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2:14PM

In England, a curse ending, a tennis tournament continuing

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — You’ve heard the line. England and America are two counties separated by a common language. It was attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who apparently never said it the way Mark Twain never said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

There are, certainly, items other than words that make us realize the U.S. and U.K. (right, that’s more than just England) are dissimilar. Start with football. Same name, very different game, although similar obsession.

Yes, we’re smack in the middle of the oldest, most important tennis tournament on the planet, the All England Lawn Championships, better known as Wimbledon. But also we’re figuratively smack in almost-the-middle-but-closer-to-the-end of the World Cup, the quarterfinals.

And England still is playing. As if anybody able to read the common language that separates the two countries is not well aware.

England won a penalty shootout over Colombia, 4-3, Tuesday night to advance after the teams tied, 1-1, through regulation and two overtimes. People literally were dancing in the streets when the game ended, or at least in one street, Lillie Road in southwest London, not far from Wimbledon.

Trying to avoid the game would have been like trying to avoid the Super Bowl on that first Sunday in February.

“I watched the game,” said Sam Querrey after his 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 second-round victory (in tennis, not soccer). “I was at the house that we’re staying at. Kind of tucked back. I’m sure if we were a little closer to the village, we would have heard. I saw some people in videos going crazy.”

Querrey, a southern Californian, stayed cool after his win, as did fellow Americans Serena and Venus Williams and Madison Keys after they won, as contrasted to the national population following the Cup triumph.

The Curse had been lifted. Or kicked away.

We knew the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Billy Goat. We knew the Curse of Candlestick, the San Francisco Giants never winning a title there. We knew the Wimbledon Curse, no British male having won men’s singles for 77 years until Andy Murray in 2013.

But only England knew the Curse of the Penalty Shootout.

That having a shootout to decide games in what some insist is the most important of any sporting event is nonsense, like shooting free throws to decide an NBA playoff game or holding a home run contest to decide the World Series. But that’s the way it’s always been done.

And, until Tuesday night, always the way that proved fatal for England. Six times previously, a World Cup game involving England had gone to a shootout, a kick-off if you will. Six times previously, England lost. Not this time.

“It’s the headline we have waited a lifetime to write,” headlined the tabloid Sun on the back page, “ENGLAND WIN ON PENALTIES.”

“Eric and Pick End Curse.” That’s Eric Dier with the deciding goal and Jordan Pickford, the England goalie whose diving left-handed save kept out what would have been a final Colombia score.

They never forget in England, where in the 1986 Cup at Mexico City they were beaten, 2-1, by Argentina in a quarterfinal on a disputed goal by Diego Maradona, who was accused of punching the ball in with his hand and countered with the explanation, “It was the hand of God.”

What delight then the creator of the headline under the photo of Jordan Pickford’s save must have taken in writing, “THE HAND OF JORD.”

Federer, the defending champ at Wimbledon was less enthralled with the England soccer win. His heart and attention were with his home country, Switzerland, which was kept from the quarters when it was shut out by Sweden, 1-0.

“It’s an opportunity missed,” agreed Federer, who on the courts rarely misses any opportunity. “In the end I thought (Sweden) were maybe a little bit better. It’s not sour. I think we deserved what we got.”

An English journalist then said to Federer, “Which team will you be rooting for now? Surely there’s only one answer to that.”

Federer hesitated, smiled and said, “Is there?’’

We’ll never know.

 

1:23PM

Nadal takes the time, and plan, best for him

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — So you say, let’s go straight to the men’s final, Roger vs. Rafa, and do away with the prelims and more importantly the questions?

What, and miss out on all those great forehands and pointed comments?

Roger Federer, of course, breezed through his first-round Wimbledon match Monday, then Rafael Nadal did the same on Tuesday, defeating Dudi Sela of Israel, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

“I did a lot of games good with my serve,” said Nadal, who as a Spaniard can be excused for an occasional double fault with the King’s English. As, presumably, he will excuse the journalists for asking him everything from the irrelevant to the irreverent.

The scribes didn’t necessarily do a lot of bad things, more a few stupid things, or unneeded things, tossing at him questions that would have sent a diplomatic guy like Bill Belichick away in anger but simply left the 32-year-old Nadal bewildered.

Three weeks ago, Nadal won the French Open, Roland Garros, for an 11th time. But that’s played on clay, and Wimbledon is on grass. There are several run-up events on grass, in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Nadal didn’t enter one.

And why not, he was asked.

“Because if I play too much,” said the perceptive Nadal, “then I come here, all the questions are: Why you not play less? Now I play less and the question is: Why you are not playing?’“

It turned out he was playing with us.

“I am just joking,” he added.

As earlier in this first week of the Championships did a former three-time champ from the mid-1980s, Boris Becker. Now 50, Becker returns to Wimbledon each summer to work as a color commentator for the BBC.

According to The Guardian, Becker both swore at the BBC’s Sue Barker and stole a joke from nine-time champion Martina Navratilova, who also gets behind the microphones at Grand Slam events.

Becker, who is German, has declared bankruptcy and also been involved in a dispute with the Central African Republic over the validity of a diplomatic passport the country gave him. “He just wanted diplomatic immunity,” said Navratilova, “so he wouldn’t have to wait at customs.”

We’ll have to wait for that possible match between Nadal, the No. 2 seed, and Federer, the defending champ and No. 1 seed.

Tennis, as baseball used to be, is a sport without a clock — and in truth, baseball still can go for hours, depending on the action or lack of it. Now Wimbledon may rule that a player must not take longer than 25 seconds to serve after the previous point.

“Personally,” said Nadal, “I don’t feel that’s going to bother me in terms of the sport. It you want to see a quick game without thinking, well done. If you want to keep playing in a sport you need to think, you need to play with more tactics, you want to have long and good rallies. Then you are going the wrong way.

“But seems like sometimes is only about the business. So I cannot support this, because I don’t feel the matches that stay for the history of our sport went that quick. All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours.”

One of those was 10 years ago, 2008, when Nadal, in a 4-hour, 48-minute match that was decided 9-7 in the fifth set, outlasted Federer in what was the longest — and arguably, the greatest — Wimbledon final in history.

Think anyone that day was saying tennis needs a clock? It they wanted anything, it was a rematch. It isn’t speed that matters, it’s quality.

“To play these matches, you need time between points,” said Nadal, “because you cannot play points in a row with long rallies, with emotional points, having only 25 seconds between points.”

Great sport, whether it lasts minutes or hours, is timeless.

4:50PM

LeBron? At Wimbledon, don’t ask Venus Williams

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — LeBron? Of course we’re at Wimbledon, and he’s some 5,000 miles away. But the world of sport is international, and what else was there to ask Venus Williams, a lady of many shots — especially serves — and few words.

Venus on Monday, opening day of this 132nd Wimbledon, defeated Johanna Larsen, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-1, which could be considered a big deal since Williams was down a set and had been eliminated in the first round of the last two Slams, the Australian and French.

Or could be considered nothing special because this grass court tennis at the All England Club is where Venus won women’s singles five times and was a finalist four other times.

Oh yes, younger sister Serena Williams, her daughter of eight months, Olympia, back at the room, also won on this day, beating Arantxa Rus, 7-5, 6-3, when, gasp, the temperature in Greater London climbed to 86 degrees.

Yet Serena, with her 23 Grand Slam titles and younger sibling boldness, will say about anything. Venus, however, gives brief answers, forcing the media to probe for any item that could be interesting, it not particularly newsworthy.

So right after Venus was questioned about the weather — “I live in Florida,“ she reminded — she was asked her thoughts about LeBron James signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, which must have bored the scribes from Britain, virtually the only country on this side of the Atlantic not a bit interested in basketball.

“I’m sure he’s happy, I guess,” was Venus’ one-size-fits-all sort of contradictory response about LeBron. “I don’t know. I actually don’t have any thoughts.”

So careful, so cautious, so unflagging. Venus is the grand dame of tennis. She’s 38. Broke in as a pro in 1994 at what is now Oracle Arena but then was the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Won her first Wimbledon in 2000.

Throw her a trick question and she whacks it away like an opponent’s poor lob, as when a journalist said, “I see something on a ring finger. Something new that we don’t know?”

“No, no,” said Venus. “I’ve been wearing this all year. You’ve got to be a little faster.”

At least nobody asked when she might retire. Tennis is her life. You think after overcoming that autoimmune malady, first diagnosed in 2011, she’s going pack it in now? To do what? Travel the world? That’s all tennis players do.

Larsson, of Sweden, is 58th in the WTA rankings, while Venus is ninth. “I honestly hadn’t played her before,” said Venus, who honestly had played her before, in 2013 in the Fed Cup. But you get old, the memory declines.

“She played well,” Williams said of Larsson, who’s a mere 29. “There were moments I could have played better and was just playing better in those moments in the last two sets.”

If Venus Williams needs tennis, then tennis, American tennis, needs Venus Williams. Sloan Stephens did win last year’s U.S. Open, making us believe she would be the next star and attraction. But Monday, Stephens, who holds the No. 4 ranking, was upset by Donna Vekic of Croatia. So much for the next generation.

We’ll go with the reliable, Venus, and Serena, who’s 36. Familiarity sells in individual sports, tennis and golf. Maybe it doesn’t matter who’s in centerfield for the A’s or Giants, or Yankees or Red Sox. But it matters who's on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

And so the tennis people, those in the United States, must be pleased when Venus makes one of those brief comments that, while telling us very little, in a way tells us a lot.

“I just hang in there,” Venus said when asked how she remains consistent tournament after tournament, although until Monday her consistency in this year’s majors was to lose quickly.

“I’m not sure why any other people go up or down. Every day is not your best match, but you try to win that match anyway.”

The men’s tour, the ATP, added a new event for January, a variation of team tennis.

“I don’t read any news,” said Venus, quickly cutting off any chance of a debate. “I don’t know what’s happening on the (men’s) tour.”

At least she knew what was happening to LeBron James, apparently. Next question.

2:57PM

What a 'Messi': Wimbledon starts in the shadow of World Cup soccer

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — Hot and hazy in Greater London, where the front-page headlines that aren’t about England’s chances against Belgium in the World Cup seem to be about the world’s chances against Donald Trump in political maneuvers.

The Championships, Wimbledon, which start Monday, with the usual stars, Roger, Rafa and Serena and the usual controversies — Serena Williams says it’s unfair she’s drug-tested more than other players — are being kicked around, metaphorically.  

Soon, tennis will regain the attention owed to an event that’s been played since 1877. But about the only Page 1 Wimbledon photo the last few days, not surprisingly, was of Andy Murray, who in 2013 became the first Brit in 77 years to take the men’s singles.

And then, still recovering from hip surgery in January, Murray announced Sunday he was not ready for best-of-five set matches and withdrew.

So, for the most unfortunate of reasons, he’ll be Page 1 stuff again.

On Sunday, the front pages of both the Times and the Telegraph were on soccer — yes, football here. “End of the World for Ronaldo and Messi,” said the Times about the stars of ousted Portugal and Argentina.

“Where’s the Hand of God when you need it?” was the Telegraph head, over a picture of Argentina’s Diego Maradona, who in 1986 scored to beat England and denied he whacked the ball with his hand.

And both the Telegraph and Times had the same headline in their sports sections: “Move Over Messi,” alluding to French teenager Kylian Mbappe, who scored twice in France’s 4-3 win over Argentina, and Lionel Messi, the LeBron James of soccer. Err, football.

Roger Federer is the LeBron James of tennis. He has won Wimbledon eight times and has 20 Grand Slam titles. He will be 37 in a month, certainly too old for a world-class player, but every year of the past four or five years he has been too old — and too successful.

Although only No. 2 in the ATP rankings behind Rafael Nadal, Federer is the No. 1 seed for this Wimbledon, as he has been for many other Wimbledons. The people in charge know quite well that Federer’s best surface is the grass at the All England Club, while Nadal, with his nine French Opens (the tennis purists refer to the tournament as Roland Garros), is magnificent on clay.

One of the two has won each of the last six Slams, starting with the 2017 Australian Open.

Americans never have been very good at soccer. Don’t worry about headlines; the U.S. didn’t even qualify for the World Cup. Since the early 2000s, neither have American men been very good at tennis.

The last U.S. winners in the Slams were Andre Agassi at the Australian and Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, both in 2003.

Not since 2000 has an American, Pete Sampras, taken the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Not that long perhaps, when measured against the decades of World Series disappointment by the Red Sox and Cubs, but long enough.  

The U.S. ladies, meaning Venus Williams and sibling Serena, won when the men could not. But now Venus is 38 and was knocked out of the Australian and French in the first round. Serena is coming back from giving birth last September. She withdrew from the French before a scheduled fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova because of an injury.

Messi, arguably the best player in soccer, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are gone from the World Cup, if not the world stage. Sport is a constant change, constant replacement. Father Time, or Mother Time, wins every match, every move.

Federer and Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams, someday will be too old. Not that you’ll be hearing anyone tell them to move over. In an individual sport, the individual has to make the decision that it’s time to leave.

Teams and tournaments, World Cups, Wimbledons, NBA playoffs, Super Bowls, go on and on. The athlete goes out. Inevitable and, as we were reminded by the World Cup, oh so painful.

 

8:22PM

Pence on winning hit: ‘Like a kid on Christmas morning’

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He’s 35, and from some of his swings of late, hopeless rips at balls around his shoulders, and that sub-.200 batting average, Hunter Pence looked like a man whose career was coming to an end.

Which his critics, pounding on him via social media, said would be a good idea.

Sure, he had some great times with the Giants, but you have to deal with the present, don’t you? And Pence is of the past, right? Why send down Mac Williamson and keep Pence and his big contract?

Because he’s a leader. And it you listen to his teammates in the clubhouse — or watched them bounce from the dugout to swarm around Pence in the bottom of the 11th on Sunday at AT&T Park — he’s also a winner.

There were the Giants, down a run with one out and nobody on. As Pence said, “It happens real quick in baseball. You’ve got to be ready for anything.” Especially an unsuspected Giants comeback for a 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres that could be called the biggest of this season.

Andrew McCutchen doubled. Buster Posey, naturally, was walked intentionally — he’d already had a single and double — and, whoa, Brandon Crawford was hit by a pitch. Bases loaded, yes, but Pence, with a groundout and two strikeouts coming to the plate against Brad Hand, one of the game’s better closers.

“Getting an opportunity like that, bases loaded, one out, down a run,” Pence would say afterward, “it’s being a kid on Christmas morning for me. There’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s what you dream of.”

He bounced one just inside the first base line, McCutchen and Posey scored, Pence would get a double and the Giants would get the series win, three games to one.

First we learn Johnny Cueto is progressing in rehab, then we watch the Pence and the Giants perform a mini-miracle.

Ballplayers with the experience and residual success of Hunter Pence view things differently than most of us. They don’t think so much about what they haven’t done, the .193 batting average after coming back from the disabled list, but what can be done.

“I don’t really harp on that,” he said about statistics that have to be called negative. “I play to go win the game. Since I came back (he was out with a sprained thumb, then had to rehab), I got a chance to start. I’ve had better days. My pinch hitting is not as good as I want it to be. But I just want to be as prepared as I can.

“By the end of the year, the numbers will be what they will be.”

The numbers Sunday for Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez were interesting. He gave up a homer on a 3-2 pitch to the first man to step into the batter’s box at AT&T, Manuel Margot. Yikes, 1-0 instantly.

But that was it for a long while. Rodriguez — yes, son of Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez — went six innings.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Dereck. “My curve ball was the best it’s been. I’d rather have the leadoff guy hit a home run and shut them down the rest of the way than have a guy hit one in the sixth inning.”

The win kept the Giants above .500 in the standings, and while that’s not quite what will win a title, it’s a psychological barrier they must surpass. It makes them winners, in fact as well as in mind, and with a ton of home games coming up they might become a presence.

“We had to find a way to win that game,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “You want to stay away from the strikeout. When you put a ball in play, good things happen.”

The Giants have a rare and necessary day off on Monday. Bochy probably will go fishing. 

Pence may just reflect.

“I’m not going to get super-down on myself,” said Pence. “It’s a team game. You want to do your best for the team and the city. I focus on being a good person, and the rest will take care of itself.”

It definitely did on Sunday.

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