The case for 64

The correct number of teams in the NCAA Tournament is 64. Not 65 teams, which has been at least the number for most of my life. Not 68, which is the number of teams in the current format. Not 72, which might be the case in the future. Not 76, or 96, or even 128. 2000 was the last year that the bracket featured 64 teams, and since then the NCAA has tried and succeeded to sneak a few more games in.

One of the most important aspects of March Madness is that every game is televised, even those happening at the same time. With four channels showing the myriad of games, as long as you have enough screens, you can watch every game of the tournament. Don’t get the cable channels? No problem; all the games are free online or with a mobile app. No subscription necessary. Everyone watches, not just students and alumni, not only those restricted by geography. It’s a national spectacle of which everyone wants to be a part. More games mean more tickets sold. More on-air time offers more commercials and advertising revenue. More teams bring more fans who travel around the country. Simply put: more games, more money.

There is also the notion that expanding the field prevents deserving teams from being left out. Yet in reality, it merely changes the threshold for what merits a bid. Look at what happened in college football. During the BCS era, debate swirled over which two teams were most worthy of competing in the national championship game. Now with four teams in the playoff, teams five through eight are suddenly comparing their schedules. If the playoff expands to eight teams, don’t expect team nine to go quietly. The same is true in March Madness. Regardless of how many teams are included, there will always be a “first team out.” If anything, a larger field magnifies the issue, because there are more teams at the bottom of the field used for comparison to the first teams out.

In 2001, the NCAA tournament added a 65th team, a “play-in game” to determine which small conference school had the chance to lose to a 1 seed. The result was inconsequential, no one waited to see the result before filling out the bracket, and only a minute fraction of fans picked “Play-in Winner” to advance to the round of 32. Sure it was technically part of the tournament, but most viewed the play in game as a preliminary game before the actual tournament started. Now 8 teams compete to be a part of the field of 64: 4 would-be 16 seeds and 4 others that are usually a 10, 11, or 12 seed. This “First Four” has become what amounts to a kick-off to the tournament, on the eve of the first full slate of games on Thursday. I’m sure that was part of the NCAA’s intention, plus to get additional airtime starting on Tuesday. Thankfully, they returned to the original naming convention, referring to the round of 64 as the “first round” (there was a brief interlude of confusion when the First Four was the first round, and most teams started in the “second round”). These games are certainly part of the tournament; teams from these games often win additional games in the rounds of 64 or 32. And if we do consider the First Four to be the opening round of the tournament (whatever the name is), what is the purpose of a four-game opening round? Do we really need this warm-up round before jumping into the real first round for which everyone is waiting? I hardly think so.

The NCAA tournament should not just be about making more money. To be fair, it’s already hugely profitable. And preventing the first teams out from feeling snubbed is not a good reason to expand; there will always be someone on the short end of the draw. March Madness should go back to 64 teams. It’s not the MLB or NFL; we don’t need wild-card games. Besides, a 64-team bracket fits nicely on a sheet of paper. It’s neat; it’s elegant; it’s symmetrical. That way every team has the same number of games to get to the Final Four. The other “perfect bracket” numbers would be 16 or 32 (too few) or 128 (far too many). This is March Madness; it already has all the magic you could possibly expect from a single tournament. We don’t need to change it; in fact we need it to back to 64. 64 is the right number. This is nothing against the teams that play their way into the First Four and continue to win (remember VCU’s Final Four run?). This is nothing against the gift of more free basketball or the players who just want one shot on the biggest stage. And this is certainly nothing against the great fans of Dayton, Ohio who spectacularly host the First Four every year. This is about March Madness. It doesn’t need a hype-up event; it’s ready to jump in full swing on the first day. It doesn’t need play-in games; that’s what conference tournaments are for. It doesn’t need to be bigger; this makes it more meaningful to the teams that get in. But most importantly, it doesn’t need to succumb to the idea that the tournament’s value is tied up in money, numbers, or ratings. March Madness doesn’t need to be molded according to a metric or formula. March Madness is exactly what it is, and it is spectacular. Just let it exist in its purest form; then just appreciate the magic that happens next.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 17, 2016.

