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2020 French Open experts’ picks: Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep?



The 2020 French Open begins Sunday with only 1,000 spectators allowed on site, questions about whether France’s coronavirus cases will continue to rise and the debut of the new $55 million retractable roof atop Court Philippe Chatrier.

The French Open normally starts in May but was postponed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rafael Nadal has his eyes on the prize in Paris. If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship, he would also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer‘s record for a man.

Nadal may be the betting favorite, but watch out for Novak Djokovic. Djokovic resumes his bid for Grand Slam title No. 18 — which would put him two behind Federer, one behind Nadal — after he was defaulted from the US Open.

Simona Halep may have missed the US Open, but she stands as the women’s favorite. Halep has appeared in three of past six French Open finals. Her Italian Open triumph Monday gave her nine career titles on clay, tied with Venus Williams for second-most among active women. Serena Williams leads with 13.

Our experts make their picks for the last Grand Slam in an unusual sports year.

Who will win the men’s singles title?

Jerry Bembry: Djokovic. He has only won the French Open once, in 2016, but he should be inspired and focused after he was defaulted at the US Open.

Pete Bodo: I think the fates have really worked against Nadal this year, which is the big picture explanation for why Djokovic will win.

Cliff Drysdale: Daniil Medvedev is a clay-court artist and ready to pick up the pieces if Nadal implodes.

Chris Evert: Djokovic will be the winner because Nadal is a little vulnerable at this time. Djokovic is hungry for titles especially after the US Open fiasco.

Brad Gilbert: Tough call call between co-favorites Nadal and Djokovic. Slower, heavy fall conditions mean I am slightly leaning toward Djokovic — who comes in after a victory in Rome — to win his second French Open.

Tom Hamilton: Beware the wounded Djokovic. After his disastrous US Open, Djokovic will bounce back at Roland Garros in the uncharacteristic autumnal chill. With a favorable draw, Djokovic will knock over Nadal in the final.

D’Arcy Maine: Djokovic has won the French Open just once during his storied career, but this might just be his best chance for a second major title on clay. The world No. 1 won last week’s Italian Open in convincing fashion — dropping just one set en route to the trophy — and he will undoubtedly be looking for redemption in Paris after his controversial exit in the fourth round in New York. With Nadal — the 12-time Roland Garros champion — out of form in his one tournament (in Rome) since the restart, it feels like things are aligning for Djokovic to win Grand Slam No. 18.

Patrick Mouratoglou: Djokovic, because he did not lose a match this year (I do not count his disqualification at the US Open as a loss). He is a great clay-court player, beat Nadal many times on clay, and the conditions this year are extremely difficult for Rafa — plus he lacks competition.

Pam Shriver: Djokovic is your men’s winner because his motivation following his US Open default is sky-high, and he won Rome. Nadal is not his usual Roland Garros-ready self, and no one is playing better than Djokovic right now.

Alexandra Stevenson: Everyone thinks Djokovic. I’m going with Nadal. This will tie him with Roger for 20 Grand Slams. I like his mental edge more than Djokovic. Nadal is my forever clay champion. I like the look of Dominic Thiem. It would be amazing for a double Slam.

Rennae Stubbs: Nadal because until he’s not functioning as a tennis player, he will be the favorite.

And on the women’s side of the draw?

Bembry: Halep. She won the French Open last year and is the clear favorite based on who’s not at this year’s tournament (Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu).

Bodo: Halep laid low during the pandemic, and her strategy was vindicated by her triumph in Rome. With Barty and Osaka out of the way, she has a clear path to the title.

Drysdale: Halep is solid, reliable and mentality strong.

Evert: Halep will win. She won two clay warmups and didn’t play the US Open so she’s fresh and eager. She moves well, is consistent and has the best clay-court combination.

Gilbert: I usually say 15-20 women can win it, and that is definitely possible. Halep comes in on a roll, winning two clay court titles, so I am going with the chalk call on this one — Halep to win her second French Open.

Hamilton: The 2018 winner Halep picked up the Italian Open earlier this week and is on a 14-match winning run. While Garbine Muguruza and Victoria Azarenka are also in the mix — and never rule out Serena Williams — Halep is in fine form and is my pick to land her third Grand Slam title.

Maine: Halep. The tournament’s top seed and 2018 champion hasn’t lost a match since the season resumed in August — winning 10 straight matches (all on clay) and earning the titles in Prague and Rome. And not only does she look to be in prime match shape, but her decision to skip the US Open may prove ingenious as there appears to be no one more prepared for the surface than her. She is the favorite, and she will prove exactly why throughout the fortnight.

Mouratoglou: Serena, because she is the greatest.

Shriver: Halep is your 2020 French Open winner. She stayed in Europe since the WTA Tour reopened and has not lost. She loves clay, is the best mover in women’s tennis on terre batteau and has won Roland Garros before.

