Schedule Shenanigans – Fixing the ATP Calendar

Among major professional sports, none quite know how to drag out its season quite like the ATP tour. Sure, MLB is probably 80 games too long, but at least there’s enough time off over the winter to fit in a proper transaction period, or for players to play overseas and/or complete a PED cycle. Soccer’s pretty bad, but that’s more a fault of clubs fattening their wallets on increasingly-extensive preseason tours.

The ATP Tour is just a mess. For 2016, it starts in the first week of January, and ends in mid-November, in between packing-in nine Masters 1000 events, plus the year-end World Tour Finals for the top-8. These events (with the exception of Monte Carlo) are supposed to be compulsory, yet thanks to injuries and fatigue, that commitment means about as much as one from John Tomic to improve his behaviour. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s the ATP’s for its largely nonsensical calendar, and it’s about time someone fixed it. That someone is Ernests Gulbis me.

However, before I start, there are a few parameters I have to work with – namely, I can’t move the grand slams. As much as I’d like to see the Australian Open moved back to February so as to give players a longer offseason/make bank on exhibition tours, I can’t, as they’re not actually part of the ATP Tour. The only people who can make that happen are the AO themselves, and the same goes for the other three slams, as well as the Davis Cup.

The Solution

The ATP’s calendar is built on one sole principle – highlight its stars as much as possible. I don’t actually disagree with this idea (at least in theory, it’s a no-brainer), but it’s just not possible. Instead, the directive should be to get all the top players at their best, every time they compete in a showcase event. If that means scrapping a tournament and losing ticket sales, so be it, we’ll make it up later in TV money anyway.

So first thing’s first, and this might be the trickiest part of the whole calendar – the lead-up to the Australian Open. Together with its tournaments in Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland, and exhibitions in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, the AO series has always kind of been out on its own from the rest of the tour. From here on out, we’re starting things off from the first Sunday in January from Miami, with the Masters 1000 tournament there – it’s not close to Australia, but in its current slot in March, we tend to lose several top-players to fatigue from (the much bigger) Indian Wells the week prior, and as a popular offseason training base, it’s actually kind of a perfect place to start the season. Follow that up with Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland the following week, and you’ve got a solid lead-in to the Open itself.

Post-AO should be the first of two prolonged break periods, should the top guys decide to use it. The AO ends January 31st this year, while Indian Wells (the best-attended of the Masters events) starts March 7. Move IW back two weeks to Miami’s former slot, put the ultra-lucrative Dubai 500-level event on the 7th, and you’ve got at least a month to rest up (give-or-take a weekend for Davis Cup commitments).

The next big change comes at the start of the clay season, with the 1000 in Monte Carlo going the way of its inhabitants’ tax obligations and disappearing into thin air.  Starting in 2016 on April 11th, it’s not compulsory anyway, and the date would be better served to space out the currently back-to-back Madrid and Rome events. Two masters is plenty for an already busy clay-court swing, and would allow for some of the post-Wimbledon events on dirt (Gstaad, Umag, etc) to move into a slot that is actually relevant to the rest of the tour.

After RG comes the rapid turnaround to grass and Wimbledon, but thankfully there’s no need for adjustments here, as the Championships took it on themselves to do something about the schedule, moving themselves back a week this year. Hopefully this is a sign to all the other majors that traditional dates don’t have to stay that way, but I doubt they’ll take the hint.

Post-Wimbledon is the second month-long break, should the players choose to use it. The US Open series is just as cluttered as its Australian counterpart, but the simplest solution is to just make the Canadian Masters what Monte Carlo is now – non-compulsory. With Cincinnati a week later, players are often walking a tightrope between finding form and managing fatigue at this point in the season – case-in-point was the laughable 2015 edition in Montreal, with nine of the 16 seeds failing to make it out of their opening matches (compared to just five a week later in Cincinnati), while Roger Federer didn’t even show up.

Finally, we come to the post-US Open swing. For the casual tennis fan, you’d be forgiven for not even knowing this existed, but as things stands, there’s a further two months of mostly-irrelevant tennis left to play. So what’s the deal here? Well, the ATP uses this period to build up hype for the World Tour Finals, but the problem is, by the time we get there, there’s always a few dudes who are either too buggered or too focused on Davis Cup to actually give a damn. However, changing it is simple. First, the Paris Masters is dead. Long live the Paris Masters, I’m sure we’ll all miss the only masters tournament David Ferrer actually had a chance of winning (and really, that should tell you everything you need to know about how unremarkable that tournament is). Second, the two weeks immediately after the USO are combined, with Metz moving back to the clay-court season, and Malaysia, Shenzhen and St. Petersburg in the same week. Doing that means we can move all the following tourneys up a week, and we can have the WTF – and therefore the whole season – done and dusted by the end of October.

So without further ado (and there’s been about a 1000 words of ado so far), here’s my modified schedule. Note: to make this applicable for any given year, I’ve taken out the Rio Olympics, which are Aug 8. Adding them would just move Toronto back to the end of July.

Date Tournament
Jan 4 Miami 1000
Jan 11 Chennai, Brisbane, Auckland, Sydney
Jan 18 Australian Open
Feb 1 Quito, Montpellier, Sofia
Feb 8 Buenos Aires, Rotterdam
Feb 15 Rio de Janeiro, Marseille
Feb 22 Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Doha
Feb 29 Davis Cup First Round
Mar 7 Memphis, Delray Beach
Mar 14 Dubai
Mar 21 Indian Wells 1000
Apr 4 Marrakech, Houston
Apr 11 Madrid 1000
Apr 18 Barcelona, Bucharest, Gstaad
Apr 25 Estoril, Istabul, Munich
May 2 Metz, Hamburg, Umag
May 9 Rome 1000
May 16 Geneva, Nice
May 23 Roland Garros
Jun 6 ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Stuttgart
Jun 13 Halle, London
Jun 20 Nottingham
Jun 27 Wimbledon
Jul 11 Davis Cup QFs
Jul 18 Kitzbuhel, Bastad
Jul 25 Washington D.C.,
Aug 1 Atlanta
Aug 8 Toronto 1000 (non-compulsory)
Aug 15 Cincinnati 1000
Aug 22 Winston-Salem
Aug 29 US Open
Sep 12 Davis Cup SFs
Sep 19 Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, St. Petersburg
Sep 26 Beijing, Tokyo
Oct 3 Shanghai 1000
Oct 10 Moscow, Stockholm, Valencia
Oct 17 Basel, Vienna
Oct 24 ATP World Tour Finals
Nov 21 Davis Cup Final

And there you have it. Just by scrapping two already unloved masters events, we’ve got a schedule that does everything possible to get its stars to the finish line, and yet promises regular doses of high-quality tennis along the way. You’re welcome ATP, I’ll be expecting my cheque in the mail any day now.

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How Low Can You Go? The Dire State of Caribbean Cricket

There are few constants in modern cricket. The best team. The best player. Warnie’s face. All are in a constant state of flux. Unfortunately, there has been one constant – and not just of recent times, but for the past 15 years – and that is that the West Indies have been entirely disappointing.

It actually seems kind of incredible now that the West Indies – who have a combined population of less than 10 million – was not only a cricketing superpower, but the dominant force for the first two decades of the modern era. They won the first two world cups in ’75 and ’79, set a then-record 11-test winning streak in ’84, and were a factory for legendary players with the bat or ball. To see what the Windies have become in falling to an innings defeat to Australia on Saturday, you’d think they spent the past several decades figuring out just what “cricket” is.

The thing about the Windies that makes this fall from grace so painful is that it’s the one team that all cricket fans want to be successful. The game is simply better for it. Their teams were full of dynamic players – from Sir Viv to Marshall to Ambrose to Lara, the game evolved as they did. Everywhere they went, they won over the crowds, as it was just impossible to deny the allure of that Caribbean flair – their voices, their style and yes, their black faces in a sport that had long been a white man’s domain – it was all so different, so exotic, so cool, and came at the perfect time. We love the Windies for the men on it as much as the cricket they play, hell, if there’s one thing even recent Windies players haven’t lacked, it’s personality.

So where have all those players gone? Honestly, I can’t give you a good answer. All I could think about in the wake of their latest defeat on Australian shores was a similar scenario six years ago, albeit one that had a particularly bright silver lining, as a 19-year-old Adrian Barath scored a debut century amidst his team’s innings defeat. And while three years later he was out of test cricket, if only for a short while, we had hope. More recently, we’ve seen glimpses from the likes of Kemar Roach and Jason Holder, but the former has failed to grow as a bowler, while Holder is now burdened with a captaincy that is just as likely to adversely affect his game as it is to grow it. Certainly, those responsible for player development in the Caribbean have a lot to answer for.

It’s not just how they develop players though, it’s also the resources they have to work with, and in this respect, no nation highlights a need to share the riches of the game’s “T20-isation” like the Windies. Obviously there’s the mercenaries who have essentially abandoned their country for an endless feast of shortest-form cricket, like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, but it’s hard to blame them given just how small the revenue base in the Windies is compared to places like India and Australia. More than any others, those two countries have been able to keep pumping money into the longer form of the game, because they have the T20 money to do it with. If the ICC is serious about keeping cricket a world game, it’s time it took charge of its two biggest leagues, and sent at least a portion of the profits they generate back to the rest of the Test-playing nations. It’s the only way to avoid cementing what is an already increasingly stratified financial landscape that the Windies loses out from.

