Monthly Archives: May 2011

There are always a lot of assumptions made in tennis tournaments, but two of the most common ones over the last week and a half have been that #4 Victoria Azarenka and #7 Maria Sharapova would meet in the semifinals, and that the winner should win the tournament.  I personally would love to see a match between these two giants of the game that seem like they could be sisters — what with their tall, thin frames, long blonde hair, power games, eastern european descent and tendencies to shriek on court.

But in order to get through Wednesday’s quarterfinals, a lot will have to go right.  For Sharapova, she takes on an opponent in #15 Andrea Petkovic that knocked her out of the 2011 Aussie Open in blowout fashion.  Maria got some revenge in Miami, but only after dropping the first set.  Sharapova seemed to get very annoyed with Petkovic doing her signature dancing around the court, and Maria proceeded to annihilate Petko over the final two sets, dropping only two games.  The two have never met on clay, and Sharapova is 2-1 lifetime against Petkovic, taking 2010’s Masters series tournament in Cincinnati.

While Sharapova has a tough match against an aggressive player, Vika Azarenka has a match against a woman who actually owns her.  Aza and Na Li have only ever played on hard court, but Li is 3-1 against Vika, including the last matchup, which was also at this year’s Australian Open, and was also in straight sets.  And as far as previous major accomplishments go, Li is the one who has made a grand slam final, which she dropped in three sets to Kim Clijsters (2011 Australian Open).  Azarenka, meanwhile, has never made it past the quarterfinal round of any grand slam tournament.  So while everyone keeps repeating that Vika Azarenka is the player to beat at this tournament, history would actually argue otherwise.  While I do like Na Li, and she was 1/2 of my biggest tennis parlay hit of my life, I hope that Azarenka can play her game and hopefully that clay somehow benefits her in the results column.  We hockey fans gotta stick together.

The top half of the women’s semis have already been set.  #11 Marion Bartoli of France will take on defending champion and #5 seed Francesca Schiavone for the right to go to the finals.

*** One quick note, because it was not worth an entire blog post. ***

The Atlanta Thrashers are now officially moving to Winnipeg, and tomorrow I will give my thoughts on why I think there were some shady means to the correct end.  I’m glad for Winnipeg and Canada in general, but this whole thing could have been done a little more honestly, in my opinion.  That comes tomorrow, and then will not be addressed again, because it will be time for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Roger Federer defeated the last French player in the field Tuesday, scoring a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (3) straight-setter over Gael Monfils, who I’m hearing will move all the way to #6 in the world next week.  The unsurprising win sets the stage for a rather large semifinal match with #2 Novak Djokovic, who was the beneficiary of a walkover by Fabio Fognini a day before his quarterfinal match with the Djoker was to be held.

This match itself is for the right to go to the finals at Roland Garros and play for a grand slam championship, but it means more than that to each player.  For Federer, this match represents an opportunity to silence his critics by beating the unbeatable man, and getting a shot at a second career slam, and this time perhaps without the “didn’t have to beat Nadal” asterisk.  It is also an opportunity to delay Djokovic’s ascent to the #1 ranking, which probably does not mean much to Federer personally, but surely Roger feels a little bit annoyed at the reports of his athletic demise.

As for Djokovic, a win against Federer would assure him the world #1 ranking next week, a subjective achievement that he has yet to attain.  Additionally, a win in the semis would run his record in 2011 to 42-0, which would tie John McEnroe’s all-time record for best start to a season.  Needless to say, the record could then be Djokovic’s by weekend’s end, but it would have to be accompanied by a more important accomplishment:  the French Open title.  If Djokovic is able to win this tournament, he would be the #1 ranked player, have the record for best start to a season at 43-0 and counting, grab a third career major, and be halfway to a 2011 calendar grand slam.  Those are all pretty high stakes, and it will be interesting to see if Nole shows any signs of being weighed down by the meaning of it all.  I doubt that he will, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be beaten by Federer.

The top half of the draw still has to be filled out, and most people expect Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray to complete the dream semifinals that fans have wanted for many consecutive slam events.  But here are four reasons why it might not happen.

1.  Robin Soderling, Nadal’s opponent on Wednesday, has had success here before.  The #5 ranked player from Sweden has been the runner-up at Roland Garros the past two years.
2.  Soderling is in the zone, while Nadal’s form has come under question.
3.  Soderling is the only man who has ever beaten Nadal here at the French Open.
4.  Andy Murray doesn’t exactly always take advantage of wide open draws.

Both matches tomorrow should be interesting, but I don’t think Murray v. Juan Ignacio Chela can hold a candle to Nadal v. Soderling as far as intrigue goes.  It will be up to Murray as to whether or not he wants to get involved in a tough match, which he too often does.  I would think Murray should be good to win here, and probably in three sets.  If it goes five, watch out.  As far as Nadal’s form goes, I think reports of it being down are greatly exaggerated.  Look at his results.  Three of his four wins have been in straight sets, and the one match that he had to go five in was the result of Nadal dropping two tie breakers.  Soderling has also not dropped any “legitimate” sets; he dropped a tie breaker to American journeyman Ryan Harrison in the first round.  I would love to see Soderling challenge and even get out to a lead in this match, but I don’t think anyone would make him a favorite.  Gotta assume Nadal in four.
Upon researching the remaining round of 16 matches in the women’s draw at Roland Garros, I found some encouraging trends, as well as a disappointing one.  Some good news, and some bad news.  Let’s give the bad news first.

At the very bottom of the bottom half of the bracket sits #25 Maria Kirilenko, who will take on #15 Andrea Petkovic tomorrow.  I make no apologies for the ladies I root for, and in this match I will without question root for one of my favorites, Ms. Kirilenko.  But the outlook for Maria to make the quarterfinals is bleak.  These two players have only ever played twice, and both times were in 2011 and on clay.  Petkovic took both matches in straight sets.  There is always hope, but it doesn’t seem like Kirilenko matches up well with Petkovic, who has shot up the rankings of both the tour and popularity this season.  Petkovic has the advantage in height and weight, as well as form, as she is 32-9 this season, compared to Kirilenko’s 10-10.  I’d have to say Maria is a longshot to beat Petko tomorrow, but it can be done.

Maria Kirilenko looks like that while she’s playing tennis.

The not-so-bad news comes in looking at #4 Vika Azarenka’s matchup with the barely unseeded (world #33) Ekaterina Makarova.  Azarenka is 2-1 against Makarova, with both wins coming this year.  But both were on hard court, and one was a three setter, so there is definitely the possibility of the highest remaining seed getting bounced.  But Aza has been playing probably the best tennis of anyone in the field this week, and it should be her match to lose.  This is Azarenka’s best chance to grab that first major and the hottie belt, right as Caroline Wozniacki has surrendered both.  People jumped on the Vika bandwagon when she was very young, and then couldn’t dive off fast enough after she imploded in a couple grand slams due to illnesses, both physical and emotional.  But it looks like now might be the time to buy Azarenka, because there is a clear possibility that she wins this tournament, and is a contender on all surfaces, whether Serena Williams is injured or not.

As the top seed remaining, Vika Azarenka has her chance to grab a grand slam and the best pretty player title in the next six days.

The match I don’t care so much about pits #6 Na Li against #9 Petra Kvitova.  I’m something of a fan of Li, as she seems funny and kind of small, and also because she seems to have taken a few steps professionally at an older age than most.  But she is 0-1 against Kvitova, who won their only match just this spring in Madrid, which is of course a clay tournament.  The big left hander from the Czech Republic won 6-3, 6-1, and boasts an impressive 32-6 record in 2011, which has landed her three singles titles.  The steady woman from Wuhan, China has gone 22-8 this year, but will need to change something from Madrid if she is to advance to the French quarterfinals.  I would have to assume a Kvitova win.

Of the four matches Monday, the one with the most sure track record is the only pitting #7 Maria Sharapova against #12 Agnieszka Radwanska.  Maria is 6-1 against Aggie, and has won the last five matchups, which have all been on hard court.  The only time they faced each other on clay was in 2007, which went to Sharapova in three sets.  But both players are better now than they were then, and Maria has seen a return to longer glimpses of dominant form.  She has become a clay court favorite after winning the Italian Open a couple of weeks ago, and given her stature and game, has to be considered the one who will decide the outcome of this match.  I think Radwanska is a really good player who could totally grab a major anytime, but given the history and the current trending, I would say Maria Sharapova will probably survive this match and take on the winner of the Petkovic / Kirilenko match.

Maria Sharapova stated recently that she will regain the world #1 ranking.  In doing so, Masha implicitly guaranteed that she will win back the hottie belt for the third time.

So while in a perfect world we would see Kirilenko and Sharapova go at it for the right to take on Azarenka for the hottie title belt, the likely winning four-lady parlay tomorrow is Petkovic-Azarenka-Kvitova-Sharapova.  And as Jack Nicholson said in “Mars Attacks,” “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three [beautiful players] working for them, and that ain’t bad.”
Although this is a blog dedicated primarily to hockey, and secondarily to tennis, pretty ladies and failed attempts at humor, I do enjoy the game of basketball and follow enough to be aware of the playoffs.  I have an opinion based on a couple of facts, and I also hope that my ignorance serves as a jinx, because I’m picking the squad I would never root for to win the NBA title.

To me, the question isn’t so much whether the Miami Heat will win the championship over the Dallas Mavericks, again, but rather whether the series will need to come back to Miami for a Game 6.  The Heat open the series with two home games on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 p.m. each night.  If I could just take a dig here, which I can, the NHL would never start a game at 9 p.m. local time.  Hell, once the playoffs get deep enough the NHL won’t even let Vancouver and co. start after 6:15 local time.  It’s a joke.  But anyway, there are a few things that lead me to wonder why anyone would pick Dallas to win this series.

First, LeBron James has proven himself to unquestionably be the best basketball player in the league.  The Derrick Rose MVP thing was nice, but nobody of sound mind can legitimately argue that Rose is a more valuable player than James.  Having the best player is usually a pretty big deal in basketball, but it doesn’t always add up to titles (see: James’ Cavaliers).  Dirk Nowitski is probably the second best player in the series, although he and Dwyane Wade seem to be pretty close.  But since we think Wade is hurt to some degree, and Dirk has been setting the world on fire, we’ll lean Dirk over Wade.  So Miami has two of the best three players in the series, and home court advantage.  Miami is 8-0 at home in these playoffs, albeit against lesser opposition (bad Philly, banged up Boston, offensively-challenged Bulls).  One would have to see some specific reasons to pick Dallas to overturn the home court and the 2 of the best 3 players advantages that Miami holds.

Dwyane Wade at the 2008 Olympic Games, signaling the number of guys sitting to his left he was planning on bringing with him to the Miami Heat.

The second reason I like Miami is a dismissal of the Mavs’ backers obvious counterargument: that Dirk Nowitski is indefensible.  This has been true during their run through the western conference, but that’s mainly because these teams they have been beating all boast strong interior defenders who want to push Dirk around in the post.  The problem is, Dirk hasn’t had to post up because he is so good that he can score from anywhere.  This versatility renders these tough big men like Andrew Bynum, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins rather useless against Dirk, and it forced the Lakers and Thunder to throw other, smaller options at Dirk, which of course he ate alive.  But Miami has some options defensively.  First, they can start out with Chris Bosh on Nowitski, which might actually fall into Bosh’s comfort zone, since he doesn’t really like to bang bodies down low.  If Dirk destroys Bosh down low, the Heat will almost assuredly move tough man Udonis Haslem over, and put the kibosh on easy buckets.  I can already hear you saying, “yeah, but then Dirk will step outside and score from there.”  Yes, maybe he will.  But then there’s that wild card — the man who seems to be able to guard anybody, the best player in the league, LeBron James.  The king without a crown shut down the league MVP in crunch time of the last series, and has the height and strength to do the same to big men.  Frankly, if the Mavs are to have any shot of pushing this series six games, they need to find lots of scoring from everyone on the team besides Nowitski.

The third reason it’s hard to pick Dallas is that we all saw what happened the last time owner Mark Cuban got close to winning the championship.  If you don’t remember, what happened was, the officials made sure the Heat won Game 3 to get back in the series and avoid an 0-3 hole.  The result was a 4-2 series win for the Heat, and a lot of conspiracy theories based on NBA commissioner David Stern’s unadulterated disapproval of Cuban’s “antics.”  Since then, Cuban seems to have slowed his roll, and has even avoided speaking to the media about this run by the Mavericks.  But it would be hard to see the league not preferring league stars like James and Wade to drive the league’s ratings moving forward as opposed to letting Cuban hang a banner and have a spectacle of a ring ceremony on opening night 2011.  Wounds heal, but general distaste for another person usually never goes away.

The arguments for Dallas rest on the fact that they played in a tougher conference, but then the reasons get pretty emotional.  There’s the “Jason Terry got a tattoo of the trophy on his arm, so they’re destined to win it.”  Yeah they’re not.  There’s, “Dirk has transformed his game and is now unstoppable.”  No, he’s improved his game like anyone who works hard should, but he’s still largely the same player that he has always been.  I love Dirk, but let’s not forget he’s won zero championships with his unstoppable game.  Then there’s my favorite, which is, “Miami only has two and a half players.”  This is a joke. Sure, people have acknowledged that Haslem gives the Heat three solid players now, to add to Chris Bosh, who is that half-player.  But all I would say is, if Miami has 3.5 players, how many does Dallas have?  And remember, Chris Bosh is half a player.  Dallas might have more than 8 of the top 15 players in the series, but that’s probably not what it will come down to.  It will come down to who can score the ball on important possessions, and who can stop the opponent from doing so.  I think the team that’s better equipped to do both is Miami.

Chris Bosh read all of these books whilst at Georgia Tech.  Doing so transformed him into half a basketball player, and also the alien from the movie “Alien.”

Because I don’t see Dallas winning all three games at home in the middle of the series, I think the only way they can win it is if they grab Game 1 or 2.  Dallas would then have to win two of three at home to head to Miami with a 3-2 lead and a realistic shot at exorcising 2006’s demons.  The truth is, I’m not sure they can and/or will be allowed to win one of the first two, and I’m confident in Miami’s ability to win at least one on the road, so I’ll go with what I have to think is the most logical pick:  Miami Heat in six games.

I’ll be rooting for Dallas every step of the way, just like most of the country.  Game 1 is Tuesday night at 9 p.m., live from America’s tip.
In a game that will give goalie coaches fodder for years to come, Tim Thomas was able to keep the puck out of his net in Boston’s 1-0 home win in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson was brilliant both before and after allowing the game’s only goal, but his 37 saves on 38 shots weren’t quite enough for the Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since winning it in 2004.  The game winning goal was scored, as predicted by Tram’s Table yesterday, by Nathan Horton.

Some things that went against the natural flow of the series showed up in the stat sheet.  For one, Tampa Bay gave the puck away more than Boston did, by an 11-7 clip.  Second, and I know a lot of people disregard this stat, but Boston won the faceoff battle 35-26.  There’s no way of knowing what might have happened offensively for the Lightning had the faceoff stats been reversed, but I’m sure most of you are already groaning.  Third, Boston actually outshot Tampa Bay by a wide margin — 38-24.  I said yesterday that I thought Thomas would have to make six more saves than Roloson, but that was wholly untrue, because Boston hunkered down and played a very focused all-rink game that most people thought they were capable of all along.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there were no penalties called in the entire game.  If that premise would have been offered to each team before the game, Boston would have jumped at the idea and probably figured they could win by more than one goal, while Tampa Bay would have refused the offer as quickly as if they had been asked to volunteer to get beaten with a night stick.  The Lightning have made a killing on the power play, and without the luxury of any last night, they were unable to assert themselves as the more offensively dominant team, and in turn unable to score at all.  Credit to the referees for letting them play, as the game seems to have gotten a very strong rating in the realm of public entertainment and satisfaction.

