Super Bowl 52

If not the Patriots, then who in the AFC?

To call the Patriots heavy favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LLI is a gross understatement. Additions like Brandin Cooks have made a team that already ran roughshod over the conference last year even better on paper heading into 2017. However, sports are a funny thing.

What if the Patriots are finally derailed by the injury bug or just simply pick a bad day to have a bad day in the playoffs? Here are four teams ready to pounce.

Kansas City Chiefs

Ever since Andy Reid came to town, the Chiefs run the ball, play solid defense and do not beat themselves. This is a good formula for winning. However, when that formula comes up against a buzz saw like New England, it is also easy to end up in too deep of an early hole.

Tyreek Hill

Photo: kansascity.com

The divisional playoff matchup between the two teams following the 2015 season was a perfect example of this. Despite holding New England to just 14 points in the first half, Kansas City managed just two field goals and never got caught up.

While Tyreek Hill has provided a much needed boost to KC’s ability to strike quickly, half of their scoring drives in last year’s playoff loss to Pittsburgh were over ten plays. While those are nice, striking quickly is almost a must against the Patriots.

Hope for the Chiefs in a matchup with New England lies in Hill and their pass rushers, led by Justin Houston. With three double digit sack seasons under his belt, Houston is more than capable of wrecking a game for Brady and company, similar to what Von Miller did on Denver’s Super Bowl 50 run.

Kansas City’s opening night matchup with the Super Bowl LI champs will be a nice measuring stick for them.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos have questions at quarterback. Ordinarily, that would disqualify them from an article like this, but the Broncos happen to be the only team Tom Brady has a losing record against.

Von Miller

Photo: dailysnark.com

Denver has beaten New England with Jake Plummer, Brock Osweiler and an aging Peyton Manning at quarterback over the years. Knowing that, why not Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch?

Denver invested most of its offseason resources into bolstering the backfield and offensive and defensive lines Thus, the two biggest weaknesses on this team have been addressed.

If the additions help Denver run the ball and stop the run consistently, Miller, Shane Ray and the rest of the defense will keep Denver in almost every game like they have for the better part of the last two seasons. Against New England, that is half the battle.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have not given the Patriots any trouble in recent years. If last year’s AFC title game was a boxing match, it would have been stopped early. The last Steelers’ victory against New England was in 2011.

However, any team that has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and flirts with putting up 30-plus points every time out is always dangerous. The bad news for Steeler fans is that the Steel Curtain has been made of feathers in recent meetings with the Pats. Twenty-seven points is the fewest New England has scored during its ongoing four game winning streak against Mike Tomlin’s crew.

With the cast of characters basically the same on defense, the only way Pittsburgh beats New England this year is in a shootout. It is unlikely, but not impossible. They are one of very few teams with the firepower to beat New England in that way.

Indianapolis Colts

This inclusion to the list might surprise some, but the AFC is nowhere near as deep as the NFC. Something has been off in terms of the head coach/management dynamic in Indianapolis for the last two years. General manager Ryan Grigson is gone. With former players tweeting in response to the move, one can only assume that Grigson was a significant part of the problem.

One guy who is not part of the problem is quarterback Andrew Luck. Despite near constant drama in the front office and a flawed roster, the Colts have never posted a losing record under his on-field leadership. However, they have missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons.

Staying healthy has been a challenge for Luck, but 132 touchdowns to just 68 interceptions in almost five full years as a starter are the numbers of a quarterback who can carry a team on his back. The roster still lacks elite players outside of Luck. Also, Indianapolis has been obliterated by the Patriots in two fairly recent playoff meetings.

Even so, the Colts finally fall on the right side of one of a precious few things that is always true in the NFL. If you have a stable front office and a top-notch quarterback, you have a chance every single time you take the field.

Texans and Raiders miss the cut

Two teams that many people would have expected to see in this article are the Texans and the Raiders. They were each left out for very specific reasons. Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson battling for the starting quarterback job means that the Texans will not even be able to spell Super Bowl, much less get there.

Las Vegas Raiders

Photo: USA Today

Anyone who tries to lump Denver’s quarterback situation into the same category as Houston should watch what Trevor Siemian was able to do on the road in Cincinnati and New Orleans last year. The home game against Kansas City also speaks volumes about Siemian’s potential.

