July is typically a dry month for new TV and while we’re starting to get people back to cinemas for the summer tentpole fare we’re accustomed to, the world of sports is downright popping. Not only do we have the 2020(ish) Tokyo Olympics less than two weeks away, but this past weekend featured a vast amount of sports. Here’s an overview of all of it.
Ice Hockey – NHL
It wasn’t quite the weekend, but I’ll mention it anyway. Last week the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked off the red-hot Montreal Canadiens to win Lord Stanley’s cup in five games. That gives the Lightning back-to-back championship seasons, a feat that is notably difficult to pull off in today’s NHL. I watched as many games as I could of playoff hockey, which is the best hockey, and every game of the finals. As a dyed-in-the-wool Boston Bruins fan I should have been rooting against Les Habitants, but their surprising run was so meteoric that it was hard to not fall in love with the scrappiness of the team. They were the 18th ranked team in total standings and the lowest point-total team to qualify for the postseason. They seemed a lock to be eliminated when they went down early to the Toronto Maple Leafs by three games in a best of seven series.
One loss and they would have been out.
But they rallied, won three in a row, forcing a decisive game seven and then won that. Many hockey fans attributed the turnaround to how cursed the Leafs are rather than giving the Habs the credit, and just about all of us expected them to be handily thumped in the second round.
But then they swept Winnipeg in four, and many people said it was because of the relative weakness of the Jets and not the skill of the Canadiens. I know I was fully expecting the Vegas Golden Knights to annihilate them in the next round. I was sure they’d get whipped. But thanks to a solid penalty kill and goaltender Carey Price being a wall, they knocked the Knights out and headed to the final.
When they got eviscerated 5-1 in the opening game, it seemed the writing was on the wall. The little engine that could was now up against a hill that was too steep to summit. The Lightning are royalty at this point. Deadly and full of veterans. The Cup final could have easily been a sweep, but the Habs managed to gut out a win and hold off a third period barrage in Game 4. The Cinderella story, however, came to an end in game 5. The Lightning are NHL champions, again, and as a Bruins fan I can return to the placid comfort of disliking the Canadiens instead of being awed by their tenacity. Tough to see the drought continue of non-Canadian teams hoisting the Cup, as none of them have won it since the 1992-1993 season, but it’ll be that much more of a thrill when one of them eventually does.
Cycling – Tour De France
There were hours of cycling coverage this weekend as the Tour De France hit stages 14 and 15, passing through the dreaded Pyrenees and into the municipality of Andorra as riders fight for the vaunted polka dot King of the Mountain jersey and pursue the coveted Yellow Jersey.
Some people have a tough time tuning in to the Tour because it’s mostly shots of the undulating peloton staying together and then stretching out like a serpent along the course. Sometimes cars will drive up and hand riders bottled water. Sometimes cyclists will reach into the elastic pockets on the back of their jerseys and eat a power bar and then toss the wrapper on the ground at 37 miles an hour.
It’s not like seeing a long-bomb touchdown or watching someone drain a three, but there’s a rare, hypnotic fish tank quality to the proceedings that I enjoy. I also love the shots of the French countryside and seeing the top riders grind out those impossible inclines at speed. How are they this fit? It boggles the mind. Every day these guys ride like 100+ miles, then get up and do it again and many hundreds of the miles are uphill. Look at the inclines on these two stages. Here’s stage 14:
And here’s stage 15, which features the highest point on the Tour.
It’s not like the declines are a piece of cake either. Every twist of the course is precarious as ace mountaineer Michael Woods remembered on Saturday when he took a spill on what looked like a routine technical turn.
The whole Tour is amazing, and is only better when you’re able to catch the very end of a stage with cyclists digging deep to land those coveted points.
On Saturday, the Stage 14 Carcassonne to Quillan winner was Bauke Mollema. This is a great succinct video that captures most of the action of the day.
On Sunday, the Stage 15 Ceret to Andorre-la-Vieille winner was Sepp Kuss, an American. That’s notable because an American hadn’t won a stage at the Tour in a decade.
Futbol/Soccer – UEFA European Championship 2020
England vs Italy. Not a soul on the road in either country when this match was on. This snippet will likely be the reason most people read this article. The game was huge. It was the first major international futbol tournament since the pandemic started and had some amazing moments leading to the final. People were so ready for this tournament it was crazy. What a thrill it was to see fans back in the stands and cheering for their teams. Knowing what we’ve all been through, it was humbling to watch.
Of course, The Euros opened big. Not only did we get Andrea Bocelli…
Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma 🎤
The perfect way to start Euro 2020 🙌 pic.twitter.com/L0l9Wy1AhL
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 11, 2021
…but the ball for the opening kickoff was driven out by a little Volkswagen.
— Tiny Football Car (@TinyFootballCar) July 11, 2021
The run of the tournament is too much to list here. It was a spectacular event, with amazing matches every day. Most notable moments were the elimination of France and Portugal, the terrible collapse of Christian Eriksen and the resulting groundswell of support for the Danish team as a result, then Italy over Belgium and England over rival Germany.
The European final itself was a nerve-wracking affair. England took their first real touch of the game to Italy, finishing with a Luke Shaw dropkick volley under two minutes. That made everything unbearable as England tried to bunker down for the rest of the game while Italy tried over and over to tie it up.
The equalizer came in the 67th minute and the 1-1 draw at the end of regulation sent the match to extra time.
Note: The true MVP of this game was referee Bjorn Kuipers from the Netherlands, who did an outstanding job of letting the game play on and not calling the obvious and sport-ruining flops that were attempted by both teams.
Ultimately it came down to penalty kicks, which is something that should never happen. I hate it. I hated it when France was ousted by Switzerland with PKs. I hated it when the NHL added it as an option instead of having games go five overtimes like in the good old days. I want to see soccer games decided by soccer, not some arbitrary video game element that has nothing to do with the beautiful game. It’s just horrible.
In the end, Italy’s 6’5” tall drink of water goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was able to lay out like two sofas on a zipline and shunt away enough balls to give the Azzurri the title for the first time in 53 years. The English team were left shocked and destroyed in a game they might well have deserved to win. To be so close and lose it all – at home of all places. It’s devastating. But no one converts misery into comedy better than the UK, so one hopes it just fuels a generation of great comedians.
Tennis – Wimbledon Women’s Final
Saturday featured the women’s championship match on Centre Court between Australia’s Ashleigh Barty and Czechoslovakia’s Karolina Pliskova. Barty was seeded #1 in the tournament and Pliskova was #8. On the surface, it looked like the 6’1” Pliskova had a huge height and reach advantage over the 5’5” Barty, and by that standard she did, but looks can be deceiving. Barty is one of those pure athletes who feels utterly at home in every part of her body. A few years ago she outright quit tennis because she was missing home and started playing professional cricket. Then she missed tennis, decided to rededicate herself to the sport and climbed all the way to #1. There just aren’t many people on the planet, male or female, who could pull off a stunt like that.
The match between these two was actually pretty great because they were both a little all over the place. At times it felt like each player was trying to actively give the match away, and at other times they would ferociously slam the door on their opponent.
Pliskova came out looking totally overmatched and stiff, and it took until the end of the first set for her to actually ramp up into form. She lost the first set 3-6 after being broken in her first two service games, but roared back to win the second set in a 7-6 tiebreak.
There were times when the third set felt like it could go either way, but Pliskova had a strange, distracting inconsistency with throws for her serve and Barty eventually clamped down and tightened up her game. Barty ended up winning the third set and being the first Australian in 50 years – the last since her idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley – to win Wimbledon.
Basketball – NBA Finals – Game 3
The Phoenix Suns traveled to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks in game three. Coming into the game tied at 1-1, this game was all Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became the first player since LeBron to score 40 points in back-to-back finals. Honestly, this game felt over just after halftime, when the Bucks made a 16-point unanswered run and never took their foot off the gas. I think the deficit was 22 at the end of three and my attention started to waver a bit. The game ended with a final score of 120-100.
I don’t know if it’s the teams in the final or the relative blowout, but of all the sports I watched this past weekend, the NBA final was the least dopamine-inducing. That said, Giannis is an absolute phenom and a treat to watch.
Futbol/Soccer – Copa America Championship
It was an embarrassment of riches in soccer this weekend as not only did we get the Euros, but we got the South American championship as well, featuring a long-suffering Argentina taking on a perennially dominant Brazil.
This game was always going to be about Brazil. Before the tournament even started, they were the obvious team to beat and you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who would predict any other team ousting Brazil. That’s how skilled they are.
But somehow, magically, Argentina was able to pull off the unlikely upset, with the lone goal coming off the foot of Angel Di Maria in the 21st minute. After that, Argentina fended off a seventy minute onslaught by Brazil to take the championship. I wonder how many people would honestly come out of this game thinking Argentina was actually the better team, but it doesn’t really matter. They won, and for legend Lionel Messi, he finally gets to take that monkey off his back of not being able to win the big games.
Tennis – Wimbledon Men’s Final
The men’s final set up a match between young buck with a cannon serve Matteo Berrettini (seeded 7th) against world #1 Novak Djokovic. I don’t think there was a person in the world who thought Berrettini had the juice to pull out the upset, but many people hoped, especially when the youngster was able to fight his way back into, and win, the first set.
But what you had here in this match was a gorgeous young Marc Antony type against a veteran tennis killing machine. There may have never been a player more mentally disciplined as Novak Djokivic. For every big serve and winner that Berrettini hit, there was always an answer from Djoker. For every move Berrettini made on the chessboard, Novak felt two moves ahead. There was this moment at 4-2 of the fourth set when Djokovic had just staved off two break points where he smiled, because he knew he had Berrettini beat. He just knew it. He was like Crash Davis. He’d seen all the opponent’s pitches and he knew he could hit every one.
Djokovik went on to win in four sets and by the end, a winded Berrettini was double faulting while Novak looked like he could have gone three more.
With his sixth Wimbledon win, Djokivik ties legends Federer and Nadal with 20 grand slams each, a number he will surely surpass. With that. The cries of GOAT (greatest of all time) grow louder and louder. He reminds me a little of Tom Brady in that millions of people are like “why’d it have to be this guy?” But his skill and record are undeniable. Love him or not, he has a right to make that claim, certainly after beating Fed at Wimbledon and Nadal at Roland Garros. At the very least is solidly in the conversation.
Let’s also hope we get to see more of Berrettini, who was so charming after the match that his speech brought back visions of the all time best grand-slam losing speeches from American Andy Roddick. Matteo Berrettini should provoke a world of ire for his beautiful chocolate eyes, gentle disposition and perfect smile paired with his phenomenal athletic ability. Between him and Greece’s Stephanos Tsitsipas, the ATP has a whole lot of handsome coming up the ranks.
Baseball – MLB Draft
Major League Baseball held its draft on Sunday night and probably the most notable detail was that for only the seventh time a catcher was drafted first overall. Does the MLB draft even matter? It depends who you ask. Some people will say that it isn’t a true indicator of talent, as in the case of pitcher Jason Groome getting selected 12th overall last year while clearly being the best player available. Others will tell you that in matching players with a program and a developmental system, it greatly increases their chance of making it to the show. I don’t know what to think, but here are the picks from the first round.
Media – The 2020 ESPYs
This year’s event was hosted by Captain America himself, Anthony Mackie, who missed the memo that hosting the ESPYs is the most thankless job in America. First of all, the event was outside, on a rooftop, in New York. Secondly, it was raining. Thirdly, athletes in attendance are always very slow to laugh, especially at roast-type jokes, and the host ends up laughing at their own jokes to keep the call of death at bay. And lastly, the joke writers aren’t always A+ caliber.
That said, Mackie truly threw his heart and soul into the effort.
I don’t always watch the ESPYs, but this year I was curious enough to give it a try. I tuned in last year and Steve Harvey was hosting and I turned it off immediately. I can’t stand that guy. Anyway, it was a pretty big yawner. The Tampa Bay Bucs won team of the year and it just felt kind of a shoulder shrug. Like were they actually special? I don’t know. Tom Brady won best athlete, and while I admire his poise and skill, half the people reading this could probably match his 40-yard dash time. Maybe it’s just the Disneyfication of sports or maybe people I admire weren’t nominated, but the whole thing was pretty weaksauce until we got to the ESPY for Best Women’s College Athlete. I basically knew none of the nominees except for Seminoles soccer midfielder Jaelin Howell, who is awesome and was invited to camp with the USWNT. Besides Howell, the nominees were Kentucky volleyballer Madison Lilley, James Madison Softball pitcher Odicci Alexander, and UConn point guard Paige Bueckers. My money was on Alexander, based on nothing other than the coolness of her game film.
The winner was Paige Bueckers. She looked nervous as she accepted her award, and started off by thanking god and saying she was just a small town girl. I winced, anticipating what the next salvo might be and wondering if she might call for a return to “traditional values.” But then the remarkable happened, and I broke into a huge smile. Paige Bueckers used her platform, one singularly hers, to trumpet the plight of women of color and to amplify their voices. The biggest moment in her life, with millions upon millions of eyes on her, and she calls out the inequality of media coverage and shares the moment with fellow athletes. It was flat-out inspiring, and made me an instant fan. It also reminded me not to judge a book by its cover and that despite widespread polarization, messages of unity can come from unexpected messengers, and are always welcome.
Page Bueckers. Love her. Love her. Love her.
(Following on her point – if the world was a better place, there isn’t a soul in America who wouldn’t have a Crystal Dunn jersey, but that’s a rant for another time…)
As we accelerate toward the Olympics, the only thing I haven’t mentioned is the abject absurdity of Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic ban for using marijuana, and it’s high time we changed these asinine Reagan-era war on drugs rules so that the rest of the world will follow. (No pun intended. I hate puns.)
That’s all the sporting news for this huge, huge sports weekend! Can’t wait for the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, July 23.
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