For Peyton, his timing was perfect as always

Imagine grabbing a football with two hands while you coordinate ten other players who cannot move a second too early. If the count is wrong, it’s a penalty. Then take carefully measured steps backwards while watching your teammates run in the opposite direction. Take too many steps, and you’re too far out of the pocket. Take too few, and the linemen overrun you. Look over each receiver running his route. If you look at one for too long, then a linebacker will watch the ball right into his hands. Look at too many receivers, and another defender will hit you from behind. Then throw the ball, in a manner perfected only after countless practice reps that measure exactly where the wide receiver will be at that instant in time. Throw it too early, and the safety is taking the ball the other way. Throw it too late, and the ball goes behind the receiver, and you’re the quarterback that missed the throw. Want to get it exactly right? Timing is everything. Peyton Manning is a master of timing. His snap counts, his mechanics, and his throws were all perfected with the technical and meticulous quality of a symphony conductor. Because of timing, now is exactly the right time for Peyton Manning to retire.

Not because he has won “only” two Super Bowls. Frankly, saying “only” in any sentence referring to the Super Bowl is ridiculous. So many quarterbacks spend an entire career trying to lead their team to one Super Bowl. Peyton plated in four. Plus he just shed the label of having won fewer than his brother Eli. Surely, his critics will certainly be quick to mention Tom Brady’s four victories, but Brady also lost twice in the big game and he was an ill-timed-pass-turned-interception away from being 3-3 (which suddenly doesn’t sound as good). Besides, players don’t win Super Bowls; teams do. Although the quarterback usually has the greatest impact on his team’s success, a Super Bowl record is not the most representative marker of an individual’s career. So lay off Peyton for settling for only 2 championships (else Dan Marino and Jim Kelly have something to say about that).

Not because his statistics leave any doubt. The most prolific passer in the history of the game, Manning’s records for yards, touchdowns, and MVP awards span a career simply unmatched in ability and longevity. Another couple seasons might have put him in striking distance of 600 touchdowns or 80,000 passing yards, two milestones inconceivable at the beginning of a career. But Manning’s accomplishments have already spoken volumes about his career; he certainly doesn’t need a few more numbers to state his case for posterity.

Not because we doubt his resolve. Much was made of his path to recovery following multiple neck surgeries that ultimately ended his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. If he had retired then, we would have said the same great things about his career, just four years earlier. But Manning still wanted to play, and began anew with the Denver Broncos. After an unquestionably demanding and extensive rehab, Manning returned to prove he could once again play at the highest level. A record setting 2013 season capped off an amazing return from injury, even at age 37. Two seasons later he dealt with plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for a few games, but returned late in the season to make just the right plays en route to ensuring a playoff #1 seed, victories over Pittsburgh and New England, and a Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. It took more than talent for this type of comeback. For every play on the field or story in the media, there were hundreds of practice hours, dozens of reps, and all the work behind the scenes that brought Manning back to the pinnacle of football.

Today in sports, we hear about an athlete’s “prime” years: the time when one’s physical capabilities are highest and one can maximize his career potential. It’s a window that seems to get shorter and shorter, with the next generation bursting on the scene earlier than ever. Age and injuries may eventually derail (or at least slow down) most careers; given these physical limitations, conquering the mental game is the true test of competitive greatness. When it comes to the mental game, Peyton has undeniably been the best. His memory for every formation, route, pattern, and play is unbelievable. The mental game is about preparation, about focus, about timing. And Peyton has proven himself the master of timing. Manning, nearing age 40, has already dealt with injuries. No one doubts his toughness, but his body may not be able to withstand the grind and physicality of a long season. So for Peyton, this is his time. Not because he has lost the drive to excel or love for the game. He made it to the top, had to start all over, and then got back there again. And his timing, whether hitting his receiver on a crossing route or bidding farewell as a Super Bowl champion, could not be more perfect.

So why is it the perfect time? Because while every athlete gets older, not everyone achieves the mental fortitude that enables success at the highest level for such a long career: the willingness to perfect every technique, the resolve to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, and the discipline to show up day after day to practice over and over until the game exists as an extension of one’s subconscious. Peyton Manning is nowhere near the physical ability of his early career. However after 18 years, he has definitively proven that he has conquered the mental game, the last and greatest accomplishment of succeeding as a competitive athlete. He has conquered the game, and he has won. He has nothing else to prove. As Peyton said during his retirement press conference, “18 is a good number.” Now it’s clear, 18 years was the right time. Because after 18 years, no one has done it better than number 18.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 12, 2016.

What’s with this crazy college basketball season?

