Patriots

All eyes on Maria Sharapova at U.S. Open

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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."

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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