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After Roger Federer’s victory over Stan Wawrinka  in the BNP -Paribas final at Indian Wells yesterday, John Isner tweeted ” Is Roger Federer really from Planet Earth ?” A good question because at age 35, Federer seems to have regained his youth and is playing better than ever. At a time when his arch-rival Rafael Nadal seems to have lost a step, at a time when Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, currently # 1 and # 2 in the rankings, seem to have lost their mojo and are nursing injuries, Federer looks once again like the player he was in his vintage years. At the later stages in their careers, most players slow down physically, their court coverage suffers and they gradually, imperceptibly adopt a defensive mindset. At Indian Wells yesterday and at the Australian Open earlier in the year, Federer moved as well as he ever has and he was very aggressive throughout. He was  going for shots, hitting the sidelines, and advancing to the net at every opportunity. Once again, we fans were treated to a master-class in tennis… fluid, graceful, seemingly effortless, and yet lethal. Poor Stan Wawrinka. He played as well as he could , as well as he was allowed to, but he always looked like he was fighting an uphill battle. A great player in his own right, a late bloomer who has always been in Roger’s shadow, it is good to see Stan come into his own. Against anyone else but Roger, I root for him.

Federer’s victory yesterday has understandably delighted his legion of fans, of whom I am one. It was painful to watch him struggle last year and we are all euphoric to see him re-born. However, let us be realistic. It is wishful thinking to think that he will win at the French Open and at Wimbledon and get his 19th and 20th Grand slams. Roger’s game plan now is to keep the rallies short and conserve his energy.; he is , after all, thirty-five. (Actually, he is closer to 36). Even he cannot afford to play long five setters and still play at his peak over the two weeks of a Grand Slam. I know he did it in the semi-final and final at Melbourne but that was a very fast surface and he had a favorable draw that enabled him to get more rest than Nadal before their epic final. Indian wells too was a fast surface and it was a best of three format. I know that Federer will be playing at Miami where the absence of Murray and Djokovic should help him improve his ranking and get into the top 8 and a favorable seeding in the upcoming Grand Slams but I would be very surprised if he plays the French Open.  Skipping it would let conserve his energy and get ready for the grass courts of Wimbledon where he is a real threat. But that is still a couple of months away. In the meantime, let’s see what happens with him at Miami. Win or lose, he is a delight to watch .

 

 

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I was really looking forward to the quarter final clash between Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios at the BNP- Paribas Masters tournament in Indian Wells. Roger Federer is my favorite player, now mounting a fairytale comeback at age 35, and Nick Kyrgios, the enfant terrible of tennis, is playing at the top of his game. Kyrgios upset Novak Djokovic in his previous match ( his second win over the Serbian in the last two weeks) while unleashing serves of up to 141 mph. I mentioned my hopes to a fellow sports fan when I called him in Las Vegas on Thursday. ” Don’t get your hopes up” he said, ” anything is possible with Kyrgios. You never know which Kyrgios will show up.” Prophetic words indeed, but even my friend never envisioned that Kyrgios would not show up at all; he pulled out just before the match, citing food poisoning and saying he did not want to play a great champion like Federer  when he was at less than his best. I suppose his explanation could be true but his bratty behavior in the past makes his every action suspect.

Whatever be the reasons for Kyrgios’ withdrawal, it is a pity that he forfeited the match. Both players were playing extra-ordinary tennis and it would have been great to watch them go at each other. In addition to everything else, this was a stark contrast in characters: the ultimate good guy- bad guy confrontation. A morality play of sorts. Federer is unquestionably the most  loved player of all time and Nick Kyrgios the most despised one in a long time. His atrocious on-court behavior which culminated in his tanking a match has earned him repeated fines and suspensions. Boasting a 6′-4″ physique and equipped with all the shots, he has beaten all the top players at one time or another. He has also followed  notable victories with an inexplicable loss while appearing to play as if he didn’t care. Tennis commentator and tennis great John McEnroe  has even called him a disgrace and called on him to quit tennis. McEnroe himself was no saint in his playing days but he managed to keep his emotions ( somewhat) in check and went on to have a great career. It remains to be seen whether Kyrgios can do the same; the clock is ticking.

