“Greatest Momma” Serena comes back with a win

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Subtle it wasn’t. Not when her husband paid for four billboards east of Palm Springs, one announcing “GREATEST MOMMA OF ALL TIME.” Not when she posted a video gushing, “My comeback is here.”

But successful it was, and in tennis, in sport, isn’t that what matters most?

Serena Williams, 23 times a Grand Slam winner, one time a mother — and that one time has kept her from playing on the WTA Tour for 14 months — made her comeback Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 7-5, 6-3.

“It was meant to be, coming on International Women’s Day,” said Williams, a feminist as well as a champion. Maybe so, but Serena struggled against a lady she had beaten twice and who is 53rd in the rankings.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said post-match to a crowd that on a 68-degree evening maybe half-filled the 16,100-seat main stadium at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

“But it was good,” she said, adding, “I’m a little rusty.”

And like golfer Tiger Woods in this winter of comebacks, understandably so.

It’s one thing to drop off the tour for any length of time. It’s another to give birth, by Caesarian section, develop blood clots, and then need to take care of an infant daughter.

But all is well, for Serena; for daughter Alexis Olympia, now some seven months old; and for father Alexis Ohanion, Sr., founder of the social news website Reddit, who a few weeks ago created the billboards along Interstate 10 dedicated to his bride.

Tennis and golf are built on stars, the rich and famous. And as his return has boosted galleries and TV ratings, there’s nobody more famous in men’s golf than Tiger, even at age 43. There’s nobody more famous in women’s tennis than Serena, age 36.

In America, at least, nobody comes close to Serena, as a winner, a fan favorite and an attraction. When you’re known by just one name, as is Serena, or Tiger, you’re queen or king of the hill, top of the heap.

Serena needed no extra promotion coming into this match, which was preceded by a glamorized exhibition (on ESPN, naturally) and a team competition in which Serena linked with her 37-year old sister, Venus.

When you get as many stories in People magazine as you do in Sports Illustrated, there’s no question why her return was major news, especially in the California desert, which with all the movie folk seems like just another part of Hollywood, 140 miles to the west.

Serena won the Australian Open in January 2017, eight weeks pregnant at the time, as she and we found out. Then she was told to give up competitive tennis until after the baby was born. She did that.

Diyas, 24, served to open the match against Williams, and both women held serve until it was 5-5. You heard a few plaintive wails from the less-expensive seats on high — “Come on, Serena; let’s go Serena.” And finally in the 11th game, Serena broke serve for a 6-5 lead.

After that, Williams settled down.

“It’s so hard when you haven’t been playing matches,” said Williams after the victory — long after, having showered and dressed.

She said she almost cried before the match having to leave her daughter and go on court. “But playing at night made it easier, because I knew she was sleeping.”

Early on, it seemed Serena was sleeping. On the contrary, she was adjusting. The moves, the responses developed over the years, had to be relearned.

“It’s totally expected,” she said. “I’m not going to be where I want to be.”

Where she wants to be presumably is where she was. Time takes its toll, certainly, yet the triumphs of Roger Federer, at 39, show that age no longer is the barrier it used to be.

“I felt I had nothing to lose,” she said of the return. “I didn’t feel the stress I had felt. I was just happy to be here, like when I was young and just starting on Tour. Just excited to be here.”

As tennis, and all of sport, is to have her here.


Jack Sock — from Bill Gates to big forehands

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — So Jack Sock, who was discussing dinner with Bill Gates and, oh yes, Roger Federer — those tennis people live life — was asked when an American player, such as Sock, actually might win a Grand Slam tournament, the way Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi used to do.

“So you want to talk tennis now?” Sock said rhetorically — and somewhat disappointedly. He was having such a grand time discussing forecasts of the future provided by Gates, the Microsoft guy, and teasing when someone asked about the forecasts: “I can’t give that away.”

The real issue at the moment — now and forever — is the future of men’s tennis in America. The U.S. ladies, certainly, are in fine shape, literally as well as metaphorically.

Sloane Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open, and if an American can win only one of the four majors, that’s the one. Thursday night, Serena Williams, who’s won them all, again and again, returns to WTA competition here at the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells Tennis Garden

But no American male has won a Slam tournament since 2003, 15 years if you’re counting. That was Andy Roddick, who is from Nebraska. As is Sock. You never suspected the heart of U.S. men’s tennis was in the heartland of America, did you? Cornfields and forehands.

Down here, it’s cactus and streets named for celebrities, starting with Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive. Gerald Ford has his roadway. Tennis? Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who’s won the French Open and Wimbledon, walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards Sunday night 130 miles up the road in Hollywood. According to one story she “turned heads in a black asymmetrical gown and had many asking, ‘Who is Garbiñe Muguruza?’”

Until the end of last year, the question from the casual sports fan might have been: who is Jack Sock? Then he won three titles, qualified for the ATP Championships (for which he was unprepared) and coming in at No. 9 was the first U.S. man to end the year in the top ten since Roddick in 2010, seven years earlier, a lifetime in tennis.

You would think Sock would be excited. He was, with an asterisk. He had his late summer and fall all organized, and then, wham, he had fly to London to be one of the eight singles contestants in the Nitto ATP Finals, which is sort of like the sport’s March Madness in November.

The next thing he knew, he was in the Australian Open this January. If not for long, losing in the first round. Around the world, and plop.

“That day I flew home from Melbourne,” said Sock, who lives in Kansas City, “and I was in the gym. For four weeks, I was trying to get my mind straight again.”

Success, or the result of success, had socked the 25-year-old Sock.

“I had no expectation of being in London,” he said. “I had to redo my schedule. I had no idea of what was going on. I had some commitments, traveling a lot in the off-season, things that in hindsight I wouldn’t have scheduled. But you live and learn.

“I took time off after Australia. Home in my own bed for more than two days. I feel a lot more confident now.”

To be invited to take part in the Federer-Gates exhibition and dinner, the money from the sellout crowd at SAP Arena in San Jose, $2.5 million, going to Federer’s African educational fund, verifies Sock’s new status.

He’s the so-called heir apparent in U.S. tennis, a designation he accepts with a cringe. 

“It’s enjoyable when you don’t talk about it,” he said. “I understand every time you talk about this. There’s such a rich history of American tennis, the fans here are used to somebody winning a Slam or at least competing for a Slam. Obviously there hasn’t been anyone at that level quite yet

“We’re doing our best. But there are a couple of guys, one named Federer, another named (Rafael) Nadal and another named (Novak) Djokovic. So it’s not the easiest thing to weasel your way in there in and win.”

Which is why a Grand Slam means so much.



Only an exhibition game? Not Giants-Dodgers

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Only an exhibition game? Not when the Giants play the Dodgers. Not with the image of Marichal and Roseboro still hovering in the mind. Not with the memories of Reggie Smith climbing into the stands at Candlestick to try and attack a fan. Not with the Dodgers finishing 40 games ahead of the Giants last season.

“You wake up,” said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, “you know you’re playing the Dodgers and everything changes inside of you.”

What didn’t change was the Dodgers pummeling the Giants, 9-3. Wait, a week ago the Giants pummeled the Dodgers by the same score, 9-3. So that’s it. They end the Cactus League at 1-1. But in truth that’s not it.

Not when a century of history, beginning back when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, shadows them. Not when tales of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,’ are revived. Not when thoughts of the brawls and the boos never die.

Steven Duggar, the rookie centerfielder, who may or may not be on the roster when the Giants break camp, who Sunday, with Scottsdale Stadium packed to the extreme (12,141) hit his third homer of the spring, sensed that this was no ordinary exhibition.

“There was more buzz,” he said. “You could feel the vibe.”

Once they were in neighboring boroughs in New York City. Then they shifted to California, some 400 miles apart. But for spring training, ever since the Dodgers moved into their complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the clubs are probably separated by only 25 miles.

And their fans are everywhere, attired in Giants black or Dodgers blue — and aren’t those two colors symbolic of the brawling between the teams, and unfortunately occasionally between the fans?

“Beat L.A.” is the normal chant from a Giants crowd. You didn’t hear that Sunday at Scottsdale. What you did hear were boos when Yasiel Puig’s name was announced and after he doubled in the first inning to drive in a run for the Dodgers, one of his two hits.

You also heard, “Let’s go Dodgers.” How did those people get in?  

How Chris Berman, the retired ESPN announcer, a professed Giants fan — you don’t have to be impartial in television — got in was through the Giants. He was invited by team management and even went out to the mound to change pitchers in the seventh inning

“A bit of levity,” said Bruce Bochy, the Giants’ manager.

After last season, the Giants can use some. Last place. The Dodgers in first, en route to the World Series. Spring games are not supposed to mean much — other than Giants vs. Dodgers — but a study of the starting lineups for each team indicates L.A. is far superior.

The heart of Dodgers' order, three through six, is Cody Bellinger (who Sunday had a hit); Puig (who had two hits and an RBI); Yasmani Grandal (who had a home run and two RBI); and Joc Pederson (who was hitless). Puig is batting .400.

The Giants' strength, if they have one, is pitching. Jeff Samardzija started Sunday for San Francisco and was decent for his third start. He did yell at home plate up Mark Ripperger in the second after a pitch was called a ball. The crowd picked up his displeasure and hooted a bit, but that was about it. Other than Samardija’s three walks in the inning.

Samardzija said he enjoyed the reactions of the crowd, which lifted the game from the ordinary. “They had a good turnout,” said Samardzija, of the Dodgers fans, “and we had a great turnout. It gives the game a little more excitement when the fans are into it more.”

Most spring games, Bochy is unconcerned with what occurs. He cared about this one. “We didn’t play that well,” he conceded.

“The rivalry? Look at the sellout. We wish we had played better, but we did beat them at their place. There’s always added interest when these two teams play, a lot of noise.”

Baseball as it should be. The games don’t show in the standings, but they certainly do to the fans.


Piscotty shows what he can do for A’s

By Art Spander

MESA, Ariz. — This was Stephen Piscotty the ballplayer, the man talented enough to be picked in the first round of the major league draft. He still was the humanitarian, the loving son, helping nurse an ailing parent.

But for a short while, he could be viewed like any other big leaguer in spring training, for his performance.

The Piscotty story is sad and heartwarming. The St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the Athletics so he could be close to his mother, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that struck Lou Gehrig in the late 1930s, and for whom it was labeled.

Piscotty came to bat Saturday with a man on in the second and hit a shot over the fence in left in a Cactus League game at Hohokam Stadium that Oakland eventually would lose to the San Diego Padres, 10-4.

It could be glossed over as just another of the many home runs in the desert during the exhibition schedule. Except it wasn’t. And Piscotty, 27, is not just another ball player, as you must be aware.

This was his first homer of the spring, his first, unofficial as it might be to many, since coming to the A’s in December. A trade that showed that big-time sport, all dollars and show, has a very human side.

“He takes good approach to hitting,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Piscotty. “This is spring training, but a home run like that with a new team makes it easier on yourself.”

For the past several months, since Piscotty’s mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed, nothing has been easy. With the loss of muscle control, she requires round-the-clock attention.

She has been attended to by Piscotty’s father, and his two younger brothers, and after the Cardinals consented to send him to Oakland — “That’s what makes the Cardinals one of the class organizations in sports,” A’s executive Billy Beane told the Bay Area News Group — and until spring training began, by Piscotty.

“I knew I’d be gone a few months,” Piscotty said, “but I’ll be back home, Before (at St. Louis) it would have been hard going into the season, leaving and not coming home for eight months.”

A’s management has always wanted Piscotty, who played his high school ball at Amador Valley, over the hills from Oakland, and then developed at Stanford. The opportunity to get him was serendipity.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Piscotty would do well against the Padres. As a rookie in 2015, he hit two homers on a Sunday against them at Petco Park. Asked that day if it was his best game as a pro, he responded in classic understatement, “Probably.”

When home, Piscotty is back in the room he once shared with his brothers. “Although,” he said, chuckling, “they’re out of there now.”

Piscotty became engaged in February, and his fiancée helps at the family home. A bad situation, a terrible situation — there is no known cure for ALS, but Piscotty has helped create a fund for research — has become tolerable.

He is playing his sport, and for a team for which he cheered as a kid, and he has been able to reconnect with his mother.

"I thought, if I were to get traded, this is the absolute best option for me and my family," Piscotty told after the transaction. "I think the best word that sums up a lot of our emotions is bittersweet. We're pretty emotionally tied and invested in [the Cardinals'] organization, so it's sad to kind of cut ties with that. But I think family comes first, obviously, and sometimes there are things more important than baseball.”


For Austin Jackson, a new team and old values

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He was out there for the first time this spring training, and Austin Jackson, whose career includes a World Series — against the Giants, no less — and a catch so spectacular it’s a YouTube staple, went about it as the major leaguer that he is.

A new team, a new season, but old values. Only an exhibition game, but in effect a way of life. You’re always on display.

In his final season, 1951, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he played so hard when at his age, 36, and with a bad leg he could have eased up a bit. “There may be some kid who never saw me play before,” supposedly was DiMaggio’s answer.

Austin Jackson understands. His teams, a half dozen of them — the Giants, with whom he signed in January, are his sixth — have been winners. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Anytime you’re on the field, you want to win. You’ve got to have passion and respect for the game. It’s ingrained in us.”

In Jackson’s first Cactus League game of 2018, the Giants were not winners. They were beaten by the Angels, 11-4, in a game that was 0-0 in the fifth. Jackson, starting in center field, went 0-for-2.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said in the postgame clubhouse, “me signing with the team that beat us in the World Series.” That "us" was Kansas City in 2012. “But that’s how it goes. Every game, I think about getting back to the Series.”

Jackson turned 31 in January. He’s young, but at same time in experience and attention he’s old. Back in 1999, Baseball America named Jackson the best 12-year-old player in the country. Three years later, he was the best 15-year-old. At Ryan High in his hometown of Denton, Texas, he also played basketball and was ranked by Athlon Sports the No. 10 prep point guard in the nation.

Then, after being offered a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech, he signed with the Yankees. A journey that took many by surprise has not changed his attitude. He’s doing what he wants to do.

“The first game,” he said of his play on Thursday, “is exciting, like the first day of school. It was difficult. My legs got heavy, because I hadn’t played for so long. But it felt good.”

Life, we’re told, is about timing, about being in the right place and then making the best of where you are. Jackson undeniably did that last August when, playing for the Cleveland Indians, he chased Hanley Ramirez's deep shot to the right-center bullpen wall at Fenway Park. He reached up with his gloved left hand for the ball, reached out with his right hand for the barrier and then flipped upside down into the bullpen.

He traveled a reported 97 feet, probably got as much TV time in replays as imaginable and became a part of what Major League Baseball declared “the play of the year.” It was one of those plays that no matter how many times you view it — and Jackson said he has seen it maybe 100 times — seems impossible.

“Most people talk about the catch,” Jackson said, “but my friend noticed I was hanging on to the wall for dear life. I just kind of flipped over and landed on the ground, my arm still on the wall.”

He won’t be able to do that at AT&T Park, where the fences are higher, but what he can do is bring the skills that help a team.

“I’ve learned a lot being with great players,” he said. ”When I’m out there, I want to trust the guy beside me.”

The way teams have put their trust in Austin Jackson.


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