All eyes on Maria Sharapova at U.S. Open

526392.jpg

All eyes on Maria Sharapova at U.S. Open

From Comcast SportsNet Monday, August 29, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) -- When third-seeded Maria Sharapova looks at the list of top contenders for the U.S. Open, here's what she sees: --Serena Williams, seeded 28th and on the comeback trail, and her sister, Venus, unseeded and barely on the radar this year. --A top seed, Caroline Wozniacki, who has never won a Grand Slam and a No. 2 seed, Vera Zvonareva, who has won a total of eight games in her two major finals. --And she won't see the name of two-time defending champion, Kim Clijsters, who last week said she wouldn't be in New York because of a freshly injured stomach muscle. Clijsters' withdrawal was the latest bit of news that -- on paper, at least -- appeared to open things up for Sharapova, a three-time major winner who, of late, has been playing her best tennis since shoulder surgery derailed her in late 2008. "I can't really think like that," Sharapova said when asked how Clijsters' absence might help her chances for a second title at Flushing Meadows. "I don't think that's a mindset of a winner, to be honest. You've got to be ready to face anyone at any given moment." On Monday, Sharapova will open against Heather Watson, the 104th-ranked 19-year-old from Britain making her U.S. Open debut. Also opening play Monday is fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova, who beat Sharapova in the Wimbledon finals earlier this summer, further cementing the argument that there are no sure things, or dominant players, at the current time in women's tennis. "She was able to find an answer, you know, in things that I kind of challenged her with," Sharapova said. "It was a really great match for her at a big stage. That's the only way you can really look at it." And yet, since that 6-3, 6-4 win over Sharapova at Wimbledon, Kvitova has won a total of two matches. "I think she's a good enough player to find her form back here," Sharapova said. After missing the better part of a year with a series of ailments that started when she got cut by glass at a restaurant in July 2010, Serena Williams is rounding into form. Earlier this month, she won tournaments in Stanford and Toronto and is 16-2 since June. Even as the 28th seed, she is widely considered the woman to beat. "I'm just here to play one match, and the next match, and hopefully I can get to seven wins," Williams said last week. Play was set to begin largely on schedule Monday despite Hurricane Irene, which washed out practice days over the weekend. The only exception is in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the first match will begin at 1 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., as workers prepare the stadium, which had been battened down for the hurricane. Headlining action Monday night are Venus Williams and third-seeded Roger Federer, who is trying to avoid going 0 for 4 in Grand Slams for the first time since 2002. Federer turned 30 earlier this month, which often signals the beginning of the end for top tennis players. Of the past 100 Grand Slam titles, only five were won by a man past his 30th birthday. The last to do it was Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. Federer, though, said that his age hasn't affected his expectations. "Hasn't changed anything. I'm still as professional. I'm still as hungry. Everything's still completely normal," he explained. "It's just a number that's changed. I'm ready to go." Among Federer's accomplishments: 16 Grand Slam titles and five straight U.S. Open titles from 2004-08. His 40-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows ended in the 2009 final against Juan Martin del Potro. Last year, Federer lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic, who comes in seeded first and going for his third major of the season. This will be the first time that neither Federer nor defending champion Rafael Nadal has held the top seed in a major since the 2004 Australian Open. But Djokovic has certainly earned it. He is producing one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. He's 57-2 with nine titles, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. He's also 5-0 against Nadal, with all of those matchups coming in tournament finals: two on hard courts, two on clay, and one on grass at the All England Club last month. Djokovic retired from the second set of the final in Cincinnati earlier this month with a sore right shoulder, ending a 16-match winning streak and bringing a little bit of doubt into his health for the upcoming two-week grind at Flushing Meadows. His top two challengers, however, aren't expecting much of a letdown. "He's only lost two matches all year," Nadal said. "For everybody, (it's) surprising, but for me, (it's) no surprise that Djokovic is No. 1. For me, it is not a surprise that Djokovic is able to win Grand Slams, because he's very good."

Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch knew he had a good case, otherwise he wouldn't have appealed. It was just a question of when that appeal might be heard. 

As of Wednesday, the Patriots defensive tackle hadnt heard anything as it related to the appeal of his four-game suspension. But by Saturday morning, according to Field Yates of ESPN, Branch had won the appeal and been cleared of the league's ban. 

Branch's agent later confirmed the news on Twitter.

Word of Branch's punishment, which stemmed from what was reported as a positive marijuana test, became public when reported by ESPN on Nov. 21. Per the league's substance abuse policy, appeal hearings are typically scheduled for the fourth Tuesday after a player has been informed of his penalty. The policy notes that it is possible for appeals to be heard on another date should the two sides be able to work out different schedule, but Branch was not optimistic that would be the case earlier this week. 

Good news came quickly, though. 

Had Branch been forced to miss any time, it would have docked the Patriots arguably their top interior defensive lineman. Branch has started every game, and he leads all Patriots defensive tackles with 457 snaps played. 

The Patriots recently waived running back DJ Foster and signed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo, seemingly as a way to build some depth on the roster if Branch had been suspended. 

By having his four-game suspension wiped away not only are the Patriots saved from having to deal without one of their top players in the trenches, but Branch saved himself a relatively hefty financial penalty.

A four-game ban would have cost him nearly $300,000 in base salary as well as four game-day bonuses adding to $100,000. He also stood to lose as much as $750,000 in season-long playing-time incentives. In all, had the suspension stood, it could have cost him about $1.1 million. Patriots salary-cap expert Miguel Benzan goes into more detail about the potential financial impact of Branch's suspension here

Thankfully for Branch, he doesn't have to worry about that any longer. With this situation in the rear view, he can now focus on helping the Patriots win games during the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs.