Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2019

Victory And Redemption At Gleneagles

At best there is a good deal of sexism among sports fans. At worst, and for far too many, the harsher and more accurate term is misogyny. Anyone who’s had even a few discussions about almost any game has heard the familiar rant that women players lack some specific physical attribute when compared to men. The list of supposed deficiencies is lengthy – women players are not as fast, not as strong, not as coordinated, not as competitive, and on and on. The conclusion of the diatribe is always that because of one or two or a dozen of these supposed shortcomings, women’s games fall somewhere on a scale that runs from not as interesting as men’s to utterly unwatchable.

It’s safe to assume that few of those who swear by these fallacies tuned in earlier this summer when Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and the other members of the U.S. Women’s National Team claimed their spot at the very peak of the world’s most popular sport, not simply as the best women’s squad but as the most accomplished team in soccer, period. There is also little doubt that on Sunday morning this group of fans could not be bothered to turn to the Golf Channel for the final day’s play at the Solheim Cup, the biennial team match between women golfers from the United States and Europe. They missed, for starters, quality play that belied their favorite canards. While that alone was reason to watch, those who didn’t also missed something far more powerful – an example of competitive fire matching that of any athletes that culminated in a stunning capstone to a career and a moment of redemption, all in the space of eight feet.

This was the sixteenth staging of the Solheim Cup since its inception in 1990, with the U.S. holding a commanding 10-5 lead in the previous encounters. That historical margin reflected the expectations of much of the golf media heading into this year’s matches at Gleneagles in central Scotland. While many of the top women professional golfers are from neither the United States nor Europe, in a competition limited to players from just those two areas the depth of the American squad far outranks that of the European contingent. That’s made plain by the current Rolex World Rankings, in which Americans outrank European players two to none in the top ten, six to one in the top twenty-five, and twelve to five among the top fifty players in the world.

The U.S. team arrived in Scotland with victories in the last two Cups, including a 16 ½ to 11 ½ drubbing of Team Europe two years ago in Iowa, and a stirring comeback victory in Germany in 2015. For many observers the sole bright spot for the home squad was that two of the earlier European wins came in 1992 and 2000, the previous times the matches were staged in Scotland. With Catriona Matthew, the Scottish golfer who won the Women’s British Open a decade ago on home soil at St. Andrews serving as captain of the European side, the faint hope as play started in chilly conditions on Friday was that Scottish luck would hold for a third time.

The American win at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot south of Heidelberg in 2015 had been especially dramatic, with the U.S. team dominating the singles matches on Sunday to overcome a 10-6 deficit. The catalyst for the American fightback was an incident on Saturday afternoon, when Alison Lee, who was playing with Brittany Lincicome, picked up her ball on the 17th green believing that the short putt that remained had been conceded by the European team of Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull. But the veteran Pettersen, then playing in her eighth Solheim Cup, immediately claimed that no concession had been given. A match that had been all-square suddenly shifted to one-up in favor of the Europeans.

It was not the first time that gamesmanship had marred the Cup, which at times has seen both sides guilty of questionable actions. But while Pettersen’s move may have produced an immediate gain for her team, it angered the Americans and they converted that ire into inspired play one day later. In the messy aftermath Pettersen admitted she had allowed her desire for victory to trump any sense of sportsmanship.

For a time, it looked like the 2015 controversy might be Pettersen’s final moment in the Solheim Cup spotlight. In 2017 she was forced to withdraw from Team Europe just before the matches began due to a back injury. Then she missed most of the 2018 season while pregnant with her first child. While she returned to play this year, the missed time meant that Pettersen didn’t accumulate enough points to qualify on her own for the matches at Gleneagles. But Matthew added her to the team as a captain’s pick, a choice that was met with widespread surprise given Pettersen’s limited playing schedule.

Once play began on Friday, in cold, wet and windy conditions, Team Europe reminded fans that like all our games golf is not played on paper. Despite their apparent disadvantage, the underdog home squad took a one point lead after the first morning’s foursomes, then held that edge through play on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. The U.S. team finally drew even by taking 2 ½ points in Saturday afternoon’s fourballs, leaving the score at 8-8 heading into Sunday’s singles.

For much of the final day it seemed the expected would finally take place. The depth of the American team was evident, as the first nine matches to finish produced five U.S. wins and one tie. That gave the Cup holders a lead of 13 ½ to 11 ½ and meant that Team Europe had to sweep the three remaining matches to win the Cup.

But with the Scottish crowds offering vocal support, the European players refused to buckle. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist dispatched Morgan Pressel 4&3 to pull one point closer. Then 24-year-old Bronte Law of England belied her rookie status by holding a long birdie putt on the 16th hole to go 1-up on Ally McDonald. When the American missed a shorter par try to have the 17th, the two teams were tied.

Up ahead on the final green, Pettersen and Marina Alex were locked in a match that had gone back and forth over its eighteen holes as had many on Sunday, during which five went all the way to the 18th. After falling behind early Alex had fought back to square the match at the 14th, with the players matching scores on the next three holes. At the par-5 18th both players faced birdie putts, Alex from ten feet and Pettersen from eight. Alex’s effort slid by the right side of the cup, and all eyes turned to the player who had spurred the opposing team to victory at her last Solheim Cup appearance.

As Pettersen’s ball rolled up the hill from putter to hole, it never wavered from its line tracking to the center of the cup. As it was about to disappear from view, Pettersen dropped her putter and clinched her fists in triumph. In what the 38-year-old shortly revealed was her final stroke in competitive play, Suzann Pettersen completed a stunning comeback for Team Europe, and for herself. It was all very, very watchable.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2019

Does He Stay Or Does He Go?

Stephen Strasburg has a decision to make. Once upon a not so distant time the choice he’ll face this offseason would have been virtually automatic, an easy call in a world of steadily growing paydays for any ballplayer who, like the 31-year-old right-handed pitcher, was among the best in the major leagues. But that was then and this is now, so whether or not Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 draft who has spent his entire career in a Washington Nationals uniform chooses to opt out of the remaining four years of his current contract will speak volumes about how players, and baseball’s most powerful agent, view the Great Game’s current economic landscape.

Many fans were surprised – those in the D.C. area pleasantly so – when Strasburg and the Nationals announced they had come to terms on a 7-year contract extension early in the 2016 season. The deal would pay the Nats’ starter $175 million over its term, but by signing it he foreclosed the chance to test free agency when he would have first been eligible later that year. It was that latter point that made the signing especially noteworthy, because Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras was then, and remains today, well-known for encouraging his charges to at least sample the free agent waters before wading back to a familiar shore and signing an extension with their current team.

