TIME Horse Racing

No Triple Crown: Anger and Sadness at the Belmont Stakes

2014 Belmont Stakes
Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, not happy while watching the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 7, 2014 in Elmont, New York. Rob Carr—Getty Images

California Chrome fell short in his Triple Crown bid. And co-owner Steve Coburn was not happy about it. Inside a day of horse racing sadness.

“Hey, Sophia Loren, baby, how are you?” Steve Coburn, co-owner of Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome, called out to a woman he thought resembled the actress, who was standing across from him at Barn 4 at Belmont Park.

It was about an hour before race time, and Coburn, wearing a purple shirt, green tie, beige cowboy hat, and a blazer that had a large button reading “Got Chrome” on it, was having a good ol’ time. He was loose and loveable, with his walrus mustache and large personality.

“They tell me I’m the next John Wayne,” Coburn said to the surrounding crowd, which included his co-owner Perry Martin, who barely makes a peep. “We can make a pretty good movie together.”

But after California Chrome finished tied for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, adding to a maddening Triple Crown drought that is now 36 years old, Coburn was far from ducal. In his post-race interview on NBC, he ranted about the Triple Crown setup, lamenting the fact that horses that don’t run both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are still eligible for the Belmont Stakes, making them fresh for the tortuous 1.5-mile test.

“This is coward’s way out,” Coburn said. “If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three.” His wife looked like she was trying to get him to stop talking. “I don’t care,” he could be heard snarling afterwards, presumably after a chiding from Mrs. Coburn.

Not that he didn’t have a point. In most sports, the playing field is level: you play the same amount of games in the regular season before the playoffs. The problem is that Coburn got sour on a sick horse. Tonalist, the Belmont winner, got ill before the Wood Memorial, a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Without running in the Wood, Tonalist could not earn enough points to qualify for the Derby. That’s not cowardly, Steve.

Also, an injury might have cost Calfornia Chrome anyway. His right front foot had a patch of blood on it after the race. At some point during the run, the shoe of his back right foot overextended and clipped the flesh of his front one.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, when a Triple Crown hopeful can’t catch the leader down the stretch at Belmont, the deflation that hangs over the crowd is oppressive indeed. Written on every face is the question, “Will we ever see another Triple Crown in our lifetimes?”

“He’s a push-button horse,” said a still hopeful Chrome fan, Amy Arvanitis, while her horse was in fourth at the three-quarter-mile mark. Arvanitis, who is friends with Chrome trainer Art Sherman, was watching near the rail at the finish line. At the mile, he was still in fourth. “Come on, Victor, come on baby!” said Arvanitis, imploring California Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, to open things up. But the horse just didn’t have it. “Aw f–k!” she exclaimed, just before the finish. Right after, she dropped her lip and made a tragic face. “I’m devastated.”

Kathleen Dunagan, an artist and equestrian hobbyist with a close attachment to California Chrome, had tears in her eyes as she left the track. “I thought he was going to be our Seabiscuit,” Dunagan said.

California Chrome’s backstory has the underdog elements: Coburn and Martin, who barely knew each other, dropped $8,000 on an unimpressive filly, Love the Chase. A groom said whoever bought Love the Chase was a dumbass, so they named their new ownership group Dumb Ass Partners. Coburn and Martin mated Love the Chase to another underwhelming horse, Lucky Pulpit, and somehow they produced a near Triple Crown winner. “He just came out of nowhere,” says Dunagan. “I thought it was going to just be so wonderful. I’m sorry, I usually don’t get so emotional about that stuff.” Dunagan kept on walking — and crying.

Before the race, the California Chrome team could not have been more confident. With more than three hours to go until post time, Chrome’s exercise rider, Willie Delgado, entered the horse’s barn with a case of Coors Light and a bag of ice. Alan Sherman, California Chrome’s assistant trainer — and son of Art — walked outside with a beer in his left hand, cigarette in his right. When asked to describe Chrome’s morning workout, Delgado said he “was like a monster.” He has just been in the horse’s stall, and said “what’s up boy, you going to do this?” California Chrome’s ears perked up, Delgado said. That, to him, was a clear answer. “Hell, yes.”

Afterwards, Delgado insisted he wasn’t devastated. “I’m not sad, not sad,” Delgado said back at the barn. “He gave he the ride of my life. He’s still my hero.”

If only all those people at Belmont could say the same.

TIME nba finals

Don’t Blame LeBron’s Cramps, or San Antonio’s A/C Breakdown, For Heat’s Loss

LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts after cramping up against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio.
LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts after cramping up against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio. Andy Lyons—Getty Images

The oppressive Game 1 conditions were unfortunate. But they did not decide the game, or this series.

It’s tempting. Too tempting, really, especially if you’ve joined the LeBron vs. Jordan debate over the last few years. Remember Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when Michael Jordan, nearly collapsing on the court because of the flu, still scored 38 points to lead Chicago to a crucial Game 5 victory in Utah (the Bulls would clinch the series at home in Game 6)? And Thursday night we had LeBron James, cramping in the San Antonio sweat after the arena’s air conditioning system malfunctioned, being carried off the court in the fourth quarter, before the Spurs closed the game with a 16-3 run to beat Miami 110-95.

MJ would not have done that. Man up, LeBron. It’s tempting.

But it’s ludicrous.

James, remember, played pretty great in the oppressive heat. He scored 25 points in 33 minutes on 9-17 shooting, while grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing out 3 assists. “Rather than seeing this as a sign of weakness, or that he’s fragile, I think it’s the opposite,” says Dr. James Gladstone, co-chief of sports medicine at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “He pushed his body as far as he could go.”

And while San Antonio’s A/C malfunction is embarrassing and a potential danger to fans and players, it should not have stopped the game, despite the protestations of the NBA Players Association. “The playing conditions for tonight’s game were completely unacceptable from the opening tip,” Ron Klempner, acting executive director of the union, wrote in a text to Bloomberg. “In a situation like this, there needs to be more open communication before a decision is made that could potentially place players at risk.”

But players weren’t slipping all over the place. If anything, the game was a throwback — to outdoor summer hoops in the park, to the 1980s, when the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played in 100 degree swelter at the old Boston Garden. Everyone played under the same conditions. No team had an advantage. The better team won. If you like the Heat, harp on that. Not the heat.

TIME Basketball

Sterling’s Surrender Is Gift for the NBA

BASKET NBA RACISM CLIPPERS
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on April 21, 2014 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of the Finals, the disgraced Clippers owner agrees to $2 billion sale of his team, and drops a lawsuit against the league

On April 29, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that he was banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life, thanks to the racist remarks he made in a private conversation that were caught on tape, and broadcast to the world. Silver also said he was terminating Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers, forcing Sterling to sell a team he took so much pride in owning. On that afternoon, right after Silver’s press conference, if I would have told you that the Sterling family would sell the Clippers a little over a month later, for nearly quadruple the previous record price for an NBA franchise, to the former CEO of Microsoft no less, and that Donald, who’s fond of suing people into submission, would drop his outstanding legal claim against the league on the day before the start of the NBA Finals — that the mess would be pretty much over in early June — you would have called me hopelessly naive and even a nutcase. Rightfully so.

The NBA, it turns out, is living in dreamland.

Sterling is saving the league and its fans a massive headache, by agreeing to his wife’s sale of the team to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion, and by dropping the $1 billion anti-trust suit he filed against the NBA last week. Reality must have finally set in for Sterling. Because based on some of the assertions coming out of his camp over the last week, it was becoming clear he had no shot in this fight.

For example, in an interview with CNN last week, Sterling’s attorney Max Blecher made this absurd assertion: “If the NBA would have done what I think they should have done and to say ‘we’re rejecting the use of this illegally used evidence and not violating charges,’ no sponsor would have left in the first place.”

Say what? First of all, sponsors started fleeing the Clippers right after they heard the tape, before Silver used “this illegally used” evidence to issue his punishment for Sterling. The sponsor exodus gave Silver good reason to boot Sterling: under the NBA’s constitution, conduct that has an “adverse affect” on the league’s members can result in termination of ownership. A loss of sponsorship money was a clear, quantitative measure of “adverse affect.”

And second, the thought of sponsors factoring the technicality of California’s recording law into their decisions is laughable. “Oh, so that tape is probably illegal because California requires both parties to consent to being tape-recorded. No problem: we’re sticking with you, Donald Sterling and your racist remarks!” Come on. Sponsors don’t care about these legalities because they know customers don’t care. Under Sterling, people wanted nothing to do with the Clippers — whether the tape was legal or not, his words were loud and clear.

When those kinds of absurd statements are part of your case, you don’t really have a case.

The $1 billion anti-trust suit wasn’t going anywhere either. How can it be credible, when it asserted that a forced sale of the team could result in a lower purchase price than a non-forced sale? The team sold for $2 billion, nearly four times the previous record for an NBA team. Was Sterling supposed to get $4 billion? If anything, the forced sale drove up the price, as big rich names rushed to outbid other big rich names. Ballmer paid a prestige premium to be the savior of the Clippers.

So here we are, the Heat-Spurs rematch tipping off Thursday night, these Finals ripe with anticipation. And we might not hear a peep about Sterling all series. Has any commissioner, of any sports league, ever had a higher approval rating than Adam Silver does today? Not that it’s guaranteed to last: this $2 billion price tag for the Clippers might cause Silver headaches down the road. Because come collective bargaining time, players always use rising franchise values as leverage. If they’re exploding, the players argue, we deserve a larger share.

But these worries can wait: the earliest the players can opt out of the current agreement is 2017. Let Silver enjoy his accolades. And it’s now time to get really excited about the Ballmer era in L.A. As a courtside entertainer/agitator, he might just rival Mark Cuban.

The team’s player development staff must be psyched.

TIME NBA

Hey LeBron, I Double Dare You To Shoot

Detroit Pistons v Miami Heat
LeBron James, #6 of the Miami Heat, looks on during action against the Detroit Pistons at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on February 3, 2014. Marc Serota—Getty Images

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich dared LeBron James to take open jumpers a year ago, a strategy that messed with his mind and almost won San Antonio a title. Will he try it a second time around?

Last year’s NBA Finals saw one of the great strategic gambits in basketball history almost pay off. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wanted to keep the greatest player on the planet, LeBron James, from penetrating into the paint, where he’d inevitably posterize someone, draw a foul, or pass to an open teammate. For seven games, Popovich instructed his players to lay off LeBron a bit, almost daring him to shoot. No matter that James was one of the best perimeter shooters in the NBA. Conventional defensive wisdom says stay tight on the outside shooters. Popovich, however, tried a curveball. Give LeBron something to think about. Why am I so open? Mess with his head.

“Teams say, ‘man, what are we going to do to stop LeBron?’” says Idan Ravin, a personal trainer and coach for prominent NBA players like Carmelo Anthony—he’s also worked with James—and author of a new book, The Hoops Whisperer. “They’re not going to stop s–t. When you’re that good, nobody is going to stop LeBron but LeBron. It’s not any different from trying to ice kicker in the NFL.”

Popovich’s “icing LeBron” strategy, for the most part, worked. Until Game 7, that is, when James scored 37 points in Miami’s 95-88 win over San Antonio, giving the Heat back-to-back titles. With 27.9 seconds left in the game and the Heat up by two, James hit the game-deciding mid-range shot.

Still, by daring LeBron to settle for jumpers, San Antonio came as close as possible to neutralizing James and stealing the series. If it wasn’t for Ray Allen’s miracle game-tying three at the end of Game 6—a shot that came off a LeBron miss and Chris Bosh offensive rebound—the title was San Antonio’s. After the series was over, James all but admitted that the Spurs’ strategy was getting to him, and he had to give himself a pep talk to fight through his struggles.

“Two‑and‑a‑half games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, ‘OK, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,” James said then. “I looked at all my regular‑season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three‑point line. I just told myself why—don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under. Don’t force the paint. If it’s there, take it. If not, take the jumper.”

The Spurs-Heat rematch—catnip for any fan of great basketball—tips off Thursday night. One of the key questions of this year’s edition: Will Popovich play a similar game of chicken with LeBron’s outside shot? “It’s a pretty old school strategy, really,” says Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, one of the best perimeter shooters in basketball history. “You just want to throw him off a bit.”

But some new-school stats give Popovich ammo to try it again. During the regular season, James was a deadly three-point shooter from the corners: He shot an incredible 60% from the left-corner, and 52% from the right corner, according to NBA.com. But on shots in the 16-24-foot range, from straight-away and on the right side of the floor, James shot about 32%, below the league average. (On the left, he shot 36% closer to the foul line—comparable to the league average—and an above-average 46% as he got closer to the corner). In the playoffs, on “catch-and-shoot” field goal attempts from the outside, he’s shooting just 35% from two-point range, and 33.3% on three-point attempts.

Conversely, James is shooting 68.8% on drives to the hoop. Only one player in the rotation in this series has a higher playoff mark: Bosh, who is shooting 71.4% on drives. (This stat raises a whole other hoophead question: Why the heck does Bosh, who is 6-ft 11-in, settle for so many outside shots?)

So if Popovich wants to dare LeBron to fire away, go for it, we say. Not that it won’t backfire. Mullin recalls one prominent example. In January of 1990, while playing against Michael Jordan and the Bulls in Chicago, Warriors coach Don Nelson—a Hall of Famer known for his unusual tactics, like turning the 7-7 Manute Bol into a three-point shooter—told his players to let Jordan catch the ball at the three-point line, back way off him, and dare him to fire away. “He’s looking at us, like, ‘what, are you serious?’” Mullin says. The strategy made sense: In his first five seasons before that one, Jordan was pretty horrendous from downtown, shooting 20% on three-point attempts. “He figured it out a couple of minutes in, saw it as a challenge, starting launching threes and laughing at us,” Nelson, now retired, tells TIME from his home in Hawaii. (Popovich spent the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons as an assistant to Nelson with Golden State). Jordan hit seven of his twelve three-point attempts, and finished with 44 points in a 132-107 Chicago win. “Oh, I remember that game,” Nelson says, with a laugh. Beware poking the bear.

Mullin’s college coach at St. John’s, Lou Carnesecca, tried icing LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the greatest scorer in college basketball history, during a December 1969 game at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. Years earlier, Carnesecca heard Clair Bee, one of the great early basketball innovators whose Long Island University teams finished undefeated in 1936 and 1939, say at a clinic that “the unorthodox thing can work well sometimes.” With that in mind, Carnesecca told Jim Smyth, who drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Maravich, to “turn your back and walk away” every time Maravich touched the ball. Flummoxed, Maravich finished the first half with 13 points—an encouraging total for most players, but below average for a guy who scored 44.2 points per game during his college career. An excited Carnesecca ran into the halftime locker room screaming “we got him!” But he decided to mix it up and go back to a conventional strategy in the second half, pressuring Maravich to force tougher shots. “That was the end of the great experiment,” Carnesecca, another hoops Hall of Famer, says today, cracking up at the memory. “The fucking guy got 53 on us.” St. John’s lost 80-70; Maravich’s 40 second-half points outscored the entire St. John’s team.

Despite Carnesecca’s Pistol Pete misstep, Mullin, now an adviser for the Sacramento Kings, thinks the key is mixing things up: playing LeBron tight on some possessions, giving him room on others. “The risk, for great scorers, is that the floodgates start opening up,” Mullin says. James may be more prepared for San Antonio’s strategy this time around, and disciplining himself to not over-think when he’s open. And to counter, Popovich might try something totally new.

So at the very least, these Finals promise a fascinating chess match, that will result in either a three-peat for the Heat, or a fifth title for San Antonio, cementing an all-time dynasty.

Your move, Mr. James.

TIME NBA

Price of NBA Victory: A Racist Gets Much, Much Richer

For the NBA, a quick, clean resolution to the Donald Sterling mess was never a moral victory

This was what the NBA wanted, the ideal endgame: the Sterlings selling, without a fight. If the reports hold up, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — who dreamed of thriving in sports as a kid, but only got as far as manager of his high school hoops team — buys the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion, the league will have to live with its devil’s deal. A win for the NBA, billions for a bad guy. An idiocy windfall for Donald Serling.

For years, the league harbored a man with a noxious racial record. He settled a housing discrimination lawsuit for a record amount, was sued by an NBA legend, his long-time general manager Elgin Baylor, for racial discrimination. Sure, without convictions or tape-recorded rants distributed globally on the Internet — and probably the most damaging damage-control interview in sports history — the NBA had little recourse to push Sterling out years ago. But he was tolerated a bit too much. And now, on the foundation of the “Southern Plantation type structure” Baylor accused him of building — that charge rings very true today — Sterling made the richest sale in NBA history.

Sterling’s LA Clippers were often a joke. But the product Ballmer is buying — the Los Angeles market, healthy TV revenues, superiority, for the moment at least, to the legendary Lakers, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and the absence of Donald Sterling — is a $2 billion catch.

The league will move on from this moral tradeoff, fast. Ballmer fits the bill as NBA owner. He’s an experienced Fortune 500 manager, and his old Microsoft chum Paul Allen is ensconced as owner of the Portland Trail Blazers. An NBA team back in Seattle would be nice, but Ballmer’s not moving the Clippers up north: $2 billion is L.A. money.

As for Sterling, some good will come out of his purchase. A hefty chunk of his profits — he bought the team in 1981 for a mere $12 million — will go to the government, thanks to capital gains taxes. The Sterlings have a history of buying good PR. His philanthropy has won him special recognition from the NAACP. He can surely try to clear his name with cash by, say, donating millions of his sale proceeds to minority scholarship funds, or some other cause that helps lift the groups his disparaged. The question: if you’re one of these charitable organizations, do you take Sterling’s money? That’s yet another moral dilemma Sterling may create. The guy’s chock full of them.

TIME health

Obama’s Youth Concussion Summit Won’t Fix the Problem

Youth Football
Niko Berns, 13, right, tackles a teammate during practice at Mattie Stepanek Park in Rockville, Md. on Sept. 26, 2012. Toni L. Sandys—The Washington Post/Getty Images

The event will raise awareness and research dollars. But sports will still be risky

It’s not quite as dramatic as 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt summoned the football coaches of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House, and urged them to clean up a game that was causing dozens of deaths — a meeting that indirectly led to the legalization of the forward pass, and a much safer, though still dangerous, sport. “That’s the most towering example of sports changing because of presidential leadership,” says presidential historian and NBC News contributor Michael Beschloss. Still, by convening a White House summit on youth sports concussions on Thursday, President Obama is using his pulpit for a purpose: to make parents more aware of the frightening risks of contact sports like football, soccer, hockey and lacrosse, and the measures that can help prevent, and better manage, concussions. “When the president says the word ‘concussions,’ or convenes a meeting like this, it escalates the seriousness of the issue to a whole new level,” says Beschloss.

At the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit, a number of new initiatives will be announced, including a $30 million investment from the NCAA and Department of Defense to fund the most comprehensive clinical study of concussion and head impacts, a $25 million commitment from the NFL over the next three years that includes support for increased access to athletic trainers in schools, the participation of 100 Pop Warner football teams in a concussion tracking research project, and new head injury protocols from USA Cheer to be taught to cheerleaders and coaches this summer.

Last fall, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council issued a report that concluded there is a “startling” lack of data on youth sports concussions, and a persistent “culture of resistance” among athletes to report them and stay off the field. “As a parent himself, [President Obama] feels that there’s just not that much information out there about concussions, what are the right protocols, what do we know about when kids should come out of the game,” says White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “And in looking into this, we found that the scientists agree that there’s not enough that we know about concussions and how they relate to young athletes.”

The medical community is applauding the president’s move. “I hope that there will be a realization that this is a public health issue that needs to be brought to light,” says Jim Thornton, director of sports medicine and athletic training services at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. One proposal that should be debated by the 200 medical experts, parents, coaches, professional athletes, young athletes and military service members invited to summit: a ban, advocated for kids under 14 by leading concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu in his 2012 book Concussions and Our Kids, on tackling in football, on heading in soccer, and on full-body checking in hockey. “I’m coming at it that the brain is more vulnerable in kids than in adults,” says Cantu, who was invited to the White House for the summit.

His proposal makes intuitive sense — the most surefire way to reduce youth head injuries, after all, is to disallow head contact — but it isn’t embraced by all scientists. The fear: in football, for example, if players don’t learn proper blocking and tackling technique before 14, the lack of preparation can hurt them in high school. “If a 15-year-old who’s never put pads on before is suddenly going up against someone 40 pounds heavier than him, there’s a risk of something catastrophic happening, something much worse than a concussion,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, and winner of a 2011 MacArthur genius grant for his cutting-edge concussion research. Guskiewicz does advocate for contact limits in practice, and says he’d entertain a tackling ban for kids 8 and under. “An 11-year-0ld is very different from an 8-year-old,” says Guskiewicz. “But the way our nervous system is built, kids can develop very important muscle memory skills at 11,12, and 13.”

Still, minus major rule changes, there’s little that any youth concussion summit — or research funding or study or education program — can do to fix the fundamental problem: sports are dangerous. And if kids are going to play them, they’re at risk of bruising their knees, and shoulders and brains. The event will likely end up being well-intentioned window dressing.

“We can’t prevent all injuries,” says Clarion U’s Thornton. “But we can prevent them the best we can. And the ones that do take place, we can make sure they’re managed property.” He says 45% of high schools don’t have access to a full-time certified athletic trainer, and about a third of all high schools don’t have access to any athletic training services at all. “Would you ever, ever leave your kids off at a public pool knowing there was no lifeguard on duty?” asks Thornton. Of course not. “Then why would we drop off our kids at the football, soccer, or lacrosse fields without the knowledge that someone could take care of them if they got injured?”

Obama is taking on tough issue, but it’s not the first time he’s joined hot sports debates. He has stumped for a college football playoff — and hey, he got one! In a January 2013 interview with the New Republic, Obama caused a stir when he said, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” Other presidents have concerned themselves with sports. President George W. Bush, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, mentioned the burgeoning steroid scandals in his 2004 State of the Union address. “Athletics play such an important role in our society, but unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example,” Bush said. “The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message: that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character.” In 2005, Congress held a hearing that embarrassed baseball into enacting stricter drug testing.

Beschloss, the presidential historian, isn’t surprised that Obama has called the concussion summit. “It’s almost less that the president is getting involved in sports,” says Beschloss, “and more that he’s getting involved in health.”

TIME tennis

Tennis Forecast: A Funky French Open

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2014 - Day Five
Rafael Nadal of Spain in action against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day 5 of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2014 on May 15, 2014 in Rome. Michael Regan—Getty Images

What to make of this year’s French Open, which starts on Sunday? Call it confounding, call it confusing, call it delightfully compelling.

On the men’s side, you’ve got one player, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who has won eight of the last nine championships. Nadal has 13 career Grand Slams titles, leaving him just four short of Roger Federer’s all-time record of 17 (and one short of Pete Sampras’ tally of 14). Nadal reached the final of the Australian Open, but hampered by a bad back, he lost to Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland. Before Wawrinka’s victory, 34 of the prior 35 Grand Slams titles were won by one of four players — Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.

Welcome to the club, Stan.

Since then, Nadal — the subject of a feature story in this week’s TIME — has not really been himself. In March, he lost in the third round of the Indian Wells tournament in California; then Djokovic crushed him in the final in Miami. But these were hard-court contests. As usual, Nadal would right himself on clay, correct?

But in three of the four clay-court tournaments before the French Open, Nadal — gasp — lost. Most recently, Djokovic handled him fairly easily in the final in Rome. Nadal hasn’t lost three pre-French Open tournaments on clay since 2003, when he was 16 years old. And now Djokovic owns a four-match winning streak against Nadal. So Djokovic, the world No. 2, is the favorite, right?

But Nadal does have habit of winning the French Open almost every time he sets foot in Paris. See, confounding.

Last year, Nadal and Djokovic met in the semifinals, and they played a classic five-setter which Nadal won. If we’re lucky, they’ll meet in this year’s final, and we’ll truly learn about the state of Rafa’s game. No Roland Garros win, not good.

The draw did Nadal no favors. The two other players who beat Nadal on clay this year sit on his side of the bracket. Nicolas Almagro beat him in Barcelona; he’s a possible fourth round opponent for Nadal at the French. Another fellow Spaniard, David Ferrer, could meet Nadal in the quarters. Nadal beat Ferrer in last year’s French Open final; Ferrer defeated Nadal this year at the Monte Carlo tournament.

Andy Murray is on Nadal’s side of the draw too. Murray, however, has never won a clay court tournament. Wawrinka, who defeated Federer in the Monte Carlo final, is a possible semifinal opponent for Nadal. After winning the Aussie and starting the clay court season with the Monte Carlo victory, Wawrinka seemed ascendant. But he then lost his first match in Madrid — a clay tournament Nadal actually won this year — and Tommy Haas knocked Wawrinka out of Rome, in the round of 16.

Federer’s path to the semis — and a possible meeting with Djokovic — doesn’t seem that fraught. Federer turns 33 this summer, but is eager to win another Slam or two, to further distance himself from Nadal. Look out for Tomas Berdych, an potential quarterfinal opponent for Federer: the Czech has faced Federer just three times on clay, and lost each match. But he’s also beaten Federer two of the last three times they’ve met. Federer did defeat Berdych in the their last bout, the final of the Dubai tournament in early March.

“Ten years ago, I would maybe already become number one,” Berdych said during an interview at the Monte Carlo tournament. “But you know, not with these guys.” Tough luck, Tomas.

While the men’s game is blessed with the “Fab Four” and plenty of other top talents, the women’s game, right now, still mostly revolves around Serena Williams. The defending French Open champ cruised to the title in her last clay court tournament, in Rome last weekend. Serena could meet her sister Venus in the third round, and Maria Sharapova in the quarters.

On the other side of the draw Li Na — the world no. 2 and 2011 French Open winner, and subject of another TIME feature story — enters the tournament on a bit of a downswing. She lost in the quarters on clay in both Rome and Madrid. Serena seems at home in Paris, and is a comfortable pick to win the women’s title.

The same can’t be said for an eight-time Roland Garros champ. Indeed, an intriguing tennis summer has arrived.

TIME NFL

Painkiller Suit a Serious New Headache for NFL

Roy Green catches pass in endzone
Wide receiver Roy Green #81 of the Phoenix Cardinals catches a pass in the endzone during an NFL game against the San Diego Chargers on Oc. 1, 1989 at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix. Stephen Dunn—Getty Images

In 1984, while naming his first All-Madden team, John Madden called Roy Green, wide receiver for the St. Louis — now Arizona — Cardinals the best player in football. Better than Montana, better than Marino. But three or four years after he retired in 1992, Green says he started feeling a strange fatigue. From there, things just progressively worse.

“Bending over to tie my shoe felt like running a mile,” Green tells TIME. “You know what, just imagine, being one of the most highly-trained athletes, the best in the world at what I did,” says Green. “You go from that, to not being able to jog, barely able to walk. Just imagine what my psyche was like.” Green got depressed, and his physical problems persisted. Since his retirement, Green has suffered three heart attacks. He has high blood pressure, and his kidneys failed: in November 2012, Green had a kidney transplant. “It was just a miserable existence, really.”

Now, Green wants the NFL to pay for his medical problems. Green is one of eight named plaintiffs, which include two stars from the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team — quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive end Richard Dent — in the latest class-action legal move against the NFL. More than 500 ex-players are suing the league over its alleged reckless distribution of narcotic painkillers, which help keep players on the field but carry serious long-term health risks. The complaint says that Green, for example, received “hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers, including but not limited to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), Indocin, Naprosyn, Percocet, Vicodin and Butisol. He was also given trauma IVs. No one from the NFL ever talked to him about the side effects of the medications he was being given or cocktailing.”

Before the transplant, Green says he came across a 1984 team medical report that showed he had high creatine levels, a condition that warns of possible kidney failure. Green’s lawyers say they have the report. Yet, Green says, doctors and trainers continued giving him drugs where kidney damage was a known side-effect. (The NFL says its lawyers are reviewing the complaint; a spokesman for the Cardinals, the team for which Green played the bulk of his career, did not return a request for comment).

“I was angry,” Green says about his reaction to seeing the report. “Like, ‘wow, I could have avoided all those miserable years.’” Green says that if he were warned of the potential side-effects of the drugs, he would not have taken them. “I would have had a very short career,” Green says. “You just trusted they had your best interests at heart.”

Coming on the heels of the concussion litigation that the NFL and ex-players settled for $765 million in August — though the judge hasn’t officially signed off on the amount, saying it might be too low to support all the suffering players who need the financial assistance — it might be tempting to dismiss this action as a frivolous follow-up. Hit the NFL while it’s vulnerable: a settlement worked for concussions, let’s give painkillers a go.

Don’t. “This is a serious suit,” says Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University. “If the facts bear out that doctors were not warning players about the health risks, weren’t putting them on notice, for a long period of time, there’s clearly potential for liability.”

Though victory is very far from a sure thing. The NFL is sure to argue that because it operates under a collective bargaining agreement with its players, these grievances are subject to arbitration, not the federal court system. Also, the NFL will question why the players’ union didn’t object to any of this medical treatment.

As with the concussion litigation, the biggest challenge will probably be causation. In Roy Green’s case, for example, how can you prove without question that painkiller injections caused his kidney damage? “No doubt the players have suffered real damages from playing football,” says Warren Zola, sports law expert at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “But blaming the NFL in a court of law is a high hurdle.”

Legal merits of the suit aside, says Haagen, “the entire issue of painkillers is the next part of the exploration of violence in the game.” Getting players “healthy” enough to return to the field will always come with potential consequences. “Normally, doctors control a patient’s medication to help the body heal,” Haagen says. “Here, they are controlling medication to do more damage to the body.”

The suit itself acknowledges that “several NFL teams and physicians have recently taken steps to tighten the control and distribution of medications in the locker room.” One recently retired NFL vet, former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, says he always got “excellent care” and was given warnings about the side-effects of painkillers. Russ Hochstein, meanwhile, played in the NFL from 2001-2012, most notably as an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots. “The difference in the education about painkillers and their side effects definitely changed, for the better, since the time I entered the NFL,” Hochstein says.

Green hopes the suit will permanently change the NFL’s painkiller culture. “It’s all about the opportunity to say, ‘no, I don’t want to do that.’” Since his kidney transplant about a year-and-a-half ago, Green said his health is improving. “But I’m never going to get all those bad years back,” Green says. “That’s for sure.”

TIME tennis

Rafael Nadal: ‘I Doubt About Myself’

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates defeating Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic during day seven of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 9, 2014 in Madrid. Julian Finney—Getty Images

Ahead of the French Open, the tennis star talks to TIME about pressure, confidence and his health

This week’s print edition of TIME includes a feature story on Rafael Nadal, the world’s number one player who is chasing Roger Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slam titles (Nadal has 13). The French Open begins May 25: Nadal has won eight of the last nine French Open titles, but enters this year’s tournament having lost matches in three clay-court tuneup tournaments, something that hasn’t happened since 2003, when Nadal was 16. Below are some excerpts from TIME’s interview with the Spanish superstar:

On preferring five set classics to straight set blowouts ….

“I never like the easy matches. I think that good sportsmen don’t like the easy wins … At the end, if you are winning with a little more drama, it stays in your mind a lot longer than when you are winning easy, no?”

On why he loves Roland Garros, home to the French Open, and playing on clay …

“I always like to play on this beautiful surface that gives you an opportunity to attack, an opportunity to defend. I like this thing. I understand the sport this way. It needs strategy, it needs suffering, it needs good possibilities to make the game interesting, no?”

On the state of his knee …

“I’m still having pain a lot of days. The only thing I wish is that the pain is only minding me when I’m competing. Because I really like to enjoy the rest of the time of my life.”

On confidence …

“I doubt about myself,” Nadal says. “I think the doubts are good in life. The people who don’t have doubts I think only two things: arrogance or not intelligence.”

On whether Nadal can possibly enjoy his epic matches as much as his fans do …

“It’s difficult to understand for somebody who is not on the court. I don’t know if the word is enjoy. But in some way that feeling is great when you are there and are playing well, the opponent is one of the best in the world, you are competing for important things and you are fighting and you resist a little bit more. You need to find another solution, you need to put one more ball in play, with the right determination in that point because it’s the point that can change the dynamic of the match. So all these things, it’s difficult to say you’re enjoying, but it’s, in some way, yes, I will say—I appreciate what’s going on in that moment. Because all my career, all my life, I work hard to be there, and today you feel there, you are healthy, you are able to run, you are able to fight, you are able to play for something that was a dream for you since you were a kid. You appreciate the moment a lot.”

 

 

 

 

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