PC Guerrilla Warfare: The Sportscaster Whose Apt Word-Choice Cost Him His Job

broken_tennis_ball_by_ Photo by mountainboy965C

The Backstory

Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.

The world of sport is abuzz with excitement over tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year.   Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter in the waning years of tennis’ richest era, feverishly weave narratives from the week’s trendy storylines.

Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?

Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?

Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed youngsters dethrone any of the grizzled veteran champions?

Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?

What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions over 35 — can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?

Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action.  To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event coverage, many broadcasters deliver live streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.

The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming leviathan that began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors.  ESPN supplies U.S. fans with streams from Australia of all 254 singles matches and many doubles matches, employing an army of on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.

Many of ESPN’s live-stream voices offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels.  From this “B team,” one might hear:

“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”

By contrast, the less prepared and more ego-driven of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical gems such as:

“This is painful to watch.”

(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s.  Chris Evert’s statements are at times so vapid that she has inspired a widely used, colorful hashtag.  Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children.  When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match; late in the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)

Prominent in ESPN’s live-stream broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California.  A veteran of commentary since 2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.

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The Fatal Moment

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It is Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.)  First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is 36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles.  Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams.  One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.

Not surprisingly, the match is a rout.  Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.

Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:

“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”

What exactly does Adler say?  Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.

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Update: The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article.  Below is a new video.  Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.

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The Controversy

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Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.

The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:

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“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for Venus Williams’ charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve.  Tennis writers and commentators frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks.  Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have passed unnoticed.

This particular match, however, made Adler famous.

Within minutes, social media were flooded with rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”

New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames.  Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.

Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”

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Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg?  Do you read minds?

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The Aftermath

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ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.

Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.

On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination, stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.”  In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”

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Justice?

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Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,”  it would be fairest and most reasonable to assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.

Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism?  In his 13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Gaël Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player of African ancestry?

I believe the answer to those questions is No.

Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends only Elder has had the courage to speak publically about the recent travesty).

There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the word he used was indeed “guerrilla.”

In effect, what happened here?

  • While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
  • Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
  • A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
  • ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.

Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect?  If they want to attract viewers, yes.

Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air?  Certainly.

But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?

I say no.

The Courts will decide.

As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally find Doug Adler’s assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed.  While not always in agreement with his opinions, I cannot remain silent as he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.

So here’s what I think:

Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.

Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.

ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Horizon

   The Second Coming

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

William Butler Yeats       1919

And So It Begins: Last-minute Thoughts About the 2016 French Open

TB_0518 World #8 Tomas Berdych on the velvety Roland Garros clay.

After six weeks and ten tournaments in nine countries, the men’s European clay court season arrives at its apogee and ultimate proving ground this coming week at the French Open.  Action begins tomorrow, May 22, with 16 singles matches at Roland Garros in Paris.

A few quick thoughts about what we have learned from the men’s clay court warm-up events —

Who’s Out

Roger Federer, suffering from a combination of knee and back injuries that kept him out of the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid and led to early losses in Monte Carlo and Rome, withdrew from the French Open in advance of the tournament draw.  Federer, whose game is much better suited to grass than to clay, hopes to resume competition in time for the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments.

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Juan Martin del Potro, on the comeback trail from a series of four wrist surgeries, decided to forgo Roland Garros and move immediately to the grass, where he hopes his booming serve will pay dividends.

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The charismatic and highly talented Frenchman Gael Monfils — ever a crowd favorite, and one of the most upbeat and good-natured players on the tour — was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros after being hospitalized this week with a viral illness.

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Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender

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Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem won the title today in Nice and reached the final in Munich, where he lost a very tight contest to German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Earlier, in Monte Carlo, he mounted a very stiff challenge to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

Currently ranked 15 in the world and rising quickly, Thiem will surely win the French Open someday.  Five of his six titles to date, and two of his three in 2016, have come on clay.  His well-rounded game is precise, aggressive, and great fun to watch.

He will arrive in Paris brimming over with confidence from his win in Nice although perhaps somewhat tired.  He is a dangerous opponent for anyone.

 

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Japan’s Kei Nishikori, currently ranked #6 in the world, delivered several strong performances this year on the European clay.  He reached the final in Barcelona, where he lost a close match to Rafael Nadal.  At the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome, he played barnburner semifinal matches with World #1 Novak Djokovic, losing in two sets in Madrid and in three sets in Rome.

Over the course of his career, Nishikori has beaten every player now seeded ahead of him at Roland Garros (Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal).  His speed, footwork, and shotmaking, and his ability to rob opponents of time by “taking the ball early,” make him formidable on clay.  Fortuitously blessed with a good draw, Nishikori could easily reach the quarterfinals, where he might encounter Andy Murray.

If he keeps his health and fitness, Nishikori could well find himself hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5.

 

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Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris as he did last year, having bolstered his confidence with a victory at his home tournament in Geneva.

Owner of a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a one-handed backhand that is both lethal and sublime, Wawrinka can beat anyone on the right day.  Although inconsistent and unpredictable, “Stan the Man,” as his sponsors call him, proved last year in Paris that he is capable of winning the title.

 

The Favorites?

The 2016 men’s singles competition at Roland Garros is the most open in years, with three players having emerged from the Masters 1000-level events as favorites (and perhaps even as co-favorites): Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal won the title in Monte Carlo without ever facing Djokovic.

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Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.

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Murray lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and beat him in the semifinals of Madrid.

Murray lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid and beat him in the final at Rome.

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Djokovic and Nadal faced each other once, in the quarterfinals of Rome, where Djokovic won 7-5 7-6.  Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his performace, that both sets had been “on his racquet,” and that he had been, “very, very, very close” to winning.

Only Nadal of the three favorites won two titles in the lead-up to Roland Garros: in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona (a competitive 500-level tournament where neither Murray nor Djokovic was in the field).

The tournament whose conditions (i.e., altitude, clay quality, weather) are most similar to Roland Garros is Monte Carlo.  Nadal won that title, beating Murray in the semifinal.  Djokovic lost in his first match.

Madrid, featuring high altitude and hard-packed clay, is the least like Roland Garros.  Djokovic won that title, beating Murray in the final.  Murray had beaten Nadal in the semifinal.

Rome, like Paris, is at sea level.  There, Murray beat Djokovic in a hard-fought, testy, and rainy final.

Can one divine French Open outcomes from this data?

First, a few words about the tournament draw.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw is freakishly difficult.  His first opponent, the 6’4″ cannon-serving Australian Sam Groth, demands intense concentration from his opponent and offers no rally rhythm.  The last time Nadal opened a French Open campaign against a “serve-bot” (2011, against 6’10” John Isner), Nadal got down two sets to one and needed five sets to eke out a victory.

In the third round, Nadal could face the flamboyantly talented and dangerously unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who beat Nadal three times in 2015.  The fourth round could bring a meeting with Dominic Thiem (see above).

In the quarterfinal, Nadal could face France’s Jo Wilfried Tsonga, who has the physical skills to beat anyone on the tour, and who will have the enthusiastic support of the home crowd.  In the semifinal, Nadal could face Djokovic.

Over his first five rounds, Djokovic faces a relative cakewalk.  None of Djokovic’s early-round opponents has any recent history of success against him.

