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The Great Canadian Hope January 30, 2011

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What must have seemed like a dream run for the world’s 152nd ranked tennis player (and a Canadian, no less) came to an end earlier this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne. After beating the 22nd and 10th seeds and becoming the first qualifier to reach the round of sixteen at a Grand Slam in twelve years, Thornhill, Ontario native Milos Raonic lost in four sets (4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4) to #7 David Ferrer. Had he won, Raonic would have become the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Not that Canadian tennis fans are exactly complaining.

Equipped with one of the most powerful serves on tour (ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe called it the strongest he’s ever seen) and a 6’5 frame that lets him cover the court with ease, nineteen year-old Raonic is the most promising player to come out of Canada in years. His confidence steadily grew throughout the week as his Aussie Open performance showed that he has the ability to compete amongst the tennis elite.

“There’s a lot to learn from today and from the whole two-week experience,” said Raonic, who unleashed 15 aces in defeat. “The biggest thing is I’m not that far away from this level on a week-to-week basis. This is a great motivational thing for the work I’ve done.”

Of course, anyone in attendance on the opening night of last summers’ Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto knows what Raonic is capable of against tennis’s top dogs.

On what had already been dubbed “Tennis Canada night” at the sporting organizations newly revamped Rexall Centre on the campus of York University, the Canucks shone bright. In the evening’s first match, local kid Peter Peter Polansky (ranked 200th in the world at the time) upset 15th ranked Austrian Jergin Melzer to the delight of the capacity crowd in attendance. Still, the best was yet to come.

When Raonic and Alberta’s Vasek Pospisil stepped on the court, they looked like they were about to be fed to the lions. And, in a way, they were. Roanic and Pospisil, ranked 217 and 329, respectively, were set to take on the world’s number 1 and 2 ranked players, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokavic, in a highly anticipated first-round doubles match. It marked the first time that the top two players in the world had teamed up since Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe in 1976. Two closely-contested sets and a nail-biting 10-8 tiebreaker later, the Canadian Kids had beaten Nadal and Djokovic in what could only be considered a Tennis Canada Night miracle.

For Roanic, that match was the Big Bang of his career, the instant when everything changed and his game rapidly expanded. He moved to Spain in September to train full-time under Tennis Canada coach Galo Blanco, and has shown steady signs of improvement ever since.

At the Aussie Open this week, Raonic gave a global viewing audience a taste of what he is capable of (in his four matches, he recorded over seventy five aces), and his electrifying skills didn’t go unnoticed. As he left the court after his loss to Ferrer, those in attendance Down Under gave the kid from Canada a rousing ovation. It was their way of letting him know that, in their eyes, he was no fluke, and had been accepted as the real deal. Though he entered the tournament an unknown, the Great Canadian Hope with the big serve is surely one of the most intriguing players to watch as 2011 unfolds.

Dave Zarum

Book Review: The War for Late Night January 16, 2011

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Note: This article is originally published in The Argosy newspaper and as such can not be reprinted without permission from the Editor in Chief (argosy@mta.ca)

The War for Late Night: When Leno went early and television went crazy. Written by Bill Carter. Viking Press, 2010.

Dave Zarum

“Frankly, either NBC is closing its eyes to a situation it does not wish to acknowledge, or they are unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by a drop to fourth place (behind CBS, ABC, and FOX)… Well, (cue the ragtime music) we’ve got Trouble right here at NBC with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘G’ as in, ‘Gee, we’re screwed!’/Just a few years ago we were sitting on top with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends. Then those shows bailed and new ones failed and it started a nasty trend/And the guy who passed on Lost was promoted instead of tossed, and now the Peacock is taking it from both ends.”

It was August of 2006 when Conan O’Brien kicked off his performance as host of the 58th annual Emmy Awards with this ominous song-and-dance number. Who would have thought that it would only get worse for NBC, whose already shoddy reputation would be further sullied thanks to a public battle over the future of late night programming between the network and its two biggest stars, O’Brien and Jay Leno? Yet that is precisely what happened, as meticulously chronicled by New York Times national media reporter, Bill Carter, in his latest book, The War for Late Night.

At the time of his Emmy appearance, Conan was preparing to take over the Tonight Show from its longtime and successful (at least as far as ratings and revenue was concerned) host, Jay Leno- a plan that had been in the works since early 2004. But by the time 2009 rolled around (when Conan was contractually promised the Tonight Show gig), Leno was still easily number one in the ratings and, despite nearing sixty years of age, showed no signs of slowing down. So NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the man who passed on Lost) and his executive cohorts were left with the unenviable task of supplanting the most-watched late night personality (Leno) with one who was undoubtedly funny, but ultimately an unknown commodity at the 11:35 Tonight Show time slot (Conan).

Of course, we all know what happened: Leno was moved to 10:00, where the Jay Leno Show failed because, well, it wasn’t funny, while The Tonight Show was consistently losing out to The Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings war for the first time since Leno took over from Johnny Carson back in 1992. Zucker and NBC ultimately chose to axe Conan after only six months, handing the reigns back to Leno (and subsequently forking over almost $40 million to Conan as a severance).

