September 29th, 2009
03:47 PM ET

Mickelson deserves the plaudits

Phil Mickelson has thrown down one big marker. Tiger Woods may have wrapped up the overall Fed- Ex Cup title despite failing to win the PGA's Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta but it was his fellow-American who in my view richly deserves a fair few plaudits himself.

Phil Mickelson winning the PGA's Tour Championship at the weekend.
Phil Mickelson winning the PGA's Tour Championship at the weekend.

"Lefty", as he is known, shot a sizzling 65, five shots better than Woods' 70 to come from four shots back going into the final round to leave all trailing in his wake. And that includes Tiger himself who was left in second place three shots adrift.

Mickelson has always been a popular figure and the legions that follow his every move on the course will have been delighted with this showing. And like the man himself, they are already looking forward to next season with more than a keen sense of anticipation.

At his closing press conference, Tiger spoke of how he welcomes a strong challenge from a freshly invigorated Mickelson next season saying his compatriot has always had the talent to make life difficult for anyone. By the looks of it, Phil too is relishing getting going in 2010.

In my view, he must wish this season was just starting rather than ending. He turned to former player and two-time major winner Dave Stockton recently for a couple of days in San Diego, and together the pair worked on his putting techniques.

It clearly paid off with Mickelson crediting Stockton for his red-hot streak on the greens these past few days.

His last three rounds at East Lake saw him shoot 67, 66 and then that 65. Confidence soared with the left- hander boldly declaring he felt he could hold putts of almost any length! And judging by his performance Sunday, he wasn't far wrong!

Mickelson spoke of how much fun he had at the Tour Championship. And who would begrudge him that after the year he has had? Having to deal with the shock news both his wife and his mother were to undergo treatment for breast cancer treatment led to him pulling out of a number of events in 2009 so it was an obviously emotional Mickelson who checked out of Atlanta.

There is now over six months until the next major swings into action. That will be in April at the Masters and you can bet that Mickelson is alreading champing at the bit to get started. And if that putter is behaving itself, Tiger and co have plenty to be worried about!

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Filed under:  Golf
September 28th, 2009
06:29 PM ET

Is turning on the waterworks a good thing?

“Big boys don’t cry.” That was the mantra we were raised on back in the days when the web was something you found in the dark corners of a garden shed.

Cris Arreola breaks down in tears after losing to Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles.
Cris Arreola breaks down in tears after losing to Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles.

So when we bumped our heads, skinned our knees, or didn‘t win the sack race on school Sport‘s Day, we were expected to grin and bear it without the need for fluids.

We had good role models too, especially in sport, where our heroes were stoic, stiff upper lip, take it on the chin types, who, to quote Kipling, “met Triumph and Disaster, and treated those two impostors the same.”

Well, times have changed and I’ve got kids of my own now. And there’s absolutely no way the “big boys don’t cry” mantra will fly, because everywhere you look someone is wailing.

The latest example came on Saturday night, when Mexican-American heavyweight boxer, Chris Arreola, a 6'3", 251 pound bruiser with a face only a mother could love, (and then only in dim light), bawled his eyes out after failing to relieve Vitali Klitschko of his WBC world title.

It didn’t help that Klitschko is the very definition of stoic so that Arreola looked like a big cry- baby by comparison.

But all the same, watching the self-styled “Nightmare” from East L.A, dripping on the shoulder of his coach after his title-dream was convincingly shattered was uncomfortable to say the least.

But then I started to think about it, and realized that while he might have looked like a bit of a grizzle-guts to Generation-X’ers like me, the 28-year-old was only doing what comes naturally to those born in Generation Y.

Crying in public has become as common among role models as scandals and bling, and sports stars who blubber in front of the cameras are just complying with the social norm.

Look at the more recent examples. Roger Federer loses to Rafael Nadal in this year’s Australian Open final, and weeps like he’s just lost his favorite uncle. Granted, Roger is a serial sobber, but this was his finest hour and he took next to no flak for it.

And so it continued. NBA legend, Michael Jordan, marks his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame, with a tear-stained acceptance speech.

