Monday, 31 August 2015

Tennis Takes a Bite Out of the Big Apple
Welcome to the 2015 US Open

The final major of the tennis season is upon us.  Can you believe 9 months have flown by already since we started the grand slam season in Australia?  The months are sailing by faster than a Federer forehand shot.  We have seen some epic upsets, out of this world shots and amazing comebacks this season.  But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The grand slam champions for 2015 have been a familiar bunch...and a small collective group.  Serena Williams has rolled through the grand slam season, winning the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.  New York could see the first calendar year grand slam since Steffi Graf achieved the feat in 1988 (Graf would actually win 5 grand slam titles in a row) but more on this below.  On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic won his fifth Australian Open (a modern era record) and his third Wimbledon title to up his grand slam collection to nine overall.  If it wasn’t for Stan #Stanimal Wawrinka playing lights out tennis in the French Open championship, we would have a chance to see the double calendar grand slam over the next two weeks.

This year marks the 135th edition of the US Open.  A few interesting points to note as you hunker down for two weeks of intense tennis action:

1)    Tiebreaks – The US Open is the only major using tiebreaks in every set.  At the other three majors, the deciding set continues until a player wins by 2 games.  Not in New York.  If players are tied at 6 in the deciding set, bring on the tiebreaker to decide the winner.  Fans and players have mixed reactions to this.  The drama is heightened during a tiebreaker and this does ensure matches do not go on for hours (or days...see Isner-Mahut 2010 Wimbledon).  On the flip side, watching two great athletes go stroke for stroke for hours only to see it decided by a race to 7 points seems anti-climatic.  Sometimes the drama of who will break who’s serve first is intriguing.  Neither is wrong of course and it is nice to mix it up at least for one major.

2)    Goodbye Monday Night – For 2015, the men’s championship will (finally) move back to Sunday night.  For 2013 and 2014, the championship match was moved to Monday and was often criticized by players and fans.  Not this year though...we go back to the traditional Sunday championship....and I for one am quite happy with this.

3)    History, History, History – DYK the US Open is the only major to be played every year since inception?  While the other majors have seen years of no tournament played due to various reasons, the US Open has never missed crowning champions.  134 consecutive champions crowned thus far.  Incredible!

4)    Surface Change – The US Open has been played on three different surfaces.  In fact, when the tournament began in 1881, it was a grass surface.  There was even a brief period from 1975 – 1977 where the US Open was played on clay...CLAY!  Weird right?  Of course now the tournament is played on the hard courts we are used to seeing.  Interestingly enough, Jimmy Connors is the only player to win the US Open on all 3 surfaces.  Chris Evert won when the tournament was played on clay and hard court.
5)   US Open Series Champions? - The 2015 US Open Series champions were Andy Murray and...Karolina Pliskova?  Ok Murray I get, he won the Rogers Cup and reached the SF in Cincinnati.  He escaped with a narrow 5 point win to claim this title.  But Pliskova?  She also claimed a 5 point win for this.  I suppose consistency helps but still.  She had an average summer and really didn't beat anyone of high ranking.  She lost the final in Stanford, 3R in Cincinnati and QF in Connecticut.  Yet here she is with a shot at a cool $1M if she wins the US Open.  Ok, let's be honest that isn't going to happen.  In fact, if she makes 3R I would be shocked. Serena still has a shot at an extra pay day though finishing runner-up.  If she wins the US Open, she will take home an extra $500K.  Same with Novak Djokovic.  3rd place finishers John Isner and Simona Halep can win an extra $250K if they win their first grand slam.  Of course, for each round the top three players advance they take home a bit more extra money because of their US Open Series final placement.  I still like this idea and it does add a unique twist on the summer hard court series.  But Pliskova?  Really?  I mean congratulations of course but this still seems a bit shocking.

6)    The Action is Rolling Along Too – The US Open not only offers the main events we all know and love but there will also be junior action and wheelchair action to see while in New York.  In all the talk about the lengthy time between grand slam champions, we should take note of recent grand slam success on the wheelchair circuit.  In 2014, Stephane Houdet completed the grand slam in men’s wheelchair doubles.  Also in 2014, Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley completed the grand slam in women’s doubles (a string of 5 consecutive grand slam wins).  Of course, nobody can forget the greatest wheelchair tennis athlete of all time, Dutch player Esther Vergeer who accomplished the grand slam feat twice in women’s doubles (combined with her 10 year undefeated streak in singles and her 21 grand slam singles titles).  Vergeer retired in 2013 and ended her career with a winning streak of 470 matches.  Of those matches, she faced a match point only ONCE (2008 Paralympic Games).  Vergeer is not only the greatest wheelchair athlete of all time but is, without question, the greatest and most dominant athlete of any sport of all time.  I only wish wheelchair tennis would receive more coverage during these grand slam events.  These are outstanding athletes as well and deserve a chance to showcase their talents on a world stage.
Ok, enough with the history lessons.  This isn’t history class, this is phys ed and we want to know what to expect for the 2015 US Open right?  While, as per tradition (history class still), before we reveal the #TwineTime predictions, let’s take a closer look at the favourites, the one’s to watch and the dark horse that can bust your bracket.  It is worth noting that a dark horse pick cannot be a player ranked for the event (outside top 32).

