The River City Renegade


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About the greatest of them all Roger Federer…an emotional breakdown at Wimbledon…the still great Venus Williams…British knickers in a knot…a $1 million gaffe…and Sportsnet ignoring the CFL

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

I never thought I’d see a better running back than Jim Brown. I haven’t (although Gayle Sayers was absolutely breathtaking).

I never thought I’d see a better pitcher than Sandy Koufax. I haven’t.

I never thought I’d see a better baseball player than Willie Mays. I haven’t.

I never thought I’d see a better boxer than Muhammad Ali in his prime. I haven’t.

I never thought I’d see a better race horse than Secretariat. I haven’t.

I never thought I’d see a better hockey player than Bobby Orr. I haven’t.

I never thought I’d see a better tennis player than Bjorn Borg. I have. Roger Federer.

Roger Federer

Of all the athletes I have witnessed in my 66 1/2-year (so far) lifetime, Federer just might be the pinnacle. It’s a tough call, but he’s definitely in the discussion.

What I find most intriguing about Federer, who won his eighth Wimbledon singles title Sunday morning by dismantling a distraught Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 on the lumpy lawn of the All England Club’s Centre Court, is his casual greatness. He plays tennis with a Zen-like calm that suggests the game is more of a stroll than a struggle. While his foes fret and fuss, it’s like Federer’s lounging in a recliner. He makes it look so…dang…easy. I mean, why does the Swiss maestro bother with a towel, on or off court? It can’t be to wipe away sweat. He sweats like the Pope swears.

Federer has been the dominant force in what must be cataloged as the platinum age of men’s tennis, with only health managing to slow him down. Temporarily.

He disappeared to the repair shop immediately after the 2016 Wimbledon fortnight and re-emerged six months later to earn the Australian Open title, with a five-set victory over nemesis Rafael Nadal, long Federer’s Kryptonite. He’s won five of the seven tournaments he’s entered this year, and he’s 2-for-2 in Grand Slam events.

Federer did, of course, skip the French Open in late May/early June, a decision he might regret should he carry on to triumph at the U.S. Open. That, mind you, is not to say Federer can’t get the job done on clay. He’s won on every surface but the moon. Still, success in Paris this year (or any year) was extremely unlikely, because Roland Garros is a Rafa Nadal thing. Ten times a Rafa Nadal thing. Jesus in sneakers couldn’t beat an on-form Nadal in Paris. Thus, Federer passed on Paris and prepped for Wimbledon. The results are in. Good call.

So, who or what can beat and stop Federer? Age. Eventually. There’ll be 36 candles on his birthday cake next month, and the aging process has to kick in one of these years.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy this seemingly ageless athlete who’s one for the ages.

Marin Cilic

How do you spell both the men’s and ladies’ singles championship matches at Wimbledon? D-U-D-S. After a final week of superb play—the Rafa Nadal-Gilles Muller fifth set was spellbinding—the lasting image of the ultimate matches is not one of terrific shot-making but that of Marin Cilic being reduced to an emotional train wreck during a side changeover vs. Federer. That was wince-inducing and very painful to watch. Been there, done that on the field of play, which is why I wanted to cry right along with him.

What’s that you say? Women’s tennis is lacking star power? Well, yes it is, with Serena Williams becoming a mama and Maria Sharapova trying to figure out how to play without the aid of banned substances. But there’s hope. The two most recent Grand Slam champions are French Open queen Jelena Ostapenko, just 21 and a powder keg of charisma and talent, and Garbine Muguruza, the 23-year-old Venezuelan-born Spaniard who paddywhacked five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams 7-5, 6-0 in the ladies’ final. Muguruza is the only woman to beat both of the Williams sisters in a Grand Slam final.

Steve Simmons of Postmedia just can’t seem to get out of his own way. After Muguruza had mopped Centre Court with Venus Williams on Saturday, he wrote: “Williams was a dominant player in 2000 and 2001 when she won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Since then, a good player, just not a great one.” Really. I’m uncertain how Simmons measures greatness in athletes, but Williams won Wimbledon in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and only four women—her sister Serena, Justine Henin, Sharapova and Kim Clijsters—have won more Grand Slams post-2001. Venus also has won 10 doubles Grand Slams post-2001. Venus Williams has been a great, not just good, player and champion for two decades.

Tsk, tsk. Venus Williams was in the pink at Wimbledon.

Nobody does pomp better than the British, but nobody gets bent out of shape like the British, either. I mean, tsk-tsking Venus Williams because she’s wearing a pink bra? Ordering players to the changing room to put on white skivvies? Talk about getting your knickers in a knot over nothing.

