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Jack Todd: Milos Raonic has Reason to be Proud



Sometimes you win, even when you lose.

That was true of Milos Raonic, who displayed so much talent, hard work and class against Andy Murray at Wimbledon on Sunday that it was easy to forget he didn’t win the match.

Raonic became the second Canadian in three years to make a senior final at Wimbledon — but acquitted himself much better than Genie Bouchard did two years ago against Petra Kvitova on the same stage.

Raonic gave Murray all he could handle, then showed intelligence and grace in his courtside interview when it was over. (Yes, we’re hoping Bouchard was watching — that’s how to behave when you lose.)

As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of the big servers in tennis. Once you’ve seen the rocket explode a few times it becomes monotonous, which is why I prefer the women’s game in general, especially at the majors, where a match on the men’s side goes three sets at a minimum. And with two tremendous servers on the court yesterday, there was only one service break in the entire match: from Murray in the first set. Given that tennis is all about service breaks, I find that less than scintillating to watch.

But Raonic has improved as much as any player on the tour since he first burst on the scene. He will never be one of the more athletic players on the tour — he can’t be a Rafa Nadal, a Gael Monfils or (above all) a Novak Djokovic. But through sheer hard work and by keeping his head screwed on, he has taken his game almost to the top of men’s tennis, to a rung just below the legends who dominate the most brilliant era in the history of the sport: Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and Roger Federer, whom Raonic defeated in the biggest win of his career to make the final.

Not so long ago, Raonic looked like a big puppy dog out there, all huge feet and long arms, slouching around the court between serves when his own body wasn’t getting in his way. No more. He has a pretty complete game now, even if he doesn’t have a backhand weapon like Murray, or the unreal agility of Nadal.

Raonic was never going to win this match against Murray, who might be the defining player of this era if not for Djokovic. And both players were no doubt thanking Sam Querrey, who somehow knocked Djokovic out to open a path to the championship.

But Raonic can go out with his head held high. He could have folded at any point but he never did. He kept the pressure on Murray with that big serve and he served notice that with a few breaks, he could win a major at any time.

France's Nicolas Batum (L) dribbles past Thomas Scrubb of Canada during their game at the 2016 FIBA Olympic men's qualifying basketball tournament in Manila on July 10, 2016.
France’s Nicolas Batum (L) dribbles past Thomas Scrubb of Canada during their game at the 2016 FIBA Olympic men’s qualifying basketball tournament in Manila on July 10, 2016. TED ALJIBE / AFP/Getty Images

Missing Wiggins: If I were one of the Canadian basketball players who battled their way into the final of the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament only to lose to France on Sunday, I would be furious with Andrew Wiggins.

That loss cost Team Canada a trip to the Rio Olympics and Wiggins was exactly what Canada needed in a tight game that France took, 83-74: a tall, rangy three-point shooter who could drive. A real star, in other words. Canada had good players on the court, including the Raptors’ Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson of the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers — but they lacked the great player they needed against a talented and experienced French team.

Wiggins passed because he wanted to get ready for the NBA season, which starts in October. He wasn’t weary and beat up from a long playoff run like Thompson or even Joseph. He just turned 21 in February, so he’s young enough to play a lot of basketball.

It should be noted that Nik Stauskas also passed on the tournament — but Stauskas hasn’t established himself in the NBA and it’s unlikely his presence would have made a difference. Wiggins is another matter.

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins.
Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins. Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada has a long history of some of our top players passing on international play, but most of that was back in the day when Canada wasn’t going to go too far anyway. With all hands on deck, Canada can put a pretty good team on the court now — but when you subtract a player of Wiggins’s caliber, it’s tough to win against the top teams.

For a number of players on that team, guys like Melvin Ejim, an Olympic berth would have represented the highlight of their basketball careers. They all know that with Wiggins, they might have made it — but he let his Canadian teammates down and he let his country down.

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during the Euro 2016 final football match between France and Portugal at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on July 10, 2016.
Portugal’s forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during the Euro 2016 final football match between France and Portugal at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on July 10, 2016. MARTIN BUREAU / AFP/Getty Images

Euro downer: After some brilliant soccer and some awful soccer, Sunday’s final between Portugal and France at Euro 2016 has to rank as one of the worst games I’ve ever watched in any sport.

You might say it would have been different had Cristiano Ronaldo not left in the 25th minute with a supposed knee injury but Ronaldo was around for the rest of Portugal’s run and all their games were much like this one. I have no idea what it might be but the folks who run soccer have to figure out a way to put some goals in the game.

As for Ronaldo, I’m sure he really was injured but that’s the problem with players who dive after every touch. You always wonder.

The bottom line, however, is that Portugal lost its superstar but kept battling and created the better chances in extra time before winning it. Sometimes when you have a star, you wait for him to do it all. Without Ronaldo, Portugal found a way. They’re deserving champions.

Heroes: Milos Raonic, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Andy Murray, Melvin Ejim, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Terry Francona, Chris Williams, Iceland, Rui Patricio, Eder, Chris “Sugar Ray” Froome, Brendon Rodney, Lewis Hamilton, Harry Shipp &&&& last but not least, Denis Shapovalov.

Zeros: Fans running amok at the Euro and the Tour de France, Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Genie Bouchard, Bethanie Mattekk-Sands, Jose Bautista, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.

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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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