The Favorites

Novak Djokovic (#1) – No surprise here.  Novak elevates himself to another level during the grand slam events.  Being denied his shot at a calendar grand slam stings a bit but don’t tell Novak...he doesn’t seem to care.  The top ranked player in the world for the past 61 weeks (and 162 weeks overall) has had a good summer but not a great summer.  Back to back tournament final losses in Montreal and Cincinnati were tough but more concerning is these losses came to the biggest challengers for the US Open, Roger Federer (Cincinnati) and Andy Murray (Montreal).  Another telling stat is the US Open has never been kind to Novak.  He only has 1 title here and that was way back in 2011.  Now of course the past 3 years have seen him make at least the final four so results are still strong.  His draw is favourable this year so expect to see him back in at least the SF.  Can he actually get over the hump and back to winning in New York though? 

Serena Williams (#1) – If Novak being the favourite isn’t a surprise, what word do we use to describe Serena in this position?  I don’t think anyone is betting against her here.  Sure the loss to Bencic in Toronto was a bit of a surprise but Bencic played light’s out and caught Serena off guard.  She doesn’t usually have those kind of mental lapses in grand slam events.  She has 21 grand slam titles ranking her third all-time and one title behind Steffi Graf for second all-time.  Serena enters New York as the three-time defending champion and has not lost here since the 2011 final upset against Sam Stosur.  This is the first time she has had the chance to complete the calendar grand slam and I just don’t see her letting it slip away.  Her draw is a difficult one, probably more difficult than she has faced in awhile.  But when her back is against the wall, Serena comes out firing.  Time to make some history here folks!
The Challengers

Roger Federer (#2) – The 17-time grand slam champion is a legit challenger to Djokovic.  Sure Roger has not won a grand slam since 2012 Wimbledon and his last US Open title was 2008, the completion of a five-year championship run.  But this is also, arguably, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) so never count him out.  The victory over Novak in Cincinnati leading into the US Open was a statement win.  Roger knows he can beat any player on tour and now has the confidence to beat Djokovic, something he has been lacking in the past.  He already holds the record for most grand slam titles for men, why not add to it?  There is always talk about whether this will be RFed’s final and best shot at a grand slam title.  I always think he is a threat at Wimbledon given his history but, outside of the All England Club, this year could be his best chance.
Serena Williams (#1) – No this is not a misprint.  I really am at a loss to find a player who can challenge Serena for this title.  I think the best player who can take down Serena...will be Serena.  If she gets in her own head or starts thinking she in unbeatable or gets distracted with the media and grand slam talk, she could falter.  It has happened before and it is not unheard of to see Serena self-destruct and suffer a weird upset loss.  There is a TON of pressure on her during this event.  Yes she is a proven champion.  Yes none of this is new to her.  But she is only human and sometimes things happen.  There are players in the draw who could give her a legit problem.  Look at players such as Petra Kvitova (#4), Simona Halep (#2), Victoria Azarenka (#20) and Montreal conqueror Belinda Bencic (#12) could all push Serena and are capable of knocking her off.  Unfortunately, Kvitova, Halep and Azarenka are all on the other side of the draw.  But Bencic could be waiting in the QF.

The Dark Horse
Alexander Zverev – The “German Giant” might be one of the best players you have never heard of.  Standing at a towering 6’6, Zverev is a former number 1 ranked junior boys player.  Having transitioned over to the ATP main tour in 2014, Zverev currently is ranked 81 in the world.  He enters the US Open off his first grand slam win at Wimbledon over the summer and has had some impressive results this year, including the R16 at Nottingham, SF of the Swedish Open and QF of the Citi Open.  He opens the US Open against fellow big German Phil Kohlschreiber, a rematch of their 2R match in Miami earlier this year (won by Kohlschreiber).  With only a 14-16 career ATP record, looks can be deceiving.  Do not be surprised to see Zverev upset his seeded German opponent in the opening round and perhaps find himself on the other side of the net against RFed in the third round.

Daria Gavrilova – I honestly thought about taking Dominica Cibulkova here because I think she will go very far this year (see below) but seems weird to pick your dark horse as a former Top 10 player and grand slam finalist (2014 Australian Open).  Enter Gavrilova!  Oh you haven’t heard much about her?  You will...and this will be the week it happens.  Currently ranked 36 in the world, I expect to see her seeded in all majors next year.  Daria will be making her US Open debut on Monday, coming off her first full calendar year of playing all 4 grand slams.  Look at this stat: one year ago Gavrilova was hovering around 368 in the world...she now sits at 36.  How is that for a rise in fame?  This year alone she has beaten Bencic (twice!), Ivanovic and Sharapova.  Oddly enough Maria was supposed to be her first round opponent until she withdrew on Sunday.  Again, advantage Gavrilova now!  Rather than playing the 3 ranked player in the world in your first US Open match, you now get lucky loser Daria Kasatkina (ranked 132) in a battle of Daria vs Daria.  The 21-year old is a former #1 ranked junior girls player and did win the 2010 US Open junior girls title.  With Sharapova out of her way, her draw opens up big time....huge opportunity for a career best performance.

Ok there is a brief primer on a few players to keep an eye on...many you probably should be watching already.  Now let’s get on to the fun part, the #TwineTime predictions!!  Here you go ball boys and ball girls...


Fourth Round

(1) Novak Djokovic def. (14) David Goffin

(8) Rafa Nadal def. (1) Milos Raonic

(16) Gael Monfils def. Alexandr Dolgopolov

(17) Grigor Dimitrov def. Martin Klizan

(5) Stan Wawrinka def. (11) Gilles Simon

(3) Andy Murray def. (15) Kevin Anderson

(12) Richard Gasquet def. (6) Tomas Berdych

(2) Roger Federer def. (21) Ivo Karlovic


(1) Djokovic def. (8) Nadal

(17) Dimitrov def. (16) Monfils

(5) Wawrinka def. (3) Murray

(2) Federer def. (12) Gasquet


(1) Djokovic def. (17) Dimitrov

(2) Federer def. (5) Wawrinka

MEN’S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (2) Roger Federer def. (1) Novak Djokovic in 5 sets – Cincinnati was a character win in this rivalry and came at a perfect time for Roger entering the US Open.  Roger never seems to lack confidence but it had to trouble him seeing Novak continue to strengthen his hold on #1 in the world and continue to beat Roger in grand slam matches.  New York will change that result.  This rivalry is instantly dubbed as one of the best of all-time in the sport.  They have played one another 41 times, with Roger holding a slim 21-20 lead.  Djokovic holds the advantage at the majors though, with a 9-7 H2H record.  When you look at playing on hard courts, Roger again takes a slim advantage 16-14.  The statistics do not lie...this rivalry is as close as it can possibly be.  This is the final everyone really wants to see and would be the perfect way to close the 2015 Grand Slam season.  Once again though, a Swiss man will hault the Djoker championship celebration....although this time it will be the GOAT who steps in his way.


MEN’S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP:  (3) Jean-Julien Rojer / Horia Tecau def. (1) Bob / Mike Bryan – Everyone continues to pick the Bryan brothers to win every major.  Yes, they are the number one team in the world but the major results just have not been there.  The Bryans have been shut out this year, in fact they only reached 1 grand slam final (French Open).  Meanwhile, Rojer / Tecau are the hottest doubles team on tour this year and have consistent grand slam results.  After back to back SF appearances in Australia and Paris, the duo finally broke through at Wimbledon, claiming the doubles crown.  This team enters with lots of confidence and I feel this is their tournament to lose.  I actually believe the only team who could beat them are the second seeded duo of Ivan Dodig / Marcelo Melo, who I think they will square off with in the SF.


Fourth Round

(1) Serena Williams def. (15) Aggie Radwanska

(12) Belinda Bencic def. Madison Brengle

(13) Ekaterina Makarova def. Daria Gavrilova

Dominika Cibulkova def. Roberta Vinci

(5) Petra Kvitova def. (9) Garbine Muguruza

(4) Caro Wozniacki def. (16) Sara Errani

(20) Victoria Azarenka def. (6) Lucie Safarova

(2) Simona Halep def. Camila Giorgi


(1) S. Williams def. (12) Bencic

Cibulkova def. (13) Makarova

(5) Kvitova def. (4) Wozniacki

(20) Azarenka def. (2) Halep


(1) S. Williams def. Cibulkova

(20) Azarenka def. (5) Kvitova

WOMEN’S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Serena Williams def. (20) Vika Azarenka – Is there really a better player to face Serena in the final of the US Open, with a chance to deny her the calendar grand slam, than bitter rival Vika?  The subplots alone make this an epic championship match.  Serena has dominated the H2H mind you, leading 17-3 and a perfect 10-0 at the grand slams.  Azarenka is coming back from foot injury and is still climbing back up the rankings but Vika is without a doubt playing like a Top 5 player.  These two have already crossed paths at grand slam events this year, with Serena winning the French Open 3R match and the QF rematch at Wimbledon.  However, in both matches, Vika did take the opening set 6-3 and had her chance to knock off Serena.  I think we see a similar storyline play out in New York.  Finally Azarenka finds herself on the other side of the draw which could give her some confidence if she makes the final.  Azarenka will come out firing on all cylinders, taking the opening set 6-3 once again.  We know Serena has a history of starting slow.  But, with her back against the wall and starting to feel the grand slam slip away, Serena will break Vika to take a 4-2 lead in the second set and then it’s off to the races for the 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. 

WOMEN’S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza def. (3) Timea Babos / Kiki Mladenovic – After the talk of the calendar grand slam, it should be worth mentioning here the last active player to win the calendar grand slam was Martina Hingis, who accomplished the feat in women’s doubles in 1998.  Hingis is a former top ranked player in both singles and doubles, has 5 grand slam singles titles and, with her win at Wimbledon this summer, now has 10 grand slam doubles titles.  Let’s also not forget the 3 mixed doubles grand slam titles, including the 2015 Australian Open and 2015 Wimbledon.  This Swiss Miss is still playing like a champion!
There you have it my friends, a #TwineTime primer for all the action at the final grand slam for 2015.  What are your predictions?  Did I miss the mark or do you agree with me?  Share your thoughts below or on twitter.  I also hope some of you joined the TalkAboutTennis US Open suicide pool, adds a fun element of excitement to the grand slam events.  I participate (CanuckRaonic) in every one and will be tweeting my daily pics as long as I stay alive.  


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Between The Sheets: New Season, New Champions?
#TwineTime previews the 2015/16 curling season

The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing colors and the nights are getting colder.  It must be that time of year again....Curling Season!!  It has been a long few months since we crowned our world champions and grand slam winners.  The offseason was not a quiet one though with a variety of player jumps and new team formations.  The 2015/16 season begins the pivotal year for Olympic qualifying.  Fans will also see changes to the Grand Slam of Curling format.  Rock Heads and Stoners (not THAT kind of stoner...come on now) are in for quite a season.
Before we blindly throw rocks down the ice with predictions for what lies ahead, let’s take a Colleen Jones-style long deep breath and recount what happened last year.

1)    Red Pants Reign Supreme! – Team Mike McEwen was the class of the curling world last year.  The played 11 events on tour and won 8 of them.  That equates to a 0.727 winning percentage.  Of the 3 events they did not win, 2 of them saw runner-up finishes.  Yes, once again heartbreak in the Manitoba final but this team curled lights out all year.  I am not sure the powerhouse season of 2014/15 can be replicated...and not just by McEwen but by anyone, ever.  It was amazing to witness as a fan.  I expect the results to dip, only by comparison.  Can they stay on top of their form though?  For sure this will be the team to beat again this season.  More importantly, can they finally get their mitts on the buffalo jacket?  This season....I think it happens! 

  2)    Olympic Hangovers? – After winning Olympic gold in 2014, Team Brad Jacobs and Team Jennifer Jones were back playing a full tour schedule last year.  The year after the Olympics is always known to be hard on players, especially after winning.  Questions surrounded both teams on how they would play, would they be fatigued from the previous year and could they regain focus.  I would say both fought off the hangover like true champions.  Team Jones would go on to win the Scotties and represent Canada at the World Championships (winning a silver medal) and Team Jacobs would make it to the Brier final, coming up just short to defending champions Team Canada.  Whatever hangover cure these teams have, bottle it and sell it now!

3)    New Teams, New Surprises – After the Olympics, players already begin thinking of the next Olympic cycle.  Last year saw heavy movement around the country with the formation of new teams all over the place.  Some were quite successful (Team Reid Carruthers, Team Adam Casey, Team Mark Kean).  Of course, 2 of those teams already saw line up changes again heading into this season.  The Olympics have created a new way of thinking for curlers and players are positioning themselves to play with the best.  Last year was the freshmen frenzy of new teams, will this continue?  Could these new teams suffer a sophomore slump?  If you say it can't be done, look no further than Canadian tennis star Genie Bouchard!  Even the best falter when expectations weigh too heavily on their shoulders.  I guarantee at least 2, if not 3 to 5, of the newly formed teams from a year ago hit a bump in the road this season.  But more on this topic below.

4)    EU is A-OK! – While Canada continues to produce some of the best teams in the world on an annual basis, the results have not come at the World Championships.  2014/15 was no exception.  Team Jones and Team Canada (Simmons) both fell short once again.  Canada has not won a men’s world championship since 2012 (Glen Howard) in Basel, Switzerland.  The drought has been even longer for the women.  The last Canadian world championship win was back in 2008 (Jennifer Jones) in Vernon, Canada.  Sure Canadian teams seem to dominate the world rankings and finish on top of the Order of Merit, but where is the world championship title to accompany?  Yes, winning the Olympic Gold is a bigger feather in the cap of Curling Canada but we seem unable to snap the European stranglehold on the world title.  Sweden (Edin) and Norway (Ulsrud) seem to flip the switch to another level at the world championships.  On the women side, Switzerland appears to be the real dominant nation with 3 world championship victories in 4 years.  Even more amazing, all 3 world titles were from different skips and different teams.  Hopp Schwiiz indeed!

5)    We Are The Champions J - Before diving into this upcoming season, let us give one long steady clap to the following teams for their success last year:

·         Canadian Mixed Curling – Saskatchewan (Skip: Max Kirkpatrick)

·         Continental Cup of Curling – Team North America

·         Canadian Junior Curling – Manitoba (Skip: Braden Calvert) & Alberta (Skip: Kelsey Roque)

·         World Wheelchair Curling – Russia (Skip: Andrey Smirnov)

·         Scotties Tournament of Hearts – Manitoba (Skip: Jennifer Jones)

·         Tim Hortons Brier – Canada (Skip: Pat Simmons)

·         World Junior Curling – Canada (Skip: Calvert) & Canada (Skip: Roque)

·         World Women’s Curling – Switzerland (Skip: Alina Paetz)

·         World Men’s Curling – Sweden (Skip: Nik Edin)

·         World Mixed Doubles Curling – Hungary

Now the fun part, predictions for the upcoming season.  Let’s be clear here though curling fans, I am in no way directly connected to the sport or the athletes.  I am a fan....just like you.  These predictions are a simple assessment of what I think COULD happen over the next few months.  I could be right on the money here....or way out in left field.  Don’t bet the farm on these...but don’t underestimate them either.  Ok, let’s chuck some stones and see what happens in an 8-end season!

1)     The Best Stay Ahead of the Pack – When you look at the Order of Merit men’s world rankings from last year (McEwen, Jacobs, Gushue, Edin, Laycock) it is tough to envision these top teams not staying here.  These teams have no line up changes (including Gushue for once) and played the best curling throughout last year.  Will they finish in the same order?  Debatable as I can see Jacobs and Gushue really push McEwen this year for the top spot.  Laycock will be challenged to remain in the Top 5 from teams like Simmons, Ulsrud and Koe.  My prediction for Top 5 at the end of the season is:  McEwen, Gushue, Edin, Jacobs, Laycock.  I think Gushue will have the best season on tour but the points lead Mikey and the boys have on him (192.1 to be exact) will be hard to make up in 1 season.

2)    Women’s Battle Royal - On the women’s side, I expect more of a shake up.  Jones, Muirhead, Sweeting, Homan and Paetz finished in the Top 5.  Entering the year, Jones and Muirhead seem to have a firm grip at the top.  I expect to see a strong challenge from many international teams again this year, namely Sidorova, Feltscher, Tirinzoni, Ogasawara and Kim.  The Canadian teams of Sweeting and Homan should challenge for the top as well.  My Top 5 at the end of the season looks like this: Muirhead, Jones, Homan, Sidorova, Paetz.   

3)    Curling Roulette Continues – The massive shifts in players and teams we saw last off-season is not over folks!  I expect to see a similar approach at the end of this season.  Ok it might not be as big of a jump as last season but the movement is not over.  Even this past off-season we saw new teams created (ie: Team John Epping, Team Chelsea Carey, Team Mark Kean among others).    For a full list of changes, click HERE.  Are teams who currently sit on the cusp of making a move towards Olympic qualifying going to ride it out if this year is not as successful?  Will teams who struggle decide to go separate ways in hopes of using the next two years as a final push for remaining qualifying spots?  This is exactly what I think will happen.  Not all teams are going to have the breakthrough season they hope.  It is just how sports work.  Not everyone can win.  Not everyone can find success every season.  For some players, this cycle may be their last chance at an Olympic berth.  If some of the top teams do not find themselves already with Olympic qualification or pre-qualification spots secured, expect to see more off-season moves. 

4)    Welcome Mixed Doubles – Mixed doubles has been added to the 2018 Winter Olympics, thus allowing for even more Olympic craziness amongst athletes.  This is great for the sport and a perfect opportunity to grow the sport in other countries, just look at Hungary!  Many of the top players in Canada have already been actively playing mixed doubles for a few years (ie: Charley Thomas, Mark Kean).  Expect to see many more join the fun...and double their spot at Olympic glory.  We could see some interesting pairings as well.  Imagine the possibilities of seeing Mark and Mallory Kean battle Mike and Dawn McEwen for an Olympic spot.  What about players like Val Sweeting, Rachel Homan, John Morris and Ryan Fry?  These players could all be a threat to add more Olympic gold to Canada’s curling history.  This year we will start seeing doubles teams formed and a push towards Olympic opportunity.  Get excited for this!

5)    New Grand Slam of Curling Format – The Grand Slam of Curling took a huge leap last year in the addition of the Elite 10 and having each event be slightly different in format and marketing colors to truly brand each event.  This year, you will see even more change with the addition of the GSOC Tour Challenge.  The Tour Challenge will see the top 30 men’s and women’s teams compete in a two tiers.  The top 15 teams based on order of merit ranking compete in Tier 1 while the next 10 teams compete in Tier 2.  The remaining 5 teams for Tier 2 will come from within province or region of the event.  It should be worth noting Tier 2 teams do not earn Grand Slam Cup points; however, the winners will receive guaranteed berths in the next Grand Slam event.  This new format really heightens the sport and raises it to another level.  More teams competing on the grand slam stage will not only help grow the sport overall but also help those teams on the cusp of moving up the rankings a chance to play more while garnering more exposure toward fans and, ultimately, sponsors.  Throughout the season we will see many references to European football, having the Premier League and the Football League Championship.  This format seems to work across many sports actually.  Tennis has the main ATP/WTA tour but also the Challenger Tour for up and coming players, new players and players who want to try and add more points to their ranking.  This new format will culminate in a winner take all event called the Champions Cup!  This new Grand Slam event will bring together all winners from the #GSOC season as well as select event winners (including the Scotties, Brier, World Championship, US Nationals, Asia/Pacific Championships etc).  Perhaps even more worth noting, the World Junior champion will also receive an invite.  A great opportunity for the best junior teams to compete with the top teams around the world.  The experience factor alone for sharing ice with the best is amazing and credit to #GSOC for making this inclusion.  For a more detailed breakdown of the Champions Cup qualifying, please visit HERE.  Will there be issues with the new format?  Of course, change is never easy.  Are we on the right path towards a system of inclusion for ALL players within the sport while taking curling to another competitive level?  100%!!

6)    Dark Horse Teams – Ok we all know the top teams in the world but sometimes we see surprise teams rise to the top, challenge the best and come out victorious.  Last season I would say the Dark Horse Teams of the Year were Team Brendan Bottcher and Team Alina Paetz.  Bottcher took home 2 titles last year (HDF Insurance Shoot-Out, German Masters) and, more importantly, picked up 3 third place finishes at Grand Slam events (The National, Canadian Open and Players’ Championship).  Considering the prior year they missed qualifying in 6 of their 9 events played, last year was the breakout year for this team.  Paetz took home 2 titles on tour (Red Deer Curling Classic and International Bernese Ladies Cup), qualified for both Grand Slam events and..oh yeah just happened to win a World Championship.  Both of these teams really came out of nowhere in a way and shocked many of the best teams on tour.  Nobody should underestimate them this year!  So who will follow in these teams footsteps this year?  This is a bit difficult to predict given the new Grand Slam format.  I think we will see some up and coming teams currently sitting in the Top 15 really challenge for Grand Slam Cup points.  We will also see a few teams from the current Tier 2 position step up their game and move up the world rankings this year.  Given the new format, I break my dark horse into 2 sections: Tier 1 and Tier 2.  If looking at Tier 1 teams, the revised line up of Team Casey and Team Michel on the men’s side could surprise.  For the women’s teams, Chelsea Carey moves to yet another new team but one chalk full of experience and power, something she didn’t have behind her last season.  For Tier 2, the top men’s results should come from Team Jim Cotter and the new teams skipped by Shawn Adams, Tom Brewster and Mark Kean.  For Tier 2 women, teams skipped by Chantelle Eberle, Cissi Ostlund and Nina Roth should see a steady climb up the rankings.

7)     Champions! – Want to place some bets on champions this season?  Sure why not?  #TwineTime predicts the following:

·         Scotties – Ontario (Skip: Rachel Homan)

·         Brier – Newfoundland & Labrador (Skip: Brad Gushue)

·         World Women’s – Scotland (Skip: Eve Muirhead)

·         World Men’s – Canada (Skip: Gushue)

·         Order of Merit – Team Mike McEwen & Team Eve Muirhead

·         Dark horse Team of the Year – Team Adam Casey & Team Chelsea Carey

·         Most Improved Team of the Year (Tier 2 ranking) – Team Tom Brewster & Team Cissi Ostlund

8)    Fantasy Time – Ok, every sport has fantasy play options now.  Why not curling?  Seriously, what is the hold up here people?  I give props to CurlingZone for doing a fantasy curling Pick The Winner style game on their site.  At least this is something.  But is this enough?  I don’t think so.  Think of the opportunities here to grow the sport.  Why not something very simple like the Fantasy Football CFL Edition game TSN runs every year.  Each week, fantasy fans sign in and pick their top fantasy team for the week, the players you think will outperform the rest.  You start the week with a budget ($100K for example) and you decide how best to form your fantasy team.  For curling, perhaps you pick 2 skips, 2 thirds, 1 second, 1 lead and 1 overall team.  Each curler and each team would be given a different “cost” depending on their player profile (including history, season results etc).  Maybe you even go one step further and elevate Fantasy Curling to a Fantas-EH league style.  Fantasy players would join fantasy leagues and compete throughout the season against one another on a P2P basis.  Am I the only one who thinks this would add a new element to watching the Season of Champions every year?  Sure not all players compete every week but CFL and NFL teams have bye weeks as well.  If the team is not playing, you just don’t pick them.  There are enough events throughout the season and enough teams competing to have a consistent league.  Or, if you want, maybe you only do it for #GSOC events?  Perhaps a #GSOC Fantasy League.  The grand slam season has already seen change to benefit the players, let’s see some change to add a new element of the sport for the fans.  Imagine attending a #GSOC event, cheering on your fantasy team.  After the event, you go to the beer gardens and celebrate your fantasy week win with your winning players.  I think even the athletes would rally behind this idea.  Come on Sportsnet, TSN, Rogers...whomever....someone out there must want to sponsor this idea and get it going.  #TwineTime already is willing to be the guinea pig on a pilot fantasy league if needed.  Let’s make this happen for 2016/17.  What do you think curling fans? 

Ok sweepers, callers and armchair skips, there you have it.  Stay #BetweenTheSheets with #TwineTime throughout the season as I offer previews on the big events on the World Curling Tour and maybe even a few surprises along the way.  As always, join me in a conversation on here or on twitter.  The wait is over....we are ready to see some runbacks, crotch doubles, through the port draws and championship moments.    

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Welcome to Canada, Eh!
US Open Series hits the hard court in Toronto and Montreal

Welcome back TwineTimers!!  I hope all of you have enjoyed your summer, survived the heat and stayed hydrated (Beer Me!!).  After a brief absence from the sports blog world, #TwineTime returns.  And what a perfect event to focus my return blog on: The Rogers Cup.  Being the huge tennis fan I am, each August I get excited for the one event on the ATP/WTA tour calendar visiting our fair nation.  Want to talk about rich history as well?  The Rogers Cup (formerly known as the Canadian Open) will play it's 126th edition for the men and 114th for the women.  How crazy is that?

The Rogers Cup rotates between the host city for the ATP and WTA players.  This year, the men will take the court in Montreal while the women will pound the ball in Toronto.  The Rogers Cup is considered one of the top tier events on tour, ranking just below the Grand Slam events.  As part of the US Open Series, the Rogers Cup is an ATP World Tour 1000 and WTA Premier 5 event. 

What does this mean you ask?  Well, it means a requirement from both tour's that the top 64 players in the world will play (of course injuries can deplete a field as we have seen in the past).  In addition, the Rogers Cup serves as a highlight event on the US Open Series.  The US Open Series is separate from the world rankings where players earn special points from the 5 events leading into the US Open.  The Rogers Cup happens to be the middle event on the calendar.  Players can rack up the points and have a shot at a cool $1M extra prize money by winning the US Open Series and the US Open, something Rafa Nadal (2013) and Serena Williams (2013, 2014) recently accomplished.  A little known Canadian fact here: the 2014 ATP US Open Series champion was Milos Raonic.  Unfortunately for Milos he was unable to win the US Open, losing in the R16.  For a current update on the US Open Series standings, visit HERE!!   

So what should the tennis fan, whether beginner or hardcore, be looking for over the next week?  Let #TwineTime help you out.

Can Canada Shine? 
As is always the case when your home nation hosts an event, added pressure is on the host athletes to perform.  The Rogers Cup is no exception.  With the additional wildcard spots awarded mostly to Canadian athletes, this is a prime opportunity for not only the nation's top players (Milos, Genie, Vasek) to shine but also for the future of Tennis Canada to showcase their talent on the big stage.  The Rogers Cup/Canadian Open last saw a men's champion in 1958 (Robert Bedard) and 1969 (Faye Urban) on the women's side.  Unitl Milos Raonic's finalist appearance two years ago, both of those winners were the last time this event has even seen a Canadian finalist.  Ohhhh Canada indeed!

Milos will be making his return to the court after a lengthy injury absence and will be hard pressed in his first match against the big Croat and hard serving Dr. Ivo!  If Milos can make it to at least the QF round, I would consider his return a success here at home.  His matches are winnable and a possible QF clash with Stanimal could go either way.  To say he has a shot at winning this event might be a stretch but a shot to entertain the home crowd and give them someone to cheer for is very doable.

Genie is in a tailspin for her career and she is close to hitting rock bottom.  After a successful 2014, 2015 has been the exact opposite.  In fact, just winning 1 match seems to be a struggle lately.  Nothing is working.  Her game has completely deteriorated and she needs to send out the S.O.S. signal quick to try and save some of her season.  Once a top 5 player, she is barely holding on to a top 30 ranking.  Bouchard has just parted with yet another coach and one has to wonder what she needs to do to right the ship.  Perhaps playing at home in front of friendly Canadian fans can help?  Her draw is certainly going to be a challenge, facing off with the next #SwissMiss Bencic in the first round and, if she survives, drawing 2014 US Open finalist Wozniacki in round two.  I love Genie and have since her junior days but I just do not see her turning this around this week.  I want her to and I will be cheering as a member of #GenieArmy but I think the tumble continues.

On a bright side, #AnythingIsPospisil in 2015!  Vasek is coming off his first QF Grand Slam appearance at Wimbledon (losing to Andy Murray) and is the 2014 Wimbledon Doubles Champion (teaming with Jack Sock as the #CanAmConnection or #PospiSock).  Vasek has worked his way back into a Top 30 ranking and will be wise to do well in Montreal to try and clinch a seed for the US Open and, hopefully, earn an easier draw.  He is in the same section of the draw as #Stanimal and Milos mind you but could we see an All-Canadian QF matchup?

What about the future of Tennis Canada?  There are a few players to watch who could be the next Milos or Genie or Vasek.  Most notable, I would keep an eye on Filip Peliwo (who lost a tough 3 setter in his opening round unfortunately), Francoise Abanda and Carol Zhao (who is coming off a Pan Am gold medal win in women's doubles with Gabby Dabrowski).  Are these players a threat to go far in the tournament?  No, probably not but this is a great chance to see who will represent the Maple Leaf in future years.

Will The Favorites Reign Supreme? 
There will be no bigger favorite than Serena Williams.  Williams owns a career 20-1 record at the Rogers Cup with her only loss being in 2009 to Elena Dementieva.  And with Maria Sharapova withdrawing due to a right leg strain, it will be a shock to see any other woman lift the trophy over the weekend.  Last year's champ Aggie Radwanska is back to defend her title and Serena's best buddy Caroline Wozniacki could also give Serena a challenge.  A HUGE potential match to watch out for could be two-time Wimbledon champ (2011, 2014) Petra Kvitova vs. two-time Aussie Open champ (2012, 2013) Vika Azarenka in round two.  Vika is on her way back to elite status and Petra recently announced she is battling mono.  If these two play one another, the winner could just make a run right to the finals.

In Montreal, Novak Djokovic will be the favorite to hoist the hardware over the weekend.  His draw is quite friendly through to the QF but this will also be his first tournament since winning Wimbledon.  It will be interesting to see if the layoff affects his game.  If he is prone to an upset, it will happen early rather than later.  Crowd favorite Roger Federer unfortunately withdrew last week but there will be a Swiss fav on the court still with 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka.  The #Stanimal has a tough section of the draw but if he can navigate through, we could see a French Open championship rematch in the SF.  Andy Murray will be the class of the bottom half of the draw but could find some trouble in his quarter with 2014 Rogers Cup champ J-W Tsonga and 2015 US Open champ Marin Cilic, not to mention a possible third round encounter with Gael Monfils or giant killer Gilles Muller.  And don't forget Rafa!  Nadal has won this event three times before and will be looking to kick start his hardcourt season with a good showing in Montreal.

Is this a chalk tournament?
Ok sure the favorites are big name players and fully capable of making this a seeded tournament, but let's not count out some big name players on the cusp of moving into elite status.  In fact, the Rogers Cup has produced some upset winners and finalists in the past: Andrei Pavel (W, 2001), Mardy Fish (F, 2011), Sorana Cirstea (F, 2013).  If you are looking for a dark horse to rally behind, I would suggest these following two players:

Dominic Theim - The young Austrian is coming off quite a July.  He won back to back tournaments and comes to Canada off a SF appearance at his home nation event.  He is full of confidence right now, is up to a career high ranking of 18 and has a favorable draw to the 3rd round.

