Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes presented Kelce with the video game honor, just as Kelce had done for him earlier this year.
Kelce has made $750,000 in donations for charitable causes in communities in Kansas City and his native Cleveland through his 87 & Running Foundation, earning him the team’s Walter Payton nod.
“What I’ve accomplished on the field alongside my teammates over the years, especially last year, means so much more knowing that what has been accomplished off of the field is making a difference in the lives of others here in Kansas City and in my hometown of Cleveland Heights,” Kelce said.
Pro Beach Hockey. Even the name itself is jarring, and the words don’t sound like they belong together. But for three seasons from 1998 to 2000, Pro Beach Hockey (PBH) was very real, and it was glorious.
It has now been 20 years since the innovative inline hockey league last overtook Huntington Beach, California. It might be a bit of a relic by today’s standards, but it is easily one of the most unique touchstones of hockey pop culture, the likes of which has never been seen again.
Don’t remember the gimmick-laden roller league? It had it all. Two large ramps behind each goal. A two-point arc for goals scored from distance. Live bands playing during play. Big personalities skating up and down the court. The Laker Girls performing on the sidelines. Beach bums lining the bleachers. It was a made-for-TV spectacle, with real hockey players playing for real money live on ESPN and ESPN2. And it was the perfect time capsule of the late 1990s.
How did Pro Beach Hockey come to be, and what made it so special — and different from anything the hockey world had previously seen? We look back at one of the most fascinating hockey leagues ever with insight from those who created it and those who laced up inline skates for the six teams each weekend.
The birth of PBH
In the mid-1990s, inline hockey was among the fastest growing sports in America, and there was an audience for it, especially in the summer months of the sports calendar. Roller Hockey International (RHI) enjoyed some early success as a pro inline hockey league, selling a decent amount of tickets in NHL arenas during the summer months and finding its games on ESPN. There was the World Roller Hockey League (WRHL), founded by David McLane in 1993 and also televised on ESPN.
But as those leagues faded, McLane saw a chance to do his own thing. Beyond his WRHL venture, he had also created the cult-classic program Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.) and worked in the RHI marketing department for five years. He had plenty of insight into what worked and what didn’t.
“It was an eight- to 10-year journey from conception, and seeing a kid in Beverly Hills playing in his driveway with a ball, inline skates and a hockey stick, hitting it against the garage door,” McLane said. “I said, ‘We can create something new here.'”
So when the opportunity arose to try something different, McLane wanted to go bigger, louder and wilder.
Unlike previous pro roller hockey leagues, the beach version used a bright yellow ball and smaller playing courts rather than a plastic puck and NHL-size surfaces. It made the game faster, and the yellow ball popped against the black sport court. There were no face-offs after the opening draw, allowing for a more free-flowing game with fewer stoppages. And while fighting and physicality weren’t expressly encouraged, they also weren’t discouraged.
The two biggest gameplay innovations, however, were the two-point arc and the ramps. Players could shoot and score from outside an arc for a bonus point, similar to the three-point arc in basketball. And located in each end zone behind the nets were two large ramps that could be used in all sorts of different ways and gave PBH more of a roller derby vibe. It was the X Games meets hockey.
The six teams — the Heavy Metal, the Gargoyles, the Xpress, the Salsa, the Dawg Pac and the Web Warriors — were all centrally owned by the league. When he was the marketing lead for Roller Hockey International, McLane felt team owners had a way of mucking up his strategy to better position the league for popularity. He learned his lesson, and the league ownership of PBH teams allowed McLane creative control in molding the teams the way he wanted.
Building a cast of characters
“When David McLane told me the concept — guys on ramps, bands playing loud music — I was like, ‘Cool, whatever it takes,'” Mike Butters said.
Butters was one of the first calls from McLane and Chris McSorley, whom McLane had enlisted to help find players. McSorley had been a coach with the RHI’s Anaheim Bullfrogs following a lengthy playing career in minor league hockey. His brother, former NHLer Marty, would end up being PBH’s first color commentator. The McSorley’s had the connections to help find players willing to give the revolutionary league a try.
“I’m not a purist like some guys are,” said Butters, an actor who had played for the Bullfrogs and Los Angeles Blades in RHI. “There was no negative on my side. I was at the end of my hockey career, so I was just worried about keeping up with the young kids.”
McLane wanted players to have talent and personality. He wanted them to be outgoing and help sell the league. So, of course, Chris Nelson was another early call.
Nelson was arguably the face of inline hockey at the time. He had played in inline world championships and was a star in RHI. If there was a commercial or ad for inline hockey, Nelson almost certainly was in it. Having won a national championship on the ice at the University of Wisconsin and having been drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1988, he was on track for a strong pro career on the ice and kind of fell into inline hockey as a way to stay in shape during the offseason. But as it turned out, inline hockey could take him farther than ice hockey career.
“A group of us that were among the premier roller hockey players in the world signed on right away. I had a marketable personality and had done some TV, like Baywatch. I also was a big guy who could skate like the wind and hit like a freight train,” Nelson said. “They said, ‘You’re going to be playing roller hockey on the beach with the Lakers’ cheerleaders on national TV. Are you cool with that?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ I didn’t even ask what they were going to pay me.”
Nelson also proved to be a valuable recruiter, too. He brought on Vashi Nedomansky, who had played 10 years of minor pro hockey and was teammates with Nelson on the Jeanie Buss-owned Los Angeles Blades of the RHI. Vashi is the son of Hockey Hall of Fame forward Vaclav Nedomansky.
“There were a lot of guys that said they were not going to do that, but I’ve always been up for a challenge,” said Nedomansky, who was living in Los Angeles and beginning to pursue the career he’d dreamed of since he was 12 years old: filmmaking. “There were only 12 or so guys to a team, so there were actually a lot of guys that wanted to play that didn’t get a chance.”
It wasn’t just plucking talent from previous iterations of inline leagues. McLane would actually go to local pickup roller hockey games near the California beaches to scout for talent. He signed some of the kids literally off the street to play professional roller hockey. And as Butters noted, some of them were exceptionally talented. Players on each roster were a wide range of ages and had different playing backgrounds.
Being fun was part of the job, too. Player personalities were a central part of the broadcast, and they had the chance to showcase other sides of themselves outside of hockey. Goaltender Rick Plester, who was also in a heavy metal band at the time, played the national anthem on his electric guitar … in full goalie gear. Nedomansky did the same in his player gear. Butters filmed dozens of vignettes as fictional hockey icon “Fasty LaShaft,” a character he made up with old hockey buddies who tried to one-up one another with mythical back stories. Butters eventually became the league’s color commentator and needled players during games over the rink speakers.
Rink-side interviews were one of the ways the players could be themselves. Whether it was with model-turned-correspondent Tiffany Richardson or one of the color commentators, the interviews weren’t so much about the game as they were about the players. In one of the few YouTube videos remaining from the era, Salsa player Ray Matz was asked to remove his false teeth to prove he was a hockey player, which he proudly obliged, showing a trademark toothless grin. There was very little room for cliché answers in PBH.
But while there were plenty of purposely goofy elements to the league, the players were still competitors, and there was incentive to win. (Players were paid on a per-game basis, but the winners would be paid more, and there was a bonus at the end of the season for the champion.)
“Nothing was made up, the fights were real, the hitting was real, the pushing and shoving was real. But after the game, there was no hard feelings,” Butters said. “Some people thought it was all staged, but it was 100% real. All of the emotions were there.”
‘Ramp it up!’
The first year of the league was a trial-and-error experience, or as Butters termed it, “loosey-goosey.”
“It was a lot like when we were kids and we’d make our own rules playing road hockey,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest early challenge was getting players who had played only traditional hockey to use the ramps. They were kind of a big deal for Pro Beach Hockey, with the league even using “Ramp it up!” as a tagline. But players struggled with them in the first season.
“The excitement and newness of it, having a ramp, it was so innovative,” said Nedomansky, the captain of the Heavy Metal in the first season of PBH. “But we looked at the thing and were like, ‘What the f— do you do with a ramp?'”
“David came to me one day and asked me why the guys weren’t using the ramps,” Butters remembered. “So I suggested he just change the rules, and that’s what he did. We changed the rules mid-week after the first weekend of the season.”
To encourage the players to use the ramps, the league implemented a rule stating play would resume on the ramp after each goal, forcing players to at least start the play up there. It was still pretty rare for players to actually use the ramps to pick up speed, but over time, players began to figure out how to use them strategically.
“The intellect of the hockey players, whoever was a quick learner would come up with cool things,” Nedomansky said. “But it was scary. Hockey players, we’re used to level ground. Going up the ramp, unless you skateboarded before, you didn’t know what to do. It was kind of fun though, if a guy didn’t know what he was doing and got caught back there, you could just pound him into the corner.”
The ramps also became a valuable tool to generate offense. Nelson recalled one of the innovations he brought to the game.
“You’d just get the ball, skate behind the net and fire it up the ramp and off the [angled glass at the top] and have it pop right out in front of the goalie, and the guy in front could just bat it in,” he said.
The challenges of beach hockey
Many of the unique things about the league were also the things that caused issues. For one, the heat was a problem for players.
“The first year, it was easy because you’d do about two games a day. The second and third year, we were doing three games a day, and it was exhausting,” Nelson said. “You’re out there on a black surface, and the heat just bounces off of it so you’re out there sweating bullets.”
Nedomansky recalled a few times where the heat got so bad that some of the adhesive that kept the sport court in place on the ramps would melt enough to run down the wall. If a player fell while on the ramps, there was a good chance they were going to have to peel themselves off of it before getting back into play.
Playing near the beach was also a challenge. It was impossible to keep sand from blowing onto the playing surface — and sand does not mix well with players on wheels. Any liquid on the surface would also create a slick environment.
Then there were the players’ dressing rooms. They were beneath the bleachers, where flip-flop-clad beachgoers were able to come and go as they pleased. If there was another game going on, fans would be stomping and cheering above, but the noise wasn’t the worst part.
“The whole time, nothing but sand and pennies and drinks would come spilling down from the bleachers,” Nedomansky said. “There was no air flow, it was about 110 degrees under there. I think all the teams dressed in two huge rooms, and it just rained sand all weekend long. So you’d constantly have to clean your gear, clean out your wheels — everything had to be cleaned at all times. That’s probably the one thing they didn’t figure out, to be smarter than to put us under the stands.”
Hockey in Hollywood
Pro Beach Hockey had a rather large pool of players come from Southern California’s burgeoning community of hockey players involved in the movie business. Hollywood is still dotted with PBH alumni today. One of the biggest names is Oren Koules — one of the producers of the Saw movie franchise.
Koules was a talent manager and film producer when Pro Beach Hockey kicked off. He had played in the WHL and some minor pro, but he was about 15 years removed from competitive hockey, though he still skated regularly, often sharing the ice with some Los Angeles Kings players such as Marty McSorley and Wayne Gretzky in the summer months. When he saw the first season of PBH, he had to get involved, despite being in his late 30s at that point.
“The guy they had doing play-by-play [former Anaheim Ducks broadcaster Chris Madsen], you could hear him when you’d skate by, and he kept saying all the time, ‘Oren Koules, the oldest player in the league,’ and I’d be like, ‘Shut up!'” Koules said with a laugh.
He had a big shot and used it often. Pro Beach Hockey had cut a sponsorship with a skate manufacturing company that made inline skates with inverted wheels that were supposed to more accurately mimic the ability to start and stop on ice skates. It wasn’t that simple for most players, and Koules said they actually contributed to his style of play.
“They were so hard to skate in, you ended up apologizing for running into guys all the time because you weren’t trying to be a jerk,” he said. “So I couldn’t skate in the things, but I could shoot. So I almost always would set up wide like a three-point shooter in basketball and go for those two-point goals.”
