Tuesday, June 23, 2015

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015: It's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 / More than 50,000 fans --
mostly Americans -- cheer on Team USA against Nigeria at B.C. Place 

in Vancouver, B.C., Canada  on June 16.

The United States national football team advanced to the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 quarterfinals with a 2-0 victory Monday evening over Colombia. The Americans wore down an inferior opponent, Las Chicas Superpoderosas as the Columbians are nicknamedwhich played much of the second half with just 10 players, in this elimination-round match at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.

The U.S. victory was a bit of a mixed-bag performance just like its other wins earlier in the month-long World Cup tournament being contested across the Canadian provinces from New Brunswick back east to British Columbia out west. I had the pleasure of witnessing Team USA's 1-0 triumph over Nigeria last week in Vancouver, B.C., with my wife and our longtime friends from Seattle, along with more than 50,000 -- mostly American -- football enthusiasts.

On Friday, the second-ranked Americans will face China for the first time at a World Cup since the July 1999 final, when Brandi Chastain buried a penalty kick at the Rose Bowl that brought the U.S its most recent title. Although the U.S. has dominated China in recent years -- undefeated in 24 matches dating to 2003 -- it hasn't escaped the shadow of 1999, a 16-year drought in which the Americans haven't managed to win another World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe / Team USA's midfielder
arguably has been their best player, but

will miss Friday's quarterfinal against China.
The U.S. will be without midfielder Megan Rapinoe, arguably its best player of the tournament, who has received one too many yellow cards in this World Cup. Ditto for midfielder Lauren Holiday. With the unsteady play of 35-year-old striker and all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach, who has blamed the artificial turf for her uneven performance, don't be surprised if coach Jill Ellis calls upon attackers Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, if she opts for the U.S. to play a pressing style. Some critics -- validly -- have argued that the U.S. offense hasn't been clicking, hasn't shown fluidity.

With 25 years' worth of World Cup experience on its roster, one thing Team USA has going for it is a stingy defense anchored by the outstanding play of goal keeper Hope Solo. For all the well-documented problems related to domestic violence she's faced off the field, on it she's been steady and focused, not surrendering a goal in the past 333 minutes since early in the first game against Australia.

Hope Solo /
Team USA's controversial goal keeper has not allowed
a goal in over 300 minutes. She has recorded three
consecutive shut outs. 
If the U.S. is to reach the last four and earn a return trip to Vancouver, site of next week's final, it needs to generate more offense. Whether it's been the result of being too predictable or uptight, six goals in four matches is not much for the Americans to gloat about. After a nice beginning, a 3-1 victory against Australia, the U.S. played to a 0-0 tie against Sweden and followed it with a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Meanwhile, quarterfinalists Germany has 19 goals and France 9. Those two teams, which meet later this week in Montreal, are on the same side of the bracket as the U.S. On the other side of the draw, there's host Canada, Australia, England and defending World Cup champion Japan.

Hopefully, the U.S. can find an offensive spark against China on Friday in Ottawa. Alex Morgan has shown much promise since returning from an injury,  and she scored one of the two U.S. goals against Colombia. There's not much room for error and, going forward, it's survival of the fittest. After all, the stakes have increased.

Team USA's Abby Wambach / "We're still a work in progress."
"There's no doubt in my mind that we'll be peaking at the right moment," midfielder Carli Lloyd recently said. "And that's the most important thing."

Wambach added: "We're still a work in progress.  I don't want to be peaking until we're standing on that top podium at the end of the tournament. That is the moment when everything comes together, when everything fits."

Now, it's win and go on or lose and go home for the Americans.

A postscript: On June 26 in Ottawa, Ontario, a Carli Lloyd header in the 51st minute enabled Team USA to beat China 1-0 and advance to next Tuesday's semifinal against top-seeded Germany. Earlier Friday in Montréal, Quebec, the top-seeded Germans prevailed over France on penalty kicks (5-4) after playing to a scoreless tie in overtime.

A second postscript: On Tuesday night in Montréal, Quebec, Carli Lloyd scored on a second-half penalty kick and assisted on another goal as Team USA defeated top-seeded Germany 2-0 to advance to Sunday's championship match. The U.S., which has not given up a goal in the past 513 minutes of World Cup play, will face Japan. It is a rematch of the 2011 championship game in Germany, in which Japan won on penalty kicks after playing to a 2-2 draw. The U.S. owns a 21-4-6 advantage over Japan.

A final postscript: A stunning first-half hat trick by Carli Lloyd in the game's first 16 minutes enabled the U.S. to beat rival Japan 5-2 to secure the 2015 Women's World Cup championship. It was the third World Cup title for the U.S. and first since 1999.

All photos by Michael Dickens © 2015. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Roland Garros: From inside the baselines, Wawrinka's moxie and power reigned during this Parisian fortnight

2015 French Open poster art by Chinese artist Du Zhenjun / 
Drawing upon his Asian roots and from contemporary Western art.

Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period -- a report card if you will -- for professional tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events -- the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in late June and the U.S. Open in August near the end of summer  -- and all the big names in men's professional tennis came to famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, or the Cup of the Musketeers.

A funny thing happened by the end of the red clay fortnight on Sunday: None of the elite Big Four -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal -- won the Coupe. Instead, it was Stan Wawrinka, he of the funny plaid shorts and winner of one previous Grand Slam final -- the 2014 Australian Open -- who prevailed in come-from-behind fashion. At the end of the day, the Swiss raised the champion's trophy after beating Djokovic with moxie and precision power in four sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. A year ago, Wawrinka was a first-round loser. What a difference a year made for Stan the Man.

In leading up to Sunday's championship finale on Court Philippe Chatrier, three of the Big Four had fallen by the wayside: Federer was sent packing for Wimbledon in straight sets by Wawrinka in the quarterfinals; and Murray, the Scot who for the past year has been coached by French darling Amelie Mauresmo, took out David Ferrer in a tension-filled quarterfinal before he was stubbornly knocked out by Djokovic in a semifinal match that required two days to complete because of rain.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, the much-anticipated men's singles quarterfinal match-up between World No. 1 Djokovic of Serbia and nine-time defending champion Nadal of Spain, who arrived in Paris as the sixth seed and whose usually-strong game on clay showing signs of weakness and fatigue, was won convincingly by Djokovic. He stunned Nadal in straight sets -- it wasn't even close -- and, thus, ended the King of Clay's reign in Paris.

What started two weeks ago with a 128-player draw played down to two by the last day: Djokovic, who only needed to win the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, and Wawrinka, who has spent the past decade playing in the shadows of the more famous and acclaimed Swiss player, Federer. After Djokovic won the opening set 6-4, Wawrinka took his tennis to a new level by winning the next three sets -- playing "the match of my life" -- and, with it, the championship.

Stan Wawrinka /
2015 French Open champion
When the dust had settled on the famed Roland Garros stage, it was Wawrinka who dashed Djokovic's hopes of achieving a career grand slam. Afterwards, the 30-year-old Swiss walked into the interview room inside Court Philippe Chatrier. He hung a pair of his infamous plaid shorts over a table. No explanation was provided, just a sarcastic grin on his face. Later, when he was prompted to explain, Wawrinka said: "Everybody has been talking about these shorts since I put them on. I quite like them. Apparently I'm the only one. It's quite funny that they won the French Open."

Questionable fashion choices aside, Wawrinka was rock solid when it mattered and he showed against Djokovic that he was able to produce "big time tennis" by hitting 60 winners, no easy fete against the top player in the world. Djokovic had held a 17-3 lead over Wawrinka going into the final and had dominated the spring clay-court circuit by winning titles in Monte-Carlo and Rome. Wawrinka's world ranking improved over the fortnight from No. 9 to No. 4 with his French Open triumph, and he sealed the victory with a backhand winner.

"I'm very surprised at the way I finished the fourth set," admitted Wawrinka. "I was relaxed on my backhand side and I could hit some wonderful backhands. It's a rare feeling that you experience in a final against Djokovic. It's a great feeling.

"I'm still surprised that in two months I can win the French Open, because I wasn't in good shape after Monaco. It was a tough, tough moment for me. To say that now I won the French Open, it's something complete crazy."

Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka / 
During the trophy presentation.
When the final ended, Djokovic showed why he is always a class act in defeat. Pushed to tears, he paid full credit to Wawrinka in accepting the runner-up trophy during the on-court ceremony. It was his third final defeat on Court Philippe Chatrier, the others against Nadal.

Djokovic refused to use his own fatigue as a reason for losing. As a result of his forthright honesty, Djokovic received a prolonged standing ovation from the French crowd that was possibly the most emotional moment seen during a fortnight of tennis.

"Obviously was not easy to stand there as a runner-up again, but I lost to a better player who played some courageous tennis and deserved to win," said Djokovic, after his 28-match winning streak was ended by Wawrinka.

"I respect the appreciation the crowd showed me, and it was more or less the same situation like last year in (the) closing ceremony (after losing to Nadal). This is something that definitely gives me even more motivation to come back and keep on trying."

Djokovic continued: "There are two players who want to win this trophy, not just me. So I think people tend to create more of a story where it's just me.

"It feels like I'm the only player who wants to win this trophy and nobody wants to win it as much as I do. This is completely untrue. Every single player who is here, especially the top players, want to win this trophy as much as I do.

"Of course the finals of a grand slam and the grand slam I never won gives a special importance to my approach to the match. But I thought I started well. As I got into the match, that was not a major issue in terms of dealing with the pressure. It's just that he was better.

"At least I'm proud of the fight that I put into this match. I tried my best. It wasn't to be."

Photos: Courtesy of Getty Images; Google Images, 2015.