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Category Archives: Writing

La Monf, late to the match, finally shows

For four sets Thursday evening, we were privileged to see Gael Monfils, the most athletic person to play tennis, play the sport.

Monfils, as he had been in earlier rounds of this year’s US Open, was focused. He took no points off. He saved games against Roger Federer with 137 m.p.h. aces. He talked to himself to pump himself up, not to dismantle his game.

This was the Gael Monfils we had been waiting to see and had previously enjoyed, see Murray v. Monfils, 2014 French Open, sets three and four.

Thursday, for four sets, Monfils of the past, the one who quit playing during matches, was gone. Or so we, or maybe just me, thought.

Then, at the worst possible time, or, for Monfils, right on time, the old Monfils showed up.

It was the game after Monfils had lost two match points. Fourth set. 5-6. 40-40. Monfils serving. Two double faults.  And then, too predictably, came the full arrival of the other side of Monfils, one of the most enigmatic people to play tennis.

He quickly lost the next two games. Federer evened the match at two sets all.

And the predictions for a total collapse were streaming:

Monfils painfully made Thomas and others correct by making odd decision after odd decision.

Monfils, already down 1-2 in the fifth, tried a tweener from the middle of the baseline on a very regular net shot from Federer. During changeovers, he walked to his chair with his head sulking. The Monfils who had talked to himself to excite himself in the third set was gone.

La Monf lost the fifth, 2-6.

Sure, we should have expected this, a Monfils collapse in the fifth against one of the best competitors of all-time. But Thursday felt different. Monfils hadn’t lost a set in this year’s US Open. Days earlier, he had too convincingly beaten Grigor Dimitrov, who made the semifinals at Wimbledon, in straight sets.

The antics of old seemed gone. Monfils, coachless, was a new player, or so we all wanted to believe.

“He was focused. He was muted,” Brad Gilbert said during the ESPN broadcast. “And then when he got to the opportunity, he couldn’t take it.”

In the end, it was Federer, talking on-court to Gilbert after the match, best summed up the match, the tournament and tennis careers: “You’ve just got to give it all you have each point.”

The Big Four, March 2014

Amidst the Big Four shakeup that was the 2014 Australian Open, we rightfully questioned tennis’ royalty, the Big Four, in both name and future. Consider: the Monday after the Australian Open, the Big Four were ranked Nos. 8, 6, 2 and 1.

A month later, we deflect the hype and measure the Big Four’s more complete starts to 2014.

Roger Federer

Federer has the strongest start to 2014 of the Big Four. (Lesson: Set the bar low.) The GOAT dispensed of Murray in the Australian Open, only losing to Rafael Nadal, who was, unsurprisingly, playing unreal tennis.

And a month later, Federer has already matched his 2013 title haul by winning his sixth Dubai ChampionshipsMoreover, his mind is right and his back is better. All good signs that Federer, whatever version, is back for 2014.

Andy Murray

Hard to share a fair read on Murray so far. He explicitly lowered his expectations before Australia and rightfully so after the back surgery.

One way to read his 2014: He’s had a rough start. Murray didn’t reach the Australian Open finals for only the second time in five years. Last month at Acapulco, he lost in the semis.

Another, more realistic way to view his year so far: He’s had a solid start. He reached the quarters of the AO, pushing a resurgent Federer to four sets. Murray also has been able to stay healthy so far this year. (Knock on wood.)

From ESPN news services:

He played four matches in four days, including three three-setters and some late-night finishes, without his surgically repaired back bothering him.

“I woke up the next morning feeling good for the first time since the surgery,” Murray said Monday.

With Murray in 2014, we, again, recognize the beauty of not expecting much.

Novak Djokovic

Here, we can authoritatively say that Djokovic has had a rough start to 2014. Djokovic, three-time AO champion, a gladiator in five-set battles with Stan Wawrinka and whomever else challenges him Down Under, was upset in the quarters to Our Man Stan. That was unexpected.

We can cut the upset a couple ways. In five-set marathons in which the players are so evenly matched and three points decide the match, a guy is probably going to lose one of the contests at some point. We could say the AO was simply Djokovic’s turn and Wawrinka’s breakthrough. But Djokovic also has been the guy who has owned these matches. In 2012, he beat Nadal in a five-set AO final. What’s going on?

All that said, we’ll take the contrarian viewpoint with Djokovic and remain bullish the rest of the way. With all the questions and doubts swirling around him, he’s too good not to revive the year in a big way.

Rafael Nadal

Nadal might have scared us the most so far this year, which is fitting, because he freaked out the tennis world in 2013. Despite the awkward final in Australia, we give the world’s No. 1 an excellent grade for his 2014 start.

Nadal made the finals of the AO, a Major he has won only one other time. Nadal in Australia wasn’t Nadal cruising on clay in Paris; this was Nadal fighting and dominating on a fast surface. Scary, indeed.

Of course, thanks to tennis’ crazy season, in which year outlooks turn on a week’s worth of results, this could all change in a mere 10 days. In that case, enjoy the tennis.



An Iowan moves South, learns about winter

I spent my first 20 winters in northern Iowa. When I was 10, school was cancelled for days because the temperature was more than 30 below zero – “polar vortex” before meteorologists created sci-fi names for cold weather.

When I moved to Columbia, S.C., last fall, I thought I knew everything about winter. But little did I know that my first winter in the South would teach me something that I had never learned while living in the Midwest, something that would save homeowners and renters like myself hundreds of thousands of dollars.

During the middle of the Deep Freeze, I went for my midday walk. It was still about 37 degrees here and sunny. Not warm, but pleasant enough for a stroll. As I enjoyed the walk, I politely chuckled as I thought about how South Carolinians were so worried about this cold air. And then I saw this by the entrance of an apartment complex:

Polar Vortex hits Cola

Keep your cabinet doors open? Keep thermostat above 60 degrees? Where was I?

I had never heard such warnings during any Missouri, Nebraska or Iowa winter. Sure, it was colder than usual in S.C., but nothing unbearable; the temperature was forecasted to be about 10 degrees, not 30 below.

So I did the only thing that would prove my point: I Googled this foolishness. I read about cold weather in the South and this outlandish “freezing of pipes” warning. And then, as often happens when you think you’re smarter and wiser than most, I learned something even more interesting: I was wrong.

The Weather Channel informed:

Water pipes in houses in southern climates often are more vulnerable to winter cold spells. The pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation, and homeowners tend to be less aware of freezing problems, which may occur only once or twice a season.

This all made too much sense for even me to continue about, acting as if I was the bearer of all winterly knowledge. I quit the act.

The next day, before leaving home for work, I even sort of played along; I set my thermostat to 55 degrees.

The Tale of a Spoiled Fan

As a sports fan, I have been spoiled, and it has come to my attention that I have acted in such a manner as well.

I have only myself to blame.

(Isn’t that how all sappy confessions begin?)

But in mostly seriousness, I think it started in the early 2000s, or whatever that funny word is that people call the decade we just passed. The Iowa State Cyclones were starting to win more often, and the Minnesota Twins were drafting and developing the players that would start this recent division-title run.

Finally, the Twins had stopped competing with the Kansas City Royals for the worst team in baseball title. And the Cyclones had quit being the unofficial bye on everyone’s schedule.

The Cyclones made it to the 2000 Bowl, and won, beating the Panthers of Pittsburgh, who had a couple giraffes of their own in Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald, only two of the NFL’s best receivers these days.

I was pumped.

The Cyclones kept winning, too. It was a weird time in the Big 12 North. The Cornhuskers of Nebraska were losing more, and no one else wanted to win more games than they had been winning, except Iowa State.

This is when Iowa State specifically spoiled me and I didn’t even know it. Two years in a row, the Cyclones had chances to win the Big 12 North outright. They failed both times, losing in two of the most awful losses ever. (Seriously. Ask anyone who has seen both of those games, and they’ll tell you the same thing.)

It was typical Iowa State, the haters said, including Cyclone fans. I might have even said it, letting my hostile emotions control my frustrated mind. If I were to have said such a thing, it was me not appreciating Iowa State playing for the Big 12 North titles and sharing the title with another team. Those were strong accomplishments, and I should have been more thankful to the ‘Clones.

I didn’t say I should have been complacent. No, there’s a different definition for complacency than there is for appreciation. I could have appreciated the games while not desiring the false feeling of satisfaction. But I was just a kid, a high school-aged kid who wanted my team to win like Ohio State. Every year.

As I mentioned, I was also a big Twins fan. And the Twins were big fans of division titles. In 2002, they won the AL Central, shocking almost everybody.

I was ecstatic.

And then the Twins beat the Oakland A’s and slipped into the ALCS. That’s four games away from the World Series. That’s where two teams from each league advance every year. That’s very hard to do.

But, because I was just a kid, a punk kid who thought he knew everything about sports, I didn’t realize how big of a deal this was or how hard it was for teams to go to the ALCS. This time, the Twins spoiled me, and, again, I didn’t get it.

The Twins won the division again in 2004, 2006 and 2008. That’s very good. Not many teams have done that, especially teams from not monstrous markets that allow them to have monstrous payrolls, such as Boston or New York or L.A.

In 2009, the Twins won one of the most exciting games in Twins history and made it to the playoffs for the fifth time in the last eight years. This year, I was just happy the Twins made the playoffs. Next year, I thought, next year the Twins will go back to the ALCS.

Next year was this year, and again, (I know, it’s getting old) the Twins lost in the first round of the playoffs. They lost to the Yankees, too. The frickin’ Yankees swept the Twins. In baseball, everyone hates the Yankees. But Twins fans especially hate the Yankees. HATE.

And after this last sweep, I was very frustrated. I remember thinking I was tired of division titles, thinking I’d rather win it all every 10 years and not go to the playoffs any other year than go to the playoffs every year and lose. Ugh.

Weeks later, I had time to reflect on my thoughts, and I again realized that was something a spoiled fan would think and say, and that’s what I thought and said.

I had forgotten how much fun I had had at a couple Twins games last summer, how much I loved watching Twins baseball and how much I cherished talking about the Twins with my best buddies. I love the Twin. But I was also spoiled, which made me forget how much I would always love the Twins, even if they lose in the first round every year. (Let’s not let that happen, though. OK, Ron?)

By this time, the Cyclones had become my second-favorite college team. I graduated from the University of Missouri.

During my second year at Mizzou, the Tigers spoiled me. They won their first few games against easy teams, like they always do. And they even beat the hard teams, except Oklahoma. But the Tigers were ranked No. 1.

In the following years, Mizzou would beat the easy teams again but lose a couple more games to the hard teams, the better teams during that year. These Mizzou teams still were good, though: they had good records, good players and went to good bowl games. I should have been happy about Mizzou football. They were getting better, I was having fun at games. Life was good. But I was sometimes frustrated, even a little perturbed that Mizzou didn’t do better.

I think I wanted the 2007 year every year, which, of course, is hard to do for any college football team, especially when you lose your best players from that team to the NFL.

After all this, all of these times in which I should have realized I was spoiled, it took Mizzou beating Texas A&M a couple weekends ago for it to hit me.

I was answering a question about Mizzou from a buddy. I was telling him Mizzou always schedules the easy opponents early in the year, which gives Mizzou early wins but also doesn’t tell fans a lot about the team. We’ll see how Mizzou does against A&M. I didn’t sound optimistic but I didn’t sound pessimistic, either; I sounded unsure. I sounded like a spoiled fan.

Even if Mizzou would have lost to A&M – they didn’t, of course – but even if they did, I should have appreciated 5-0 starts. I should have appreciated a shutout of Colorado. Georgia fans would have loved a shutout of Colorado. The Buffaloes beat the Bulldogs by two points. I should have remembered that and been thankful my Tigers had not done the same.

I should have been happy, but I was cautionary. I was spoiled.

That’s enough spoiled for me, though. I’ve decided. That’s why I wrote this little essay, The Tale of a Spoiled Fan. I wrote “a” spoiled fan instead of “the” spoiled fan because a lot of fans are spoiled. A lot of fans could learn to be more appreciative than spoiled, could learn to love their teams for who they are that year and for what they’ve done. For all the good times.

It’s time we acted less like spoiled fans and more like privileged people, including you Royals fans. Well, on second thought, Royals fans, complain away.

Best class ever?

Sportswriting as Cultural Commentary: In this writing-intensive seminar, students will examine the work of prominent writers – from A.J. Liebling to Michael Lewis – paying special attention to the way they use sports as a means of expounding on larger and more complex cultural topics. Students will complete a variety of writing assignments, including a final long-form work suitable for publication. A passion for sports is not a prerequisite. A passion for writing is, however, essential.

iPod or handshake?

I remember my first few days at the University of Missouri.

I was a baby-faced 20-year-old with a white man’s afro. (I know; I haven’t changed much in the last four years.)

Every time I walked to class from my dorm room, 636 Schurz Hall, my eyes grew as I passed the leaves changing beautiful and the flowers staying gorgeous.

I saw thousands of students trampling across Speaker’s Circle, striding to Management 3000, chatting with friends on their cell phones or listening to Crazy by Gnarls Barkley on their iPod. They’d walk across the quad, doing similar things, engaging with gadgets rather than people, rarely looking up to even acknowledge the person passing them but always looking down, always staring into that four-inch square that somehow played music or produced a more-preferable voice.

And there was me, the new, friendly kid living away from home for the first time in a new city that was more than three times bigger than my old city, my hometown of Mason City, Iowa. There was me, somewhat disheartened.

This was a big school, yes – some 28,000 students at the time – and my old school, North Iowa Area Community College, was a small school, true – about 3,000 students back then. But at NIACC, we at least acknowledged, nodded or said hello to the person who sauntered past us in the opposite direction. I suppose it was the Iowa thing to do, or at least the right thing to do, the nice, courteous and friendly gesture.

Not here. Not then, at least. But I continued on, kept looking for moments to say hello, searching for times to offer at least a nod or a half smile to a fellow walker. I wondered why everyone was so hushed, why no one wanted to be polite.

I believed the smallest details in life make up the best moments of your day, such as when a person says hello and smiles when you’re having a rough day. It cheers you up, even if it’s just for a few hours. And that matters, those few hours help determine how your day went.

Then I thought some more, I wondered what all this meant, this keeping to yourself behavior. Why couldn’t people be more friendly? What did this say about us, the human race, that we weren’t into being kind to our neighbors?

Eventually, I slowly became one of them, because when people don’t raise their eyes from the iPod or set down the phone, it’s hard to say hello, even when you’re as idealistic as I was. I gradually stopped trying and became one of the non-friendly walkers who went to a big school and had so much on my mind I couldn’t stop being busy and start being friendly.

Then, in December 2008, I graduated from the University of Missouri, beaming proud of my school and my people. I loved it. Everything.

And now, I’ve left the place I loved, Mizzou, Columbia, Booche’s. And I’ve started again, heading down this path of friendliness and showing off my eagerness to be outgoing and happy. I don’t write this to prove my idealism; I know that I’m a dork. (Thanks, Gretchen.)

I write this to say I won’t stop this time when the guy down the street, sitting on his concrete stoop, smoking a cigarette before noon, just stares at me when I wave with my iPod buds in my ear. I’ll keep waving and nodding, saying hello and good morning to everyone I can, their reaction a non-factor. I’m happier that way, when I’m more outgoing and friendly to people.

I also do it to see people’s reactions. It’s as if no one has waved or said hello to them in the past 15 years. Some do a silent double take, thinking, Does he know me? Others say hello right back and quickly look away as if they don’t want to be caught being friendly in public, BFIP if you’re listening on the police scanner.

It’s been fun so far, this being outgoing and friendly thing. I hope you’ll join me.

If not, if you prefer the iPod instead of the hello, I know just the place for you to go.

Talking about writing

Below is an interesting discussion about writing, courtesy of Andrew Astleford, one of the best young writers alive. Justice Hill, a friend/mentor of mine, hosts the discussion on his site.

Andrew Astleford: How I wrote the story

Enjoy this wonderful weekend.