Undeniably, the men's tennis final this weekend at Wimbledon was incredible, but all the talk that it was the finest match in the history of tennis is a bit of hyperbole to me.
For one thing, most of this buzz started from the mouth of Bud Collins, who, yes, has covered Wimbledon for 41 years, but it's not like that guy typically is prone to understatement and broke out of his unexcitable box in order to make this proclamation. Same with John McEnroe, who acted almost fanboyish in his post-match interviews with the Federer and Nadal -- he's hardly a paragon of mild-mannered level-headedness.
I'm not even saying it wasn't awesome. It was. Federer DID rally from behind to win the two tiebreak sets, he did fight off a championship point in the fourth set, and they did go at it in the fifth until Federer finally cracked around 9:15 p.m. The match was long. There were rain delays. The match was another in a string of truly great clashes between Federer and Nadal, and for some points I felt incredibly lucky to be watching them duke it out, because there was some incredible shot-making and athleticism on display.
That's just it, though. Most of their clashes are exhilarating in one way or another -- they're both artists on the court -- and this one didn't stand out as much in any way except its running time. I'm curious whether either of those two men would call it one of their best matches ever; I am too lazy to Google to see if one of them already has, but I certainly can't imagine Federer would, and even with Nadal coming out ahead, I feel like he has to be kicking himself for being up two sets and losing two tiebreaks in a row thanks to some key mistakes. My guess is he'd cite his drubbing of Federer in this year's French Open final as his best match, so thoroughly did he dominate.
And yet Wimbledon's 2008 final it's being talked about like every point was the stuff of legend, when really, watching the match, it was like any other: moments of incredible genius surrounded by a lot of big serves and botched volleys or netted groundstrokes. For drama, for length, and for history (at stake: Federer being the first man to win six Wimbledons in a row since last century; for Nadal, being the first man since Bjorn Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon consecutively, in addition to being his first Wimbledon title ever), I guess it had everything. Truly, all the pieces were there. But when I put them together in my mind's eye, I don't get a whole that equals all-time greatness. When I look back, I see Roger Federer -- whom I was rooting for, although I also like Nadal -- playing tentatively and battling valiantly to delay the inevitable. Federer didn't seem like himself. He looked tentative whenever he had break points on Nadal's serve (and failed to convert most of them). He second-guessed himself a lot. And there were a lot of weirdly missed opportunities and unforced errors. Which isn't unusual in tennis, at ALL, and doesn't detract from the excitement of even just one beautifully played point, but for some reason the level of praise being heaped upon this match doesn't quite equate with what I saw. It wasn't so much two warriors who each deserved to win, as much as a question of whether Nadal would trip up and let Federer, who played more poorly overall, steal it from him. That's why I think all this talk of Best Match Ever is a little overblown: to me, after the first set, the outcome was never in doubt.
Maybe I'm being too hard on the media coverage, though -- I mean, at least it's getting people talking about tennis, which is a sport I love that too often falls by the wayside. It needs titans, and if there ever were any question that Federer-Nadal is a legendary rivalry, encompassing all their matches and all their epic clashes, then I think we have our answer. People say that the viewing audience can't rally around a sport if there aren't heroes and villains, or even just heroes and other heroes, so hopefully all this coverage hooks fans and keeps them there. The U.S. Open ought to be a blast.
This year, the L.A. Kings took care of all February 14 pressures for us -- they scheduled my team, the Calgary Flames, for a game the following night; because we love to go (me cheering for the Flames, Kevin in his Kings jersey), we bought ourselves nice tickets and called it a Valentine's Day present. Thank you, sporting events.
Calgary lost, breaking my streak as a good-luck charm for them, but the game was still really fun and fast. We got free hats as part of our ticket package, so we gave one of ours to the kid next to us and his eyes lit up and his face broke into a huge grin. Aw. We were seated right by the staircase that services the VIP area, so I saw Jason Thompson, a.k.a. hot brain-surgeon Patrick from General Hospital, come past me twice. Tasty. And we even got three fights that broke out at the same time. The Kings have also started doing this really amusing thing where whenever an opposing player gets sent to the penalty box, they cut to pre-taped footage of a dude in the team's uniform sitting down and doing something really silly, like shoveling donuts into his face, or combing the hair of a Barbie doll. The guy next to us totally fell for it. "Is he KNOWN for that, or something?" he asked incredulously as he watched the fake Flames player chew on three donuts at once. It was a good might, mostly full of nice people.
Of course, we did have to contend with That Guy.
You almost certainly know him; he's at every sporting event, ever, in the world. He is pretty sure every piece of trash talk he's decided to yell at the players is hilarious, and he is generous enough to scream it repeatedly just to make absolutely sure that everyone within earshot -- and possibly some who aren't -- gets to enjoy his rapier wit. And truly, he was brilliant, revolutionizing the fan experience by making "gay" jokes whenever he could. See, the Flames have a left winger called Alex Tanguay, and, yes, it's pronounced "Tan-gay." This was the source of much amusement to That Guy, who repeated, "Tan-GAY?!?" over and over again, and then began attaching "Gay" to the end of other players' names. For instance, when Daymond Langkow skated past and That Guy could only see part of his jersey, That Guy screamed, "What's his name? Is it Lang-GAY?"
The thing is, I have no problem with trash talk, even when it's at my own team's expense. But it has to be funny -- especially if you're going to scream it AT the players despite the fact that said players almost certainly cannot hear you and don't actually care. You're not really enriching our lives with your brilliance unless you are ACTUALLY amusing. Gay jokes, not so much, dude. I mean, come on. The word "gay" makes you snicker uncontrollably? Really? Are you seven? Instead, we -- Kings and Flames fans alike -- tried our mightiest to ignore him. At one point late in the game even his friend said of one of That Guy's regular remarks, "Dude, if you make that joke again, I'm going to smack you." It was the only time all night I was praying for repetition.
This is not an injury report you ever want to read: "WR Roydell Williams (ankle) out Sunday vs. Chargers... TE Bo Scaife (liver) out for postseason."
One of those things is not like the other one. Ouch.
With rain on the horizon and a can of pumpkin burning a hole in my cupboard, I decided to give my oven a proper road test and usher in autumn by baking cookies. And when the skies turned gray this weekend, the water beat down in buckets, and a chill permeated the air at night, it really finally felt like my favorite season was on its way.
I don't care for heat. This summer, then, where temperatures soared up over 100 degrees in the Valley, was... not for me. I don't mind warm weather, but I prefer the season of light jackets and sweaters. I like to snuggle up under the covers and scare Kevin with my cold feet, and bury myself in a warm bed, and hug a giant mug of hot chocolate or spiced apple cider while I shove my feet into slippers and wrap myself in the beautiful, soft knit blanket Jen made me in the pattern of the England flag. I finally lit the candles on our coffee table two nights ago while we watched The Simpsons.
It's a blessing football season, the BEST season, coincides with my favorite weather. Poor old Notre Dame hasn't had such a good time of it lately, though. We'll be winless when we roll into the Rose Bowl in a week and a half -- but I wouldn't miss attending the game for the world; my boys need their fans now more than ever -- and winless when we roll out again. It was written in the stars that this season would be awful, due to recruiting lapses in the past, the sheer quantity of graduating talent, and how good our first opponents turned out to be. I mean check it out: Georgia Tech (great defense), Penn State (ranked 10th until last week), Michigan (okay, they sucked it up historically those first two weeks, but they're still Michigan and they're back to playing well), Michigan State (undefeated). And coming up, all in a row with no break? Purdue (best quarterback we'll have faced -- hugely prolific passer), UCLA (strong defense, balanced offense -- dangerous combo), and USC (No. 1 in the nation, rat bastards, will put up 42 points on us in the first half). Even Air Force, way down the line on our home schedule, is undefeated right now. Our best hope is a 3-9 season where we magically manage to keep the 40-plus-year win streak against Navy alive.
But there's a lot to be excited about: Two freshman defenders who showed an aptitude for the pass rush on Saturday against MSU, signs of life and gelling in our offensive line (which is a huge reason we lost the first three games -- QB can't pass if he's getting pounded into the ground or chased off the field while his receivers are still running down it), and a spark to the running game from two more freshmen and a sophomore. Frosh QB Jimmy Clausen needs to show us a little more now, although the real onus is on our WRs to get open enough that he can make quicker decisions, but the frosh Tate and Kumara and sophomore Parris have great height and decent speed. Every guy I mentioned is young. In a year or two, they'll have chemistry. They'll have timing. And if they don't, Charlie's seat will get painfully hot. I don't think it will this season simply because the caliber of his recruiting classes has been consistently high, much higher than his predecessor. He's also an NFL guy, meaning he's used to getting players when they're already developed. This is the first season he's learning what a growth enterprise NCAA football really is, and so it's back to basics for the team. Hopefully there are some games we can salvage down the line. But more importantly, hopefully he can salvage morale. And get us geared up for a killer 2008 regardless of whether if 2007 is lost to the learning curves.
So, I haven't posted much yet about ND's amazing comeback win over Michigan State, in part because a friend of mine is a Spartan and I know she was upset. But... if any of you get a chance to watch that game in an ESPN Classic rerun, do it, at least with the second half. Because it was amazing, and it gives me chills to remember it over and over again. We were down 31-14 at halftime, and 37-21 in the third quarter. And we won 40-37.
One thing that captures the spirit: Click here and view photo 12.
Another thing that helps me relive it: This excellent, detailed entry from one of the erudite guys at Blue-Gray Sky, a very smart ND Football blog that takes its name from the Grantland Rice newspaper article whose lede inspired a nickname, The Four Horsemen, that is ingrained in Fighting Irish lore. ("Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.")
The entry takes you through the crushing defeat, then our rise to victory against utterly improbable odds, and cranky weather -- including a beating wind that changed directions in the fourth quarter so that it was blowing against the Irish throughout the entire second half. The links to some great photos and video clips (the one of Charlie Weis hugging his son in an emotional embrace gets me choked, although this angle is better -- click and then go back four shots; also, the video clip of Weis screaming an inspirational speech at the defense gets my pulse racing) help illustrate a lot of it.
In the video of the closing moments and post-game celebration, the cameraman -- this is clearly someone holding a home camera -- gets onto the field and is standing in the middle of the swarm (about 3:20 into the clip) when the players run to the band and the students and salute them with their helmets (something they do win or lose). During the fight song they're jumping up and down with abandon, and you really feel them for what they are: college kids, young men from ages 18 to 22, who just beat the odds rather than beating themselves and are delirious over it. For one second you stop looking at them distantly and you realize you're watching them awash in a feeling none of them will ever forget. Notre Dame will not likely win a national championship this year -- too many things have to fall our way -- but this game, to them, feels just like it.
Then they link arms and sway together while everyone sings the alma mater, and at the end, when you shout the last line, they go nuts again (around 4:48, not that anyone but me is going to go watch any of this). Then the fight song starts up again around 5:15, and the camera moves over to find Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija dancing goofily.
And for those of you for whom Brady Quinn is sports porn, he shows up at 6:26, being interviewed on the field, genteel and delicious. When he grins and starts talking about being excited... oh, my. Then he walks away and all the girls in the band go apeshit, which I'm sad to say is exactly what I would have done, because he's just so lovely. Good guy, good quarterback, good looking. The trifecta. Heh.
Up next: Purdue, a tough rivalry game against a team that always finds ways to surprise us. Hopefully we'll win it at home for the fans.
My poor beloved Irish. Michigan walloped us on our home field, and now we're battered and bruised and trotting into a hostile stadium to play Michigan State, a team that's beaten us seven out of the last 9 times we've met.
Brady Quinn was shaken all day and spent a lot of it on his back, sadly not in a sexy way. His first pick wasn't his fault -- the well-thrown ball (maybe a tad high) went into TE John Carlson's hands and then popped free of them, up into the air and down into the waiting arms of a really large Wolverine who only needed about five steps to take it in for the score. But the rest of the day Brady's aim was off, he had a little too much heat on some of his passes (he woefully, wildly overthrew a wide open Rhema McKnight along the sideline, a gimme TD that we needed), and his head was probably spinning from being banged so much. [Okay, it took me forever to come up with a sentence that didn't involve a word that could be sexualized into our delicious Brady Quinn fantasies -- banged, pounded, drilled, nailed -- and I realized it was going to be impossible, so I gave up. But I did try, I promise.]
With the exception of the TD drive at the end of the first half, during which Michigan's defense seemed to have eased off a tad, things just went from bad to worse, with the team finding new and special ways to kill any modicum of momentum. A lot of credit goes to Michigan's defense, but I maintain that ND just does not play well when it's surrounded by hype. The Penn State game got blown wide open, but for a while it was a one-possession game and we came out of the gate slow, as with Georgia Tech; something's awry in their heads, in their psyches, and I suspect it's that our guys prefer sneaking up on people (as with last season) than being so widely touted as they were this season, and before the Fiesta Bowl.
Basically, they like having something to prove, rather than something to live up to, but hopefully they'll realize that those two things can actually be one and the same -- and that they most certainly do now have to prove something to themselves, to their coach, and to all the people who ranked us highly and then sat around gleefully waiting for us to fall.
Poor Brady. It's got to be a total mindf**k being a quarterback anyway, much less one who's got the absurdly early Heisman hype, who's being compared to Tom Brady by dint of his head coach's affiliation with him, who's being asked to carry the offense on his shoulders the way Brady did the Pats', but at a younger age and in less time. He's trying. But he's just a kid.
I don't mind being 2-1 with the L being to a team that played as well as Michigan did and which has storied hype and pollsters' respect. Better that than a win over Michigan and a loss to, like, Army. I'm okay as long as we pull out the rest of the games, all of which are totally winnable until that Thanksgiving weekend contest against USC. And it's not that I don't think we can win that; I just think that's a brutal test in its own class, kind of a Michigan 2.0 but on enemy turf.
In closing, I would like to leave you with this, which is where I turn when I find myself in times of trouble.
Mother Mary, come to me, indeed.
Thank GOD we won.
But first: The wedding was lovely. It was held at an equestrian center, with the ceremony outdoors and the reception in one of its two big rooms. They'd scattered rose petals on the white aisle runner, which bisected an assemblage of rustic white folding chairs, and there was a lovely garland on the wooden canopy under which they were married. Bill was beaming -- he looked like a kid at Christmas when he caught his first glimpse of Helen coming up the aisle, and the entire time, he couldn't take his eyes off of her. They faced out toward us for most of the ceremony, turning to each other only during the vow recitation and ring exchange. So as they stood listening to the reverend give his sermon, Bill tried his hardest to watch him, but his gaze always drifted to Helen, and he'd just stare at her with this huge grin on his face -- captivated, enthralled, in love. And wonderfully happy. When the wedding ended, they walked down the aisle, and a big wooden gate opened to allow entrance to a dappled gray horse leading a carriage bedecked with flowers. They hopped in and were taken away to enjoy their first moments of being married -- a little romantic privacy before the photographer's job started again.
It was our wedding photographer, too, so we had a mini-reunion with her, which was great.
We arrived home from the wedding at about midnight. Immediately, I shed the dress, pausing only to hang it up (see, Mom? I'm not ALL bad), and put on boxers and my ND jersey before climbing into bed and turning on the game. As predicted, I'd been able to avoid spoilers completely -- we tried finding the game on the radio on our way to the wedding, but it wasn't on, and that's for the best because I would have arrived at the wedding totally depressed at being down 10-0. I would have had no way of knowing ND would shut 'em down and put up 14 unanswered points to win the game.
I sat there tensely while Kevin dozed on and off, usually waking up when we did something good because he'd feel my weight shift and sense that I was beating my fists around -- we have a downstairs neighbor we knew would be sleeping, so in an effort to be considerate (we haven't had The Talk about football season yet), I rendered myself mute but for the occasional whisper, and took out my celebratory aggression on the air. My arms this morning are pleasantly sore.
The game was completely tense for me. Our offense did look a little impotent; people say we couldn't run the ball, but I'm not sure that's true. I think we just didn't. We totaled 10 running plays in the first half and 29 passing plays; one of those running plays was a QB sneak to score our first TD of the game just before time expired in the second quarter. Then we came out and showed more of a mix in the second half, and won the game -- thanks to the help of a blown pass play on 3rd-and-10 that Brady Quinn turned into a 36-yard dash for a first down. It's like they say: You've got to run the ball to pass the ball. If people aren't afraid of your running game, you'll have a much harder time finding openings in the secondary.
The defense kept us in it after letting Georgia Tech score 10 easy points early; Tech didn't score again. And it does look like a markedly better squad, shutting down WR Calvin Johnson in the second half. The offense gave it a major assist in the second half by putting together some sustained drives that let the D rest. Which is good, but means I don't have a read on the D's physical fitness just yet.
Lots of holding and false-start penalities on the offense, though, which Charlie won't be too happy about when they watch the game film today, as a few negated important plays. And no TD passes yet. But Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija each made an amazing grab that had me missing Maurice Stovall a bit less.
Oh, but our KICKING game... that rookie punter is amazing, booting a 67-yard punt and then a 61-yarder right after that. However, our rookie field-goal kicker missed two, one relatively easy and one from a tough angle, and that's a major point of concern because those 6 points sure would've come in handy on the box score.
Unfortunately, we don't have any cake games on the schedule in which to work out the kinks -- next week is Penn State, then Michigan, then we're at Michigan State (a team that has our number), then back home for Purdue and Stanford. Those two are never gimme games anyway, but they'll be harder than they should be because we'll be tired.
Still, it's good to be 1-0, and good to be back. Not every outing can be perfect, but the trick is that this team was on its heels and STILL found a way to win the game. That's a different ND team than we had under Davie and Willingham (well, with one or two exceptions -- ND vs Washington State while Ty was coaching was an awesome comeback win), and that's hopefully the real key to what Weis is going to bring year after year: adjustments, confidence, and composure under fire.
FOOTBALL FOOTBALL FOOTBALL.
I'm so jittery. Notre Dame's season starts tomorrow evening, and I'll be at a wedding during the entire game. I'm TiVoing it so I can watch the SECOND we get home. It's torturous, but I'm happy for the couple getting hitched, so there's that. It's kind of churlish to be mad about missing a game for a reason that romantic.
All the hype, which has basically been building since we got smacked by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, is starting to drive me mental. I'm not somebody who believes Notre Dame handles hype well. We tend to do better when we sneak up on you with our smart coach and our hot, hot quarterback with the dreamy biceps. Load on the press, the praise, the predictions of an undefeated year, and things tend to go awry.
The problem is, this is the year. It's not that we won't ever have a shot again, but we have more graduating seniors at the end of this year than we do returning starters (I believe that number is 9... so low). We have a great stable of recruited QBs to fill Brady Quinn's delicious void, but they'll be rookies and they'll have a relatively inexperienced line in front of them... basically, this is our year to reward the veterans for riding out some rough times before they ride off into the sunset. The team takes a brand new shape after this.
It's just... the suspense is SERIOUSLY killing me. It's driving me mad. I can't wait to see them run out on the field. I'll get misty, even though it's not a home game. My pulse will race. I'll tense every muscle in my body for probably the entire three and a half hours, relaxing only long enough to fast-forward through halftime. I'm a nut. I'm captivated. I can't help it.
I'm SO GLAD fall is here. I say it every year, but it never stops being true. Fall and winter are my favorite seasons, and that has a huge part to do with football. I'll be up late watching ND, then I get up early Sunday for the first of two fantasy football drafts that day. Perfect.