BTW, after the Australian Open Federer, Grigor Dmitrovic  and Tommy Haas accompanied by David Foster on the piano, made a video of an off-key rendition of ” Hard to say I’m sorry”, the 80’s hit by the rock group Chicago. The trio styling themselves The ( one-handed) Backhand Boys must have been practicing because they’ve just reprised their effort and they are now pretty good. Check it out.

P.S As I was writing, Federer and Wawrinka won their semi-final matches  handily in straight sets and will face each other in Sunday’s final. Should be a good match and I’ll be watching.

 

 

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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. .

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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?

 

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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 !

 

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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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After watching a string of one-sided playoff contests, NFL fans finally had something to cheer about with not but two absorbing games last weekend. First, the Atlanta  Falcons held off the Seattle Seahawks and then the Green Bay Packers edged the Dallas Cowboys in a classic. What a terrific match ! When Green Bay surged to a 21-3 lead, I thought it was going to be a cakewalk for them. Then, as Dak Prescott chipped away at the huge deficit and quarterbacked the Boyz to a 28-28 tie, I thought that the momentum had shifted decisively in Dallas’ favor and that they were going to pull off a miraculous win. Even after the teams traded FGs, with barely 35 seconds on the clock I thought the match would go to OT and that the Cowboys would prevail. Except for Aaron Rodgers and his teammates, I don’t think anyone envisioned what followed as Jared Cook pulled in a laser-like Rodgers pass and Mason Crosby calmly kicked a 51-yarder to send the Packers to the Conference championship game. Wow!

Dallas has nothing to be ashamed off. After a slow start, the two rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot pulled their team back into contention only to be denied by a red -hot Aaron Rodgers. Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and others also did their part in making this a game to remember. With a stellar offensive line and a more experienced Prescott and Elliot can anyone doubt that the Cowboys will be back next year?

My two favorite teams are the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, in that order, and I was unhappy that the two had to meet in the wild card game. I didn’t really think the Giants had a chance and I wasn’t too upset when they lost after their defense had kept it close for most of the first half. However, the injury to the Packers Jordy Nelson was dispiriting because it kept him out of the game against the favored Cowboys. I need not have worried as Aaron Rodgers turned in an unbelievable performance even though he was missing his favorite receiver. Fans tend to judge a player by the number of Super Bowl rings he has, which I think is unfair because a player on a weak team is at a disadvantage in any such comparison. In my book, Aaron Rodgers is superior to both Tom Brady and Payton Manning even if he never wins another Super Bowl ring.

One of the memes, after the Packer win, was a circle chart  purporting to show the reasons why fans were happy with the result. A very thin sliver of the circle supposedly represented the fans who were celebrating a Green Bay win. The rest of the circle chart ( more than 95% ) allegedly showed the people who were just glad the Cowboys lost. I myself have a foot in both camps… I was happy the Packers won AND I was also happy  that the Cowboys lost.

Indeed the number of football fans who hate the Cowboys is legion. As one meme put it ” Cheering for the Cowboys is like watching the movie Titanic and rooting for the ship.” Another said ” My favorite team is whoever is playing the Cowboys“.

I was not always against the Cowboys. Along time ago, when Don Meredith and Roger Staubach were the quarterbacks and Chuck Howley, and Leroy Jordon were shoring up the defense I actually rooted for them. But then three things happened. I became a die-hard Giant fan, the Cowboys styled themselves America’s team and Jerry Jones became the team owner. I just can’t stand the man’s arrogance and his management style. There are plenty more who feel as I do. One fan wrote in to say” I felt nothing but joy watching Jerry Jones ‘ team get trounced by a team that is actually owned by the city it represents a nd isn’t just a rich man’s toy financed by hapless taxpayers.” I couldn’t agree more.

 

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