Stevenson: Clay is the equalizer. Rosie Casals of the Original Nine, once told me to stay off clay during my career because I had specifically been trained on hard court. It does make a difference. Halep has been training and working for this one, and giving up the US Open only helps her body and resolve to put it all out there. The only misstep for her would be the lack of Grand Slam immediate match toughness. But her stature on the red clay outlasts all comers, including Serena. Although I’m always on Serena’s side. Remember, at the age of 9, Serena grew up practicing on clay. She understands the surface. I think her game suits the clay at this time in her life. She could be a surprise contender.

Stubbs: Halep. She’s been on clay the whole pandemic and goes into the French Open as a huge favorite.

Which player will be the biggest surprise in the men’s draw?

Bembry: Gael Monfils. You just want to root for the talented 34-year-old Frenchmen to have a great showing in his home Slam. Perhaps the (limited) fans at Roland Garros will be enough to give him a boost.

Bodo: I have to go with Andrey Rublev because Medvedev, the highest seed in his quarter of the draw, has never won a match at Roland Garros.

Drysdale: Diego Schwartzman had a good showing beating Nadal in Rome.

Evert: Denis Shapovalov will have a surprise run.

Gilbert: I would like to see an American man make the second week, maybe someone outside of the top 60 to make a quarterfinal.

Hamilton: Schwartzman is hitting top form, having recently defeated Nadal and Shapovalov in the Italian Open. He will need to navigate through a tricky draw which could potentially include Miomir Kecmanovic, Borna Coric and then Thiem, Stan Wawrinka or Monfils. But he has the skill set to spring a surprise.

Maine: Coming off of his first major quarterfinal run and having broken into the top 10 for the first time, momentum seems to very much be on Shapovalov’s side. Not to mention, he followed up his run in New York with a semifinal appearance on the clay in Rome just last week.

He has never advanced past the second round in Paris and faces a tough road against some talented potential opponents but certainly has the skill and the confidence as of late to make a run into the second week.

Mouratoglou: Rublev. He keeps improving, he is comfortable on clay and the power he has will be helpful on the slow courts of Roland Garros this year.

Shriver: Schwartzman is your outsider ready to do well. He beat Nadal in Rome and lost early in the US Open so he is rested. He reached the quarterfinal in Paris before and is on the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic.

Stevenson: Djokovic and Nadal. One or the other will upset each other. Maybe Alexander Zverev or Stefanos Tsitsipas or Pablo Carreno Busta or the wonderful Thiem will make a run. Thiem and Zverev — the next great “Federer-Nadal” will have to meet Nadal on his half.

With no defaults, Djokovic will have a couple of Spaniards, Medvedev and Tsitsipas to get through. But Djokovic will be in the finals against Nadal, the People’s Prince. The End.

Stubbs: I can’t see anyone outside of Rafa, Novak or Thiem winning, so I can’t pick an outsider.

Which women’s player will make a surprise run?

Bembry: Sloane Stephens. Two years ago Stephens, nearly playing at the top of her game, was a French Open finalist when she lost to Halep. Can Stephens, who played well at the US Open until a devastating loss to Serena Williams, come out of a tough quarter where she’s one of four major champions? A good showing could shake Stephens out of a two-year funk that has followed her 2018 US Open title.

Bodo: Assuming that the candidates exclude the top eight seeds, as well as former Grand Slam champs like Azarenka, I’ll go with Maria Sakkari. She’s been improving day by day since the reboot.

Drysdale: Madison Keys.

Evert: Azarenka will have another surprise run.

Gilbert: Someone outside of top 75 will make the quarterfinals, and someone unseeded looks to make the semis.

Hamilton: Azarenka has won 15 of her past 17 matches, and her appearance in the finals of the US Open suggests she is back to her best. She fell in the quarterfinal of the Italian Open to the much-tipped Muguruza, but she can still surprise the best in the world on her day.

Maine: While the first-round clash between Johanna Konta and Coco Gauff will understandably get all of the hype, watch for Sakkari to quietly emerge from their half of the quarter and make a run to the quarterfinals. The 25-year-old has had an impressive summer, with a quarterfinal appearance at the Western & Southern Open and a fourth-round showing at the US Open, and her poise and self-assuredness seem to grow by the match.

Mouratoglou: Muguruza. She is very comfortable on clay and takes the ball early, which will be an asset on those slow courts. And she is back in good shape.

Shriver: Muguruza is your “outsider” poised to do well again in Roland Garros. She is a past winner and can hit with power through the red clay.

Stevenson: Women always make surprise runs in draws. It’s the nature of how women are taught to compete vs. the male player. Sociologically, they bring a grudge factor to the court. Caroline Garcia, Aryna Sabalenka, Amanda Anisimova and Ons Jabeur are all players to watch for a Halep upset.

Stubbs: Outsider for the women is Muguruza.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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