Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wimbledon Day 9: Two More Years?

Curtain Call

Player: Yen-Hsun Lu
Nation: Chinese Taipei
Age: 26
Current Ranking: 82
Notable Conquests: Andy Roddick (5th seed, USA)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Novak Djokovic (3rd, Serbia) in straight sets

So, Lu's fairy tale ends. But his quarterfinal finish is the best Slam result of his career. Can this catapult him into a big hard court season or is he a flash in the pan?

I don't think it's time to hit the panic button for Federer. I do think, however, that perhaps the time has come to adjust our expectations for the greatest player who ever lived. First, some perspective. Yes, two consecutive Slams failing to reach the semis is surprising by SuperFed standards. On the other hand, 25 consecutive quarterfinal-or-better Slam results is pretty darn good by anyone else's. It would appear that, nonetheless, in filling out one's bracket, one need no longer write Roger's name in pen for the semi slot.

Some time ago, Federer said that his goal was to play in the 2012 Olympics in London. That's just two years from now. I'm guessing that summer will be his last. I hope he can be spared a George Bastl moment and there may still be a Slam or two in his bag. But the guard has changed. It was going to happen eventually. Let's hope he can conduct this part of his career with the same grace he displayed at his peak.

All Part of My Fantasy

In Federer, I have lost one of my finalists. Only Nadal can help me now. Vamos!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

South Africa 2010: Down to Eight

I am disappointed for the Japanese. They played brilliantly - just not well enough. Asia was well-represented this tournament. And I do think we'll be hearing from Keisuke Honda again.

Meanwhile, the South American dominance continues. Can they all make it to the semis? I'm guessing no.

I was 7 for 8 this round: not bad but how unfortunate that the one I cared about most didn't work out. My picks for the semis: Brazil, Ghana, Argentina and Spain.

Wimbledon Day 8: Kanepi

Curtain Call

Player: Kaia Kanepi
Nation: Estonia
Age: 25
Current Ranking: 80
Notable Conquests: Samantha Stosur (6th seed, Australia) and Alexandra Dulgheru (31st, Romania)
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Result: loss to Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic) in three sets

What a great run for Kanepi, who had to go through qualifying to reach the main draw! Although boasting a career-high ranking at #18, Kanepi's ranking dipped out of the top 100 earlier this year, forcing her to qualify at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. She's certainly back on track now.

All Part of My Fantasy

With Venus Williams losing, my women's bracket is officially kaput.

Monday, June 28, 2010

South Africa 2010: Gambare!

The Dutch and the Brazilians won today: big surprises neither. Of course, now they have to play each other. I say Brazil.

I'm 6 for 6 with my round of 16 picks thus far. I hope my luck holds out for the Japanese tomorrow. It should be a good match. I think they can do it.

Wimbledon Day 7: Brands

Curtain Call

Player: Daniel Brands
Nation: Germany
Age: 22
Current Ranking: 98
Notable Conquests: Nikolay Davydenko (7th seed, Russia) and Victor Hanescu (31st, Romania)
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Result: loss to Tomas Berdych (12th, Czech Republic) in four sets

This is by far Brands's best Slam result. Previously, he had never made it out of the first round. In his match with Hanescu, the big Romanian retired in the fifth set, down 3-0, denying Brands the honor of a full five-set victory.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Justine Henin (Curtain Call, Australian Open Day 13)
- Undoubtedly, today's loss to Kim Clijsters (8th, Belgium) was disappointing. But her ranking will rise again with this result and she should have a decent seed for the US Open, a tournament she has won twice.

Chanelle Scheepers (Curtain Call, Roland Garros Day 8) - Scheepers was awarded a wild card into the singles draw, apparently on the strength of her strong showing at the French. Unfortunately, she lost in the first round. Her showing in doubles was better, teaming with Jelena Jankovic (Serbia) to make it to the third round, taking out the 13 seeds along the way. However, Jankovic pulled out of their match today.

All Part of My Fantasy

It was a brutal day for my brackets. I lost a finalist (Sharapova) and a semifinalist (Henin) on the women's side and a semifinalist (Roddick) on the men's side. For the women, the only semifinalist I have left is my champion, Venus Williams.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

South Africa 2010: Instant Replay?

I got an e-mail from My Dad this morning to say he'd actually watched some of the Ghana-USA match yesterday. We both admitted to pulling for Ghana. I only recently told my parents about my blog and they've been reading it. I've worried a little that My Dad might be a little put off by my characterization of him as a non-fan. But in truth, I think it's a nice thing that I developed interests separate from those of my family. I am grateful for our common ground, of course, but our differences are important to me, too.

There were some pretty obvious bad calls in both games today: the refs missed what would have been England's second goal in the first game and the Argentines were clearly offside for their second goal in the later match. In the end, the calls didn't really matter for either game but there have been enough questionable calls and non-calls in this tournament to merit discussion of some instant replay provisions. I can understand why they might not want to add a review procedure to a sport in which delay tactics are a highly sophisticated dramatic art form but I think it's always worth doing what can reasonably be done to get calls right. In the long run, it saves headaches on all sides.

Argentina-Germany: a storied soccer rivalry, having faced one another in the final game of two consecutive Cups. The Argentines won in '86, the Germans in '90. I think Argentina takes it this time.

All Part of My Fantasy: Weeks Returns

Week: June 20-27
Current standing in league: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Rickie Weeks (second baseman, Brewers) with 2 home runs, 8 RBI, 7 runs and a .333 batting average

This is Weeks's second time in this space. He's having an excellent season thus far: 12 homers, 43 RBI, 49 runs, 4 stolen bases and a .259 batting average. As previously noted, having a reliable second baseman is a great luxury in fantasy baseball. From the Brewers' perspective, those are some decent power numbers for a leadoff hitter as well.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

South Africa 2010: Yanks Go Home

Uruguay wins and South American dominance continues. Ghana wins and the African dream lives. Who wins their match against each other? I say Ghana.

Don't spend too much time feeling sad for Team USA. They had a great tournament. Ghana was an unfortunate draw for them for the second round - it's tough to beat a team now burdened with the hopes and dreams of a soccer-crazy continent. The American team is well on its way to establishing itself among the world's elite.

Wimbledon Day 6: Fognini

Curtain Call

Player: Fabio Fognini
Nation: Italy
Age: 23
Current Ranking: 80
Notable Conquest: Fernando Verdasco (8th seed, Spain)
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Result: loss to Julien Benneteau (32nd, France) in four sets

Fognini matched his Roland Garros result by reaching the third round, his best showing in a Slam.

The junior tournament began today. The last junior girls' champion to also win the women's title was Amelie Mauresmo who won the juniors in 1996 and the seniors in 2006. The last to do it on the men's side is none other than Roger Federer - big surprise. Fed won the junior title in 1998 and the first of his senior titles in 2003.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Tobias Kamke (Curtain Call, Roland Garros Day 4)
- Kamke went through qualifying to reach the main draw. His third round effort is his best Slam performance. Sadly, he was no match for Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (10th, France).

Friday, June 25, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Field Is Halved

Well, Ivory Coast didn't make up the 9-goal deficit between them and Portugal but it was sure fun watching them try. In the end, it didn't matter with Portugal achieving a draw against Brazil.

South America is 5 for 5. Chile didn't win its group but it did make it out of the group stage. South America's 100% success rate far exceeds anyone else's.

With the group stage finished, it's time to check in on our story lines.

Brazil is in great shape. It's a shame they drew Chile in the next round. It would have been great to see all five South American teams make it to the quarters.

The Spanish team should buy Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Brava a beer this evening. He gifted them a goal, thus gifting them a win. Spain still would have advanced with a draw but the win allowed them to win the group, thus avoiding Brazil in the next round. Instead, their all-Iberian tilt with Portugal should be the highlight match of the second round.

The Africa story is now just the Ghana story. In my ESPN bracket, I have them going all the way to the semis. Can they do it?

My picks for the second round: Uruguay, Ghana, Germany, Argentina, Netherlands, Brazil, Japan and Spain.

Wimbledon Day 5: Great Arm!

Curtain Call

Player: Greta Arn
Nation: Hungary
Age: 31
Current Ranking: 136
Notable Conquest: Kateryna Bondarenko (34th seed, Ukraine)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Marion Bartoli (11th, France) in straight sets

At age 31, Arn went through qualifying, then reached the third round, the best Slam performance of her career. She has dual citizenship with Germany and has competed as a representative of each country. Hungary is her birth nation.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Angelique Kerber (Curtain Call, Australian Open Day 5)
- Kerber made it to the third round, equaling her performance in Melbourne. She also managed to take out a seed in the second round: Shahar Peer (13th, Israel). She lost in straight sets today to Jarmila Groth (Australia). Only 22, Kerber's career is definitely headed in the right direction.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Sun Rises Out of the Group Stage

Paraguay wins their group, making it three for South America so far. Can Brazil and Chile make it 5 for 5? And really, who would have thought that New Zealand would have a better World Cup than either France or Italy? For that matter, so did Australia.

The Japan match was downright inspiring. Keisuke Honda is quite an exciting midfielder! He currently plays for CSKA Moscow but he's another one who I'm sure will be drawing interest from bigger clubs.

Wimbledon Day 4: Dodig

Curtain Call

Player: Ivan Dodig
Nation: Croatia
Age: 25
Current Ranking: 193
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Sam Querrey (18th seed, USA) in four sets

Another day, another brilliant performance by a qualifier on Court No. 1. Alas, the seeded player won again. Dodig impressed the commentators as well. He's been featured in this space before as the Curtain Call on Day 4 of the Australian Open. This was his first Wimbledon and his performance today gives him something to build on for the summer.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Martin Fischer (Curtain Call, Roland Garros Day 3)
- Fischer qualified for his first Wimbledon. He won the first set in his match with Thomaz Bellucci (25th, Brazil) and forced two others to tie-breakers. His ranking is definitely headed in the right direction.

Julian Reister (Curtain Call, RG Day 6) - Reister made it to the main draw as a lucky loser. This was also his first Wimbledon. He won a set off of Xavieer Malisse (Belgium).

All Part of My Fantasy

Svetlana Kuznetsova (19th, Russia) was my undoing once again.

And so, it's time to check in on my brackets. All of my semifinalists are still around for the men. For the women, not so much: Sam Stosur (6th, Australia) was sent packing in the first round.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

South Africa 2010: Landon's Day

That goal by Landon Donovan was just amazing. You could feel the weight lift off of the entire team. For Donovan himself, it was clearly THE moment of an illustrious career. Well done, gentlemen!

But the real heroes of the day, the ones who may have saved the whole tournament for the host continent, were the Australians. The Socceroos, in defeating Serbia, helped Ghana to advance out of the group stage, likely the only African nation which will be able to do so. I suppose it's possible that Ivory Coast can overcome the 9-goal deficit between them and Portugal but it's unlikely.

All of this sets up a USA-Ghana tilt in the next round. Naturally, I would want the Americans to win. It would be great for soccer in our country. But Ghana winning would be pretty exciting, too: great for the event and therefore great for the global game. A win-win?

Wimbledon Day 3: The Match That Never Ends

Curtain Call

Player: Ilija Bozoljac
Nation: Serbia
Age: 24
Current Ranking: 152
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st seed, Switzerland) in four sets

I loved the way Bozoljac played today. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his match on the big stage with Fed and played with an air of confidence. No shrinking violet was he! The crowd was appropriately appreciative at the end, too: standing ovation.

I'd comment on the Isner-Mahut match but 9+ hours in, it's still a bit early to pass judgment, don't you think? Holy cow! And I was amazed that when they finally called it for the day, Isner was the one who wanted to keep playing. Of course, he was about to serve and wouldn't want to give Mahut a better chance to break him tomorrow. But still, the man looked like the walking dead.

All Part of My Fantasy

Maria Kirilenko (27th, Russia) was my choice today in the women's suicide pool and she came through for me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

South Africa 2010: Goodbye to Angelo

My doppelganger met Angelo and his friends one last time to watch Greece take on Argentina. The Greek team, sadly, was no match for the South American powerhouse. There were many drinks, many tears, many laughs, many calls of wait until next time. Or at least I assume that was what they were saying. I sang along to their songs as best I could. We wished each other well. My doppelganger will have to say goodbye to Greece soon - on to who knows where.

Back in Vermont, Our Girl has had well enough of the vuvezelas and asked if we could listen to the Beatles instead. I'm always happy to comply with that. She knows the Beatles as simply "Daddy's favorite band" and will request them as such. It just makes my heart melt. We went with Help!, her favorite album followed by Revolver, probably mine. The World Cup and the Fab Four are a lovely combination.

And so, two groups finished today, both won by South American teams. A pattern is definitely emerging. Meanwhile, I can hardly believe France is going home with only one goal for the tournament. It was nice to see Henry in the game, though.

Wimbledon Day 2: Project 45

Curtain Call

Player: Guillermo Alcaide
Nation: Spain
Age: 24
Current Ranking: 238
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Gilles Simon (26th seed, France) in straight sets

Alcaide went through qualifying to reach his first Slam main draw. Well done!

I was glad for the chance to see Kei Nishikori (Japan) today, even though he got tuned by Nadal. Only 20 years old, Nishikori would seem to have a very bright future ahead of him. A couple of years ago, he went through both Sam Querrey and James Blake pretty efficiently to win the title at Delray Beach. He's a very smart player and highly enjoyable to watch. The Japanese have high hopes that he will become their highest-ranked male singles player ever. He has been dogged by injuries over the past year or so. It's good to see him back.

Our Girl asked today why the crowd is so quiet at tennis matches. I explained that the players need to be able to hear the sound of the ball coming off of their opponents racket and so forth. Then John McEnroe started yapping. "Why does he get to talk?" she asked. I have often wondered the same thing.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Anastasia Pivovarova (Curtain Call, Roland Garros Day 7)
- She just turned 20 last week and this was her first Wimbledon. She got creamed by Maria Sharapova (16th, Russian) today but Sharapova is, after all, a former champion here.

Pivovarova made it into the main draw as a lucky loser. When a main draw player pulls out after the draw comes out but before the tournament begins, the highest ranked player to lose in the last round of qualifying takes her place. Quite a lot of players pulled out this year so there are several lucky losers in both the men's and women's draws this year. Pivovarova is one of the beneficiaries.

All Part of My Fantasy

I picked Serena Williams (1st, USA) for the suicide pool today, a considerable risk. I am, of course, completely doomed if she wins the title. However, I actually believe that she will lose in the second round. You heard it here first.

Besides, I could have gone with a lower risk pick as I did with Nicolas Almagro (19th, Spain) in the men's draw. He lost, of course. At least with the women's draw, I'm still alive.

Monday, June 21, 2010

South Africa 2010: South American Dominance

Everybody's played two games so it's time to take stock.

Brazil - Well, that's much better. The Brazilians are already through to the knockout round. They can rest players as needed against Portugal. My guess is that Portugal wins that game and also moves on to the next round.

Spain - I'm sure they feel better after today's win but Spain's in trouble. They've got a much tougher opponent in Chile than the Swiss will have in Honduras. In fact, I think Chile can beat them. If the Swiss also manage a win, Spain's going home. Wow!

Africa - It's hard to paint the results for the African teams as anything but disappointing so far. As I see it, Ghana has the best chance of moving on but Germany looms and you know they'll be motivated!

Rather quietly, this has become a South American tournament. All five South American nations lead their respective groups and I see all of them moving on to the next round.

Amazingly, only four teams have won two games: Argentina, The Netherlands, Brazil and Chile. Argentina has the best goal difference of that group at +4. With one group game left for everyone, the real fun begins.

