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8:40PM

Gruden and Raiders: Can he go home again?

ALAMEDA Calif.—You’re a Raiders fan—an Oakland Raiders fan—and you wonder what they’re going to do to you next? Your loyalty goes unrewarded. Your frustration is ignored.

  The new coach, who used to be the old coach, said he came back because he had something to prove. Where’s he going to prove it, in Las Vegas?

  The team isn’t very good, which can’t be blamed on the coach—except he was involved in trading the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, for draft picks,  some of whom, it the timetable holds, will not be on team until it’s no longer in Oakland,.

  The coach ought to know about giving up people who matter for potential. draftees. Nearly 20 years ago he was the guy who mattered, the coach of a Raiders team that was in the playoffs, that in a couple seasons would win a Super Bowl. But Jon Gruden had been swapped for draft picks who never did very much.

  When Gruden arrived the first time, 1998, he was 35 and loving it. He cracked jokes, taunted the writers. He worked for Al Davis, yes, nerve-wracking. Still it was his first NFL head coaching assignment. This was what he always wanted, so how could he not handle everything with a smile?

  Now he is 55. And famous, more so as commentator for ESPN—hey aren’t you the guy we saw on TV?—than for his coaching background. The Raiders were pounded by the Rams, 33-13, Monday, Gruden’s return game, and Tuesday Gruden was confronted by the media, for a second time in maybe 14 hours. There weren’t a lot of laughs.

  Mack wouldn’t have made the Raiders a winner, although he would have made them more competitive. Defense wins. Everyone in football knows that. You don’t get rid of a once-in-a-decade pass rusher.

  You know the line. It was given to Thomas Wolfe by an English writer, Ella Winter, and he was so enamored Wolfe used it as the title of his last novel,”You Can’t Go Home Again.”  You can walk in the door of the old house years later, but nothing is quite same. Different viewpoints, different situations.

  After he left as head coach of the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls, Bill Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had earned his reputation. But it didn’t quite work. He didn’t have the same enthusiasm and the student-athletes, as the label goes, were not the way he remembered. Society changes. Sports changes.

  Gruden knows the game.  He was less a commentator than an instructor and critic on those “John Gruden Quarterback Camp” segments, one of which dealt with a kid named Derek Carr, who the second half Monday night played less than favorably, throwing interceptions,

  Still, it you’re always behind because the other team (i.e., Rams) is sharp on offense and you’re less than sharp on defense—or offense—the quarterback, in this case, Carr, is going to be heaving balls in desperation.

‘There were a few plays when unchacteristically (Carr) wasn’t at his best,” said Gruden. No quips. No double-entendre. No TV commentary. Just a cold, hard serious observation.

  “Sometimes,” Gruden pointed out correctly, “you have to credit (Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips.” As if Phillips didn’t receive all the credit possible as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they stiffed Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.

  “They gave us multiple looks out there,” said Gruden of the Rams defense. “They have some talented people out there. It’s just disappointing. But I think knowing how good Derek is it can all be solved.”

  Is that coach talking or the TV announcer?

  Gruden knows his stuff. He also knows what his team lacks—a top pass rusher, like Khalil Mack. Funny you should mention that.

  One thing that hasn’t changed in the 10 years since he left coaching and the 20 years or so since he first game with the Raiders is that defeat remains painful.

  “It stinks,” he said candidly, “Losses all feel painful. Especially Monday night losses when you have to get up and get ready for a team like Denver.”

   What do you think it is for Raider fans who have to get ready for losing their team in Oakland?

6:34PM

For Serena the day after: A $17,000 fine and plenty of support

  NEW YORK—And now it’s not merely sport. Now it’s sexism and racism and people who are quick to try to get control by getting into someone’s wallet, or purse—but isn’t the distinction between those two sexist?

 Tennis is back to its schizophrenic stages of lunacy, which perhaps is the way to get noticed at the start of the NFL season.

   What happened to Serena Williams? Virtually everybody except Trump and Obama had an opinion. I mean, it wasn’t surprising that Billie Jean King would weigh in on the chaos. It’s her tennis center where the U.S. Open is held. At least it’s named for Billie Jean.

 Naturally John McEnroe, Mr. Controversy his ownself when he played in the 1980s, currently announcing the tournament on ESPN, along with younger brother Patrick, would give an “I’ve been there” comment—because he has been there.

  Maybe the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, was a trifle impatient with Williams on Saturday night, snatching a game from her in the second set of her, 6-2, 6-4, finals loss Saturday night to Naomi Osaka. All right, more than a trifle.

   Still, the emotion, arguments, confusion, distress, heresy and general lack of civility didn’t seem to have as much of an impact as does the eternal war between female and male

    Everybody appeared to be wrong at the women’s final, except poor Ms. Osaka, 20, the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam tournament who with the booing (of Ramos) and irritation of Ms. Williams, was almost made to feel like a victim not a champion.

  A percentage of the media should also be included, the ones who applauded after Serena closed out her post-match interview saying, “I just feel I have to go through this for the next persons who want to express themselves and want to be strong women”  No cheering in the press box?

 Sunday, the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the Open, fined Serena $17.000, a pittance compared to the $82.500 she was fined for telling a line judge who called a rare foot fault in a ’09 semi against Kim Clijsters, “I’m going to stick this bleeping racquet down your throat.”

What set off the figurative fireworks Saturday night was when Ramos warned Williams for being directed from the stands by her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, She disagreed, and when she broke a racquet the warning became violation and a penalty point. Outraged, Williams yelled at Ramos, who then gave Osaka the game and 5-3 lead. Boooooo. That was the reaction of 23,000 fans.

  This was the consensus the day after. All coaches give signals from the stands, which is against the rules but rarely called, except apparently against female players, although Rafa Nadal got nailed a while back.

   And there are different tolerances, unspoken certainly, for men and for women.

. “Several things went very wrong during the U.S. Open women’s finals,” Billie Jean King, a multiple winner from years past, Tweeted after the Osaka-Williams match. “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. It isn’t and, as a result, a player was penalized for the actions of her coach. This should not happen.

“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it,” the Tweet continued. Williams said male players never are penalized for outbursts, even profanity “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

  John McEnroe said of Serena’s observations, “She’s right. The guys are held to different standards. It’s like, ‘How dare she do that?’” Why the hell did (Ramos) go by the book? Do it like an NBA ref, telling a player to back off or he’ll be called. She needed some leeway. I said far worse”

   One reason Ramos and other chair umpires have so much power is because of a situation at the1979 Open, naturally involving John McEnroe and another hothead of the era, Ilie Nastase.

  The umpire, Frank Hammond, did what Ramos would this time do to Serena, giving Nastase a game for a 3-1 lead. Fans hurled empty beer cans at Hammond, who walked away before the match would end with McEnroe the winner.

  The other McEnroe, Patrick, reminded the television audience nobody understands Serena.  “None of us has walked in her shoes,” he said. “She’s an African-American woman who’s had to struggle. That’s where her response came from. But at the same time she has to be responsible.”

  Since when did responsibility become important in tennis?

8:13PM

Serena after the controversy: ‘Let’s make this the best we can’

 NEW YORK—The other lady, the new champion, Naomi Osaka was better on the court, which is supposed to be what matters. But because tennis is a sport o Byzantine rules and emotional players the last women’s match of the 2018 U.S. Open women became as much a war of words as a battle of forehands.

 When it was done Saturday, Osaka, a mere 20, defeating the great Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-3, we were left with accusations—by the loser—and tears, from both contestants, some in joy and some in anger.

  Yes, Serena, 36, still is working her way back after giving birth to a daughter a year ago and not returning until February to the sport she dominated for two decades.

   But Osaka, the first Asian to win a Grand Slam—she was born in Japan but holds U.S. citizenship—outran, outshot and out-angled Williams.

  And to her credit, Serena, very much a part of the controversy, as was the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos ,did her best, after she said the worst was done to her, to calm an outraged, booing crowd during the trophy presentations.

  “I don’t want to be rude,” Serena said to fans, lifting her arms for quiet. “She played well. I know you guys were here rooting for me. But let’s make this the best we can.”

  It was an upbeat comment after what was a very distressing match, not because Serena failed to pick up her seventh Open and 24th Grand Slam victory, but because she and Ramos had what Williams called “issues.”

  First she was given a warning in the second of game for coaching by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.  When she protested, telling Ramos. She’d “rather lose” than cheat.”  Ramos issued a warning.

  Williams said she wasn’t being coached but rather just offered thumbs up signal by Mouratoglou.  Ramos, from Portugal, then called for a second violation for breaking her racquet in disgust.

  She unwrapped a new one—no, neither she nor any of the others pay for them—and went on court and resumed arguing about not being coached,

  "You owe me an apology,'' she told Ramos, sitting above her, who had docked her a point Then she grew outraged. "You stole a point from me. You're a thief, too."

  When Williams wouldn’t back off—you’ve seen it in baseball when the manager won’t return to the dugout after being ejected—Serena was assessed a game penalty. Suddenly or maybe it wasn’t that suddenly she was behind 5-3. She was done figuratively and a few moments later literally

  Asked if the penalties were in part responsible for the defeat, Williams said, “That’s a good a good question. “  But she didn’t answer it.

   “I don’t know,” said Williams. “I feel like she was playing really well, but I feel like I really needed to do a lot to change  in that match to try to come out in front, to come out on top.

  “It’s hard to say because I always fight to the end, always try to come back, no matter what. But she was playing really well. It’s hard to say I wouldn’t have got to a new level, because I’ve done it so many times.”

   She wasn’t going to do it this time. Osaka, who grew up in New York, who as a kid watched Serena in the very place they played, Arthur Ashe Stadium, had only 14 unforced errors to Serena’s 21. Osaka was quicker to the ball and more effective when she arrived.

  Osaka appeared distressed during the post-match award presentations. “I feel I had a lot of emotions,” she explained, “so I kind of had to categorize what was which emotion.”

   She tried earlier to stay clear of Serena’s debate with the umpire, which was  hard.   “The crowd was really noisy, so I didn’t hear,” said Osaka. And when I turned around, uh, it was 5-3, so I was a little bit confused then. But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during the match because she’s such a great champion.”

  So too, after the chaos, after knowing the fans, mostly were cheering for her opponent, is Naomi Osaka.

 Think what you will, but she was the better tennis player this match.

6:45PM

The pain of tennis: Nadal out, Del Potro in once more

  NEW YORK—There’s no backup quarterback, no pitcher to come in from bullpen. There’s no disabled list, no injured reserve list. In tennis you keep going, from court to court, country to country, wearing down, wearing out.

  A few months ago it was elbow trouble for Novak Djokovic. And now again, it’s knee pain for Rafael Nadal, who Friday, two sets into the U.S. Open, semifinal had to withdraw—in tennis you “retire—which was both sad and because he was facing Juan Martin del Potro, who had to fight his way back from  numerous wrist surgeries, ironic.

  Yes. Del Potro, whose career was derailed for months, indeed years, after he won the 2009 U.S. Open, is finally back in the final because Nadal, the defending champ, once more has been derailed by an injury.

   Don’t try to tell these guys tennis isn’t a tough sport.

   Del Potro, from Argentina, with a blue-clad cheering section—“Del-po, Del-po,” they chant at change-overs—was ahead, 7-6 (3), 6-2, when the top-seeded, top-ranked Nadal was unable to continue.

  “I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal. “You can imagine very difficult for me to say good-bye before the match finish.”

No less difficult for the 23,000-plus fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the majority of whom were backing Rafa—excluding, of course, the Del-po guys who pay their way from Argentina, Del Potro’s homeland.

  “But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way. Having too much pain.”

 Nadal, from Majorca, a part of Spain, can be forgiven for his awkward English, even at age 32. Until a few years he needed a translator.”

   “This was not a tennis match at the end, no?” said Nadal. “It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court. I hate to retire. But stay one more set out there playing like this is too much for me.”

  Del Potro, 29, offered condolences. “I saw him suffering a lot during the second set. I was just trying to do my game.”

 A game that after a third operation on his left wrist and one on his right—he uses both on a two-handed backhand— Del Potro was prepared to leave.

  “The worst moment,” Del Potro said reviewing a down period, “was in 2015. I was close to quitting this sport because I couldn’t find a way to fix my wrist problems. I (had) been suffering a lot. “I got depressed for a couple of months also. I didn’t feel better with myself to do this again.”

  His friends, among them the travelers from Tandil, Argentina, persuaded him to stay the course. He did. But only after the fourth wrist surgery.

 “I said I am not available to keep going to surgery again, put my body at risk because you never know what will happen after surgeries. I got lucky, because it did well. And now it’s working again. My wrist is OK. Not 100 percent, but I can play tennis in this condition.”

  And, obviously, play well. He beat Nadal in the semifinal of the 201`6 Olympics, lost to Nadal in a semifinal of the 2017 U.S. Open, lost to Nadal in a semifinal of the French Open, beat Roger Federer in the final at Indian Wells in March and now beat Nadal again. 

  Yes, Rafa was injured. But for months Del Potro had been injured.

Nadal’s game is rough-and tumble. He crashes from sideline to sideline and then not so much strokes a ball as batters. That style has gained him17 majors, second to Federer’s 20, but it also has created havoc with his knees. shoulders and wrists.

  “I know what I have,” Nadal insisted.  “Similar thing than always Just about to do treatment. It is not an injury that tells you three weeks off.  It is tendinitis, an injury that in one week you feel better.”

  It’s also an injury that ended his try for the championship, an injury that kept alive Juan Del Potro’s try, or does that make it seem like Del Potro wouldn’t have gone on it Nadal didn’t stop going?

  “I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam in here, which it my favorite tournament,” said Del Potro.”I’ve been fighting with (against) many problems to get to this moment.”

  Problems that are a part of big-time tennis

7:46PM

Triumphant Serena, fearless off court and on

   NEW YORK—Serena Williams is a lady without fear, unafraid off the court to take an unpopular stand—supporting Colin Kaepernick in his controversial commercial—unafraid on the court to change the style of tennis that has been so effective through the years.

  Did you read what Serena said about Kaepernick, whose defiance is celebrated by Nike, admittedly also one of her sponsors?

  “He’s done a lot for the African-American community, and it’s cost him a lot,” she said. “I think everyone has a choice to do what they choose to do.”

  What Serena chose to do Thursday night was less momentous socially but quite significant athletically.

   A baseline player—“I usually only come to the net to shake hands,” Williams quipped—she moved up shot after shot, and in their U.S. Open semifinal thwarted the slice and drop-shot game of Anastasija Sevastova to win, 6-3, 6-0.

  After losing serve in the first game and then dropping the second, to go down, 2-0, Williams won 12 of the other 13 games in a tidy 1 hour 6 minutes under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, closed before play began because of forecast of rain.

  The rain never materialized. Neither, after those first two games, did the supposed threat from the 28-year-old Sevastova, a Latvian who was in her first Grand Slam semi.

  A year ago the 36-year-old Williams was recovering from complications in the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Now she’s in the U.S. Open final for a ninth time with the opportunity for a seventh victory—and a record tying 24th Slam win.

  “It’s been an incredible year,” said Williams, who will be 37 in a couple weeks. “A year ago I was fighting for my life in the hospital. No matter what happens in any match I feel like I’ve already won. To come this far . . .I’m just beginning guys.”

  It’s confidence tempered by possibility that perhaps makes Williams willing to take chances.

   Sure she has the money and backing of Nike, but stepping forward for Kaepernick, the onetime 49er quarterback who has been ostracized for kneeling down during the national anthem, is unnecessary and among many tennis buffs, an elite gathering, unpopular.

   “Whether people protest it, which is a peaceful protest actually, or not, that is the choice of being American,” said Serena. “It doesn’t make them less American. And I think that’s also something that’s really interesting, is the fact that we all make up this world, because we have different views and different views on different things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be loving toward each other.”

   The sellout crowd of 23,000-plus certainly was in love with Serena. She’s been competing in the Open for almost 20 years. In tennis familiarity brings respect. She’s old guard but not too old to go unappreciated—even having been out of the game for 14 months, until March.

  She did get to the final at Wimbledon in July, if against a draw from which all the top 10 seeds were gone the first week. Angelique Kerber beat Serena in that final. Then Williams was smacked around in a couple of tournaments. Now she’s doing the smacking.

  “I’ve been practicing coming to the net,” said Williams. “I Lost matches against players like that.”
  She means players who have slicing backhands or cutsy little shots that land softly in the forecourt and are unreachable.

  “I’ve come to the net before,” she said, “I know how. I’ve volleyed when I play doubles. I just need to do it more.”

  Sevastova, who beat last year’s Open winner, Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals, said of Serena’s movement, “I think she should come to the net for sure. I don’t know if I was surprised. But again she was serving well.”

  Which she does most of the time.

  At the end Williams seemed to be holding back tears.

  “Yeah,” she agreed, “I was a little emotional because last year at this time I was fighting for my life.”

    The fearless lady also won that one.

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