As for the Raiders, it is also fairly simple. Derek Carr is no doubt a special quarterback. Despite that, Oakland’s ongoing stadium and relocation drama is worthy of its own article. It is hard not to see it dragging down the on-field product.

Also, even when they were the talk of the league last year, the Raiders still led the world in penalties and got shredded by the opposing quarterback almost every week.

 

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Brandon Marshall

Impact pass catchers with new homes in 2017

Wide receivers and tight ends are tough positions to evaluate in the NFL. Over the years, top-level quarterback play has turned guys like Austin Collie, Deion Branch, Jacob Tamme and Willie Snead into solid pass-catching targets.

It is pretty rare to find a guy who is productive in every situation he is put in. However, this offseason has seen three players who fit that bill change teams. If healthy, they could help their new teams get to the next level.

Brandon Marshall, New York Giants

This is possibly the most impactful move of the entire offseason. In terms of raw talent, Marshall is one of the best of his era. He was a victim of the Jets’ dysfunction last year and posted an underwhelming 59 catches.

Prior to last year, he had just one full season as a starter with under 80 catches. Even at age 33, anyone who can make plays like the ones featured below on the NFL YouTube channel less than two years ago has a lot left in the tank.

The Giants are a perfect fit for Marshall. A quarterback like Eli Manning and young talent like Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram should be plenty to keep the occasionally temperamental Marshall motivated. These factors also mean he has a chance at two things he has never seen before: single coverage and the playoffs.

Eric Decker, Tennessee Titans

impact pass catchers new teams 2017

Photo: YouTube.com

Here we have another escapee from the barren wasteland that is the New York Jets. Decker missed all but three games last year due to a shoulder injury. Before that, he had become one of the most consistent pass-catchers around. This included hauling in 44 balls on the Tim Tebow-led Broncos that were allergic to throwing the ball.

He also tallied 87 catches from Peyton Manning in 2013 and 80 from Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015. Those numbers in those situations say a lot. You will be hard pressed to find a more versatile pass catcher.

Bringing in such a reliable target was very wise of the Titans. Young quarterback Marcus Mariota is completing only about 61 percent of his throws and still trying to figure out how to be a consistently accurate NFL passer. When that is the case, you can never have enough guys like Decker around. Lastly, he is an above average blocker who should slide right into Tennessee’s run heavy offense and be a big help.

Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers

Free agent signings are almost as rare as unicorns in Green Bay, but this is a great one.

Aaron Rodgers has not had all that many physically imposing receiving targets over the years. However, he got a taste of it last year with Jared Cook and is no doubt happy with this replacement.

impact pass catchers new teams 2017

Photo: host.madison.com

Bennett is on a streak of 50-plus catch seasons that dates back to 2012. He has never been the top guy in an offense, but he is someone that always needs to be accounted for.

Adding him to an offense that already has Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb among others will make that difficult for defenses. At well over 6-feet tall, he can run like a wide receiver and is matchup nightmare for linebackers and defensive backs alike.

Make no mistake, the entire Packers organization is well aware of what Bennett did for Tom Brady and the Super Bowl Patriots last year, averaging 13 yards a catch and grabbing seven touchdowns. His addition to the Packers significantly strengthens their already realistic chances of doing what New England did last year.

 

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Venus Williams

Wimbledon 2017 final previews: ageless wonders and outsiders

We have reached the most sacred occasion in tennis, the Wimbledon finals. Each matchup features a living legend taking on a talented, but somewhat unexpected opponent. All three of my picks for Monday’s matches were wrong. So if you are a fan of any of the finalists, pray I do not pick them. Anyway, here it goes.

(10) Venus Williams vs. (14) Garbiñe Muguruza

Head to Head: Williams leads 3-1

The remarkable story of the older Williams sister is well documented. At age 37, she finds herself in her second Grand Slam final this year. Prior to 2017, it had been eight long injury and illness plagued years since she had played singles on the final day of a major. With only one three setter on her road to the final, she has done a fantastic job of limiting the 15-20 minute error filled patches of play that have gotten her into trouble in recent years.

Garbine Muguruza

photo: express.co.uk

Williams will have her hands full with Muguruza who finds herself in her third major final, having split her first two trips with Serena Williams. The Spaniard is fast becoming the Stan Wawrinka of the ladies tour. Like Wawrinka, She is a player with immense talent and shot making ability who lollygags around with average results most of the time. But, she does pop up on the biggest stages every now and then. She has blasted her opponents off the court here, including top seed Angelique Kerber in the fourth round. This will be her first final of any kind in more than a year.

This matchup is pretty simple to size up. Both players are on the taller side and would much rather play offense than defense. This will be all about who can get the first big strike and get ahead in the point. Muguruza is always dangerous, but Venus is a five time champion here and more comfortable finishing points at the net. Especially with an opponent that is not her sister, it is hard to imagine her letting a chance like this slipping away. She knows it may be her last.

Prediction: Williams in two close sets

         

   (3) Roger Federer vs. (7) Marin Čilić

Head to Head: Federer leads 6-1

Roger Federer

Photo: dailymail.co.uk

Rodger Federer’s 2017 schedule was set up to allow him to achieve one thing, an eighth Wimbledon title. As nice as the win in Australia had to feel, even Federer himself did not see that coming.

He came into this event with more grass court tune up matches than just about anybody else, and it has shown. Despite playing a handful of tight ones, he has not dropped a set here. Even by his lofty standards, the serve has worked particularly well. He has entered the extremely rarefied air of the 10,000 career ace club. It is fitting that he was able to cross that milestone at his most successful venue. Serve, movement, net play, forehand, mental game, everything is working for Federer at the moment. He would be favorite in the final no matter the opponent.

Speaking of the opponent, it probably is not who Federer expected. Marin Čilić is the benefactor of the upsets of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. Even so, the 2015 U.S. Open champion would have caused problems for either of those guys with the way he is playing. Starting with his surprise run to that title, the Croat has added a little more pace to his entire game. The improvement on serve in recent years has allowed him to coast through the early rounds of big events like this.

Čilić has played only one five setter on his way to the final. However, that is still one more than Federer. Like almost everyone else, this is not a good matchup for Čilić. Perhaps he can draw a little bit of confidence from the fact that his only win over the beloved Swiss man came on that fairytale U.S. Open run in 2015. Čilić is playing really well right now and will make Federer work hard. However, there is not a soul on planet Earth who would pick Čilić to defeat Federer in a best of five set match on Centre Court at Wimbledon right now.

Prediction: Federer in four sets

The ladies final will begin Saturday at 9 AM ET on ESPN with the traditional Breakfast at Wimbledon pregame show taking place an hour earlier. The men will follow the same schedule on Sunday.

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Roger Federer

Federer continues to defy Father Time at Wimbledon

Like almost every other Grand Slam for the last 10-12 years, the men’s field at Wimbledon this year was and is about the “Big Four” of Roger Federer. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. Yet as just four men remain in the tournament, Federer is the only one of the four left standing.

It is almost impossible to add enough context and find adequate words to describe how amazing that is. However, I am going to try. Here is why Wimbledon 2017 may be Federer’s greatest masterpiece yet, no matter the outcome.

A year ago, he was all but done:

Last year at this time, Federer lost a five set Wimbledon semifinal to Milos Raonic. Days later he announced that he would not play competitive tennis again until 2017 in order to properly rehab a knee injury suffered at home with his daughters.

Djokovic and Murray dominated the tour for the bulk of Federer’s absence. Given that and the fact that Federer was coming off the first known major injury of his stellar career, expectations were understandably modest for the 35 year old in 2017. Many were even more skeptical when Federer announced he would play what basically amounted to a limited schedule to manage his body. Well, all he has done is win four of six events played including his 18th major in Australia.

Additionally, Federer now sits as a massive favorite to add to the above numbers at Wimbledon. As great as he is, no one saw Federer dominating in 2017 the way he did in 2007. His graceful playing style that tends to end points within five strokes along with his exemplary net play has extended his career as a force at the top of the game beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

 

As his chief rivals break down, he is coasting along:

Djokovic and Murray are 30 years old, Nadal 31. They all play a much more physical brand of tennis than their Swiss rival. Nowhere has that been more evident than at this year’s Wimbledon. Nadal seemed to run out of gas in his fourth round five set loss to big serving lefty Gilles Müller. Murray and Djokovic fell in the quarterfinals clearly hampered by hip and elbow injuries respectively.

Novak Djokovic

Photo: express.co.uk

Meanwhile, Federer has coasted into the semis without dropping a set or breaking a sweat. Murray and Djokovic have dealt with injuries all year long. Nadal played three clay court tune up events leading up to his unprecedented 10th French Open title.  While skipping the entire clay court season like Federer did is drastic, it clearly worked for him. Perhaps one less event leading into the French Open would have helped Nadal, Djokovic and/or Murray at Wimbledon.

Clay is Federer’s worst surface and the most physically demanding. Federer’s choice to pass on the French Open and its lead in events could not have been easy, but it was obviously the right one. He finds himself in the semis of Wimbledon. His fiercest rivals who are half a decade younger are already on flights home. That fact, when put into this sort of context, makes this Wimbledon Federer’s best ever, even if he does not get his fairytale ending.

Wimbledon

photoworldtennismagazine.com

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Wimbledon

Wimbledon 2017: A look ahead to manic Monday

Sixteen men and 16 women still have dreams of being called Wimbledon singles champions in 2017. A traditional middle Sunday of no play at the All England Club means all remaining singles players will be in action on Monday for the best day in tennis to kick off the second week. Here is a look at three of the best matchups on “Manic Monday.”

(2) Simona Halep vs. Victoria Azarenka

Simona Halep

Photo: dailymail.co.uk

This is the match of the day. You have a player hunting the number one ranking against a former World No. 1 getting better and better in just her second event back from pregnancy. Azarenka leads the all-time series 2-1.

When playing well, these players each play a very balanced style in terms of offense and defense. Neither has played their best during this event, but these players know how to win while not playing their best.

If this is a physical battle, Halep has the edge. She has been in the game for the last 18 months. Azarenka’s fitness concerns are obvious and she has played two three setters to get here.

However, the second week of Grand Slams is usually about the mental game. Azarenka has two Grand Slam trophies on her mantle, Halep none. Particularly with Halep still dealing with the fallout of her epic meltdown in the French Open final, Azarenka is the one to trust if this is a close one. There is nothing to suggest it will not be.

As much as the Belarussian has tried to reign in expectations early in her comeback, the competitive juices are no doubt taking over for someone with Azarenka’s track record. Prediction: Azarenka in three sets

(5) Caroline Wozniacki vs. (24) CoCo Vandeweghe

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: thescore.com

This is your classic puncher vs. counter-puncher matchup. The defensive-minded Dane is eyeing her first trip to the final eight of Wimbledon, the big hitting American her second.

This match is entirely on Vandeweghe’s racquet. She will either blast Wozniacki off the court or be worn down by Wozniacki’s ability to always get the ball back in play. Their previous two meetings have been examples of the latter.

Although she is much improved in recent months, Vandeweghe’s mid 20s ranking is not indicative of her talent. It is indicative of her inability to harness her immense power at times. Wozniacki is so comfortable against big hitters whose names are not Williams or Sharapova. It is tough to pick against her in a matchup like this. In a year or two, this may swing the other way, but the Dane is a tough out as long as she is moving well.

Prediction: Wozniacki in two close sets  

(5) Milos Raonic vs. (10) Alexander Zverev

Milos Raonic

Photo: cbc.ca

With the “Big Four” coming off great first weeks, it is hard to imagine any of them under real threat on Monday.  That leaves this matchup as the best on paper. Two younger players who many tout as future Grand Slam winners will face off here.

Raonic has cooled off a bit since reaching the final here last year, but the big serving Canadian seems to finding his form on the grass. Other than not quite growing into his body yet and not handling hype all that well in Paris, Zverev has no obvious weakness.

The 20 year old German defeated Raonic during his breakout event in Rome earlier this year. While Raonic’s 130-140 MPH serve always gives him a chance, Zverev has the more complete game and more recent confidence to draw on.

Prediction: Zverev in four sets

ESPN will have coverage of Monday’s Centre Court matches starting at 8 AM ET. ESPN2 will have coverage of all other courts starting an hour and a half earlier. Enjoy the best day in tennis everyone.

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Adrian Peterson

NFL veteran running backs: What do they have left?

Three of the more intriguing signings of the NFL offseason involve veteran running backs out to prove they still have something left in the tank. Here is a deeper look at each situation.

NFL veteran running backs in new places

Adrian Peterson, New Orleans Saints 

Even though it has been a few years, any guy who rushes for over 2,000 yards the season after blowing out his knee is worth taking a flyer on. Drew Brees is amazing and he is going to retire with a bunch of records to prove it.

However, the 38-year-old is not getting any younger and is in the final year of his contract. New Orleans has struggled in a big way to find the right scheme and personnel on defense for the last several years. The Saints lost three games in which they scored 30+ points during last year’s seven win campaign. That should never happen.

There is no reason to think that the defense will be anything other than slightly improved at best. Assuming that is the case, pairing a highly motivated Peterson with Mark Ingram is as good a way as any to try and ensure that Brees will not have to throw for 5000 yards in 2017 for the Saints to be even remotely competitive.

Jamaal Charles, Denver Broncos: One of the single biggest reasons Denver’s season started to go sideways last year was the season-ending injury to running back C.J. Anderson in late October.

NFL veteran running backs

Photo: milehighreport.com

The Broncos were a top-ten rushing team prior to the injury. Following the injury, running back became a revolving door for Denver. By the final quarter of the season, Trevor Siemian attempting 40+ passes a game became commonplace. Regardless of offensive line play or who the quarterback is in 2017, that is not a formula for success in Denver.

Adding Charles to a crowded Broncos backfield that features a now healthy Anderson and second year man Devontae Booker among others, means a 30-year-old who has played in just eight games in two years is not even a lock to make the roster.

However, Charles is among the all-time leaders in yards per carry. Two or three runs of ten yards or more in each game would make a world of difference for this team.

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders: Even with Al Davis gone for several years now, the Raiders continue to operate unconventionally. Bringing this 31-year-old out of retirement who has not played a full season since 2014  is the latest example of this.

While Lynch returning to play for his hometown team is a nice story, this has never made much sense to me. Like the other two signings, the contract is very low risk-high reward. Even so, with Latavius Murray now in Minnesota, the running back situation is quite murky for the Raiders. Lynch is the only proven NFL ball carrier on the roster.

Unless someone separates themselves in training camp and the preseason, Lynch will likely be asked to preform feature back duties. For the reasons above, it is hard to see that turning out well.

NFL veteran running backs

Photo: arrowheadone.com

There is no substitute for live game action. That is something Lynch has not seen in a long time. Murray is a guy who dealt with a lot of nagging injuries, but still managed to be fairly productive. He rushed for a total of over 1,800 yards in his final two seasons in Oakland. It is baffling to me that the Raiders made virtually no effort to keep him while rolling out the red carpet for Lynch.

In theory, the running game is supposed to take pressure off of the quarterback. Even with a solid running game spearheaded by Murray last year, it often felt like Derek Carr was carrying this team. Look no further than what happened to this team in the final two games of last year after Carr’s late-season injury.

They were outscored 51-20 and sent home in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. While the Raiders stood very little chance with Connor Cook starting in his first career game, the Raiders barely broke 50 yards rushing in their defeat to Houston.

The running game did not step up then. With nothing more than a rusty Lynch and a bunch of talented but unproven commodities on the roster now, it is hard to imagine the upcoming season being much different in that regard. The Raiders had simply better hope and pray that Carr can stay healthy.

 

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Andy Murray

The old guard stands tall: Wimbledon 2017 Men’s Preview

As wide open as the recent Grand Slams have been for the women, the story has been much the opposite for the men. Wimbledon is no different. Federer, Nadal and Murray are on the tips of everyone’s tongue when it comes to possible champions. Despite a title win this week, Novak Djokovic is a riskier bet. Here are a few noteworthy first round matches.

(23) John Isner vs. Taylor Fritz- Seven years removed from the longest match ever, Isner still has not figured out how to break serve often enough to be a factor at Grand Slams. Fritz is a talented youngster on the comeback trail from injury. Like all of Isner’s matches, it will come down to a handful of points.

(31) Fernando Verdasco vs. Kevin Anderson- The big serving South African has caused problems for Djokovic here in the past. The veteran Spaniard has played well enough to earn a seed here in recent weeks. However, this may simply be a bad matchup.

(7) Marin Čilić vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber- Some folks are pegging Čilić to do big things here, and rightly so. However, Kohlschreiber has been one of the most solid players on tour for the better part of a decade and is an easy out for no one.

(3) Roger Federer vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov- The greatest player of all time cannot be too thrilled with drawing a former top 20 player in the first round. At the very least, the pony tailed Ukrainian will make this fun to watch.

Roger Federer

Photo: billieweissusa.wordpress.com

Predictions:

Top Half:

Top seed Andy Murray returns to home soil as defending champion for the second time. Other than the defending champion wrinkle, his pre-event situation is identical to Paris. He is not playing all that well and dealing with minor injuries.

He was around at the business end in Paris and I expect the same here. There just are not that many players capable of beating him in a best of five set match. Also, playing on home soil seems to inspire Murray, not terrify him.

The other high seeds in this half are Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal and Marin Čilić. According to Wawrinka’s career pattern, he should win this event. However, that is simply a statistical oddity worth Googling.

Nadal is coming off a tenth French Open title, but the quick turnaround to London has not been kind to the Spanish lefty in recent years. His physical style tends to catch up with him this time of year.

Čilić is your guy if you are looking for a dark horse winner. The former U.S. Open champ is fresh off a runner up at Queens Club and will cause problems for anyone over the next two weeks.

Marin Čilić

Photo: Yahoo Sports

His fellow Croat Ivo Karlović is seeded 21st.  With over 10,000 career aces to his name, he is always dangerous on any surface, but particularly this one.

Semifinal Prediction: Murray d. Čilić   

Bottom half:

With high seeds like Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev in less than inspiring form. Most will make this half about two names, Federer and Djokovic.

After passing on the entire clay court season, Federer is clearly placing high priority on an eighth Wimbledon title. He is primed to get just that after picking up a title last week. Despite a tricky opener, there really is not anyone that can make Federer really sweat in the early rounds.

It is a different story for Djokovic. The Serb has been in search of his best form for a year now. It will not take long to find out if yesterday’s tournament win in Eastbourne did the trick.

He could have to deal with Juan Martin del Potro and Feliciano Lopez in the third and fourth rounds respectively. Del Potro and Djokovic have played more than one memorable match at this venue.

As far as Lopez, the big serving lefty was the winner in Queens Club last week. Despite a really solid career, Lopez lacks a signature victory. Toppling Djokovic in the fourth round to spark a run to the business end of Wimbledon would certainly fit the bill. At the risk of looking really foolish, I will take the hot hand to oppose Federer in the semis.

Semifinal Prediction: Federer d. Lopez

Championship Match: Federer d. Murray    

Wimbledon begins Monday at 6 AM ET. The ESPN family of networks has exclusive television rights in America. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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Petra Kvitova

Bedlam in Britain: Wimbledon 2017 ladies preview

Wimbledon is almost upon us, draws are out. Much like Paris, it is wide open for the women. Jelena Ostapenko took advantage to surprise everyone at Roland Garros. Is a similar story in the cards at SW19? Let’s start with a few first round matches to watch.

(9) Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Jelena Jankovic- Even though neither of these ladies has won a Grand Slam, both have spent countless weeks in the top ten. This could have passed for a final at one of these events 5-7 years ago.

Now, it is simply an intriguing first round matchup between two veteran counterpunchers whose best days are behind them. Despite that, it is rare to get a first round match between two players that are so well known at an event like this.

Slone Stephens vs. Alison Riske- Two still relatively young Americans who have been around awhile will do battle. Riske is a hard hitting grass court specialist who takes the ball early.

This is the season debut for Stephens who is coming off foot surgery. Riske is a very complicated first hurdle for the former World No. 11 who will look to control things with her forehand.

Victoria Azarenka vs. CiCi Bellis- This is just the second event back since pregnancy for the former World No. 1 and two time Australian Open winner. Her 18 year old American opponent is one of the most exciting young prospects on tour and has already notched wins over players like Radwnska, and Dominika Cibulkova.

Despite that, Bellis may be punching above her current weight class here. Even so, it will be interesting to see what Bellis can do as Azarenka continues to knock off rust.

(4) Elina Svitolina vs. Ashleigh Barty- This is my big first round upset. The fourth seeded Ukrainian is dealing with a leg injury and has never been all that fond of grass courts in the first place.

Combine that with the unorthodox style of Barty, her run to the finals in Birmingham, and that is enough for me to go out on a limb.

Predictions:

Top Half:

With a record of just 19-13 on the year, World No. 1, top seed and defending finalist Angelique Kerber is almost an afterthought here. Additionally, most of the players with the better grass court track records landed in the other half.

Opportunity knocks here for someone. Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova have never played their best at Wimbledon, but have workable draws. If you are looking for a deep sleeper, Tsvetana Pironkova is a former semifinalist here and loves the surface.

A pair of Czechs are also nicely positioned. Lefty Lucie Šafářová is also a former Wimbledon semifinalist who has played well enough in recent weeks to snag the last seed.

Her countrywoman Karolína Plíšková is seeded third. How she has never reached the third round here is mystifying. She has all the firepower that the surface rewards and a serve that led the tour in aces last year.

Karolina Pliskova

Photo: livetennis.com

Plíšková has spent the last year getting more and more comfortable at the top of the game. If she is not ready for a deep Wimbledon run now, when will she be?

Semifinal prediction: Plíšková d. Šafářová

Bottom Half:

This half is led by Simona Halep. The second seeded Romanian is still dealing with the scar tissue of choking away the French Open final. Given that, it is hard to expect much from her here.

The return of Azarenka to Grand Slam tennis will also unfold in this part of the draw. Even though the little bit we have seen from the new mom has been underwhelming, I expect her to make some kind of run here. The great ones find ways to grind out wins.

However, this half comes down to four players who are much better on grass than any other surface. They are (10) Venus Williams, (11) Petra Kvitova, (22) Barbora Strýcová and Sabine Lisicki. All four were capable of winning this event if things fell right with the draw.

However, Williams, Strýcová and Lisicki all landed in the same section of 16. Thus, they will all have to deal with each other in the early rounds.

Kvitova’s draw sets up really nice for her. The other high seed in her early section is Britain’s Johanna Konta who may not even play due to a back injury.

The fact that Kvitova is in such prime position to snag a third Wimbledon title after suffering career threatening stab wounds in December is a remarkable story. She is my pick to join her two fellow Czechs in the semis.

After seeing her blast through the clay Paris, Ostapenko at Wimbledon is something everyone around the sport is eager to see. She is primed to avoid a hangover and pick up the scraps of whoever comes out of the section of 16 mentioned above.

Jelena Ostapenko

Photo nypost.com

Semifinal Prediction: Kvitova d. Ostapenko   

Championship Match: Kvitova d. Plíšková

            Wimbledon begins Monday at 6 AM ET. The ESPN family of networks has exclusive television rights in America. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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Petra Kvitova

The winding road to Wimbledon

Wimbledon starts a week from Monday. The grass court season is only about a month long. Lots of storylines always get crammed into a small handful of weeks before the year’s third major. This year is no exception. Here is a pre-Wimbledon stroll through the tennis world.

No. 1 ranking on the line in Eastbourne: World No. 1 Angelique Kerber has reached just a single final this year, but with the ongoing instability atop the women’s game, she has maintained her ranking for most of 2017. Simona Halep could change that at the final Wimbledon tune up event in Eastbourne, England starting Monday.

The German and Romanian are the top two seeds in the draw. There are several scenarios where each can leave with the top ranking.

Simona Halep

Photo: bbc.co.uk

With Kerber struggling in general and Halep dealing with the scar tissue of letting the French Open slip through her fingers, most don’t expect either to win Wimbledon. Even so, being the top player in the world is a big deal. Thus, this is worth keeping an eye on.

 

 Djokovic still trying to find his form: Three time Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic will also be in Eastbourne. It is his first Wimbledon tune up since 2010.

The struggling Serb continues to tinker with his game, schedule and support team after being dismantled by Dominic Thiem in the French Open quarterfinals. He has tried everything in the past year or so to get back to his dominant self. Despite flashes of brilliance, nothing has worked in the long term.

Novak Djokovic

Photo: espn.com

 

This particular move reeks of panic. Djokovic has never played a tune up and won Wimbledon in the same year. Despite that, the player field in Eastbourne is not all that strong. Djokovic should be able to lift the trophy without playing above his C level. Perhaps that feeling would snap him back into form. Djokovic remains a huge question mark for Wimbledon and beyond.

Federer and Kvitova on the rebound: Roger Federer and Petra Kvitova have nine Wimbledon singles titles between them. After bouncing back from vastly different levels of adversity, they both are among the favorites to add to that total.

By the time this gets published, both of them will have their hands on winners or runner up trophies. After skipping the entire clay court season, Federer lost his first match on grass to Tommy Haas last week. However, Federer has raced to the final in Halle, Germany this week and will face talented upstart Alexander Zverev for a chance at his ninth title there.

Roger Federer

Photo: express.co.uk

Kvitova’s rebound has been far more difficult. She finds herself in the finals in Birmingham England. It is just her second event back from stab wounds suffered in a December home invasion. The fact that the powerful lefty has established herself as a real contender for a third Wimbledon title so soon is nothing short of remarkable.

 

Murray Worry? One player who we will not see again in an official capacity until Wimbledon is defending champion Andy Murray. The Brit has come in to his home slam in far better form over the years.

Coming off a run to the French Open semis, Murray lost his opening match at Queens Club, an event he had won five times before. Murray sounded concerned about his Wimbledon chances following the defeat saying it was a “big blow” to those hopes.

As concerned as Murray and his fans may be about his title defense chances, I am not. The best of five set format really helps the men’s favorites at any Grand Slam. Also, Murray was in similar form heading into Paris, he came within a whisper of reaching the final. While Federer is a strong favorite, Wimbledon’s favorite son is not far behind.

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Sabine Lisicki

The one returning tennis player that no one is talking about… but should be

Coming out of the French Open, the always brief grass court season was set to be headlined by the return of Grand Slam champions Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sharapova. Sharapova’s returns continues to have false starts and the other two are back, but it was the return of a slightly less accomplished player that caught my eye when scanning this week’s draws.

Germany’s Sabine Lisicki made her season debut in Spain this week after battling injuries for the better part of the year and is still alive in the quarterfinals. Here are a couple reasons why Lisicki’s return on the grass is noteworthy.

Past Wimbledon success:

The big hitting German’s game is tailor made for the speed of grass courts. She holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded by a female. Generally speaking, grass caters to power. Lisicki has a lot of that in all facets of her game.

Despite never being consistent enough for a top ten ranking, Wimbledon has always turned her into a different player. The 2013 runner up has knocked off Li Na, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams in past years at the All England Club. That list speaks for itself. However, it becomes even more impressive when you consider that all of those ladies were reigning Grand Slam champions when the former World No. 12 upset them.

As much as players say they are unaware of other players, most of them are lying. Yes, Lisicki is still trying to find her sea legs after the injuries. Even so, with the track record above, no one wants to run into Lisicki at Wimbledon. You can watch her knack for the most famous courts in tennis below on the Bine Tuzki YouTube channel.

Wimbledon

Photo: goceleb.com

The Grand Slam scene is still wide open for the women:

We just watched Jelena Ostapenko win the French Open after being ranked outside the top 30 at the start of the event. Apart from the serve, Lisicki is a very similar player to the Latvian. Also clay does not reward power the way grass does, yet Ostapenko still completed her fairytale.

Lisicki hoisting the trophy at Wimbledon is far less of a pre event stretch than Ostapenko doing so in Paris. The French Open drove home a single point loud and clear.

As long as Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka are out of the picture or knocking off rust, Grand Slams are about whoever can catch lightning in a bottle for two weeks. Even with Lisicki knocking off rust of her own, she is very capable of doing just that at Wimbledon.

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