June 16, 2010

What I've Learned From the World Cup

A friend suggested a couple weeks ago that I start writing about soccer, as it's easy enough to follow and it shouldn't take long to get up to speed on the players. And with the rest of the world focused on the action in South Africa this month, it would obviously be hard to ignore the headlines.

Now I know the learning curve is much steeper than he assumes, and I don't even pretend to understand all that's happening on the field. But in the short time I've spent watching these athletes pour their hearts out in these stadiums, I have come away with a few lessons.

#1: I'm so happy I play on a small court

Think it's hard to come back from a swing in momentum after losing serve? Try doing the same when a ball is suddenly launched a hundred-plus yards in the opposite direction. My lungs hurt just thinking about it.

#2: Home field advantage may give you an early boost, but that might be all

The South African team may have scored the first goal of the tournament, but they ended their game tied with Mexico.

Similarly at the AEGON International in Eastbourne, teenager Heather Watson of Great Britain harnessed the crowd's support to beat Aleksandra Wozniak in the first round, but dropped quickly to Victoria Azarenka in the second. And in the Netherlands, world #159 Igor Sijsling rallied past countryman Thiemo De Bakker to win only the second Tour match of his career. Unfortunately Sergiy Stakhovsky took care of him in the subsequent match.

#3: The grass may be soft, but winning is hard

With the first group of round robin matches in the books, six of the sixteen soccer games played so far have resulted in ties. Can you imagine? Two teams go after each other nonstop for more than ninety minutes and no resolution is reached. I've never been more thankful for tiebreaks.

But even though we're guaranteed a winner, that doesn't mean the advancing player didn't expend more than his or her fair share of energy getting there. Svetlana Kuznetsova has already spent nearly five hours on court in her first two matches at the UNICEF Open while fifth-seeded Alexandra Dulgheru has survived six sets herself to make the Eastbourne quarters. For the men, Alexandr Dolgopolov battled through two tight opening sets before closing out his opponents decisively in the third and wildcard Gilles Simon squandered two one-set leads before rallying to avoid elimination.

#4: Past performance is not an indication of future results

Sure, perennial powerhouses like Brazil and Germany got off to quick leads this year, but both defending Cup champion Italy and runner-up France drew in their first games, and the French didn't even score a goal. That's not to say they won't rebound, of course, but they're both starting out at a deficit.

A couple women find themselves in similar positions on the courts. Tamarine Tanasugarn and Caroline Wozniacki were the champions at 's-Hertogenbosch and Eastbourne last year -- both fell in the first round this year, which doesn't lay the best groundwork heading into Wimbledon. Then again, both ladies can take comfort in knowing the lesson works in the opposite direction too. Caroline translated her win into a fourth round appearance at the All England Club in 2009, while the vet got ousted early -- there's no reason they can't better those results this year.

#5: Everyone needs Uncle Toni!

Spain lost to Switzerland. Spain lost to Switzerland. In soccer!

Apparently there's only one man in sports who knows how to consistently beat the Swiss, and that man should be coaching the Spanish team -- that is, while he's not busy coaching his nephew.

I'm not sure I'll ever really understand fútbol entirely -- after all, it seems like a lot of work which ultimately results in very little scoring. But I certainly appreciate the passion it brings out of its fans, and watching the games over the past few days I can't help but wish to be part of the excitement.

But we're only a few days away from our world cup, and I have no doubt our athletes will do everything they can to recreate that atmosphere on their turf.

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