Friday, August 23, 2013

The Sports Medley Vol. 3

The Sports Medley returns as I compile my thoughts on sporting developments over the last week.

Serena's tough first round

Serena Williams usually starts any grand slam winning a few sets to love as she steamrollers onto the second week. Hence, it's a refreshing change that her first opponent as she defends her US Open crown is the 2010 French Open champion - Francesca Schiavone. The Italian hasn't managed to maintain the lofty standards that saw her reach two consecutive finals at Roland Gross, but is nonetheless a worthy first round adversary compared to the pantheon of anonymous players ranked below 50 that serve as cannon fodder for the top ten in the first three rounds of grand slams.

Having a tricky opponent first up could actually be to Serena's benefit. The world number one's best grand slam performances have often come when she has received a wake up call in the early rounds, as it only increases her focus and enhances her match preparation against tougher opponents in later rounds. For Schiavone, a good performance in the match with her nifty approaches and angled volleys will certainly be a nice reminder of her talent for the tennis community.

Murray and Djokovic in the same draw

I can appreciate that the beauty of having draws in sports competitions is the random and unexpected nature of match-ups they can throw up. However, at times I do feel rather frustrated that more isn't done to separate certain teams and players in different sections of the draw. One particular example is this year's US Open Men's singles draw pairing Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the same half of the draw.

Lest it be forgotten, these two men have competed against each other in three of the last four grand slam finals. For all of Rafael Nadal's unrelenting consistency in Masters Series tournaments, Djokovic and Murray have been the standard bearers in grand slams. To compound matters, the two biggest challengers to the big four, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych are also in the same half of the draw. The odds on Nadal winning the whole thing have just become shorter.

Kallis in the frame for South Africa's 2015 World Cup squad

South African cricket legend Jacques Kallis has been included in the 50 over squad for the series against India. The selection is a testament to the 37-year old's enduring quality as the leading all-rounder ever to have played the international game. There is no denying that South Africa are a better team with Kallis in the side, and rarely has a single player's presence offered such balance to a side.

The veteran has spoken of his desire to be a part of the Proteas 2015 World Cup squad, and pending any fitness issues there is no reason why Kallis shouldn't be in Australia and New Zealand. However it does beg the question, how are South Africa going to cope after Kallis eventually retires? All-rounders such as Albie Morkel, Wayne Parnell and Ryan McLaren have been exposed as charlatans on the international stage on numerous occasions. Cricket South Africa should speed up the process of establishing the foundations of a successful long-term plan without their veteran, or they will inevitably face the succession challenges that are dogging Australia right now.

Watson and Smith - Too little, too late

Shane Watson and Steven Smith scored two good centuries in the fifth and final Ashes test at the Oval. Watson took the attack to the English bowlers, and was especially aggressive against debutants Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan. While Smith started cautiously, and faced several testing moments before he reached 50, he became more assured as his innings went along bringing up his maiden test century with a straight six off Jonathan Trott.

Individual innings scores of 176 and 138 are not to be scoffed at in test cricket, but one can't help but wonder that the duo have come late to the party. If either batsman had at least scored 40 in the second innings of Australia's chase at Chester-Le-Street, it would have guided Australia to a crucial victory. In stead they succumbed under pressure, consequently rendering their centuries in the dead rubber a tad hollow.

Willian or Will he sign?

On Wednesday it seemed like the Brazilian Willian would be Tottenham Hotspur's record signing after passing a medical at White Hart Lane. Columns and blogs were analyzing how the attacking midfielder - the latest in a list of impressive summer additions at Spurs, would fit in to the playing eleven and improve the team's creativity from the centre. A phone call from Roman Abramovich to Suleyman Kerimov on Thursday morning quickly changed things, as the Chelsea owner offered more money to his counterpart at Anzhi Makhachkala than Spurs did, and lo and behold Willian will be wearing blue in stead of white for the remainder of the season.

The transfer is perplexing on so many levels, this is without even taking Willian's motives into consideration. Anzhi bought him from Shakhtar Donetsk in January, before offering him to clubs around Europe this summer as Kerimov embarked on a fire sale of his expensively assembled squad. On Monday, Liverpool were in pole position to sign the Brazilian, but Spurs stepped in with a bigger offer, only to be beaten at their own game by Chelsea. Quite how Willian figures in Mourinho's plans is open to conjecture, as the manager is already having to deal with speculation due to the difficulties of rotating the six attacking midfielders currently in the squad. By many accounts Abramovich and Mourinho have mellowed since their first union at Stamford Bridge, but the feeling persists that to some extent, Chelsea are still a footballing madhouse.

The Premier League is back.... and so is poor refereeing

On Wednesday evening, Chelsea and Aston Villa played out a fascinating and well-fought match at Stamford Bridge, highlighting what makes the Premier League so special. After Chelsea opened the scoring in the sixth minute, many expected the Villains to be on the end of another slaughter after their 8-0 drubbing in the corresponding fixture last season. In stead, Christian Benteke brought Aston Villa level on the stroke of half time with a peach of a strike, and Villa looked extremely threatening on the break in the second half.

Branislav Ivanovic was lucky not to be sent off after clearly elbowing Benteke, and to rub salt into Paul Lambert's wounds, he scored the winning goal barely two minutes later. In a throwback to Mourinho's first reign, John Terry displayed his long-forgotten art of escaping with goalkeeping in the penalty box with a blatant handball in injury time. Not that Lambert can complain too much, considering how Villa benefitted from the referee's largesse during their opening day victory at Arsenal. The signs aren't good this early in the season, but lets hope refereeing howlers are minimal for the rest of the campaign.

From Karaganda to Kabul, the romance of football prospers

It's easy to become cynical about the beautiful game during the summer, with stories of unethical transfers and the insatiable greed of players dominating the headlines. However, there are always stories that remind us about why so many people around the world love football.

In the midst of crucial Champions League qualifiers taking place across Europe, Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan announced their arrival on the big stage with a 2-0 win over Celtic in the first leg of their playoff. Many have decried Kazakhstan's entry into UEFA, with the former Soviet Republic on the receiving end of a few unflattering scores against Europe's finest. Nonetheless, in a sporting culture where football is king, it was only a matter of time before Kazakhstan reached respectable standards, and Shakhter's memorable win was founded on principles of hard work, team unity and skill. Celtic, themselves victorious as underdogs on many famous nights, got a taste of their own medicine as they came up against a club that were in the words of coach Viktor Kumykov, playing as 'Kazakhstan United'. Irrespective of whether Celtic are able to overturn the deficit at Parkhead, Shakhter Karagandy have played themselves into the hearts and minds of football fans all over the world.

Equally heart-warming for the footballing fraternity was the international friendly between the national teams of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul. That the home team won 3-0 is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. In two countries plagued by war and conflict, not to mention cross-border tension, football was a nice way to remember the kinship and brotherhood that exists between the majority of citizens of these two proud nations. The successful staging of the friendly follows a successful first season of the Afghan Premier League which was played out in front of sellout crowds, even though players had a salary of just ten dollars a day, with the winners pocketing $25,000 at the end of the season. Events in Karaganda and Kabul remind us that even in cynical times, the romance of football continues to prosper.
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