Thursday, September 22, 2016

Five Days at the U.S. Open

Earlier this month, I had a chance to attend five separate days at the US Open tennis tournament, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. On each occasion, there was an intriguing match played at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The venue boasts a new roof, making it look like a giant spaceship has invaded New York City but also ensuring that weather would not affect play.

The roof is not attached to the stadium, rather it sits above the seating bowl supported externally as you can see above. On the first night session of the tournament, which featured Novak Djokovic against Jerzy Janowicz, there was an opening ceremony where Phil Collins delighted fans with "In the Air Tonight".

While he was singing, the roof went from closed (above) to open (below), a process that took just over five minutes. It was pretty cool to watch this as Collins crooned.

Despite a sore wrist, Djokovic (below in blue) won the match in three sets, and then was gifted a walkover in the second round and an early retirement in the third round. When I returned from Canada after my brief tour to Toronto and Montreal, he had made it to the quarterfinals having played only six complete sets. Tickets for the QF were $6 on StubHub, a bargain to see the best player in the world take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, or so I thought. Sadly, Tsonga injured himself late in the second set and retired after the first serve of the third set, giving Djokovic yet another easy win.

The men's semifinals were on Friday afternoon, with Djokovic taking on Gael Monfils in the early match, while Kei Nishikori would play Stan Wawrinka after that. Work precluded a visit to the first match which was scheduled to start at 3, but with tickets quite affordable and my wife interested in watching her compatriot Nishikori play, I bought a pair on the hope that Monfils would put up a fight and delay the second match until 6 p.m. or later. Although Monfils acted oddly in the first set, he did win the third and when we arrived at Arthur Ashe just after 6, Djokovic was finishing off the Frenchman in four sets. It worked out perfectly as we took our seats just as Nishikori and Wawrinka appeared. The match was quite interesting as Nishikori won the first set, but he couldn't deal with the Stanimal's stamina, falling in four.

Saturday's highlight was the women's final, with Angelique Kerber taking on Karolina Pliskova. Yet again tickets on the secondary market were unbelievably cheap so my wife and I headed over for that match after a last-minute purchase. Kerber won in three sets in a very impressive display by both players. After that, we headed to the new grandstand (above) where the junior girl's doubles championship was to be held. I used to think that junior girls meant girls (i.e. under 14) so I had no interest, but then I discovered that junior girls is somewhat redundant and inaccurate. These players are certainly not junior and in many cases, no longer girls; rather they are 16-18 years old and have already turned (or will soon turn) pro. Most of them are ranked in the top 1000, equivalent to a 4A ballplayer. But almost nobody cares, although the quality is top-notch and you can sit as close as you want.

This night, it was four Americans battling for the junior doubles title, with Ena Shibahara and Jada Myii Hart defeating Caroline Dolehide and Kayla Day (serving above) in a third-set tiebreak 13-11 (at this level, if each team wins a set, they play a first to 10 tiebreak where you must win by 2). Day was serving for the match and double-faulted, and when she and Dolehide lost, Day immediately broke into tears (she's the rightmost player, sulking below).

When I got home I watched the replay on ESPN3 (kudos to ESPN for broadcasting every match with a professional camera crew and director, even those without announcers) and Day, still bawling, confided to her teammate that "we had two match points and I f&%$ed them both up". It was so adorable. Dolehide, the older of the two having just turned 18, assured Day that it was not her fault, but Day would not be consoled. During the awards ceremony, she was still too emotional to speak, but Dolehide mentioned that Day would be playing in the singles final the next day and we should show up for that.

So I did. And this time, Day won easily, defeating Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova in straight sets. This time, Day was all smiles (she's the player on the left above) and I have to admire her mental strength to get over the crying jag and win a tournament the next afternoon. As an aside, Day (who turns 17 on September 28) played in the regular women's tournament, winning her first match against Madison Brengle (who I saw in World Team Tennis a few days before) before losing to #8 seed Madison Keys.  I think Kayla Day will be a name that tennis fans will be hearing a lot of in the next few years.

Also at that grandstand that final day were the McEnroe brothers (above) in a Champions (i.e. old-timers) match. Their opponents were Australians Pat Cash and Mark Philippoussis, who just retired last year and is only 39. This is supposed to be an exhibition match, but Philippoussis missed the memo, and one of his serves was clocked at 133 MPH, faster than any serve in the men's final later that day. John McEnroe, now an elder statesman in the sport that once despised his on-court tantrums, could only stand there without even moving his racket, earning laughs from the crowd. It was all in good fun of course, and all of the players talked with the fans to keep things light. A guy sitting directly behind me had an extended interaction with Patrick McEnroe that was quite amusing. Surprisingly, only about 1,000 showed up for what was probably the most entertaining event of the day.

Just before the men's final began, the junior boy's championship got underway, with Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime (above, the #2 ranked junior player and 595th overall despite turning 16 a few weeks prior) taking on Croatian Miomir Kecmanovic. We were only able to watch the first three games before we had to make our way to Arthur Ashe for the men's final, and when we left Felix had a 2-1 lead in games on his opponent. After we left, he dominated, winning the match 6-3, 6-0 to bring tennis glory to my homeland. Look for Felix to become Canada's new tennis darling in a couple of years, and perhaps working with Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil they can lead Canada deep into the Davis Cup sometime around 2020. That's my vision anyway.

The final match of the tournament saw Wawrinka beat Djokovic in four long sets, with the battle lasting nearly four hours. Djokovic had won the first set but tired after that and seemed to be suffering from some toe injury late in the match. Not that it mattered; it seems clear that Wawrinka is ready to claim Federer's spot in the Big 4, keeping it in Swiss hands. That's the championship ceremony above, with Wawrinka in pink. He would end up taking the center circle in the great bracket that lies outside Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Overall, I really enjoyed these last couple of days, mainly because I got to witness some future stars of the sport in crowds that numbered less than 100. Seeing the big boys play on Arthur Ashe is still exciting, but some other fans in the nosebleeds seem to think differently. Often they would get up in the middle of the action, and on two of the five occasions I went, morons sitting behind me talked the entire time. I mean non-stop conversation, without bothering to watch the event below. I think one couple was on a Tinder date or something because it was all banal self-promotion. Thankfully, American Express card holders can get free earpiece radios to listen to the action, and this blocked out most of the inane chatter. To not have to listen to these two witless wonders try to impress each other with their exercise regimens was worth the card's annual fee.

I thought tennis fans might be a bit more sensible than the idiots that plague the Big 4 sports these days, but nope, they are just as clueless. I can't figure out why these fans don't understand that some people are actually there to watch the action. Tennis affords plenty of breaks so that you can leave your seat to grab yet another overpriced beer without disturbing those around you, so why do it just as a player is about to serve? Oh yeah, cause you're a self-centred imbecile. On one occasion, two middle-aged, well-to-do ladies stood up in the middle of an extended point between Wawrinka and Djokovic, blocking my view. I swore quite loudly at them but they were already down the stairs, pissing other fans off as they waltzed by, blocking the view of anyone with an aisle seat. They returned 10 minutes later just as Wawrinka was serving for the second set. While they had gone, two more lunkheads had taken their seats, so of course, that meant four people standing up while a key point was being played. None of these four people were invisible by the way, so no, I did not get to see the point. I did say "Nice timing you stupid...." quite loudly, and I guess they heard me because the next time they got up, they did so during a break in the action.

Next year, I'll be spending more time at the smaller courts, where you can see quality tennis and future stars without having to deal with these twits who have no idea how to behave at a sporting event. And how's that? Get there on time, sit in your seat during the action, and watch. Remember that there are thousands of people there who want to see the field, not your big ass. It isn't hard, and you do it at the movies, right? Sure tennis matches can be long, but time your entry and exit points with breaks and you won't piss people off.


Louis Armstrong Stadium will be torn down and replaced by 2018. Here are some shots from the concourse...

... the seating bowl...

... and overlooking the old grandstand, which offers a unique view that will probably not be replicated sadly.

The Court of Champions is near the south gate, and is worth stopping by to see some very detailed plaques honouring the greats of the game.

There's a lot more to see and do here, so if you do visit, choose a day pass early in the tournament so you can soak up the entire experience.

Next Up

I'm working again, so not much coming up over the winter. I will be heading to Chicago to see the Leafs take on the Blackhawks on October 22, and I do have trips to Los Angles for the Rams, Edmonton for the Oilers, and Minneapolis for the Vikings planned, and I'll post those schedules shortly, so check back for that.



Friday, September 2, 2016

Ottawa RedBlacks 19 at Montreal Alouettes 14 - September 1, 2016

Montreal football has a long history that started in 1872 and has seen the local team play under many monikers and in many stadiums. The team joined the CFL in 1946 and took the Alouette name then, after the famous song about plucking a skylark. After playing at Delorimier Stadium (also home to the Montreal Royals) for seven seasons, the team moved to Percival Molson Stadium, which had opened in 1915. They subsequently changed venues twice more, settling in Olympic Stadium in 1976, where they stayed until they folded in 1986. Ten years later the franchise emerged from the ashes of the Baltimore Stallions franchise and again moved into Olympic Stadium. Poor attendance for the first two seasons there led many to think the team would fail yet again, but in 1997, U2 saved the day. A playoff game was scheduled for the same day as a concert by the Irish band, so the team moved the game to Molson Stadium, where it sold out. Somebody finally realized that playing in one of the worst venues ever created is not a good way to entice fans to attend, and the team returned to Molson Stadium permanently in 1998 (playing 1 regular season game and any playoff encounters at Olympic Stadium), selling out every home game there until a renovation in 2010 increased capacity by nearly 5,000. The Alouettes were the most successful team in the league during the 2000s with three Grey Cups, and no doubt the move to Molson Stadium was a key reason for this run of good fortune. To confirm this fact, you can see all of the Grey Cup banners just inside the main entrance (below), though note that the team does not recognize the 1995 championship won in Baltimore.

Percival Molson Stadium

Originally dubbed McGill Graduates Stadium, the venue was renamed in 1919 for Percival Molson, a great-grandson of the famous brewer, who was killed in action in France two years prior and who provided $75,000 to the university in his will to help complete the stadium. It is located on Mount Royal just northwest of downtown, so you will have to walk up a small hill to get to the main entrance. At the bottom of the hill is where you will find your friendly neighbourhood scalpers, who are definitely your best bet for getting into the stadium as box office prices are quite high: an upper deck seat at the 40-yard line is $113!

The cheapest ticket at the box office is $34 to sit in the end zone (below) and prices go up from there, generally with a different price for every section you get closer to midfield and little difference for the upper and lower decks.

Street parking is not free, but is still the best option. Should you attend a weekday evening game that starts at 7:30, my advice is to drive along Avenue Des Pins east of Avenue Du Parc just before 6:30, which is when the no-stopping period expires. You can stop in a parking spot at 6:25 and wait five minutes in your car to ensure the authorities are not lurking nearby. Once it hits 6:30, you can pay for 2.5 hours parking ($7.50, a good way to get rid of all that Canadian change) and walk a few minutes to the stadium. From here, it is easy to get back to the highway should you be staying outside of downtown.

There is a small tailgate party (above) next to the main entrance should you get there earlier and want to enjoy the atmosphere outside. Just inside the main entrance is a series of panels detailing the history of the venue that is worth a look. Like most things here, it is in both English and French.

There is also a small plaque commemorating the 2012 ceremony that honoured the 1981 Expos. This brought a tear to my eye.

The stadium was originally used as a track-and-field facility and hence the seating bowl curves around the field, not ideal for football. As well, there are only benches in all seating areas, so it is not the most comfortable place to watch a game.

Still, the location is one of the most scenic of any football stadium, with the east side looking up the hill, where the Mount Royal Cross is located. It is barely visible in the top of the photo below.

Looking southeast you get the Montreal skyline, which lacks an iconic building but it still quite nice at night.

Concourses here are narrow and dark, as you would expect from a stadium enjoying its second century of use. The upper concourse on the east side is the best place to relax, as you get the view above and are protected from any rain by the seats above you. Food menus here are only in French, but should be understandable for most fans. The only thing you really need to know is "Viande Fumée", which is smoked meat. A sandwich of this variety is $8 and excellent even though it is pre-made and served in aluminum foil.

The best thing about seeing the Alouettes is the game day experience. From well before the game, an in-game host tries to get the crowd into things and generally succeeds. The most commonly used phrase is "Faites du Bruit" (make some noise) which is uttered only in French to get fans cheering. Another cheer is heard whenever the Alouettes get a first down as an announcer shouts "Premier essai! First down!" followed by the fans yelling "Montreal!!!!" in tandem with him.  Individual plays are announced in both languages, with one sentence in French and the next in English for the same play, which might make scorekeeping difficult if you are not bilingual. I could go on, but you should definitely experience it for yourself.

Overall, this old-school venue is probably the best place to visit for CFL football. Most of the stadiums in this league are simple and clean, but Molson's location is unbeatable, the atmosphere unique, and the smoked meat sandwich a great final touch. Unfortunately, the team is struggling this season, as I found out to my chagrin.

The Game

The Ottawa RedBlacks were in town and leading the East at 4-4-1, while Montreal was 3-6 with one of their wins a 43-19 thumping of the RedBlacks in Ottawa two weeks prior. So I was hoping for a good game, but it didn't take long to realize that it was to be a defensive battle (or perhaps just crap offense on both sides). Ottawa knocked down two field goals while the Alouettes managed a rouge in the first quarter. A cold rain fell for a few minutes midway through the second, sending many fans scurrying for cover, and they missed a Montreal touchdown when QB Kevin Glenn completed a short pass to Nik Lewis that made it 8-6, which is how the half ended.

The second half was just as ugly, except for a 31-yard touchdown from Trevor Harris to Ernest Jackson that gave Ottawa a 13-8 lead midway through the third. The Alouettes added a field goal at the end of the quarter to get close, and grabbed a 1-point advantage with another FG early in the fourth. But Ottawa scored yet another field goal on their ensuing drive, and when Glenn was intercepted on the first play of the following Montreal possession, Ottawa tacked on 3 more points with just 3:32 left. The Alouettes had a chance to take the lead but their offense couldn't accomplish anything and Ottawa escaped with a forgettable 19-14 win.

There were 20 penalties and 16 punts on the evening, which seems to be a typical CFL affair these days. I love CFL stadiums, but damn, these games are tough to watch.


The Alouette logo shows a charging skylark holding a football, which you might be able to make out on the giant helmet below. I never had any idea what an Alouette was until I finally went to a game here.

This completes the CFL East venues for me, not much to brag about as there are only four of them. Next year (or in 2018) I plan to see the remaining three stadiums in Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina and finally complete the league of my native land.



Thursday, September 1, 2016

B.C. Lions 16 at Toronto Argonauts 13 - August 31, 2016

As a Canadian sports traveler, it is my duty to see all CFL stadiums at some point. There's only nine of them, so it isn't that much of a task, but the geographic spread means a single trip is not very efficient. I've tried to see a game whenever I'm in Canada during the season, but even that has taken a long time as schedules rarely work out well with my trips. So I've decided to plan travel around the schedule, and when I noticed that the Toronto Argonauts had a Wednesday night game and Montreal followed with a match on Thursday, I decided to pop up to see those. I flew into Toronto's Pearson Airport, and got a great view of downtown as we circled.

Of course, I had already seen the Argos at Rogers Centre (visible above) a few years back, but this year they moved to BMO Field, which necessitated another visit. I also managed to snap a shot of this venue from the air; that's it in the middle of the shot below with the red seats, green field, and two white roofs.

The stadium lies on the exact location of old Exhibition Stadium, on the grounds of Exhibition Place just west of downtown. You can get here using any streetcar that goes to Exhibition Place from Union Station or Bathurst. If you drive, there is street parking a few blocks north on side streets, but it can be difficult to find.

BMO Field was opened in 2007 to host Toronto FC, the city's MLS team, after years of wrangling between city officials, the Canadian Soccer Association, and eventual owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE, who also own the Leafs, Raptors, and Marlies). In 2015, Larry Tannenbaum, MLSE's chairman, bought the Argos as part of a consortium, with the understanding that the team would move to BMO Field for 2016, a smart choice as Rogers Centre was a terrible place for the team to play.

Since it was originally built for soccer, the stadium has a grandstand flush with the field on both sides, making it also ideal for the other form of football. All the seats are red with the exception of grey seats on one site that form the Toronto FC logo in the upper deck and spell out Toronto in the lower deck. The east side has a maple leaf in the lower deck, while the upper deck was only added in 2015, increasing capacity by 8,400. The roofs were added for this season.

The south stands spell out BMO; I guess if the name changes, those seats will have to be replaced. There is no seating at the north end, but you can stand there and watch as the Argos enter the field.

It is easy to tour the venue as concourses are wide enough to handle a typical Argos crowd, usually less than 20,000. The west side has only a single walkway leading to both levels, while the newly built upper deck has its own concourse. Be careful what stairs you use to return to the lower level as some staircases lead directly out of the stadium, but these are not clearly marked.

You can see the sections on the west side clearly in the photo below.

From the east side, there is a good view of the downtown skyline. The Enercare Centre is a convention center and exhibition complex, not a sports venue.

My buddy Sharpy joined for this one, and we bought first row seats in the grandstand on the east side from StubHub, which is where you should get your tickets too as they are much cheaper than the box office. Note that the east side has a couple of rows of Field Side seats that go for $250, but they don't block the view from the grandstand.

There are a few problems. Food is quite expensive, even with the weak Canadian dollar. I saw hot dogs going for $11.50, which is just crazy. A 20 oz. beer is $12.25, which is Yankee Stadium pricing! I did see a Jamaican patty offered for $4, but it was only at one concession stand, so if you see that and want it, don't expect to find it elsewhere. The other issue is postgame transit. Both TTC streetcars and the Go Train have stations here, but most fans use the former. Streetcars either go to Union Station or Bathurst, but they are relatively small, so you will have to wait as thousands of fans line up. We waited about 20 minutes before finally getting on a streetcar back to Union (as several Bathurst-bound cars passed), with the ride very uncomfortable due to the crowd. It is possible that the long wait was due to attendees leaving the Canadian National Exhibition at the same time, but regardless, I do recommend driving and finding parking, even in a lot, and walking to the game simply to avoid this mess.

Despite these problems, I was really impressed by BMO Field in terms of its architecture and layout.  There aren't a lot of features, but it is an attractive venue and easy to move around, without a bad seat in the place. I will have to return to see a Toronto FC game sometime to compare the experiences.

The Game

The BC Lions came into town sporting a 6-3 record while Toronto was 4-4 but had QB Ricky Ray returning from injury. An Argo win would put them in first place in the woeful East Division, so you pretty much knew that they would lose.

The Argos defied these expectations early by scoring a touchdown on their opening possession when Ray found Kevin Elliott for a 21-yard score, with the convert making it 7-0, the only points of the first quarter. The Lions scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run by Anthony Allen, who won a Super Bowl ring with Baltimore in 2013. The Lions decided to try for a two-point convert, but didn't get the play off in time, one of 21 total penalties on the evening. Pushed back to the 8-yard line, the Lions still tried for the two pointer but missed, so Toronto had a 7-6 lead. That missed point didn't matter though, as the Lions added a single on a punt into the end zone (the rouge), but Toronto regained the lead on a field goal with a minute to go in the half.

The second half saw more penalties and very little offense. BC kicked two field goals in the third quarter to take a 13-10 lead, but Toronto tied it early in the fourth. The teams then traded short, useless drives until BC took over on their own 26 with 3:32 to go. In nine plays, QB Jonathon Jennings led the Lions 61 yards, taking all the time off the clock. In the CFL, a play can be run after the game clock strikes zero, and the Lions set up for a field goal as time expired. Richie Leone hit the 30-yarder and the game was over with the visitors taking it 16-13. The result was not a surprise, but the speed of the game was as it lasted about 2:40, much quicker than a typical NFL game. All that time saved was soon wasted waiting for streetcar however.


With all the penalties, the CFL should be renamed the Copious Flag League. It isn't just in this game, many fans are complaining about the number of flags being thrown in every contest and the same occurred the following night in Montreal.

The CNE is held for two weeks before Labour Day, so you can spend the day on the midway before checking out the game as the game ticket allows you free admittance to the Ex. Too late for this year, but something to think about for 2017.