Crazy only scratches the surface. Want proof? Here is a list of all the teams (by week) that were ranked #1 in the Coaches Poll this season:

Preseason: Kentucky/North Carolina

Week 2: North Carolina (lost to Northern Iowa)

Weeks 3-4: Kentucky (lost to UCLA)

Weeks 5-8: Michigan State (lost to Iowa)

Week 9: Oklahoma (lost to Kansas)

Week 10: Kansas (lost to West Virginia)

Week 11: Oklahoma (lost to Iowa State)

Weeks 12-13: North Carolina (lost to Louisville and Notre Dame)

Weeks 14-16: Villanova (lost to Xavier)

Week 17: Kansas

And that was just the battle for the top spot. It doesn’t even come close to fully encompassing the season-long shuffle throughout the Top 25. Ranked teams losing to lesser opponents became a weekly staple. Any team, regardless of record, went on the road and was suddenly vulnerable. The rankings turned over like the dials of slot machine, but probably even harder to bet on. Once conference play began, the game gave way to wild buzzer beaters and wilder student sections; to rematches and rivalries. Upsets shook up the conference standings, with teams jockeying for postseason seeding. Bubble teams would gather some momentum, but then a tough loss would put them on the wrong side looking in.

This season also gave us perhaps the best senior class in recent memory. Although we have become accustomed to seeing bands of former prep stars gallop through the tournament every March, this year we saw the greatness of senior players who returned to give one last great season for their team. You think these seniors realize that makes for a special season? Just watch a few clips of any school’s senior night; you’ll have your answer.

Call it the preseason, the regular season, the warm-up round, or any other name for the games before the madness we call March. This certainly did not feel like a warm-up. With multiple games per week, fortunes can change with the tide. It isn’t like college football, where the limited number games forces committees and computers to predict theoretical matchups. In basketball, everyone plays everyone. To win your conference, you may not have to beat everyone, but you had better prove you’re the best. Every possession matters, there is no easing into the first ten minutes of a game. Make a mistake on the road, and that student section will let you hear about it for the rest of the game. And if you want that signature win, the second-half momentum and raucous home crowd might just be as important as calling the right play.

And did we mention, it’s actually been fun to watch? As anyone who stayed up past midnight to see the third overtime between Kansas and Oklahoma can attest, these players put their best efforts on the court every time for our enjoyment. And entertained we were. Need more proof?

The last remaining Top 25 undefeated team was SMU. They won’t be competing in the NCAA tournament. The top-rated recruit from last-year’s high school class probably won’t be either.

Duke and UNC split their regular season matchups, but both lost at home.

Indiana was written off in December; then they finished atop the Big Ten.

The first team to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was Austin Peay, a team with a 7-9 record (8th seed) in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Texas A&M won a share of the SEC regular season title (in basketball, not football).

Yale is going to the NCAA tournament. Yes, that Yale.

On the eve of the glorious spectacle known as Champ Week, NCAA bids and seeds depend on a line of the bracket and bit of momentum. Every team is playing for one prize; every basket matters. Want to make the Big Dance? Just keep winning. This has been one of the wildest, most exciting, and inevitably unpredictable basketball seasons. This is the type of season when the Cinderellas reemerge. Want to see another run reminiscent of Butler or VCU, Wichita State or George Mason? This is your year. Want to see which superstar will etch his legacy on the final stage? This is the time. Want to see just how many unbelievable moments will be compiled into the beloved “One Shining Moment” classic? There’s certainly going to be more than a few choices.

Maybe you just want more craziness? Look no further, because this has just been the prelude. Now it’s March. Bring on the madness.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 5, 2016.

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College basketball schedule, rankings, news, and results were accessed via ESPN-affiliated websites.

Jordan Spieth is Finally Atop the World of Golf

Jordan Spieth won Sunday’s PGA Tour Championship in Atlanta. His four-stroke victory clinched the FedEx Cup title, capping one of the most magnificent seasons of golf. Although the everyday sports fan might never have heard of the FedEx Cup, no one is surprised anymore to hear that anything in golf was won by Jordan Spieth. In fact, it seems that nothing from Spieth surprises us at all. And that is quite a shame, as he is quickly putting together a remarkable part of his early career, while sometimes making it look too easy (it’s not). Whether you measure in wins, top-ten finishes, money, video highlights, or humble interviews, Spieth is poised to establish himself as the face of golf for at least a decade.

