match at such a high level. There is no need for me to re-hash the match, shot by shot, game by game. If you didn’t watch it, you missed a historic match.

When Nadal broke Federer at the beginning of the fifth set and went on to take a 3-1 lead, I thought it was all over. All of us Federer fans gave up hope and even his wife watching the match courtside seemed to do so. What followed will be the stuff of legend. Federer seemed to shift to a higher gear, broke Nadal twice and reeled off five straight games to win the set  and the match. The shots that Nadal ran down earlier in the match , he was now unable to get to.  Gallantly as Nadal played ( he saved nine break points in the fifth set), he had no answer for Federer’s sublime shot making. Once again, we were able to savor those flowing backhand cross courts, so smooth, so seemingly effortless and yet so deadly. Simply beautiful to watch!

The presentation ceremony carried on where the match left off. How fitting that the legendary ” Rocket” Rod Laver was on hand to present the trophies. Nadal made a very gracious speech, as did Federer. How different from the chest thumping that one marks the NFL or the NBA. A great ending to a magnificent match, a wonderful day of tennis.

With this victory, Roger Federer pulled ahead of Rafael Nadal, 18 Grand Slams to 14, but I don’t think this is the end of the race.  Nadal has to be the favorite to win the French in May  and that will get him to within three of Roger. He is five years younger than Roger and , at 30, he still has three or so good years left in him. If he is able to stay injury free, there is no reason why he cannot challenge Roger’s total of eighteen Grand Slams. Whatever happens, happens. I leave it others to argue over who is the Greatest Of All Time. For me, because of the beauty of his game as much for his stellar career, Roger Federer will always be Number 1.

 

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