Should there be concern about Rafa Nadal?

The Australian Open is in full swing and as is the case with every tennis tournaments, there have already been upsets in the first round. On the women’s side, the number 32, 31, 29, 25, 22, 16, 8 and 2 seeds have all gone down. Most significant are the losses of Simona Halep, the #2 seed behind Serena Williams, Serena’s sister Venus, who came in as the 8 seed and the local favorite of my current home, Caroline Wozniacki.

The men’s draw is no stranger to upsets either. I previously mentioned the loss of the #17 seed Benoit Paire to Noah Rubin but the number 20, 11 and 5 seeds have also lost. But it’s that 5 seed that it’s time to talk about.

Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of a major for just the second time in his career. The first came at Wimbledon in 2013 when he lost to Steve Darcis. In this case the loss is a bit more respectable. Nadal fell to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has had a lengthy and successful career, in 5 sets. But it’s notable because of how Nadal’s career has gone in recent years. If this had happened a few years ago, it would have been seen as a simple blip, such as when he lost to Robin Soderling in the French Open, a tournament he has dominated in his career.

But if you combine this loss with his recent performance, it reveals something more alarming: that Rafael Nadal may have begun the downward spiral towards retirement. Nadal has won 14 majors and was, at one point, the best player in the world. But from there he began having problems with his knees, which kept him off the court and caused his ranking to drop. He has since been surpassed by the other members of the men’s tennis Big Four-Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic- as well as Stan Wawrinka.

Despite the injuries, Nadal had managed to maintain enough of his championship form to remain competitive. At least until 2015. 2015 was the first season that Nadal did not make a single major final for the first time in 10 years. Nada himself had spoken about a loss of confidence given last year’s performance, though he had said that he had like his performances from the early tournaments of 2016.

This loss now makes 5 consecutive majors without even a semi-finals appearance from Nadal (and 6 of the last 7), with his last win coming at the French Open in 2014. 2015 also marked the first time Nadal competed in all 4 Majors since 2011.

I’m not saying Nadal will never win a significant tournament again. The next Major is the French Open, which he has dominated for his entire career. But not everyone has the longevity of Federer and it may be time to recognize that Nadal may not be able to compete with the best of the best for much longer outside of his magnificence on clay.

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Thumbs up: Noah Rubin

I’m going to be honest here. This story makes me feel quite inadequate. But nonetheless I have to give a big thumbs up to Noah Rubin. Who is Noah Rubin? Good question.

Noah is a 19 year old American tennis player playing in the 2016 Australian Open. And Noah, just this weekend, won his first career professional tennis match.

But there’s more than just someone getting their first win. Rubin earned his first win, in a major tournament as just a wild card entry and ranked a lowly 328 in the world.

The American teenager ousted the 17 seed, Frenchman Benoit Paire, in straight sets, 7-6 7-6 7-6 to earn his first major victory. Though Paire was clearly not pleased with his own performance and his 72(!) unforced errors, I give a lot of credit to Rubin for being able to take advantage of the mistakes and string enough points together, even if Paire was not so complimentary of the youngster.

Beyond simply congratulating a young American tennis player, I feel a closer connection to this story. Noah Rubin hails from Long Island, New York and has actually played tennis at the same club where I used to back when I was playing sports rather than blogging about them. While I don’t know him personally-he is younger and much better than I am-I still feel like he deserves the shout out and that I have some connection to him and his success.

Additionally, since the retirement of Andy Roddick there has been a bit of a talent vacuum when it comes to American men’s tennis. John Isner is probably the best America has to offer at the moment on the men’s side but he struggles to make it deep into any major tournaments. Any potential young talent is worth keeping an eye on.

Rubin will advance and play another Frenchman, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, in the second round. Good luck to Noah and way to represent Long Island tennis!

AU Women’s Basketball Drops Close Patriot League Decision

With 4:58 left to play in the fourth quarter at Bender Arena, the AU Women’s Basketball team closed the lead of the Army Black Knights to two points. Over the final minutes of the game, the Eagles struggled offensively while Army closed the game on a 12-4 run to hand AU their fourth Patriot League loss Saturday afternoon.

The Eagles (4-13, 2-4 PL) rallied from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to put themselves in a position to beat the offensively potent Black Knights (14-2, 5-1 PL), but managed only one field goal in the final five minutes, a three-pointer by senior guard Ari Booth with the Eagles down by ten points. Each of the Eagles four Patriot League losses have come by ten points or less.

“It’s disappointing,” head coach Megan Gebbia said of the Eagles numerous close losses this season. “You know just a couple errors here and there could change the outcome. These games give me confidence in the team as this is, supposedly, the best team in the league and we’re right there with them.”

While the Eagles struggled offensively, their defense was stout, holding Kelsey Minato, the seventh-leading scorer in the nation, to only five field goals and below her average of 23.6 points per game. Senior guard Jordan Light was tasked with guarding Minato, and 10 of Minato’s points came in the third quarter with Light sitting on the bench due to foul trouble.

“I think Jordan did a very nice job on her [Minato], I wish she hadn’t got into foul trouble late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter,” Gebbia said. “They’re a very difficult team to guard. They had some role players step up for them [today].”  

The Black Knights came into their matchup with the Eagles boasting gaudy offensive numbers. In their 15 games, Army was scoring 69.1 points per game, shooting 40.5 percent on three-point field goals. AU held Army without a three-point field goal. Minato and Jean Parker came into the game shooting above 40 percent on three-point attempts.

Freshman forward Cecily Carl led the Eagles offensively with 10 points and six rebounds, while sophomore guard Emily Kinneston added eight points off the bench. The Eagles shot 33.3 percent as a team for the game and experienced long droughts over the course of the game, including no field goals in the first six minutes of the second quarter.

“I think we didn’t get the ball inside enough,” Gebbia said. “They had 32 [points] in the paint, we had 14. That’s a huge discrepancy and that needs to change for the next game.”

 

The Eagles return to the court Wednesday Jan. 20 against Lafayette at 7 p.m. in Bender Arena looking to improve on their offensive output.

 

Thumbs up: Blair Walsh

Now I know many of you reading the headline are asking “why are you giving a thumbs up to the dude who lost a playoff game for the Vikings?” And that is a fair question to ask. But bear with me and you’ll see why.

As mentioned above, Walsh, in the eyes of some, is the reason that the Vikings lost to the Seahawks last weekend in the playoffs. By the same token, the score was 10-9 so Walsh was the only reason the Vikes kept the score close, but you can understand the frustration at a missed 27 yard field goal, which is considered by many to be a chip shot.

But alas Walsh does miss his field goal and I’m sure got loads of hate from Minnesotans on Twitter. Though not everyone was so upset. A group of students at Northpoint Elementary School wrote Walsh letters of encouragement and had them sent to Vikings headquarters. For the students this was a class exercise on empathy.

But Walsh took it another step forward. He delayed his trip out of town-which takes courage in and of itself because I’m sure he’s not the most popular guy in Minnesota right now-to visit the school. He personally thanked the students for their messages and imparted some wisdom to the students as well.

Check out the video from ESPN here.

So that’s why Walsh gets a thumbs up. Because despite the miss, he remained a good and upbeat person and that’s exactly the person you want to be sending young children a message.

New head coach spells end for Manziel in Cleveland

The Cleveland Browns have made yet another coaching change, hiring Hue Jackson to be their 6th head coach since 2008. Jackson replaces Mike Pettine, who was fired immediately following the Browns’ final game of the season.

Jackson had previously been the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. His last head coaching job was in 2011 when he went 8-8 in his only season with the Oakland Raiders.

Jackson has just been introduced as the new head coach, but reports are already out about Johnny Manziel’s status with the team. The first reports out of Cleveland is that during his interview and meeting with team ownership, Jackson requested that the team “move on” from the troubled quarterback.

For all his success at Texas A&M, Manziel hasn’t quite found a way to translate that to the professional game. He has lost training camp quarterback competitions twice, once to Brian Hoyer and once Josh McCown. He did get some chances to play due to injuries and while he had moments of the Manziel we saw at A&M, overall the success hasn’t been there at the professional level. He is 2-6 as a starter in his two year career with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.

But beyond the mediocrity on the field, Manziel has had off the field troubles as well. He is often seen out partying either during bye weeks or just regularly during the season. This past year he notably was late for his concussion tests because of a late night, wore a disguise to go to a party towards the end of the season and was benched after a video appeared on Instagram of him at a party back in Texas.

Prior to the season, Manziel voluntarily checked himself into rehab in an attempt to curb some of his risky behavior.

There is no word on how this transaction may take place, but whether he is released or traded, Cleveland has likely seen the last of Johnny Football.

NFL Owners Approve Move to Los Angeles

THE NFL IS BACK IN LOS ANGELES!

In a meeting in Houston, Texas today, NFL Owners agreed to approve the proposed plans for the St. Louis Rams to return back to Los Angeles, starting in 2016. Owners voted overwhelmingly to accept the relocation proposals of the Rams and the San Diego Chargers to move back to Los Angeles, voting 30-2 in favor of the franchises. The Rams would be returning back to Los Angeles, home to the second biggest media market, for the first time since 1994-95 when they played as the Los Angeles Rams.

The Los Angeles Rams played in Southern California from 1936-1995, with a brief gap in 1943, when operations were suspended. They are best remembered for bring the city 21 playoff appearances in the 48 year history culminating in the highest honor in 1951 with an NFL Championship. There were also plenty of Hall of Fame players who graced Los Angeles with their presence over the years, such as Eric Dickerson, Norm Van Brocklin, Deacon Jones, and Jack Youngblood. The LA Rams were a powerhouse of a franchise that certainly gave off the idea that football in Southern California would be a mainstay for the NFL, though it was not meant to be. In 1994-95, the Rams had lost their fanbase and had failed to make the playoffs since 1989. The stadium situation as well as the fact that they were being overshadowed by the more successful Dodgers and Lakers teams of the late 80s resulted in loss of viewership and a plummeting franchise. It wasn’t until 1995, that the Rams were able to relocate to St. Louis, Missouri where they would play out the next 20 years (winning Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999).

Other teams that initially pursued relocation from their respective cities following the 2015 Regular Season were the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. Oakland played in Los Angeles from 1982-1994, where they won Super Bowls XI (1976) and XV (1980) before relocating to their current home. They withdrew their request on January 12, 2016. The San Diego Chargers called Los Angeles home when the franchise first started out, residing in the City of Angels solely in their inaugural season, 1960 but winning the division that year.

With the Rams approved to move back to LA, they will play out their next few seasons from 2016-2019 most likely in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the new facility, proposed by owner Stan Kroenke, is completed in Inglewood, CA in 2019. The Chargers have until January 16, 2017 to decide if they will join the Rams in moving to Los Angeles, though all indications seem to point to the move being a certainty. Incentive to both the Raiders and Chargers to stay in their current cities will include $100 million to go towards stadium renovation costs, as per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.

With what is surely both shocking, yet expected news, it will be interesting to further gauge the response by fans and cities of NFL teams, mainly those that have struggled in past seasons, to the news of the Rams, and possibly the Chargers playing in LA once again. But for now, let us all take in this news as more information unfolds while remaining optimistic that the uniforms of old will return along with the team in 2016.

Alabama Wins Fourth Title in Seven Years

It was all smiles once again as the Alabama Crimson Tide won their fourth title in seven years last night 45-40 over the previously undefeated Clemson Tigers at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide found themselves once again on top of the college football world with a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, containing Clemson’s Heisman Runner-Up quarterback Deshaun Watson.  The ‘Bama defense did an excellent job stopping the Clemson run forcing Watson to have play a one-dimensional game during the first half.

However, that would not stop Watson as he connected with wide receiver Hunter Renfrow twice to keep Clemson tied with ‘Bama 14-14 going into the half and head coach Dabo Swinney was fired up with his team’s performance in the first half.

The game remained a see-saw battle early in the third quarter with both teams trading scoring drives until the early fourth.  After a 33 yard field goal by Adam Griffith and a 51 yard touchdown pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard, Clemson would never catch the Tide.  Derrick Henry was utilized often finding the end zone three times, but his touchdown with 1:12 left in the 4th quarter all but put it away for Alabama.

Watson would make it interesting with 12 seconds left by finding Jordan Leggett, but a failed onside kick gave Alabama the title.  For Swinney, during his post-game press conference he was beyond pleased with his teams performance throughout the year and the resilience they showed down to the bitter end.

But for Nick Saban he would capture his fourth title in seven years and has no intention of letting up any time soon, and for now the title will return once again to Tuscaloosa.

Messi wins Ballon d’Or, FIFPro World XI Announced

Barcelona and Real Madrid had a field day at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich. The ceremony not only crowns the best male soccer player in the calendar year with the Ballon d’Or, it also names the best players at each position, naming a World XI team of the year.

Lionel Messi of Barcelona took home his record fifth Ballon d’Or, topping teammate Neymar and Real Madrid talisman Cristiano Ronaldo despite missing two months towards the end of 2015 with a knee injury. Messi still managed 52 goals and 26 assists for club and country in his injury shortened year, which is on par with Ronaldo, who managed 57 goals and 16 assists in 2015 and finished second in the Ballon d’Or voting. The numbers make it seem difficult to differentiate between the two, however there was little doubt it would be the mercurial Argentine who would take home the Ballon d’Or as Messi led Barcelona to have one of the most dominant years in the history of club soccer. Barcelona captured five trophies in 2015: the La Liga championship, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup.

In the Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, Messi delivered one of the most iconic goals of 2015 when he glided past Jerome Boateng and delicately chipped Manuel Neuer. The goal carried Barcelona into the final, where Messi was at the heart of everything good for Barcelona and set up Luis Suarez’s go-ahead goal in the 3-1 victory over Juventus.

Messi was at his best less than a month later, scoring two goals in the Copa del Rey final, including a solo run that saw Messi dance down the right touchline past four Athletic Bilbao defenders.

Messi was also named to the FIFPro World XI team, joined by Barcelona teammates Neymar, Andres Inesta and Dani Alves. Real Madrid also had four players make the World XI team: Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Luka Modric. Paul Pogba of Juventus, Thiago Silva of Paris Saint-Germain and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich rounded out the World XI.

Ronaldo and Messi’s appearance on the World XI team marked the ninth team each player had made the Team of the Year, while Inesta was named to the World XI for the seventh time in his career. Neymar, Pogba and Modric appeared on the World XI for the first time in their careers.

Real Madrid and Barcelona’s representation in the World XI continues La Liga’s dominance over the World team in the past six seasons. Since 2010, 47 of the 66 players on the World XI have come from La Liga. The Bundisliga is the next most-represented league, with seven Team of the Season players in the past six seasons.

The only major European league not recognized in the World XI was England’s Premier League.

Road Teams Sweep Wild Card Weekend

For the first time in NFL history, four road teams all won in one weekend of the NFL Playoffs. Beginning with the AFC leg on Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs went to Houston and shut out the Texans, while the Steelers edged one out in Cincinnati against the Bengals.

Be sure to check out SportsZone’s analysis of Game 1 and Game 2.

Moving on to the NFC leg on Sunday, once again it was the road teams who got the job done. In the early game, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks began their attempt at reaching a third straight Super Bowl and used a strong 4th quarter and a little luck to knock off the Minnesota Vikings 10-9. In the night-cap, the Green Bay Packers turned in the best offensive performance of the weekend to defeat the Washington Redskins 35-18.

What this weekend shows is that age and experience may be more important than straight up talent when it comes to the playoffs. Despite being the higher seeds, all 4 home teams had quarterbacks making their first ever playoff start: Brian Hoyer, AJ McCarron, Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins.

Bridgewater and Cousins are certainly considered to be the franchise quarterbacks for the Vikings and Redskins respectively and may well go on to have great careers, but this weekend they played second fiddle to Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, two of the best in the game.

Hoyer has been a journeyman for much of his career and struggled to stay on the field this season. However, when he was on the field, he helped the Texans win games along with their stout defense and the breakout season of DeAndre Hopkins.

McCarron served as the backup to Andy Dalton and made 4 starts after Dalton broke his thumb. He handled his new role quite well, going 2-2 and helping the Bengals to earn a #3 seed. That said, if he remains with the Bengals he should return to a backup role.

On the winning side of the weekend are quarterbacks and teams that have much more playoff experience. Alex Smith and the Chiefs last made the playoffs two season ago when they blew a huge lead to Andrew Luck and the Colts in the first round. Smith showed that the Chiefs learned from that experience and earned his second career playoff win in 4 starts.

The other three winning quarterbacks have a combined 4 Super Bowl wins. Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers each have made the playoffs 8 different times and Russell Wilson has made three straight playoffs and been to the Super Bowl twice.

Something else to take from this historic weekend is that playoff seeding may be a flawed system. Both the Texans and Redskins had higher seeds despite having worse records than the teams the played against. Houston and Washington both finished at 9-7, enough to win the two weakest divisions in football this year, and played Wild Card teams, Kansas City and Green Bay, with 11 and 10 wins respectively. Additionally, the New York Jets, who finished at 10-6, the same record as the Steelers and Packers, missed out on the playoffs entirely despite finishing with better numbers than 2 playoff teams.

Next week’s match-ups will be the Steelers facing the Broncos, the Chiefs at the Patriots, the Packers at the Cardinals and the Seahawks facing the Panthers.

College Football National Championship Preview: #2 Alabama vs. #1 Clemson @ University of Phoenix Stadium

It has been a long season in the world of college football, but it has been filled with many twists and unexpected turns.  However, it has all com down to this, the final game of the college football season.  University of Phoenix Stadium will play host to perennial SEC powerhouse Alabama and the lone undefeated team in the NCAA, Clemson.

For Alabama, they will be seeking their fourth national title in seven years and to attempt to rebound from last year’s semifinal loss to Ohio State.  For head coach Nick Saban, this is an opportunity to win a fifth national title.  The Tide are coming in off an 13-1 record with its only loss to Ole Miss earlier in the season.  However after that loss, the Tide have played very impressive football led by Heisman winner Derrick Henry and a stellar defense.  ‘Bama cruised to a 38-0 win over the fourth ranked Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl.  Saban feels that his team can win once again by playing good sound football and sticking to their identity by playing “Alabama football.”  The “Roll Tide” faithful will be in full swing as all eyes descend on Arizona.

On the other side of the coin, Clemson is the only undefeated team remaining in the season.  The Tigers are seeking their second national title in school history and their first since 1981 (also went undefeated in 1981).  Clemson has been powered by Heisman finalist Deshuan Watson and a superb secondary.  However for head coach Dabo Swinney, this title would be oh so sweet.  Swinney was a walk-on receiver for the Tide in 1989 and eventually became an assistant coach until 2001.  He joined the Clemson staff in 2003 and is more than excited to face ‘Bama.  This is Swinney’s first career national title appearance and has shown that he is calm under the pressure.

All eyes are descending upon Glendale, Arizona in what promises to be a game for the ages.  Only time will tell of who will be crowned national champions.  Will it go to the perennial college football powerhouse and their coach seeking his fifth title in seven years, or will it be the former-‘Bama player who will take his young Tigers team to the promise land.

The stage is set for this collision and its shaping up to be a fitting end to the 2015-2016 college football season.

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