With his final win of the season, Spieth will likely win the Player of the Year award, in addition to reclaiming his world number 1 ranking. Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, among others, will duel him for that distinction next season, but it really is just a formality. Jordan Spieth is the clearly best golfer in the world. In 2015, he won two majors and was only a few strokes away from winning the other two. His short game is marvelous; his putting is other-worldly; and his methodical approach to each golf course highlights his sharp focus and concentration.

Hearing Spieth describe his journey, it is immediately evident that he understands his emerging place in golf lore; and yet he still maintains an appreciation for every small moment. Every interview is sincere and polite. When he wins, his wide and sheepish smile almost suggests he himself cannot even believe what he is accomplishing. Speaking to the media, he repeatedly uses the generalized “we” to describe his team, which I can assume includes his caddie, his family, and the many others who help him every day and with whom he is more than eager to share his success.

The thrill of success that accompanies each young star also comes with a price. Being the best is suddenly not good enough; the real benchmark is history. Expectations are heightened; pressure is inevitable. Tiger Woods spent his entire career being compared to Jack. His accomplishments were not just his own; they were building blocks in his predestined chase of Nicklaus’s peak. Fair or not, Jordan Spieth’s career will be subjected to the same scrutiny. His accomplishments will be compared to Tiger’s at the same age; his career will always be framed in reference to Jack’s major victory count. But it doesn’t appear that Spieth is concerned with comparisons. He doesn’t have to worry about being “the next… anyone.” He just has to be Jordan Spieth, and, with that, he might end up the best of all.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on September 28, 2015.

A-Rod’s journey to 3000 hits

Alex Rodriguez joined the 3000-hit club in dramatic fashion, sending a fastball from Justin Verlander into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. It was nearly four years after another summertime home run in the Bronx lifted Derek Jeter to the same plateau. Jeter’s quest was inevitable, albeit delayed slightly by injuries. The journey toward “DJ3K” was a national watch, with every game carefully documented in his progress toward the goal. When his homer off David Price landed over the wall, the celebration unfolded according to a script that may have well been written when he reached one thousand. Three thousand was a number that Jeter was always meant to reach and surpass. As for his former teammate, his path was anything but predictable.

If Derek Jeter’s life was described as a fairytale, Alex Rodriguez is starring in a war drama turned soap opera, with a hint of Shakespearean satire mixed in. He was the golden boy, the number one draft pick who burst on the scene with a superhuman display of power at the plate and defense in the field. He signed lucrative contracts with Texas and later with New York. He was an MVP, and then a World Series Champion. Rodriguez was hailed as the superstar who would rewrite the record books, surging up the all time home run list and beyond. Prodigy has a peculiar effect on expectations. Reality is rarely so kind.

Hip and knee surgeries landed Rodriguez on the disabled list; that was only a shadow of the nightmare lurking beyond. On the other side of courtroom hearings and arbitrations, Alex Rodriguez found himself in the midst of perhaps the steepest fall from grace in all of professional sports. A man accustomed to chasing records, his latest feat was the longest suspension in baseball history other than Rose’s lifetime ban. Alex Rodriguez had been everywhere; now he was gone. Meanwhile Derek Jeter enjoyed his year-long farewell tour, arguably the less talented of the two but unquestionably the more beloved.

Nothing epitomizes this more than the immediate aftermath of their respective 3000th hits. With hit number 3000 landing in the bleachers, Alex Rodriguez stated that he could not have imagined the moment unfolding as it had. And frankly, no one could. Who would have thought that one of the game’s favorite villains would become relevant again, even sympathetic? Likewise, in true A-Rod fashion, the latest episode of the prolonged drama that has accompanied his entire career concerned what would happen to his historic home run ball. Contrast this to the fan who caught Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit and gave it back without any hesitation.

However, Alex has done a lot during this season to rehabilitate, albeit only partially, his image. Not many expected him to return to the caliber of an everyday player, let alone as a major contributor to a Yankees team firmly in contention for the AL East division title. He is solidifying the middle of a rejuvenated Yankee lineup, driving in runs and adding to his homer total. Now he is the newest member of the 3000-hit club. He is still in striking distance of 700 home runs, and perhaps a few other milestone numbers on that list. More importantly, he may have another chance to lead the Yankees in the postseason, and his teammates and fans have supported him in his comeback season. Winning has a funny way of changing our perspective.

