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PostFive Sports Championships in Three Days (David Duggan, USA, 06/12/18 5:17 am)
Sports fans around the world were on sensory overload this past weekend as there were not one, not two, not three, not four, but five world champions crowned (assuming late Thursday qualifies as the weekend).
Of course I'm talking about the Stanley Cup in hockey, the NBA finals, the third-leg of horseracing's Triple Crown--the Belmont Stakes--and the French Open in tennis. That's four you say and who made the French Open the world championships? But in tennis, women have a separate championship (nothing stops a woman from suiting up for NHL hockey, NBA basketball, or jockeying a horse, nor a filly from running in a stakes race). And for the 33% of the world's continents that plays tennis on clay (Europe and South America), the French Open on the "terre battue" is the only one of the four major tournaments that counts. Though I did not check the historical record, I can recall no weekend when four events coalesced, and since the dates of the NBA and NHL finals are a function of how many games the two contestants take to get there, it would be a rarity that all four were finished in the span of 72 hours.
First up, the Washington Capitals beat the Las Vegas Golden Knights in five games, ending a long drought of DC teams (last championship in 1992 with the Redskins--soon to be renamed?) on the podium. And Alex Ovechkin can no longer claim the title as the best player in hockey history never to have won the Stanley Cup. Who knew that Las Vegas had a hockey team? The Golden Knights were a start-up for the 2017-18 season, and I can think of no other first-year team that got into the playoffs, let alone to the final round. Maybe Donald Trump will invite the Caps to the White House, if for no other reason than to prove to the world that, as in hockey, America first is not America alone. Of the Caps' 27 roster players, only six are from the United States, including goalie Pheonix (as spelled in the team's roster) Copley from North Pole, Arkansas of all places. He must have a lot of elves to shoot pucks at him in practice. And the Caps also sported a Welshman, Nathan Walker. Who knew the Brits played hockey? Maybe the Redskins will lend their "Hail to the Redskins" song to the Caps for the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
Second, on Friday night the Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers, and established themselves as the dominant basketball team of the second decade of the 21st Century. The two teams had met the last three years, and I can find no prior instance of two teams meeting each other four years in a row. (The closest I can find is the Dodgers-Yankees who met four times in five years, 1952-56, interrupted by the Giants-Cleveland 1954 series. This rivalry featured the "Boys of Summer" Dodgers finally breaking through in 1955, and Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956. And the Lakers and Celtics played each other three straight times 2008-10.) Warrior Steph Curry is hard to beat when his threes fall but when linked with Kevin Durant, the team may be unbeatable as the Cavs have found out the last two years. I still vote for LeBron James as the Greatest of All Time (over Jordan), but when he has four stiffs around him, he can't do it all, and playing with a broken hand suffered from punching a blackboard after the loss in game one probably didn't help him or the team. LeBron's a free agent this year and may be shopping for another team. Still, he led the Cavs to the promised land two years ago ending Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, but without a change in the front office willing to put another A-list player on the hardwood, it ain't happening again anytime soon.
Third: the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. After winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown in the mud, Justify, with Michael Smith up, ran the mile and-a-half around Belmont's sand-based track in not quite record time, winning by a length and a half over Gronkowski, named for the Patriots' tight-end. While watching the race, I thought that Justify was fading as the horses headed out of the turn into the half-mile long stretch, but Smith knew his mount and had saved enough gas in the tank to win without whipping him mercilessly. Bob Baffert, who also trained Triple-Crown-winning American Pharoah three years ago, becomes only the second trainer to win two Triple Crowns, and the white-blazed chestnut Justify is the only horse to lead wire to wire in all 3 races, becoming the lucky 13th Triple Crown winner. I'm old enough to remember the three super horses of the 1970s: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, who won three Triple Crowns in five years, so we may be in another era of the super horse. Fifty-two year old Smith becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown (18-year old Steve Cauthen on Affirmed was the youngest). Smith grew up in New Mexico racing quarter horses at county fairs and is the second winningest jockey of all time, behind John Velazquez. Unlike Justify, however, Smith won't be retiring on his laurels, and plans to keep on racing.
The French Open. What more can be said about Rafa Nadal, who won his 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires? No other player, modern or ancient era, has won more singles titles at the same tournament than he has (Margaret Smith Court has 11 Aussie titles, but seven of those were in the era when only amateurs could compete--on the men's side, Max Decugis won eight French championships between 1903 and 1914 when World War I interrupted the event and Roger Federer has won eight Wimbledons). Unlike Smith Court who lost the 1968 Aussie final to Billie Jean King, Nadal has never lost a final at Roland Garros. His opponent, Austria's Dominic Thiem, is two tennis generations (seven years) younger than Rafa, and is a rare practitioner of the one-handed backhand, a definite disadvantage as Nadal's devastating cross-court left-handed forehand, posting more than 5,000 rpm, bounces high into Thiem's backhand, and from personal knowledge I can say that it's hard to get leverage on a ball bouncing higher than your shoulder. Thiem tried to outblast Nadal, a theoretical possibility but a practical improbability, and the 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 results proved that. Nadal could be called for gamesmanship, and maybe the powers that be will eventually call him on his 30-seconds-long shorts-tugging, head-band swiping, nose wiping pre-serve routine, all while the opponent is being iced 90 feet away. But with 11 titles, Nadal knows that he's French tennis' meal ticket, so don't count on it.
And Simona Halep, for the last half-year the No. 1 woman's player though she had never won a grand slam title in three tries, got the monkey off her back by beating last year's US Open champ, Sloane Stephens, in three sets. Halep becomes the first Romanian grand slam champion since Victoria Ruzici at 1978's French Open. Thanks to the computer, the woman's game has had a number of No. 1s who had never won a grand slam title (Caroline Wozniaki, Dinara Safina), but with Serena Williams recovering from the birth of her daughter last year, the women's rankings have been in flux. Half-a-dozen women have a chance of winning at next month's Wimbledon (in addition to Halep, Stephens, Williams, and Wozniaki, I would add Garbine Muguruza and Karolína Plíšková as 10-1 shots, and Victoria Azarenka and two-time champion Petra Kvitova as 15-1 shots).
Some fans of pseudo-sports will be tuned into the World Cup next week, and golf's US Open next weekend. But for me, I'll be watching the Cubs as they try to overtake the Brewers in their division, and waiting for Wimbledon and the Tour de France to begin in a couple of weeks.
I need to recover from the sensory overload of five championships in three days.
JE comments: I hereby proclaim David Duggan WAISdom's Editor-at-Large, Sports. Nicely done. Between travel and preparation for the Bogotá conference, I had missed every one of these championships, except the upcoming World Cup, which is impossible to overlook when you're in Colombia. We (US) Americans get to watch the Russian festivities from the saddest perspective of American Exceptionalism: being uninvited.
Nor did I have a clue that Las Vegas has an ice hockey team. (Don't let the desert discourage you. The United Arab Emirates has an entire hockey league.)
Phenomenal USC Comeback in 1600 M Relay
(Paul Pitlick, USA
06/14/18 6:37 AM)
As a follow-up to David Duggan's post of June 12th, and in line with his championship-weekend theme, I took note of his comment, "While watching the race [Belmont Stakes], I thought that Justify was fading as the horses headed out of the turn into the half-mile long stretch, but Smith knew his mount and had saved enough gas in the tank to win without whipping him mercilessly."
As background, for the non-US, non-West Coast, non-collegiate, non-sports fans, I have to preface my remarks by saying that I am submitting this against my personal feelings towards the University of Southern California.
Many of us have our feelings about a particular rivalry (i.e. Stanford/Cal, UCLA/USC, UW/Washington State, etc.), but almost all of us look upon USC as second on our list of enemies. But the last race of the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon (hence the wet track) was won in rather dramatic fashion on the last leg of the women's 1600 M relay on June 9--her rival did, indeed "run out of gas." By winning the race, USC won enough points to win the championship.
I think that even if a person has no interest in these kinds of events, the first clip in the story is worth 30 seconds of your time. I've even re-watched the 2nd clip, the whole race, several times. Enjoy!
JE comments: I couldn't get the above video to work in our Bogotá hotel, but in the best WAISly tradition, I found Kendall Ellis's miraculous performance on YouTube (below). It's one for the annals of Great Sports Comebacks.
Did the Purdue runner have too many Boilermakers?
Now, it's on to Russia and the World Cup.