But Koules’ greatest success wasn’t on the rink. He had produced his first movie, “Mrs. Winterbourne,” three years before he joined up with PBH, and he went on to produce the entire Saw franchise, along with the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” Koules stayed close to hockey, though. He was a co-owner of the Helena Bighorns of the North American Hockey League for a while, and even co-owned the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons before Jeffrey Vinik bought the team in 2010.
There was plenty more Hollywood crossover for PBH players and execs. Butters, who now resides in Seattle where he buys and sells jewelry, actually joined Koules on the set of the Saw movies as an actor. Despite putting together a rather full IMDb page, he stayed close to hockey for many years, serving as a pro scout with the Lightning for three seasons and joining Koules as a co-owner of the Bighorns.
Nedomansky went on to become a film editor who has worked on “Deadpool” and “Sharknado 2,” among films. He is currently in the process of producing and editing a documentary called “Big Ned” about his father, the first hockey player to defect from a communist country and play in the NHL. And Nelson’s hockey background made him an especially valuable commodity when it came to films needing stunt men or technical advisors. One of his biggest breaks came in playing one of Mr. Freeze’s skating henchmen in “Batman & Robin,” which also included a few of Nelson’s PBH friends. He also worked on “Miracle” and is currently helping with the production of a forthcoming hockey movie called “Way of the Warriors,” filming in Minnesota’s Iron Range.
The founder of PBH, McLane, continues to work as a promoter and producer, too. He has come up with several other TV properties — most recently the Women of Wrestling promotion.
A lasting legacy
After three seasons, Pro Beach Hockey was gone. It had enjoyed some ratings success — McLane said there were even a few NHL playoff games that PBH out-rated — but the inline industry as a whole was beginning to wane by the end of the third season. The league was ultimately not picked up for a fourth season on television, effectively ceasing the league’s operations. Pro Beach Hockey burned brightly but burned out fast.
It has not faded, though, in the memories of the players and the people who discovered its re-run games at all hours of the day.
“I get calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, Instagrams every single day from people who say, ‘I grew up watching you on Pro Beach Hockey,'” said Nelson, who actually remembers San Jose Sharks players calling him from their locker room and telling him they thought PBH looked awesome. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t think it would just continue and last. I could really see it coming back again.”
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me who know me from Pro Beach Hockey,” Nedomansky said. “It’s crazy, 20 years later, people remember the three seasons we were on and just remember that moment in time. Just think about it — Huntington Beach, the Pacific Ocean, hockey, bikinis, heavy metal music. Just a crazy combination.”
For Koules, playing in Pro Beach Hockey allowed his son to watch him play. Miles, who was only 5 and 6 years old back when his dad was taking two-point shot attempts, went on to play minor league hockey, reaching as high as the American Hockey League.
“I used to take Miles with me. It was about an hour from our house. He would just sit in the stands, and all of the guys knew him,” Koules said. “So he hadn’t been playing hockey, and I think that made him want to play hockey — just being around all those guys. He just loved the atmosphere, and pretty soon after that, he started skating.”
Leagues like Pro Beach Hockey just don’t exist anymore. The IIHF’s World Inline Championships, which began in 1996, were discontinued in 2017. Major League Roller Hockey ran from 1998 to 2012 but never really stuck. The Professional Inline Hockey Association is in its 18th year but hasn’t come close to matching the intrigue of PBH. McLane laments the lack of creativity and willingness to take risks.
But while we might not see anything like it again, like Fasty LaShaft, the legend of Pro Beach Hockey only continues to grow in its absence. For the players, it will always be a special moment in time.
“I got a text the other day that someone wanted to buy my jerseys from Pro Beach Hockey, and I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Nelson said. “I could have two nickels to my name and I still wouldn’t sell those jerseys because, at that point in my life, it was so important and so fun and so memorable for me.
“I’ve forgotten a lot of things in my life, but Pro Beach Hockey is something I will never, ever forget.”
There is no “best and worst of 2020.” Every “worst” doesn’t quite do justice to how challenging this year was, in every way imaginable and previously unimaginable. Every “best” has a caveat anchored to it.
What does that even look like? “Best: No one tested positive for COVID-19 while the NHL was forced to complete a season it had to pause for a global pandemic and then restarted in two Canadians bubbles where players were separated from their families for months on end.”
But there are some people and some moments from this otherwise cursed year that we’ll choose to remember in a positive light. Some folks who navigated the unique terrain of 2020, or simply rose to the occasion when given the chance to shine.
Here are 10 hockey people who leveled up in 2020, on and off the ice:
The offseason is complicated. Front offices have to adjust on the fly and have a backup plan to the backup plan. One signing affects another. Maybe the player you want prefers to play somewhere else. There are always surprise signings that disrupt the market and the predictions. Now that we’re starting to see action this offseason — the Braves (Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly) and White Sox (Lance Lynn, Adam Eaton) in particular have made some moves — let’s have a little fun and play a little dominoes. We’ll present three scenarios and speculate how one signing can affect what comes next.
Considering the way the 2020-21 NHL season has gone — or more accurately hasn’t gone — we have to look at all prospects and young players like we’re grading on a curve. Many of these players have never gone this long between games in their entire playing careers. Some are closing in on their 10th straight month without any sort of competitive hockey. That’s not conducive to development.
But with the expectation that we’ll have an NHL season, there are opportunities for prospects to elbow their way into lineups. Because the flat salary cap is at a figure lower than pre-pandemic projections suggested, many teams are at or very near the cap ceiling. With the trade market frozen, teams can look within their own systems, using the low-dollar contracts of pipeline prospects to stay under the cap number.
One of the other factors at play is the uncertainty of when farm teams will be able to resume play. While the NHL is set to start in mid-January, it’s not as clear a path forward for the AHL and ECHL, the latter of which has already had a number of teams opt out of the upcoming season. The lack of places to put prospects to allow them to continue to develop might force some teams to give longer looks at the NHL level.
