Maria pain-free after her first Aussie match

526392.jpg

Maria pain-free after her first Aussie match

From Comcast SportsNet
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Maria Sharapova said it felt like "forever" since she last played a match without pain, although she didn't hang around long on Hisense Arena to enjoy the experience. Finally recovered from a left ankle injury she sustained in September, the Russian reeled off the first eight games in a 6-0, 6-1 rout of Gisela Dulko on Tuesday. "I couldn't wait to start," the 2008 Australian Open champion said. "It's just nice to go into a match you know that you're going to compete again at such a high level in front of so many people, especially a place where I've won before." Sharapova said the ankle, which forced her to pull out of a planned tuneup event in Brisbane, was no longer troubling her. She may only be 24, but Sharapova is playing in her ninth Australian Open and the three-time Grand Slam winner said she is experienced enough to cope with not playing any matches coming into a major tournament. Since a breakthrough win at Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova's career has been punctuated by a series of injuries. She was out of action for nine months until May 2009 after right shoulder surgery. Now, her focus is on being as healthy as possible when the major titles are on the line. "I'd rather come in feeling good physically than feeling like I played a lot of matches," she said. "It's more important to me than anything. "I've been on the tour for many years, played enough tournaments, I just want to be as ready as I can for the big ones." ------ BROTHERLY LOVE: Rift? What rift? Andy Roddick believes that talk of tension between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been completely overblown. Earlier this week, Nadal criticized Federer in the Spanish media for not doing enough to push the players' demands for changes to the men's game, allowing others to "burn themselves" to make conditions better for everybody. The Spaniard later apologized for airing his disagreement with Federer in public. "Those guys have been the model of a respectful rivalry in sports, so for it to be represented any differently is unfortunate," Roddick said Tuesday after his first-round win at the Australian Open. "I think this is all new territory for us. I think, if anything, it probably taught us that we have to choose our words very wisely right now when talking about it because it is a sensitive issue." The players held a meeting on Saturday to discuss their concerns about the tour, which include the length of the season, the number of tournaments players are required to enter, and the prize money at Grand Slam tournaments. Roddick says there's no "quick fix" to the problems, but he believes the players have a unity they lacked before. "It is fascinating to see how it will play out," he says. "You know, I think as the product, I don't think we should underestimate our leverage in this game, especially if we do have one voice." ------ U.S. REVIVAL: Sloane Stephens says there's no need for hand-wringing over the future of American women's tennis in the post-Williams era -- the kids are going to be all right. The 18-year-old Florida native, who hit a career-high ranking of No. 89 last fall, moved into the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Silvia Soler-Espinosa of Spain. Four other American women are also through to the second round -- Serena Williams, Christina McHale, Vania King and Jamie Hampton, a qualifier ranked No. 144 who had only won one WTA-level match coming into the Australian Open. "When (the Williams sisters) stop playing tennis, there'll be someone else to take their spot," says Stephens, who also reached the third round of the U.S. Open last year. "You're kind of like searching for someone to be there right now and I don't think that's going to happen. But there's a lot of us, so who knows who could break through." She says now that a few of the younger Americans have broken into the top 100 -- McHale (No. 42), Irina Falconi (No. 81) and herself -- there's more competition among them, which will only make them better in the long run. "Definitely when we have camps and we're practicing together, it's serious, it's no joke. On changeovers, it'll be ha-ha, hee-hee, but when it's time to play, it's like, OK, I'm going to cut you." Just because they're starting to come into their own, though, doesn't mean they're not still in awe of the elder stateswoman of the tour: Serena. Stephens was so star-struck at a recent tournament, she almost didn't say hello. "She was really nice," Stephens says. "I don't think she knew who I was." ------ VETERAN RIVALRY: Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt have been on the ATP Tour a combined 24 years, but surprisingly, they've only played each other 13 times. The two veterans meet in the second round of the Australian Open after each won on Tuesday. There are many similarities between the players: career records (Roddick is 589-197, Hewitt 551-205), titles (Roddick has 30, Hewitt 28), prize money (Roddick has 20 million, Hewitt 19 million). Roddick, however, has a 7-6 edge in their head-to-head record -- and he has won the last six times they've played dating back to 2005. He's also ranked 16th and Hewitt has slumped to 181. Still, Roddick expects a close match. "I've won the most recent meetings, but I think out of the six that I've won, four or five have gone the distance," he says. "We always have a bit of a war." For that reason, the match could well be scheduled during the evening session on Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt was part of the latest finish in Australian Open history four years ago, closing out victory over Marcos Baghdatis at 4.33 a.m. "I don't really want to have too many of the Baghdatis matches again," Hewitt said. "Go home and McDonald's is already open on the way home for breakfast."

