Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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The Magic and Allure of a Day at Wimbledon

Studying in Cambridge, England for the remainder of the summer as of a week ago, I am now devoid of the means to watch sports. I knew time zones would be an issue for watching baseball, and none of the legal streaming sites would work overseas, but I figured I’d be able to find Wimbledon and the World Cup on TV at pubs. Little did I know, the concept of a sports bar does not exist in Cambridge. I can follow free agency on Twitter to my heart’s content, but forget about trying to watch a baseball game.

However, this past Saturday, I made my first ever trip to Wimbledon. I got up at 6:30, put on by far the dressiest clothing I’ve worn to a sporting event, and headed for the train. Three hours later, and three highly functional and pleasant train rides away, I stepped off the train at Southfields Station to a find a sea of people eagerly heading for the grounds. I knew Wimbledon was not a large city, but the small-town feel as I walked along the sidewalk surprised me a little. I was expecting Foxborough, but it wasn’t even close.

Queuing is a concept I became quite familiar with at the London Olympics in 2012. The Brits love their queues. But “The Queue” at Wimbledon blew my mind. Imagine Krzyzewskiville times a hundred. The lines behind gates stretched what had to have been a half-mile. I was both impressed and dismayed by the magnitude of it. Americans wouldn’t dream of a set-up like this, because who has the patience to spend more than a day in lines for a ticket that doesn’t even guarantee you will get to see a match you’d like. As I walked on the other side of the gate, I felt particularly grateful to have a ticket waiting for me.

I had to pick my ticket up at The Wimbledon Experience tent, which turned out to be a tea room connected to The Gatsby Club. A particularly pompous looking group of people in their blazers and straw-hats queued outside it, waiting to be served their English breakfasts. I got inside the gates to the grounds maybe four minutes after they’d opened, but didn’t know that if I wanted to see any tennis on the side courts, I had to act fast. Within seconds, Court 2 was full. Then I went to 3 and that line was full. Even the courts without much seating were quartered in by spectators watching 10-year olds play. Resigned to defeat at my hopes for watching play for the hour before I went into Centre Court, I headed for the museum. Highlights there included a 3D video that sent chills through my body and a display that claimed lawn tennis was invented “to give young boys and girls the opportunity to meet and flirt.”

I expected Centre Court to feel a little bit like Fenway Park. An old building devoid of the modern innovations designed for comfort, but pleasantly intimate. But as I climbed the steps and went into a hallway devoid of concessions and bathrooms, I felt like I was in another age. The white walls and low ceilings led me to my section where I got my first glimpse of the grass. That feeling of first seeing the court and getting an indescribable rush is one only a most ardent sports fan could understand. A friendly Canadian couple wearing matching purple Roger Federer polo shirts and hats were in the seats next to me as I arrived, and they proceeded to talk to me nonstop up until the start of the first match. I was hoping to see some royals or celebrities in the Royal Box, but instead it was a day for famous British athletes. Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Graeme Le Saux were the ones I recognized.

Up first was Federer against the powerful Aussie Sam Groth. As the match began, I was struck immediately by the behavior of the crowd. Everybody was absolutely silent. And I mean everybody. The chair umpire did not have to say, “Thank you. The players are ready” even once. When Roger stepped up to serve, we watched. At the US Open, people shout out “Let’s Go Roger!” in the seconds leading up to the serve, but not here. It was only respect. That respect carried across all matches, male and female. I can count on my hands the number of times somebody yelled out in the middle of a game. Even change-overs were relatively quiet. One thing that surprised me was that apparently you aren’t supposed to cheer at all when somebody misses a shot. We were only supposed to cheer for winners.

One of my favorite things about the crowd was that it felt like we were in this together. All 15,000 of us. Everybody was on the edge of their seat for the points, even if the cheers weren’t especially loud. When the Australians began to sing a song for Groth during a change-over, there was a collective shushing from the crowd, not the ushers. And when there was cause to laugh, we all laughed. It was entirely unlike America. Perhaps it was because no music played or there was no big-screen to steal attention, or perhaps it was because everybody was really into the tennis, but I felt for the first time at a sporting event that the crowd was an entity rather than a group of individuals.