Regardless, given the nature of this season, this isn’t the traditional make-or-break kind of situation. More than anything, this is a chance to look at some prospects who have been in systems for a few years and are staring down one of their best opportunities to not only make the NHL roster, but also find a full-time job there. Here are six young players who need to make the most of those chances and take the next step in 2020-21.
Tolvanen was on this list last year, too. As I noted then, it was more about reestablishing himself within the organization and making sure he gets his development on track toward the NHL. To be fair, he increased his goal totals slightly in 2019-20 and progressed enough to suggest he can still be on the NHL track.
After a year like no other, we’ve made it to the tennis offseason. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the ATP and WTA tours for months — including the cancellation of Wimbledon — and dramatically altering the schedule and conditions at the events that did take place, it is hard to know what to make of the year that was.
Who had the most impressive year despite the circumstances? Who managed to remain focused and have a breakthrough tournament or season? And who provided us with feel-good moments at a time when we so desperately needed them? It is time to look back at the best moments from the 2020 tennis season.
ATP player of the year
We know what you are thinking. You are weighing the 2020 résumés for Novak Djokovic, the year-end world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion, and Rafael Nadal, world No. 2 and the reigning French Open champion who tied Roger Federer with 20 major victories. There are compelling cases to be made for both players who will undoubtedly end their careers as two of the best ever.
But with neither one dramatically outshining the other, it’s time to see who is behind door No. 3: Dominic Thiem!
Thiem had a career-defining year and finally won his first major title at the US Open. He also played in the finals at the Australian Open and the ATP Finals. The 27-year-old Austrian ends the year ranked a career-high No. 3 after becoming the first male player born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam and the first non-Big Three member since 2016 to win a major.
Yes, Nadal (and the injured Federer) didn’t play at the US Open, and Djokovic was disqualified after hitting a line judge with a ball in the fourth round. That doesn’t take away from Thiem’s milestone in New York. His results for the rest of the year only added to his case. The fact is this: No one else played in three finals at the biggest tournaments of the year. Thiem’s ability to sustain his level in a challenging and unprecedented season was more than impressive and vaulted him past the rest of his those in the under-30 category.
If there ever was a year for the unexpected, this was it.
WTA player of the year
The women’s game has seen the rise of a number of talented young players over the past few years but has been plagued with inconsistency.
This season felt familiar in that regard with two first-time major champions and several new faces pulling off upsets. There was one player who made her way near the top of the rankings and not only stayed there but stepped up when it mattered most.
That would be Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion and French Open finalist. The 22-year-old American started the year ranked No. 14 and ended it at a career-best No. 4.
Kenin soared in Melbourne, dropping only one set en route to the final. She defeated world No. 1 and local favorite Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals before defeating two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza in the final for a three-set victory. Her post-Australia victory tour was cut short due to the pandemic. Instead of adjusting to life as a major winner and top-10 player, she was in lockdown at her home in Florida. Her run in Paris proved just how resilient she can be. Following a fourth-round run at the US Open and the worst loss of her career at the lead-up Italian Open (an astounding 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka), a refocused Kenin arrived at Roland Garros with something to prove.
Not known for her dominance on clay, Kenin adapted to the unusual conditions and wild weather of the delayed French Open and found ways to win against tricky opponents. She needed a deciding set in four of her six matches heading into the final but never allowed her opponent to take more than three games in the final set. She lost to a red-hot Iga Swiatek in the title clash but proved she will be a dominant and stable presence for the foreseeable future.
Most valuable player
Thiem and Kenin were phenomenal on the court, but Naomi Osaka was extraordinary on and off of it. The 23-year-old won the US Open for her third major title in a dramatic comeback over Azarenka, and that wasn’t even the most noteworthy part of her time in New York. Osaka made global headlines for her decision to boycott and forfeit her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open (the first tournament in a two-event bubble in New York) following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in hopes of raising awareness about racial injustice. She was the first tennis player to speak out, and her actions resulted in the tournament pausing play for the day.
During the US Open just days later, Osaka chose to wear a different face mask ahead of each match commemorating victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Her decision to use her voice sparked discussions in the still-predominantly white sport, as well as with sports fans around the world.
During such a strange season, there was something so comforting about a Serena and Venus Williams battle in one of the first tournaments after the coronavirus hiatus.
Despite the months-long break from competition, the legendary sisters didn’t disappoint in their second-round meeting at the TopSeed Open in Kentucky. Lasting 2 hours, 19 minutes, the sisters battled for every point with vintage intensity. Ultimately, Serena rallied from a set down and a 4-2 deficit in the final set to earn the 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
When fans needed something to cheer for, the sisters delivered with one of the more competitive matches they’ve played against each other in their 31st showdown.
Comeback player of the year
The personal struggles of Azarenka, the former world No. 1 and two-time major champion, have been well documented over the past few seasons. A custody battle over her son, Leo, prevented her from playing a full schedule since his birth in 2016.
Due to her inability to travel, Azarenka’s play suffered. She missed the start of the 2020 season and contemplated retirement. Entering the New York bubble following the coronavirus hiatus, the 31-year-old was ranked outside of the top 50 and hadn’t won a competitive match in over a year. When critics counted her out, she put together one of the most impressive three-week stretches in recent memory. She won the title at the Western & Southern Open then advanced to the final at the US Open before falling to Osaka in three sets. She finished the year with another final appearance at the Ostrava Open and is now ranked No. 13.
Tsvetana Pironkova: Pironkova, who hadn’t played a match in over three years following the birth of her son in 2017, used her protected ranking to gain entrance to the US Open. She shocked everyone by advancing to the quarterfinals. It was easily the Cinderella story of the year.
