Friday, August 25, 2017

Previewing the U.S. Open: Key injuries, withdrawls could leave the door open for new champions

The Minnesota State Fair started on Thursday, which typically signifies the end of summer as some depressed Minnesotans prepare for the long winter ahead, the start of school and a new year filled with activity. There's something else that falls at the same time to also mark the end of the summer: The U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It starts Monday, complete with the opening ceremony which includes Shania Twain as she is apparently heavily on the comeback tour with her career. That don't impress me much. (groans)

2016 U.S. Open champions:

Stan Wawrinka def. Novak Djokovic 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 (both are not in the tournament this year because of injuries)

Angelique Kerber def. Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4

2017 top seeds:

Men - Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic

Women - Pliskova, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki

Women's draw: Wide open
The women's side of the draw is missing a very obvious competitor: 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, who is expecting a baby, and Victoria Azarenka. For the past few years, the grand slams have usually been Serena's to lose. She's been that dominant and the rest of the field just hasn't had a breakout star in a while.

Azarenka, a two-time U.S. Open finalist, will not make the tournament because of an "ongoing family situation," according to CNN. She had a baby boy last December and at this time is unable to take her son Leo out of California while legal issues surrounding his custody are resolved.

With those two out, it is anybody's guess who will step up for the women's title.

Typically, the excitement surrounding first-round matches has to do with upsets. If a top seed goes down, that's obviously a big deal. Other than that, with so many matches going on to start, it's pretty standard to see a lot of straight-set matches with the seeded players moving on. Upsets aren't uncommon, though.

Sharapova is back 
With the women's field so wide open, there's actually a very intriguing first-round match: No. 2 seed Halep versus the 2006 U.S. Open champ, Maria Sharapova. All eyes will be on that match to see if Sharapova can mount a comeback into the sport. It will mark her first Slam match in 1.5 years.

Sharapova served a 15-month doping suspension where she was kicked off the tour after testing positive for a newly banned substance at the 2016 Australian Open. She's ranked No. 147 currently and was given a wild card slot for the U.S. Open this year. She has five career slams under her belt.

Muguruza is the only one of the top five women's seeds to have a Grand Slam title under her belt. In the absence of Serena Williams, she's a possible favorite to win the tournament.

Speaking of that tennis name, Williams, the resurgence of elder sister Venus has gotten fans excited about her game once again. The 37-year-old American is the No. 9 seed and has won at Flushing Meadows twice before.

A couple other Americans that fans are familiar with: Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. Keys is seeded at No. 15 while Stephens is unseeded. I'm still waiting for these two in particular to raise the level of their game to carry the torch for American women's tennis. It just hasn't worked out that way so far.

As for the No. 1 seed Pliskova, this is her first time holding that top spot at a major tournament after checking in at the No. 1 WTA ranking after Wimbeldon. She might have a little unfinished business, finishing as last year's runner-up at the U.S. Open.

Women's side versus men's side are two different tales
So, just how wide open has women's tennis been this year and in the past? Well, Pliskova is the fourth women to hold the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open in the past eight years.

That's quite a contrast to the men's side of the game, which has a group known as The Big Four in Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal. At least one of those players has been the No. 1 seed at each U.S. Open since 2004.

Perhaps the story on the men's side is injuries. As stated above, Djokovic is out this tournament, so it will be the Big Three. He is taking the rest of the year's tennis season off because of an elbow injury. There are a few other key names out. Defending champ Wawrinka had surgery for a knee injury. No. 11 in the world Milos Raonic and 2014 U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori are out with wrist injuries.

That might carve a path for some lesser-known names to go further in the tournament. In addition to the top seeds, here's where a few of the popular Americans stands: John Isner, No. 10 seed; Jack Sock, No. 13 seed; Sam Querrey, No. 17 seed.

Look out for the top three
If there's one thing you can bet one this tournament, it's that Isner, however far he goes in the tournament, will end up in a tiebreaker. Or probably multiple tiebreakers. I'd expect the semifinalists to include Federer, Murray and Nadal. As the seedings dictate, anything short of a semifinal for those three will be an upset and disappointment.

With a slight similarity to the Venus story, it's been fun to watch Federer continue to dominate. Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title earlier this summer. Federer is 36 years old but hasn't shown significant signs of age slowing his game down, as you might expect in the later years of an athlete's career. He's still thought to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

Nadal is known for his success on clay, winning titles at the French Open. A few years back, the men's rivalry was mostly just between Federer and Nadal before Murray and Djokovic really came into the spotlight. Nadal looks to win his third U.S. Open, adding to his titles in 2010 and 2013.