Habitual retiree, Brett Favre, departs the NFL, for the first time, in a flood of tears. John Terry misses a penalty to lose Chelsea the 2008 UEFA Champions League final, cue the waterworks.

Now obviously, there’ve been notable incidents of crying in sport in the more distant past. 17-year-old Pele howling when he won the FIFA World Cup with Brazil in 1958; Paul Gascoigne welling up when he was yellow carded in the 1990 World Cup semis; Oliver McCall blubbering so hard during a heavyweight bout with Lennox Lewis in 1997 that the referee stopped the fight!

But these were exceptions to the rule. And, in the cases I’ve mentioned, easily explained away by youth or mental instability that became apparent later.

However, in today’s society it seems you don’t need to be young or bonkers to turn on the taps, you just have to be human. And I’m still not sure whether that’s a good thing or bad thing.

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Filed under:  Boxing
September 27th, 2009
12:36 PM ET

Top clubs at fault in U-20 dispute

Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho and Leo Messi. Just four of the many football stars who first attracted attention at FIFA's Under-20 World Cup.

Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli should be gracing the U-20 World Cup for Italy.
Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli should be gracing the U-20 World Cup for Italy.

Over the years, this tournament has featured talented youngsters who impressed scouts and fans alike with their skill and technique.

Many were expecting this year's edition in Egypt to again expose the football world to the next Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but we may all be disappointed.

What has changed? Well, Europe's top clubs keep recruiting the world's top teenagers at a younger age every year, and they don't want to risk losing them to injury or fatigue during the season.

Is this right? No. At least not in my opinion. FIFA has expressed its frustration at the European clubs' attitude and I have to agree with them on this occasion.

Many of the players who have been denied the opportunity to represent their countries at this event are sitting on the bench at their respective clubs.

Wouldn't budding teenage talents like Jack Wilshere of England, Mario Balotelli of Italy or Thomas Muller of Germany benefit more from the experience of playing in Egypt than playing a handful of minutes with their professional clubs? It is my opinion that they would.

At senior level, FIFA can enforce rules to make clubs release their players, they should also be able to so on the youth platform as well.

I understand European clubs want to have their best players around, but most of the time they don't even count on their youngsters, giving them limited first team opportunities in second and third tier competitions.

So what I ask is for the decision makers to focus on what's right for these young players. Let's give them a chance to shine. After all, this could be their only opportunity to play at a World Cup, at any level.

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Filed under:  Football
September 24th, 2009
09:42 AM ET

She's coming back!

Just over a week after Kim Clijsters' magnificent victory at the U.S. Open, Justine Henin announced she was returning to professional tennis.

Justine Henin gestures during her womens singles match against Russian opponent Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open 2008 tennis tournament in Melbourne, her last major before announcing retirement.
Justine Henin gestures during her womens singles match against Russian opponent Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open 2008 tennis tournament in Melbourne, her last major before announcing retirement.

It’s another wonderful, and timely boost for the women's game, which in my opinion has been vastly inferior to the men’s this year.

You’ll remember that Henin shocked the tennis world last May by retiring while ranked number one in the world, and on the eve of last year's French Open, which she had won for the past three years.

As recently as this May, Justine said playing had left her with so many physical ailments a return to the tour was unthinkable.

But, rumors of a comeback had been gathering pace in the last few months. A Belgian television network reported that the 27-year-old had ordered 14 tennis rackets and was practicing intensely, supposedly for an exhibition she's due to play in December.

It turns out she’s going to play in two exhibitions. One at home, one in Dubai before making her competitive return at the Australian Open.

Kim Clijsters won her third tournament back – makes you think doesn’t it?

Though she won’t be a favorite in Melbourne, Henin could easily do a ‘Clijsters.’ She’s one of the most talented players the game has ever seen and before hanging up her rackets last May she was arguably the most mentally strong of all her rivals. That’s why she won seven Grand Slams.

None of those seven were at Wimbledon, and that, she cites, is one of the main reasons for returning. She’s had a few chances at the All England Club in the past and her game seems to be the perfect fit for the grass. Can she win it? Of course she can. Maybe in 2010 the Williams’ will have a little competition!

Terry Baddoo – but will she be any good?

So Henin has returned to the game, the big question remains can Justine, winner of 41 singles titles, reclaim her position at the top.

Well, obviously, nothing is guaranteed. And, having yet to see her on court, even in exhibition mode, it’s impossible to say for sure at what level she’ll be able to compete. However, it may be possible to make an informed judgment based on the way she looked when she announced her comeback on a Belgian TV.

Those who followed the first part of her career must surely have noticed that this was a woman with some baggage. A troubled life off the court, in which she lost her mother at the age of 12; had a sister killed in a car accident; became estranged from her family; endured a divorce; and suffered frequently recurring health problems had conspired to give Henin a haunted look by the time she quit the tour so dramatically on the eve of last year’s French Open.

Plus, in addition to health and personal issues, there was also the fact that Justine is obviously a thinker. A documentary on the star revealed someone with varied interests, a social conscience, and, strangely, for one who often looked so cold and detached on the court, a warm side to her personality.

So while the timing of her retirement was surprising, the fact that she chose retire was, on reflection, not so shocking. Because, though she cited a loss of passion as the reason, I suspect it may have been just the opposite, as it was her passion for exploring and growing in other areas of her life besides tennis that may well have propelled her to quit.

Indeed, she tacitly endorsed that deduction in her poetic comeback speech, when she talked about the fire having been rekindled, and the fact that she is a better and more fulfilled person now than she was 15 months ago.

And that was reflected in her demeanor during her comeback interview. Gone was the haunted, cautious, steel-coated Justine, to be replaced by a relaxed, smiling, open woman who was happy to announce she’s back in business. She even looked better. The pasty faced, lank-haired, plain Jane, replaced by a confident, glamor-puss clearly making the best of herself and feeling great about it.

Of course, her appearance may in part have been down to good hair and make-up girls, but I sensed it was deeper than that.

Having discovered herself, Justine is now ready for her close-up in a way that she never was before. And, together with Clijsters’ comeback, that’s a good thing for women’s tennis at a time when the Williams sisters needed to be challenged at the big tournaments for the sake of the sport.

So, “Allez Justine”, and welcome back. I hope your return works out the way you want it to. But, more importantly, I also hope you maintain your inner peace.

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Filed under:  Tennis
September 23rd, 2009
11:42 AM ET

Race to Dubai gone by 2010?

The European Tour took a giant leap of faith in Dubai when it decided to join forces with a developer and create the $20 million Race to Dubai concept.

European tour players, Justin Rose, Darren Clarke, Srgio Garcia and Martin Kaymer with Leisurecorp sponsorship at the race to Dubai launch.
European tour players, Justin Rose, Darren Clarke, Srgio Garcia and Martin Kaymer with Leisurecorp sponsorship at the race to Dubai launch.

And why wouldn’t it. It was a chance to keep pace with the US PGA and finally embrace a concept where they could attract more top class players from the USA to its tour.

No one else in the world was prepared to offer that sort of money to the tour at the time.

The RTD (race to Dubai) brought with it the world’s richest tournament in the Dubai World championship – a marketing dream for the tour.

“It’s locked in – a five-year-deal and so is the money” we were told with great confidence by tour officials and Leisurecorp during the announcement a few years back.

Those assurances proved to be quite hollow.

Sadly European Tour boss George O’Grady has spent the last few months trying to save the concept from being completely wiped out before the end of the first season.

Leisurecorp is now no longer a solo operation and parent company Nakheel oversees everything. Nakheel is debt laden and from what I have been told spending a vast fortune on the Race to Dubai is seen as very undesirable.

With that in mind, a 25 per cent reduction in the total prize pool for the Dubai World Championship and the Race to Dubai is not a bad result to be honest. It could have been a lot worse my sources tell me.

The same players who told me about the prize money reduction before it was announced are also warning that the Race to Dubai will be nothing more than a bad memory for the European Tour next year. It will be back to where it started with the old Order of Merit system and now multi-million dollar prize pool.