His numbers will always be called into question. Most fans have yet to forgive him; many never well. It is unlikely the writers will vote him into the Hall of Fame. He is not an All-Star this year, although his numbers put up a decent case. All season Alex Rodriguez has said the right things, espousing his pursuit of baseball simply for the love of the game. He has openly espoused his willingness to adopt a team-first mentality. A fine sentiment, and certainly his best option. Fans root for wins, and Alex has found the way to bring the Bronx faithful back to his side. Suddenly A-Rod is helping the Yankees win, a far cry from when he was benched during the Yankees’ last postseason campaign. Despite his twisted narrative, he has complied one of the most statistically successful careers of all time: 3000 hits, 2000 RBIs, 660 home runs and counting. Those numbers should probably end up in the Cooperstown. Too bad the player probably will not. He likely will not win another individual award. Even if he does, his past transgressions have rendered any pursuit of personal accolades meaningless to most. In a sport that lives by the numbers, Alex is playing the game where his will never quite add up the same way. He might as well just focus a different number: 28, the next World Series championship the Yankees are chasing. To help the Yankees win: that is the best offer he will get, and if the Yankees keep winning, the fans will be behind him, 3000 hits and beyond. Just please make sure he does not catch Jeter’s 3465.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on July 8, 2015.

A Warrior’s Path

The Golden State Warriors completed one of the most successful seasons in NBA history, culminating with a Finals victory in six games. No player on the Warriors had any previous Finals experience, but that was hardly apparent based on how well they all competed. They overcame slow starts in the first quarter of multiple games. They made lineup adjustments, putting MVP Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup to rejuvenate an offensive slump and dial up the defense on LeBron James. They withstood occasional stretches of poor shooting and found ways to win close games. They dealt with outside distractions: hearing how Klay Thompson was not shooting well, or how they would not be able to stop LeBron, or how Matthew Dellavedova’s defense was changing the outlook on the series. (Admittedly, he played very well during the Finals, but the idea that he would completely shut down Curry for an entire series was a ridiculous notion from the start). The Warriors did not play like they were just happy to be in the Finals. They played with energy and determination, embodying the “Strength in Numbers” mantra that adorned their apparel. Now they are the NBA champions, and with most of their core roster intact, will likely contend for a few more.

Most importantly, the Warriors were led this season by a point guard who, although rarely espouses his personal accomplishments, finally saw his own basketball journey come to fruition this season. Stephen Curry burst onto the international scene over the past two seasons, building a well-deserved reputation as one of the best young stars in the NBA. He has also been a hit on social media, although his daughter Riley is likely equally responsible for that. By now everyone has heard his long story: the son of Dell Curry who would tag along to the Charlotte Bobcats arena and shoot a few jumpers with his father; the late bloomer who had to retool his entire shooting stroke when he became strong enough to hoist the ball from above his shoulders; the high school star who was passed over by nearly every major college program and found his way to Davidson, where he would lead them to the Elite 8 during his sophomore year in one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history. Despite this, many scouts and fans still doubted whether Curry would be able to make it in the NBA, especially when compared to other supposedly-superior point guards in his draft class. He was drafted after Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. The Timberwolves alone took Flynn and another point guard, Ricky Rubio, while Curry was still on the board. That year he finished behind Tyreke Evans in the Rookie of the Year voting. Then, injuries and ankle surgery hindered his early professional career, leading to widespread concern that lingering ankle problems would prevent him from reaching his potential. In his fourth season he began to emerge as one of the league’s premier shooters, but was overlooked during selections for the All-Star Game.

Look up Curry’s story and you will hear everything about his improbable journey, but there is something else nearly as distinctive: his shot. Most shooters release the basketball at the highest point of their jump, but Curry’s shot looks different. As depicted by “Sport Science” on ESPN, Curry releases his jump-shot earlier, while still ascending in the air. This quicker release can create accurate shots amid tight defense, which has set him apart from other NBA stars. Fans are captivated by his pinpoint accuracy from the left corner and his ability to make shots on a fast break. Any game could be one in which he makes ten from behind the arc or hits from half-court (or really anywhere). He frequently attempts shots that would be dismissed for their degree of difficulty, yet he gives every shot a decent chance at going in, and many of them do. In the NBA, we have grown to expect the plethora of playmakers, big dunkers, and defensive stalwarts, all without argument. Yet it is the skill of shooting that appeals to the nostalgia and purity of the game. A brilliant shooting display can ignite a crowd in the mere second the ball swishes through the net. It gives us buzzer-beaters and memorable moments. Many are willing to work to improve every year, but not everyone can become a master of the craft. Every generation there are one or two players who demand our attention, who simply make us want to watch (and replay) every shot. And right now we are watching one of the best of all time.

