Tennis: Dawn of the New Decade
The Australian Open just finished marked the start of this decade's Grand Slam tournaments, and there were definite signs of change at the top of the pyramid for both the men's and women's singles competition.
The profile of the pyramid for the women's game is sleeker, though there's considerable doubt who occupies the capstone. Technically, the #1 player in the world is Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark; she occupies the top spot on the merit of consistent play over the last 52 weeks, but she has never won a Grand Slam and didn't seem particularly close to winning the Aussie. She fell to the #9-seeded player, Li Na of China, in the semifinals, and Ms. Li lost to #3 Kim Clijsters of Belgium in three sets.
Clijsters was the only one of the dominant women's players of the last decade to make a decent showing in this year's Australian, and she is apparently considering retiring after this year. Justine Henin lost fairly early and announced she was going back into retirement; Venus Williams showed up out of shape and got hurt at the end of her second-round match; Serena--who, regardless of the point system, is considered Queen of the Hill still if she plays--has not yet recovered from a deep cut in her foot that she suffered in a freakish accident last summer (and then she'll probably have to work for a month or two to get in shape). Big-serving Aussie Sam Stosur went out surprisingly early. The ground-game princesses like Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic have faded, and new Eastern European duchesses with big serves like Petkevich, Wozniacki herself, and Kvitova have not yet emerged, or, in the case of Maria Sharapova, have not yet fully re-emerged.
It is clear that the field for the next Slam event, the French Open, will be a wide-open one (though Clijsters will again probably be the favorite), and the same will be true for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, unless Serena proves herself fully fit by then. Two to watch for in the French will be Svetlana Kuznetzova and Francesca Schiavone; Schiavone is the defending French champ, and Kuznetzova ("Svettie") showed up in Melbourne in her best shape ever. They cancelled each other out, though, in their matchup in the round of 16, the longest women's Grand Slam match ever; Schiavone outlasted Svettie 16-14 in the final set and played gamely but couldn't stay with Wozniacki in the next round.
Men's Game: The Australian Open favors men who cover the court well, and by that token the finals matchup of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray--two of the fittest, fleetest court-coverers around--was no surprise. What was a surprise was the absence in the final, for the first time in years, of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer lost to Djokovic in straight sets in the semifinals--possibly a match of historic significance, though we'll have to see if the Fed is able to revenge himself at Wimbledon before we demote him to the second tier--while Nadal looked very strong until he suffered a hamstring injury in his quarterfinal match against countryman David Ferrer and went down to him in three painful sets. For Nadal, the first test in the future will be whether he is able to get fit enough to restore his dominance on clay in the French Open.
In the longer run, I think it is likely that the Federer-Nadal exclusivity at the top of the game is near its end (though not necessarily over just yet). Djokovic has shown that he can battle the duo on even terms when his game is at its best; Murray has a good record against them, as well, though he still seems a bit psyched out when it comes to Grand Slam finals; then there is Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina. Del Potro may have the most intimidating all-round power game ever, and his sweep through the top tier of tennis to win the U.S. Open was no fluke. The problem has been his health (his shoulder, I believe) ever since. Del Potro could become the top player in the world within two years if he can come back healthy.
Stupor Bowl XLV--
Today is Super Bowl Sunday and all red-blooded American males (and those females somehow drawn in, or shackled in) will be watching impatiently for the endless pregame show to end and the event finally to begin. Then, if it is like the majority of Super Bowls, one hour later the game will be all but over (with 2 hours left in the game's telecast, not to mention the postgame) and we'll be looking for something else to do.
The matchup is a very good one in football terms. It is not the ratings dream (especially for the network executivees) matchup of the two largest markets with NFL teams which could have come out of the Conference championships, but rather two rather dinky, aging markets in the economically dreary Rust Bowl. Still, the sales of advertisements (at $2 million a minute) don't seem to be flagging. The Packers and Steelers are two original NFL teams, still in their original locations, each with rich traditions and a history of success in Super Bowls. Their teams are old school, rugged outfits, but with high-quality quarterbacks heading their offenses.
I would predict a slow start, as each team tries to establish a running game to help protect their QB's from all-out blitz defensive strategies. If there are no big errors (defenders will be looking to force fumbles, for example), a low score at halftime, then both teams will come out swinging for the fences (baseball metaphor) by throwing long bombs (more appropriately, war metaphor). I'd predict a wild second half, and a moderately close game. The Steelers have a lot more recent success in Super Bowls, so I would make them the favorite, and I'd predict a final score of 34-24.