Murray will have a tricky first match against the wily 37-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, whose variety and unpredictability can be maddeningly difficult to face.  En route to the quarterfinals, Murray could encounter two tricky serve-bots, John Isner and the 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, though neither is likely to threaten Murray’s exemplary return game and defense.

Murray could face formidable challenges in the quarterfinals against Nishikori and in the semifinals against Wawrinka.

Murray will not face either Djokovic or Nadal until the final.

 

What does their Rome match and other recent history say about a Djokovic/Nadal semifinal?

Djokovic owns a 26-23 career head-to-head record against Nadal and has won their last seven meetings, three of which have been on clay. Advantage, Djokovic?  Not necessarily.

From mid-2011 until mid-2012, Djokovic also won seven straight matches against Nadal.  By the end of his seventh loss (the 2012 Australian Open final), Nadal had figured out how to counter Djokovic’s new tactics.  When the two next met, at the 2012 French Open final, Nadal won.

Some commentators have suggested that Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Rome earlier this month would put him at a mental disadvantage in Paris.  I am not so sure.

Nadal’s competitive psychology is such that he takes every opponent seriously and approaches every match with the idea that he “needs to play [his] best tennis in order to have chances to win.” (That phrase has appeared in his press conference transcripts innumerable times over the years.)

Had a few points gone differently in their match in Rome, and had Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, he likely would have thought, “OK, I won, but it was close. I still need to play my best to have chances to win.”  Djokovic, meanwhile, would have arrived at the following Nadal match full of vinegar and determination to avenge his recent loss.

Having lost in Rome, but having kept the match very close, Nadal will probably approach his next meeting with Djokovic with optimism (in addition to his usual intention to play his best).

The contest between Nadal and Djokovic in Rome proved that Nadal is ready to compete toe-to-toe with Djokovic.  Both players know that now.  This cannot be a comfortable feeling for Djokovic.

 

What about Andy Murray?

Murray has long been one of the sport’s greatest defenders – he can chase down and return shots all day – but aggressive play does not come naturally to him.  He has a decent first serve, but his second serve has traditionally been his most attackable weakness.  Mentally, he has not always exhibited the fortitude and consistency necessary to win against the best players.

In 2016, Murray has improved both his first serve and his second serve and implemented successful plans of attack against both of his major rivals.  During the Rome final against Djokovic, he managed to be the mentally and emotionally stronger combatant under very difficult and rainy conditions.

If Murray reaches a final against either Djokovic or Nadal, he can take some confidence from the fact that his most recent meeting with each on the clay courts this year was a win.

Murray has never in the past been considered a contender at Roland Garros, but as Stan Wawrinka demonstrated in 2015 (after losing in the first round of the 2014 French Open), history is irrelevant.

It is the best player on the day who wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Dirt Ballet: the Beauty and Drama of Clay Court Tennis

RN_Clay_Shoes (Photo by @puepppy.)

In April, professional tennis players change their shoes.

Gone are the standard smooth “tennies” designed for comfort on hard courts.  In their place are textured soles optimized for traction on loose, red powder.

A whirlwind of travel that carries players through the summer heat of Australia, South America, and the tropics and sets them down in March on the hard courts of North America, delivers them in April to the European “red dirt.”  There they contest a series of clay court tournaments that culminates in the French Open.

Over the next six weeks, in eight different countries, players will be tested in what many fans believe to be the purest form of tennis — where the surface gives no advantage to raw power, where players must be proficient at every aspect of the game (serve, return, groundstrokes, volleys, and defense), and where players face the greatest physical and mental demands of the year.

What is the “clay”?

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Fusion x64 TIFF File

The “clay” in a modern clay court is typically crushed brick layered upon a gravel base to improve drainage.  The court’s top layer is a fine red powder.

Much as an ice rink is smoothed periodically by a Zamboni, a clay court is swept to rid the surface of footprints, skid marks, gouges, and ball marks.  Usually, a clay court is swept after every set and sprayed with water as needed to prevent the top surface dust from blowing.

 

What makes clay court tennis special?

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The key characteristics of a clay court, from a player’s perspective:

  • It is slippery.

Movement on a clay court is night-and-day different from movement on the hard courts on which professionals spend most of the year.  Stopping, starting, and changing direction are all made more difficult by the court’s dusty top layer.  Balance becomes especially critical.

The slipperiness affects tactics (for example, it’s especially profitable on clay to aim a shot behind a moving opponent) and profoundly affects a player’s timing.   The most adept claycourters learn to slide into their shots.

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  • The ball’s bounce is high.

Clay rewards players who put heavy topspin (i.e., forward spin) onto a ball by giving topspin shots a high bounce.  (By contrast, on grass courts and many indoor hard courts, top-spinning balls tend to say low.)

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The high bounce can throw off an opponent’s timing and/or place the ball above an his optimal “strike zone,” in either case making it difficult for an opponent to hit the ball with power and accuracy.

 

  • The ball always leaves a mark on the court surface.

At clay tournaments, players cannot ask for computerized “Hawkeye” challenges, because every shot leaves a mark.  Instead, players can summon umpires out of their chairs to check ball marks.

Or, in rare cases, compel a cameraman to photograph a mark.

 

  • The surface is “slow.”

As the ball strikes the court surface, the clay holds it briefly during the bounce, giving an opponent an extra fraction of a second to reach the ball.  (By contrast, grass courts and many hard courts are “fast.”)

Speed (from news.bbc.co.uk)

Consequently, it is much more difficult on clay than on a hard court for a player to hit a winning shot past his opponent.  Rallies are long, and matches are both physically and mentally arduous on clay.

Clay rewards players who have good defensive skills (i.e., the ability to run down opponents’ shots and keep a ball in play).  Some of the tour’s most proficient claycourters, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and David Ferrer, excel at forcing their opponents to “hit one extra shot” and eventually miss.

Defense alone, though, is not sufficient to guarantee wins.  Those who succeed on clay know when and how to hit an aggressive shot that either takes control of a rally or wins a point outright.

Clay rewards decision-making, shot-selection, problem-solving, patience, and the vanishing art of point construction — the chess match wherein each player tries to think several shots ahead and outmaneuver his opponent to make space on the court for a winning shot.

Executed well, clay court tennis offers both breathtaking athleticism and fascinating drama.

 

The Spring European Clay Court Season

The marquee event of the clay court season is the French Open, the calendar year’s second Grand Slam tournament, held at Roland Garros in Paris.  To ensure that players reach Roland Garros in optimal clay court form, the tennis tour devotes six weeks to warm-up tournaments in Europe.

Week 1: Monte Carlo

Leading off the series is the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tournament.  First played in 1897, this “Masters 1000” event (one tier below the Grand Slams) offers fans and players alike the most beautiful setting of the season.

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The 2016 event, which begins on April 10, boasts the strongest field in years, with seven of the world’s top eight players and a bumper crop of highly talented youngsters playing.  There are no easy matches.  Nearly every player faces a tough slate of potential opponents.

The defending champion is World #1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who has won the event twice in the last three years.

Rafael Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo, from 2005 through 2012.  His record might never be equaled.

 

Update: Rafael Nadal def. Gael Monfils 7-5 5-7 6-0 to win the title in Monte Carlo.

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Click here for Five Quick Thoughts about the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters.

 

Week 2: Barcelona and Bucharest

During the week of April 18, some lower ranked players who did not qualify for the Monte Carlo tournament will begin their French Open preparations at a smaller “250” event Bucharest.  Most of the top players will either sit the week out or travel to a medium-sized “500” event in Barcelona.

Because Barcelona’s Open BancSabadell serves as the Spanish national championship, nearly every healthy Spanish player is in the field.  Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer has said that winning the Barcelona title would mean as much to him as winning a Grand Slam.

Fourteen of the last 20 Barcelona champions have been Spanish, including eleven straight from 2003 to 2013 (and Rafael Nadal eight times between 2005 and 2013), but the player to hoist the tournament’s enormous trophy in the last two years has been the scrappy Japanese baseliner Kei Nishikori.

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Update: Rafael Nadal def. Kei Nishikori 6-4 7-5 to win his ninth title in Barcelona.

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Fernando Verdasco def. Lucas Pouille 6-3 6-2 to win the title in Bucharest.

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Week 3: Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril

In the week of April 25, mid-level and lower ranked players will hone their clay court skills at three small 250-level tournaments in Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril, while most of the Top-20 players take a breather before back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome.

Update:

Philipp Kohlschreiber won a barn-burner of a final over Dominic Thiem, 7-6(7) 4-6 7-6(4), to take the title in Munich.

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Diego Sebastian Schwartzman upset Grigor Dimitrov 6-7(5) 7-6(4) 6-0 in Istanbul to win the first title of his career.

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Nicolas Almagro outlasted his countryman Pablo Carreno  Busta 6-7(6) 7-6(5) 6-3 to take the title in Estoril.

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Week 4: Madrid

Since the early 2000s, the lead-up to the French Open has included three Masters 1000 tournaments.  Two of those three are the events in Monte Carlo and Rome.  Until 2008, the third Masters 1000 on clay was held in Hamburg.  Because of Hamburg’s inclement weather (and, most likely, some behind-the-scenes politics), the third clay Masters 1000 was moved to Madrid in 2009.

The Madrid tournament poses a unique challenge during the pre-Roland Garros swing: high altitude.  The ball travels faster through the air in Madrid than at the sea-level events, and Madrid’s relatively dry air makes the court both faster and more slippery.

As a joint men’s and women’s event with limited court space, the Madrid tournament is known for its long days.  Often matches start after 11 p.m.

Nearly every year of the Madrid clay event’s young life has brought intense drama.

  • In the inaugural event in 2009, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played a four-hour-and-three-minute semifinal, which is the longest best-of-three-set match in the Open Era of men’s tennis.  Nadal won the match but had nothing left for the next day’s final.  The psychological blow of losing that marathon may have contributed to Djokovic’s loss in the third round of that year’s French Open.  The physical wear-and-tear surely contributed to the knee problems that led to Nadal’s fourth-round loss at the French and his subsequent two-month absence from the tour.

 

  • In 2011, Djokovic surprised Nadal and angered the home crowd by carrying out some decidedly in-your-face celebrations after beating Nadal in the final, including (by some accounts) a swim in a nearby canal and noisy dancing with his team on top of a parked car.

 

  • In 2012, the tournament replace the red clay with blue clay.  Although the blue clay showed up better on television, it might have been catastrophic for the players, because it was extremely slippery.  Players who typically remain centered over their feet, such as Roger Federer and David Ferrer, were relatively unaffected.  For Nadal and Djokovic, who tend to hit more off-balance defensive shots, the conditions were potentially lethal.  After 2012, the tournament switched back to red clay.

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  • In 2013, a crowd still angry at Djokovic for his behavior in 2011 gave him a hard time during his loss to Grigor Dimitrov.  Djokovic, who has never had patience with hostile crowds, and who often behaves as though every crowd owes him affection, screamed at his hecklers in Serbian, “You can lick my ____, and I can ____ your mothers!”

Djokovic has not played in Madrid since 2013.  This year he will return.  It will be interesting to see how he gets along with the assertive and opinionated Madrid fans.

The event’s defending champion is Andy Murray.  Nadal has won the Madrid event on clay three times.

Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title in Madrid.

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Click here to read Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open.

Week 5: Rome

The week after Madrid takes the players back to sea level at the Intenationali BNL d’Italia in Rome, first played in 1930.  The tournament grounds feature a steeply raked stadium surrounded by statues in a classical style, located atop the site of the swimming venue of the 1960 summer Olympics.

Statues

Djokovic comes into this year’s Rome event as the two-time defending champion, having won the title four times in the last six years.  Nadal holds the record for Rome titles with seven.

 

Update: Andy Murray def. Novak Djokovic 6-3 6-3 in the Rome final to win his third clay title and his second at the Masters 1000 level.

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Week 6: Nice and Geneva

The last week before the French Open will find most of the top-ranked players in Paris practicing at Roland Garros, speaking to the media, and appearing at sponsor events.  Meanwhile, 250-level events in Nice and Geneva offer final tune-up opportunities for late-arriving journeymen players as well as a few hometown stars.

Update:

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Stan Wawrinka def. Marin Cilic 6-4 7-6(11) to win his second consecutive Geneva title and his third title of 2016.

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Like Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem defended his 2015 title and earned his third trophy of 2016 by defeating fellow rising star Alexander Zverev 6-4 3-6 6-0 in Nice.

 

Weeks 7 and 8: The French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

On 22 May, 128 men will begin the quest for the year’s second Grand Slam singles title at the French Open at Roland Garros.  Fifteen days later, one man will hoist aloft the tournament’s storied trophy, the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Coupe

Because Roland Garros is the only Slam site with no lighting for night matches, and since clay matches tend to be long, the French Open is the only Slam whose first match is held on a Sunday.

Every Grand Slam tournament offers compelling drama from the start.  It is fascinating to watch players ranked 70 or 80 in the world, with no hope of winning the title, battle tooth-and-nail for the right to advance to the next round.  Every day of the first week promises valor, heart, and sportsmanship.

One of my favorite tales of Roland Garros valor took place in 2013 and starred thirty-one-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo.  Known as a tenacious fighter, and expert like many of his countrymen in the art of tennis on clay, Robredo outdid himself by coming back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win five-set matches in three consecutive rounds, a feat unmatched in the previous 86 years.  After his third comeback, Robredo collapsed the court in tears as the stadium crowd chanted his name.

TR_RG13

More drama, of the “never-a-dull-moment” variety, erupted later in the same event, when flare-wielding political protestors crashed the men’s final between Nadal and Ferrer, spooking both contestants.

 

In addition to the French crowd’s perennial hope for a homegrown champion, the intrigue at Roland Garros 2016 — whose field is more open than it has been in years — features a cast of terrific clay court players all of whom have fascinating storylines.

 

The Contenders

It is highly probable that the man left holding the Coupe de Mousquetaires this year will be one of a short list of “usual suspects.”

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

RN_by_zoricdragan Photo by @zoricdragan.

Twenty-nine-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player in the history of tennis.

  • He leads all men in the Open Era with a staggering 91.6 match winning percentage on clay.
  • He is in second place in the Open Era with 47 titles on clay.
  • He won a record 81 consecutive matches on clay from 2006 to 2008.
  • He won in excess of 50 consecutive semifinal matches on clay from 2008 to 2015.

 

Several attributes of Nadal’s highly individualistic style are especially well suited to the red dirt.

  • The unmatched topspin he applies to his shots, especially to his forehand with the distinctive “lariat” follow-through.

Clay_Lariat_Action

  • Excellent, precise footwork.
  • A deep understanding of the game and of point construction.
  • Formidable problem-solving skills.
  • Great competitive intensity that wears down many opponents as Nadal plays every point as though it were his last.

Nadal has won eight Monte Carlos, eight Barcelonas, three Madrid titles on clay (and one when the tournament was played on an indoor hard court), seven Romes, and nine French Opens.

That’s nine titles at the most physically and mentally demanding Major tournament.

No one else has ever won as many as eight titles at a single Slam.

Nadal is no slouch on surfaces other than clay. He owns four titles, including two Wimbledons, on grass (which, fast and low-bouncing, is essentially the opposite of clay).  On hardcourts, he has sixteen titles, include two US Opens and one Australian Open.

Nadal’s career has been a series of injury outages followed by comebacks.

  • In 2005, six months after winning his first French Open, Nadal broke a bone in his left foot (later found to have been congenitally deformed) and was reduced to hitting balls while seated in a desk chair.
    In 2006, he returned to the tour, won his second French Open, and reached his first of five consecutive Wimbledon finals.

 

  • In 2007 and 2008, the arch supports he was required to wear to protect his vulnerable foot started to wreak havoc on his knees.  In 2009, knee pain forced to stop competing for two months and miss Wimbledon.
    In 2010, in a spectacular run that started in Monte Carlo, Nadal won seven titles, including the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, in the process becoming the first and only male player in the history of the sport to win three Slams on three different surfaces in the same year.

 

  • In 2012, severe knee tendonitis forced Nadal off of the tour again, causing him to miss the second half of the season, including the London Olympics.
    In 2013, Nadal returned from a seven-month absence to win ten titles, including the French Open and the US Open, and finished the year at #1 – this in spite of his having missed the Australian Open entirely.

In 2014, Nadal suffered three apparently random physical failures: the first, a back injury that befell him in the middle of the Australian Open final in February; the second, a freak wrist injury in August that forced him to miss the US summer hard courts and the US Open; the third, in October — four days after he had returned to competition — acute appendicitis.

In 2015, Nadal experienced what he describes as a “mental injury.”  For the first half of the year, he suffered crippling anxiety on court.  He was unable to control his breathing or his emotions.  He was, as he recently described it, “competing against himself.”  During that stretch, Nadal delivered several truly baffling performances — including at Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, and later Wimbledon — in which he seemed unable to make decisions and could not hit accurate shots to save his life.

Through what he describes as “daily hard work,” Nadal was able to gradually rid himself of the anxiety.  He told the press in October that those bad feelings had gone away.

Because he is what some coaches call a “confidence player,” Nadal faces a maddening chicken-and-egg problem during his every comeback:

To win matches, he needs the confidence to go for big shots on important points.
To have confidence, he needs to win matches.

Last month, in Indian Wells in the desert of southern California, Nadal seemed at long last to have turned the corner.  He had four good wins over difficult opponents and then played his best match against Djokovic in nearly two years.

Nadal said in a recent interview that, unlike last year, he now enjoys practices and matches, and he feels ready to compete with anyone.

In 2016, Nadal is fit, healthy, and happy as he returns to his favorite surface and to events where he has enjoyed great success in the past.

(Memo to his would-be opponents: watch out.)

 

The Reigning King of the Tour – Novak Djokovic

ND_Clay_Slide

One year Nadal’s junior, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title (in Australia) in 2009.  After floating in the Top 4 for four years, Djokovic came into his own in 2011, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, and finishing the year at #1 for the first time.

Beginning in 2012, Djokovic opened each year by telling the press in January of his desire (or intention) to win the year’s French Open, and thereby complete his Career Grand Slam (which Federer had achieved in 2009 at age 27 and Nadal in 2010 at age 24).

In 2012, Djokovic reached the Roland Garros final and lost to Nadal.

In 2013, Djokovic lost to Nadal in a semifinal — a virtuosic five-set masterpiece that has been called the greatest match ever played on clay.

In 2014, Djokovic again reached the final at Roland Garros and again lost to Nadal.

Last year, with Nadal floundering, promised to be Djokovic’s golden opportunity.  Reversing his Roland Garros script, Djokovic dispatched his usual nemesis by trouncing him efficiently in a quarterfinal.

On the morning of the final, only the Swiss Stan Wawrinka stood between Djokovic and his Career Grand Slam.  After Djokovic won the first set, he seemed well on the way to achieving his much-talked-about dream.

Then Wawrinka delivered the three best sets of tennis he has played in his life, a breathtaking display of power and precision.  Pounding the ball off of both wings, Wawrinka kept Djokovic on the run.  Wawrinka controlled most of the rallies with bludgeoned groundstrokes and hit winner after blistering winner.

When it was over, and Djokovic stood on the podium once again holding the runner-up plate, he received a lengthy standing ovation from a crowd sympathetic to his plight.

During the balance of 2015, Djokovic lost only two matches, both of them finals.

Djokovic enters the 2016 European clay court season having won all of his completed matches this year (his only loss was a retirement), but he has shown some uncharacteristic vulnerability.

At the Australian Open, Frenchman Gilles Simon employed persistent defense to drive Djokovic to distraction, force Djokovic to five sets, and draw more than 90 unforced errors from the Serb’s racquet.

In Indian Wells, Djokovic lost a set to World #165 Bjorn Fratangelo and later against Nadal commited a striking number of errors with his best shot, the return of serve.

In Miami, Austrian Dominic Thiem was able to create a passel of break point opportunities against Djokovic but could not cash them in.  In the next round, Belgian David Goffin broke Djokovic several times but was unable to maintain any advantage.

It is possible that Djokovic will “run the table” on the European clay.  He might this year finally win the French Open.

Or he might lose a few points at important moments and find himself on the unfamiliar losing end of a match.

Djokovic will be the oddsmakers’ favorite at every event he plays from now through Roland Garros, but he is not a shoo-in.

 

Federer

RF_Trophy

When 34-year-old tennis superstar Roger Federer published his 2016 tournament schedule, his European clay court season was rather thin.  Focusing on tournaments more likely to enhance his legacy (specifically, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics), Federer had opted to minimize his work on clay.

Then in early February, Federer’s plans were upended by a turn of events new in his experience: an injury that required surgery.  Having been forced to sit out for two months, Federer decided recently to refocus on the clay events, beginning with Monte Carlo.  This renders the tournaments both more interesting for fans and more lucrative for tournament sponsors.

Although he might have lost with age a bit of speed and consistency, Federer is still the most graceful player ever to pick up a tennis racquet.  With his lethal serve and time-robbing aggression, Federer can still consistently beat 80 to 85 percent of the players on the tour.

Federer’s playing style is best suited to faster, low-bouncing surfaces (to wit, grass and indoor hard courts at sea level).  Winning a clay tournament at the Masters 1000 or Grand Slam level is a tough task for him.  That said, if breaks were to fall the right way, anything could happen.

Federer, like Nadal, has shown repeatedly that one is unwise ever to write him off.

 

The Reigning French Open Champion – Stan Wawrinka

SW_Trophy

Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka owns two Grand Slam titles: the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.  Physically strong, and blessed with a one-handed backhand as lethal as it is beautiful to watch, Wawrinka at his best can beat anyone on the tour.

Wawrinka is also wildly inconsistent.  In 2014, the year of his first Grand Slam and also his first Masters 1000 title (in Monte Carlo), Wawrinka lost nine times in a tournament’s first round, including a straight-sets loss in the first round of Roland Garros.

In the following year, Wawrinka played brilliantly at Roland Garros, beat both Federer and Djokovic, and won the title.

It can be difficult to predict on any given day which Wawrinka will show up on court.  Realistically, he could lose early in two or three events on the European clay.  With equal probability, he might win three or four of the titles.

Any Wawrinka match is worth watching for the quality of his tennis and for the likelihood of on-court drama.

 

The Intrepid Fighter – David Ferrer

DF_Clay

Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer is known and respected on the tennis tour for his dogged determination and indefatigability.

Although at 5’9″ Ferrer might be too small to win a Grand Slam during this Golden Age of men’s tennis, experts and commentators agree that in a different era Ferrer would have won at least one Slam and probably a French Open.

With 26 titles, Ferrer is the most highly decorated male player in the Open Era never to have won a Slam.  Like many of his countrymen, Ferrer excels on clay, having won 12 of his titles on the red dirt.  Ferrer has reached the semifinals on clay in Madrid, the final in Barcelona, the final in Monte Carlo, and the final in Rome.  In 2013, he reached the final at Roland Garros, where he lost to Nadal.

Although Ferrer might have slowed down somewhat with age, his disciplined point construction, tenacious defense, and outstanding return of serve can still carry him to victory over most players on clay, especially in a best-of-five-set format.

Ferrer may appear to be an outlier among these Contenders, since he has not yet won a title on the European clay, but I believe he belongs on this short list because in his trophy cabinet at home he has hardware from Roland Garros.

Only five active male players have contested a French Open final.

  • Nadal (2005 – 08, 2010 – 14)
  • Federer (2006 – 09, 2011)
  • Djokovic (2012, 2014, 2015)
  • Wawrinka (2015)
  • Ferrer (2013)

 

The Second Tier

Among the remaining 123 men who will contest the singles competition in Paris, at least 15 have the potential to cause upsets within the draw.  Some worthy of especial note:

Dominic Thiem

DT

Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem is almost certainly a future French Open champion.  As highly disciplined as he is talented, Thiem possesses a well-rounded game as well as a gorgeous one-handed backhand.

Thiem has won two titles so far this year, including on clay in Buenos Aires, where he beat Nadal in the semifinal.  Although Thiem may not be ready to win seven best-of-five-set matches at Roland Garros, he might well be capable of taking a Masters 1000 title in the coming weeks.

 

Kei Nishikori

KN

With a playing style sometimes described as “Djokovic without the celebrations,” Japan’s Kei Nishikori has established himself solidly among the game’s Top 10.  Nishikori’s easy power and precise ball striking can carry him past any player.  In recent years, he has notched wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic.

Two of Nishikori’s eleven titles have come on clay, both in Barcelona.  If he stays healthy, which is always the biggest question with Nishikori, he could be a threat at any of the European clay events.

 

Gilles Simon

GS

Like David Ferrer, Frenchman Gilles Simon has turned an unprepossessing physical presence into an asset.  Although not endowed with great power, Simon brings to court some of the cleanest and most tenacious defensive skill on the tour.  An absolute nightmare of a match-up in a best-of-five format, Simon could give the home fans reason to cheer into the second week at Roland Garros.

 

Roberto Bautista Agut

RBA

With two titles already this year, 27-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut is the most successful Spanish player through the first quarter of 2016.  In his short career on tour, he has won four titles, including one each on clay and grass.

Bautista Agut’s clean, well-rounded game is probably not strong enough to carry him to the trophy stand at any of the spring’s clay events, but he could serve as a spoiler.

 

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

JWT2

As a player, 30-year-old Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a bit of an enigma.

Sometimes he channels his prodigious talent and athletic ability into an aggressive, powerful game that defeats all comers.  He has beaten Federer twice in Grand Slams, including once at the French Open.

At other times — such as his 2013 dismantling by Ferrer one round after his victory over Federer at Roland Garros — Tsonga looks disoriented and defeated well before the end of the first set.

A subject of Roland Garros scrutiny and pressure every year as a top French prospect, Tsonga truly has a game that would enable him to win.

Whether he hoists any trophies this spring, or pulls off any important upsets, or bows his head in defeat, will depend upon which Tsonga shows up to play.

 

So who will win?

I don’t make predictions. 🙂

 

Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 to win his first French Open title and complete his career Grand Slam.

ND_RG_Trophy

 

Quote for Today

“If” doesn’t exist in sport. That’s the real thing. If, if, if – never comes. The thing is, you have to do it. – Rafael Nadal

 

And They’re Off! Handicapping the 2016 U.S. Presidential Horse Race

Combat

In the heady early-morning hours of last November 5, when most of the 2014 U.S. midterm races had finally been decided and conceded,  weary political commentators sat and closed their eyes for a brief rest.  After only a few seconds, as a unit they rose, refreshed, and launched into speculation about the 2016 Presidential race.

Today, with 15 months until General Election ballots are cast, the 2016 Presidential field is the most crowded in history.  The first order of business is the Primary season, through which individual states, beginning with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, will help the parties to select their Presidential nominees.  Seventeen combatants are vying for the Republican nomination, while five have entered the Democratic race (so far; more on that below).

The race begins in earnest today with the first Republican debates.

I would like to offer some thoughts about what is at stake in this (and every) Presidential election.  I will briefly profile the colorful array of candidates and explain why the most important split in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans.

How Washington Works – A Citizen’s Summary

Capitol

The Federal government is divided into three ostensibly co-equal branches: the Executive, headed by the President and composed of a myriad of departments and agencies led by political appointees; the Legislative, comprised of the House and the Senate, and charged with oversight of and budgeting for the Executive branch; and the Judicial, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is charged with evaluating the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches.

For more about the Founders’ Constitutional design for the Federal government, please see my post of last autumn entitled, “What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections.”

Today, official Washington, D.C., appears to be a den of iniquity fueled by money, avarice, power, and ego.  An incestuous network of consultants, lobbyists, and party leaders – many of whom are former government officials – works hand-in-hand with legislators and agency staff to craft laws and regulations.  Favors are sold to the highest bidder in exchange for campaign contributions, or for loan forgiveness, or for leniency in blackmail plots, or for Heaven knows what else.

Gargantuan Federal departments, many of which fall outside the scope of government as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, endeavor each year to spend or squander every penny of their annual budgets.  Perverse incentives dictate that any department not using its entire budget receives a smaller allocation for the next year.

Additional perverse incentives ensure that almost no Federal employee, regardless of level of incompetence, is ever fired.  Federal managers face mountains of paperwork if they ever wish to prune their dead wood.

Lawmakers and agency staff draft rules that micromanage citizens’ lives as well as industries across the economic spectrum.  In response, businesses, non-profits, and even foreign governments send lobbyists to Washington to represent their interests.  As the laws become more intrusive, lobbying increases, and the financial stakes grow.

Consequently, Washington’s entrenched leadership class, composed of long-term legislators, civil servants, consultants, lobbyists, and heads of non-governmental organizations (and their lawyers), is deeply invested in a system of graft that funnels money into their pockets (or, in some cases, into their campaign coffers) while shackling the citizenry with intrusive rules and regulations.

Ugly, isn’t it?  The stench hovering over Washington arises from more than its history as a swamp.

So what can be done?

The only way to reduce the corruption intrinsic to Washington, D.C., and practiced by both political parties, is to reduce the size and scope of the Federal government.  If regulations were scaled back, if laws were less intrusive, if taxpayer-funded handouts of “pork” were removed from Federal budgets, and if Federal departments and agencies were shrunk to more closely approximate the Founders’ vision, the need for lobbyists and consultants and their slush funds would evaporate.

None of these reforms appeals to the Establishment wing of either political party.

The Party Establishment and the Grassroots Rebels

Throne

The Democratic Party, founded in early 1830s, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854, control the levers of power in the Federal and State governments.  Each party garners roughly half of the vote in any given election.

The “base,” or “grassroots,” of the Democratic party is an alliance of academics, ethnic minorities, highly-educated professionals, women, homosexuals, young voters, and organized labor.  In general, the Democratic base believes that government at all levels can and should be used as a tool to redress what they consider to be social ills.

By contrast, the Republican base, which is generally more Caucasian, more devoutly religious, less highly educated, and more tied to the business community, believes that the most effective solutions to social problems, and the means to prosperity for everyone, lie in the individual liberty and concomitant individual responsibility that have long been central to the American experience.  Individual liberty necessarily requires small government.

The parties’ bases disagree sharply regarding the size and role of government, but there is no such schism between the Establishment wings of the respective parties.  Both favor the type of vast and convoluted government that sustains the Washington graft machine.  Since they serve Washington and not the citizenry, both Establishment wings are increasingly isolated from their grassroots voters.

Although the Democratic Establishment shares with its base a commitment to big government, the Establishment allies itself with Wall Street, large corporations, and deep-pocketed donors to an extent that alienates some in the Democratic base.

The relationship between the Republican Establishment and its base is so frail as to be on life support.  The Republican base has become increasingly disillusioned by candidates who espouse small-government principles on the campaign trail and then drop any such pretensions when they reach Washington.  For its part, the Republican Establishment treats the small-government base and the candidates they prefer as contemptible impediments.  In the 2014 election cycle, the Establishment made its disdain for the base clearer than ever by employing underhanded tactics in several hotly-contested primaries.

Every four years, during the Presidential Primary season, each party’s Establishment and its wealthy donors, who are accustomed to buying what they want in Washington, fight tooth and nail to ensure that the party’s nominee is “one of them,” a candidate who can help to maintain Washington’s status quo.

The most important schism in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans but between the entrenched “leadership class” and the taxpaying citizenry.  Our leaders and their surrogates in the media spew fiery, hot-button rhetoric to divide us from each other, and specifically to make everyone hate the small-government Republican base, while their endgame is the protection of their cozy, gold-plated, communal feeding trough.

Thus are the battle lines drawn for the 2016 Primary election season.

Candidates in the Democratic Field

Donkey

From the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, conventional wisdom has suggested that selection of the Democratic candidate for the General Election would be less a nomination than a coronation.  In spite of four other candidates’ entry into the race, by media consensus the candidacy has until recently belonged to Hillary Clinton.

First Lady from 1992 to 2000, Senator from New York from 2000 to 2008, failed candidate for President in 2008, and Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012, Hillary Clinton has been preparing to assume the mantle of the Presidency for many years.  Perhaps out of determination to prevent surprises from derailing her triumphal run to the 2017 Inauguration, the reflexively secretive Clinton has run a hyper-controlled and almost opaque campaign this year, going as far as to refuse for weeks at a time to take questions from reporters and, later, to cordon reporters into a roped-off sidewalk corral.

Clinton_Circle

In recent weeks, though, Hillary Clinton’s inevitability has suffered a series of blows from scandals that one might argue have been self-inflicted.  Scandal is not new in Hillary Clinton’s career.  Its rich history dates back to her husband Bill’s days as Governor of Arkansas.  (One can find more by searching in either Google or Wikipedia on “rose law firm,” “whitewater,” “travel gate,” or “Hillary Clinton commodities investment.”)

What has most troubled the Democratic party about Clinton’s difficulties of late is that the scandals are starting to seriously erode Clinton’s poll numbers.  Recent polls have shown Clinton lagging behind Republican candidates in key swing states, rapidly losing her lead over the other Democratic candidates in early primary states, and – most damagingly – underwater (i.e., with more disapproving than approving) in national voter approval and trustworthiness numbers.

Some voters are bothered by Secretary of State Clinton’s failure to foresee or prevent the loss of four American lives on 11 September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.  Others might be bothered by her having lied to the families of the Benghazi victims while standing in front of the flag-draped caskets recently arrived on U.S. soil.  Still others might be disturbed that as a self-described feminist she proffers nary a word against female genital mutilation, honor killings, child marriage, or other horrendous oppression of women and girls common in countries that just happen to donate to her family’s foundations.  The appearance of other corruption related Clinton foundation donations might alienate still other voters.  In addition, she faces tough questions and possibly a criminal indictment related to the illegal private email server that she maintained in her home during her tenure as Secretary of State.

It is because of Mrs. Clinton’s plummeting approval ratings that the Democratic Establishment, and specifically the party’s non-Clinton faction (which is rumored to hate the Clinton faction), has scrambled in the press in recent days to float other candidacies.  Rumors are flying that Vice President Joe Biden or current Secretary of State (and 2004 Presidential candidate) John Kerry might enter the race. In response, the Clinton campaign is suddenly calling for the party to schedule a debate, which forum Clinton (ever keen to maintain control) had previously resisted.

Four other candidates have entered the race for the Democratic nomination:

  • Lincoln Chafee, 62, former Senator from and current Governor of Rhode Island, a former Republican turned Independent turned Democrat.

Chafee_Circle

  • Martin O’Malley, 52, a former Governor of Maryland who is running third in most polls.

O'Malley_Circle

  • Jim Webb, 69, former Virginia Governor, a Navy veteran and former college professor.

Webb_Circle

  • Bernie Sanders, 73, Vermont Senator and devout socialist who is running second in most Democratic polls.

Sanders_Circle

Bernie Sanders has drawn strong support from the Democratic base with his advocacy for a high minimum wage, taxpayer funding of all university education, single-payer health care, and forced redistribution of wealth.  It is in part Sanders’ strong showing in head-to-head polls against Clinton that have prompted Democratic party leaders to look for a new frontrunner.

The Democratic field might change dramatically in the next two months.  The posturing, gambits, and chess moves promises to be fascinating to watch.

Candidates in the Republican Field

Elephant

The Republican Primary race offers the largest, strongest, and arguably most entertaining field in election history.  Among the contenders at the top of the polls are governors and former governors, Senators, and private citizens who have never held public office.  The field is also younger than usual and far more racially diverse than the current Democratic field.

