Boy, do I really need a new pair of glasses. Constructed as much out of electrical tape and Gorilla Glue as they are the original frames these days, my literal worldview just keeps getting more and more askew as they warp and wind around. Yet despite the fact that I seem to be harder on spectacles than Djokovic on his rackets, I keep on persevering. Perhaps that’s why I always see things a little differently… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This really feels like a week about perseverance, about redemption, about a changing of the guard even as it is also about the most recent generation of forbears to sports ’round the globe gracefully bowing their final farewells on the grand stage. Epiphanies are everywhere you seek them out if you look hard enough. This week left sports fans to grapple with questions like “When does a Cinderella become a superpower?”
(Apparent answer: Whenever it actually wins an NCAA championship after getting to the final in back-to-back seasons. Unless they get there a third time in a row next year. If that happens… let’s call them the Buffalo Bills of college basketball.)
But this was never bound to be a regular week in the life of that non-traditional sports fan tapping out the tomes for what… multitudes (?) might sit out there on the other end of the cerebral vortex. Soon after I patched up the glasses… there I am, trying my gamest to tap out this week’s column, when — CRUNCH! — I’m chewing on a piece of fruit leather, of all things, and there goes a tooth. An emergency trip to the dentist for a corkscrew extraction in the books, down to 31 chompers in the mouth after the extraction of the remaining fragments, April ushers us in with a reminder that we are always left to persevere.
And just like that the Madness of March – and indeed, with a spring move for a change in my ever-nomadic existence back and forth across the Eugene-Springfield area, March has been as mad as ever could be — finally came to a riotous conclusion. Yet April doesn’t look to be any less chaotic, as the opening week bombarded us with three of those epiphanies we couldn’t have even wished to catch so early in the month. It is enough to see the leprechaun-cursed fogs of the previous month finally recede, and yet here we are in a Vicodin haze with Nuyens’ cobblestone classic and cricket’s Cup crowning and the Novak and Nadal show down in Miami to keep us captivated.
The best part? This is but a mere appetizer for what always amounts to an action-packed month. The showers still sprinkle down with regularity, at least here on the Springfield side of the divide, and so we soldier on. Sodden though we may be, there is plenty abounding on the docket to keep our spirits from flagging. With the vigor that inevitably arises from the vicarious thrill of watching all these transcendent athletic achievements all around us, let’s shuck the doldrums of wintertime and leap right into another edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America…
Let’s dispense with the datelines this week and get down to business. Things have been running apace so quickly that it is hard to imagine that all of this occurred in just the past seven days. One of the most fascinating sights, from a cultural standpoint, was watching the outpouring of ecstasy in Mumbai and across India as their national cricket team overcame one hell of a first innings by Sri Lanka in the ICC World Cup final. The course of the World Cup, contested not just in India but in stadiums around Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well, was a slow and rambling affair.
When action was going, it was a drama-packed tournament. But there were too many gaps in gameplay, and the vastness of the tournament footprint made it hard to feel any sort of coherent flow to the proceedings. Crowds were vast when one of the home countries were playing… and sparse whenever two nations outside of the hosts were pitted against one another. Fans from afar were largely unable to plan to travel to the tournament, with the spacing of matches so far apart proving a disincentive to take so much time off work to witness so little action.
The ICC didn’t do itself any favors in the aftermath of the tournament, disclosing plans to scale back the number of teams to ten in the competition and shuttling out the associate nations of the sport. If the ICC indeed goes through with this move, though, such heart-stopping moments as Ireland’s shock defeat of rival England will be lost from World Cup competition. The problem has never been the number of teams… the world around, the story of Cinderella carries some merit when it comes to the sporting definition of the label. No, the problem was always the protracted tournament calendar that never really allowed the momentum to build to a sustained tumult.
But boy, oh boy, was it riveting when the games finally did get down to being played. We were graced with one hell of a final, with powerhouses India and Sri Lanka looking to shuck their cold streak in the World Cup and claim the title after lengthy droughts. With the match being played in Mumbai, it meant that the Indian team was under the microscope. They would have the majority backing of the crowd lifting them up… but they would also have the uncensored expectation of the crowd weighing them down. With 28 years of empty-handed longing driving their emotions, the domestic fans were at full boil as they witnessed history.
Sri Lanka, boasting the most fearsome offense statistically over the course of the tournament, were coming off a defeat in the final four years ago in Barbados and looking to rectify their own deficit of titles. In 1996 the Sri Lankan team defeated Australia in Lahore, Pakistan, to claim their first title. It would prove to be the last time until 2011 that the Aussies would be thwarted in their ambitions to take over the cricket world. For the past sixteen years they’ve always been one of the top two teams in Asia, the constant amidst all the scandals plaguing their neighbors.
The hosts got their dream result, as the Subcontinent walks away from the past months of hosting this tournament proving its preeminence in the world of cricket at this snapshot in time. The World Cup stays in India, and the only people who really can be bitter about that are Sri Lanka and vanquished semifinalist Pakistan. Other than the Indian team’s two biggest natural rivals, few could begrudge them the label of the globe’s best.
By the end of the tournament they had produced four of the top eight scorers versus three for Sri Lanka; only England’s Jonathan Trott (4th/422 runs) managed to sneak into that elite grouping from outside the final pairing. Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh were amongst the best bowlers of the tournament, along with Shahid Afridi of Pakistan (who, while not a host technically, was still part of the cricket-mad frenzy due to their close proximity and regional feuds of the gravest magnitude) and Sri Lanka’s Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan.
But we also must think about how these experiences will be affected going forward. Surely India and Sri Lanka will be there in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, as will Pakistan and England and South Africa and the West Indies. But will Kevin O’Brien get another chance to put up a century for Ireland? Will Ryan ten Doeschate get another chance to get a century for the Netherlands? Will Harvir Baidwan and Ashish Bagai and Jimmy Hansra and the rest of the Canadian team become the first representatives of their nation to miss out on the World Cup in the new century after finally emerging out of the shadows of 1979?
Cricket has to find some healthy medium, some kind of balance. Perhaps the idea of having fourteen teams separate into two groups for full round-robin action is simply too much to ask of any host. It might be wise to take a page from FIFA, which has spawned the world’s biggest tournament. Instead of two groups, why not four? In such a case there would be potential for each of the top eight teams to be seeded along with the other two full members of the fraternity (Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) and six, not just four, associate members.
The key should be not to restrict entry into the world’s biggest tournament, but to expand the party to as many places as possible. There are healthy pockets of cricket fanaticism in Ireland and Scotland, Canada and Kenya, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates, Bermuda and Namibia. Why stunt the healthy growth of the game in these regions? Setting up a group stage in such a fashion would allow for a neat and tidy two teams each to advance to the quarterfinals. And while it is more likely than not that the Indias and the Sri Lankas and the Australias of the cricket world will advance out of those groups, leaving their associates in the dust, the mere opportunity of an underdog upset is enough to make it worth keeping their entry ensured. Hopefully the ICC takes note, for losing such momentum would be a shame after a thrilling 2011 edition of their tournament…
Nick Nuyens, like Sachin Tendulkar and the rest of the Indian veterans who slogged with the ghosts of 1983 on their shoulders, knows a thing or two about perseverance. As a young rider with the Quick Step squad he won Paris-Brussels in his third season as a professional; he would follow that up with a win in the Het Volk in 2005 and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2006. But relegated to domestique status in the classics by virtue of being on the same team as Tom Boonen, Nuyens never really got the breakthrough he felt he could achieve in one of the monuments of one-day racing.
So he went first to Cofidis, where he was top dog on a French squad undermanned to properly ride a tactical battle for their leader in the classics. Nevertheless Nuyens battled to a 7th place finish in 2007 at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), thirteen seconds behind Alessandro Ballan’s winning time over the 255km course in the second chase group. That year saw a wild race blow up on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, as it so often does, pre-race favorite Tom Boonen unhinged by an earlier crash and left to ponder what might have been the first three-peat since Fiorenzo Magni in 1949-51.
In 2008 Nuyens returned to the Ronde with high hopes again but would be thwarted by his old team. This time, though, it wasn’t Tom Boonen but his fellow former grunt in the pecking order, Stijn Devolder, who proved strongest over the course. Forming the elite selection with 40km to go from the finish in Meerbeke, Devolder sprung free on the Geraardsbergen and on the Bosberg to keep fifteen seconds clear of Nuyens and third-placed Juan Antonio Flecha.
After leaving Quick Step Nuyens had won just four races, and the past two seasons saw him lost once again in the pecking order — this time at Dutch powerhouse Rabobank. Signing with Bjarne Riis and the Saxo Bank squad this past offseason, Nuyens approached a spring where he would turn 31. It would prove a crossroads for his career, where he would either evolve and thrive as his physical strength was finally paired with enough veteran experience and Riis’ uncanny knack for getting the best out of riders… or wither and fade into the annals of washouts with unrealized potential.
Leading up to the Ronde, the Belgian captured the Dwars door Vlaanderen warm-up race and looked like a promising longshot. But few were seriously counting on him to stave off riders like Boonen and defending champion Fabian Cancellara. But in another wild edition of the cobblestone classic, with riders pushing the pace and attacking each other with reckless abandon all throughout the cobbled climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, Nuyens broke clear with Cancellara and Sylvain Chavanel (there’s that Quick Step connection bearing down again!) after coming down the Bosberg and into the final five kilometers on the outskirts of Meerbeke. The trio came to the line in a select sprint, with Nuyens edging out the Swissman and the Spaniard at the line.
What does this mean going forward? Well, we have to at least consider Nuyens among the riders at peak fitness heading into Paris-Roubaix. Has he truly made a turnaround in his career? He had certainly gotten back to the winning ways that many predicted for him early in his career, and done so in emphatic fashion. Riis has molded both Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady into Paris-Roubaix winners in the past, and he knows what is required to get a rider across those hellish bread-loaf cobblestones to the velodrome in Roubaix ahead of the field.
Don’t count out Cancellara, or Boonen for that matter. Former winners Servais Knaven (2001) and Frederic Guesdon (1997) are both probably too old at 40 and 39 respectively to seriously contest for a second title, but stranger things have happened and a veteran’s knowledge never hurts when the riders embark for a Sunday in Hell. And perhaps George Hincapie can make it through unscathed after so many setbacks on this course… it would be a hell of a punctuation mark on the powers of perseverance if the American could finally break through.
As the Ronde showed us, breakthroughs are possible when the right rider is paired with the right team and management and placed in the right situations on the road. And now all the prohibitive favorites and the endless dreamers all know they have one more legitimate challenger with which to contend as they set out from Compiegne on Sunday…
And then there was Djokovic. The Serbian sensation has stormed the first quarter of 2011, blazing out to an unbeatable start that has him heading to Monte Carlo to begin the clay-court season with a sterling 25-0 record. Last weekend he showed amazing fortitude in pulling back from a set down to defeat world number-one Rafael Nadal on the courts of Miami. It came on the heels of his victory over — you guessed it — Nadal at Indian Wells, California.
Djokovic has won everything in sight since the Davis Cup final last December. He won in Dubai. He won the Australian Open. He took Indian Wells and Miami back to back for the first time since Roger Federer won both in 2005 and 2006. Now, though, he wanders onto the preferred surface of the man who still reign’s as the world’s best. One would forgive the 23-year-old if he were to see his winning streak come to a close as early as the next tournament, in the city where he keeps his primary residence.
But that sells Djokovic short as the all-around player into which he has been developing all along. Just like Nadal was labeled as a clay-court maestro as a youngster, so too has Djokovic been packaged as a hardcourt blaster whose game is incompatible with other surfaces. Yet the statistics bear a different story. He has won major clay tournaments, from the Estoril Open to the headliner at the Foro Italico in Rome. Twice he has reached the semifinals at both the French Open and Wimbledon. And his game is only beginning to mature — remember, both Federer and Nadal made their biggest leaps as professionals right at the age the Serb is entering.
Make no mistake, Djokovic is charging up the charts. He has sliced his deficit to Nadal further in the most recent rankings… and left Federer further behind him. Of those 25 straight wins to begin the season, fully twenty percent of them have come against these two men that have come to define tennis over the first decade of the new century. And if he should see either again, no matter the surface, he has the growing confidence in his own game that he can continue to more than hold his own against both men.
No, nothing has been shocking about this run of good fortune. Not even the tailing off of Federer’s career as he approaches thirty is that surprising; with the way the game is played these days, kids being pushed professional before they can vote or in some cases even drive the cars they are buying up with prize money, bodies accumulate the hard miles of a touring player’s life at younger ages. We’ve seen it happen most recently with both Williams sisters — both can still play with the best of them when everything is feeling right, but those days of 100% are fewer and farther between.
The difference between Venus and Serena versus Federer’s case is that he has always been relatively healthy throughout his career, a bout with mononucleosis in 2008 his only real setback. Having been playing professionally since 1998, though, the Swiss star simply isn’t sixteen anymore. It is an inevitable process, a reassuring one in fact in a day when athletes are finding any way possible to push the envelope and extend careers to unnatural lengths.
But it can also leave huge voids when there is nobody to step up and take up that dominant role. In the men’s game in general, Nadal and Djokovic will serve as a perfect bridge from Federer into whatever era lies beyond. But in the sense of the American contribution to the game, the vacuum behind the fading heroes of yesteryear is very real and somewhat appaling given the country’s preeminent position in the sport for so long.
When the most recent ATP and WTA rankings came out this week, the fall from grace was confirmed in stark detail. Mardy Fish moved past former number-one Andy Roddick to the role as the top American in the game. The 29-year-old Fish sits in 11th, with 28-year-old Roddick in 14th. 23-year-old Sam Querrey (#20) and 25-year-old John Isner (#29) are the only other Americans inside the top 30, with nobody looking like a danger for cracking the top ten or top five anytime soon. Below them are strewn about several unlikely cases, with diamonds that crumble as you burnish them.
The women’s side looks little better. Serena Williams, who hasn’t stepped foot on a court since winning Wimbledon last July, continues to slide down the standings. Barely clinging to tenth place, she remains the only American in what used to be the country’s natural standing in the game. Unlikely to return to action anytime soon, she won’t be there for long as the rolling 52-week window for assessment continues to shift forward and her past glories recede into memory. Behind her in fifteenth sits Venus, her days numbered before she takes the high road to retirement before the going gets too ugly. And then, far off in the distance, are the American women with longshot dreams of succeeding these two incomparable siblings — Bethanie Mattek-Sands in 41st, Melanie Oudin in 75th, Varvara Lepchenko in 78th, Coco Vandeweghe in 91st and Christina McHale in 97th.
Eras end. Samantha Stosur and a forgettable crew of Australian men try to recapture the long-lost glory days of Harry Hopman and Rod Laver and Margaret Court. The French still long for their next Lenglen or Lacoste. British fans have languished in agony since the days of Fred Perry. Swedes wonder what ever happened to the days of Borg and Edberg. And now Americans, after such a long period of dominance in the sport, are finally feeling the backlash of the game’s globalization. With the sport becoming popular everywhere from Serbia to China, the field only widens. The cream rises, the strong move on and the willing plow onward, journeymen and journeywomen to the last…
Time shifts on, and the willing persevere. But sometimes perseverance isn’t enough. A healthy dose of pain tolerance, a view askew (and a good insurance plan) can go a long way toward determining how a week goes by. The beauty of sports is that we are constantly being granted the ability to see athletes overcoming their hardships to succeed in the face of long odds.
We can’t all be Djokovic, and sometimes we find ourselves the last of a dying breed. It’s the law of this crazy interconnected jungle, the primal reality in which we live. When a great human-interest story like India’s landmark victory happens, there also inevitably has to be a sobbing Sri Lanka on the other side that wanted it just as badly. And sometimes the journeyman has his moment in the sun, even if it takes eighteen cobblestone climbs to get to the finish line first to enjoy that moment.
Persevere on, sports fans. Find that niche, fill that void. Now that March Madness is behind us, settle in and treat yourself to something new… chances are you won’t regret it. Me, I’ll be praying that Inter Milan can persevere in the return match after dropping a 5-2 heartbreaker to Schalke in the Champions League quarterfinals. Hopes aren’t high, but hope springs eternal until the final whistle…