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Vuelta a España, U.S. Open and Other Sports Updates

| by Sports Nickel
By Zach Bigalke
Some of the following words were penned over the past week, part of daily coverage of major international sporting events being held both here stateside and over the Atlantic across the length and breadth of España. Some are thoughts I’ve articulated with other writers, grappled with amongst coworkers at the day job, and discussed amongst friends. Others are fast-paced thoughts happening in real time, regurgitated verbatim as they spew from my consciousness.

But thinking about the concepts and events which comprise a weekly edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America and actually writing my thoughts down are two very different things. Even in an age where I have a publishing device in my left pocket at all times, finding the time to actually tap out words and keep up with the ceaseless flow of athletic achievement being perpetuated around the globe at all hours can be a vexing and at times fruitless proposition.

Putting together this tome every Wednesday night usually involves just that — an entire Wednesday night dedicated to that one opportunity to sit down and get the words down on the screen and into the public consumption. But even after last week’s lessons, the opportunity for free boozing can never be passed up… especially by one who aspires to serious writer status.

So here’s the fun for this week’s edition: I have written some of the original sections for this week’s column (excluding the previous daily coverage excerpts) prior to heading out for a cocktail party with friends. I have written some after returning home from said cocktail party. Your task is to see if you can identify which passages fall under which category — either barely-inebriated (given the glass of wine with dinner) or mostly-inebriated. Consider it just one more chance to play the odds, an opportunity for retroactive prognostication. I’ll reveal on Sunday which are which below in the comments.

Back in the day, smoking was believed to stimulate lung capacity and toughen the respiratory tissue... so were these guys trying to enhance their performance, too?

Why do I bring this up? Well, after seeing Andy Schleck and Stuart O’Grady get sent home from the Vuelta a España before Tuesday’s Stage 10 by Saxo Bank director Bjarne Riis (read more further in on this topic), the question really comes down to the rights of a worker as a free man in his off hours and the rights of a high-profile employer to protect its investment and impose limitations on those freedoms. The men were not accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, merely a post-dinner drink (or ten, if some speculations are to be believed). Riis has some famously-strict policies to which his riders must adhere during stage races; amongst those rules are a no-tolerance alcohol policy during the course of the event.

I’ve grappled in the past with the hypocrisy of many writers and fans to castigate athletes for their use of PEDs while they happily go about their days with a cigarette or a stiff drink or even, in some cases, something stronger yet. I’ve grappled with that hypocrisy within myself. Hell, I’m even working on a long-term project on the very subject right now with some other authors that will help illustrate in many ways how athletes’ artificial attempts to enhance their achievements is symptomatic of a greater human nature driving us to some semblance of “better living through chemistry” in whatever form it may emerge.

So with that in mind, pick your poison and get yourself lucid, because it’s time for us to dive right in to a no-nonsense week in the world of international sports with A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America

CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND DRAWS NEAR IN NEW YORK…

The last Grand Slam of 2010 is heading into championship weekend, and the past week of play leading up to there has been jam-packed with some incredible action on the hard courts of Queens. I’ve been here all the way, putting out (mostly) daily coverage throughout the fortnight of action. There have been some great stories to tell, surprises and feel-good tales all along the trail through the brackets. Catch up with how we got to this point through the past week of musings on the action from Flushing Meadows:

♦ DAY 4 (Thursday/02 September) For those who didn’t bomb out of the last Grand Slam of 2010 yesterday, the fourth day of play at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was all about whether or not more favorites would be dropping like so many flies swatted aside. For the underdogs, the sheer possibility that an upset was possible had been reawakened in the downfall of many a favorite over the past week; for those main contenders in the hunt for the second week of the tournament and ultimately the championship, the reality that defeat is just around the corner hovers over the grounds like a waft of doom. The cloud seemed to shift from Arthur Ashe Stadium over to the Grandstand Court today, where three out of the four seeded players contesting their second-round matches ended up losing to their unseeded opponents…   READ MORE HERE

DAY 5 (Friday/03 September) So I predicted 23 of the 32 third-round participants correctly. There were a few surprises that we had to nab in the predictions along the way to get there. Thiemo de Bakker, the young Dutchman, has really been pulling out some great performances so far and could give #5 Robin Soderling troubles in their next match. James Blake has had a resurgent tournament after a couple down years. He gets #3 Novak Djokovic in the next round and will likely get countryman and #19 seed Mardy Fish in the fourth should he advance. With the crowd behind him anything is possible. Sergei Stakhovsky has been as good as I expected, and Tommy Robredo came through when it mattered most.Of course, that is the pat-your-back moment of the review. The true fun is in just how badly my bracket is already busted before the tournament really gets warmed up…   READ MORE HERE

 

  

Andy Murray was among the notable players upset throughout the past week at the U.S. Open, falling to Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round...

DAY 6 (Saturday/04 September) In the men’s draw, #4 Max Mirnyi and Mahesh Bhupathi  — the 2002 U.S. Open champion team — dropped their third-set tiebreak against Argentinians Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zeballos to seal their early departure in the second round, the 6-4 3-6 7-6(4) decision a premature “Adios!” to Queens. Other than that, though, there wasn’t much going on in the men’s bracket aside from one favored team after another clinging to victory. Whether easy or difficult, the top dogs found a way to prevail for another round. The women were even more stingy in their allotment of upsets — not a single seed fell in the women’s doubles draw today, as everyone was on her game and no darkhorse emerged from the pack. It was a departure from the past couple days, when it seemed that there was at least one major doubles upset a day…   READ MORE HERE

DAYS 7-8 (Sunday & Monday/05-06 September) In 1947 the British abdicated their centuries-long hold on Mother India. The result was one of the largest, least-acknowledged massacres and mass relocations of populaces in history as the nations of India and Pakistan were borne from the debris of the empire’s decaying public works structures. To this day enmities are harbored, lands are disputed, and both nations are amongst the world’s nuclear powers thanks to the work of such men as Abdel Qadeer Khan and Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. But tennis might just be the one place where people of the two nations unite without reservation to take on all comers as partners in the truest sense of the word. On Sunday we were witness to the power of that reality when Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi pulled off the ouster of the highest seed yet to fall in the U.S. Open in any of the brackets. The two 30-year-olds, born 13 days and 1300 miles apart in March 1980 on opposite ends of the subcontinent, showed the strength in partnership that is possible between these two great and complimentary cultures…   READ MORE HERE

DAY 9 (Tuesday/07 September) All the good vibrations in the world couldn’t save the hopes of American men’s tennis, though. The last male seed fell on Tuesday, as #25 Stanislas Wawrinka — on a tear this tournament after knocking off Juan Ignacio Chela and Andy Murray in the past two rounds — booked his passage to the quarterfinals at the expense of #20 Sam Querrey. The 22-year-old from San Francisco had eliminated Nicolas Almagro in straight sets last round, but he found the going a lot tougher against Wawrinka.The two men hovering in the top 25 traded tiebreaks in the first two sets, playing just shy of two hours to turn the match into a best-of-three. The Swissman won the third set 7-5, but he couldn’t sustain the momentum and Querrey broke back in the fourth to send it all to a fifth set, a race to see who would prevail and emerge amongst the elite eight of the men’s draw…   READ MORE HERE

DAY 10 (Wednesday/08 September) The final Wednesday at Flushing Meadows saw the men’s and women’s singles and doubles draws pared back enough to play out the day at just Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, closing down the Grandstand for another season. Before we get to that action, though, the junior courts offered up some interesting outcomes amongst those players who could very well be destined to become the future stars we’re following on the WTA and ATP Tours. The top seeds in the boy’s doubles tournament tumbled out of the draw today as Brazil’s Guilherme Clezar and Tiago Fernandes fended off the comeback attempt of Marton Fucsovics and Mate Zsiga in a spirited 6-3 6-7(6) 1-0(4) showdown that left none of the crowd disappointed that drifted from the main attractions and came out to Court 6. Fucsovics and Fernandes are both also still alive in boy’s singles, a possible rematch alone against one another in the semifinals looming — as the #2 (Fucsovics) and #3 (Fernandes) seeds, no less…   READ MORE HERE

EVERYTHING ON THE LINE AS VUELTA ENTERS SECOND WEEK…

The 75th anniversary running of the Vuelta a España has been one hell of a roller-coaster ride. We’ve had feuding, suspensions, animosity… and that was during a rest day! The battles on the road have ranged from the sprint finishes of the flats to the mind-numbing pain of the mountains. The general classification is as hotly-contested as the Giro or the Tour, and nothing is set in stone as the race passes its halfway point. Catch up with all the action from the past week in my daily news and notes:

STAGE 6 (Caravaca de la Cruz to Murcia): This was the sort of stage which seemed to be tailor-made for a rider like Thor Hushovd. The Norwegian powerhouse has been the one sprinter of his generation who is able to hang consistently with the punchier classics specialists and climbers when the roads ramp up. Mind you, Hushovd is never going to be a contender for the general classification — once we hit the truly-high peaks later in the race, Thor will be right there alongside Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar and the rest sucking wind and trying to stay within the time limit to prevent elimination. But when it comes to those short, steep, punchy climbs such as one sees in the spring classics throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and France, Hushovd is among the best at keeping his position near the front of the peloton and carving out wins for himself…   READ MORE HERE

 

Alessandro Petacchi came full circle, commemorating the tenth anniversary of his first Vuelta stage win with a 19th for his career...

STAGE 7 (Murcia to Orihuela): Ten years ago yesterday at the 2000 Vuelta a España, Alessandro Petacchi took his first career grand-tour stage victory on the 168.5km journey from Vinaroz to Port Aventura. The route on which a then-26-year-old Petacchi won that day lies just north along the Mediterranean coast from where today’s stage took place. That journey into Port Aventura, when the Italian beat out compatriot Biagio Conte (who incidentally was later relegated to 113th for cutting off Jans Koerts — a sign that sprinters have always lived on the edge of madness), set off a much longer path that would see Petacchi win 45 stages amongst the three grand tours, including seventeen more in Spain…   READ MORE HERE

STAGE 8 (Villena to Xorret de Catí): The beauty of any of the three grand tours is that there are so many different battles within the framework of the race to keep a fan entertained. Not everyone is the type of all-around dominant rider that is going to be in the hunt for the general classification. Those riders who can are the ones who receive all the accolades, the plaudits showering down from adoring fans and a fawning press as they cling for a vicarious taste of the good life through the eyes of the maglia rosa or maillot jaune or, in the case of this 75th anniversary of the Vuelta a España, the camisa roja introduced this year amidst much pomp and bravado. But there are plenty of other competitions to follow. Individual riders, some you might know quite well if you follow the sport regularly and others who make a breakout appearance on a worldwide stage, hunt down stage victories to elicity glory for themselves and their sponsors…   READ MORE HERE

STAGE 9 (Calpe to Alcoy): The second Sunday of the Vuelta offered up the most mountainous day yet for the 185 riders that took to the start in Calpe on the Mediterranean coast and headed inland toward the municipality of Alcoy in the Baetic Cordillera of southeast spain. The race was entirely without Team Sky, the British-based squad having removed itself from the race this weekend following the death of team assistant Txema González to a bacterial infection. While no other members of the team or staff have been found to be infected, Sky nonetheless found it best out of respect to the family and the team’s obviously-waning mood in the death of one of their most valuable and respected soigneurs to withdraw altogether from this competition. The peloton made a grand gesture as well, donating all prize money from yesterday’s Stage 8 to the family of González. With two intermediate sprints, four categorized climbs (including the stage finish), and the payouts to the top finishers on the stage as well as the jersey holders, it amounted to a tribute totaling €41,090 ($52,980) for the longtime rider and team staff member who worked with Euskaltel-Euskadi and Saunier Duval before joining Sky. It led to a somber mood at yesterday’s start which softened as the tribute stage went on to its own terminus of sorts…   READ MORE HERE

STAGE 10 (Tarragona to Vilanova i la Geltrú): We’re right on that halfway berm at the Vuelta this year, the race having transferred up to northwest Spain to Tarragona on the Labor Day rest day. Over that time, apparently, the falling out between Bjarne Riis and the contingent of soon-to-be-former Saxo Bank riders headed by the Schleck brothers has seemingly become irrevocable. Not on the starting line — though perfectly fit and ready to race — were Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank teammate (and former Paris-Roubaix winner) Stuart O’Grady. Why, though, did these two riders miss out on finishing the second and third weeks of the last grand tour of 2010? Why did Riis banish these two supremely talented riders from his crew, reducing his team to seven and in turn punishing every other man in the Saxo Bank jerseys? It wasn’t a matter of performance enhancement, though one of the oldest intoxicants known to man was involved…   READ MORE HERE

STAGE 11 (Vilanova i la Geltrú to Andorra): Joaquin Rodriguez might have finally ended his deadlock with Igor Anton atop the general classification yesterday, snagging a two-second time bonus at the first intermediate sprint of the day and claiming the leader’s jersey by two seconds… but he merely won the battle. Today on the first true mountaintop finish of the 2010 Vuelta, Anton responded in a way that makes him seem far more suited to conquering the greater war at stake once the race rolls into Madrid two Sundays from now. The calm and determined way in which he took his second stage win today — and by just the midway point of this year’s race! — exudes the aura of a champion.

TOOLING AROUND THE NET…

Reading time has been at short supply this week, so we’re going to truncate this section down to three good reads this week. The paucity of life in the Non-Traditional Sports World — as well as my own recent divided attentions, spread between the Vuelta and U.S Open as well as the start of college football, a weekend of major yard- and  housework, and what little time I can spend on NHL previews ahead of the season’s start next month — has left a chasm in reading material on sites both large and small. Here’s what’s hit me most, though, out of what has crossed my screen:

  • Bjarne Riis and the Schleck boys: The end of the affair? (Ben Atkins/VeloNation.com/07 September 2010) So I stumbled across this particular piece via Twitter and was instantly glad I did. In this post Atkins perfectly articulates the hysteria which has surrounded the dismissal of Schleck and O’Grady by Bjarne Riis. It is a well-constructed tale both of how quickly news can disseminate in this day and age, as well as the pitfalls of that expedience when one or two potentially-erroneous tales are proliferated without substantiation…
  • Zenit’s domestic delight to cure European woes? (Jon Carter/ESPN Soccernet/07 September 2010) For all that fans love talking about how this or that team has bought a title, the fun really starts when that team fails to buy a title. That will be the hot topic naturally throughout the NBA season for the Miami Heat, just as it has been in the past for a Zenit St. Petersburg team which has seen its recently-found status as a big boy in Russian soccer usurped by an even stronger provincial, Rubin Kazan. This year could be different, though, and as Carter notes this team almost looks like it’s already gearing up for a Champions League run next year…
  • The glorious, ludicrous feud between soccer’s two biggest stars (Brian Phillips/Slate.com/09 August 2010) I discovered this article belatedly, but it is nevertheless well worth a read. Regular “Sports Nut” contributor Phillips talks about how the rivalry between perhaps the two greatest soccer players ever, borne not of their time against one another on the field (due to a generational gap) but as larger-than-life personalities that espouse differing mindsets on the past, present and future of the game…

A NICKEL’S WORTH…

  • Apparently Hermann Maier, the Austrian who won skiing’s World Cup overall title four times and two Olympic golds at the 1998 Nagano Games is going to be taking a wintry trek of a very different kind. He recently announced that, along with Austrian triathlete Tom Walek, he will be part of a four-man team skiing to the South Pole across Antarctica to commemorate the centenary celebration of Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the first man to achieve the feat in 1910. Maier, known for his Alpine prowess more than his Nordic skiing, will get to show us his acumen in a new discipline in the process, and for a good cause to boot…
  • So Tiger Woods is part of the American Ryder Cup team, but he had to scramble his way in as a captain’s pick after failing to qualify through the normal channels in this abysmal, turbulent season for ol’ Eldrick. I’ve been dreaming for years about the day when Woods would come back down to earth and/or the pack would catch up to him. Surely his extramarital revelations and subsequent divorce haven’t helped his focus, but the fact that Woods has faltered recently even when the pressure has been minimal is a telling fact. Honestly, Woods might not be the best choice for this team right now… but with a name like Tiger, it’s hard for a captain like Corey Pavin to pass your name up when that wild-card selection spot is open…
  • Ferrari will not receive any further punishment beyond their £65,000 ($100,000)  fine for the team orders that were issued at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, where Felipe Massa laid off his car long enough to allow teammate Fernando Alonso to pass and collect the higher points. I’m of two minds on this one. On one hand, the way one driver automatically gets relegated to second-string status by midseason is deplorable, especially with powerhouses like Ferrari and Red Bull and McLaren. On the other, why is there even a manufacturer/team standings in the first place if there is no aspect of teamwork allowed? Why would each team be an autonomous group independent from all other sponsors if you don’t want teams colluding between their two cars?
  • The world’s top snooker player, John Higgins, was cleared of outright match fixing for his involvement in a scheme to throw four frames in a match for a £261,000 ($400,000) payout. The three-time world champion will be allowed to return to his sport come November, when his six-month probationary period ends and life can resume once again for the Brit. However you cut it, though, video evidence clearly showed him gambling his career away for some (albeit large sums of) quick, dirty money. Will his career ever really be the same after such a stigma attached to his name?
  • Qualifying for Euro 2012 is underway, and this past weekend saw a full slate of contests. The biggest winner of the weekend? That’d be Sweden in Group E, who roughed up hapless San Marino 6-0. The biggest upset? It’d either have to be Norway over Portugal 1-0 or Lithuania outplaying the Czech Republic by the same score. Wo knows if either of the two traditional lightweights can qualify, but at the very least they each pulled off one hell of a pair of victories against fearsome competition…

ON THE DOCKET…

We’re arriving at championship weekend for one of the two events I’ve been covering daily, and the other has reached the high mountains of Spain and is getting more and more interesting by the day. I know that college football season is upon us — after all, I am one of the three protagonists involved with the Tailgater coverage here on Sports Nickel — and with the NFL starting up this Sunday there’s even more traditional American sports coverage to bombard your every waking moment. Believe me… I’m right there with you. But that only covers the weekend, and there’s plenty of hours before football starts to keep your eyes peeled for other pursuits. Here’s what I’ll be following most closely with one eye this week (while the other sticks to the pigskin):

  • U.S. Open (through Sunday/12 September) The brackets are narrowing and we’re drawing closer and closer to championship weekend at Flushing Meadows. We’re on course for some incredible finishes, as the heavyweight contenders that remain vie to pad their record books and Cinderella stories abound throughout the draws. Be sure to catch all the action online or on television; you can find the official schedule here
  • Vuelta a España (through Sunday/19 September) Intrigue abounds at the Vuelta, as we have narrow time gaps separating race leader Igor Anton from his competitors. The race heads into its second weekend staring at several mountainous stages to separate further the pretenders from the contenders. And with points and mountain competitions just as up in the air, there’s plenty of storylines to follow. You can follow the live coverage daily courtesy of Steephill.TV
  • F1 Italian Grand Prix (Sunday/12 September) The Formula 1 circuit concludes the European portion of its international calendar this weekend with the running of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Last year Rubens Barrichello and Jensen Button pulled a 1-2 finish with Brawn GP; both are with new teams this year, and it is the duel between Red Bull and McLaren that dominates the headlines in 2010 rather than Ross Brawn’s upstart return to the sport. Who will emerge victorious in the 80th running of the race? Watch SPEED to find out early on Sunday morning…
  • GP Quebec & GP Montreal (Friday/10 September & Sunday/12 September) The UCI ProTour makes its only stop in North America (amazingly, the Amgen Tour of California did not get a nod on their calendar this season despite the strong field and prominent spot in the calendar) when the tour concludes its sixth year of existence in Quebec. Two one-day races will take place in the province, and a strong field will include riders like Ivan Basso, Samuel Sanchez, Jens Voigt and Damiano Cunego. Check Steephill.TV Friday and Sunday for live online coverage…

And that’s that. Sure, it was a little shorter this week than usual, down from three pages to two when all was said and done. But I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless… and have fun out there playing the aforementioned game from the introduction!

NTSF 103: The Vuelta, the U.S. Open and all the trimmings… is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust

 

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