Wimbledon Day 1: Witten's Back

Curtain Call

Player: Jesse Witten
Nation: USA
Age: 27
Current Ranking: 186
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Michael Llodra (France) in four sets

I have featured Witten in this space before. He was my Curtain Call for Day 6 of the US Open after his brilliant run to the third round. His ranking shot up to a career high of #163 in January but had been gradually heading southward since. He qualified for his first-ever Wimbledon last week and taking a set off of Llodra, one of the world's under-appreciated grass court talents, is a good result.

Wimbledon: My Picks

Men -

Semis: Federer v. Roddick, Murray v. Nadal
Final: Nadal def. Federer

Women -

Semis: Sharapova v. Stosur, Henin v. V. Williams
Final: V. Williams def. Sharapova

My suicide pool picks for Day 1 are Mardy Fish (USA) and Nadia Petrova (12th seed, Russia).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

South Africa 2010: Happy Father's Day

It was disappointing to see Ivory Coast go down so decisively. I had high hopes for that match and it certainly started off well. But how about New Zealand? After all that talk that they were lucky just to make it, that they would have to work not to be the worst World Cup team ever, they manage a draw against the defending champions! Paraguay will certainly make it out of the group and I think the Italians, despite their mediocre play, will ultimately be the ones to join them.

Happy Father's Day to all! The ladies gave me breakfast in bed, some gifts Our Girl had made at school and a basketball. I haven't had my own basketball in years. We went to a book store, too, and I picked up a couple of sports-related titles: Strokes of Genius by L. Jon Wertheim and Satchel by Larry Tye.

All Part of My Fantasy: Divided Loyalties

Week: June 13-19
Current standing in league: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Josh Hamilton (left fielder/center fielder, Rangers) with 2 home runs, 7 RBI, 7 runs, 2 stolen bases and a .520 batting average
Melodrama: Sunday's Cubs/White Sox game

This is two weeks in a row for Hamilton. At this point, he has to be considered the hottest hitter in baseball.

Last Sunday night's Cubs/White Sox game was quite an exciting one with both starters working no-hitters through six-and-a-half innings. It was extra interesting for me because Gavin Floyd (White Sox) is one of mine. There was also the small matter of the fact that, all else being equal, I prefer the Cubs to the Sox and would ideally want them to win. Except I also wanted the win for Floyd for my selfish fantasy purposes. Once the White Sox put in a reliever, I couldn't handle the emotional tug-of-war any longer and I turned off the TV.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Dutch Are the First Team Through

So, the Dutch are the first to officially make it through to the knockout stage. No surprise there. What is surprising is that Japan has the inside track to finish second in the group. If they draw with Denmark, they have the goal difference advantage. I think they can take the Danes, too.

Group D has been full of surprises, too, what with both Serbia and Australia both making much better showings in their second games. I see Serbia and Ghana making it through and the Germans going home - quite a switch from starting out so strong.

Friday, June 18, 2010

South Africa 2010: Poor England

I love a good upset so the Serbia-Germany game was delightful. So much for thinking the Germans were the best team in the tournament! I missed the USA game as I was out running an errand and therefore missed the questionable call. I think the US still makes it out of the group, as does Slovenia. Poor England. But what can you say? The Algerians came ready to play.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

South Africa 2010: He's a Keeper

Fun Link

South African Vuvuzela Phiharmonic Angered by Soccer Games Breaking out During Concerts from The Onion

Argentina v. South Korea

You know, even though they lost, I was impressed with how the Koreans played. They never stopped fighting even when they fell behind. I'm surprised by how quickly you see the life go out of some teams even when they're just a goal down.

The Argentines were just better - in every section of the pitch. They were typically brilliant offensively but also did a great job of clogging the goal box in their own end. Brilliant midfield play, too. The rest of the field is on notice!

Greece v. Nigeria

My doppelganger met up again with Angelo and his pals at the bar in Athens. The atmosphere was much more cheerful this time as Greece played much better. Everyone knows that the next match against Argentina will be the toughest but the Greeks pulled off the impossible by winning Euro 2004 so who knows? The possibility remains of making it out of the group stage so, of course we're meeting again on Tuesday for the next match.

Angelo, my doppelganger and I are all very impressed by Vincent Enyeama, the Nigerian goalkeeper. He has been Man of the Match twice, both Nigerian losses. He was brilliant today, really the only reason his team was able to keep it close, especially once they went down a man. Enyeama current plays for a club in Israel. He's only 27 - young for a goalie. Somehow, I think Hapoel Tel Aviv is going to start getting a lot of calls from higher profile European clubs interested in a transfer.

With two more matches left in this group, I'm expecting Argentina and South Korea to advance.

Mexico v. France

What an exciting win for Mexico! And how sad it was to see Thierry Henry sitting helplessly on the bench. And no, I don't think Hernandez was offside. It was close but he wasn't.

For this group, it sure looks like Uruguay and Mexico moving through. Who'd have thought?

Why You Should Watch Wimbledon


Tennis was born on the grass lawns of England and to England the game returns every summer. Wimbledon is, of course, the world's most prestigious tournament. One could argue about the relative merits of the four Slams but the fact is, if you wanted to cement your legacy in the sport by winning only one tournament, this would be the one.

Grass Court

Switching from the clay of Paris to the grass of Wimbledon is one of the most abrupt and dramatic transitions on the world sport calendar. The two surfaces, as discussed in regards to Roland Garros, benefit very different players. Grass is for the gunslingers. Big serves and booming ground strokes are rewarded by the low bounce. If you like the power game, sit back and enjoy. Also, from an aesthetic stand point, there is something very satisfying in seeing the summer sunshine on green grass. Neither red dirt nor concrete can quite compare.

Champagne and Strawberries

Looking for a weekend brunch idea? Watch the tournament over the traditional treat served on the grounds: champagne with strawberries and clotted cream. Don't forget, though, that the tournament takes the middle Sunday off. Not that you couldn't have brunch anyway.

No Vuvuzelas

Don't get me wrong. I'm going to have to make tough choices with Wimbledon and the World Cup running concurrently. But I think I can promise you that the tennis coverage will be quieter without the senseless drone of the vuvuzelas. However, should Andy Murray falter for even a point or two in a given match, I can virtually guarantee that comparisons will be made to Robert Green, England's unfortunate goalkeeper. Especially if Murray is facing an American at the time. Never mind the fact that Murray is actually Scottish. This will happen. Count on it!

Serve and Volley

If you watch tennis at all, you've surely heard the old guard (John McEnroe and friends) complaining about the fact that players don't come to the net enough anymore. At Wimbledon, you will hear references to the fact that the grass on the court wears differently from how it did in the good ol' days. You'll see comparison shots of the court in 1979 and the court now. There is now far less wear near the net, far more at the baseline.

The old guard really needs to let this one go. The fact of the matter is that modern racket technology better enables the baseliners to fire soul-crushing passing shots by any would-be volleyers. Johnny Mac wouldn't be quite so gung ho about coming to the net himself if he had Nadal staring him down from the other end of the court, AeroPro Drive in hand.

But if you like serve and volley tennis, Wimbledon is the most likely place to see it.

Federer vs. Nadal

In the story of tennis's greatest rivalry, the best chapters have been written at Wimbledon. Who knows what this year's edition will bring? Federer's brilliant career seems to be trending downward. Nadal has bounced back from his injury-plagued '09 and has returned to the top of the rankings. They are the top two seeds so the possibility of their meeting in the final is there.

The Williamses v. The Belgians

The Williamses have owned Wimbledon. Over the past decade, Venus has won the title 5 times, Serena 3. They've met in the final 4 times. They've also won the doubles together 4 times. Neither Kim Clijsters nor Justine Henin has ever won a singles title at Wimbledon.

Women on the Rise

Sam Stosur's big serve and strong showing in Paris make her a serious dark horse at Wimbledon. One wonders how she will react emotionally to her loss in the final at Roland Garros. Francesca Schiavone, the surprise RG champ, is unlikely to replicate the feat in England but as was her motto, nothing is impossible.