Sunday on CSN: Sale, White Sox close series with O's

ap_175195282664.jpg
Associated Press

Sunday on CSN: Sale, White Sox close series with O's

The White Sox take on the Baltimore Orioles this afternoon, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with White Sox Pregame Live at noon. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Today's starting pitching matchup: Chris Sale (5-0, 1.66) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (1-2, 3.91)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get your White Sox gear right here]

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with White Sox Pulse.

Nick Kwiatkoski Chicago Bears NFL Draft Profile

kwiatkoski_profile_04-30_640x360_677106243517.jpg

Nick Kwiatkoski Chicago Bears NFL Draft Profile

As part of our coverage leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft we will provide profiles of more than 150 prospects, including a scouting report and video interviews with each player.

Nick Kwiatkoski (LB), West Virginia

6’2” | 243 lbs.

2015 stats:

85 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 INT

Selection:

4th round, 113rd overall to Chicago Bears

Scouting Report:

"Kwiatkoski is known for his weight room work and has transitioned his body type from safety to inside linebacker. He has some physical limitations that could prevent him from becoming a full-­time starter, but his mean streak and ability to finish as a tackler could serve him well as a special teamer which is likely how he will have to make a team." - Lance Zierlein, NFL.com

Click here for more NFL Draft Profiles

Evaluations will come, but Bears got players, traits, intangibles they wanted

stl_floyd_talkback_04-29_640x360_676615747596.jpg

Evaluations will come, but Bears got players, traits, intangibles they wanted

And the grade for the Bears’ 2016 draft is… let’s wait at least until, as coach John Fox consistently says, the players get “on the grass.”

Collective bargaining rules prohibit real competition between offense, defense and special teams units. Five of the Bears’ top six picks were on defense, which aren’t allowed to hit the offensive guys until camp (and vice versa), and the sixth – second-rounder Cody Whitehair – is a guard, and linemen evaluations are really only worthwhile when pads come on.

But poor drafts undid two Bears general managers in the span of four years (Jerry Angelo after 2011, Phil Emery after 2014) and the evaluation process now moves from college campuses, bowl games and scouting events to NFL venues.

The Bears are in major need of GM Ryan Pace equalling or exceeding his first (2015) draft. His head coach thinks that’s happened.

“Obviously experience helps,” Fox said. “The more you do it, the better you get. Ryan’s got a great skill set and we’ve got a great relationship between the coaches and personnel. I think he does a tremendous job. I thought we had a tremendous draft a year ago and I anticipate this year being even better.”

Pace came to the Bears from a New Orleans Saints background heavy on the pro-personnel side. But one school of NFL thinking is that personnel evaluators with roots on the pro side are better suited to oversee drafts simply because their expertise is in seeing what NFL players look like.

Pace’s first draft netted starters at nose tackle (Eddie Goldman), center (Hroniss Grasu), running back (Jeremy Langford) and safety (Adrian Amos), plus theoretically wide receiver (Kevin White) but for a season-ending stress fracture to his left leg. Not all of those are guaranteed starting jobs this season because of the organization’s commitment to competition, but it was a better start than most recent Bears drafts.

Several key directions were evident within the nine picks made by Pace, coach John Fox and their staffs this extended weekend.

Defense, teams priorities

While the prime draft directive was best player available, the Bears moved around in the various rounds to suggest that they were targeting players, and most of them were on defense.

Of the Bears’ eventual nine picks, six were on defense. Of those, four were defensive backs. Among those are expected to be impact players on special teams, and if one wins a starting job the way Adrian Amos (fifth rounder) did last year, the 2016 draft stands to be special.

“You saw us struggle [on special teams] early in the season a year ago,” Fox said. “Getting to know your team, understanding how they react, the speed – trying to increase our team speed even to the deadline to start the season. We got better as the year went on and I think we’ll get better this year.”

QB-lite

Despite indications that the Bears liked some of the quarterbacks down in the mid-round range, they did not select a quarterback for the third time in the last four years. One scenario is that they would add a veteran backup, which they did with the signing of Brian Hoyer, who worked with offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains as a Cleveland Brown, to a one-year deal.

“I like the idea of having an experienced backup there,” Pace said. “It’s important for that position and it just gives us security going forward. I think it’s key, like we’ve talked about in free agency, I love it when we have familiarity with these guys from coaches. I feel like it reduces some of the risk and some of the questions we may have. Dowell was passionate about this player and then watching the tape, I was to. I’m glad we got him in the mix.”

The Bears did trade two first-round picks to the Denver Broncos for Jay Cutler in 2009. But they have actually not drafted a quarterback higher than the fourth round (Kyle Orton, 2005) since 2003 when they took Rex Grossman in the first round.

With all of the draft choices (9) at their disposal going into this draft, the Bears made trades to move up or back for targeted players. None of them were quarterbacks.

Old guys

Not every pick will work out, but the Bears minimized risk in one area, taking college players with extensive resumes on tape, Pace’s stated standard of evaluation. Of Pace’s first eight picks, six of them were four-year college players, with only first rounder Leonard Floyd and fifth rounder Jordan Howard passing up their senior seasons for the NFL. Seventh-rounder Daniel Braverman missed his sophomore season due to injury but played the following two years and will turn 23 in September.

“Some of these guys are three or four year starters,” Pace said. “I think it talks about the caliber of players they are. A lot of these guys are team captains. We talk about that. But really it’s just individual tape and who are the best guys when looking at the talent. But the fact these guys are multi-year starters, and team captains, that is significant.”

Competition stoked

Pace and the entire coaching staff has wanted intense competition, not simply for starting jobs, but also for roster spots. And that was created with more than just numbers of picks, but the quality.

No. 1 pick Floyd projects to take a job from season-end regulars and sack leaders Lamarr Houston or Willie Young, both of whom reportedly were shopped during the early rounds of the draft.

Despite signing interior linemen Ted Lawson and Manny Ramirez this offseason, and drafting center Hroniss Grasu in the 2015 third round, the Bears used a second-round pick on Whitehair. It will be an impossibility for Grasu, Lawson, Ramirez and Whitehair to all start. And that does not factor in Matt Slauson, one of the Bears’ best linemen as recently as 2014 but now clearly on the outside looking in.

“I’m not getting into that,” Fox said. “It’s a fluid process. But right now we’ve helped build competition on our football team.”

The use of a third-round pick on defensive end Jonathan Bullard improves the pass rush of the down-linemen portion of the 3-4. But that likely comes at the expense of Ego Ferguson, returning from knee surgery, and Will Sutton, a seven-game starter and all-purpose defensive lineman but who had zero sacks for his two Bears seasons.

Just as with the interior offensive line, linebacker signings (Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan) did no signal any end to serious competition. The Bears used the first of their three fourth-round selections on West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, whose abilities in coverage make him a threat to starters.

Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford impressed coaches enough that Matt Forte was not brought back. But the fifth-round pick spent on power running back Jordan Howard was not done for special teams.

‘Teams competition was addressed in part with the picks of two safeties and a cornerback in rounds 4-6. How much those additions challenge for starter jobs is one thing, but they were not picked up just to fill out a training-camp roster.

“The common trait with all these guys,” said Pace, “I would say is toughness and instincts, something we've emphasized and something we've drafted today for sure.”