So, there you go. Just a little preview of this year's end-of-summer tennis tournament in Flushing. The nice thing about this slam is that there aren't really any big time-zone issues if you want to watch the matches live. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Business trip to Miller Park

I'm not sure how it's already approaching the end of August. Summers will just always fly by, right? I wish it went like that for the long winters we have. Those seem to drag on and on. But, it's still baseball season. So I'll focus on that and a recent road trip.

Miller Park during Twins batting practice Aug. 10, 2017.
Anyway, it's been a nice turnaround of a season for the Minnesota Twins. They held a first-place lead in the AL Central division for a good chunk of the season early on, then have been one of the many teams in contention for a Wild Card spot. In some ways, I see some comparisons to the 2015 season, where there was a bit of over-achievement going on. We all know that last year was tough to stomach with the 103 losses in a 162-game season. This year has been refreshing to watch.

Maybe this is a weird thing to admit as a sports follower, particularly with baseball, but I don't have a huge bucket list of ballparks I'd like to visit. I've heard about people checking different parks off their list and doing cross-country trips with baseball being the main item on the agenda. I do have a few IndyCar tracks I'd like to visit though. I think that's just a product of going to races since I was little - and we always had to travel because there wasn't an IndyCar track in the Twin Cities. Major League Baseball has always been in my backyard though, so to speak.

Border battle series
Before I get off on a racing tangent and lose some readers, I mention these other ballparks because I took my first working road trip to watch Twins baseball. The Twins and border-battle rival Milwaukee Brewers had a split four-game series earlier this month Monday-Thursday, August 7-10 (I am *not* opening that can of worms about the schedule here.). Monday-Tuesday in Minneapolis, Wednesday-Thursday in Milwaukee.

Miller Park with the roof open and sun shining.

So, after the Twins swept the first two games, I tossed my suitcase and backpack in the trunk of my car on Wednesday morning to head over to Miller Park for some more baseball. I was going to watch the games anyway, so I might as well watch them in person since I'm so close, right? I had only seen Miller Park driving by many years ago when it was being built. I've also driven by Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the only other MLB park I've visited.

I had my audiobooks I got at the library to keep me company on the drive. It was a little different to drive a trip like that on my own. I love road trips, but I'm usually in the back free to read books and relax.

I didn't have too much down time in MKE, but before Thursday's game I took a walk along the Riverwalk downtown, got a brew at Water Street Brewery (opened 30 years ago before breweries popped up everywhere), ate some cheese curds, visited the Pabst Mansion and even made a stop at the Cheesecake Factory for some dessert, because this girl has a sweet tooth.

It's Miller Time 
I heard from people before I left that Miller Park, first open in 2001, looks cooler from the outside, like a big space ship or something. As I took the exit off the freeway and got a glimpse of the stadium, I could see why that's a thought.

The park has a retractable roof, which sounds like heaven considering the Twins have had to play six doubleheaders and endured a bunch of other delays this season and last thanks to the weather. I got to experience the roof being open for the entirety of game one. The next day, the roof started out in its closed state with a threat of showers in the area. The roof was opened mid-game, to the cheers of the crowd.

The view of Target Field with the downtown skyline as the backdrop really can't compare with just the open sky of Miller Park. Minnesota wins that battle. Miller Park definitely felt more enclosed, which makes sense with a building that has an optional roof on it. I was stuck by all the windows when you look out to center field. There just isn't the fan seating out there, but there were plenty of seats in the steep upper decks behind home plate and down the baselines.

It was a little different covering a game there, since I've only worked at Target Field or at home on the couch. But it was really just like any other baseball game. Luckily, the Twins swept the mini-series so I wasn't left twiddling my thumbs. Bartolo Colon, the 44-year-old turned fan-favorite, went seven scoreless innings for a 4-0 victory the first night. Brian Dozier hit a homer to left. Colon looked like he wanted to hit one as well with the cuts he took as a batter under the National League rules.

Then it was a major-league debut for Dietrich Enns the next night. He only went 2.1 innings but gave up just one earned run as the Twins went on to win 7-2. The Twins had a couple 3-run innings in the second and third. They took advantage of a fielding error and scattered some RBI singles. Enns got his first hit, an infield single. The Twins added a couple sacrifice flies, too.

Twins rolling, for better or for worse 
The games completed a 4-game sweep of the Brewers as part of a 6-game winning streak for the Twins, a season-best.

With any 162-game season, there are bound to be tough losses, rough stretches and injury setbacks for teams. To say a season is a roller coaster for a team is probably pretty cliche. It can also be pretty true. The Twins have beaten teams this season when they might have been considered the underdog in that game. They've put together win streaks. Then again, they've also lost a few games to opponents lower in the standings then themselves.

It doesn't always make sense, but the Twins keep coming. They don't show any signs of going away. With two Wild Card slots in the American League - and a bunch of teams competing for them - I wouldn't be surprised to see the Twins in the mix until the final weekend of the season, just like we saw in 2015.