Atop most polls is Donald Trump, outspoken 69-year-old real estate billionaire and TV personality.  Perhaps because he has no need to court campaign donors, Trump has set himself apart from his rivals with a series of brash denunciations of business-as-usual in Washington politics.

Trump_Circle

Trump’s appeal to the Republican base stems from his candor and his willingness to challenge the Republican Establishment.  His rocket-flight to the top of the polls ought to serve as a warning to the Establishment.  If party leaders commit the same error in 2016 as in 1996 (Dole), 2008 (McCain), and 2012 (Romney) – i.e., shoehorning their favorite candidate into the nomination – they will likely see in 2016 the same result: a loss in November.

The fire-from-the-hip impulsiveness that has propelled Trump to prominence may also be his undoing in the Primary race.  In light of his record of impolitic, unfiltered brashness, it is likely that eventually an outlandish statement will knock Trump out of the top tier of candidates.  If (when?) Trump falls, though, his supporters will not move en masse to the Establishment favorite.  This is an important point that seems to have eluded Republican party leadership.

In second or third place in most polls is Jeb Bush, 62, the former Governor of Florida, son of the 41st President, George H. W. Bush, and younger brother to the 43rd President, George W. Bush.  Jeb!, as calls himself publically in an effort to declare that he’s his own man, is the Establishment favorite.  He is unlikely to appeal to the base, because of his history of either hewing to the Establishment line on hot-button policy topics or, in a few recent cases, publically repeating Democratic talking points.  Bland and usually personable (except when name-calling at Donald Trump), he stumbled badly at the first candidates’ forum last weekend in New Hampshire, stammering throughout what one blogger called the worst performance of the evening.

Jeb_circle

Since Americans in general (and, historically, Republicans in particular) hate nepotism, Jeb faces a headwind by virtue of his last name that would persist after the end of Primary season if he were to secure the nomination.  He remains the party leaders’ top pick, though, because he would do their bidding.

Also consistently near the top of the polls is Scott Walker, 47, the current Governor of Wisconsin.  Walker is loathed, despised, and demonized by the media, because at the beginning of his term as Governor he took a stand against organized labor by partially restricting the collective bargaining rights of some public-sector unions in Wisconsin.  The ensuing high political drama saw weeks of protests carried out by teachers who were skipping school and culminated in the spectacle of Democratic state senators fleeing to nearby Illinois in an effort to scuttle the vote.  Walker and his legislative colleagues held firm.  The measure passed.  In the years since, Wisconsin municipalities have had an easier time making their budgets.  None of the dire consequences predicted by the State Capitol protestors has come to pass.

Walker_Circle

Walker is a bête noir to most of the media, but the truth is that he has done a good job as Governor of my home state of Wisconsin.  He took over a state with an ugly budget deficit and returned it to fiscal health.  Unemployment is down, taxes are down, and high school graduation rates are up.

To the Republican base, Walker represents victory for small-government principles.  He took controversial stands, held firm, and won legislative battles.  He has won statewide election three times – his original election in 2010, an attempted 2012 recall heavily funded by out-of-state Democratic interests, and his reelection in 2014.  Easy-going and articulate on the stump, he is said to have “won” the New Hampshire candidates’ forum.

If Trumps falls, Walker is one of the leading contenders to pick up his vote.  That said, Walker has yet to prove himself in national debates and specifically on foreign policy topics.  In my opinion, he would be well served if he were to drop his annoying habit (which he shares with a few other candidates) of referring to himself as “we.”

A candidate who arouses passionate feelings in both the base (admiration) and the Establishment (loathing) is 44-year-old Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Cruz has built a reputation during his two years in the Senate as a serious thorn in the side of the Establishment.  Cruz spearheaded several attempts to modify or overturn legislation especially troublesome to the Republican base, such as the Affordable Care Act.  Each such attempt was ultimately stopped by Republican Establishment leaders in the Senate.

Cruz_Circle

Cruz is a highly articulate advocate for small-government principles.  He comes across as a clear thinker.  Off-the-cuff, he can be a brilliant speaker.

Counting against Cruz is the fact that his admirable verbal agility might turn some in the base, which historically distrusts demagogues, against him.  The fact that his wife is an investment banker might also put off some base voters who are suspicious of the world of high finance.

Cruz has created such a strong brand for himself, though, that if he performs well in debates, “gotcha” media interviews, and campaign events, his base support could carry him to the Republican nomination.

A fifth candidate who is especially intriguing is Dr. Ben Carson, 63, who retired in 2013 after a brilliant career as a pediatric neurosurgeon.

Carson_Circle

Carson grew up in abject poverty in Detroit.  His single mother insisted that Carson and his brother read a library book every week and submit to her a book report, which she proceeded to mark up.  Carson has said that it wasn’t until years later that he had realized his mother had barely been able to read the reports that she had graded.

After allowing his hot temper to steer him badly as a youth, Carson turned his life around and earned high grades in high school.  He turned down an appointment to West Point in favor of a spot at Yale, where he studied psychology, followed by medical school at the University of Michigan.  While on the faculty of The Johns Hopkins University, Carson was renowned as one of the best pediatric neurosurgeons in the world.

Carson rose to political prominence in February 2013, when he delivered a National Prayer Breakfast speech sharply critical of the present government’s priorities.  Since entering the Presidential race, after a few rookie mistakes with hot-button media traps, Carson has presented a consistent message of small government and personal responsibility.

From a pollster’s standpoint, Carson’s greatest strength is his favorability.  According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, Carson is the least known of all of the current candidates, but among the poll respondents who do know him, Carson has both the highest favorability and the lowest unfavorability of any candidate in the field.  In short, when voters get to know Carson, they like him and what he stands for.

Carson is articulate, soft-spoke, thoughtful, polite, and better than any candidate I have ever seen at laughing at himself.  If he performs well in the Primary season’s test events, he could be one of the last few candidates standing.

The 12 remaining candidates in the race for the Republican nomination are, in alphabetical order:

  • Chris Christie, 52, the charismatic and bombastic Governor of New Jersey, who can be a riveting speaker but who, because of his behavior in 2012, is viewed by many in the base as self-aggrandizing and/or untrustworthy.

Christie_Circle

  • Carly Fiorina, 60, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has distinguished herself in media confrontations on the campaign trail.

Fiorina_Circle

  • Jim Gilmore, 65, a U.S. Army veteran and former Governor of Virginia.

Gilmore_Circle

  • Lindsay Graham, 60, U.S. Air Force veteran and Senator from South Carolina, who made his name in the House of Representatives during the 1998 impeachment trial of President Clinton.  During his Senate tenure, though, Graham has taken some puzzling positions, seeming at times rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Graham_Circle

  • Mike Huckabee, 59, former Governor of Arkansas, TV host, and failed 2008 Presidential candidate.  Dispenses home-spun populism with unctuous charm.

Huckabee_circle

  • Bobby Jindal, 44, the very successful Governor of Louisiana and one of two southern Republican Governors of Indian descent.

Jindal_Circle

  • John Kasich, 63, Governor of Ohio and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Kasich has worked to shrink the size of government in Ohio, but for 2016 he seems to be trying to sell himself as an Establishment alternative to Jeb Bush.

