Today (Sunday, June 8, 2013) is a big day in sports. A lot of the day's events have already been completed as of this time (8:30 p.m. Central), so I'll trade forecasting for some recap and commentary.
Return of the King (and Queen)
The French Open women's final was held this morning, with Serena Williams firmly establishing her dominance in the field, defeating the defending champion and #2 seed Maria Sharapova. Serena's return to a level of play as good as she has ever shown is a great accomplishment that has taken years, since a critical injury followed by a blood clot in her lung three years ago threatened her very life. Her sister Venus' difficulties, due at least in part to an auto-immune condition, make the moment somewhat bittersweet for the Williams clan, but Serena's win of the Grand Slam event on clay (her least favorite surface) for the first time in a decade sets her up for a superb 2013, as she looks to be a huge favorite in both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open should she stay healthy.
The Men's final is tomorrow, but one would suppose that Rafael Nadal's win and eighth French title is all but assured. His finals opponent, fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, is a good friend of Nadal (at least I think so) but that doesn't prevent him from beating him consistently. Ferrer is persistent, so it takes a lot of work to beat him, but Nadal has the better game, and, I think, the psychological edge as well. I will say that Ferrer has never played better, with more dominant results, than he has in this tournament: I don't think he's lost a set, while Nadal lost a couple in the early rounds before he really got into world-beating form.
He needed that for his epic semifinal showdown with world #1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic took him to five sets and had winning chances, but Nadal got key breaks and won the last set, 9-7 (in the French, the last set does not go to a tiebreaker). Djokovic is still #1 in the world, and should be, but Nadal has reclaimed his position as King of Clay, especially the clay in Paris.
More Royal Intrigue
As a native-born Kentuckian, I have great regard for the Derby. It's the Democratization of the Big Break for horses, a cavalry charge of 20 3-year-olds, many of them relatively unproven, and the results are generally unpredictable. The atmosphere is intoxicating, a mix of purebred horsey folks and the unwashed masses, lubricated with mint juleps.
Still, from the point of view of pure horse racing excitement, I like the Belmont Stakes best. The field has been winnowed down a bit (or a lot), the racing challenge is extreme, there's that endless homestretch run. Today's edition was a great one--it pretty much always is. The winners of the Derby and the Preakness, Orb and Oxbow, were there at the top of the stretch, along with a third horse, Palace Malice, that had matched strides with the front-running Oxbow through most of the race. The big surprise was that Palace Malice was the one that outlasted the other two champions--a good payoff for the bettors who picked up on the notion that removing the blinders (a eye-sized screen to prevent horses from looking around) would let loose P.M.'s full capability.
They Say This Be "Hawkeytown"
The term reflects just a little too much leeway for the headline writer, but the hockey Blackhawks do have sports fans' attention here in Chicago now. The Rose-less Bulls fell out bravely but early, neither major league baseball team has done anything to deserve attention so far this year, and the Chicago Fire--despite a good team name--plays soccer. The Blackhawks are a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup this year, and their performance in the shortened regular season (40% of it lost to lockout) was spectacularly good. Expectations are very high; nothing less than winning the Cup will satisfy the local fans.
A great regular season means next to nothing in the S.C. playoffs--it's about getting on a hot streak, and particularly about the performance of your goalie. The Blackhawks have gotten through two rounds, though, Corey Crawford has been consistently excellent anchoring a solid defense, and they are on the verge of winning the third round and making it to the finals, in which they would play the Boston Bruins. They are currently up three games to one against the L.A. Kings, so one more win will put them through. In tonight's game five, at home, Chicago had a 2-0 lead after the first of the three periods, but the Kings have recovered and tied it up. An interesting overtime seems likely at this point, but even if the Hawks lose tonight, one would think they should be able to win out. On the other hand, though, Chicago trailed 3-1 to Detroit in the last round and battled back to win.
Note: While typing this last paragraph, Chicago scored a controversial goal which may end up winning the series. While typing the next one, L.A. scored to tie it up again and force sudden-death overtime.
Pressure's on the Heat*
I didn't do such a great job predicting the NBA playoffs in my last sports post. Memphis could have made it a good series vs. the Spurs, but blew big leads in both Games 2 and 3, losing them in overtime, and went down 4-0. As for the Heat, it's basically been a one-man show for LeBron James, who has been enough to carry them through three rounds of the playoffs. It was a tough 7-game series against the Indiana Pacers, though, in the Eastern Conference finals, and the pattern remained much the same in Game 1 of the Championships. The difference is that the Spurs have shown the capability of keeping LBJ in check, and their 1-2 punch of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan has been very effective in the playoffs.
Having won Game 1 in Miami, the Spurs have taken home-court advantage away; however, this is LeBron James, and Miami is far from cooked. I expect the Heat to win Game 2, and then they would have three chances to win one in San Antonio and take back the advantage. I hesitate to repeat my previous mistakes (the biggest one is to predict at all). I see this as a very close series, and I'll go with Miami in 7. With trepidation. If Miami doesn't win, look for James to throw his teammates under the bus and look for a more sure thing.
Baseball: 5/13 of the Season Done
Just over one-third of the regular season has been played--that point was reached a few days ago. Time for plenty of clear indications about this year, even time for some teams to make a shining move and flame out (see Cleveland).
The big disappointments so far this year are the two Los Angeles teams, both of which spent freely and had high expectations for this season. The Washington Nationals would be the other team falling far short of predicted levels, though they are young and their success last year was not fully convincing (to me). The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox are the teams I least expected to be among the leaders; though the Pirates are clearly improving, they are the ones I most expect to fade from the leaders in the final 8/13 of the season. Two teams which have done better than most expectations are the Braves and Yankees, though really nobody should be surprised by that. The Yankees have plenty of excuses for poor early-season performance--something like $100MM worth of 2013 salary was on the bench due to injuries through most of it--but they need none.
With the fade of the Angels and of the Nationals, the Texas Rangers in the AL West and the Braves in the NL East would seem to be the likely beneficiaries and division winners. The Detroit Tigers, probably the most well-rounded team now that Jose Valverde appears to have solved their closer reliever problem, are clearly the favorites in the AL Central.
The other three divisions should have interesting pennant races. In the NL West, we should look for the defending champion San Francisco Giants to overcome the surprise leading team, the Diamondbacks. The NL Central has a surprising claim to being the best division in the majors so far, as it has the team with the best performance of all (St. Louis) and two of the next best (the Pirates and Reds). This weekend, the Reds host the Cards for yet another critical showdown in their rivalry, which is emerging as perhaps the hottest in the league (the Reds got a big win today!) Finally, the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will be chasing the Bosox in the AL East; Boston's strong start has surprised many because they were so bad last year, and I don't believe they can hold on to win the division, but they might be able to win one of the two wild-card spots.
From Bosox to Botox
The big news this week was the reporting that the Commissioner's office has convinced the sleazoid head of a Florida purveyor of performance-enhancing drugs to talk to investigators. Somehow, the notebooks of this guy got released to reporters earlier in the year--probably related to some failed shakedown attempt against some of the major baseball stars who might become implicated--so we have some idea whom he might be able to rat upon.
This is not to take the side of players who may have violated the rules and used performance-enhancing drugs--successfully so, as they have not failed any of the drug tests required. The key angle is that--as apparently was the case with Barry Bonds a few years ago--this Biogenesis outfit seems to have developed some kind of body juicing which the tests can't detect. And its capomafia seems willing to betray his clients if they don't continue to pay up.
The talk this week was of 100-game suspensions--coincidentally, or not, about the number of games remaining in the regular season--fifty for first drug offenses (almost all of the names mentioned would be first-time offenders) and fifty more for lying about it. I don't believe this rumor; if true, it would be a lawsuit waiting to happen; however, if the allegations can be corroborated by something or someone other than the Biogenesis pusher, there will be consequences, with major performers like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and Melky Cabrera supposedly on the firing line. I think this will take weeks, months, or even years to play out to its conclusion; until then, the players under threat, and the teams depending upon them, will be adversely affected.
*From the narrow viewpoint of blogging fun, I'm sort of hoping that Miami wins a couple of games so I could use as a subhead title the scientific fact "Heat Increases the Pressure".