Maria pain-free after her first Aussie match

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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."

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead