Tag Archives: John McEnroe

Rafael Nadal wins a scintillating U.S. Open final. Photos from a new school year. And “Boardwalk Empire” is back, with too many people on the boardwalk

Nadal.USOPEN

I have been denying that Rafael Nadal is the greatest tennis player of all time for years now.
I have been saying that Roger Federer won more, more consistently, on different surfaces and against different opponents. Federer is, in my mind, the G.O.A.T., and will always be.
But I’m starting to crack a little. Because this Nadal kid just continues to amaze. Less than a year after being out of the sport with another knee injury, he has roared back and won another U.S. Open on Monday, in four compelling and high-quality sets over Novak Djokovic. The second and third sets featured as brilliant and high-level tennis as you’re likely to see, including this phenomenal 54-shot rally that you really must see if you haven’t.

Nadal looked headed for defeat, down 3-1 in the third set, yet his will, his unbending will, prevailed. He is so strong, so consistent, and so powerful that if he is somehow able to stay healthy, I now think he’ll go down as the greatest of all time, because if he stays healthy he’ll pass Federer in Slam titles (17-13 right now for Fed).
Which is really hard for me to admit as a Federer fan.
Couple quick-hit thoughts on the match:

— Don’t let the score fool you; Djokovic played very well for long stretches. But his will was broken by Nadal after the Serb lost that third set; his mental toughness was unparalleled just two years ago, when he crushed Nadal and all other comers. Now? I’m wondering if his confidence is gone.
— Nadal never looks tired. Ever. Even after epic rallies, he seems ready to go a few more rounds. He said it best after the match, that only Djokovic can bring out this level in him. And the two have played some epic matches over the years; we’re so fortunate that they have each other as foils.

— Mary Carillo, as usual, was fantastic in the CBS commentary booth, even though as usual John McEnroe wouldn’t shut the hell up, even for a second, to let the match breathe. Carillo’s best comment? She said Nadal was a part of the best matches she’s ever seen on a hardcourt (his 2012 six-hour epic loss to Djokovic), on grass (his 2008 Wimbledon win over Fed, the greatest match ever played), and on clay (this year’s 5-set triumph over Djokovic in the semis).
That’s pretty high praise coming from a lifetime tennis-watcher like Carillo.

— Loved how into it the New York crowd was. Don’t love a 5 p.m. Monday start for a championship final. But I am glad the Open gave these guys a day off between the semis and final; it made for so much better tennis.

bigpicture.schools

**So Monday was the first day of school in New York City; I know most of you around the country have had your kids back in school for a while now.
Looks like I’ll be doing the substitute teacher thing again this year, as I wasn’t able to land a full-time classroom position. Which of course means, for all of you, more crazy stories from my professional life of herding teenagers in small rooms.

To celebrate the new school year, the awesome photo site on Boston.com, the Big Picture, has photos of what school looks like from around the world.

Definitely some eye-opening pictures there; the one above is from a school in Japan (I love the half-asleep girl with her hand up).

BoardwalkEmpire

**Finally today, one of my favorite shows is back, Part 2. “Boardwalk Empire” started its fourth season Sunday night, and as much as I like the show and am happy it’s back, I don’t understand why they keep adding new cast members. (SPOILER ALERT. STOP READING IF YOU’RE A FAN AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE PREMIERE YET.)

The show has so many supporting players who aren’t used enough, including Al Capone (who was hilarious and crazy as usual Sunday), Arnold Rothstein, and Chalky White, that I don’t know why they keep insisting on adding new actors and actresses. I’m not really interested in Gillian and her whorehouse anymore, although apparently she’s still a big character.  The only new character who seems intriguing is the young FBI agent, Knox, who beautifully set up his partner to be killed so Knox could keep a bootlegger’s liquor.

Still, there were good signs on Sunday. I like that Nucky is getting back into business with Chalky, and I like that he threw out that floozy who was just using him to become a star. I also think Al Capone is just about ready to overthrow Torrio in Chicago, and that should be fun to watch.
And Richard Harrow’s killing spree? Always a good time.

For all its flaws, “Boardwalk Empire” is still beautiful to watch, and beautifully acted. I just wish they would focus on the characters they already have.

Jeremy Affeldt, an athlete you should root for. The woman pulled over for being too sexy. And a great HBO doc about Borg and McEnroe

I haven’t written about an unsung athlete you should root for in a while, and I came across a great one in the Sunday New York Times.
Jeremy Affeldt is a 32-year-old pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. He’s had an OK career, bouncing from team to team, but that’s not really important.
What is important is all the good work he does. He’s involved with so many charities, not just lending his name but his time. Right now Affeldt is helping build an orphanage in Uganda. He financed ballfields in Brazil and Thailand, and helped build a well in Uganda.
Clean drinking water. Such a little thing. Such a big thing.
Listen to this quote from an athlete who so clearly gets it:

“I don’t want to be an American that just sits there and says, ‘I only care about my country; it’s all about me in America,’ ” Affeldt said. “Sometimes, because of what we have — and we’re blessed to have it, I’m not against it, every day I feel very fortunate — we’re selfish. We think of all the problems we have in America, but they’re not problems compared to the rest of the world. So I try to remove myself from that and say, ‘What can we do to help out humanity?’ ”

So many athletes are in a position to help. Not that many go to the lengths that Affeldt does. What a good man.

**I really hope there’s more to this story than this. Because if it’s true… a Danish tourist was on a bicycle in New York City last month when she claims a police officer pulled her over and told her her skirt was too short, that it was too racy for the street, and that she was “dangerous” and a distraction to the drivers.

Because, yeah, New York drivers have trouble with distractions. You have 4,332 distractions every second when you’re driving in NY.

Maybe the cop was just trying a new pickup line. After all, ya gotta figure that eventually the “I’m a police officer, so I can drive as fast as I want” line gets old after a while.

**There really was no way I wasn’t going to love the HBO documentary about Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
It was the tennis rivalry that started making me a fan. It was the summer I turned 5 when the Swedish ice king and the bratty New Yorker with the ridiculous touch on the court met at Wimbledon in 1980. As a little kid I remember always rooting for the bratty Johnny Mac, while my Mom hated his tirades and cheered for Borg.
Until 2008’s Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal clash at Wimbledon, Borg/McEnroe 1980 was considered the best tennis match ever played. Borg won an epic five-setter for his last Wimbledon title, then abruptly retired in 1981, shocking everyone because he was still near the top of his game.
The movie, coming on the heels of two new books about the rivalry,  does an excellent job looking at their contrasting personalities and styles, and how each of them suffered “tennis burnout” in the 1980s.
I think the most telling moments come when Borg still struggles, 30 years later, to explain why he stepped away from the game, and when McEnroe talks of how he was diminished without his rival around.

Even if you’re not a huge tennis fan, I think you’d enjoy McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice.  It’ll be on HBO tonight (June 14) at 8, and Friday at 7.

And if you’re a tennis nut like me, it’s required viewing.

The sad business of renting friends. And Borg-McEnroe, 30 years later

I’m not sure why this story depressed me so, but here goes.
There’s now a website called http://www.rentafriend.com. Basically, for a small registration fee and then the price of $10 per hour, you can pay people to hang out with you.

Basically, you go to their website and type in your zip code. Then, it brings up a list of “friends” in your area, and what they’re available for. Then you call them, negotiate a date, time, and price, and bam, they are your friend!

For example, in my neighborhood there’s Chris, who is available for going to the casino, hiking, wine-tasting, and other stuff. There’s Jen who likes everything, Brittny (yeah, that’s the spelling), and Alex and so many more.

I know the spirit behind the website is a good one; hey, if you’re lonely, here are people to hang out with. And yeah, I suppose this is not that different from hiring an escort, or a hooker, for that matter.

It just makes me sad to think there are people out there who have to spend money just to have company.

**A couple of big tennis anniversaries this week, one I’ll get into more tomorrow because it kinda involves me. But the other one occurred Monday: It was the 30th anniversary of the great Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final. It was, until 2008, widely considered the greatest match of all time. Johnny Mac was still a young punk in ’80, not having won Wimbledon and acting like quite the ass on the court.

Borg was a four-time champ from Sweden, whose demeanor was as calm as McEnroe’s was hysterical. It was an epic match, with McEnroe winning a fourth-set tiebreaker, 18-16, but Borg won the fifth set, 8-6.

NBC showed the tiebreaker on Sunday after Rafa Nadal’s win, and had McEnroe and Borg watch it together. It was very cool, seeing them discuss the feelings and emotions they felt at the time.

Couple thoughts on watching it, 30 years later:
— Man, those short shorts were short.
— The amount of touch you needed with those wood rackets was amazing.
— Between points, Mac and Borg simply went to the baseline, took the ball, and served.  Unlike today’s players, who towel off, look at their coach in the stands, have a snack, do their taxes, and then serve.

Even 30 years later, the match holds up as a classic. I remember as a 5-year-old, watching it with my Mom, who was rooting like crazy for Borg. I, of course, rooted for McEnroe, because you know, when you’re 5, it’s cool to see someone throw tantrums like you do.

The King of the Open is toppled. And I am stunned.

delpotro

One last tennis post after a truly wild final weekend at the Open …

Saw some things in a four-hour tennis match I hadn’t seen before Monday.

Saw a guy not named Rafael Nadal push Roger Federer around a tennis court. Saw a guy not named Rafael Nadal blast winners past Federer for three-plus hours and refuse to yield.

Saw a guy named Roger Federer, against an opponent not named Rafael Nadal, looked befuddled and flummoxed on a tennis court. Saw a guy named Roger Federer, against an opponent not named Rafael blow a two sets to one lead, and fall completely apart like a weekend hacker in the fifth set.

As I”m watching this match Monday evening, watching the future superstar Juan Martin Del Potro stage a shocking rally to beat Federer in five sets, I kept thinking, “Are we SURE that’s not Nadal on the other side of the net?

Because, dear readers, for the last five years, only Nadal has been Fed’s kryptonite in big matches like this. So when Del Potro, a 6-foot-6 Argentine (who looks taller) was pounding forehands past Fed in the fourth and fifth sets, I couldn’t believe this was really happening.

Oh, those of us who follow tennis closely knew Del Potro was a comer, a 20-year-old with huge shots and a great mental makeup. But Federer just doesn’t lose Slam finals to guys not named Nadal.

It was wildly disconcerting to see Federer miss so many forehands, and serve so poorly (50 percent of first serves for the match).

Even when Del Potro pushed the match to a fifth set, and the crowd at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was going nuts for the underdog, I expected Roger to come through. Again, he doesn’t lose matches like this.

But the fifth set Monday was scarily reminiscent of the one Federer played against Rafa in the Australian Open back in January. He was broken early, and he never quite was able to come back. It was shockingly one-sided at the end, just like it was in January.

Look, this is probably good for the sport right now. The list of guys who have the mental and physical ability to stand up to Federer is woefully short, and now maybe Del Potro can be the rival that threatens Federer at Slams that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic can’t quite be yet (or may never be).

But as a Federer fan, Monday was disappointing.

So the U.S. Open ends with the two champions everyone figured we would have. Of course we all saw Kim Clijsters and Del Potro winning it when we prognosticated two weeks ago, right?

God .I love the unpredictability of sports.

Couple other Tuesday morning thoughts:

1. Not sure if I should be happy that Patriots looked so bad in their 25-24 win over Buffalo Monday night, or if I should be mad because Belichick is going to give them hell in practice all week and they’ll come into Sunday’s game at my Jets all fired up and beat my boys 62-3.

2. Kanye West, you made me feel sorry for a pop country starlet today. And that’s hard to do. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Mr. West, quite the musical performer I’m told, got up on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards the other night and interrupted pop tart Taylor Swift’s award acceptance speech, taking the microphone from her hand to say Beyonce’s video was better. Truly awful behavior.  I know, you’re like me: You’re shocked to see a hip-hop guy or a rapper misbehave.

3. I see Serena Williams apologized again. Hey, third time’s the charm. Maybe by her 7th or 8th apology she’ll actually call the lineswoman and say she’s sorry.

4. And finally in honor of the late, great Patrick Swayze…

Yet another reason the NFL is better than college football

BradfordAs if we needed another reason, I give you the 2009 Oklahoma Sooners.

Let’s say you’re an Oklahoma fan. You’ve been dreaming about the season ever since last January. You wear red and white clothes all year round. You’ve been counting down the days until the first game, when your Sooners, led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford, will compete for a national title.

Then the first game comes, last Saturday against Brigham Young University.  The Sooners are doing OK, until late in the first half, when the golden boy, Bradford, gets hurt on a hard hit.  He can’t come back and play; he sprained his shoulder and is out for maybe a month.

And Oklahoma loses the game, and its poll ranking plummets to 13. And folks, their championship season is basically over right as it begins.

The Sooners won’t be able to leapfrog everyone else the rest of the season. With Bradford hurt, they’ll lose maybe one more game at least, and that will be that. No Big XII title, no national title, no nothing.

All because of one bad game and one unlucky injury on a day in early September, Oklahoma is cooked.

It’s a terrible, terrible system that college football has. In the NFL, you lose once, you get plenty more chances to make it up. There aren’t sports writers and other coaches and some idiotic computer formula deciding how good you are; the only thing that matters is how you play on the field.

I realize, as I write these words from a dwelling in the southern United Statesm that I am committing a regional sin by saying these words.

But it’s the truth. Fairness and equality are to college football what Rush Limbaugh is to the truth: a strange and foreign concept.

Five more days until the NFL season starts. The real football season. Can’t wait.

And a bit of humor for your Wednesday…

**So many athletes forget to show their personality, either on the field or off. One reason I’ve always loved tennis star Novak Djokovic is because he’s a legitimately funny guy. Monday night after he scored an easy win at the U.S. Open, he launched into his John McEnroe impersonation, which then resulted in McEnroe coming down from the broadcast booth and hitting some balls with Djokovic, as he then impersonated the Serb.

It was great stuff; check it out below.

Jimmy Connors, a player who was hard to love

jimmy-connors-400

So this blog will be pretty heavily tennis-based for the next two weeks, I’m thinking, because my favorite American sporting event (besides the NCAA Tournament) gets going with the U.S. Open in Queens. I’ll do a whole post later tonight/tomorrow morning on why I love the Open. For now, a few hundred words on a great champion:

I got to interview Jimmy Connors on a phone conference call this week for my newspaper; this is what he had to say about the upcoming U.S. Open, and a few other topics.

I was never a big Jimmy Connors fan growing up. My first love was John McEnroe, who captivated me with his attitude and his beautiful artistry on the court. Then, as I grew older I fell for Boris Becker, not because we had so much in common (He: a big tall blond German dude; Me: a small dark-haired Jewish kid), but because I loved his attitude on the court, his diving for everything, and the power with which he played.

Then I got enamored with Jim Courier, and Stefan Edberg, and, well, Jimbo never really did it for me. I remember being excited one day while I was volunteering at the Hamlet tennis tournament in Commack one year (we had a small pro event for several years in my little town), when word spread among us that McEnroe and Connors were about to warm up together on the main court.

We rushed over, and for 15 minutes one summer day, I was 10 feet from two of the greatest players in history. That was a pretty awesome moment.

But really, Connors to me was always too standoffish to root for. He was just as poor a sport as McEnroe, but didn’t seem to have the flair or charisma I was looking for. He was a great champion, but didn’t seem as beloved by the public as the others.

Then, of course, came the 1991 U.S. Open, and if you’re any kind of a sports fan you remember what happened. In the December of his career, Connors put together a miraculous run, winning five matches to get to the semifinals, and along the way played one of the greatest points in the history of the sport (seriously, check this point out, it was phenomenal).

All of a sudden, Connors was beloved, maybe truly for the first time, by American tennis fans. He’s had a quiet retirement, mostly, but came back into the spotlight when he coached Andy Roddick last year, with mixed results.

It doesn’t speak all that well of Jimmy that Roddick has done much better under new coach Larry Stefanki, but to his credit, Connors doesn’t speak ill of Roddick or Stefanki.

Anyway, talking to Connors this week got me thinking about his legacy, and how, maybe, I didn’t appreciate him as much I should’ve.

And because any time I can link to a story by one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived, I will, here’s the best Jimmy Connors story ever written, a profile by the legendary Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated, from 1978.

Enjoy.

P.S. Speaking of Sports Illustrated, this cracked me up: I just renewed my subscription a few weeks ago; I’ve been a subscriber since 1984, when my Grandpa Don got me it for Hanukkah when I was 9. It’s still my dream (though it’s fading with each passing year) to work for them one day.

Anyway, so I get a postcard from them in the mail yesterday:

Dear Michael Lewis:

We appreciate your prompt payment for you (that was their typo) Sports Illustrated Magazine subscription. However, our records indicate that you overpaid and are due a balance of $0.01.

We will extend your subscription for 1 additional issues, or if you would prefer a refund check for the balance, please contact our customer service dept.

Seriously? They’re going to send me a check  for a penny if I want them to. Isn’t that just a colossal waste? I’m half thinking of calling and saying “I want my refund!” just to see what a check for a penny looks like.

My new hero

lanceallred 

So my heroes used to be Don Mattingly, John McEnroe, Wesley Walker and Mark Messier.

I’d say with the exception of McEnroe, I chose pretty wisely as a kid. I thought Johnny Mac was so cool for the way he blew up at umpires and humiliated them, until I grew up and learned that for all his remarkable talent, he was just a big baby and remarkably immature. I outgrew McEnroe and was sort of ashamed that I used to love him.

But I’ve got a new hero now, and he’s kinda different from any other role model I’ve ever liked.

His name is Lance Allred, and he’s a 6-foot-11, deaf, OCD sufferer who’s a former Fundamentalist Mormon and grew up on polygamous compounds in Montana and Utah. He’s been battling in basketball his whole life, and for three shining games in 2008, finally made the NBA.

He just wrote an astonishingly honest, hilarious, forthcoming and tragic book about his life called “Longshot,” and I finished reading it last night.

To say it’s one of the best sports books I’ve ever read would be an insult, like calling Rembrandt just one of the 17th century’s best painters. Allred’s book is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in my life.

Unlikely, you say? Wait till you hear his story. He was an awkward, gangly child who was seen as a bit of an outcast since his father “only” had one wife. He became deaf immediately after being born but was undiagnosed for years.  He was told by a Sunday School teacher that he couldn’t hear because of sins he’d committed in a previous life (I hope that teacher got fired immediately, but I’m sure he didn’t.)

Eventually, his parents broke away from the compound and moved to Utah, before another family split made them homeless for a short while.

As a kid, Allred struggled to find his place (you know how kind kids can be to children who are different), and he finally did on the basketball court. Of course, that only brought more suffering. A much-beloved coach at the University of Utah named Rick Majerus treated Allred unconscionably while he was there, humiliating and destroying Allred’s confidence and once telling him he “was a disgrace to cripples.” (Majerus was eventually investigated for his behavior, and resigned from Utah shortly after Allred transferred).

Allred became a star at a smaller school, but then found himself battling through the bizarre and highly unpredictable world of minor league basketball in Turkey, France, and the United States (if for no other reason, buy the book to hear Allred’s wickedly funny description of travel life in the NBA Developmental League). 

There were so many times Allred wanted to quit, and so many times coaches and others gave up on him. But he finally made it to the NBA, if only for a few days, and when you get to that point in the book, you almost feel like cheering.

In his beautiful writing style, Allred weaves metaphors about life and basketball together with meditations on religion, the monotony of practice, and too many other topics to count. He refused to blame others for his failures, and is quick to credit others for his success. He’s funny, smart and had me looking at some things in a whole new light.

I got to meet Allred last month at an NBA summer league camp, after having heard about him on this NPR podcast, “Only A Game“. I wrote this column about him for my newspaper, and I was so impressed with his intelligence and humility that I knew I had to read his book. It blew me away.

Lance Allred will not become a major superstar, of  that I’m pretty certain. But he’s why I love sports; proof that beyond the reprehensible reputations of Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Barry Bonds there are good guys with amazing stories to tell of will and determination.

I defy you to read this book and not become a fan of Lance Allred. If money’s tight and you’re not able to buy “Longshot,” you can probably find it at your local library.

“I do not care about the money, or the fame,” Allred writes in a letter to God in the book. “I just want to say that I set an “unreachable” goal and I made it.”

He certainly did.