Saturday, 22 August 2015

How Good is Serena?

Serena Williams is a beast on the court. She has power that the women's game typically doesn't have and she has the attitude to back it. She's a champ. She's the best in the world. No one in the women's game comes close to her. No one. But that's part of the problem isn't it? On the verge of completing something no one has done since the late 80s, the question looms: is Serena just that good, or is everyone else just that bad?

Don't get me wrong, Serena is impressive. Her mere presence allows her to dominate any court she walks on. In most matches, she's won before a serve has even been delivered. She's fierce. She makes Chuck Norris tremble. But what makes her so good? Well, for starters, she oozes confidence out of even her mascara'd eyelashes to the point that when she screams in competition, birds of the rainforest vacate their nests for fear of predatory attack. Her serve is as fast and hard as some men on the circuit, shaming the likes of Nadal and competing with the great Federer. Her forehand is not to be trifled with and her backhand is almost just as good. Her movement is deceptively impressive considering her frame is more suited to women's rugby, and she floats around without being weighted down by her huge earrings, massive necklace and hair Diana Ross would be jealous of. 

Making her even more impressive, 7 of her 20 grand slam wins have come after the age of 30 and she's been on the WTA circuit since 1997...since she was 15. It took her 15 years to win 13 majors, but just 3 to win 7. Now almost 34, Serena, seemingly an ageless wonder, is a force to be reckoned with when most of us are considering quitting recreational sports. I'm 32. Serena makes me look pathetic. But then again, what does that say about the competition she's been facing the last 3 years? 

Roger Federer is just a couple months older than Serena and is already 34. Arguably the greatest tennis player in men's history has only won 1 major, since the age of 30...and he was 30 at the time. 2012 at Wimbledon was the last major the Fed has won and on the verge of the 2015 US Open, it is certainly questionable if he can pull of another major win. But why? The guy still dances on the court, he still deals with his serve and his veins are as ice cold as ever, why can he not seem to come through with another major? 

The answer is in his competition. Unfortunately for Federer, becoming so good only elevated the game of men's tennis to near staggering heights, producing dominant talents like Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. Oh ya, and then there's Andy Murray and always dangerous players like Tsonga or Berdych or that other Swiss guy, Wawrinka. What Federer has done for the men's game is mysteriously what has not happened in the women's game while Serena has been pushing the pace and leading the pack. No one can keep up with her. Since reclaiming #1 in the world she's won 23 of the 41 tournaments she's entered and has only 14 losses in 196 matches. That's almost 2 full seasons of work. 

The gap between Serena and everyone else is huge. She has almost twice as many points as #2 Sharapova which gives her a stranglehold on #1 for likely a while. Once upon a time, Federer was the same...once upon a time...but not anymore. Djokovic was a career #3 until he changed things up. He went gluten free, follows an insane training schedule and is remarkably flexible to prevent injuries. Now he is the most dominant player on tour and is potentially facing the prospect of topping the great Fed's 17. Oddly enough, the Djoker is facing the same luxury Serena has been. No one can keep up.

But we are discussing the women's game, not the men's. The women's game has been hurting for quite some time and Serena has been capitalizing. Who's her competition? Going in to the US Open, there isn't a legitimate threat that can beat Serena on Louis Armstrong currently living and breathing on the WTA. The question of if Serena can win a Calendar Grand Slam should not be one of beating the competition, but one of rising to the occasion and playing her best. No one can beat her when she's playing her best, or even close to her best, or even not quite her best. 

Let's consider the competition. I bother discussing her? Unless someone else beats Serena for her, Maria is crushed like a bug between Serena's powerful thighs. Wozniaki? Excuse me while I giggle at the thought. Azarenka? She's certainly the most capable, but even she's fallen miserably short despite her attempts to madly scream herself into belief. Belinda Bencic at 18 is the most recent to topple Serena, but even Serena has her off days, which are the only days she loses. 

When Serena is at her best, there is no one on the WTA circuit that can beat her. Could you say the same for Steffi Graf? She had the likes of Monica Seles challenging her, plus had to contend with rising Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis in the twilight of her career. In fact, just to make a name for herself, Graf had to beat the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert - two of the greatest of all time. The point is, Graf had someone to catch, someone to keep up with and challenge her, and someone to keep her on her toes and hopefully teach a lesson to as she got older...but there was always someone. The same goes for Navratilova and Evert - they had each other.

Serena hasn't had someone to catch for eons, she hasn't had any serious challengers to keep up with since Hingis, Henin and Clijsters all retired, but she's had many, many, many, many to teach lessons to. Young, old, experienced, rookies, Serena has schooled em all. But is it because all the rest are just that bad? Or is Serena just that good? We can be sure that one things's for certain, she is the boss. 

John McEnroe recently said he could beat Serena and that he could never lose to, "god forbid, a woman." Well no one told him that Serena's the boss. Have you seen those legs, John? Have you seen those arms? While Serena is certainly too good for the women on the WTA, she is undoubtedly too good for a 56 year old John McEnroe. But I'd definitely pay to see Serena crush him like a bug, just as she crushes Sharapova any any other XX chromosome that comes into her path. She's just too good. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A+ for AA

Typically the MLB trade deadline is met with yawns and an, "oh, was that today?" remark. But as a Jays fan, it usually ends with disappointment, an F bomb or two, and coming to terms with the fact that the post season is yet another year+ away. Jose Bautista echoed this sentiment last year and millions of Jays fans across Canada agreed. Another year, another talented line up, and another year of falling short. WTF.

Well not this year.

This year, the Jays were the troubled kid at school who skipped class and hung out behind the building by the maintenance shed graffitiing the wall with complex math problems and then arguing with the principal about social theory; they just needed a little finessing, someone to see the potential in them and know where and how to encourage it. The bats, the high powered offence that could strike at any time, the intense fielding and commitment of guys like Martin and Donaldson, were often seriously overshadowed by a defence that was costing them games, a starting rotation that at times couldn't offset 6 home runs, and a bullpen that has lead the Jays to well below .500 in one-run games. The troubled but talented kid. Remember him? Or her? What are they today? A lawyer? A brain surgeon? A politician? In jail? Flipping burgers? It could go in any direction. So much depends on that certain someone. Everyone always knows what's wrong with the troubled kid, but few know how to fix it.

Enter Alex Anthopoulos.

It's safe to say no one saw any of this coming. As I said, the trade deadline is typically met with disappointment in Toronto, and considering everyone knew the Jays were desperate for pitching, it seemed the asking prices would be too high. But it wasn't just the starting rotation that needed help, defence needed help, the bullpen needed help; the Jays' shortcomings seemed nearly insurmountable to solve in just a few days. The Jays had good prospects, they shouldn't part with them. Or at least that was the dominating logic. But that's always been the dominating logic. They always have good prospects.

However as a Jays fan, I'm tired of hearing that same old logic. I'm tired of the perennial pat on the back and having to hear the "you will have your chance kid" speech over and over...because that chance has yet to come. Over 20 years of waiting and waiting and waiting. Waiting for that talent to ripen. Waiting for the bats to match the mound, or vice versa. We've seen the Ricky Romeros come and go, when will it finally be our turn for greatness? Our turn for some October magic? When will our GM make a big splash and put the league on notice?

Well AA saw the potential. Granted, it was hard to miss. But adding to his roster in the manner he did and only parting with one current roster player is not only impressive but takes balls. Let's embrace what he did here: he got rid of the highly touted Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman, he said goodbye to Castro's 100mph+ stuff and he showed the door to a very well liked Jose Reyes and his 13 errors in blue and white. He transformed the team in 4 calculated and bold moves to take that troubled kid and turn him into a grown-up.

Finally, all those pitchers and prospects they drafted came in handy. All that character they traded for was paying off. However their team of the present did not match up with the prospects of the future they were relying on to make their team better. They needed to be better now. They needed some big leaguers. Why waste your time signing Russell Martin and trading for Josh Donaldson if you didn't have anything else to back it up? You might as well have Buck Martinez and Ed Sprague out there because you're not going to win. This was the time to make these moves. The Jays have the team. The fanbase has been patient enough. Do I care that we lost 8 pitching prospects in 3 days? No. We have David Price. We have Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere. Why would I care?

Finally, the Jays' bats are matched by their defence and their bullpen. Finally the Jays look like they might make the post season and even contend. The image of Joe Carter running the bases in celebration were becoming faded and inevitably jaded by years of disappointment. But no longer. The Jays are all in. Pulling off Steinbrenner-like maneuvers and landing big names that typically end up in pin stripes or wearing Red Sox, Anthopoulos has announced the Jays arrival to the big boys table. The troubled kid has grown up and realized its potential. Rejoice Jays fans. Rejoice. Our time to make a run has finally come. All aboard.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Come Together and Get Some Pitching Toronto!

Daniel Norris, one of the Jays' young pitchers, struggled
mightily in his last outing. 
While I appreciate the Jays' attempts at calling their fans to "Come Together" in the same manner the Raptors have with their "We The North" campaign, the Raptors have something in their corner: the post season. Given how this season has started, with all to familiar optimism followed by disappointments, it's no wonder I want to groan every time I see Russell Martin or Jose Bautista giving a cheesy monologue about uniting fans across the nation. The best way to bring fans together is to win, something that hasn't happened for a long time in Toronto. Until this happens, the Jays will be approached with cautious skepticism from a distance, coast to coast, as this years team still needs some work.

What never seems to "come together" for the Jays is a complete team. They either have pitching but don't have the bats, or they have the bats but don't have the pitching. This year, with 3 virtual rookies in their starting rotation, they don't seem to have the pitching. If you hit 6 home runs in a game as the Jays did last week, you should win. The Jays did not. While the youth movement was serving them well in the beginning of the season, the youthful enthusiasm, as it often does, is wearing out. Not only in the bullpen, but in the field as well, but that's another issue all together.

Leading the AL in walks, it's clear the Jays still have some work to do on the mound, but is it just the talent they are relying on or is it coaching too? Getting beaten 3 out of 4 games by the Rays who had 3/5s of their starting rotation on the DL makes one question coaching. The Rays have consistently produced quality pitching. The fact that they can't hold on to it doesn't really matter, the fact they are producing and winning with a thin bullpen is impressive and high lights the inadequacies of the Jays even more so. With the likes of Castro, Osuna and starters like Norris and Sanchez, the Jays need the coaching to turn these young talents in to major league stars. If Norris is coming out saying he has "dead arm," as he tries to work through the changes in his mechanics, is he really ready to start in the majors? Was he ready to start to begin with?

But if you think the walks are bad, there's more depressing statistics to condemn the Jays' pitching. Perhaps a bigger red flag is that they lead the big leagues in home runs given up - not a stat category any team wants to lead in, particularly when you are loading the bases up with all those walks. Worse yet, to date they've only had one starting pitcher make it through to the 7th inning - one! The last two games for the Jays have seen their starter reach over 30 pitches in the first inning alone, virtually ensuring they will not go deep. This has left their bullpen stretched thin and exploited - as they've faired no better than the starting rotation. Returnees like Brett Cecil continue to underwhelm and disappoint. In fact, it seems like almost yesterday when Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero were the next big starters for the Jays - what happened there? One of them is MIA and the other is flirting with a trip to the minors. Again, I go back to coaching. Who's to say this doesn't happen again with Norris or Sanchez?

And while it's easy to sit back and make these claims, perhaps the person most on the hotseat is Alex Anthropolous, the architect of this team. R.A. Dickey is as unpredictable as his knuckleball. Mark Buerhle is considering retirement and then there are 3 youngsters who desperately need help and guidance. Someone like Sanchez, who has struggled mightily thus far, could really benefit from some time in the 'pen, or better yet, some time starting in the minors. His numbers have not been impressive and what started last season with some solid relief performances has suddenly morphed into overarching expectations that he does not look comfortable with. A pitchers mound is truly the loneliest place in sports and right now, Sanchez looks like he's not yet ready to be on his own, Norris looks like he wants to crawl back in his van and Hutchinson, the best of the rookies, seems like the oldest sibling who's not quite ready to babysit the little ones.

If you want fans across Canada to "Come Together," snapping the longest post season drought in the big leagues is a good place to start. But it all begins with pitching. Go out and get yourself a pitcher, Alex, you really need it, not just to save your job and your season, but to bring Canadian fans together like we all were when Joe Carter swung for the fences.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Keep Calm - It's the Playoffs

The NHL playoffs have arrived, and with it, so has the frenzy. The opening games were simply a nibble of what's sure to be a feast of hockey awesomeness that delights every single year. They had everything: double OT, injuries, controversy, threats, whining, one-goal games and of course, nastiness...because it's the nastiness that keeps us coming back strike after strike. Let's face it, if the NBA playoffs were half as nasty as the NHL playoffs, we the north would care much more about the Toronto Raptors.
After one game, the nastiness could not be higher between Montreal and Ottawa. Watching it unfold was beautiful and agonizing and started an emotional rollercoaster journey for Canadian hockey fans everywhere. Are your anti-depressants ready? Your Xanax within reach? Is your psychologist on speed dial? It's the playoffs, calm is a relative thing that can involve standing on your couch cushions, holding your knees and weeping, or literally pulling your hair out. All are acceptable. It's the playoffs.
In Montreal, it began with a goal that Habs fans were sure would sink their team. Their prized, homegrown defenseman, Andrei Markov scored on their even more prized goaltender. The Hamburgler seemed to be pulling off his magic and forces seemed to be siding with the Sens, just as they did in 2013. Then, suddenly hope in the form of trade deadline acquisitions emerged and the roller coaster took a sudden sharp turn with one hack to the wrist. With that, the nasty meter on this first round series increased by about a thousand. Chris Neil is now in Ottawa's lineup, their marquee bruiser, and PK has vowed to play with more discipline. But who cares? We want the carnage. We want the madness. It's the playoffs! Hack away PK! Push and shove Chris Neil! Threaten away Dave Cameron! The Young and the Restless has nothing on the NHL.
But let's be serious. Yes Mark Stone received a hack to the forearm, but it was a hack every player receives on a nightly basis. In fact it was an identical hack Mark Schiefle delivered last night and received a 2 minute penalty for because the victim of his hack didn't fall to the ice like he was picked off by a sniper in the stands. Word is this morning that Mark Stone will likely be in the line-up tonight as well, so how seriously should we take his tuck and roll on the Bell Center ice?
Nevertheless the rhetoric this has stirred up is fantastic. Ottawa accusing PK of targeting Mark Stone...ahhh ya - he's one of Ottawa's best players, isn't that what your supposed to do in the playoffs? Wasn't Ottawa targeting PK because he's one of Montreal's best players? Isn't trash talking and getting under the best players skin a hallmark of a great playoff battle? Claude Lemieux? Chris Pronger, aren't they famous of chirping and getting under guys' skin? Didn't the Sens have a guy that bit someone? Plus you have the threats from Dave Cameron to slash a Hab in retaliation...just throw a fedora on Dave Cameron and hand him a Tommy Gun and this is straight outta 1920s Chicago. His "solution" will be enacted with good ol' street justice. Maybe he'll have a cigar hanging out of his mouth and laugh as he pulls the trigger...maybe.
But, regardless of what happens tonight, keeping calm is always relative. Will Ottawa be calm and able to focus on the task at hand of levelling the series? Will PK be calm and try not to hack on? Is it even possible to remain calm in such tense circumstances? As a fan, I certainly hope not. It's the mayhem and the carnage that keeps me addicted. Will I be calm relative to child birth? Maybe? Calm relative to Carey Price. Probably not, but who really is asides from Carey Price? Perhaps we will all best be served by taking some of his advice, maybe we should all just, "chill out." But where's the fun in that?