Okay, enough about Wimbledon. It’s about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I’m sorry, but I simply didn’t understand all the teeth-gnashing and angst after the Bombers came out of the chute at 1-1. How bad was it? Bad enough that those two pesky Grumpets at the Winnipeg Free Press actually had a chin-wag during which sports editor Steve Lyons asked columnist Paul Wiecek if Thursday night’s assignment against the Toronto Argonauts was a “must win.” Are you kidding me? A “must win” three games into the Canadian Football League season? Come on, man. Don’t talk to us about must wins until the frost is on the pumpkin.

A drophead in the Freep described the Bombers-Argos joust as an “epic battle.” Ya, 10 field goals, that’s epic. The Argos failed to score an offensive touchdown. That’s epic like I’m Shania Twain. Come on, man.

Only one thing about that game was epic—the officiating blunder that jobbed Karen Kuldys out of $1 million. For those who missed it, Karen was the Safeway/Sobeys Touchdown to Win contestant, meaning if two kickoff returns went the distance she’d win a million Canadian bucks. Well, Ryan Lankford of the Bombers takes the opening kickoff to the house, then Martese Jackson of the Boatmen skedaddles 109 yards for a TD. But wait. There’s a flag on the play. One of the zebras has observed Toronto’s Llevi Noel ambushing Mike Miller from behind, whereas in fact the Bombers special-teamer has tripped over his own shoelace. No touchdown. No million Canadian bucks for Karen. The good news is, all Touchdown to Win contestants are now allowed one challenge flag per half.

So which head coach gets punted first, Chris Jones of the Saskatchewan Roughriders or Kent Austin of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats? The smart money has to be on Austin, whose Tabbies are winless. Somehow I don’t think there’ll be a whole lot of tears shed when he’s shown the door.

Two games in the CFL on Friday night and not a mention of either on the front page of the Sportsnet website at 2 o’clock Saturday morning. And this is the gang that trumpets itself as Canada’s #1 Sports Network. They had headlines about Kevin Klein signing to play hockey in Switzerland, some guy named Nikita Gusev signing to play hockey in Russia, and a piece on a Honda Indy practice, but nary a whisper about the CFL. I returned for a looksee at 4:30 a.m. Still nada. There was no mention of Wimbledon either. That, like dissing Venus Williams, is totally lame.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

 


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About the Secretariat of clay court tennis…a delight named Jelena…time for Chevy to get to work…and angry, old Grandpa Simmons is shaking his fist at clouds again

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Let’s make something perfectly clear: Stan Wawrinka is very, very good and what he does.

Unless your name is Roger Federer, Stan the Man is the best tennis talent ever produced in Switzerland. He is just one successful Wimbledon fortnight short of a career Grand Slam, having already claimed the singles titles at the Australian, French and U.S. Opens. He is ranked No. 3 among all racqueteers on the third rock from the sun.

Yet Rafael Nadal made No. 3 look like No. 303 in the men’s final at the French Open on Sunday in Paris.

It was like watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. Seriously, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1? In the championship match of a Grand Slam tournament? We haven’t seen a rout like that since Custer threw down on Crazy Horse at the Little Bighorn. Or at least since Rafa paddywhacked Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the 2008 championship match at Roland Garros.

But that’s what Rafa Nadal does. Put him on a tennis court made of clay and you have Secretariat.

Rafa Nadal

The wedgie Rafa delivered to Wawrinka on Sunday reminded me of something Yogi Berra mused about Sandy Koufax, scant seconds after the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander had whiffed 15 New York Yankees in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series:

I can see how he won 25 games,” said Yogi, the Yankees catcher. “What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”

It’s the same with Rafa Nadal. He’s won the title at Roland Garros 10 times, collecting 79 victories against two losses. How in the name of Philippe Chatrier did he lose twice?

Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2015) are the only foes to vanquish Rafa on the red clay of Roland Garros, and I have to assume French Open officials demanded that both men pee in a bottle immediately after their matches. I mean, you don’t beat Nadal in Paris unless there’s something funny in your drinking water.

Most people go to Paris for the food, the wine, the art, the culture and the romance. Nadal goes to search and destroy. He’s relentless, ruthless and has the steely-eyed focus of an assassin.

Wawrinka mentioned something about playing Rafa on a clay court being the stiffest challenge in tennis, and evidence supports that notion. Nadal has lost only twice at Roland Garros. In 13 years. He’s 102-2 in best-of-five matches on clay.

But Wawrinka is also selling the Spaniard short. It isn’t just tennis. Playing Rafael Nadal on clay is the greatest challenge in the entirety of sports.

Jelena Ostapenko

There’s hope for the future of women’s tennis, and her name is Jelena Ostapenko, the Latvian lass whose dashing and daring ruled the day at Roland Garros. The winners and unforced errors come in equal number from Ostapenko, but once she brings her service game up to the level of her groundstrokes (she hits her forehead harder than world No. 1 Andy Murray) the 20-year-old will become the face of the ladies’ game the moment Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova take their permanent leave. It isn’t just her substantial game, though. It’s her winning personality. On court, Ostapenko bares her emotions, off court she is the very picture of wide-eyed innocence, often giggling like a schoolgirl and forever smiling. She’s an absolute delight.

While watching the French Open this past fortnight, I found myself wondering this: How did Steffi Graf, Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and other legendary ladies’ champions win all those Grand Slam titles without the orgasmic shrieking and grunting that we hear today?

I heard a rumor that the National Hockey League season is over. If that’s true, someone give Kevin Cheveldayoff a nudge and tell the Winnipeg Jets general manager to “wakey, wakey.” It’s time for him to go to work.

I note that Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press has been tabbed for induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Roll of Honour in October. Good choice. Wiecek is the best sports columnist the Drab Slab has featured since Hal Sigurdson signed off in 1996, even when he’s writing about rock climbing.

Steve Simmons has become the Jose Bautista of sports writing: Tedious, tiresome and time to move on. I mean, it’s one thing for a columnist to be opinionated and rub the rabble the wrong way. That’s a large part of the gig. And Simmons surely has mastered the art of getting up noses with his alphabet farts that appear on sports pages of Postmedia sheets from one flank of the True North to the other. But…the Toronto Sun scribe has grown increasingly nasty and mean-spirited, if not cruel, in his commentary. He is Grandpa Simmons, shaking his fists at clouds and screaming at kids to get the hell off his lawn. A case in point is Simmons’ take on mixed doubles competition in Grand Slam tennis. When our girl Gabriela Dabrowski advanced to the mixed doubles final of the French Open last week, Mark Masters of TSN delivered this tweet: “No Canadian woman has won a mixed doubles grand slam title. Ottawa’s @GabyDabrowski has a chance to change that on Thursday.” To which Simmons responded: “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.” I’m not sure if that was supposed to be funny, witty or clever, but it was none of the above. It was classless, tacky and totally unnecessary, as were a series of insensitive follow-up tweets belittling Dabrowski’s and partner Rohan Bopanna’s achievement.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Simmons is pooh-poohing yet another event in sports. It’s become his shtick. Last year he was “bothered” by the selection of Rosie MacLennan as Canada’s flag-bearer for the Olympic Games in Rio, because trampoline is “a marginal pursuit” that “seems more backyard and gimmicky that it does Olympian.” He’s also advocated the elimination of women’s hockey at the Olympics, writing: “Women’s hockey is the least competitive, least interesting, least Olympic of all sports in the Winter Games. There should be a cry to end this Olympic charade of imbalance.” And he once told the Ryerson Review of Journalism that “I don’t believe there’s a demand from the public for women’s sports.” I’ll remind you that he writes for a newspaper that’s best known for the tits and ass it displays on Page 3 and, to this day, continues to objectify women with its Sunshine Girl.

Thanks to a study by neuroscientist Tara Swart, we now know what we’ve suspected all along: Journalists’ brains function at a sub-par level. For evidence, see: Simmons, Steve. (See, I can stoop to gratuitous, mean-spirited and nasty comments, too. You know, just like a real sports columnist at a real big-city newspaper.)

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.


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2016: It was very good year in the toy department

Top o’ the morning to you, 2016.

Talk about playing to a tough crowd. I mean, a lot of people are saying you’re the worst year. Ever. Ever. Ever. Yes, even worse than 1968, when a presidential candidate (see: Kennedy, Robert F.) and a civil rights giant (see: King Jr., Martin Luther) were gunned down in cold blood.

Chicago riots, 1968

Chicago riots, 1968

The King Jr. assassination in April 1968 ignited race riots in 130 cities and there were 46 riot-related deaths. Riot troops were positioned on the White House lawn and machine gun nests were established at the Capital. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August ’68, 10,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters clashed with 26,000 cops, national guardsmen and soldiers, who beat and wounded at least 1,000 civilians. Just under 200 cops also required medical attention. There were close to 600 arrests.

The black cloud that was 1968 also included…

  • North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, an intelligence ship. The North Koreans accused the 82-man crew of spying, then imprisoned, beat and tortured them for 11 months.
  • The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
  • Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the American Olympic team in Mexico after their silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the U.S.
  • Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.
  • American troops slaughtered 347 civilians in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
  • Richard Harris recorded the regrettable MacArthur Park, where someone left a cake out in the rain and they’ll never have that recipe again.