Kasich_Circle

  • George Pataki, 70, former Governor of New York, who was in office during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Pataki_Circle

  • Dr. Rand Paul, 62, an ophthalmological surgeon and current Senator from Kentucky, who launched himself from the Libertarian movement built by his father, Dr. (and former Representative) Ron Paul.  Recently Rand Paul’s campaign has faltered, because he is reportedly unwilling to give big donors the face time they require.

Paul_Circle

  • Rick Perry, 65, former Governor of Texas, U.S. Air Force veteran, and failed 2012 Presidential candidate. Perry might be the most genuine and likable candidate in the Republican field, but his proclivity for committing gaffes will probably doom his candidacy early on.

Perry_Circle

  • Marco Rubio, 44, Senator from Florida.  The Cuban-American son of a maid and a bartender, Rubio has parlayed his good looks, intelligence, and strong speaking skills into a leading spot among the Republican Party’s rising stars.  Because of positions he has taken in the Senate on a few hot-button issues, Rubio is not trusted by some in the base.  Also working against him is his susceptibility to stumbling when he is in the spotlight.

Rubio_Circle

  • Rick Santorum, 57, former Senator from Pennsylvania and failed 2012 Presidential candidate.  Santorum is an earnest and articulate advocate of a form of populism that fails to resonate with much of the Republican base.

Santorum_Circle

Tonight in Cleveland, Ohio, the Republican candidates will hold their first debate, which actually had to be divided into two sessions in order to accommodate the bumper crop of candidates.  The top 10 in recent polling will meet this evening at 8 p.m. EDT, while the remaining 7 will face off in an “undercard” debate at 5 p.m.

Predictions

The Democratic Side

As of today there is a Civil War brewing within the Democratic party that makes the Primary race very difficult for an outsider to predict.  If President Obama’s Justice Department proceeds on its current track toward indicting Hillary Clinton for crimes related to her private email server, the Party will probably find its nominee by enlisting someone, such as Joe Biden, who isn’t yet in the race.  If the Justice Department backs off, Hillary Clinton will almost inevitably be the nominee.

The Republican Side

Before considering 2016, a few words about what happened in 2012:

From the beginning of the 2012 Republican Primary season, a “non-Romney” candidate was always ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls: first Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Rick Santorum, the Newt Gingrich.  The fact that Romney never led until he only one opponent remained should have signaled the Establishment that the base didn’t like Romney.

Romney’s 2012 opponents all had attackable weaknesses.  After Rick Perry imploded from a debate gaffe, the Romney camp systematically took out his challengers through vicious ad campaigns and/or loaded debate questions, until Romney was the inevitable nominee.

At that point, the Republican Establishment arrogantly assumed that the pesky hayseeds in the base would do as they were told, swallow the candidate fed to them, and vote for Romney in November.  In this, the Establishment had miscalculated.  One reason Barack Obama won reelection, in spite of garnering fewer votes than he had in 2008, was that much of the Republican base stayed home, believing that the difference between a Romney presidency and an Obama presidency would be negligible.

(I think a Romney administration would have differed sharply from the current Obama administration in the foreign policy arena, but from the standpoint of size of government, the base voters who stayed home may have been right.)

In 2016, the “non-Jeb” field is much stronger than were the 2012 “non-Romneys” – better qualified, more experienced, more articulate, and less vulnerable to scandal.  The Republican Establishment will have a very hard time knocking off all of the “non-Jeb” candidates this time around.  I believe at least one from among Walker, Cruz, Trump, and Carson will finish the Primary season ahead of Jeb Bush.

 

That said, I will make one prediction with confidence: if Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton win their parties’ nominations, the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

 

Candidate photographs provided by Wikipedia.

 

Quote for Today

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” ― Plato (ca. 425 – ca. 347 B.C.)

 

Classical Caveat: Cicero’s Words of Warning Ring Unnervingly True Today.

CIcero

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
106 – 43 B.C.

 

(Next up: Victor Borge.)

YES or NO: How Would Robert the Bruce Vote?

 

 

RtB Robert the Bruce

Today the United Nations comprises 193 countries.

Might that number rise to 194?  A national vote on September 18th will answer that question.  The 194th country, if its voters say YES, will be Scotland.

A proud, autonomous kingdom for at least 800 years despite numerous English attempts at military conquest, Scotland was de facto subsumed into a personal union with England when its king, James VI, moved in 1603 from Edinburgh to London to become King James I of England.  In 1707, through the Treaty of Union, Scotland was formally incorporated into the Kingdom of Great Britain.

(For an in-depth review of Scotland’s long and fascinating history, I strongly recommend Neil Oliver’s outstanding BBC series “A History of Scotland.”)

Throughout its history, Scotland has maintained a separate legal system.  Since 1999, it has had its own Parliament, whose mandate is limited.

This September 18th, a Referendum for Independence will determine whether Scotland separates itself from the United Kingdom to become a sovereign nation.

This historic plebiscite has received scant coverage in the United States.  Most of what I hear about the referendum comes from social media, where discussions are lively.

On Twitter, the YES side comes across as passionate at the grassroots level.  I hear that YES uses volunteers instead of paid staff and canvasses undecided voters face to face every day.  The NO side, which seems to be driven by money and staff from England, uses paid canvassers in lieu of volunteers and employs telephone rather than in-person contacts.

The YES campaign presents voters with a positive and idealistic vision of a once-more independent Scotland.  The NO side uses scare tactics, emphasizing potential costs of separation, and (I gather) fails to offer a positive message about the benefits to Scotland of continued union.

The YESes I hear from on social media say that YES has energy and enthusiasm but not yet the poll numbers on its side.  I hear that many NOs do not use rational arguments to defend their positions but seem rather to adhere to their beliefs out of fear or inertia.

The official YES website is hereThe official NO site is here.  In-depth discussions of YES arguments are available here.

As an outsider, I am neither qualified to vote nor sufficiently well informed to judge the YES and NO positions on their merits.

But as a native of the U.S. – one former British colony that successfully overthrew the yoke of Westminster rule – I find the prospect of Scottish independence inspiring.

The U.S. was founded on the idea that citizens should be governed by elected representatives and that most government should be local rather than centralized in a national capital.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence:

“[T]he States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore…never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market.” (letter to Judge William Johnson — 1823)

James Madison, a primary author of the U.S. Constitution, added:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” (Federalist No. 45)

In the U.S. Founders’ vision, the federal government is responsible for only the duties that individual states cannot carry out for themselves – treaties, wars and defense, tariffs, management of a national currency.  All other governmental functions are to be left to state and local jurisdiction.  The reason for this is simple: governments closer to the people – at the town, county, and state levels – are nearer to the citizens’ immediate concerns, more transparent, and more easily held to account by voters.

Unfortunately, in the last 100 years and especially in the last 50 years, the U.S. government has vastly overreached its original scope; but the principle of local governance remains sound and sensible.

As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland inevitably sacrifices autonomy (and control over its precious North Sea oil reserves) to a governing class in far-away Westminster.  Scotland receives in exchange military protection, intangibles associated with membership in the U.K., and certain economic benefits.

If the Union’s net benefits to Scotland do not outweigh the costs of its lost autonomy, then perhaps Scotland owes itself independence.

In the words of one Scottish expatriate: (forwarded by Michael Stewart)

Scotland_Ex-Pat_Letter

Quote for Today

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence