Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Athletes' feats

I haven't written about sports in quite a while. I've heard your cries of woe, both of you, so here's a little.

1. Federer Express

You can debate whether Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time, but he's indisputably the most elegant. The dashing Swiss won the 2008 U.S. Open a few weeks ago, becoming the only person to win five straight titles at each of two different Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and drawing within one of Pete Sampras' record 14 major titles.

Slowed by mononucleosis as the year opened, Federer hadn't won a Grand Slam tournament in 2008, but reports of his demise were premature. He still made the semis at Melbourne, where he barely lost to Novak Djokovic in five sets; made the French Open final, where Rafael Nadal dismantled him; and took the Wimbledon final to five exquisite sets before Nadal snapped his All England title streak at five. He also took Olympic gold in doubles with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka.

Not a bad year by any standard short of the superhuman last few years Federer's enjoyed; he took a lot of grief for being merely excellent. Look for him to pick up a Slam or two in 2009 and contend for the world #1 ranking, which he recently surrendered to Nadal after a record-breaking 237 consecutive weeks atop the sport.

2. Flying the W flag

By winning a division title on Saturday, the Chicago Cubs have clinched their first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1907-08.

It's all going their way lately. First the Milwaukee Brewers were accommodating enough to keep losing games during the Cubs' early September meltdown. That more or less put the Cubs in the postseason.

Next, Hurricane Ike moved a Cubs weekend series from Houston to a supposedly neutral site, Miller Park in Milwaukee. Ostensibly home games for Houston, the Milwaukee contests were played in Wrigley North as 20,000-plus fans drove an hour or two up I-94 to sing "Go Cubs Go" north of the state line.

Those who braved recently flooded expressways on Sunday were rewarded as Carlos Zambrano threw the first Cubs no-hitter since 1972, answering big questions about the playoff readiness of a player who'd sat out for a few weeks with arm problems. (The Cubs being the Cubs, he got rocked in the first inning of his next start.)

And last night, with the playoffs in the bag, the Cubs started playing spoiler to other teams with postseason aspirations. Pitcher Jason Marquis hit a grand slam in Shea Stadium to help his own cause. He earned a meaningless victory over the New York Mets, to whom a win would have been meaningful. Derrek Lee hit his 20th home run, making 2008 just the third season in which a Cubs team has had five players with 20+ HR.

The Cubs will use the next week to set up their rotation, give de facto tryouts to a number of players angling for playoff roster spots, and pray for the Mets, Brewers and Phillies to finish with identical records. Then they'd have to wear each other out with one-game playoffs and waste their aces just to get to the first round.

Those three teams are fighting for the last two National League playoff spots. We'll know before who long who's in and who plays whom.

3. Ryder?

Congratulations to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which reclaimed the trophy and its concomitant transatlantic bragging rights for the first time since 1999.

I've never attended a Ryder Cup, or any golf tournament. My closest brush was over Labor Day weekend in 2002, when I sat near European Ryder Cup hero Sergio Garcia in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the tennis U.S. Open. He was there to watch his then-girlfriend, Martina Hingis, play doubles with Anna Kournikova. I was there to watch Hingis and Kournikova run around, but was happy to learn there would also be a tennis match.

The Ryder Cup used to take place in odd-numbered years, but the September 2001 tournament was scratched after September 11 and postponed a year. So in 2002, it had been three years since the last Ryder Cup, and anticipation was high. I don't know much about golf but even I knew Garcia had played exceptionally for Europe in the previous go-round and was considered a key player for the upcoming tournament.

After the teen queens destroyed Meghann Shaughnessy and Chicago's Laura Granville, Garcia started making his way to the players' lounge. Knowing his reputation for haughtiness, I thought I'd provoke him with an intentionally stupid question as he walked by me. "Hey Serge!" He turned around. "You playing Ryder Cup?" He glared at me with the disdain of an arrogant matador standing over a vanquished bull, and with a heavy accent sneered, "Of course I am!"

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