Despite dropping the third set to the dismay of the Canadians next to me, Federer impressed me. I’d seen him play once before, but that didn’t temper my excitement for watching the greatest Wimbledon champion ever play on his home court. He is the most graceful athlete I’ve seen. It’s all so clean and classy, yet powerful and overwhelming. As I watched him leave the court, I had the sudden realization that this was likely the last time I’d ever see him play. This was my goodbye to an athlete that might be the greatest to ever play the game I love.

Everyone cleared out for tea but I stayed in my seat for the Petra Kvitova match against Jelena Jankovic. I wasn’t too excited about this match comparatively, but it turned out to be a thriller. Down and out, Jankovic crawled back and ground her way into a third set, before breaking the spirit of Kvitova late on and taking her down. I was quite entertained by the way the man in front of me, dressed in coat and tie, kept referring to Kvitova as “our Wimbledon champion,” a title she’d earned last year.

Last but not least was British and Wimbledon hero Andy Murray taking the court against Andreas Seppi, a match I was looking forward to since I saw the draw and knew I might see. I wondered what seeing him in front of his adoring fans would be like. I expected roars for every winner, passionate standing ovations and general enthusiasm. And in the warm-up, I could feel the buzz crescendoing. Yet when the match started, the crowd went quiet. Everyone cheered for Murray, and the support was undying and boundless, but still, it never boiled over like it would have in America. Beyond hearing a “Let’s Go Andy!” from a little kid every few points, one wouldn’t have known he was the sporting hero of nearly everyone in attendance. They’d clap for a Seppi winner in fact. It was fascinating how they showed their support, even as he dominated and advanced.

As the sun set, and I left the grounds, I thought about how un-American my 4th of July had been. Nothing about Wimbledon reminded me of home. The charm was undeniable, and the experience of it all was a one-of-a-kind. I don’t think I could stand the queues, and I like moments at sports events where passion erupts in the stands. But I hope this place never changes. I want to bring my future kids there some day and hand our tickets to the active serviceman who act as ushers. I want them to see the grass and the whites for the first time. I want it all to stay the same.

Now my sports bucket list is one crucial item shorter, with another being crossed off in two weeks time when I will head to Scotland for the final Sunday at The Open at St. Andrew’s. I’ve heard I should expect a similar crowd there, so I am eager for another British sporting experience.


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Stop Hating, America – Novak Djokovic Is Not Classless

The Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final this morning was a beauty. It has been incredible how these same four guys have dominated tennis for a full nine years now. Rarely does a match between any of them fail to live up to expectations. Think about all the amazing five-set matches we’ve seen between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Djokovic and Federer and Andy Murray and Federer. Any given rivalry that you choose will go down in history as one of the best ever. Some would say having the same four guys win everything gets boring after a while, but I say we’re lucky every single time we get to see these guys play. Today’s final, in which Djokovic ground out a five-set victory over Federer, was just about as entertaining as ever.

I went into the match not necessarily rooting for one player or the other. As I said this morning, I have always been a Djokovic fan – since long before he rose to superstardom. But I didn’t think I’d be able to root against Federer at this stage in his career. However, once Djokovic took the two sets to one lead, I shifted over to rooting completely for the Serbian. He has gone through so many disappointments in the last two years on the big stage, and not all of them have been deserved. Such a great champion, somebody who works as tirelessly as anyone else, shouldn’t keep being let down. He needed this championship a lot more than Federer did.

Roger looked like he has a lot more to give going forward, even as he approaches age 33, so my worry that I would never see him play another big final quickly dissolved. But Djokovic could have seen his career take a nosedive had he lost another close match in a major final. So watching Djokovic dig deep to pull out the break to win the match in the fifth was really nice to see. I hated having to see Federer lose, but when I watched him post-match, I was reminded of why he is the best. Win or lose, he takes it in stride, with the utmost class, and then he moves on to the next one. Federer has earned the right to know that he’ll always have another match, even when it seems his window might be closing. He is the perfect athlete in nearly every sense.

But Djokovic handled the post-match ceremonies as well as Federer did today. Holding tears back the entire time, a visibly emotional Djokovic said all the right things about Federer. He hardly talked about the match today, unable to stop speaking about his impending family and the meaning of Wimbledon itself. This is clearly a man who has his priorities right when he steps off the court. He has been gracious in defeat over the past two years, and today, he was gracious in victory. He will never be as objectively classy as Federer, but Djokovic deserves some credit there as well.

After the match, when I was on Twitter and Facebook, I noticed, like always when Djokovic wins, that many people call him classless. They say he’s arrogant, obnoxious and unlikable. To them, I say open your eyes. The Djokovic of old, the one who nearly fought with Andy Roddick one night at the U.S. Open in 2008, angering many fans New York City, has grown tremendously as an individual in recent years. He may be fiercely competitive, but he will be the first player on tour to engage with his fans, always taking time to take pictures and answer questions. He smiles in public, happy to be alive. And after that night in New York in 2008, he has learned from his mistake and has reached out to other players, forming real friendships. Now, he is the first one to congratulate his opponent. He compliments his opponents, and he genuinely means it.

Don’t hate the Djokovic of now because of what young Novak did in the past. He has changed, and you need to examine your opinion of him as a result. I realize that everybody loves Federer, and I do too. I just think that Djokovic deserves a little more respect from American tennis fans as an individual. You don’t have to like him, but don’t call him classless.


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The Best Morning of the Year

Today is my favorite sports morning of the year. It’s the Wimbledon Men’s Final. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. It doesn’t get much better than this. I’ll admit, I’ve hardly watched any tennis at all in the last two weeks due to work and the World Cup, but I wouldn’t miss this match for anything. I’ve been a big fan of Djokovic for a very long time, and in 2011, at the U.S. Open Semifinal between these two that I was lucky enough to attend, I was part of an extreme minority at Arthur Ashe Stadium that day who were cheering for the Serbian against Federer.

But it will be hard to root against Roger today. The greatest tennis player ever deserves another title, and getting it at Wimbledon would be the crowning achievement for his incredible career. He is the epitome of class. And it’s impossible to root against the classiest individual in all of sports.

It’s amazing that these two have only met once at a Grand Slam Final – back in 2007 no less. Their rivalry has been a great one in recent years though, with the match that I saw at the U.S. Open in 2011 being a particularly testy affair. If you recall, Djokovic was down two sets in that match and clawed his way back, before going down two match points in the fifth. He swung as hard as he could on a return on one of Federer’s two match points – essentially giving up. However, the shot miraculously went in, and Djokovic pulled out the victory. That swing in the match turnaround is one of my favorite sports moments I have witnessed.

So I’m really not sure whom I’ll be rooting for this morning. I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching two of the best tennis players I’ll ever see in what could be their final Grand Slam Final against one another. The Federer era is rapidly coming to an end, so we all better appreciate every last second of it while we can. Whatever the outcome, I’ll be happy.

Going back to soccer – I wasn’t able to share any of my thoughts on the Costa Rica-Netherlands game yesterday, but overall, I thought the Dutch got a deserved victory. They dominated from the start and had a stellar display in penalty kicks, The Ticos were clearly worn out from their 120 minute match against Greece, and they weren’t able to create much going forward. Joel Campbell in particular looked exhausted, and that is a bit worrying. In an era where Arsenal play twice a week for much of the year, Campbell’s fitness will need to improve if he hopes to earn a spot in the starting lineup. At this point, I don’t see him being much more than a Capital One Cup participant this year, but he should be given the chance to prove he belongs nonetheless.

On another note, Tim Krul sure made Louis van Gaal look smart. That has to be the first tactical goalkeeping substitution I’ve seen. And Krul made two fantastic saves in penalties to justify it. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t enjoy penalty kicks. It was heartbreaking to see Costa Rica lose in that fashion after battling so hard for three weeks. The Ticos represented CONCACAF admirably, and they have proven themselves a top-class international side. The 2014 World Cup won’t soon be forgotten in Costa Rica.

I’ll have more on the semifinals in the coming days, but they should be fascinating. It goes to show that ultimately, talent wins out in the end at the World Cup. Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Netherlands are four of the best footballing nations, and it is fitting that they should be in the semis. We’re in for a treat in the final week, even without Neymar.

Lastly, I want to thank How I Met Your Mother creator Craig Thomas for telling me on Twitter yesterday that he enjoyed my HIMYM post and thought my interpretation was good. He didn’t need to say anything in response to my tweet, but he did anyway. I’ll never forget that act of kindness. It means the world to me that he said that, and I guess that now signals that I have found closure with the show. It’ll forever be my favorite.

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Wimbledon and Joel Embiid – Two Non-World Cup Related Stories

It is amazing how much the rest of the sports world has been tuned out over the last two weeks while focusing on the World Cup. I’ve avoided ESPN for the most part, in the hope of writing original content. But there’s actually a ton going on. While I nervously await the USA-Portugal match, I want to share my thoughts on a couple sports stories outside of soccer.

Who knew Wimbledon was starting tomorrow? I am a big tennis fan, but I’d completely forgotten about one of the best events of the summer until quite recently. Haven’t there been more advertisements for the U.S. Open in September than for Wimbledon? Anyway, the tennis should be full of intrigue this year, and will be well worth some attention. There are so many interesting story lines at the All-England Club this go around.  We have Rafael Nadal coming off of yet another incredible run at the French Open, having struggled mightily on grass recently. Then there’s top-seeded Novak Djokovic, who despite a great year of tennis, has not won a major in nearly 18 months, something that would have seemed unthinkable not that long ago. I was not a fan of Djokovic’s decision to switch coaches this past winter, so for me he has a lot to prove in these next two weeks.

Don’t forget about Roger Federer. I believe he’s got two runs left in him at major tournaments, and one might very well come here. He knows his time at the top is running out quickly, and crowing his career with a final Wimbledon victory would be the ultimate reward. And how could we not mention Andy Murray? Since he won Wimbledon last year, getting the monkey off Britain’s proverbial back, he has sometimes lacked the same intensity. A few weeks playing in front of his home crowd might get him going again. There are many other names who could succeed this tournament, as the men’s tennis world has opened up in recent months, but I think the winner comes from these well-known four. I tip Djokovic to take home the crown.

Another major story line this week has been the Joel Embiid injury. While it is obviously a devastating blow for the young big-man, it may be incredible news for Celtics fans like me. Having seen our hopes for landing Kevin Love fade in recent days, with some reports suggesting the team might go in the completely opposite direction and trade Rajon Rondo, the injury offers a glimmer of hope. That Embiid might slip into our hands is tantalizing. I don’t think he’ll slide all the way to the sixth pick, but he could. Should he be there, the Celtics have to take a chance on him. His upside is tremendous obviously, and given that the Celtics probably are at least a year away, they are in no hurry to see him produce immediately, and could wait for him to be healthy, however long that may take.

The question is, if Orlando is picking at four, and Embiid is still on the board, would the Celtics want to trade up for him there? Given the riskiness of the pick, how much would you give up to trade up two spots? I think I’d be willing to trade up for him, but only if the cost was reasonable – maybe the 6 pick and a future first. Otherwise, call their bluff and hope Embiid is still there at six. If we don’t get Love, Embiid would be a nice consolation. I’ll have a post about my ideal Celtics’ picks on Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Now, back to the soccer. Brutal to see Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen pick up an injury in his big chance. Let’s hope this isn’t the last chance he gets.

I believe.