Alize Cornet - The Frenchwoman is on a path back to the Top 15 in the world.  Currently ranked 28, she has the makings of a Top 10 player.  Any player who can defeat Serena William three times in one season (2014) receives automatic mention for her game play.  She has a draw that suits up nicely for her style and could be a surprise.

Alright, there are a few things to watch as you sip a cold beverage and enjoy the middle of August.  As is tradition here on #TwineTime, let's get to the predictions.

ATP (Montreal)

3rd Round

(1) Novak Djokovic def. Jack Sock
Dominic Thiem def. (5) Tomas Berdych
(3) Stan Wawrinka def. Vasek Pospisil
(8) Milos Raonic def. Leonardo Mayer
(7) Rafa Nadal def. (9) Gilles Simon
(4) Kei Nishikori def. Sam Querrey
(6) Marin Cilic def. Borna Coric
(2) Andy Murray def. Gilles Muller


(1) Djokovic def. Thiem
(8) Raonic def. (3) Wawrinka
(7) Nadal def. (4) Nishikori
(2) Murray def. (6) Cilic


(1) Djokovic def. (8) Raonic
(2) Murray def. (7) Nadal

Rogers Cup Men's Championship:  (1) Novak Djokovic def. (2) Andy Murray - What a championship final we could be in for if the seeding holds up.  Novak has been on fire this year though and it is hard to bet against him on any surface.  Djoker is a three-time champion (2007, 2011, 2012).  The last time this event was held in Montreal, Novak suffered a SF defeat to Nadal.  Murray is a two-time champ (2009, 2010) but has only made it to the QF round once (2014) since his last win here.  Both have a rich history in this tournament, both are playing outstanding tennis right now and both are looking to gain ground on one another as a favorite entering the US Open.  This could be a final for the ages!  Novak and Andy are the same age, separated by only 1 week, and have the same goals for their careers.  They have played one another 27 times with Novak holding a 19-8 advantage.  On the hard courts, Djoker leads the series 16-6.  Since 2014, Murray has struggled to even mount a competitive fight in his matches with Novak.  Djokovic has won their last 8 matches with Murray only taking a TOTAL of 5 sets off of him.  Perhaps the upcoming baby announcement for Mr. Murray will help inspire him here in Montreal.

Rogers Cup Men's Doubles Championship:  (3) J.-J. Rojer / H. Tecau def. (7) J. Murray / J. Peers

WTA (Toronto)

3rd Round

(1) Serena Williams def. (16) Andrea Petkovic
(7) Lucie Safarova def. Roberta Vinci
(4) Caroline Wozniacki def. Sabine Lisicki
(11) Ekaterina Makarova def. (5) Ana Ivanovic
(12) Timea Bacsinszky def. (8) Garbine Muguruza
Victoria Azarenka def. (15) Sara Errani
Alize Cornet def. (6) Aggie Radwanska
(13) Angelique Kerber def. Jelena Jankovic


(1) Williams def. (7) Safarova
(4) Wozniacki def. (11) Makarova
Azarenka def. (12) Bacsinszky
(13) Kerber def. Cornet


(1) Williams def. (4) Wozniacki
Azarenka def. (13) Kerber

Rogers Cup Women's Championship:  (1) Serena Williams def. Victoria Azarenka - And the rivalry resumes!  The number one player in the world is focused on achieving the one thing she has left to do in the sport: complete the calendar year grand slam.  This is a perfect tune-up event for Serena.  She is a three-time champ (2001, 2011, 2013) and seems to thrive when this event is played in Toronto.  Last year was the first time she played in Montreal since her 2000 final loss (retired vs. Martina Hingis).  The Toronto hard courts seems to be like a second home to Serena as she will aim for her third straight tournament win here.  Vika, on the other hand, is still finding her groove since returning from a foot injury that saw her ranking crash into the Top 40.  Ok sure, a top 40 ranking is nothing to scoff at but for a Grand Slam champion like Azarenka, this was quite the dive and battle to return from.  Back up to a Top 20 ranking right now, Vika will want a strong result here in her push for a high seed at the US Open.  These two women are no strangers to one another as they have met 20 times with Serena holding a 17-3 advantage.  Serena has never lost a Grand Slam match with Azarenka and is 5-3 in career final matchups.  Just recently these two battled in the Wimbledon QF, with Serena fighting back en route to another title.  I am not sure Azarenka is up to the challenge quite yet on her comeback to go blow for blow with the stronger Serena but she is capable of giving her a tough match.  This would be a dream final for tennis fans as well.  We are yearning to see someone step up and challenge Serena on a regular basis and current #2 Sharapova just doesn't seem to be up for it.  Vika is a player who, despite the lopsided record, can at least push Serena in matches and is capable of beating her.

Rogers Cup Women's Doubles Championship:  (1) M. Hingis / S. Mirza def. (2) E. Makarova / E. Vesnina

There you have it my tennis ball boys and girls.  A preview of the action, with predictions, for the 2015 Rogers Cup.  As always, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section below or on twitter.  I am happy to be back blogging again and hope you all enjoy the read.

Enjoy the rest of summer....

2014 Rogers Cup Champion: J-W Tsonga
2014 Rogers Cup Champion: Aggie Radwanska