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Filed under:  Golf
September 21st, 2009
07:23 PM ET

Should referees be responsible for time-keeping?

As a neutral, I couldn't care less about Manchester United beating Manchester City with a goal in the 96th minute. Neither of them are my team and it was a great game - one of the best Manchester derbies I have ever seen.

Michael Owen's late winner has re-opened the debate on whether the referee should relinquish time-keeping duties.
Michael Owen's late winner has re-opened the debate on whether the referee should relinquish time-keeping duties.

I do however, believe it raises the question as to whether the referee and his match officials should be responsible for time-keeping in this day and age, when the rewards for victory are so high, and when teams are fit enough to battle right to the final whistle.

Remember, while stoppage time is viewed as time added-on, it's really no more than compensation for the time lost during the game. In other words, the aim is for each game to last exactly 90 minutes, no more no less.

The problem is that each official appears to have a different view of what constitutes time wasted. Time lost for treatment to injuries is obvious. (Though what constitutes an "injury" requiring the trainer in today's game would have been a rub and a shrug not so long ago.)

But minutes added on for other things like substitutions, goal celebrations, delayed free-kicks, and petty stuff like not tossing the ball to an opponent when it goes out of play, are all open to interpretation.

What's more, with the various other things the officials have to watch-out for in a high tempo game often played at the very limit of the rules, it must be really hard for them to stay abreast of something as basic, but fundamental as the time.

So, why not take out the guesswork by having an official time-keeper? What's more, have the official clock visible to the players, coaches, and fans so that everyone knows where they stand in terms of how much time is left.

The clock could even be stopped every time the whistle blew for an infringement, substitution, or whatever. I know the technology exists in the NBA whereby the reaction to the ref's whistle is almost immediate.

The beauty of the idea would be that as well as ensuring that games last the full 90 minutes, avoiding controversies like the one in Manchester, it could also cut-out some of the play-acting and gamesmanship, such as the 89th minute substitution or the phantom foul, that teams quite legimately use at the moment to waste time. There'd be nothing to gain.

The clock could even stop once a goal is scored, as the ball is dead anyway. That way even the most prolonged goal celebration would not cause a double whammy for the conceding team, which, at present, gives up a goal and some of the time left to respond.

I would also favor the game ending with an official buzzer instead of the ref's whistle. After all, how often have you seen the prescribed amount of stoppage time elapse only for the ref to add on a bit in order to let a particular move, such as a corner, play-out... When time's up time's up, and if you have a buzzer and a time-keeper that would be that.

Now I doubt there'll be much support amongst the football purists for this suggestion. Too progressive. Too impersonal. Too American - I can hear them all now.

But I'm pretty sure there's at least one person in the football fraternity who might be open to the idea, and his name is Mark Hughes - manager of Manchester City.

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Filed under:  Football
September 21st, 2009
06:17 PM ET

Renault escape punishment for race-fixing

So, Renault have successfully played their "Get Out of Jail Free" card, and essentially escaped punishment for colluding with Nelson Piquet Junior to deliberately crash his car during last year's Singapore Grand Prix.

Flavio Briatore has paid the ultimate price for the Renault race-fixing scandal.
Flavio Briatore has paid the ultimate price for the Renault race-fixing scandal.

Is anyone surprised that the FIA let them off with nothing more than a rap on the knuckles? Not me.

The sport's governing body is in a precarious position after this year's shenanigans with the Formula One Teams Association ( FOTA), who almost took their toys away and left them with no Formula One Championship to govern.

Little wonder then that Max Mosley and his buddies trod very carefully when it came to the issue of sanctions, lest they upset the golden geese.

Of course, some people will feel justice has been done, because former Renault team boss, Flavio Briatore, and the team's ex-engineering director, Pat Symonds, pulled a mea culpa and fell on their swords.

However, while I agree that the two main offenders suffered for their actions, it was only after initially denying the claims, and after admitting that their confessions were an attempt to gain leniency for their former employers.

I think they call that a plea bargain, don't they? And does anyone think a plea bargained sentence feels like justice?

Furthermore, I may be cynical, but it stretches the bounds of credibility to believe that Briatore and Symonds acted alone.

Judging by all the layers every other decision has to go through in Formula One, it just seems unlikely that the two men could have acted unilaterally without at least someone on the Renault team becoming aware. After all, there are few more collaborative team sports than Formula One.

And even if by some freak set of circumstances nobody knew about the plot besides Briatore and Symonds, what happened to the - no "I" in team mantra?

According to Max Mosley, Renault bore "no moral responsibility for what took place." But surely there was guilt by association?

I mean, when a bunch of hooligans cause trouble at a football match, the club is often sanctioned for failing to control its supporters even though the trouble-makers are not in their employ.

How much more responsibility should you bear then, if the guilty parties are your hires acting in the interests of your team?

Finally, what about the driver at the center of the case? Nelson Piquet Junior agreed to crash his car and had kept quiet about doing so until he was fired.

So while the FIA has lauded him for his co-operation, I can't see how that praise is warranted as his confession was self serving, designed purely to get back at the team that sacked him.

Of course, his punishment is that he may well have driven his last Formula One race, as who would want to employ someone with such questionable integrity?

Still, it would surely have been more appropriate to see him punished as a direct result of F1's justice system, not just as a by-product of it.

And so another sad and sordid chapter in the Formula One saga comes to an end in a somewhat unsatisfying manner.

Was justice done? Barely. Was the punishment prohibitive, making it too costly for others to take a similar gamble? No!...Do we have closure? Negative, because no-one involved with Briatore is allowed to be associated with Formula One, and he's the manager of Renault's Fernando Alonso and Red Bull's Mark Webber, and also has connections with McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen.

So there's another minefield waiting to be trodden. All in the all then, not a happy outcome for anyone but Renault, and a pretty miserable state of affairs at a time when we should be looking forward to the climax of the season.

Posted by ,
Filed under:  Motorsport
September 16th, 2009
05:27 PM ET

Is it time for Formula to take a pit stop?

Stop the Formula One Championship! Just stop it! Finish up the season if needs be, but then put the cars up on bricks for a year; take the financial hit, then restructure and re-group in order that this ethically-challenged sport can regain its credibility.

Should Formula One take a pit stop after a new crisis has hit the sport?
Should Formula One take a pit stop after a new crisis has hit the sport?

If Renault’s admission that they did instruct Nelson Piquet Junior to crash his car at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix in order to facilitate Fernando Alonso’s victory is not an indictment of the lack of integrity in F1 at the moment, then I don’t know what is - chiefly for the reason being that this latest in a long line of transgressions by various teams and individuals in the sport was potentially deadly.

Crashes, even pre-arranged crashes, are bad enough for the driver involved, but the potential for collateral damage to other drivers, stewards, and even the public is huge. What’s more, the possibility of chaos was increased at the Singapore Grand Prix, as it was Formula One’s first night race.

And the question has to be asked -– it was all for what on this occasion? The chance for Alonso to gain a few points and his first victory in a year in a championship he was not going to win. Was the risk really worth it?

The answer is obvious, and Renault truly deserve to have the book thrown at them for this infringement if the FIA, perhaps newly cautious after its run-in with FOTA earlier this year, is not to appear spineless and toothless.

Of course, it’s not the first racing scandal to hit the sport. In fact, it’s not even the first this year to reveal questionable tactics among some of those competing. Lewis Hamilton and Mclaren having claimed that dubious honor in a lying and cheating scandal at the Australian Grand Prix.

However, this latest admission is, to me, the tack that finally punctures the tires. F1 is now in such a state, that it’s surely surpassed cycling as the sport reputed to have the least integrity. Not among everyone. But, as usual, the deeds of the few have tarred the many with the same brush.

So, like the Dakar Rally, which took a sabbatical to re-locate and re-group in the wake of extreme security concerns, I think it’s time for Formula One to take some time out to re-assess its standards. Because the way things are going it seems to be on a suicide course.

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Filed under:  Motorsport
September 15th, 2009
07:34 PM ET

Adebayor deserves to be banned

It's called common sense, and Emmanuel Adebayor could and should have used it after scoring for Manchester City against his former club in Saturday's English Premier League clash.

Adebayor’s celebrations prompted Arsenal fans to pelt him with objects, including a plastic chair.
Adebayor’s celebrations prompted Arsenal fans to pelt him with objects, including a plastic chair.

Let's face it. Adebayor was a little-known forward when he was signed by Arsene Wenger.

He enjoyed two and a half decent seasons at Monaco, where he scored once every four games, but it was with Arsenal that he became a star.

Does it mean that he needs to feel indebted to the Gunners or Wenger for the rest of his career? No, probably not.

However, it does mean that he should show his previous employers a little more respect.

Did he not think about what he was doing? I don't buy that argument. He had a good seven or eight seconds while he was running from one edge of the pitch to the other to consider his actions.

He could have stopped at the halfway line. He could have turned and headed to the Man City bench. But he didn't. Instead he ran to celebrate in front of the fans of his former club, rubbing salt into their wounds.

So that excuse won't fly in my book. This was an action which should be punished because the celebration could have ignited violence in the crowd.

It could have led a few of the Arsenal fans to jump the barrier and invade the field.

Believe me, I love goal celebrations. I have no problems with players taking their shirts off, or putting hats on, or jumping up and down like little children.

That shows passion, it shows they care. I personally believe players shouldn't be booked when they become bare-chested after scoring in a professional game.

However, this was over the top. The English Football Association has taken action and rightly so.

A five-match suspension may be harsh, but I would back a two-game ban. It would stop other players from behaving similarly, which could one day spark violence in the stands and on the pitch.

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Filed under:  Football
September 15th, 2009
10:54 AM ET

The best U.S. Open ever?

WOW! What a U.S. Open! Two surprise winners and lots of talking points. I’ll get to the Serena saga in just a minute, but first – did anyone really think that Kim Clijsters would win the tournament? I didn’t.

Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro do battle for the U.S. Open title in the cauldron of the Arthur Ashe stadium.
Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro do battle for the U.S. Open title in the cauldron of the Arthur Ashe stadium.

It was only her third tournament back since she began her “second career” and she was not only unseeded, but also without rank.

So, she becomes the first female wild card to win a grand slam title and the first mother to win a major since 1980 – and wasn’t that celebration great? A real family affair with her adorable daughter Jada coming on the court to enjoy the moment.

In my last post I addressed the issue of the lack of depth in the women’s game. But again, I don’t believe the standard has gone down, just that Clijsters is back and better than ever. She played more aggressively in New York than she has in the past and of course has nothing to lose. Every moment she has out on court is a bonus.

There are more grand slams in her. It’s just a matter of whether she wants to stick around for a while.

Juan Martin del Porto will win more majors. That I can promise you. The 20-year-old has now fulfilled his massive potential by winning the US Open, and could easily climb to the top of the rankings next year, if he can stay injury-free.

Even when he was a break down in the fifth set though, I still thought King Roger would capture number 16. On a 40 match-winning streak at Flushing Meadows and with a sixth straight Open title in his sights, he let the match slip from his grasp in a quite an un-Federer-like display.

But all credit to del Potro who thrashed Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the semi’s before dethroning the king in his very first grand slam final.

Roger was his usual classy self afterward and after a pretty miserable start to the year, really finished well. Now, with twin girls I’m sure he’ll put this loss in perspective and not be too disheartened.

He had a slight Serena moment in the final, swearing at the umpire – but it was nothing compared to the foul-mouthed rant at the line judge that we saw on Friday.

It looked at first as though Serena had accepted the call, but then suddenly a switch flipped in her head and she lost it. I’m glad she’s now apologized because that post-match press conference was ridiculous.

It might also save her from having her singles prize money taken away – $350, 000 and being banned from the tour.

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Filed under:  Tennis
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