But as much as we all loved the talent, passion and desire to ascend that the Lightning showed us, all eyes must now turn to the Bruins and Canucks, who will open their seven-game series for sports’ greatest trophy on Wednesday, June 1 in Vancouver.  The Canucks have played all season with that big “40” at center ice, denoting that this is the franchise’s 40th season in the NHL.

It is well documented that Vancouver has never won the Stanley Cup, but it is interesting that when the Canucks dropped the puck on their inaugural season in the fall of 1970, it was the Boston Bruins who were the defending Cup champions.  Boston won the Cup again in 1972, but have since failed to hoist the ultimate prize.  The Bruins won the eastern conference, or “eastern division” or “Wales conference” as it was formerly known, five times from 1974 to 1990.  In those five Stanley Cup finals series, Boston was swept twice and won a total of only five games (meaning they averaged a 4-1 series loss).  The B’s never forced a Game 7 in that stretch, and thus haven’t played a game for the Stanley Cup since that last victory in 1972.  In case you were wondering, Boston hasn’t won the eastern conference since 1990, and in fact hadn’t even reached the conference finals since 1992.  That is all now, of course, history.

But in order for the Bruins to get a chance to finally play a game for the Stanley Cup, they will have to play with a heightened awareness and attention to detail.  I am not stating the obvious simply because this is now the final round, but instead because this is the first time in these playoffs that Boston is playing against an opponent that is, quite frankly, better than they are.  The Canucks seem to finally be rolling, as they have won each series in one fewer game than the last.  If that trend were to continue, the Canucks would sweep the Bruins in four games, but I find that to be an unlikely outcome.

The biggest difference between the way these two teams have gotten here is the power play numbers.  While Vancouver’s edge over Boston in killing off penalties has been negligible this postseason (80.8% to 79.4%), the gap in power play percentage is frightening if you’re a Bruins fan.  Vancouver has played with the man advantage 60 times this postseason; Boston has had 61 power plays.  But the Canucks have poured in 17 goals in those 60 chances, for a jaw-dropping 28.3% success rate.  Boston, meanwhile, has only managed to tally 5 PPGs in 61 chances, which is an anemic 8.2%.  Come to think of it, that’s only 1.67 power play goals per series, and two of their three series have gone seven games!  I don’t think Vancouver will score on 28.3% of their power plays in the finals, but there’s no real reason to think that the number shouldn’t be around 20%, which is what both teams have allowed this postseason.  So to me, the key to whether or not Boston can push this series to a deciding seventh game (or win it before that) is whether Boston can slow down Vancouver’s power play while also improving on their own unsuccessful man advantages.  To put some numbers on this problem, if Boston cut Vancouver’s PP% by a third while also doubling its own PP%, the Canucks would still hold an 18.9% to 16.4% advantage, and I’m not sure there are too many people who feel that Boston has some sort of even strength advantage over the Canucks.  This is why beyond just the special teams adjustments, Boston absolutely must play with an attention to detail throughout this series so that they don’t give games away, because against this opponent, they cannot afford to do so.
Tonight’s Game 7 in Boston epitomizes all that is great in the competitive world.  Grown men are putting everything on the line in a classic American sports city, and are one win away from being one round away, and one loss away from being devastated.

Games like tonight are the reason that teams give solid efforts throughout the regular season, so that they can play these most important games in the friendly confines of their own rinks, in front of their own fans.  Both teams gave similar efforts to end up with 103 points apiece, but it was the lack of a serious contender in the Northeast division that puts tonight’s game in Boston.  While Tampa Bay was busy smashing their heads against the wall trying to win a division over Washington, Boston cruised to a 7-point cushion over second place Montreal.  It should be noted, however, that Boston would have won a tiebreaker over Tampa Bay based on 65 minute wins if it had come to that.

As for tonight’s game, I have liked what I’ve seen out of Tampa Bay for a long while now.  Everything in my gut tells me to take Stanley Cup champions like Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier to win tonight, especially when everyone is bringing up the “Dwayne Roloson is 7-0 in elimination games” statistic.  I think both goalies are great, but also give games away at times due to questionable fundamentals and risk assessment.  But when I see Roloson be bad, it’s usually bewildering because it seems as if he’s just not locked in, while Thomas’ gaffes seem to be the product of a too aggressive style, which is also what makes him as great as he is.  I don’t expect either goalie to be bad tonight, but for some reason I trust Thomas more.

I’m not sure there’s much of a home ice advantage right now, since the Bruins fans all remember being knocked out last year at home in a Game 7 that Boston led by three goals.  Additionally, the Bruins crowd seems to get tight in important home games, which leads to quietness if the game is going alright, and booing and anger if it is not.  As much of a problem as I see in this, and as much as I love the Lightning’s hockey spirit, which I believe at this moment is better than the Bruins’, I’ve seen too many Game 7s to advocate picking the road team to win the game.  Now, if we want to talk betting odds, I would probably take Tampa Bay at +140 before I would take Boston at -160, so I think there’s some value there.  But as far as winning the game, I reluctantly pick Boston to win tonight by a score of 3-2.  Game winning goal to Nathan Horton, and Timmy Thomas will probably have to make 6 more saves than Dwayne Roloson.

The puck drops tonight at 8 p.m. ET, and the winner will fly to Vancouver to open the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday, June 1.
Yet again, Caroline Wozniacki has made me look bad.  This time it comes in the form of a 6-1, 6-3 loss to #28 Daniela Hantuchova, who I said yesterday “had no ability to finish” big matches.  What I forgot was that #1 Wozniacki has had a very limited ability to finish her own difficult matches this year.  Her loss “opens up” the top half of the bracket to some degree, although I’m not sure playing Wozniacki would have been viewed as any more difficult that playing Hantuchova.

At any rate, most of the intrigue of the women’s bracket, from a male perspective, has to be on the bottom half, where it is still possible to have #7 Maria Sharapova, #4 Victoria Azarenka and Sorana Cirstea each make it to the quarterfinals, where they could be joined by the winner of tomorrow’s match between Arantxa Rus and #25 Maria Kirilenko.

4th-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus has her best shot yet at the Hottie Belt

World No. 99 Sorana Cirstea of Romania had a disappointing 2010, but was a quarterfinalist at the 2009 French Open, where she first threw her hat into the ring.

*** Match of the Day ***
The beautiful Maria Kirilenko (left) will try to knock off Thursday’s stunner Arantxa Rus (right) in Round 3 on Saturday. 

#25 seed Maria Kirilenko of Moscow, Russia
World No. 114 Arantxa Rus of Monster, South Holland

Maria Sharapova seeks to complete her career grand slam and take back the Hottie Belt in unanimous fashion.

I wonder if the television ratings would be higher than usual if four of these five ladies staged their own “conference final four” on the bottom half of the draw.  In related news, Azarenka and Kirilenko are playing doubles together, and are through to the round of 16.  The duo is seeded fifth.

On the men’s side, #3 Roger Federer looked very sharp in smoking #29 Janko Tipsarevic in three sets.  #7 David Ferrer dominated #31 Sergiy Stakhovsky, dropping only five games.  I predicted a 5-set win for Ferrer; off by just a tad.  As I write this, #14 Stan Wawrinka has just come back from two sets down to defeat #17 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in front of his home crowd.  Djokovic holds a one-set lead over del Potro.

Once the field gets down to 16, I will post my bracket that predicts the final four rounds of each field.  Feel free to bet against it to make some easy money.