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Best bets, outside shots, top brackets and picks

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Tennis fans haven’t had much time to catch their collective breath following a wild and unusual US Open, but in this, the strangest sporting year of any of our lifetimes, it’s time to turn the clock back to mid-May and gear up for the 2020 French Open at Roland Garros. The shortest clay-court season ever is already reaching its finale.

The French Open is a pretty orderly Grand Slam on the men’s side — only nine different players have reached a semifinal in the past five years (compared to 14 at the Australian Open and 13 at the pre-coronavirus US Open), and over that time period, 17 of 20 top-four seeds have reached at least the quarterfinals.

Really, you can track who’s going to win by tracking three players: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. Thiem has eliminated Djokovic in two of the past three tournaments at Roland Garros, and Djokovic beat Thiem on the way to the 2016 title. Meanwhile, Nadal has beaten Thiem in each of the past two finals. This time around, Thiem and Nadal could battle in the semis with Djokovic awaiting the winner.

On the women’s side, things are far less predictable. That’s the nature of playing best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five anyway, but things tend to get particularly wild in Paris. Only eight of 20 top-four seeds have reached the quarterfinals over the past five years. Serena Williams hasn’t made even the quarters since 2016, and in the past three tournaments, the previous year’s winner has failed to reach the quarters as well.

(That streak is guaranteed to continue since 2019’s French Open champ, Ashleigh Barty, is not participating.)

As we did for the US Open, let’s walk through different clusters of players in each draw to give ourselves a good lay of the land before the chaos ensues.

Betting favorites

Per Caesars, here are the favorites on the men’s side.

About what you’d expect, right? Odds of -110 are equivalent to saying Nadal has about a 48% chance of winning what would be his 13th French Open title, while Djokovic is at 32%, Thiem is at 25% and no one else is over 3%. (Yes, these odds add up to over 100%. That’s the way it works in gambling.)

If you’re looking for a new threat, Zverev might be the best bet. He has not only reached the past two French quarterfinals, but he has also experienced a Slam breakthrough in 2020, reaching the semis in Australia and the finals in the US Open. Tsitsipas has a game that might translate to clay better than Zverev’s or Medvedev’s, but the 22-year-old has battled consistency issues in Slams during his young career, advancing past the fourth round in any Slam only once.

Here are the women’s favorites:

Halep, the 2018 champion and 2017 runner-up, has odds that translate to about a 29% chance, while Muguruza, winner in 2016 and semifinalist in 2018, is next at 13%. It makes sense that they’re favored, especially since Muguruza might have the cleanest draw of any favorite despite her No. 11 seed, but one could make a convincing case that no one has anywhere close to a 29% chance against the field, even the extremely in-form Halep.

On the rise

Not including the betting favorites above, here are the men’s players who have seen their ratings points rise the most since the start of this long, strange 2020:

Garin and Ruud have both seen clay-court breakthroughs in 2020. Garin won two of the first three clay tournaments of the year, while Ruud has reached three clay semifinals this year and won in Buenos Aires. The 28-year-old Krajinovic, meanwhile, has seen his career thrown off course by injury a couple of times but reached the third round at the French Open last year and stomped 2018 French semifinalist Marco Cecchinato on his way to the third round in the recent Italian Open. Krajinovic is the No. 26 seed and could face Tsitsipas in the third round.

Kenin’s recent double-bagel loss to Azarenka on clay did not instill confidence, but she did reach the fourth round in Paris last year. While Rogers did reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros back in 2016 and looked resurgent in reaching the US Open quarters recently, Tig might be a particularly interesting sleeper. The 26-year-old started the year ranked 114th but is a career-high 58th after winning in Istanbul earlier this month. Eleven of her 14 ITF titles, and now her only WTA title, came on clay. With a first-round win, she could get a second-round shot at No. 22 seed Karolina Muchova.

Dangerous on clay

Garin and Ruud have had particularly good seasons on the dirt this year, but a few more names are worth bringing up:

Schwartzman was upset in last year’s French Open second round by Argentinian countryman Leonardo Mayer, but he reached the quarterfinals in 2018, two of his three career titles came on clay and, most impressive at the moment, he took down Nadal in straight sets while reaching the finals of last week’s Italian Open. Kecmanovic, meanwhile, won at Kitzbuhel, and Djere has made a pair of clay semis in 2020.

On the women’s side, we start with a player who almost feels like a sleeper despite earning the No. 2 seed.

Pliskova reached the semis at Roland Garros in 2017 and reached both the finals in Rome and the semis in Prague this year. She’s battling a serious Slam funk at the moment — since reaching the Aussie Open semis in 2019, she hasn’t made it past the fourth round of one and got swept out of the US Open in the second round as the No. 1 seed.

Veterans to watch

It’s both a shame and a blessing that Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray drew a first-round match against each other. It assures an early marquee battle, but it will also prevent one of them from making a run. The two shared an epic five-set battle in the 2017 French Open semifinals, but while Murray took down Wawrinka in the same round in 2016, Wawrinka has a 4-1 lifetime advantage over him on clay.

Like Murray, Cecchinato is currently outside the ATP top 100. He had to battle in through qualifying, but he could be a tricky first-round matchup with No. 25 seed Alex De Minaur.

There are former champions abound in the women’s field despite Barty’s absence. Along with Halep, Muguruza and Williams, you’ve also got 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko and 2009 champion and No. 28 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. Ostapenko could face Pliskova in the second round. The past two years’ runners-up, No. 19 seed Marketa Vondrousova and No. 29 Sloane Stephens, both lurk as well.

In all, 13 women in the field have made at least the quarterfinals in the past five years, and Kuznetsova has seven pre-2015 quarterfinal appearances as well. Lots of women headed into the Paris bubble thinking they’ve got a great shot to make some noise.

Predictions

For my US Open preview, I walked through three favorites and a wild card for each quarter of the draw. It was a fun exercise for expectation-setting, and it identified all eight eventual semifinalists. So let’s do it again!

Men:

  • Djokovic quarter: Djokovic, Carreno Busta, Matteo Berrettini, Garin

  • Medvedev quarter: Tsitsipas, Rublev, Medvedev, Krajinovic

  • Thiem quarter: Thiem, Schwartzman, Ruud, Wawrinka

  • Nadal quarter: Nadal, Zverev, David Goffin, Fabio Fognini

It’s easy to assume we know how this draw will play out — Djokovic faces the Thiem-Nadal winner in the final — but it’s worth mentioning that each of the three favorites has quite a bit of work to do before the semis.

Djokovic could face Garin or Khachanov in the fourth round and Berrettini, Carreno Busta or Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarters. Thiem gets two-time quarterfinalist Marin Cilic in the first round and could draw Ruud in the third, Wawrinka in the fourth and Schwartzman or Gael Monfils in the quarters. Nadal has the cleanest possible route but could still draw Nishikori in the third round and clay nemesis Fognini, who has three career clay wins over the legend, in the fourth. Survive that, and Zverev could await in the quarters.

Women:

  • Halep quarter: Halep, Bertens, Vondrousova, Swiatek

  • Svitolina quarter: Williams, Mertens, Svitolina, Azarenka

  • Kenin quarter: Muguruza, Rybakina, Kenin, Aryna Sabalenka

  • Pliskova quarter: Petra Kvitova, Petra Martic, Pliskova, Stephens

Over the past five years, an average of only 1.6 top-four seeds have reached even the quarterfinals. One could see how chaos might ensue once more. In fact, only one of each quarter’s top seeds is listed as either my favorite or second-favorite in each quarter. Pliskova’s road is particularly ridiculous — she could face Ostapenko in the second round, Martic or top-ranked Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in the fourth and either Kvitova or Madison Keys in the quarters. Maybe having lower expectations this time around will help her.

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

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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.”

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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

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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

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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.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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