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What Will Be the Next Feat for Novak Djokovic? Perhaps a Grand Slam



A day or so before the French Open commenced and the rain began to fall, Novak Djokovic shot a series of short, amusing commercials with Gustavo Kuerten, the genial, mop-topped, three-time French Open champion from Brazil.

In one of the spots, Djokovic, who at that point had never won the tournament, asked Kuerten for the secret of Roland Garros.

The power, Kuerten said as they sat in a car, is in the hair, and he presented Djokovic with a curly wig that the Serb dutifully placed atop his head, almost like a crown.

Two weeks later, Djokovic stood atop a platform holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires aloft as champion of France. It was his first French Open title and made him the holder of all four major crowns at the same time, unifying the tennis world under his unquestionable dominion.

It was also Djokovic’s 12th Grand Slam singles title, tying him with the Australian great Roy Emerson. Perhaps even more significant, it left him only five short of tying Roger Federer’s record of 17.

Kuerten beamed from the stands when Djokovic won Sunday. Moments later, he argued that because Djokovic unlocked the secret to Roland Garros and continued to display dominance on grass and hard courts, Federer’s record was in jeopardy.

Kuerten said Djokovic’s skill level was “one of the highest ever and most impossible in tennis.”

“That is what he is doing daily,” he added, “to break all the numbers, he is even getting close to Roger. Perhaps in a year or two we are going to see him with a real chance to get the numbers on the Slams.”

There was a time, in the summer of 2009, for instance, after Federer had won his 16th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon, when few would have speculated that anyone would catch him. Perhaps it will not happen, but Djokovic will remain the heavy favourite to win the next five or six (or perhaps more) Grand Slam tournaments he enters.

“Every time you ask, who is going to win a tournament, he is it,” Kuerten said.

Djokovic is barely 29 and at the peak of his talent, desire and physical agility. Federer turns 35 in August, Rafael Nadal is 30 but frequently injured, and Andy Murray, whom Djokovic beat soundly in the French final on Sunday, has difficulty in their head-to-head matchups. (Djokovic leads their series, 24-10, including 13 of the last 15.)

The next generation of stars, like Nick Kyrgios, 21, Dominic Thiem, 22, and Alexander Zverev Jr., 19, is still thought to be a few years away from competing for major titles. Djokovic crushed Thiem in the semi-finals in Paris.

That leaves Djokovic on a throne all his own.

The next attainable milestone is something even Federer has not achieved: the Grand Slam. The last man to do it was Rod Laver, in 1969, and no one since Jim Courier in 1992 has gotten through the French Open with two of the four Grand Slam singles titles. Djokovic, who beat Murray at the Australian Open as well, is on the track.

“I’m very proud, very thrilled, obviously,” he said. “But it’s hard for me to reflect on what has happened before and what’s going to happen after. I’m just so overwhelmed with having this trophy next to me that I’m just trying to enjoy this moment.”

But Serena Williams is the most recent example of how difficult it is to perform under the weighty expectations and hopes of a Grand Slam run.

Williams is still the dominant female player, but her air of invincibility has cracked over the last three majors. Two of those losses might be considered flukes. The veteran Italian player Roberta Vinci stunned Williams in a U.S. Open semi-final last September when Williams was within two matches of winning the Grand Slam.

At the Australian Open in January, she lost the final to Angelique Kerber, a fine player ranked No. 4 but not one considered to be the next regular major champion.

The result that made some people wonder if a shift was coming to the top of women’s tennis came on Saturday when the talented, powerful and confident Garbine Muguruza, who has been touted as a future No. 1, defeated Williams in straight sets to claim her first major singles title.

In fairness, Williams had been hobbled by an upper leg injury during her quarter-final and semi-final wins. But she looked better in the final, and Muguruza mostly directed the flow of the match.

After witnessing that, the 12-time Grand Slam singles champion Billie Jean King said it was a changing of the guard. At 72, King has seen many of those. Certainly, Muguruza did not consider the result a fluke.

“I have been saying during the whole week to be less emotional, to believe more that I’m here because I deserve my place here,” she said Saturday. “I earned it.”

Williams will turn 35 in September, but she, too, still has records in mind. She needs one more Grand Slam singles title to match Steffi Graf’s 22, but that has proved elusive. The French Open loss marked her third straight major tournament without a title.

The last time Williams lost in three straight was two years ago, and after that she reeled off four in a row. But she was 33 then, and Muguruza is 22 and likely to continue to improve.

Amazingly, so is Djokovic.

“He is able to get better every single year,” Kuerten said. “That is scary. It is very scary because he was already playing better than Roger and Rafa, and he keeps improving. Murray is the one that can challenge a little. But he has a hard time to beat him.”

It is a prospect that should worry everyone else on tour.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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