All that gloom and doom is a tough act to top, 2016. But apparently you trumped it, right down to the last drop of protesters’ blood. Pollster Angus Reid, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all say it’s so, so I guess that’s what you are, 2016—the…worst…ever.

Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos at the Summer Olympics in Mexico.

Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos at the Summer Olympics in Mexico.

But, hey, that’s why we have sports. To escape things like terrorism and an apparent racist, bigot and misogynist moving into the White House. And you didn’t let us down in the toy department, 2016. You were on your game, so to speak.

I mean, any time you can say “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!” the World Series, it has to be a very good year. The best year since 1908, the last time the Cubbies won the annual Fall Classic. That’s why more than 5 million people gathered for the championship parade in the Toddlin’ Town. And Chicago cops didn’t beat up anyone. You delivered a classic Game 7, 2016. Brilliant stuff. It’s just too bad the Cubbies had to beat the Cleveland Indians, who continue to look for their first WS title since 1948.

I guess you just didn’t want Cleveland to get greedy, though, 2016. After all, King LeBron James and his Cavaliers claimed the National Basketball Association crown, toppling the mighty Golden State Warriors in seven games after trailing 3-1. More brilliant stuff.

And what a gift you gave us in the Ottawa RedBlacks. They didn’t even exist four years ago, and already they’re champions of all they survey in the Canadian Football League. Their overtime victory against the star-studded Calgary Stampeders was even more brilliant stuff from you, 2016.

Naturally, a whole lot of folks in River City had been hoping that their beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers would have been in that 104th Grey Cup game, but at least you let them participate in the playoffs, 2016. It’s just a shame that you also chose the final seconds of that one-and-done post-season game to deliver head coach Mike O’Shea his signature moment of madness, when he had place-kicker Justin Medlock attempt an unmakeable 61-yard field goal.

Puck Finn

Puck Finn

You weren’t terribly kind to the Winnipeg Jets on the ice, 2016, but you blessed them with lucky bouncing ping-pong balls at the National Hockey League draft lottery, giving the locals the No. 2 shout overall in June. The harvest from that stroke of good fortune was Patrik Laine. Puck Finn has been dazzling ’em this season. I doubt that your heir, 2017, will give him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top freshman, because the guy chosen ahead of him by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the annual garage sale of freshly scrubbed teenagers, Auston Matthews, isn’t exactly chopped liver. And, of course, he’s sure to earn the eastern bloc vote. That’s okay, though. Puck Finn will be your gift that keeps giving long after your shelf life has expired, 2016.

What other delights did you deliver, 2016? Well, speaking of teenagers, there was Penny Oleksiak, the Toronto high school student who struck for swimming gold and collected three other medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. She’s a real sweetie.

So, too, is Brooke Henderson, who won her first Ladies Professional Golf Association major and one other tournament. A few of the boys on the beat weren’t kind to Brooke, but some jock journalists are always looking for dark clouds in silver linings.

kaepernickOne of the things I liked about you, 2016, is that you had a social conscious. You had San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired a discussion about racial discrimination in the United States. Unlike Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, Kaepernick wasn’t kicked off his team.

You also had 56 openly gay athletes competing in the Rio Olympics and winning 25 medals—11 gold, 10 silver and four bronze—and lesbian Amanda Nunes is an Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder who walloped Ronda Rousey in just 48 seconds on Friday night in Las Vegas. You told North Carolina you wouldn’t tolerate its anti-LGBT legislation and announced that the 2017 National Basketball Association all-star game would be moved out of Charlotte.

You let us watch Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Big Papi ride off into the sunset. A-Rod did, too, although I suppose not a whole lot of folks care that he’s bid adieu.

You allowed us to say farewell to The Greatest, the King and Mr. Hockey—Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and Gordie Howe. We didn’t mourn their deaths so much as we celebrated their athletic accomplishments, their lives and their legacies.

Sour Hope Solo

Sour Hope Solo

All of this is not to say you were without your rough edges, 2016. You did, after all, give us two ugly Americans in Rio. The disgraced duo would be soupuss soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo and swimmer Ryan Lochte. Solo branded the Swedish women’s side a bunch of “cowards” because they refused to play a run-and-gun game with the U.S., while Lochte claimed to have been robbed with a cocked gun pointed at his head. In reality, he was taking a pee on the wall outside a Rio gas station.

Those were mere blips, though, 2016. And they were easily offset by Jimmie Johnson claiming his record-tying seventh NASCAR driving title, Leicester City, a 5,000-1 longshot, winning the English Premier League soccer title, and the great Serena Williams earning her 22nd Grand Slam tennis championship to equal the equally great Steffi Graf.

You were a wonderful year, 2016, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.