In writing War for Late Night, Carter’s biggest challenge was to tell a story that had already been told in newspapers daily and was carried out on TV nightly in your living room for the better part of a year. Yet he does so seamlessly, thanks to a narrative voice that makes it possible for the reader to legitimately lean forward with interest as he discusses the intricacies of advertising revenues and minute-by-minute ratings analysis- which is no small feat. That the book reads like the late night TV version of All the Presidents Men is a further credit to Carter, who does his best Bob Woodward by conducting an anthropologist’s share of primary research and interviews with nearly all players involved, from agents to executives to the hosts themselves.

Any ardent non-fiction reader will enjoy the structure of War for Late Night, as woven in between details of closed-door negotiations between executives from  the Big Three networks (…and FOX) are concise yet thorough biographies of some of the funniest comedians in late night TV including Conan, Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson.

“I knew it was official this morning when NBC dropped off all my CD’s and picked up its lava lamp”, Conan O’Brien told Tonight Show viewers on January 10th, 2010, of the news that Leno would return to host the show, but not before adding that the network insisted, “I must return the Etch-a-Sketch that my contract was written on”.

By then the national media had pitted Jay Leno and his “win at all costs” attitude against Conan’s “it’s just an honour to be here” mentality, which ultimately saw Leno back on top at NBC with O’Brien left to wander late night opportunities on smaller networks, like TBS.

The War for Late Night dismisses that prominent misconception, amongst others, instead offering insight and unparalleled access into the manipulative world of late night television, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Everyone who follows has a theory as to what went wrong during the Tonight Show saga, and after reading War for Late Night, you’ll have your very own, too.

The Marshawn Lynch Run: Play of the Year? January 10, 2011

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Note: This article is published in The Argosy newspaper and as such is property of Argosy Publications Inc.

 

Anybody who argues that it’s too early to make “Play of the Year” claims in the second week of January clearly wasn’t watching the NFL playoffs this past weekend.

In the closing minutes of an improbable first round matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, running back Marshawn Lynch erupted for an incredible 67 yard touchdown run that sealed the victory for the underdog Seahawks in arguably the biggest upset in NFL playoff history.

The Run, as its being succinctly referenced by now, was the defining moment for a team that was all but left for dead against the defending champion Saints; Seattle had won the woeful NFC West division with a 7-9 record, becoming the only team to ever finish the season with a losing record and make the playoffs.

The Saints had just scored ten points in a minute and a half and were poised to complete the comeback, down 34-30 with 3:37 left in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks offense- which had given up the ball on three straight possessions-was on the field looking to run down the clock and avoid blowing a hard-earned lead when it happened: Lynch emerges from the line with five Saints defenders falling off of him, sheds a couple of tackles, jukes to the sideline, delivers The Stiff Arm From God to cornerback Tracy Porter, a stutter step here, a key block there… Nine seconds and 67-yards later, Lynch is doing the Nestea Plunge into the end zone as millions of viewers begin to pick themselves up off of the living room floor. Devoid of circumstance The Run is jaw-dropping, but when you factor in everything that was riding on it, the play has to be considered an all-time great.

And then there’s Marshawn Lynch. With the departures of Pro-Bowl linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher along with cornerback Nate Clements to free-agency following the 2006-2007 season, there was an obvious need for the Buffalo Bills to address defense at the upcoming NFL Draft. So it was a bit surprising when, with the 12th pick in the first round, the Bills passed on defensive stars like Darrelle Revis (14th overall), Lawrence Timmons (15th), Leon Hall (18th), Aaron Ross (20th), Brandon Meriweather (24th), and Jon Beason (25th) to select Marshawn Lynch from the University of California. Lynch, the second running back selected in the draft behind Viking’s All-Pro Adrian Peterson, was tasked with bringing the sad sack Bills back to NFL relevancy.

As the focus of Coach Dick Jauran’s run-heavy offense, Lynch thrived in his first two seasons, amassing over 1,000 yards and at least seven touchdowns in both years. He even made the Pro-Bowl in 2008.

However, that summer Lynch found himself at the centre of a scandal in which he was found driving with a loaded gun following a hit-and-run incident. He received misdemeanor weapons charges and was suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the 2009 NFL season. The gun charge proved to be the first in a string of bad breaks that included a nagging ankle injury and the emergence of Bills’ running backs Fred Jackson and rookie C.J. Spiller. It seemed as though Lynch was firmly en route to the NFL’s running back graveyard, home for the throngs of players who enjoyed flash-in-the-pan success playing the most physically-demanding (and shortest tenured) position in all of sports.

With his role in Buffalo drastically reduced this season, the Bills traded him to Seattle for a pair of draft picks. Acquired as insurance for the oft-injured Seahawk running backs, Lynch was solid when called upon during the regular season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. And when the Seahawks face the Chicago Bears in Sunday’s NFC semi-final, Marshawn Lynch will be starting in the backfield.

All it took was nine seconds and a Run for the ages to revive a player’s career and revitalize a franchise that has been on a steady decline since appearing in the Super Bowl in 2006. And for that, The Run gets my vote for 2011’s Play of the Year.