Stephen Curry was not a top recruit out of high school. He was never considered a number one draft pick. Not everyone thought he would even succeed in the NBA. Now he is a perennial All-Star and the MVP of the league. He is the best 3-point shooter in the game right now, and perhaps the best of all time. He combines skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting that are individually mastered by many players, but rarely displayed by one superstar night after night. At first embracing the underdog role, he has blossomed into one of the classiest and most exciting players in the NBA. He has already accomplished enough to fill a successful career, and yet it seems like he is just getting started. He is the kid that people thought might not even make it; now he is an NBA champion. Stephen Curry’s career, just like his shot, is on the up.  AN

This article was concurrently posted at NoCoastBias.com on June 25, 2014.

“Sports Science” is a TV series owned by ESPN.

The End of Rafa’s Reign

Rafael Nadal’s quest for a tenth French Open title ended in the 2015 quarterfinals, losing in straight sets to top-seeded Novak Djokovic. For Nadal, it was only his second loss in eleven years at Roland Garros. Nadal had struggled during the clay court season, a departure from his history of dominance on the surface. After winning nine titles and seventy matches at the French Open, Nadal is undoubtedly the most successful clay court player in history. Yet he missed the final this year, only the second such occurrence during his illustrious career. Nadal has not made a Grand Slam final since his last French Open title in 2014. If this signifies a newfound mortality on clay, Nadal’s quest for another Grand Slam is suddenly much cloudier.

In 2005, the nineteen year-old Spanish lefty won his first French Open, defeating Roger Federer on his way to the title. He repeated as champion the following year, and soon established himself as one of the world’s premiere clay court players. Additional championships in 2007 and 2008 continued his remarkable run. After his epic win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, he was recognized as a serious contender on all surfaces. Soon after, Nadal won the 2009 Australian Open, and he completed his Career Slam with a US Open title in 2010. He has been ranked number one in the world multiple times since 2008, and has transformed his game into one of the best of all-time. When he won his fourteenth Grand Slam title in 2014 at the age of 28, many tennis analysts predicted he would easily surpass Roger Federer’s record total of seventeen, based on his prowess on clay and Federer’s recent struggles at major tournaments.

However, injuries plagued the rest of his 2014 season and continued into 2015. Some early season losses on clay led to critics wondering if he would return to top form. Suddenly Nadal, while still an outstanding tennis player, has seemingly lost a step from the dazzlingly athlete who sent those whistling, top-spin ground-strokes down the sideline. Sports have a different way of interpreting age. Nadal is 29, young by any other standard, but may in fact be in the latter half of his prime. On the other side of the net, Novak Djokovic has firmly grasped the world’s top ranking, searching for his own career Grand Slam. Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka are the two players in recent memory other than the “Big 3” of Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic to win two Grand Slams; they are continuing to improve every season. If injuries continue to take their toll, Nadal’s time at the top may be over. He is still one of the best players in the world, but tennis is a sport with a very small margin for error. In the same way that a few inches can turn a winner into an unforced error, a year can make all the difference between contending for the title and coming up short. Nadal’s window of opportunity to dominate on the hard and grass courts may be behind him, but the French Open was always assumed to be his domain. Perhaps this year was just a hiccup, and we will see him back on the pinnacle at Roland Garros next year. But now the King of Clay is no longer a guarantee, nor is the quest for 17, or even another slam. We will still be rooting for him to win one or two more. Nadal’s established history of persistence and determination gives every reason to believe he will win again, but perhaps not every year. If this is the end of his reign at the French Open, what a remarkable run that it was: winning nine championships and losing only one match from 2005-2014. How long until we see a player dominate a domain of tennis the way Nadal did so at the French Open for the past decade? Or will his record-setting nine titles in ten years be enshrined with the other seemingly untouchable records from Joe DiMaggio or Cal Ripken Jr.? Either way, if this year’s French Open ends the Era of Nadal, it does so by closing one of the best chapters in the history of tennis. And as far as stories go, Robin Soderling (who singlehandedly stopped Nadal from going ten for ten) has a great one from Paris to tell about a certain match in 2009.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on June 23, 2015.