But as headlines do, the ones announcing the basic elements of Strasburg’s contract missed a couple of key points. One was that much of the money was deferred, a favorite contract term of the Lerner family that owns the Washington franchise. At times it seems like the Lerner’s are intent on surpassing the New York Mets record for paying players long after they’ve retired, set years ago when that star-crossed club saved a few short-term dollars by agreeing to pay Bobby Bonilla $1.19 million annually, starting a decade later and continuing for twenty-five years.

Still there’s little evidence that Strasburg has been forced to carpool to Nats games because his current paychecks are smaller than advertised, so the more important details of his 2016 extension were a pair of player options, giving Strasburg the freedom to walk away from the contract at the end of either the third or fourth year. The first of those opt-outs arrives this coming offseason.

As noted above, the decision, especially for a player with Scott Boras whispering in his ear, would once have been obvious. A starter with a solid record and the likelihood of several strong years ahead of him, Strasburg would have been expected to exercise his option and test the market this winter. The fact that Boras appears to have a particularly strong relationship with the Washington organization would, perhaps counterintuitively, make that even more likely, since in the worst case the agent could rely on that relationship to bring the parties back together even after the inevitable negative reaction to a potential split.

But as noted here on multiple occasions and in many other forums, the Great Game’s dynamic between players and owners has shifted strongly in the latter’s favor. Over the past few seasons free agents in their thirties have found it increasingly hard to secure contracts, and most teams have grown loathe to offer long-term deals, especially to pitchers. Even superstars, while ultimately still signing fat contracts, have had a harder time getting deals done, as evidenced by last offseason’s long quiet winter for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. In the current atmosphere, were he not an elite starter Strasburg might well decide that a hundred million in hand – the amount he’s owed over the last four years of his current deal – is too good of a payday to risk losing. Whether that caveat is relevant hinges on how Strasburg is perceived.

In the eyes of many fans he has not lived up to his promise. That’s partly because of the level of hype that accompanied Strasburg’s arrival. When he debuted in June 2010 for a team that would lose more than 90 games the contest was nationally televised. That night he recorded fourteen strikeouts in seven innings of work with a fastball that touched 100 miles per hour and a curve that fooled even wily veterans. The headline in this space was “The Phenom is Phenomenal,” and that was temperate compared to some reports. But even the best starter can only impact one game in five, and the idea that Strasburg would singlehandedly turn the last place Nationals into contenders was never realistic.

If excessive expectations weren’t enough, he has also been hampered by injuries. Little more than a month after that first, electric, evening, Strasburg went on the Injured List for the first time. Shortly after returning his career suffered a major blow when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL. Tommy John surgery and most of a season on the shelf followed. In the years since he has lost playing time to a variety of ailments.

But the focus on Strasburg’s injuries obscures what he has accomplished. Since he first donned a Washington uniform, he is one of 88 pitchers to have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Among that group Strasburg ranks fourth in Fielding Independent Pitching and strikeout rate, and eighth in ERA+. Despite ranking just thirtieth in innings pitched during that period because of time lost to injuries, he is twelfth in Wins Above Replacement. This year he leads the National League in innings pitched and has the second lowest WHIP of his career. While wins and losses are dismissed by those enamored of modern metrics, most teams would likely welcome his 17-6 record.

If Strasburg does opt out, it’s certain that Boras, famous for his voluminous binders of material on his players, will bury interested general managers with reams of statistics like those above, even as questions about Strasburg’s durability linger in the back of their minds. The question the pitcher and his agent face is whether there are teams out there willing to focus on the former and set aside the latter, to the tune of something more than $100 million.

Strasburg could wait a year and exercise his second option. But that’s rolling the dice on what next season brings, from a down year for performance to the chance of another injury. Or he could play out his current deal and test the market at age thirty-five. Good luck with that. No, what seems most likely is that Stephen Strasburg will soon become a free agent. If he doesn’t, it will be the surest sign yet that the Great Game’s dynamic between owners and players remains heavily tilted in management’s favor.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2019

Tennis History Of The Unexpected Variety

In the end, as many tennis fans had hoped, the lead story of this year’s U.S. Open on the women’s side was about the triumph of a teenager. But in twists that only a few discerning fans saw coming, the triumph came at the price of a failed attempt at a record, and the name in the headlines was not that of a 15-year-old American, but rather a 19-year-old from Canada. Precocious American Coco Gauff showed that her surprising run at Wimbledon was no fluke by dispatching a pair of opponents at Flushing Meadows before falling to defending champion Naomi Osaka in the Open’s third round. But a week after Gauff was ushered out of the tournament, Bianca Andreescu, who one year ago was ranked 208th in the world, capped her meteoric ascent up the women’s rankings by derailing Serena Williams’s latest attempt to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

When the Open’s fortnight of play on the sprawling grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center began, few would have predicted that Williams, who was exactly one month shy of her 38th birthday when she dismantled Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-1 in just 59 minutes to win her first round match, would still be around for the Women’s Final twelve days later. That she seemed destined to fall well short this year was not for any lack of determination or desire, to be sure. Since returning at last year’s French Open from a maternity absence that was prolonged by life-threatening complications, Williams had reached the finals of a tennis major three times in six tries. But her last two tournaments prior to the Open both ended in injury-induced withdrawals, first in Toronto at the Rogers Cup and then in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Open.

But if persistent back problems had lowered expectations for Williams before she arrived on Long Island, she showed from that opening match that she was fully healed and once more intent on matching one of the very few tennis records that does not already have her name attached to it – Court’s two dozen major victories. Each of those three recent trips to a final, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year and again in London in July, was a chance for Williams to tie Court. Each time she had been denied. Now, with her back healed and the New York crowd cheering, Williams, who was seeded 8th, rolled through a draw made easier by upsets to several higher seeds.

With each win bringing her one round closer to another shot at Court’s record, set at this same tournament more than four decades ago, the already strong support for Williams grew even more fervent. By Saturday’s final the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium was loudly in her corner. Rooting interest aside, surely most of those in attendance believed that their ticket had bought them the opportunity to witness history as it was made, for Williams’s opponent was Andreescu, who was not only playing in her first Grand Slam final but also in her very first Open and just the fourth major tournament in which she had advanced to the main draw. If that inexperience was not enough to tilt the odds strongly in favor of Williams, Andreescu has also dealt with various injury issues since turning pro just two years ago, including her own back problems last year and a torn rotator cuff that led her to withdraw from the French Open and miss all of the grass court season.

Yet what close followers of tennis knew was that Andreescu’s advance from outside the top 200 in the world at this time last year to being seeded 15th for the Open had not happened by accident. She finished runner-up at an early season event in New Zealand, then won a Challenger Series tournament. Playing at Indian Wells on a wild card, she took home her first WTA victory, defeating Angelique Kerber in the final. She returned from her shoulder injury for the Rogers Cup on home soil, where she won through to the final and led 3-1 in the first set when Williams retired. When she walked on to the stadium court Saturday, she brought with her a 7-0 record against top-10 players this year and had not lost a completed match since March.

A confidence built by such a run was apparent from the start. Andreescu broke Williams in the opening game, aided by a pair of double faults. She then held her own serve throughout the first set, and broke Williams again in the ninth game to win 6-3. When Andreescu again won a break in the second game of set two, this time at love, the stunned crowd had resorted to imploring Williams to stage a comeback. The pleas seemed to work for at least one game as Williams broke back to make it 1-2, but then the teenager ran off three straight games to stand on the brink of victory.

That was when Williams started playing like the Serena of old instead of just an old Serena, even as the inevitable nerves at what she had nearly accomplished clearly swirled through Andreescu’s head. Williams won four games in a row to even the second set at 5-5, and the crowd that had largely been taken out of the match was again roaring. But just when it seemed that momentum had swung fully Williams’s way, Andreescu showed the determination of a veteran. She steadied herself and held for 6-5, then never trailed in the twelfth game. Williams saved one match point at 5-6, 30-40, just as she had saved one earlier in the set on the way to staging her comeback. But her first serve missed on the next point, and Andreescu pounced on the second serve, rocketing a forehand return down the line that Williams just barely touched.

With that a tennis record was tied, just not the expected one. By winning the title at just her fourth Grand Slam event, Andreescu matched Monica Seles for winning her first major in the fewest appearances. She also became the first teenager to win the U.S. Open since Sharapova in 2006, and the first player to capture the title in her main draw premiere.

With Andreescu’s victory, along with the emergence of Gauff and other promising young women like Taylor Townsend, Caty McNally, and of course Osaka, who is just twenty-one, the women’s game may finally be seeing generational change. If that’s so Serena may never match that old, old record. But should that prove to be true, it will in part be because as the dominant player of her generation, she has served as a role model and an inspiration to the very players who now stand in her way.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 5, 2019

Hope, Reality, And The Dolphins

One constant across all our games is that the start of a new season should be, and usually is, a time for optimism. Even those fans who know in their hearts that their favorite team is not about to contend for a title can hope for a campaign that is markedly better than the prior year. That hope may not last, indeed it is sometimes bruised and battered from the moment the first results come in. But offsetting that unfortunate circumstance are the instances where, against the weight of preseason punditry, the early returns are surprisingly favorable.

The National Football League kicks off its 100th season Thursday night, substituting the recent tradition of having the defending Super Bowl champion host the opener in favor of a game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. The NFC North franchises boast the league’s oldest rivalry, with the Packers having started play in 1921 and the Bears one of the NFL’s two remaining founding members. But as quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Mitchell Trubisky prepare to lead their squads onto the Soldier Field gridiron, the customary flame of hope is already flickering for too many fan bases.

The quashing of preseason optimism by the weight of cold reality is partly the product of the ways in which many fans now follow sports. Especially when it comes to the NFL, for countless numbers it’s no longer enough to be sitting in the stands or in front of a television as a cheering partisan when more active participation is available through fantasy leagues, from neighborhood or workplace groups to online competitions that are thinly disguised excuses for high stakes gambling. Whether playing for pride or cold cash, selecting key players in a fantasy draft forces a fan to set aside parochial interest, and the hope that goes with it.

Ubiquitous data in our information age also makes clinging to hope harder than it used to be. There was a time when for most fans the commentators offering up early predictions were mostly local scribes, who inevitably tilted in favor of the home team, from just a bit up to and decidedly including outrageously. Now one is besieged by analysts and experts from all over, with the greatest attention often going to the voice that speaks the loudest rather than with the most knowledge. If shouted opinions are not enough, every fan also has ready access to information from a multitude of sources, including Las Vegas oddsmakers and the mavens of advanced statistical analysis.

While the former carries new weight because of the rapid expansion of legalized sports betting, at the advent of the new season the sports books and the computers are in relative agreement. Those wishing to get in on the gambling action will find Kansas City and New England with the shortest Super Bowl odds, at 5-1 and 6-1 respectively. The Saints, Eagles, and Bears, all at 12-1, make up the next most favored group of teams. In similar fashion, the computer models at give four of those five franchises the highest chances of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, with the Los Angeles Rams taking the place of Chicago in fifth place. Whether calculated by human judgment or electronic algorithms the odds suggest a league of relatively few “haves” and a multitude of “have nots.”

Of course there are still fans willing to ignore all this and espouse the age old sentiments of hope and optimism that have heralded the start of so many seasons. The long-suffering faithful of the Cleveland Browns are this year’s prime example. The Browns are ranked just behind the Steelers in the AFC North on the betting line and a bit lower by the computer models. While that’s not awful, and in fact considerably better than at the start of so many seasons in Cleveland, it’s a projection that doesn’t begin to match the fervent hope of Browns fans. Perhaps it’s due to the departure of LeBron James or because Terry Francona’s baseball charges have been chasing Minnesota all season, but quarterback Baker Mayfield is now the chosen hero of many in the Forest City. That he has a new target in Odell Beckham Jr. and a new head coach in Freddie Kitchens has those fans believing their team will still be playing into the new year, weeks after the regular season schedule concludes.

Until that schedule is actually played, who’s to say those Cleveland fans are not right? For no amount of preseason punditry can alter the immutable truth of sports – there is always a reason to play the games. The shortest odds are not on any team, but on the likelihood that at least one of the supposedly elite franchises will disappoint, with their expected spot in the later rounds of the NFL’s postseason tournament taken by an upstart squad defying expectation. That result, played out time and again in the NFL and all our sports, is the fuel that feeds the hope at the beginning of every campaign.

Except in Miami. Along South Beach and from Little Havana to the Art Deco district, even the most ardent Dolphins fans know the season that starts at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday afternoon with a game against the Ravens will be somewhere between a miserable slog and an ugly embarrassment. On this one the pundits are going to be right. At 500-1 odds, the Dolphins are the longest of long shots to win the Super Bowl. Far short of that level of success, Miami’s 125-1 odds of claiming the AFC East crown are more than three times the next highest betting line for any of the league’s eight divisional races. The computer models are equally unkind, ranking the Dolphins dead last of the NFL’s thirty-two franchises.

