The River City Renegade


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About clowns in mainstream media…depth in pro tennis…lady star power…budget cuts at TSN…too much Nadal-Federer…great rivalries…sports scribes defecting…and aiming for 50 years

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

Venus Williams

Steve Simmons has secured his position as the biggest assclown in Canadian sports media.

It’s one thing to have an ego higher than the CN Tower and deliver opinion, which the Postmedia columnist and TSN talking head offers in abundance, but Simmons totally lost the plot when he stooped to age shaming on the return of The Reporters with Dave Hodge to TSN’s air Sunday morning.

Discussing the U.S. Open, Simmons said:

Women’s tennis is in a bad way without Serena (Williams). There’s no real star. You’ve had four Grand Slams this year and four different winners. Venus Williams is in a final at Wimbledon and she’s what, 92 years old or something like that?”

Shameful. Also objectionable, rude and insulting in the extreme. It might even have an undercurrent of sexism.

I mean, Simmons had no quarrel with Roger Federer winning Wimbledon in July, scant days before he blew out 36 candles on his birthday cake. It was bravo Roger. Called him the “best ever” before the Swiss maestro rag-dolled Marin Cilic in the final. Thing is, Federer is just one year and two months younger than Venus Williams, who was beaten by Garbine Muguruza in the Wimbledon ladies’ final.

Serena Williams

It’s good for tennis that 37-year-old Venus Williams didn’t win,” he wrote. “To win now would speak badly for the state of women’s tennis.”

But it was okay for a 36-year-old man to win Wimbledon? Interesting logic.

Once he was done age bashing Williams, Simmons—he’s 60, by the way—attacked the depth of the women’s game, comparing it unfavorably to the men’s draw. “There isn’t the depth…you look at men’s tennis, there’s the core at the top and then there’s about 15 deep of really good players,” he stammered. “It doesn’t exist on the women’s side.” Really? Factual evidence supports the notion that Grandpa Simmons is full of the stuff that comes out of the south end of a bull. In the past 48 men’s Grand Slam finals, only three lads not named Nadal, Federer, Murray or Djokovic have won—Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic. They’ve combined for a grand sum of five titles. In 12 flipping years! Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic claimed the other 43. For those of you scoring at home, that’s Big Four 43, Rest of World 5. That’s deep like a thimble.

Grandpa Simmons pooh-poohs the women’s side for delivering four different Grand Slam champions this year, as if that’s a bad thing. Yet he says there’s no depth on tour. Total contradiction. Total clown. You want depth? Sixteen women not named Williams have combined for 30 titles in the past 48 majors. None of the four women who won a Grand Slam this year was a top seed. Serena Williams was the closest, seeded second at the Australian Open. The French and U.S. Open champions, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens, were unseeded and ranked world Nos. 47 and 83, respectively. The Wimbledon winner, Muguruza, was seeded 14th and ranked world No. 15. The final four at the U.S. Open—Venus Williams, Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe and Stephens—were world Nos. 9, 16, 22 and 83.

Maria Sharapova

As for “no real star” on the women’s side…excuse me? Apparently Grandpa Simmons missed the memo advising us that Maria Sharapova is back on tour. No female athlete on this planet has more star power than her Royal Blondeness. The bottom line on her bank statement is proof. Had there been a lack of oomph to the women’s tour? You bet. Then Ostapenko happened on the red clay of Roland Garros. She’s a spark plug. Muguruza has style and tremendous appeal. Stephens is a bundle of charisma. Now Sharapova is back, and new mama Serena Williams hopefully will resurface at the Australian Open in January, perhaps with her bambino in tow. I’d pay to watch any of them play. Venus Williams, too. She should be saluted, not scorned, for being so competitive at age 37.

Guess the weekly commute from Montreal to the Republic of Tranna is quite costly, because Michael Farber was cut from the starting lineup on The Reporters due to budget restrictions. I just wish they’d given us a vote on who got culled from the herd.

Rafa and Roger

Grandpa Simmons wasn’t the only scribe donning a clown costume last week. Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail tells us he’s had his fill of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Doesn’t want to see them anymore. “For its own sake, men’s tennis needs to start moving on from its top-two fetish,” he scribbles in a rambling treatise. “And not just as far as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who are exactly like their better, older peers, only boring. Tennis needs to turn a page, rip the page out, then find a new book. We’ve been at this for a decade and it started to get old when Stephen Harper was still in charge. It’s time to move on from the greatest rivalry in the history of men’s tennis.” Oh, yes, by all means let’s do that. I mean, doesn’t everyone want to see Kevin Anderson in more Grand Slam finals? Good grief. Get a grip, man.

Here’s what Kelly wrote after Roger Federer had won the Australian Open last January: “We now have to confront the real possibility that Federer might never stop being great at tennis. Maybe he’ll just go on forever. Nobody would complain.” And now here he is, eight months later, complaining about Federer seemingly going on forever. Sigh.

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe

My five favorite all-time rivalries…
1. Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe: Bjorn was my main man.
2. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier: Brutal, especially the Thrilla in Manilla.
3. Jack and Arnie: I was a member of Arnie’s Army.
4. Secretariat-Sham: Never saw anything like Secretariat, before or since 1973.
5. Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert: Liked Chrissie until she got engaged to loathsome Jimmy Connors.

Longtime hockey scribe Eric Duhatschek has defected from the Globe and Mail to The Athletic Calgary, part of an expanding online sports venture that features some top-level writing talent. Pierre LeBrun, Michael Russo, James Mirtle and Craig Custance are among the ever-growing stable of scribes at The Athletic, which now has franchises in each of Canada’s National Hockey League cities. No word on who’s covering the Jets and Blue Bombers in Winnipeg, but Mirtle, the man putting it all together, says she or he is on the way.

I walked into a newsroom for the first time 48 years ago yesterday. My hope was to stay at the Winnipeg Tribune for 50 years. Neither of us made it. The Trib went toes up in my 11th year and I felt obliged to bail from the rag trade after 30 years. To the day. None of the people with whom I worked at the beginning—running mail and copy to the various departments inside the old building at the corner of Smith and Graham—remain in the newspaper business. Five of the sports guys—Jack Matheson, Uncle Vince Leah, Gus Collins and freelancers Harold Loster and Ron Meyers—are dead. The very nice man who took a chance and hired a scrawny, 18-year-old kid fresh out of Miles Macdonell Collegiate on Sept. 10, 1969, Don Delisle, left us 10 years ago this month. I’m not sure how and why I’m still here, but I believe I shall continue to crank out the crap for a bit longer. Might still make it to 50 years. Or maybe just five more days. We’ll see.

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 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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Caster Semenya: Why are so many hung up on her looks?

Be honest. It isn’t Caster Semenya’s ridiculously high testosterone levels that bother you. It’s her physical appearance. Also her voice. That’s the rub.

Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya

If Semenya looked and sounded like, say, Lynsey Sharp or Melissa Bishop, the volume on the rhetoric re her perceived (or real) “unfair advantage” in female foot racing would be turned down. Sharply. It would seem less of a witch hunt and more of a reasoned conversation that grants equal consideration to both pro and con.

But Semenya doesn’t look like Sharp or Bishop, does she?

Ignore, if you can, the hue of their skin. The British and the American runners are lean and lithe, blonde-haired and blue/green-eyed. A photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is more likely than someone in a lab coat knocking on their doors and demanding they piddle into a bottle and lift their skirts to confirm they are not boys. Semenya, meanwhile, is ripped and rawbone, her raven-black hair styled in tight corn rows and her eyes threatening and as dark as midnight. SI photogs won’t be quick to ask her to slip into something skimpy. The boys in the lab coats, meanwhile, already have stood on her doorstep and have the samples.

That’s why many of the people who watch Semenya run don’t see her run. All they see is someone different. Someone who doesn’t belong. Someone who doesn’t fit into the pigeon holes of their cisgender template.

Lynsey Sharp and Melissa Bishop

Lynsey Sharp and Melissa Bishop

The jury in the court of public opinion seemingly has found Semenya guilty. But of what? She isn’t cheating, not by any measure. Her ability to arrive first at the finish line of an 800-metre race isn’t the product of a pill in a bottle or the point of a needle poked into her butt cheeks. Nor is her strength. She has naturally elevated testosterone levels for a female, and her training regimen is of a rigidity befitting an athlete of Olympic-champion loft. So, she’s guilty of? Looks. Or, based on societal stereotyping, lack thereof.

Society doesn’t demand that its female champions be pretty, but it is more accepting if they are. Think Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Anyone ever question Sharapova’s femininity? As if. She’s long, lean, lithe and cover girl gorgeous. What about Williams? Accusations of manism began to dog her not long after she and sister Venus arrived on the tennis scene as teenagers with beaded hair. As recently as two years ago, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers.” He added it was “frightening when you look at them.”

The focus always seemed to be on Serena’s physical package—the hands, the forearms, the biceps, the shoulders, the back, the neck, the jaw, the forehead…all too big, too masculine. The fits of pique, anger and aggression? The threatening gestures? That’s the way male athletes behave, not women. Better check that Williams girl’s testosterone levels. Must be too high.

Only in the past 20 months, as her Grand Slam championship total rose to near-unparalleled achievement, has Serena gained wide-spread acceptance and admiration. There now is more discussion about her loft in tennis and sporting lore than her looks.

I fear a similar happily-ever-after ending is unlikely for Semenya.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams

I suppose had the 25-year-old South African finished well up the track and not struck gold in the women’s 800-metre final at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last weekend—leaving a flock of frustrated and, yes, embittered “real” females in her wake—the temperature of the conversation would be lower. But as long as Semenya is ruled eligible to compete in female foot races, we’ll hear considerable braying about a “man running against women” and an “unfair advantage.” (As if those flippers that swimmer Michael Phelps calls feet aren’t unfair and an advantage.)

In Semenya’s case, I don’t think it’s about what’s fair or unfair. It’s about insisting that females fit into society’s one-size-fits-all schematic. She doesn’t look the part, therefore she shouldn’t be allowed to play the part.

That, of course, is a ridiculously shallow interpretation of a definition.

As was the case with Serena Williams, much of the slander directed toward Semenya’s appearance is cruel, mean spirited and ignorant. It also means that the South African shall forever be running with an asterisk. There always will be a “ya, but” placed behind any mention of her accomplishments.

Apparently, it’s okay for a female to run, leap, swim, throw, kick and punch “like a man,” just as long as she doesn’t “look like a man” while doing it.

Sigh.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 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.