Thursday, August 28, 2014

No need for tennis expertise. Just give it a go.

When I talk with people about my sports writing experiences or my interest, the question about my athletic background usually isn't far behind. It's the thought that, "oh, since you like to write about sports, you must have played a lot of them in high school, right?"

Wrong. Not that it isn't a logical leap to make, because it certainly is. I'm sure there are a lot of sports writers out there who were quite the jocks. I'm just not one of them.

My only claim to fame in this category is that I played tennis, two years on junior varsity and my senior year playing third doubles on the varsity squad. Tennis was always something I played with my dad growing up, and I took tennis lessons in my elementary school days. I had a great chance to be part of the team at a brand new high school my senior year.

Final Grand Slam of '14
The U.S. Open tennis tournament kicked off this week, and it's always fun to watch. I enjoy catching coverage of the Grand Slam events, like the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Watching the tournaments usually gives you the itch to get out on the court and play. At least that's how it works for me.

I love to go hit around on the court. Being competitive isn't what it's about for me; I'm looking for some exercise and to have a little fun. That's all. If only there were more people who wanted to play tennis with me.

I was lucky to find a group of casual players who met twice a week at the high school courts when I lived in Austin, Minn. I haven't found a similar group in Fergus Falls. Whenever I mention tennis, here's a common response I get: "I'd totally play with you, but I'm terrible."

Again, let me go back to I just want to get exercise and have fun. I'm not looking to hit around with the next Grand Slam champion. I really don't even want to keep score.

Anybody wanna play with me?
As summer winds down, which is always sad, I reflect on the fact that I've only been out on the tennis court once in 2014. My friend Marie was a good sport and hit with me one gorgeous summer evening. I always had my tennis bag in the car when I traveled home to see my parents this summer. But either I was too busy with other activities, or the weather was poor. That second option seemed to be quite the theme this summer, unfortunately.

I guess my point is, I enjoy playing tennis, and I'd like to do more of it. Having a couple summers go by without playing on a regular basis, or even just a few times here and there, was kind of a downer for me. What's great about tennis is you don't need to be an expert to participate. Don't have a 120-mph serve? Need to run around your backhand? No problem. Just try it.

Maybe you'll have a tennis-starved friend who will thank you. Like me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ward Jr.'s death not a typical racing fatality

By now news has made its way around that Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old Sprint car driver, was struck and killed during a Sprint car race over the weekend in upstate New York. He was out of his car and standing on the race track when he was hit by a car driven by NASCAR veteran, Tony Stewart.

It's never easy to learn of another fatality in the racing world. Unfortunately, it's a reality that still happens - though not as often as it used to - in this sport. No matter what happened, why or how, a young man died on the race track, and that's always a tough thing for the sport as a whole. Prayers to his family.

Still, there is a lot of talk about the incident that took Ward Jr.'s life. Maybe because it wasn't just another racing crash. He wasn't killed while driving his car in the race, like most of the sport's fatalities; he was standing on the race track. That's what makes this case so different.

What exactly happened?
In my eyes, what happened was a combination of a racing incident, leading to heat-of-the-moment emotions and a tragic accident that unfortunately took the young driver's life. There's all kinds of comments online and speculation about what exactly happened (a lot from non-racing fans, I'm sure): Did Stewart hit him intentionally? Did he speed up when he saw Ward Jr. standing on the track? Or did Stewart even see him at all?

No charges have been filed, though the local sheriff's office is investigating. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. The key might be trying to prove any alleged intent from Stewart. The possibility of criminal charges aside, I would not be surprised to hear about a civil lawsuit in this case.

Stewart did not compete in Sunday's NASCAR race at Watkins Glen.

Now, I have not watched much dirt-track racing and therefore Sprint car racing. I actually don't even watch NASCAR, really; I'm all about the IndyCars. But again, I think what happened was an accident. It seems perfectly logical that Stewart was driving his car and possibly didn't have time to react to Ward Jr. standing there. Of course, that's just my opinion.

Heat of the moment
From what I saw on the video, it seemed pretty evident that Ward Jr. was upset about getting clipped by Stewart and ending up along the outside of the track. Race fans can tell you that drivers don't always wait until the race is over to show their emotions or frustrations with something that's happened on the track. Sometimes it's poor judgment. Sometimes it's just blowing off steam.

I've seen drivers get out of their cars after crashes and make gestures toward the other driver that supposedly wronged them. You know, where two cars make contact with each other but one keeps going and the other ends up in the wall. It happens.

A couple instances that came to mind when I heard about the Ward Jr. One was last year when IndyCar driver Sebastian Saavedra stood from his car that was into the wall in Detroit. He waited for the traffic to come around and then flipped off Marco Andretti as he drove by. It should be noted that actions like that result in fines.

Little Al vs. Emmo
Another incident was the end of the 1989 Indianapolis 500 when Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. touched wheels, sending Little Al into the wall and giving Emmo the win. Little Al got out of his car along the infield grass, walked toward the edge of the track and gave Emmo a mocking thumbs-up and a couple hand claps as his drove by.

Actually, as I looked up that moment on YouTube tonight, I came across a clip from a couple years ago where Emmo and Little Al talked through what happened that day. As Little Al tells it, a safety crew member tried to stop him as he started for the track. The crew member asked where he was going and if he "wanted to flip him off." Little Al made it clear that yes, that was what he wanted to do. The safety crew member got out of his way and let him do that.

Safety first
Of course, this isn't exactly like what happened with Ward Jr. Little Al did not enter the track. You also have to remember that this was 25 years ago, and many facets of the sport have evolved since then. Fifty years ago, the sport was much more dangerous and a lot of great drivers lost their lives competing in the sport they loved.

As the sport and technology advanced, the experts in the sport continued to learn about what could be done to make the sport safer. A serious crash occurs, and the powers that be take a look to see if any changes need to be made or if a lesson could be learned from a tragedy.

In the case of the Ward Jr. tragedy, I also think there's a lesson, too. While emotions run high during a race, this is still a sport that can have tragic consequences. Don't let your emotions get in the way of making sound decisions on the race track.