This grim assessment is not simply because Miami is a bad team. There are bad teams every year, including several other NFL franchises about to begin seasons that will end poorly. Rather the Dolphins are consciously, purposely, bad. In the offseason Miami’s front office allowed several veterans to walk. That’s neither unheard of nor necessarily unreasonable for a franchise looking to the future. But then, just within the last few days, the Dolphins traded promising left tackle Laremy Tunsil, star receiver Kenny Stills, and linebacker Kiko Alonso, who led the team in tackles last season. These players, all in their 20s, were expected to be the core around which Miami would build. Instead, the Dolphins have joined the ranks of franchises that have recently decided to tank – to throw away a season or three or five while hoping to collect enough high draft picks to eventually succeed.

As popular as this approach has become, results have been mixed. The Houston Astros are now a baseball powerhouse, but fans of the Philadelphia 76ers are still waiting to reap the full benefits of their team’s much ballyhooed “process.” Also, most tanking teams have been in other leagues. The problem with tanking in the NFL is the sheer number of successful prospects needed, since with eleven players on the field at once and fifty-three on the roster, the role of any single player is limited. Even a future Hall of Fame quarterback is on the sidelines when his team is on defense. For all the attention it garners, the annual NFL Draft rarely produces an instant, team-transforming star, and when it does (as Tom Brady fans will tell you), he might be the 199th pick rather than number one.

In choosing to give up on the season before a single down has been played, the Dolphins have broken faith with both their fans and the players who will don an aqua, orange and white uniform on Sunday, robbing them all of optimism and hope. But in a league that prides itself on parity and possibility, at least Miami has given us one sure thing.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 2, 2019

Sudden Victory On Saturday Afternoon

Here’s a safe bet. As the crowd made its way into Yankee Stadium early Saturday afternoon, at least one of the announcers on the YES Network or WFAN, during their pregame television and radio coverage, declared the last day of August “a perfect day for baseball.” The sun was shining overhead, with just an occasional puffy cloud scudding by on a gentle and refreshing breeze, a pleasant combination of elements that surely someone with a microphone would find impossible to ignore. While it could have been anyone – Michael Kay or Paul O’Neill on the television broadcast, or Suzy Waldman on the radio – the smart money would have been on Waldman’s compatriot John Sterling, who during more than thirty years telling Yankee fans listening to the radio of every play by their heroes, has seldom passed on an opportunity to state the obvious.

In fairness to Sterling or any of the announcers who couldn’t resist the cliché, the weather at game time was about as ideal as a player or fan of the Great Game could wish. But while atmospheric conditions were sublime, the situation on the field surely had Yankee fans feeling less sanguine. For the fifth time this season New York, with a comfortable lead in the AL East, was about to play Oakland, a distant second to Houston in the league’s West division, but in a desperate three-way battle with Tampa Bay and Cleveland for the two Wild Card tickets to the postseason. Each of the first four contests, three on the west coast a week earlier and the opener of this series the previous evening had gone Oakland’s way, a distressing pattern for games against a potential playoff opponent.

The Yankees turned to Domingo German in hopes of ending this unwelcome streak. On a roster riddled with injuries that would have vanquished many clubs to a long season of disappointment, German has been just one of several happy surprises. In limited time at the major league level over the past two seasons, German posted a pedestrian ERA of 5.22 and a WAR just barely above replacement player level. Against that history, German’s impressive 2019 campaign, with 17 wins to date and an ERA+ well above league average is either a pleasant shock or the realization of talent heretofore seen only by the Yankees’ scouts.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have ample run support, but on Saturday German was asked to largely go it alone. Gary Sanchez homered into the left field seats to put New York on the board in the 2nd inning, but the Yankees’ potent offense was otherwise kept in check by A’s starter Homer Bailey. German’s only hiccup in an otherwise solid outing came in the top of the 4th, when he surrendered a two-run homer to Matt Olson that put Oakland on top. Sanchez knotted the score in the bottom of the next frame with his second homer of the game, which was also just the Yankees’ second hit.

The quiet Yankee bats meant that concern spread through the 44,000-plus in the Stadium’s three decks when the A’s plated their third run in the top of the 7th, off reliever Adam Ottavino. Appropriately superstitious fans saw this tally coming, since as Ottavino was warming up the message board in left center field displayed the impressive number of consecutive outings he had made without allowing a run.

The combination of the 3-2 Oakland lead and the A’s mastery of the home squad in previous games sent some fans to the exits after New York went down in order in the bottom of the 7th. With two gone in the last of the 8th, the Yankees were just four outs away from a fifth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Athletics when Aaron Judge, hitless in two prior at bats, stepped in against Joakim Soria. On the second pitch, a 94 mile per hour four-seam fastball, Judge changed the tenor of the game in typical Yankees fashion. His drive to right field landed in the second deck, and once again the score was tied.

Now the tension was palpable, with fans knowing that a New York score in the bottom of the 9th or any inning thereafter would end the game while also sensing that another Oakland tally in the top of a frame might be too much to overcome. In the 9th Aroldis Chapman walked two men with two outs, but after a quick chat with pitching coach Larry Rothschild he struck out Josh Phegley to end the threat. Sanchez was hit by a pitch with one out in the home half of the inning, but Brett Gardner lined into a double play, and it was time for free baseball – extra innings.

More casual fans departed even as both teams were going down quietly in the 10th, but the devoted who remained were prepared to stay for as long as necessary, which proved to be less than one more full inning. Oakland put its leadoff batter on in the top of the 11th, but the Yankees quickly turned a double play and then Chad Pinder hit a soft popup that second baseman Gleyber Torres snagged for the third out.

The batting order turned over one last time in the bottom of the 11th, with leadoff man DJ LeMahieu stepping in for his fifth at-bat of the day. Three of his four previous turns had ended in strikeouts, an unsettling performance by the hitter with the best batting average in the American League at .333. Having played in the thin air of Colorado for the past seven seasons, LeMahieu’s .299 average with the Rockies was dismissed by many pundits when the Yankees signed him as a free agent last winter. Even New York seemed to view him as primarily a versatile infielder capable of supplying solid defense at multiple positions. But among so many unexpected heroes of New York’s season, LeMahieu’s star has shone brightest. With the game now almost four hours old, he opted to waste no time amid the lengthening shadows of the summer afternoon. He swung at the first pitch from Lou Trivino and at the crack of the bat someone in the stands yelled, “There it is!”

There it was, indeed.  The ball sailed into the right field seats and LeMahieu rounded the bases even as his teammates gathered to greet him at home plate and the fans remaining in the stands screamed their approval. A walk-off win, the most dramatic and exhilarating kind of victory. It was, as someone surely must have said, a perfect day for baseball in the Bronx.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2019

Two Different Courts. Two Different Players. Two Different Futures?

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday. The next post will be on Labor Day. Thanks for reading!

Surely there are times during the year when the sprawling 46-plus acres devoted entirely to tennis is an empty and quiet place, weeks and weeks when only a few score people walk the grounds or sit in the stands to watch local tournaments or join in the public play that often takes place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The layout is massive – more than twice the size of Roland Garros, home of the French Open – and there is, after all, only so much interest in tennis. But the one certainty about the home of the U.S. Open is that for the two weeks straddling Labor Day every year, the complex that sits hard by the tracks of both the Long Island Railroad and the New York subway system’s 7 line and just across those tracks from Citi Field is decidedly neither empty nor quiet.

As the sun slips toward the Manhattan skyline in the west on Thursday and a lovely summer day gives way to evening, throngs pack the plaza in front of the main gates, waiting for the magical moment of 6 p.m. when their tickets for the evening session will grant them entrance to the grounds. The hour arrives and the assembled thousands begin to surge through the metal detectors and turnstiles, joining thousands more day session ticketholders who, while they can no longer occupy an assigned seat in any of the three main stadiums, are still welcome to watch matches on any of the lesser courts. The result is an enormous concentration of tennis fans, from the truly dedicated to the merely casual, jostling each other as they stroll the grounds, partake of the myriad concessions, run up their credit card balances at the high end retail shops, camp in front of one of the numerous jumbotrons showing action from the courts, and occasionally even find a spot to watch live tennis.

Many in the crowd make their way to the far end of the Tennis Center’s property, past the towering bulk of Arthur Ashe Stadium, to the Grandstand Court. Along with Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand is one of Flushing Meadows “show” courts – sites generally reserved for matches of higher seeded players – but the special attraction of the venue this evening has little to do with the ranking of either player. In a second round match of the men’s singles competition, Australian Nick Kyrgios is set to face Antoine Hoang of France. Like fans in many sports, some tennis aficionados are drawn to whoever is willing to play the role of villain, and Kyrgios has proven to be more than happy to take the part.

The 24-year-old, seeded 28th at the Open, is a player of immense talent. He starts his first service game with three straight aces, rocketing 136 mile per hour serves that Hoang doesn’t even attempt to return. Kyrgios wins the point at love with a fourth serve that at least gets a feeble, flailing reply from the other side of the net. But as he shows before his first service toss of the match, Kyrgios isn’t just about power, as much as he possesses it in abundance. Hoang serves to begin play and is quickly broken with a combination of sharp returns and superior court sense by Kyrgios.

Yet there are far too many times when Krygios seems determined to allow his talent to go to waste. He is, as noted tennis journalist Christopher Clarey recently wrote in the New York Times, equal parts “brilliant and boorish, compassionate and clueless.” He is a showman on the court, and that is surely part of his appeal, but often the theater extends to clownish behavior. Kyrgios has also admitted that he quits on matches when he’s not doing well, and at this same site one year ago was part of a bizarre scene when an umpire climbed down from his chair (and, at least figuratively speaking, from his position of neutrality) to encourage Kyrgios to try harder. Earlier this month he was fined a record $113,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct after a tirade against an official during the Western & Southern Open, a display that included the smashing of not one but two rackets.

So while the crowd has ostensibly gathered to watch tennis, there’s no doubt that many in the stands are also there on the chance of witnessing a train wreck. In that they will leave disappointed. Kyrgios makes plain his dissatisfaction with several calls during the match, but overall, he is on what for him passes as best behavior while dispatching Hoang in straight sets. Still as he goes deeper into the tournament fans must ponder the possibility of a star at the U.S. Open being suspended for charging the USTA with corruption, as Kyrgios did during his press conference after his opening match. For the flammable Australian, it’s business as usual.

If fans at the Grandstand Court are there for the possibility of self-immolation, the nearly full house at Armstrong Stadium has gathered for fire of a different sort. Like a meteor streaking across the night sky, 15-year old American prodigy Coco Gauff exploded onto the major tennis scene just last month at Wimbledon, where in her first appearance at the All England Club she upset Venus Williams in the first round and made it all the way to the fourth before losing to eventual champion Simona Halep.

In the tournament where she previously won the junior doubles title, Gauff is facing veteran Timea Babos in the second round. Just as she did in her opening match, Gauff drops one set but pulls out a win to the delight of the cheering crowd. Fans who at best were barely aware of her existence six weeks ago now serenade her with chants of “Coco, Coco!” In interviews she responds with the giggles one would expect from a young teenager, but also with a surprisingly mature appreciation of the crowd and understanding of her skillset.

That latter knowledge is also apparent on the court, where Gauff is equally willing to play defense or be aggressive, as the situation dictates. She is in control early against Babos, winning the first set 6-2, but midway through the second the veteran reasserts herself, breaking Gauff in the seventh game. Babos drops just two points in her final two service games, and perhaps before a neutral crowd the momentum would have been in her favor. But the fans at Armstrong are anything but neutral, with every Gauff winner eliciting loud cheers and every good play by Babos greeted by near silence. Both hold serve through nine games of a taut third set, until Gauff, drawing strength from her legion of very new supporters, breaks Babos to claim a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

Both Kyrgios and Gauff are young players with enormous talent and both now move on to the Open’s third round. Kyrgios faces Andrey Rublev, a Russian who, at least on paper, the Australian should handle. Gauff goes up against defending champion Naomi Osaka on the main court at Ashe on Saturday. Odds are the teenager’s tournament ends there, though if she pulls off the upset Cocomania will know no bounds. Beyond the results of a single match or tournament, fans on Thursday saw two very different bearers of athletic potential. But skill alone does not make a career, so it is fair to think that between Kyrgios and Gauff only one might ever fully realize their promise.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2019

On Golf’s Biggest Payday, Rory Bounces To Victory

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Thursday, so the next post will be Friday, one day later than usual. As always, thanks for reading!

After forty-six tournaments and more than 1.2 million shots, the 2018-19 PGA Tour season ended Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. On the 18th green at historic East Lake Golf Club, Rory McIlroy surveyed a six foot putt for a birdie four. With the confidence of a player enjoying his best year in the Tour’s statistic of Strokes Gained – Putting, the four-time major champion rolled the ball into the center of the cup for victory at the Low Net Country Club Final, also known as the Tour Championship, McIlroy’s third win of the year.

To be sure, that final putt was stress-free, as the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland was three shots clear of his nearest competitor when he stood over his ball. With the final birdie on East Lake’s par-5 closing hole, McIlroy won the tournament by four over Xander Schauffele, with pre-tournament favorite Justin Thomas and 54-hole leader Brooks Koepka both one stroke further adrift. That at least is what the final leader board showed, with McIlroy at 18-under, Schauffele at 14, and Thomas and Koepka next among the thirty contestants at 13-under par. Any other week the first page of the leader board would have looked somewhat different, with Paul Casey edging Koepka for third place and Thomas just barely inside the top-10.

The confusing difference was due to the Tour’s decision to eliminate the possibility of one golfer winning the season’s final event while someone else claimed the FedEx Cup based on the Tour’s year-long points race. For the first time the points accumulated up to this week were used only to handicap the field, with Thomas, as the points leader at the start of the tournament, teeing off on Thursday with a “score” of 10-under par. Everyone else in the field was given a diminishing number of strokes to start, with only the bottom five of the thirty golfers actually starting at even par, as everyone does every other week of the year.

While the staggered start was PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s way of making the season’s final event “winner take all,” he and everyone in the Tour’s marketing department probably breathed a sigh of relief when that final putt dropped and the leader board became official, since at least the top two positions would have been the same. McIlroy played the 72 holes at the challenging old course first laid out in 1906 and redesigned by Donald Ross in 1913 in fewer actual shots than anyone else in the field, finishing with a true score of minus-13. Schauffele was second in real life as well, with a 10-under par total. Had Thomas had a better week and posted an official score of say, 19-under, he would have been the FedEx Cup champion, although since he began the tournament with a five-stroke edge over McIlroy, Rory’s fans would not have been pleased.

Such a controversial ending is exactly what would have happened last year, had the new format been in place. East Lake would have been remembered as the site where Justin Rose “won” based on the adjusted scores, and by doing deprived Tiger Woods, who shot the lowest true score, of his first victory in more than five years. One suspects the increased attention for the Tour would not have been exactly the kind Monahan and company were seeking when they devised the new format.

McIlroy made clear the scoring that he thought most important during his first post-tournament interview, when he told NBC that even with his lead, he remained focused on the final putt because he wanted to be certain of finishing with the fewest actual strokes. As it turned out he had a comfortable margin there as well, thanks to a final round that was for the most part scintillating and resolute when it most needed to be.

After play was suspended on Saturday when lightning storms moved through the area and twin strikes on the East Lake grounds injured six spectators – thankfully none seriously – the golfers were out on the course early Sunday to complete the third round. With the limited field they were able to do so and still tee off for the final eighteen at the planned afternoon start times. Koepka took a one-shot lead over McIlroy and Schauffele into the final round, a margin that disappeared on the par-4 7th hole. He sent his tee shot so far left into thick trees that even with the crowd of spectators and plenty of officials on hand, the Titleist was never found. The lost ball led to a double-bogey six and resulted in a three-shot swing when McIlroy made birdie. While Koepka bounced back with a birdie on the next hole, he was never able to catch McIlroy and saw his chances disappear with a string of three straight bogeys on the back nine.

With his fellow competitor fading McIlroy’s main competition came from Schauffele, who was playing one pairing ahead. The 24-year-old Californian who has won four times on Tour doubtless heard the roars as McIlroy made consecutive birdies on the back nine to stretch his lead to four. But he could also see the electronic score boards on every hole that showed the leader giving two of those shots back with bogeys on the 14th and 15th. McIlroy was in trouble again on the long par-4 16th, where he put his tee shot in a fairway bunker and came up short of the green with his approach. After chipping on he faced a par putt from nine feet. No part of his game has improved more this year than McIlroy’s putting, and his par save effort curled into the heart of the cup. When Schauffele was unable to generate a red number on the closing holes, McIlroy pumped up his final margin and ensured his victory at both gross and net with two more birdies on the walk home. Although “walk” is not quite accurate, for when McIlroy is doing well, he doesn’t walk so much as bounce along, and as the afternoon shadows lengthened Rory was all but defying gravity as he made his way down East Lake’s fairways.

The PGA Tour generates more than $200 million each year for a wide range of charities through the largesse of its many corporate sponsors. But with the enhanced FedEx Cup payouts in place this season, Sunday was about fattening the players’ bank accounts. McIlroy earned $15 million, one-third of the $45 million in bonus money. But there was plenty to share, with the top eight finishers all taking home more than $1 million, and Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover, who tied for last place, each winning $400,000. That the PGA Tour’s permanent home for this annual obscene money grab is East Lake, once the home club of the game’s consummate amateur Bobby Jones, seems somehow inappropriate. But the guess here is that no one in the field will refuse to cash their check.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 22, 2019

The Orioles Can’t Win For Losing

The Baltimore Orioles actually won a game Wednesday night, 8-1 over Kansas City. To be sure, the Royals aren’t much better than the O’s, but a win is a win and the victory was Baltimore’s second in a row, following a string of eight consecutive losses. With it Baltimore improved – though that may not be the most appropriate verb – to 41-86 on the season.

But this is what a lost season has come to for the Orioles. This team loses even when it wins. The headline from the contest, played before fewer than ten thousand diehard fans at Camden Yards, wasn’t the Orioles’ victory but rather the swing that Whit Merrifield put on a pitch from right-hander Aaron Brooks in the 3rd inning. The Royals’ second baseman sent the ball into the lower deck seats in left field for a solo home run that would prove to be K.C.’s only score. But while the homer’s impact on the game was minimal, the blast put Baltimore into the records books, though not on a page the Orioles would welcome. It was the 258th home run surrendered by Baltimore pitchers this season, tying the 2016 Cincinnati Reds for the most allowed in a single season.

Thirty-five games remain on the O’s schedule so there is little doubt that the Reds’ mark will be obliterated by the time the season comes to a merciful end. The Baltimore pitching staff is tossing gopher balls at a rate of more than two per contest, so fans shouldn’t have to wait thirty-five innings, much less that many games, for the Orioles to claim sole possession of this distressing record. Unless Baltimore hurlers suddenly discover some pitches that they haven’t thrown to date, the new mark is likely to be well over 300 home runs allowed.

The intensely loyal few who still make their way to the stadium that revolutionized ballpark design when it opened in 1992 will point out that at least four other teams – the Mariners, Angels, Yankees and Phillies – are also on pace to surpass the Reds’ number by the time the regular season ends. The Great Game is, after all, in a home run era unlike anything in its long history. Given New York’s healthy lead in the AL East and Philadelphia’s position in the heat of the National League Wild Card race, those fans might well suggest this statistic and the record that Baltimore will soon have to itself isn’t all that important.

While a noble defense by those who count themselves among the Orioles’ faithful, these arguments ring hollow when set against the totality of Baltimore’s 2019 season. While the team appears likely to improve on its 115-loss campaign of 2018, it will do so incrementally at best, with more than 100 losses a virtual certainty and as many as 110 entirely possible. It will be the O’s third straight losing record, an especially hard fall in the wake of five years, from 2012 through 2016, when Baltimore accumulated more regular season victories than any of the other four clubs in the AL East.

As one might expect considering the home run record, Baltimore pitchers have combined to post the highest ERA in the majors, while ranking last in WHIP and next to last in Batting Average Against. They have also rung up fewer strikeouts than any pitching roster except Seattle’s. The numbers get no better in the field or at the plate. Defensively the Orioles have a better fielding percentage than just five other teams, a ranking identical to that of Baltimore hitters on the list of team OPS.

In today’s atmosphere of obsessive attention to metrics and heavy reliance on young players, all the sad numbers of this season and the last couple could be considered a necessary cost of stockpiling a top-flight minor league system and its promise of a brighter tomorrow, especially with a new general manager and field boss this season. But Mike Elias in the front office has yet to make any moves that signal near term improvement, and first year manager Brandon Hyde’s most noticeable moment so far was a recent dugout altercation with first baseman Chris Davis.

As for the currently popular approach to rebuilding, even after making coveted Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman the first overall pick in June’s amateur draft, the Orioles’ farm system is ranked no better than middle of the pack by both Bleacher Report and MLB Pipeline. That’s in part because just before the season began the O’s traded AAA prospect Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of the Red Sox legend, to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for minor league pitcher Tyler Herb. In 73 games since being called up to the majors, the younger Yaz is making grandpa proud, with 17 homers and an OPS of .890. In contrast, in a season split between AA Bowie and AAA Norfolk, Herb has posted an ERA north of 6.00, though he is giving up almost two home runs per nine innings, so perhaps he’s a perfect fit for the major league rotation. In Baltimore, that brighter tomorrow may not be coming soon.

There’s even concern that it might never arrive in Baltimore specifically. Longtime owner Peter Angelos is 90 and in declining health. He’s turned over management of the franchise to his sons, leading to persistent rumors that the team may be for sale. That always opens the door to the possibility of relocation, though that process is long and difficult, as the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays can attest. For now, the team remains in the city it’s called home for more than six decades, and a fervent if steadily declining fan base clings to hope, because desire and belief are as much a part of the Great Game as bats and gloves. But with a roster devoid of star power and a team payroll lower than all but two other franchises, the near term promises to be far more often about disappointment than delight.

Still even a dismal season has its moments. The weekend before last Baltimore shocked the Houston Astros with a 9th inning rally, winning 8-7. For sportsbooks, where the O’s were +390 underdogs against Houston’s odds of -460, the improbable victory was the biggest upset in a major league game since 2005. But Baltimore’s happy record didn’t last a fortnight. Wednesday it was Detroit’s turn to stun Houston 2-1, in a game in which Las Vegas had the Tigers at odds of +435 with the favored Astros at -565. But then that’s what a lost season has come to for the Orioles, whose next spot in the record books will likely last much, much longer.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2019

The PGA Tour’s Solution In Search Of A Problem

Perhaps PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has a low opinion of his sport’s fans. That at least is an inference one can draw from the newest format for the Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, announced more than a year ago but just being fully implemented with the start of this year’s Tour Championship next Thursday. That tournament has been around for more than three decades, originally as a rich season-ending event for the top 30 money winners, and since 2007 as the final stop in the Tour’s four, no make that three, week playoff run. Since that year’s advent of the FedEx Cup, with its massive bonus structure that includes $15 million for the winner starting this year, but pays out progressively smaller but still quite welcome dividends all the way down to number 150 in the standings, the structure of the playoffs has been altered with depressing regularity. Now even the format of the final tournament has been changed, ostensibly to make the entire system less confusing for golf fans.

The confusion, real or imagined, stems from the goal of making the FedEx Cup a recognition not of superior play over just the four days of a single 72-hole tournament, but rather of the consistently best golf throughout the PGA Tour’s year-round season. To that end points are awarded based on the order of finish at each Tour stop. The winner of the typical weekly Insurance Company or Banking Conglomerate Open garners 500 FedEx Cup points. Higher point values are distributed at the four majors and at the World Golf Championship events. The top 125 golfers on the season-long points list qualify for the playoffs, with the field steadily shrinking each week, down to the final 30 who tee it up at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship.

Almost immediately the most obvious pitfall of accumulating points over almost twelve months became apparent. In 2007 Tiger Woods was so far ahead in the standings at the start of the playoffs he was able to skip the first event entirely and still coast to victory in the inaugural FedEx Cup. One year later Vijay Singh was sufficiently far ahead entering the Tour Championship that all he had to do was not be disqualified or withdraw from the event – basically remain upright through the weekend – in order to win.

That early dearth of drama produced a series of changes over the years since, including resetting points before the playoffs to tighten the standings, increasing points available at each of the playoff events to encourage participation, and eventually introducing yet another reset of points before the tournament at East Lake, so that all 30 participants had a mathematical chance of winning the Cup.

Through all of those changes the one constant was that the Tour Championship remained a 72-hole stroke play tournament that crowned as its winner the golfer who returned the lowest score over the season’s final four days. As would be expected given that status, the Tour Championship had its own purse – $2 million back in 1987, $7 million by the time the playoffs were introduced, and finally $9 million last year, with $1.62 million going to the winner. It also had its own trophy, a sterling silver replica of “Calamity Jane,” the putter used by Bobby Jones.

But that distinction between the season’s final event and the year-long points race and playoffs meant that it was possible for a player to win the tournament but not, depending on his place in the standings and the performance of the other 29 golfers in the field, also capture the FedEx Cup. The result would be two players holding trophies on the 18th green, one with the sterling Calamity Jane and the other with the FedEx Cup. It is that outcome that the Tour decided was hopelessly confusing for the apparently simple-minded buffoons who follow golf.

The solution devised by the PGA Tour is to turn the Tour Championship into the equivalent of a country club net championship. With Sunday’s conclusion of the BMW Championship, won by Justin Thomas, the season-long FedEx Cup points race ended. The 30 golfers advancing to East Lake will now start with different scores relative to par based on those final standings. The victory by Thomas, his first in just over a year, propelled the 26-year-old major winner to the top of the standings, so he will begin play on Thursday at 10-under par. Runner-up Patrick Cantlay will tee it up at 8-under. Meanwhile Brooks Koepka, with three regular season victories including a major, and Rory McIlroy, with as many wins (two) and nearly as many top-10 finishes (13 versus 15) as Thomas and Cantlay combined, will both start further behind Thomas, having finished third and fifth respectively in the FedEx Cup points race.

For the full field, the points leader starts at 10-under, with positions two through five at 8-under down to 5-under. After that the golfers are bunched in groups of five, with each group giving up one additional stroke to the leader. The players finishing sixth through tenth in the standings will go off at 4-under, and so on down to positions twenty-six through thirty, who will start at even par.

The notion that golf fans are befuddled by a week with multiple “winners” is insulting; besides which such an outcome is hardly the norm. In the twelve years of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the winner of the season’s final event and the Cup winner have been different only four times. It’s also telling that the Official World Golf Rankings will ignore the handicapped start to the tournament. Ranking points will be awarded based on an imaginary leader board with just the actual shots of the players.

Unfortunately, half of the instances of a split result came in the last two years, spurring the misguided change in format. Thomas won the FedEx Cup during his dominant 2017 run that featured five tournament wins including the PGA Championship, but at the Tour Championship he finished second to Xander Schauffele by a single stroke. Then last season England’s Justin Rose took home the FedEx Cup trophy and the big bonus check but had to share space during the awards ceremony with Tiger Woods, who won the Tour Championship for his first victory in more than five years. Of course, had the new format been in effect back then Woods, despite taking five fewer shots over four days would have finished one stroke behind Rose, who would have started six ahead of Tiger and finished holding both trophies. That would have been so much less confusing, but just how happy would most golf fans have been?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2019

The Inescapable Reality Of Twilight

It was, of course, mere happenstance, a random confluence of three events. Still, despite being merely a coincidence of timing, the withdrawal of Tiger Woods after just one round of the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs and the decisions by Serena Williams first to retire from the women’s final at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and then to drop out of the Western & Southern Open before it began, all coming within days of each other, collectively served as an especially stark reminder that time will always be the unbeatable foe of all our sports heroes.

Woods is 43 and Williams is six weeks shy of her 38th birthday, and both were felled by bad backs. At Liberty National Golf Club, this year’s site of The Northern Trust, Woods first felt pain during the pre-tournament pro-am. He responded by forgoing full swings during that round’s second nine, instead just chipping and putting while walking along with his amateur partners. But that cautionary step wasn’t enough, and after an uninspiring 75 in the opening round of competition, Woods woke up last Friday with a stiff back, the product of a strained oblique muscle. After four back surgeries in the space of three years between 2014 and 2017, Woods wisely decided not to tempt fate and pulled out of the first of three stops that comprise the Tour’s season-ending playoff series.

In Toronto, Williams had breezed into the final of the Rogers Cup, dropping only one set through her first four matches. That run included a 6-3, 6-4 win over Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, a much less dramatic meeting between the pair than their last, when Osaka’s victory at the 2018 U.S. Open was marred by a Williams meltdown in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But against Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu last Sunday, her fifth match in as many days, Williams appeared hobbled from the start. Trailing 1-3 in the first set and only a quarter-hour into the match, she asked for an injury timeout, and then told the chair umpire that she was unable to continue because of back spasms.

After that disappointment Williams headed immediately to the Cincinnati suburb of Mason for the Western & Southern, a tournament she’d won twice before. But after receiving treatment and practicing Williams withdrew just hours before her first round match on Tuesday, telling the media “unfortunately my back is still not right and I know I should not take to the court.” She also thanked “the amazing fans here in the Cincinnati area” and promised to “do my best to be back here next year.”

Athletes are forced to sit because of injury every day, and the only certainty about all careers, no matter the sport, is that they come to an end. But Woods and Williams both going down at essentially the same time carried special significance first because of the place each occupies in their game, and second because of the setbacks both have endured. In men’s golf and women’s tennis Woods and Williams have been the dominant players of their generation, and to many fans (in one of those perpetual arguments about sports that has no right answer), the best to ever play their respective games.

As much as Woods and Williams are titans in their sports, both have had to overcome serious health issues, and each has suffered self-inflicted wounds – Woods through serial infidelities during his marriage and Williams by her occasionally terrible behavior on the court. Yet against considerable odds, at ages when most of their contemporaries have either retired or seen sharp career declines, both have recently enjoyed renewed success. Woods won the Tour Championship to end last season, and then claimed his fifth Masters title and fifteenth major championship in April. For her part Williams, returning from serious post-childbirth complications, went to the finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and again at Wimbledon this season.

Still, fans are reminded that even the most spectacular careers do not go on forever, and there is no sure way of knowing how the final chapter will unfold. In truly unfortunate cases there is a sudden career-ending injury, such as happened to quarterback Joe Theismann during a Monday Night Football game in 1985. Every so often the skillset that has carried a star to great heights disappears with brutal speed. Alex Rodriguez slugged 33 homers and posted a .842 OPS for the Yankees in 2015. Less than a year later he was done, essentially dismissed by the team in midseason after struggling to hit .200.

For most the final years are appropriately called the twilight, mirroring that period at the end of day when light slowly fades, and night gradually encroaches. Age saps ability and little by little the hero becomes ordinary. Derek Jeter hit .256 during his final season in the Bronx, more than fifty points below his career average, but he had possessed the good sense to announce his retirement during Spring Training. Too many others cling with increasing desperation to the folly that greatness can somehow be restored. Those are the longest goodbyes, and the most painful to watch.

It is too early to contemplate the exits of either Woods or Williams. The former’s Masters win is barely four months old, and the latter’s march to three recent Grand Slam finals is still fresh in the minds of tennis fans. Both should hear plenty of cheers in the future, and not for merely sentimental reasons.

Yet after the opening round of this week’s BMW Championship, Woods is tied for 50th in a field of sixty-nine golfers. He’ll need to improve over the next three days, because he’s currently well outside the top thirty in the FedEx Cup standings, the cutoff for next week’s Tour Championship. There is also obvious concern about whether Williams will be ready for the U.S. Open, which starts a week from Monday. Uncertainty and doubt, reminding us that as it does for every athlete, the twilight time, and ultimately the end, comes for even the greatest.

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