Cricket is at its best when the Windies are good. It really is that simple. No team captures the imagination like them, with an identity that is so different from the other test-playing nations that makes it easy to cheer for them. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since we’ve had anything to cheer about. Will that change anytime soon? God only knows.

Some thoughts on Creed, the Greatest Movie of All Time

As far as life’s big questions go, it doesn’t get much bigger than “where would we be without the Rocky movies?” Seriously. Think for a second just how big an impact they’ve had. It’s the most motivational sports movie of all time. It invented the training montage. It gave us Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. Without Rocky, there’s no Rambo, or Cobra or Tango & Cash – hell, Sly Stallone would probably have moved on to hardcore porn. Without Rocky, we’d still be fighting the cold war. So thank god for Rocky, and thank god he’s back in our lives.

Note: I won’t spoil the ending, but the following will discuss specifics, so if you’re really anal about avoiding such things for a bloody Rocky movie, stop reading now.

First off the bat, I’ve gotta admit that I am extremely biased towards this movie. I love a good fight film. I love Michael B. Jordan. And anything that can outdo the NFL at promoting rampant PED use and ignorance over repeated concussions is worth-watching in my book.

Anyway, if you’ve somehow missed the hype surrounding this movie, first hand in your sports fan card (you’ll get it back after watching) and allow me to fill you in. The plot’s pretty simple: as it turns out, Apollo Creed had a son – Adonis, and when that son wants to forge his own legacy in the boxing world, who else is he gonna turn to but the man who got his dad killed?

Ensue wholly entertaining “fighter on the come-up” movie: young Donny earns Rocky’s approval. Donny meets girl. Training montage. Rocky and Donny have success in the ring. Donny gets a shot at the champion. Plot complication. Another training montage. Fight night. The end.

So what makes Creed so great? Well, it’s that everything has a very authentic, grounded feel to it, yet because of the movie franchise it belongs to, there’s just enough Rocky-ness to make it completely ridiculous. What am I talking about? The fights. Oh, the fights.

If boxers in real life fought like they did in these films, their careers would last about as long as it took Sly Stallone to correctly pronounce “disestablishmentarianism” (eight months, give or take). They eat punches like it’s a super-food, particularly in the title fight.

Speaking of which, it really bugged me that the champ’s name was “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. You really think a guy from Liverpool, England was nicknamed after a shitty late-90’s R&B duo? Of course not. He’d be “Big” Dick. Big Dick Conlan. Much more culturally appropriate.

So the fight commences, and any attempt by either man to box is quickly discarded like it was a flyer for a university law revue. In and of itself that’s cool. It happens. But it doesn’t ever go twelve rounds. And yet that’s exactly what we get.

Over the course of those twelve rounds we learn a few things. Namely, Rocky might be the worst corner man of all time. Besides making Freddie Roach look more eloquent than the Queen, his advice to a guy who is getting absolutely ripped to shreds ranges from “one step, one punch” to “get him out of the way”. All the while, poor Donny is taking the sort of beating usually reserved for Syrian women learning to read. Also, apparently the University of Arizona licenses boxing referees – well, either that or the Liverpudlians found the one guy in their city who owned a bow tie and put him in the ring, because no actual ref lets this fight continue past the tenth. God I love this movie.

One other thing that often gets underrated in Rocky movies is its subtle use of time-stopping magic. In this case, the ref calling “time” so an obviously-should-be-TKO’ed Creed can have his eye looked at also gives him an extra 120 seconds to have a heart-to-heart with Rocky over whether his father meant to pull out. Never mind modifying his game plan with only half his normal vision, now’s the time to really sort out those feelings.

And of course, in true Rocky fashion. The plan of changing absolutely nothing somehow starts to work as we enter the final rounds, and all of a sudden Donny looks like he has a legitimate shot at winning. I won’t tell you who wins, but suffice to say, Donny leaves the ring with a new sense of self, and a new case of brain damage.

5 stars. And probably as many unnecessary sequels.

Kawhi Leonard is Making “The Leap”, and The Warriors Should be Worried

At 22-0 to begin the season, it seems there’s little that can stop the Golden State Warriors. Besides the ever-present risk of injury, the only well-known, concrete threat to the team is the twin-cannons of Lisa Ann (SFW, I promise). But then there’s the San Antonio Spurs who, despite getting bounced by the Clippers in the first round of last year’s playoffs, look reinvigorated thanks to the transcendent play of their 6’7 swingman, Kawhi Leonard.

Thanks to the Warriors absolutely ridiculous run of basketball over the past 18 months, Leonard – and the Spurs themselves – have been able to somewhat return to their familiar position away from the spotlight of mainstream media and fandom. Even though the Spurs winning the 2014 finals with Leonard as MVP wasn’t enough to keep them there, although it’s possible to see why, as that team endured some growing pains last year in transitioning its focus away from the aging Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan triumvirate, culminating in a first round exit in May 2015 at the hands of the dangerous-but-volatile LA Clippers.

Come December, it’s safe to say Leonard and the Spurs are finally back. The team sits second in the league at 17-4, while Leonard has cemented his spot as a top-5 player in the league. Particularly with the new additions of David West and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are primed for another deep playoff run.

So what’s changed since May that has made this Leonard – and therefore the Spurs – as dangerous as they’ve ever been? Essentially, he’s found the offense to match his defense – which is saying a lot for the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year.

The obvious stat first, Leonard is currently leading the league in three-point percentage at bang-on 50%, while taking four attempts a game. Sure that’s not Steph Curry territory, but it is Kyle Korver territory, who is shooting 42.9% on .6 more attempts – for a guy who shot 34.9% last year, I’d say that’s pretty damn impressive.

Beyond the threes, and the associated bump in scoring from 16.5 to 21.6, Leonard might be the most the most balanced scorer in the game. His attempts on shots closer than 10 feet, pull-ups and catch-and-shoot are 35.4, 33.1 and 29.9% respectively – compare this to someone like Paul George, who shoots an overwhelming 47.5% of his shots off the dribble. Essentially, defending Leonard has got exponentially harder when he can make you pay just as much without dribbling as he can when navigated through the low post.

On top of that, the defense is somehow even better. Last year, Leonard’s opponents shot 44.2% when he was guarding them, this year, it’s an incredible 36.1. You’d have a better shot getting a thoughtful answer from his coach Gregg Popovich than you would scoring on Leonard himself.

If Leonard keeps that defense up, it’s sure to dramatically alter the texture of any Spurs-Warriors series. His defensive prowess will essentially cancel out the offensive input of whoever he’s guarding (being either Curry, or his partner-in-crime, Klay Thompson), while the Dubs’ defensive specialist Andre Iguodala will be forced to play Leonard similarly straight-up with his newfound shooting prowess, opening up a host of one-on-one matchups across the board. So while you certainly can’t say the Spurs would be favourites against the currently undefeated Warriors, it’s certainly possible to call it a draw.

And that’s the thing, as fun as it is to see the Warriors carve their way through the league’s regular season, come playoff time we all want to see them pushed to the absolute limit in their pursuit of historic levels of greatness. Kawhi Leonard may not be the small forward we were expecting to stand in our way, but as of right now, he’s our best – if not only – hope.

Davis Cup Finals Preview: Can Belgium Stop the Brits?

Belgium and Great Britain aren’t often put in the same sentences. If they are, it’s usually in reference to the latter’s wartime bailouts of the former, or eurosceptics taking aim at the boffins in Brussels. This weekend, the two will be paired for an entirely different, much more pleasant reason – the 2015 Davis Cup finals.

If you haven’t been following Davis Cup tennis this year, you might be understandably confused about when exactly Belgium and the British actually became good at tennis. The short answer is, they really haven’t, but circumstances have allowed their mediocrity to each be buoyed by one upper-echelon player.

Starting with Belgium, world no. 16 David Goffin’s career year has carried the team in singles, but more importantly, they’ve never had to leave Belgian borders to play. And while Belgium doesn’t exactly have the best record of fending off foreign invasions, their 2015 Davis Cup campaign has been a very different story. Defeating Switzerland, Canada and Argentina, the success this team has had has either completely rewritten history, or is because they’re secretly German.

For the Brits, it’s been a story of not one, but two Murrays. Andy is set to finish the year at a career-best no. 2, while his brother Jaime has done likewise on the doubles circuit, finishing at no. 7. Beating the US, France and Australia en-route to the final, it almost hasn’t mattered who team GB’s other singles player is.

The funny thing is, it’s the “no-names” for each team that could make a world of difference in the final. Goffin could push Murray in their rubber, but the former was just rolled by the latter 6-0, 6-1 two weeks ago in Paris, so it’s hard to see the switch to Murray’s least-favourite surface – clay – making that much of a difference over five sets. Belgium simply can’t afford to lose the doubles, and will be relying on the pair of Kimmer Coppejans and Steve Darcis to get past the Murrays. Darcis is a cagey vet best known for knocking off Rafa Nadal in the first round of Wimbledon 2013, and will need to have a similarly superb serving day to carry the younger Coppejans. Having only played together in one round previously (where they beat Canada), there’s not a ton to go on, but they’ll be heavy underdogs against the two Scots.

If the Belgians do pull off an unlikely doubles victory, their chances of winning increase exponentially with the second return singles match between (most likely) Darcis and debutant Kyle Edmund. While Bemelmans is currently listed as the player to face Edmund, Darcis was the man to deliver Belgium in the semis against Argentina, and proved his big-game credentials in the aforementioned stoush with Rafa. Edmund is an unknown quantity, and with the crowd against him, he would be hard pressed to take the victory.

So does Belgium has a chance? Yes, but they’ll only go as far as their lesser lights can take them. The problem is, they’re lesser lights for a reason. Murray will continue to carry the singles, but the doubles will be huge, with the switch to clay nullifying some of their serve-and-volleying, it will decide whether the tie is a British landslide or an epic Belgian win at the death. Realistically, all signs point to a 3-2 win for the Brits, but crazy things can happen in Davis Cup Tennis – if they didn’t, Belgium and Great Britain wouldn’t be there in the first place.

A Federer-Djokovic Two-Parter: What Changed in Five Days?

Yep, Nole did in fact have to choke a bitch.

Head-to-head matchups in tennis can be weird. Sometimes two guys will go months, years even, without playing each other – other times, they’ll play twice in the same week, as was the case with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in London. Given the first meeting was a 7-5, 6-2 victory for Federer, it would seem Djokovic would have his work cut out for him if he wished to right the ship on such a short turnaround – but it certainly didn’t seem that way on Sunday.

There’s no point dancing around it: Djokovic obliterated the Swiss Maestro. The 6-3, 6-4 scoreline was as indicative of the competitiveness of a tennis match as it could ever be, as the world number 1 made beating the greatest player the sport has ever seen look as routine as the Guards’ changeover at Buckingham Palace. This was Djokovic at his best, taking all the lessons of last Tuesday’s match and applying them against an opponent who couldn’t reiterate that same form.

So what changed? Perhaps surprisingly given it was played on indoor hard, it was the contrast – both from match-to-match and player-to-player – in return of serve. In Tuesday’s iteration, Federer won an impressive 45% of return points, constantly extending Djokovic’s service games and creating opportunities to take risks and up his aggression. On Sunday, Djokovic served a lot better – particularly on the second serve, where he won an incredible 84% of points, while on the other side, the Serb upped his return points won from 28 to 39%. Combining the two factors meant Federer was forced to play neutral balls that favoured Djokovic’s power from the baseline, so while the match may have been on the former’s preferred surface, it was very much the latter’s preferred style of fight.

However, there’s one other factor that is likely to go unmentioned in most corners, and it’s one that doesn’t exactly favour the ATP’s showcase event. Djokovic was undoubtedly a different man in the final, and this in some part, is intentional. That is not to say he was trying less hard in the first encounter, but the Serb has played a staggering amount of tennis over the past eleven months, and given his advantage over his other round-robin opponents – Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych – could plan his week to peak a bit earlier than the relatively well-rested Federer had to. It’s not a concerted effort to play down to his opponent (he certainly couldn’t against Federer anyway) but maybe he trains a little easier coming off that Paris victory just days prior, and at the very least he wouldn’t feel the same sense of urgency.

It’s no accident then that the Djokovic we saw in the final was in supreme form. He’s the best player in the world right now for his approach to the sport as much as his performances in it. Could Federer have repeated his success from a few days earlier? Possibly, but it would have required him to play at his apex, and serve far better than he did. As things stand, it’s hard to see a person you could predict to stop the Serb from winning all four slams next year, but if not the final, the week showed that Federer could very well be the man to stop him. If we learnt anything from the pair’s 43rd and 44th meetings, it’s that we could do with four more.

Must-watch Power Rankings: The Athletes Worth Making Time For

If you’re anything like me, you’re time is precious. You’ve gotta get 10 hours of sleep every day, eat five solid meals, and spend a good six hours planning on getting any work done. That doesn’t always leave enough for sports. Thankfully for you, I’ve put together a comprehensive power ranking of the athletes that are appointment viewing right now. Each guy on this list is doing something totally unique and totally fascinating in their respective sport right now – whether that’s through absolute domination, transcending father time, or straight-up revolutionising their sport (maybe in future editions of these rankings we might get lucky and get another mid-90’s Mike Tyson too, in which case you’re watching to see if he tears another ear off) all are in their own way worth making time for, so read on.

  1. Steph Curry, NBA (Golden State Warriors)

The whole reason I’m writing this list right now. There’s not a shot he doesn’t like, and not a shot that doesn’t like him. He makes the three look easier than betting on Charlie Sheen being the recipient of last week’s Hollywood HIV rumours. He can get hot anywhere, anytime, and even in a “quiet” game he’ll have at least three moments where he launches just Ron Artest-level dumb three pointers that have no right to go in, except they do. He was league MVP last year, and he’s now passed LeBron James for the title of “best basketball player in the world” – no easy feat.

  1. Gennady Golovkin, Boxing

If there was a real-life Ivan Drago, except personable, it would be Golovkin. At 34-0 with 31 KO’s (including a record 21-straight), the Kazakh is on his way to cleaning out the middleweight division with a combination of lethal punching power, innate boxing ability and an iron jaw. If you want an idea of just how scary this guy is, know that ex-WBC champ Miguel Cotto forfeited his belt knowing that if he’d have beaten Canelo Alvarez this weekend, he would’ve had to face Golovkin, who holds the interim title. He just spent the better part of eight rounds rearranging IBF champ David Lemieux’s face, and will now get to do the same against Alvarez in a PPV that is actually worth buying.

  1. Neymar & Luis Suarez, Football (Barcelona)

It’s kind of crazy to think that the best footballer in the world right now is on Barcelona, and isn’t Leo Messi, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Of course I cheated here and lumped his two strike partners together, but since the Argentine went down, the pair have been equally ridiculous. Case-in-point, they just made Real Madrid look like bloody Scunthorpe United with three of Barca’s goals in their 4-0 victory on Saturday. Messi or not, these dudes are scoring for fun right now.

  1. Novak Djokovic, Tennis

Arguably the world’s most dominant athlete, Djokovic is putting the finishing touches on his second three-slam season, and simply looks a class above right now. Part tennis player, part slugger, part contortionist, the Serb is worth watching if for just his return-of-serve alone. No one wins more points he has no right to than Novak Djokovic.

  1. Conor McGregor, UFC

Entering 2015 it was hard to tell if McGregor had merely talked his way into the UFC’s spotlight, but he’s shown since that he certainly deserves to be there. After putting himself on featherweight champ Jose Aldo’s radar with a knockout of Dennis Siver in January, the Irishman went and bulldozed Chad Mendes – the same Mendes who had given Also one of the toughest fights of his career – to prove he has the striking to back up his soundbytes. Aldo vs McGregor on December 12 is set to be the biggest fight of the year, in any combat sport.

  1. Todd Gurley, NFL (St Louis Rams)

Like Adrian Peterson, except younger and with a clean criminal record, Godd Turley has set the world on fire in the first five games of his NFL career. With the Rams’ absolutely putrid quarterback play, he’s been almost the entirety of their offense, carrying the team with a mix of speed, vision and power that no one could have expected this soon, given his ACL injury a little over a year ago. If the Rams’ QBs can stop sucking, and/or fire Jeff Fisher, Gurley’s the one guy who could leap well up this list.

  1. Roger Federer, Tennis

No one’s made a living off leaving fans speechless quite like Roger Federer, and he continues to do so at the age of 34, if just for the fact he’s still trucking in the top 3 while all of his contemporaries (Roddick, Safin, Hewitt, Ferrero, etc) are history. The way he’s adapted his game to fit his limitations has been remarkable, and the brand of hyper-attacking tennis he’s playing is just as entertaining as it was five years ago.

  1. Tom “Tim” Brady, NFL (New England Patriots)

Another old dude who shouldn’t be on this list, but has been equally incredible at an equally advanced age. While Peyton Manning is trying to find a whole-body donor on the black market, Brady is as good as he’s ever been. Through nine games this year, he’s got 24 touchdowns against 3 interceptions, which would seem borderline criminal if the NFL wasn’t, you know… the NFL.

  1. LeBron James, NBA (Cleveland Cavaliers)

The reason the greatest basketball player of the last twenty years is this far down the list is because he’s had a relatively inauspicious start to the 15-16 season, but the reason he’s on it at all is because of how abso-frickin-lutely incredible he was in carrying the Cavs during the NBA finals back in June. Nearly 31, LeBron’s learnt to measure his outbursts of brilliance, but don’t be surprised when we get a reminder very, very soon.

  1. Russell Westbrook, NBA (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Westbrook is Bestbrook. It doesn’t matter whether he shoots 10/30 or puts up a triple-double, every Thunder game with Russ is an experience. Will he launch contested 20 footers? Will he miss easy looks to Kevin Durant? Will he perform a singular feat of athletic brilliance? He’ll probably do them all. And when it’s all over, he might just go off on the press. Gotta love the Brodie.

 

So that’s it for the first “must-watch” power rankings. Expect these to be updated as necessary – could be months, could be days. If LeBron goes ballistic, I’ll let you know, likewise, if Dez Bryant looks ready to murder Greg Hardy, I’ll give a heads up. These are your ten for now, so get watching!

ATP World Tour Finals Preview: Is Nole gonna have to choke a bitch?

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the world’s eight best male tennis players are set to gather in London to compete for the vaunted title of “who looks most awkward in a suit?” (Spoiler alert: it’s David Ferrer), but after that’s been decided, we move onto the ATP Tour’s centrepiece event – the World Tour Finals.

As much as the ATP Tour would like to believe otherwise, the WTF has often struggled to develop any sort of real importance in the context of the tour itself. Situated at the end of arguably the most gruelling season in any major professional sport, players often turn up suffering from varying levels of fatigue – an issue compounded by the ITF scheduling the Davis Cup finals (a much rarer opportunity for most) the week after, each year forcing at least one top player to take it easy in London.

Unfortunately, 2015’s edition seems unlikely to break that trend. This year it’s Andy Murray’s turn to take it easy, before he faces Belgium on Clay next week. It’s a particular shame given he carried some nice form into the week, reaching the Paris final where he lost to Novak Djokovic. Speaking of which, the other intrigue-sapping factor is that Djokovic has already wrapped-up the year-end no. 1, having well-and-truly dominated this season from start to finish, with the only reprieve being his shortfall against Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final. What’s more, is that despite reaching all four slam finals, and a further eight of the nine masters finales he looks as fresh as ever, meaning as the lights come on at the 02, it seems everyone else is playing for second.

Perhaps the highest compliment can be paid to Djokovic’s 2015 season is that it’s almost a carbon-copy of peak-Roger Federer. His tennis in the last week of October at the Paris Masters was just as superb as it was in Melbourne back in January, with a resurgent Andy Murray looking more helpless than Pat Rafter trying to reel in Nick Kyrgios. What particularly stood out about that victory was just how supreme his return-of-serve was – with Murray having an average serving day, easy points were hard to come by, as Djokovic was on top of everything, even on ultra-fast indoor. As such, given that the WTF is played on the exact same surface, figuring out if anyone can actually dethrone Djokovic is a question of who can back-up some serious firepower with an exceptional serving day. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list.

Stan Wawinka and Roger Federer. That’s it. The two Swiss are Djokovic’s biggest rivals on tour at the moment, and have proven in the past to have the shotmaking to take it to the Serb on any surface. Both come in with a modicum of form – Federer more so with his recent title in Basel – and they’ll need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance. Merely “good” won’t be enough given the level Djokovic is currently playing at.

So what separates them from the rest? It’s either one of two things: 1. Murray (who would be on the above list otherwise) has the aforementioned Davis Cup final, and isn’t even practicing on the right surface, and 2. The rest don’t have the all-round firepower to do any more than take a set from the Serb. You might think someone like Nishikori or Berdych could pull the upset, but the surface is too fast for the former to out-grind him, and the latter doesn’t have enough consistency from point-to-point. Ferrer and – as sad as it is to say – Nadal, simply can’t ramp up the aggression to best Djokovic, who at this point, is a better grinder than either anyway.

Not exactly the prettiest picture is it? In fact right about now you’re probably saying: “well if Djokovic is gonna win, is it even worth watching?” My response is firstly, stop talking to your screen, you’re creeping people out, and secondly, of course! These are the eight best players in the world we’re talking about! There’s an old adage in boxing that ‘styles make fights’, and that can be true for tennis as well – watching Nishikori grind it out with Djokovic is sure to be a lot of fun, or Wawrinka play ‘paint the lines’ against Nadal. If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see what made these guys special-enough to get there in the first place.

With a near-7000 point lead in the ATP rankings, men’s tennis is very much Novak Djokovic’s world right now. It would be silly to expect that to change in the next seven days. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. After all, we did see John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Pat Cash reach the 2014 final.

Extra-time: A look at Federer-Nadal in its later vintage

Tennis, more than most sports, can quickly pass even the best of players by. One minute a player seems poised to dominate for the foreseeable future, the next he’s found feigning interest in women 20 years his senior on reality TV. Part of what makes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal so remarkable is that they’ve been essentially at the top of the game for over a decade. They may not quite be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but they’re pretty close, and it’s why their meeting on Sunday in Basel – marking the twelfth-freaking-straight year they’ve faced each other, is worth a closer examination.

In case you missed it, here’s the cliffnotes for the match: Firstly, Federer should’ve won this in straight sets. Going into the match he had form, surface and location working in his favour, and the way he played in the first set – attacking relentlessly, hitting through his crosscourt backhand – he seemed set for a relatively straightforward afternoon. The reason it went to three is because Nadal stuck to his guns, waited for Federer’s backhand to deteriorate, and capitalised when he got tight. Federer never really got his mojo all the way back in the third, but Rafa lost his, giving him the title. All-in-all it’s safe to say that of their 34 meetings, this match won’t crack the top ten.

At its best, Federer-Nadal is two men trading moments of brilliance for games on end. Each man will go on runs where they look so untouchable you might be forgiven for discounting just who is on the other side of the net – for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter. At even rarer times, they reach that level at the same time, and you’re left sitting in amazement as they constantly redefine what untouchable tennis is. In Basel, while we were treated to those flashes of brilliance, the match was all too often punctuated by moments just as profound in displaying their frailties – untimely double faults, routine forehands missed, subdued aggression – giving you a constant reminder that this is not the Federer-Nadal of yore.

By no means did it lack for entertainment – this is the greatest rivalry in tennis history, after all – but it’s hard not to be wistful for the sort of tennis these two played at their peak. Going into the match (and certainly afterwards), many a fan might’ve wondered why these two don’t play as often anymore – unfortunately, the answer is in the inconsistent tennis we saw on Sunday.

Gone are the days where either could waltz to a final – or even a semi – as both simply have too many average days. And whereas in their primes an “average” day was still superior to just about anyone else’s good one, that’s simply not the case anymore. Playing as they did in Basel would set them up for disappointment against many of the sport’s upper echelon – guys like Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and of course, Novak Djokovic. Does it mean they can’t beat those guys? Of course not, but at any given major, they’ll have to go through at least two of them, and that’s a far more difficult proposition than it used to be.

As a final aside, from a semi-poetic/cosmic point-of-view, it’s fascinating that the two find themselves at such level pegging in the first-place. Nadal is still the right side of 30, and was firmly in the ascendancy last time they met in January 2014. He shouldn’t have dropped off as fast as he did, but the unfortunate truth is that Nadal’s ultra-physical style of play was always going to deny him the prolonged twilight of Federer. Then again, perhaps it’s only right that the two men who took tennis into the stratosphere, embark on their final chapters together. The Basel final was a chance to reflect as much as it was to enjoy the tennis played – here’s hoping we get a few more opportunities to prioritise the latter.

Captain Lleyton to the rescue? Not so fast.

Hewitt-Federer-tw-700x450The general consensus with Lleyton Hewitt’s appointment as Australia’s Davis Cup captain seems to be that he’s the man who can finally reel in our young knuckleheads. But if there’s any man who knows the importance of embracing their inner dickhead, it’s Lleyton Hewitt.

Back in August, Australia’s “next great hope” Nick Kyrgios made headlines for informing Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka of his eskimo brotherhood with fellow Aussie Thanassi Kokkinakis in the middle of a match at the Montreal Masters. Coincidentally, this came just after Hewitt had entered into an ongoing mentorship role with the 20-year-old, who has had a history of on-court tantrums.

The hope at the time, as it seems to be now, is that Hewitt, having had a similar attitude problem at the same age, would be a calming influence on Kyrgios, getting him focused back on playing the sort of tennis that got him to two slam quarterfinals as a teenager.

Instead, Kyrgios seems about as temperamental as ever. About as unapologetic over the Wawrinka incident as Usher is for unleashing Justin Bieber on the world, Kyrgios proved determined to show he hadn’t learnt his lesson with three code violations in seven days between the Japan Open and Shanghai Masters. If Hewitt was to have an effect in the wake of Montreal, shouldn’t we have seen some improvement by now?

The explanation for why we haven’t is actually pretty simple: Hewitt isn’t interested in reigning Kyrgios – or Bernard Tomic for that matter – in at all. He actually alluded to this in his statements on Monday, where he acknowledged that Kyrgios has to “be who he is to a certain extent”, and why not? It certainly worked out well for Hewitt.

Winning the US Open in 2001 at the age of 20, Hewitt backed up that victory and his newfound number one ranking with a Wimbledon title in 2002 and another year-end finish in the top spot. This happened to coincide with his rise as one of world sport’s most disliked athletes – a tag he was still carrying around in 2006. And while Hewitt has certainly mellowed out in recent years, it doesn’t change the man he was when on top of the tennis world.

It seems like many Aussies are waiting on Kyrgios and Tomic to have the sort of “road to Jericho” moment that happened to another temperamental tennis prodigy, Roger Federer, but such a personality change is the exception – not the rule – as Hewitt’s own youthful success clearly shows. Looking not just at Federer, but Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it’s easy to forget that the even-tempered, selectively-passionate approach doesn’t work for everyone. Hewitt’s job here isn’t to give Kyrgios and Tomic and smack across the head as much as it is to push them in the right direction, helping them find their own balance between focus and passion. If he does manage to pull that off – and that’s a big if – the results could be extraordinary.