Vasek Pospisil: The Canadian missed much of the 2019 season due to back surgery, then made the final (his first since 2014) at Montpellier and had a career-best fourth-round run at the US Open with wins over fellow countryman and No. 25 seed Milos Raonic and eighth-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut. Off the court, Pospisil joined Djokovic as co-president of a recently formed Professional Tennis Players Association, a players-only organization that most resembles a players’ union.
Best comeback moment
This is really the best revenge moment. After playing cards with Benoit Paire at the US Open, Kristina Mladenovic was forced to withdraw with doubles partner Timea Babos ahead of their second-round match after Paire tested positive for COVID-19. She was then forced to quarantine in her hotel room for much of the duration of the tournament. Understandably, she was less than thrilled by what transpired and not in prime playing shape weeks later at the start of the French Open.
“Just a few weeks after being unjustly disqualified from the US Open, being here with you and with this trophy is something very strong,” Mladenovic said to Babos after the win. “Physically, mentally, I’m exhausted today. You carried me all the way, I’m proud to have you as a partner.”
Best feel-good stories of 2020
Diego Schwartzman, a fan favorite and beloved by his peers, cracked the top 10 for the first time in his career and advanced to his first major semifinal in Paris. The 28-year-old, 5-foot-6 Argentine qualified for his first ATP Finals after more than a decade on tour and played in his first Masters final at the Italian Open.
Schwartzman’s fellow countrywoman, Nadia Podoroska, also made her first major semifinal at Roland Garros in just her second Grand Slam event. Starting the 2020 season ranked No. 255, the 23-year-old needed to qualify to get into the main draw, but then won eight straight matches. She ultimately lost to Swiatek in the semifinals but nearly tripled her career earnings during her Parisian trip. Her own coach even called it “unbelievable.” She followed it up with a quarterfinal run at the Linz Open in Austria.
Martina Trevisan, another unseeded qualifier at the French Open playing in just her second major, was away from the game for four years due to an eating disorder. In Paris, the 27-year-old Italian enamored herself to fans with her story of perseverance and her joy on the court. Trevisan upset Kiki Bertens, Maria Sakkari and Coco Gauffen route to the quarterfinals. She also fell to Swiatek but cracked the top 100 for the first time at the end of the tournament.
Breakthrough players of the year
There are breakthroughs and then there’s what Swiatek did in Paris this fall. Ranked No. 54, the 19-year-old, who had never advanced past the fourth round at a major, destroyed everyone in her path, including a 6-1, 6-2 rout over 2018 champion and event favorite Simona Halep in the fourth round. If Swiatek had any nerves entering the first final of her career, she didn’t show them, completing her fortnight with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Kenin.
Swiatek didn’t drop a set or allow an opponent to win more than five games during her run to become the youngest champion at Roland Garros since Nadal in 2005. She also became the lowest-ranked French Open victor in the history of the WTA rankings and the first Polish player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Not to mention, she also advanced to the semifinals in doubles with partner Nicole Melichar. Swiatek didn’t play again this season, but she finished the year at No. 17 and is a likely front-runner heading into the 2021 Australian Open.
The men’s game has long been dominated by the Big Three and that didn’t exactly change in 2020. But Russian Andrey Rublev did his best to interrupt the status quo.
Rublev, 23, started his 2020 season by winning back-to-back titles at the Qatar Open and Adelaide International and never slowed down. He won three more titles, making the quarterfinals in New York and Paris, and cracked the top 10 to qualify for his first ATP Finals. It’s not quite as good as winning a major, but it feels as if he’s not far off from achieving that, too.
Jannik Sinner: The 19-year-old Italian became the youngest French Open quarterfinalist since Djokovic in 2006 (and the first to do so in his debut at the event since Nadal in 2005), as he knocked off sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev in the fourth round. He also fell to Nadal but followed up his Parisian debut by notching his first ATP title at the Sofia Open in November, becoming the youngest to do so since Kei Nishikori in 2008. He ended the year ranked No. 37 — more than 40 spots higher than where he opened the 2020 season.
Players to watch in 2021
Bianca Andreescu: The 2019 US Open champion didn’t play a match in 2020 as she recovered from a knee injury. She kept fans guessing during the tennis restart about her status but ultimately decided not to risk playing. She promises to be back and 100 percent for the Australian Open.
Matteo Berrettini: After reaching the US Open semifinals and making his first ATP Finals in 2019, the 24-year-old looked poised for a big year. But instead he struggled before and after the restart. His best result was a fourth-round run at the US Open. Will 2019 Berrettini return in 2021? He has to hope so.
Madison Keys: A staple of the second week at majors over past several years, Keys was lacking her normal spark this season. She opened the year with a final appearance in the Brisbane International but failed to make it past the third round in any of the other four events she entered.
Federer: Federer, the 20-time major champion, hasn’t played since losing in the Australian Open semifinals. He underwent surgery on his right knee in February and had a follow-up procedure in June. He also plans to be back in time to play in Australia. Now 39, his career obviously is winding down. Hopefully he has another high-producing season (or two or three) left in him.
Gauff: After becoming the sport’s latest teen phenom following her incredible 2019 season, Gauff opened the new year with a fourth-round run in Melbourne, including a win over defending champion Osaka. But the 16-year-old never seemed to find her rhythm in the restart — losing in the first round at the US Open and in the second round at the French Open. She didn’t fare much better in doubles with partner Caty McNally. Gauff is too talented and focused to struggle for long and she’ll be motivated in 2021.
Serena Williams: The fan-less US Open looked to be the perfect scenario for Williams to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 major victories. She was a favorite entering the event. Then she fell to Azarenka in the semifinals and had to withdraw from the French Open before her second-round match due to an Achilles’ injury she sustained during the Azarenka match. Although Williams won the Brisbane International, her first tournament title since coming back from childbirth, the season still feels like a missed opportunity.
If there’s one thing tennis fans can say with certainty, no matter how unpredictable everything else seems, don’t ever count out Serena. Will 2021 be the year she makes history? We will just have to wait and see.
TEMPE, Ariz. — When Missy Murray looks at her son Kyler, she doesn’t just see the 23-year-old quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals or the boy who wanted to play Uno after big wins or the child who color-coded his toys.
She sees her father, Master Sgt. Carl W. Henderson Jr.
Kyler never met his grandfather, who died in 1989 after spending more than 35 years in both the Navy and Army, but Missy has kept Henderson’s legacy alive through stories and reminders — plenty of reminders — that she sees her father in Kyler.
“Kyler is so much like my father that sometimes I just do a 360 because he’ll say things like my father, he talks like my father,” Missy said.
“It just blows me away, that I tell Kyler all the time, I’m like, ‘You are not my father,’ because he talks just like him, his personality, it’s just unbelievable.”
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, Kyler honored his grandfather with a pair of custom Nike cleats that supported the Call of Duty Endowment — a charity created by the popular video game that “helps veterans secure high-quality jobs after their military service” — during Arizona’s My Cause, My Cleats game. The cleats, designed by Dominic Ciambrone aka “The Shoe Surgeon,” honored Henderson’s time in the military by painting them various shades of purple, including purple camouflage, in recognition of the Purple Heart that Henderson was awarded.
The shoes also represented a connection between a grandson, his mother and his grandfather.
On the back of the left shoe is “best friend,” and on the back of the right is “grandfather,” both in Korean, a nod to Missy’s Korean heritage — her mother was Korean, making Kyler one-quarter Korean — and the bond between mother and son.
“I just try to soak up everything she tells me about him,” Kyler said. “Obviously, we don’t talk about him every day and stuff like that but just, whenever she sees something in me that he would say or do, she always lets me know.”
And there’s a lot that Kyler does to remind Missy of her father.
The two share a demeanor, an approach to life, a passion for board games, a commitment to self-discipline, a thirst for knowledge and the presence of mind to think before acting.
“She says we’re one in the same,” Kyler said. “She said me and him are anal about things. Like things a certain way. Very strict on certain things. I’m not as strict as he is, obviously, him being a parent, having two daughters, I can only imagine.”
Missy described Kyler as an “undercover nerd” — a trait he gets from his grandfather.
Around the time she was 6 and 7, Missy would play Scrabble twice a week with her father, who turned it into a teaching tool. He would play words that his kids had never heard of — especially three-letter words — and he’d suggest they challenge him so he could read them the definitions.
“My dad was all about learning new words, reading, just being able to speak intelligently and eloquently and articulate,” Missy said. “I think that all passed down to generations because you look at Kyler on an interview, you think he’s been doing it all his life. It blows me way that he’s so calm. But that’s because he thinks before he speaks.”
Like his grandfather, Kyler likes board games. Always has, especially chess. When he would come home after big wins when he was younger, Kyler would take about a half-hour to get over the excitement and ask his mom to play Uno.
“I like to do those things,” Kyler said. “You don’t really see a lot of kids that sit down and just enjoy board games and stuff like that anymore.”
Kyler has always had balance, Missy said. He never gets too high, nor does he get too low. And he also inherited his grandfather’s military-like discipline, both in how he approaches football and how he can be off the field. He has always been attentive when it comes to following direction, but he also hands out instruction like a drill sergeant, Missy said.
And Kyler pays close attention to details, Missy said. As a child, he organized his toys by color, and as he grew up, he color-coded “everything,” she said.
“I tell people all the time, my dad was such a perfectionist,” Missy said. “I’m not sure that me and my brother passed the bar, but if he was alive today, Kyler is the prototypical kid that my dad would have wanted to raise because he does everything right. He never goes left. He goes right.”
And just like his grandfather, who would go the family’s encyclopedia set of to either prove his point or show his kids where he was coming from, Kyler also does his research.
Qhen his parents were starting to give Kyler’s dog, Swoosh, turkey after Thanksgiving, Kyler googled whether it was safe for dogs.
“He’s all about giving the rules and making sure the dog is following his commands, and I just crack up,” Missy said. “There’s that discipline in him that he even wants a dog to do things right.
“Those are the things that crack me up about him and make me think of my father all the time — the disciplinarian and giving us the orders and following orders by the T.
It’s made him one of the most exciting players in the NFL, which comes with some perks. Murray and his father called the custom cleats Kyler wore on Sunday the “baddest” they’ve ever seen.
Henderson wasn’t a football fan until he moved his family to Texas in the 1970s. Then, he became a “crazy Dallas Cowboys fan,” Missy said. He’d be a Cardinals fan today if he were still around, watching his grandson become one of the NFL’s most dynamic players.
When Kyler first saw the cleats last Tuesday in the kitchen of his Scottsdale condo, he was, for a moment, speechless.
“Aw, damn,” he said, before a smile crept across his face.
As Kyler held them, turned them, looked at every design, soaking up every detail, Missy brought up one more reminder: It was his grandfather’s birthday.
He would’ve been 100.
“Her being my best friend, I wanted to do this for her,” Kyler said of his mother. “It’s unfortunate that I never got to meet him, but her saying that we’re so much alike, I think it’s fitting to be able to represent him, honor him.”
Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It’s the rare backfield by committee that is actually a good thing for fantasy managers. Every Tuesday, we’ll ask our NFL Nation reporters a series of burning questions to help inform your waiver-wire pickups and roster decisions.
So much for those Week 13 QB rankings. The actual scoring leaders at quarterback on Sunday looked like they had been shaken out of a snow globe.
Among the biggest surprises: Baker Mayfield (29.46 points) and Matthew Stafford (26.08) landed in the top five in ESPN standard scoring, despite being ranked outside the top 20 in analysts’ projections. Meanwhile, Derek Carr (31.74) and Cam Newton (23.56) both bounced back in a huge way after they flopped a week earlier with less than four points each.
But can these inconsistent quarterbacks sustain this? Can you actually trust them in the fantasy playoffs? As always, ESPN’s team reporters have you covered.
Browns reporter Jake Trotter suggested that Mayfield might indeed be worth grabbing for your playoff run now that he is “regaining the scintillating passing touch he showed as a rookie.” Especially considering that he will play at the New York Giants in Week 15 (18th-ranked pass defense) and at the New York Jets (31st) in Week 16 after hosting the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14.
Mayfield threw for a season-high 334 yards with four first-half touchdown passes in Sunday’s 41-35 win at Tennessee. He is now the only QB in the NFL to throw four TD passes in a half this season — and he has done it twice (also in the second half at Cincinnati in Week 7).
Sure, Mayfield’s good days have been unpredictable. But it’s worth noting two things that Trotter has shared in this column in previous weeks. While endorsing wide receiver Jarvis Landry last week, Trotter explained that Cleveland’s entire passing offense suffered from Weeks 8 to 11 because it kept playing in awful weather conditions. When you remove that stretch, Mayfield has performed very well in every other game since Odell Beckham Jr. was lost to a torn ACL in Week 7.
Also, Trotter pointed out after Week 7’s bonanza that Mayfield’s fantasy value wouldn’t be hurt as much by Beckham’s injury as people might expect — because Mayfield tried to force the ball to his elite playmaker at times. They actually had the lowest completion percentage of any duo in the NFL.
Lions reporter Michael Rothstein gave an even stronger endorsement to Stafford after he threw for 402 yards with three TDs and one interception in former offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s debut as Detroit’s interim head coach.
“It’s safe to start him once again,” said Rothstein, who said Stafford looked more like his 2019 form during the come-from-behind win at Chicago. “Bevell’s offense took more downfield shots and was more aggressive. Stafford can be counted on as a QB 1/high QB 2 in almost any league.”
Although Bevell was already calling the Lions’ plays under recently fired head coach Matt Patricia, Rothstein said that Bevell’s goal was “essentially to just let Stafford play.”
“That’s why Stafford looked much more like the quarterback we saw in Bevell’s offense in 2019 — willing to take shots downfield, OK with a bit more risk and generally more comfortable than he looked at any point during the 2020 season,” Rothstein said. “It’s definitely a different offensive mindset and approach, without a doubt.”
The model of inconsistency, Carr now has six games with more than 19 fantasy points this season — and six games with less than 16. Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez said that makes some sense, considering Carr “has shown that he can win games via the dink-and-dunk West Coast offense, handing off to a ground-it-out run game and by letting it fly against defenses that play zero coverage in Hail Mary-type situations.”
That last line was, of course, a nod to Carr’s game-winning, 46-yard TD pass that led to Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams being fired — and turned Carr’s up-and-down outing into a monster fantasy performance (381 passing yards, three passing TDs, one interception, one rushing TD).
Carr might not be your best bet for consistent production. However, Gutierrez does believe that he “will have to engineer some shootout-type affairs down the stretch to keep the Raiders’ playoff hopes alive.” And he expects Carr to keep feeding Darren Waller after the tight end’s “epic performance” versus the Jets with 13 catches for 200 yards and two TDs.
For the second week in a row, the Patriots won a game despite Newton throwing for less than 100 yards. But Newton ran the ball 14 times for 48 yards and two TDs — and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss said that’s why he expects Newton to remain a fantasy asset as the 6-6 Patriots “are playing for their playoff life.”
Field Yates marvels over Cam Newton’s performance in a 45-0 shutout of the Chargers in Week 13.
Newton’s 12 rushing attempts in the first half of Sunday’s 45-0 rout at the Los Angeles Chargers were the most of any half of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“They can’t afford to lose another game. So what this game told us is they are going to hold nothing back when it comes to Newton as a rusher. They are gonna run him as much as they have to,” Reiss said. However, he did point out that you’d be taking a risk relying on those “goal-to-go scores.”
“Because there are still significant questions if they can consistently be productive in the passing game,” Reiss said. “Also consider the strength of the next two opponents — the Rams and Dolphins. Pretty good defenses there.”
Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:
As Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson said, “There is always reason to proceed with caution when it comes to the Bears’ offense.” And he has been “burned before” with high expectations for Montgomery. But Dickerson said he thinks it is actually OK to trust Montgomery in fantasy playoff lineups after his two best performances of the season over the past two weeks (143 yards from scrimmage and a receiving TD in Week 12, 111 yards from scrimmage and two rushing TDs in Week 13).
Two of Montgomery’s next three opponents (vs. Houston in Week 14, at Jacksonville in Week 16) rank among the five teams allowing the most fantasy points to running backs this year.
“He ran with a clear sense of purpose versus Detroit on Sunday and had a 100-yard game that horrible loss the week before at Green Bay,” Dickerson said. “Just don’t come after me if it doesn’t work out. These are the Bears, after all!”
Meanwhile, it looks like the rookie Kmet might have supplanted veteran Jimmy Graham as the Bears’ tight end to take a flier on in deep leagues. Kmet, who came into Sunday with just eight career receptions, caught five passes for 37 yards and a TD while Graham had zero catches.
“I held out hope that Graham might have one good fantasy day left in him versus the Lions, but that went up in smoke,” Dickerson said. “The Bears have moved on to Kmet, and they targeted him seven times in Week 13. For those fantasy managers desperate at tight end, Kmet is a good late pickup because the Bears intend to use him — after ignoring him much of the year — over the final four weeks.”
Patrick has soared past fellow wide receiver Jeudy in fantasy points over the past three weeks. In the two games during which they played with actual quarterbacks, Patrick has nine catches for 163 yards and two TDs, while Jeudy has just four catches for 42 yards.
However, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold pointed out that both wideouts saw four targets in this past game. And he said Jeudy’s diminished production has more to do with him being limited by ankle and shoulder injuries in recent weeks. Legwold said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the rookie first-round draft pick more involved as he gets healthier.
“Patrick may be a safer bet, just slightly, in the weeks ahead because he is playing better than ever, for one. And when the Broncos run the ball a lot, he’s going to get more of the snaps in those personnel groupings because he is such a physical player,” Legwold said. “But Drew Lock always looks to Jeudy, so Jeudy’s lack of targets against the Chiefs was more a physical issue. When he feels better, things will move back and forth between them — and wide receiver KJ Hamler‘s targets have steadily increased, as well.”
Field Yates and Stephania Bell agree that despite Brandin Cooks’ history of concussions, the fact that he was cleared to return vs. the Raiders should mean he will be available in Week 14.
Coutee will likely be the hottest waiver wire pickup in fantasy this week after the third-year wide receiver caught eight passes for 141 yards in the wake of Will Fuller V‘s season-ending suspension. Texans reporter Sarah Barshop said Coutee should be worth it.
“Coutee is going to continue to get targets for the next four games. Houston is a pass-first offense, even with David Johnson back from injured reserve. And without Fuller, Deshaun Watson needs someone to throw to,” Barshop said. “Coutee had two big games in 2018, his rookie season, but had fallen out of favor with former head coach Bill O’Brien and was a healthy scratch for most of the 2019 season.”
As for journeyman wideout Hansen, who had five catches for 101 yards in his first NFL game action since 2017, it’s harder to expect a repeat performance.
“Hansen had a strong training camp for the Texans, but his inclusion ahead of fifth-round rookie Isaiah Coulter was a surprise,” Barshop said. “I’m not sure he will be getting 100 receiving yards every week, but there’s clearly a trust between him and Watson that has been developed on the practice field.
“Expect Brandin Cooks and Coutee to garner the majority of targets, with Hansen operating alongside them in three-receiver sets, at least until Randall Cobb potentially returns.”
Don’t be alarmed that veteran backup Alfred Morris vultured two touchdowns away from Gallman on Sunday. Giants reporter Jordan Raanan said Gallman is “a must-start RB1 at this point in fantasy.”
“There is no way around it,” Raanan said of Gallman. “He’s had at least 15 touches in four straight games, and the Giants are committed to the run, no matter the opponent. Gallman is coming off a career-high 135 yards rushing Sunday in Seattle, and the TDs were only vultured by Morris because on both occasions he needed a breather after long runs. Gallman still out-snapped Morris 27-11 versus the Seahawks, and he has 13 red zone carries as compared to Morris’ four during this stretch. There should be no hesitation in getting Gallman in your lineup each and every week.”
Stephania Bell and Field Yates discuss the concussion Frank Gore sustained vs. the Raiders and the fantasy impact that has on La’Mical Perine and Ty Johnson.
The second-year running back should also be a popular waiver-wire pickup after he ran for 104 yards and a TD on 22 carries on Sunday, as a result of Frank Gore‘s early departure with a concussion.
Jets reporter Rich Cimini said he expects Johnson to get another crack as the leading man next week if Gore can’t return from the concussion. However, Cimini did caution that Johnson will likely split time with third-year RB Josh Adams, who gained 74 yards of his own on eight carries on Sunday.
“I give a slight edge to Johnson in terms of bigger workload, but it could depend on game plan and opponent. For now, I’d say Johnson will be 1A and Adams 1B,” said Cimini, who pointed out that Gore could eventually return to the mix, as well, since head coach Adam Gase has always leaned on Gore so much.
As Anthony Joshua enters his next — and defining — stage of his career, he’s focused on one major area: his fitness. On Saturday the English heavyweight will defend his WBA, IBF and WBO titles against Kubrat Pulev, his first fight of 2020, which will be shown live on DAZN in the United States and more than 200 countries and territories around the world.
“When I lost to Ruiz, I thought how did this little, fat munchkin throw a barrage of punches at me at once, and I threw a two-punch combo and I’m gasping for air,” Joshua told ESPN. “I had to really think about my strategy. I wanted to become more conditioned towards performing at an intense level. So, I’ve worked on punch output, less recovery, putting myself in tougher situations, being able to flow on the heavy bag for ten minutes at a time, and body sparring, which was very tough and gruesome during lockdown.
“I definitely feel I have got fitter because I have been able to work during lockdown on that, I have not been working to a deadline fatiguing myself with outside activity, it’s just been boxing focused.”
Joshua also prioritized a different set of fighters to work with in the gym. His team previously hadn’t made that a specific focus.
“We moved to open sparring, and specific sparring partners is important,” Joshua said. “For the first Ruiz fight, we had guys who were like 6ft 5in in for sparring and I was fighting someone who was 5ft something. Preparation has to be diligent and you can’t just rely on heart and strength. You have to be well prepared and this is the next stage of my career where I have to be more specific and tailored towards my opponents.
“Secondly, it’s about punch output, you have to be willing to punch until the final bell, there is no getting tired, it’s about controlling your opponent when you are not punching with feints, head movements, controls and throwing combinations when you are in range. I learned about fitness and what it means to be boxing fit.
If Joshua defeats Bulgarian Pulev (28-1, 14 KOs), 39, in front of a crowd capped at 1,000 due to coronavirus restrictions at the SSE Arena in Wembley, London, he will proceed to bigger fights next year against either rival world champion Tyson Fury (30-0-1, 21 KOs), the WBC titleholder also from England, former WBC champion Deontay Wilder (42-1-1, 41 KOs), or Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KOs), Ukraine’s former undisputed world cruiserweight champion.
2021 could be the biggest year of Joshua’s career, who turned professional after winning gold at the 2012 Olympics, became world champion in 2016 and then knocked out former champion Wladimir Klitschko a year later.
As humbling and inconvenient as it was for Joshua when Ruiz halted him in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden, New York, Joshua now looks back on it as a pivotal moment in his development. Losing to Ruiz changed the Brit and encouraged him to always be better prepared for his opponents ahead.
“I learned about the industry I’m in [by losing to Ruiz],” Joshua said. “It’s a rough man’s sport, you have to keep pulling yourself back up, there’s no room for quitters or signs of weakness, you have to be strong.