Andy Murray

He is not my favorite player but I have to admit that I feel for Britain's #1 when Wimbledon rolls around. It will be such a relief when a British player finally wins here again. Then we can stop hearing about how long it's been!

Fantasy Tennis

- Tennis Channel bracket challenges for men and women

- Wimbledon suicide pool

Off My Duff: Summer Begins

The last day for our students was on Monday and Tuesday was faculty in-service day. For once, it was actually fun - a sort of field day for the teachers. Group building, you know. After the usual snore-fest in the library, many of us headed to the gym where the P.E. teachers taught us an astonishingly complicated game called, I think, Pins and Hoops. It involved throwing foam balls across the gym at bowling pins. But there were teams. And you couldn't actually peg people but if someone caught your ball in mid-air, you were out. But then you could get your teammates back in by throwing a ball against the backboard. Seriously, I barely understood what was going on but I'm fairly certain we lost. Good fun, though.

Then outside for softball, a game I do understand (but if you want to drive yourself insane, try to explain the rules to a five-year-old). I believe that one can learn a great deal about people in a casual softball game. You learn about their athletic abilities, certainly, but also about their competitiveness, their sense of fair play, their control needs and their pride. Playing with teachers is enlightening. We all try to be encouraging. We want to be inclusive. But at the end of the day, each of us is used to being the one in charge so either you all defer to an amorphous pecking order or no one's in charge.

You can learn about yourself, too. In some ways, I am more coordinated as an adult than I was as a teenager. I am, however, disastrously out of shape, a fact which would become even more apparent later in the day. I learned, too, that at least as far as faculty softball is concerned, I was not as worried about winning as I was about feeling that I was holding up my own end. Losing? Okay. Losing because I screwed up? Not okay. We won so I was off the hook.

As we were helping him clean up, one of the PE teachers suggested a game of HORSE in the gym after lunch. Now, I'm always up for any game involving a basketball. I lost at HORSE but when we switched to two-on-two, the old instincts kicked in. I was never anything but a competent pickup player but I adored basketball growing up. It was always my game of choice and for years, I shot around every day after school - even kept it up in college. If anything, my instincts for the game have improved but boy am I old now. My side won both games we played but I was in some serious pain afterward. One thing that I do love about basketball is that even when your shots aren't falling, and mine often aren't, you can find other ways to be useful: play tough defense, set picks, scrap for rebounds, etc. I was always better at those things anyway.

All of which leads me into my personal plan for the summer: to get more exercise. My intention is to do something deliberately athletic for an hour each day. I'm not looking to lose weight or bulk up. I just want to be healthier and feel that I am living a more well-rounded life. Yesterday, it was a long walk while Our Girl was still at school - her last day. I'm hoping we can find some things that we enjoy doing together.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

South Africa 2010: Somewhere, Federer Is Smiling

Here I was all set to say that Japan over Cameroon was the upset of the tournament so far. The Swiss just had to ruin it!

Everyone's played their first game so it would seem appropriate to take stock. Checking in with the co-favorites first, Brazil should be worried. They were lucky to win against the North Koreans and they've got two much tougher games ahead with Portugal and Ivory Coast. Spain is, no doubt, in shock over today's loss. They still have two games to go, of course, and could still make it out of the group. Honduras should be a win but Chile could be tough.

On the brighter side, the two most impressive teams thus far have been Germany and the Netherlands. Germany is the only team to have scored more than two goals in a game thus far. They still have their toughest group games ahead with Ghana and Serbia but true to form, the Germans are off to a great start.

The Dutch handled a good Danish team rather easily. At least on paper, Japan should be an easier match for them but the team will no doubt be inspired by its win against Cameroon. Then the Dutch will have to face a Cameroon side possibly looking for a win just to make it out of the group.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

South Africa 2010: Kiwis

I had the games on ESPN3 today as I was packing up my classroom for the summer. Another year down - ten weeks to recover.

Obviously, the big surprise of the day is New Zealand's draw against Slovakia. The All Whites did well just to make it to the tournament and were generally considered to be the weakest in the field of 32 nations. To gain a draw against a European team is an excellent result.

I am very fond of New Zealand. I was there for about two weeks around Christmas time one year during my time in Japan - well before The Lord of the Rings started filming. It is an astonishingly beautiful country. Postcards barely do it justice. People are very friendly, too. In shops, they kept calling me "Love." "Can I get you anything else, Love?" So sweet.

Now that all six African nations have played their first match, it seems appropriate to see where everyone stands and assess the road ahead for each:

- Ghana is in the best shape of the six. Their win over Serbia was big. Australia should be easier and assuming they win that, there will be less riding on their match with the beast that is Germany.

- Nigeria is probably in the next best position. Even though they lost their opening match against Argentina, they played well and their toughest group opponent is now out of the way.

- Ivory Coast has to be delighted that Drogba is playing but a victory over Portugal rather than a 0-0 draw would have made life much easier. Brazil is up next for them, a major test for both squads. North Korea appeared an easy win at the beginning of the tournament but with their strong effort in defeat today, who knows?

- South Africa did well to draw against Mexico but life doesn't get much easier with Uruguay and France left to play.

- Cameroon is definitely in a hole. Major kudos to Japan for pulling off the upset but what had appeared to be at least the healthiest African team in the beginning now has a very tough road ahead.

- Algeria also lost to what should have been its easiest opponent in its group.

Monday, June 14, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Rising Sun

There were other games today, of course. I can hardly express how excited I am about Japan's win over Cameroon. I watched most of the second half via ESPN3 and was very impressed by how hard they fought to protect their lead. They won the game in the midfield, mostly on the defensive side. They're in a tough group with the Netherlands and Denmark still to come but I think it's fair to say that they've already performed beyond expectations.

I love that you can get ESPN3 in different languages. I watched the Japan game in Japanese and what I could of the Italy-Paraguay match in German. Soccer shall be my path to multilingualism! I'm not too surprised by the Italy-Paraguay draw. The Italians, like the Argentines, are notoriously slow starters and Paraguay, as I've noted before, usually exceeds expectations.

South Africa 2010: The Orange Crush

The Dutch played their first match today, a 2-0 victory over Denmark. The Dutch team is known in the Netherlands as Oranje, after their garishly orange jerseys. Now, if you've read previous posts, you may have noticed that I have some issues with the color orange. It's lovely in sunsets and beautiful on fruit. However, as a color for clothing I think it is the one hue that looks universally horrible on people. I have to admit, though, that orange soccer jerseys are a very important link to my own childhood and my personal history with this wonderful game.

My parents signed me up for my first youth soccer team in the spring of my first grade year. I knew exactly nothing about soccer going in except that you couldn't use your hands. In fact, to say I wasn't much of an athlete at that age is putting it mildly. My own adoring grandmother begged my parents to let me quit as she watched me struggle just to run around the field. I would have none of it, though, and that team turned out to be one of the most positive experiences of my youth.

It was an unusual team for many reasons. We got orange jerseys the first season (did our coach get last pick?) and given our success, losing just one game, our coaches seemed to believe it was good luck and we were always The Orange Crush thereafter. The team was also very good. I take no personal credit for that. In fact, I ran into one of my teammates in New York as an adult and even all those years later, we marveled at how lucky we were to ride the coattails of such exceptional athletes.

There was a lot of talent on our team. A few played soccer through high school, others switched to football, basketball and baseball with great success. But the other teams had good players, too. The star of our arch-rival team was A.J. Wood. If you've heard the name, it's because he went on to break the NCAA tournament career goal-scoring record and lead the University of Virginia to four consecutive national championships. I think he made the Olympic team, too, and may have played professionally for a while. And yet, more often than not, we beat his team. And the reasons why are the same reasons why that experience was such a great one for all of us.

The first season, we were undoubtedly the typical youth soccer team that chased after the ball in little boy clumps. But after finishing first in our league, we were bumped up to a more competitive group in the fall. We still won more than we lost but it was clear that talent alone was not going to see us through. In hindsight, I realize we had some very thoughtful coaches who did a great job of teaching us fundamentals as well as how to play each of the positions.

But most importantly, we were taught to be a team. I am fairly certain that I was the weakest player on that team. I know for a fact that I was the only one who never scored a goal. But I also know that I got better with each season because I never got anything less than encouragement from my coaches and teammates. And best of all, I was never made to feel as if I didn't belong - never by a parent and never by one of the other boys. And I mean never. We all carry with us the put downs we hear as children but it just didn't happen on that team. We were the Orange Crush. We lost as a team. We drew as a team. Far more often than not, we won as a team. In each of our last three seasons together, we won the league. In our sixth and final season, we went undefeated. We.

That atmosphere didn't happen by accident, either. That unusual team was born of an unusual group of parents. I didn't know all of the machinations behind the scenes at the time. Probably, none of the boys did. My mom and dad only later told me the stories of the parent meetings. It was a high-powered group: doctors, lawyers, high-ranking government officials, even a Presidential advisor. This group of A-types made a conscious decision that winning would not be the most important thing for us. Learning the game, learning to be a team and having a positive experience would be the priorities. The fact that we won anyway was a bonus.

After that sixth season, our stars moved on to select teams and the rest of us went our separate ways. I joined a rec league team and switched from forward to goalkeeper. It turned out to be a much better position for me but our team was awful. Let's just say I was a very busy goalie. I rode the bench as the backup keeper for one year of junior high. I didn't make the team in high school. My sister recruited me to join the band instead and the rest, as they say, is history. At the time, I was a little sad that my soccer days were over. In hindsight, I am grateful to have discovered that my talents and temperament were better suited to other endeavors.

I went to high school with several of the guys but all but one or two of them ran in different circles from mine. And yet, I have run into them from time to time since: online, at reunions and once that chance encounter in Manhattan mentioned above (a good story for another day). Whenever I have seen them, one of us will inevitably mention the Orange Crush and we can't help but smile. Even all these years later, all of us surely having been members of other successful organizations, I think we all know we were a part of something special.

To this day, when I smell fresh-cut grass on a Saturday morning, I have Proustian memories of those games. I can still taste the orange slices at halftime. I can still hear our parents yelling, "Go, Orange! Hustle!" I can still remember winning, but more importantly, belonging.

And that, dear friends, is why I love this game. But I still would have preferred red.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

South Africa 2010: First African Win

It's a gorgeous day in Northwest Vermont. I watched some soccer but also got out some to enjoy the day: we went out shopping for a bit, ate lunch out on our deck, had a beer with some friends on their deck. Good times!

There was some soccer, too. It was good to see Africa get its first win today with Ghana's 1-0 victory over Serbia. The Ghanians should feel pretty good about their odds of advancing at this point. They should beat Australia, though perhaps not as soundly as Germany did. That should be enough to get them through, regardless of how they fair against the Germans themselves.

Algeria, on the other hand, doesn't look so promising. They lost to the weakest of their three group-mates today in Slovenia. Ghezzal's handball and subsequent red card gave me the opportunity to teach my daughter what the word boneheaded means. It was nice to see Zidane in the stands, though, supporting his ancestral land.

All Part of My Fantasy: I Wonder If He Could Play Midfield

Week: June 6-12
Current standing in league: 1st out of 12
My Player of the Week: Josh Hamilton (left fielder/center fielder, Rangers) with 3 home runs, 11 RBI, 5 runs and a .360 batting average

It's Hamilton's second appearance in this spot. He is in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak. He failed to drive in a run yesterday, ending a seven-game RBI streak. Quite simply, he's been one of the best hitters in the majors this season, not bad for a seventh-round fantasy draft pick.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

South Africa 2010: It's the Sangria Blogging

'Twas a great day of soccer watchin'. Our party guests have gone home, leaving us with a pitcher still half-full of sangria. Still plenty of My Wife's outstanding guacamole left as well. Where to begin...

South Korea v. Greece

As explained in a previous post, I would love to spend the World Cup in a country whose citizens care a lot more about soccer than the average American sports fan does. Not in the host nation but ideally in a place in a nearby time zone. My choice for this tournament would have been Greece. So, as I watched the game this morning, my more well-to-do doppelganger was sitting in a bar in Athens sipping ouzo and making friends with Angelo, a sanitation worker on his day off, watching the game here with me because his wife doesn't like him watching at home. His pals come around and shake my hand, joking with one another in a language far beyond me, most likely at my expense. We each buy a round as we watch the match. Sadly, the game is not very inspiring for the Greek team but we have a marvelous time. We agree in their broken English and my useless Greek to meet again for the next game on Thursday.

Back in Vermont, the real me feels that Korea beating Greece isn't so shocking but the ease with which they achieved victory was a bit surprising. They looked very comfortable throughout.

Argentina v. Nigeria

Boy, you've got to be quick with your Man of the Match vote at! Voting starts at the beginning of the second half and there isn't much of a grace period once the game is over. I was delighted to see a goalkeeper, not to mention the one for the losing team, win it. It wasn't pretty but I'm sure the Argentines, notorious poor starters in World Cup competition, were pleased to come away with a win.

USA v. England

While waiting for our guests to arrive, My Wife and I watched the pre-game festivities on Univision. It was quite amusing to find that Stephen Colbert's parodies of Spanish-language television aren't much of a stretch from reality. We particularly enjoyed the feature on various players' model girlfriends/wives. "I should be appalled by the objectification, but it's just too funny," My Wife said. She suggested we learn some Spanish in time for the next Cup so we can understand more of what's going on. I don't know. That might kill the charm for me.

Side note: I'm delighted to see that Landon Donovan is bilingual. American tennis players, take note.

The party went well, all women as it turned out! My Wife made the aforementioned guac and and sangria and I picked up beer, both English (Newcastle) and American (Sierra Nevada). There was a wide range of interest in the game among our guests which I think is fun. We all agreed that Fabio Capello, England's manager, has a head way too big for the rest of his body. We also had consensus that Tim Howard, USA's keeper, was wearing far too much orange, though the sangria improved our opinions on that one.

The draw is a very good result for the USA. England has to be frustrated. My heart goes out to Robert Green, the English keeper, for letting that ball bounce off of his gloves into the goal. I do not envy him the tabloid treatment that lies ahead.

Hey, it's only Saturday. More games tomorrow. Woohoo!

Friday, June 11, 2010

South Africa 2010: Kickoff

Fun links:

The Onion Sports Introduction to World Cup Soccer

Five Video Ads to Get You Pumped About the World Cup at AdvertisingAge. My Wife likes the Coca-Cola ad. I prefer Puma.

First, I've got to say that I am very much opposed to the Mexican uniforms (kits in British). The team is called El Tri Colores, the three colors: green, white and red, just like the Mexican flag. I don't see black on that list!

Traditionally, one of the major objections the average American sports fan has to soccer is the fact that games can end in a tie. Jokes abound regarding riveting nil-nil draws. But the fact of the matter is, a tie is never really equal, certainly not in a one-month tournament such as the World Cup. For the first game for instance, even though they had to come from behind, Mexico really should have won. They are the better team, for starters, and also were in control for most of the game. The fact that they essentially dictated terms but couldn't close the deal is cause for great concern going forward. On the other hand, while the South Africans were probably disappointed not to pull off the upset, a draw against Mexico is better than they might realistically have expected, especially given that the other game in the group also finished in a draw.

Similarly, Uruguay should be considered to have come out of its nil-nil draw in better shape than France, its opponent. France was the clear favorite to win this group and now it looks like they'll have to work a bit harder. The fact that they were held scoreless could also impact them if it comes down to a tiebreak. Suddenly, this group is a lot more interesting than we might have thought.

I followed both matches from work online. The GameTracker at is pretty cool. I like that they're letting the fans vote for Man of the Match, too. At lunch, we made the very dangerous discovery that we can get ESPN3 on the school computers: yet another reason why it's really for the best that our school year's nearly over!

I did DVR the matches and watched when I got home. Given the choice, I always watch soccer in Spanish. I have several reasons:
- Pretty much everything sounds better in Spanish.
- While I never studied Spanish, I find that I pick up new words in context from watching.
- The fact that I can't understand what the commentators are saying makes them far less irritating.

I've heard from those who do speak both languages that the Spanish commentary is better anyway. It makes sense given that they are targeting an audience which knows the sport a lot better.

I was already starting to worry during the Confederations Cup last year about those horns the fans blow constantly throughout the game. They're going to drive me nuts. It sounds like a beehive, but with bees the size of trombones.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Another World Cup Bracket Game and Exciting Curling News

There's still time to sign up for the ESPNsoccernet Bracket Predictor. It's a much simpler concept than Yahoo!'s.

In curling news, CBC will be airing a series this fall based on the movie Men with Brooms. Here's the trailer. It appears the CBC does air episodes of many of its shows on its Website so I'm planning to check it out.

The World Cup: A History of My Young Adulthood

I have watched the past four World Cups from four different homes in four different towns and two different countries. Like many Americans of my generation, soccer was the first organized sport I ever played and yet I didn't watch a full game on television until I was 21. Sad but true, I grew up without cable television and was thus deprived of the World Cup. I have since made up for lost time. I don't so much watch the World Cup as wallow in it. And yet, the experiences of the four Cup tournaments I have watched have been very different depending on where I was in the world and in life.

A brief history...

1994 USA

While I was in college, my parents finally got cable. The summer of '94 was the summer before my senior year of college and it was a very nice one. I had a lot of odd jobs while I was home in Maryland, among them serving as dog sitter for a golden retriever puppy. A young couple my parents knew from church were first-time dog owners and didn't know quite what to do with their new family member. They hired me to stop by during the day while they were at work and keep the dog company. Now, those of you who know dogs are surely aware that nothing in the world is easier than amusing a golden puppy. I loved that dog and we had a grand old time. Our favorite game was for me to lie prone on the floor while she jumped on my back and licked my ears. She also happily watched soccer with me. Easiest money I've ever made.

16 years later, I now look back upon that summer as perhaps the beginning of my young adulthood. I didn't know it yet but back at school in September, I would break up with a longtime girlfriend and the seeds were planted over the summer for both of us. When we got back, we were different people and we both knew it. It was a rough breakup but the right thing for both of us. She started up with someone who made her a lot happier and whom she eventually married. For me, it would be four years before I dated anyone for longer than a few months but being on my own allowed for all sorts of interesting adventures.

1998 France

In '96, I took off for Japan for a job teaching English. As explained in other posts, Japan was a major formative experience in my life. By the summer of '98, I was getting ready to say goodbye. Not by design but by some wonderful fortune, most of my close friends in Japan were British, primarily English. The English are, of course, nuts over soccer and I spent many wonderful hours with them in ex-pat pubs watching the games on big screens. That is how I wish I could always watch the Cup: not in the host nation itself but in a bar somewhere in the world with people who care deeply about the game.

The '98 World Cup was a very big deal in Japan as the country had qualified for the first time. Japan and South Korea were both already preparing to co-host the Cup in 2002 and Japan was the first nation to be awarded the tournament without ever previously qualifying. But in '98, they made it. I still count their qualifying match against Iran among the most exciting games I've ever watched.

Japan is, first and foremost, a baseball nation. In fact, I think it's fair to say that they take baseball far more seriously than we do. There are no three-sport athletes at Japanese high schools. When you join a team, you're with them for the entire school year. Your after-school club - be it baseball, ikebana, band or whatever - is a very important part of your social identity. Among sports, baseball was by far the most prestigious. But soccer was already growing in popularity when I was there and qualifying for the Cup was a major national event. For a month, the country went soccer crazy. I remember statues on train platforms dressed in the team colors. I had students who genuinely believed they had a shot at winning the tournament.

The Japanese team was fun to watch, though not especially effective. The most entertaining player to me was the Hokkaido-born striker Shoji Jo. During the Cup, he had an amazing knack for being in the right place at the right time but always missed his shot. Japan lost all three games in the group stage and managed only one goal for the tournament. But the team had managed to win the hearts of their compatriots. Since then, they have emerged as a perennial power in Asia and have qualified for every World Cup.

It broke my heart to leave Japan, though I knew it was the right thing. The friends I knew there were absolutely wonderful. I still miss them.

2002 Japan/South Korea

In '98 I moved to New York where I met the woman who would become My Wife. First we moved to New Jersey and then Vermont. '02 was our first summer in Vermont and we lived in a small apartment in Burlington. It was not the easiest of summers. We loved being here but money was tight. My full-year salary didn't kick in until the fall and it took My Wife a little while to find a job. But we had the Cup and she actually enjoyed watching with me. It was the summer, in fact, that she first discovered her affection for bald French players. Her favorite was the team's goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

I remember the time-difference was murder for that tournament. We woke up at a ridiculous hour to watch the final game between Brazil and Germany. It was the breakout tournament for the US team. In the group stage, they managed a huge upset over Portugal, considered one of the power teams going into the tournament. Then they beat arch-rival Mexico in the first round of the knockout stage. The quarterfinal match against Germany, though ultimately ending in defeat, was a pivotal moment in American soccer. I don't know if the record has been broken since but it was, at the time, the single highest-rated cable program among men - ever.

Japan did well as co-host, too. I could have told you ahead of time of a surefire combination for the success of an international sporting event: put the Koreans in charge of security and let the Japanese build things. They did well on the field, too. Japan won its group. The Koreans did even better, ultimately finishing fourth in the tournament.

2006 Germany

By '06, we'd moved into a little house in the woods. More significantly, we were now parents. Our Girl was two years old that summer and watched a little bit with me but wasn't overly impressed - nothing to compare with her reaction to Olympic ice hockey earlier that year. My Wife, of all people, organized a pool at work. I got to serve as commissioner.

Most pertinent to this story, we are in the same house four years later and, at least according to my hopes, likely to remain so for the rest of our lives. There have been other changes since then - new jobs for both of us and, of course, our daughter is just about to finish kindergarten. But we are still in the same place, a nice change from my prior vagabond lifestyle.

And happily for me, My Wife still enjoys the World Cup. We're planning a small gathering for the USA-England game on Saturday: her idea. No pools this time but I hope that at the very least, she'll watch some with me.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Playoff Hockey: The Drought Is Over

Chicago has won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years - very cool. The mantle of longest Cup drought in the NHL now belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs. How bizarre is that?

That was a pretty exciting hockey game, quite an emotional ride. For me, the most interesting moment of the game was the penalty against Hossa. It was, without question, a bad call. But the Blackhawks were able to channel the emotion, score a goal while it was 4-on-4 and then play the penalty kill as if they were the ones with a man advantage. A job well done.

The Hawks have played the whole playoff season like champions. None of their series went to seven games and they swept San Jose, the toughest team they faced. With so much young talent, you've got to believe they'll be back.

So much talk of Ovechkin, Crosby and Sundin. But now that it's all over, has any hockey player in the world had a bigger year than Jonathan Toews? The hardware: Olympic Gold Medal, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He is the youngest team captain in the NHL and he was the breakout star on a Canadian Olympic team loaded with demigods. He is not a flashy player. He just gets the job done. Early candidate for Sportsman of the Year?

I believe hockey's greatest strength is its traditions and those are always best displayed the night the Stanley Cup is won, ranging from the hokey playoff beards to the near religious reverence for the trophy itself. The scene that plays out is almost exactly the same from year to year. The teams shake hands. The Smythe is awarded. The captain accepts the Cup and everyone waits to see who gets it next: Marian Hossa this year. Each player gets his turn. They kiss it. They hoist it. They take the group photo. Every year is the same. Only the names and the uniforms change. In its simplicity and predictably, it is so real and so beautiful, the emotions so raw. For all of their glitz and glamour, neither baseball, basketball nor football have anything to match it. No sport in North America basks in the joy of its own game the way hockey does one night every year. Basketball tries with its "One Shining Moment" but a video montage just isn't the same.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Squid's World Cup Primer

My original intention was to do a "Why You Should Watch" posting as I've done for the tennis Slams but in truth, while tennis has declined, the popularity of international soccer has exploded in the US over the past few years. ESPN now covers not only the World Cup but also the European Cup, the Confederations Cup, the Champions League and - hallelujah! - league games from both England and Spain. I think Americans have historically been slow to catch on to soccer because too many see it as a kids' game. They have visions of their own youth soccer experiences or those of their children before they started playing "real" sports. But now I think Americans have finally seen the light: when the best in the world play, soccer is a beautiful game to watch.

I'll admit that I haven't done the market research to see what if any inroads soccer is making with the conventional NFL/NASCAR crowd but it is my sense that soccer has become the game for Americans who don't really care for other sports: My Wife, for instance. She dislikes nearly all of the sports I watch, even detests a few. But she loves the World Cup - looks forward to it and even likes planning social gatherings around it.

As for me, I believe the FIFA World Cup is the greatest sporting event of all. I love tennis's Slams and the NCAA men's basketball tournament is wonderful, too. But the fact of the matter is this: no other event inspires so many to care so much - not even the Olympics. Soccer, or football as most humans know it, is truly the world's game and this quadrennial tournament is its grandest stage.

For those of you who are new to international soccer, I humbly offer a quick rundown of what you might expect from the various participants. At the end of my post are links to some of the people who know a lot more than I do.

The Narrative

Leading into the tournament, the three main storylines can be summarized thusly: Brazil, Spain and Africa. Each of those will be explored further in sections that follow. The latest storyline is injuries as many big names have pulled out and others are in serious doubt. Other narratives will emerge as the games begin, of course, but those are the main ones at the outset.

The Usual Suspects

Only seven nations have ever won soccer's World Cup: Brazil (5 times), Italy (4x), Germany (3x), Argentina (2x), Uruguay (2x), France and England. All seven are in South Africa and if you refer to Grant Wahl's rankings, you will see that all but Uruguay are in the top ten. The mightiest of the mighty is nearly always Brazil. No nation on Earth can regularly produce the number of ridiculously talented players the Brazillians have to choose from. If they fielded a second-string team at the Cup, they'd be a threat to win, too.

Always the Bridesmaids

The three countries which probably should have won the World Cup by now but haven't yet are Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal. A lot is expected of Spain, in particular, this time around. The reigning European champions are downright scary, arguably boasting both the world's best striker pair AND the world's best midfield. They also have something to prove after losing to the USA in the semis of last summer's Confederations Cup. If you're a Cubs fan and you seek out teams with a similar story in other sports, meet your new favorite team. Oh, did I mention they probably have the best goalkeeper, too?

Africa's Big Moment

For quite a long time now, Africa has been seen as the most likely continent to break the Europe/South America stranglehold on the Cup. Now hosting the event for the first time, can one of the African teams finally pull it off? Ghana, one of the stronger candidates, has lost one of its stars, Michael Essien. Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast's superstar striker, is also questionable with a recently broken elbow. Now, they're saying Cameroon is the most likely standard-bearer. And naturally, there is the matter of the host nation. No host has ever failed to make it out of the group stage of the tournament and there is great concern about a South African squad which has been in decline for the past few years.

The Rest of Europe and South America

A middle-of-the-pack team from either Europe or South America is still pretty darn good and they had to beat tough competition to get here. It is unlikely that any beyond the usual suspects or bridesmaids mentioned above will threaten for the title but the Chiles and Serbias in the field can still do plenty of damage and it's highly likely that one or two could spoil the party for a few of the traditional powers. Paraguay, in particular, is a team that never gets much press going in but always seems to make it out of the group stage.

North America

For decades, North American soccer has been Mexico against everyone else. Even with the steady progress of the US national team over the years, the Mexicans are still the class of the field. Someday, El Tri will catch fire for a month and win this thing, maybe even before an African team can do it. But odds are, not this time. Count on them to make it out of the group stage but probably not much further.

Which brings us at last to the Americans. The current, growing enthusiasm for international soccer in the US was born the night the Yanks took on Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. ESPN had one of its highest ratings ever for that game and even though the US lost 1-0, the team had proven that it was ready to be a threat on the world stage. The huge upset over Spain in the Confederations Cup last year helped to raise expectations for the current squad. For the first time in a World Cup, the Americans are favored to make it out of their group. How will they respond?

Asia and Oceania

This is technically two separate confederations in world soccer but given that Australia is now competing in Asia's qualifying tournament, the distinction is blurred. Take a look at Wahl's rankings and you'll see all of these teams on the last page: the bottom stratum. Australia, South Korea and Japan have all had some success of late but don't expect them to make much noise here. Japan, as usual in international sports, is the team I follow. I fully expect they'll be going home after three games.

New Zealand is the cellar dweller of the rankings. Don't feel too badly for them. They'll get to turn the tables when the Rugby World Cup comes around. Besides, they live in New Zealand: most beautiful nation on Earth. How bad can life really be?

The Pick

I'm going with Spain. Part of me knows it won't happen. They will inevitably disappoint once more. But this team is awfully good. If ever it were their year, this is it.

Serious Links's World Cup page

Grant Wahl is SI's lead soccer writer. Here is his ranking of the World Cup teams.

FIFA's always excellent World Cup site

ESPN's World Cup page

Not So Serious Links

A Xenophobe's Guide to Hating All 31 U.S. World Cup Opponents from Sports Pickle

Nation's Soccer Fan Becoming Insufferable from The Onion

All Part of My Fantasy

Yahoo! Fantasy Sports World Soccer 2010

SI Fantasy Cup on facebook

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Roland Garros Day 15: Long May He Reign

Curtain Call

Player: Ons Jabeur
Nation: Tunisia
Age: 15
Current Ranking: 724
Notable Conquests: Irina Khromacheva (3rd seed, Russia) and Caroline Garcia (15th, France)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Elina Svitolina (Ukraine) in straight sets

Jabeur lost in today's Girls' Singles final but at 15, the future sure looks bright. She is a two-time under-16s champion in Africa. As previously noted, success on the junior circuit guarantees nothing for the future but I love the idea of Tunisia emerging as a tennis power.

With his win today, Nadal reclaims the World #1 ranking. It feels better this time. The priorities for Federer, both on and off the court, have clearly changed and the time seems right for a new leading man. I'd rather not see Fed fade completely and I hope their rivalry will still be meaningful for a while longer but I feel like a new chapter has begun. I'm more ready for it this time. Fed has a lot more points to defend over the next several months so Rafa's tenure at the top could last a while. Rafa has certainly earned the right to play this role and tennis shall be better for it. I feel like equilibrium has been restored today and it's a nice feeling.

All Part of My Fantasy

Nadal also rescued my bracket, though only a little. Surely, more people picked Rafa to win than not but I still get a points boost, finishing in the top 71%. As with the women, I hope for a better performance at Wimbledon.

That's all for Roland Garros - a great tournament as ever. Wimbledon's just two weeks away!

All Part of My Fantasy: The Hot Corner

Week: May 30-June 5
Current standing in league: 1st out of 12
My Player of the Week: Ryan Zimmerman (third baseman, Nationals) with 3 home runs, 6 RBI, 11 runs and a .421 batting average

Zimmerman is my first player to make this space twice. The Nationals, unfortunately, have slipped a bit since his last appearance. They are back in more familiar territory: last place in their division. Now, all the talk is who they'll pick in the draft.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Roland Garros Day 14: Nothing Is Impossible!

Curtain Call

Player: Facundo Arguello
Nation: Argentina
Age: 17
Current Doubles Ranking: 744
Current Doubles Partner: Agustin Velotti (Argentina)
Notable Conquests: Damir Dzumhur (Bosnia and Herzegovina)/Mate Zsiga (Hungary) (1st seed), Victor Baluda/Mikhail Biryukov (3rd, Russia) and Guilherme Clezar/Tiago Fernandes (5th, Brazil)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Duilio Beretta (Peru)/Roberto Quiroz (Ecuador) (7th seed) in straight sets

Arguello and Velotti lost today in the finals of the Boys' Doubles tournament but the unseeded team had a very good run. Velotti's Roland Garros isn't over yet. He plays in the Boys' Singles final tomorrow against American Andrea Collarini.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Francesca Schiavone (Curtain Call, US Open Day 7) - What a story! You're just a few weeks short of 30. You've never made it past the quarterfinals of a Slam. You didn't even win your first singles title at any tournament until three years ago, experiencing more success as a doubles player. You catch fire for two weeks. Now suddenly, your name is forever engraved in a list with tennis royalty. I can't imagine anyone beyond blood relations picked her to win this thing and here she is, Roland Garros champion. This is already up there with Butler basketball as the sports story of the year. Unlike Butler, Schiavone clinched the deal. I love those T-shirts her camp was wearing. "SCHIAVO Nothing is Impossible!" Huzzah!

Since I started following her at the US Open, Schiavone had already become one of my favorites. She plays with such passion! I teared up a little during her acceptance speech - how could one not? Can she win one again someday? At this moment, who cares?

All Part of My Fantasy

My women's bracket is an absolute disaster: top 94%, a nice way of saying bottom 6%. Better luck at Wimbledon.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Roland Garros Day 13: Not Too Old at 29

Curtain Call

Player: Jurgen Melzer
Nation: Austria
Age: 29
Current Ranking: 27
Notable Conquests: Novak Djokovic (3rd seed, Serbia) and David Ferrer (9th, Spain)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Rafael Nadal (2nd, Spain) in straight sets

With his era-defining upset of Federer, Robin Soderling stole a bit of Melzer's thunder for the tournament. Melzer beat the two best players in his quarter, and two of the world's best on clay, just to make it to the semis. The win over Ferrer was a big surprise. Ferrer, long one of the underappreciated players on tour, had had a brilliant clay court season and was thoroughly tuned by Melzer. The Djokovic match was a five-set war but the lefty veteran made it through. Of course, he then hit the brick wall that is Nadal. Before now, Melzer had never even made it past the third round of a major. Bravo!

What a great match-up for Sunday: a rematch of THE defining match of the 2009 season. Nadal holds a 3-2 lifetime edge, including a 2-1 difference on clay. But with Soderling likely out to prove last year was no fluke, who knows?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Roland Garros Day 12: Some Love for Doubles

Curtain Call

Player: Andy Ram
Nation: Israel
Age: 30
Current Doubles Ranking: 16
Current Doubles Partner: Julian Knowle (Austria)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Lukas Dlouhy (Czech Republic)/Leander Paes (India) (3rd seed) in straight sets

This is a good result for Ram who has had a pretty rocky road over the past year-and-a-half. His usual partner, coutryman Jonathan Erlich, was out with an injury for quite a while so Ram has been floating between partners for a while. Erlich is back in action but playing with others - Dudi Sela (Israel) this tournament. They made it to the second round. My guess is that they're letting Erlich build up his ranking before they team up again.

Ram lost in the first round last year so the semis is a huge improvement.

All Part of My Fantasy

With Dementieva bowing out in the semis, my women's bracket is officially toast.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Roland Garros Day 11: Almagro

Curtain Call

Player: Nicolas Almagro
Nation: Spain
Age: 24
Current Ranking: 21
Notable Conquest: Fernando Verdasco (7th seed, Spain)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Rafael Nadal (2nd, Spain) in straight sets

It's more than a little surprising that Almagro has never gotten past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. On the week-to-week tour, he's one of the best clay court players in the world. He has five tournament titles for his career, all of them on clay. But he's never made much noise at the Slams compared to his compatriots such as Verdasco, Lopez, Ferrer or, of course, Nadal. As such, the win over Verdasco must have felt pretty good. Fernando had been one of the hottest players coming into the tournament. Losing to Rafa puts him in good company, to be sure. Still, it would be nice to see him make a deeper run at some point.

But for today, a job well done, sir. Take your bow.

Sam Stosur's victory over Serena Williams guarantees a first time Slam winner on the women's side: very exciting!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roland Garros Day 10: It Had to Happen Eventually

Curtain Call

Player: Nadia Petrova
Nation: Russia
Age: 27
Current Ranking: 20
Notable Conquests: Venus Williams (2nd seed, USA) and Aravane Rezai (15th, France)
Today's Result: loss to Elena Dementieva (5th, Russia) in three sets

It's been a great tournament for Petrova. She always seems to be around in these middle rounds. The quarters is a big improvement on her 2nd round finish last year. She'll have more points to defend at Wimbledon: 4th round last year.

But, what oh what could today's big story be? I had the Slamtracker scoreboard up on my computer at work and the Federer-Soderling match finished just as my next class was about to arrive. I haven't yet had enough time to digest what is the biggest tennis upset in a very long time. I put this above the Nadal-Soderling match last year. Ending a six-year streak tops ending a four-year one. Amazingly, the same guy won both matches.

It's worth noting that Federer still has a quarterfinal streak to build on - 24 straight Slams. The more interesting question to me, though, is can Soderling keep another streak alive. Over the last 23 Slam tournaments, Federer has either won the title or lost to the man who did. Can Soderling do it? His record against Berdych, his semifinal opponent, is 4-3 in Soderling's favor but he lost their only match on clay. But then what is history worth? This was his first time beating Fed in 13 tries.

All Part of My Fantasy

Federer's loss is a huge blow to my bracket, though Nadal, my champ, is still alive.

Let's Talk Baseball: Bold Proposal May Standings

Following are the current standings for my bold proposal for baseball realignment. The basic idea is two divisions, upper and lower, determined by last year's final standings. The bottom three of the First Division are relegated for next year. The top two of the Second are promoted, along with the winner of a playoff between the next four.

First Division

1. Rays (unchanged from April)
2. Yankees (unchanged)
3. Twins (+1)
4. Cardinals (-1)
5. Dodgers (+10)
6. Braves (+10)
7. Phillies (unchanged)
8. Red Sox (+1)
9. Giants (-4)
10. Rockies (unchanged)
11. Tigers (-5)
12. Rangers (unchanged)
13. Marlins (-2)
14. Angels (-6)
15. Cubs (-1)
16. Mariners (-3)

Second Division

1. Padres (unchanged)
2. Blue Jays (+4)
3. Reds (+1)
4. A's (+1)
5. Mets (-3)
6. Nationals (-3)
7. White Sox (+4)
8. Brewers (+2)
9. Pirates (-1)
10. Royals (+2)
11. Diamondbacks (-4)
12. Indians (-3)
13. Astros (unchanged)
14. Orioles (unchanged)

Biggest rises: Dodgers and Braves, both pulling their way well clear of relegation position.

Greatest fall: Angels. Suddenly their slump seems a lot more perilous!

We now have three division winners in the Second Division: Padres, Reds and A's. I will declare the experiment a failure if one of the Second Division teams wins the World Series.

Most interesting to me is what has now happened to the American League East. Three of the teams in baseball's toughest division are now in playoff position (top eight in First Division): Rays, Yankees and Red Sox. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are in promotion position in the Second Division. In the real world, the Jays are ahead of the Sox in the standings but still a game behind the Yanks for the wild card. At least two of those four teams will miss the real world playoffs no matter what, despite the fact that all four have better records than the West Division-leading A's. My way, they're now suddenly all having very meaningful and exciting seasons. The Red Sox' fourth place standing doesn't look so worrisome.

The Orioles still stink.

All Part of My Fantasy: May's Player of the Month

Photo from LA Times

Player: Jonathan Broxton
Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Position: Relief Pitcher
Stats for the Month: 2 wins, 12 saves, 21 strikeouts, 1.84 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP