Puzzling yet popular, Americans are learning to love curling

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United States’s skip John Shuster throws a stone during a men’s curling match against Italy at the Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea on Thursday, February 15. (AP)
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A US fan dressed in the colors of the American flag gestures as he watches the men’s curling matches at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. (AP)
Updated 16 February 2018

Puzzling yet popular, Americans are learning to love curling

GANGNEUNG, South Korea: When Ann Chase and her husband were planning their trip to Pyeongchang for the Olympics, she set her sights on nabbing tickets to the most glamorous event of the Games: Figure skating. Her husband, however, had decidedly humbler ambitions.
“He was like, ‘No, CURLING!’ And I was like, ‘OK, that’s like a $40 nap,’” Chase, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said with a laugh before a recent curling match at the Gangneung Curling Center. “But then you get excited about it, you start watching it on TV. And we were trying to learn the jargon and we’re like, ‘OK, this is actually kind of cool!’“
Chase’s gradual warming toward the often-confounding sport of curling mirrors that of many people in the United States. While their Canadian neighbors have long revered the game of roaring rocks and feverish sweeping, Americans have generally derided the sport as a bit dull.
But that’s changing. Since 2000, the number of US curling clubs registered with the national organization USA Curling has nearly doubled, from 99 to 185. And while curling in the US was once relegated to the upper midwest and small pockets of New England, it has expanded to many southern and western states. Even Hawaii has a curling club.
At Pyeongchang, Americans are embracing the sport for its chess-like strategy and oddball factor. There’s the fun of seeing what garishly colored pants the Norwegians will wear each day, the challenge of trying to anticipate the teams’ next moves, and — best of all — the curlers’ quirky personalities.
American curlers Matt and Becca Hamilton, siblings from Wisconsin, have been particularly popular with US fans. On social media, tweets about the duo bear the hashtag #HamFam, and Matt’s mustache and red baseball cap have inspired plenty of memes likening him to the Nintendo character Mario. On the ice, they occasionally squabble like, well, siblings. It’s all very real — which is part of the appeal.
“You get to understand the players’ personalities because everybody’s mic’d up,” says Joe Polo, a member of the US curling team. “You can definitely tell what Hammy’s all about; he’s a goofball out there, and all the other guys. I think that’s the biggest thing, people can really make a connection to the players.”
Curling is a sport tailor-made for a nation that loves getting to go behind the scenes, says Matt Hamilton’s wife, Jen Hamilton. Unlike, say, ski jumping where the athletes are on and off the screen in a flash, curling matches last around three hours, giving viewers an in-depth experience as they watch the players strategize, joke around and holler orders.
“People are just realizing that it can actually be really fun to watch,” she says. “You’re spending three hours fighting with them for the win.”
Americans have also received much more exposure to the sport on TV in recent years. At the Olympics, curling coverage is a constant. It has the heaviest schedule of any sport at the Winter Games, with four matches being played simultaneously up to three times a day.
“It’s like they started showing poker on TV and all of a sudden, everybody started playing poker,” says Polo. “They started showing curling and everybody’s enjoying watching it.”
More exposure means more opportunity for Americans to learn the rules to this 500-year-old sport. Which, let’s face it, are pretty perplexing to the uninitiated.
Chau Tran, an American stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea, first got into curling while flipping the channels during the Sochi Olympics. Though he was initially confused, once he grasped the basic concept — which is to get your stones close to the center of the circular target — he was entranced.
On Friday, he sat with his wife and daughter watching the Sweden vs. US match, waving an American flag. The Americans eventually lost, bringing their record to 1-2 in the nine-game round robin. Still, the fun of curling for Tran is figuring out the strategy. Players have to anticipate their opponents’ next several moves before deciding their shot.
“It’s a lot more than just throwing a stone,” he says.
Avery Bretschneider, a Minnesota native whose brother-in-law is a member of the US curling team, has recently seen his friends in Nebraska coming around to the sport. And he’s been glad to educate them on what it’s all about.
“You try to compare it as like darts and shuffleboard, maybe a little bocce ball,” he says. “Once people get started watching it, then it’s easier to explain the rules. It’s not a simple game.”
That’s something even the families of curlers admit is true. When Jen Hamilton first met Matt, her knowledge of curling was limited to a vague idea that it was an Olympic sport.
“We’ve been together eight years,” she says. “I think it probably took six years for me to understand what the heck was going on.”


Djokovic not worried about blisters ahead of US Open

Updated 25 August 2019

Djokovic not worried about blisters ahead of US Open

  • When the year's last Grand Slam tournament begins Monday, Djokovic will be in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the afternoon session, facing Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain

NEW YORK: During a break in practice two days before opening his US Open title defense, Novak Djokovic pulled off his blue shoe and white sock so a trainer could look at his right foot.

Did it again a little while later.

And then, toward the end of Saturday’s training session in Louis Armstrong Stadium with 2014 runner-up Kei Nishikori, Djokovic stopped a sprint and pulled up short of a ball, raised his right leg off the ground entirely and hopped repeatedly on his left, wincing. Nothing to worry about, Djokovic said later at his pre-tournament news conference: Just blisters.

“A minor thing,” Djokovic called it. “Like anybody has ... Nothing major that is causing a concern for the event.”

When the year's last Grand Slam tournament begins Monday, Djokovic will be in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the afternoon session, facing Roberto Carballes Baena, a 26-year-old from Spain whose career-best ranking was 72nd.

Carballes Baena has an overall career record of 43-50. That includes 2-7 at major tournaments, 1-1 at Flushing Meadows, where he made his debut a year ago and lost in the second round.

Djokovic, meanwhile, has won 33 of his past 34 Grand Slam matches en route to collecting four of the past five major titles. That allowed the 32-year-old Serb to raise his career haul to 16 trophies, putting him just two away from second-place Rafael Nadal’s total of 18, and Roger Federer’s 20, which is the record for men.

He’s not shy about trying to catch those guys.

“More or less everything is about Grand Slams, in terms of how I see tennis and how I approach it, because they matter the most,” Djokovic said. “So I will definitely try to play my best tennis — and aim to play my best tennis — at these events.”

And while many would attribute Djokovic's success to his ability to return serves, say, or his mental strength and propensity for coming up big in the biggest moments — such as saving two match points along the way to edging Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker in the Wimbledon final last month — there's something else the man himself would point to as his most vital quality.

That's the way Djokovic can cover a court, which is why the state of that right foot is actually a rather big deal.

His movement, Djokovic said Saturday, is "the base of everything" and "the most important thing."

"It just allows you to be more in balance. And at the end of the day, that is what you're looking for as a tennis player," he explained. "How can you hit the ball, being in the right balance, so you can penetrate the ball with the right speed, accuracy and precision?"

Watch Djokovic during a match, and you'll see him change direction in a heartbeat, twist and turn, contort his limbs, slide — on clay, on grass, even on hard courts — always getting to the right spot at the right time.

He attributes his strength in that area to the flexibility of his ankles and is grateful he used to participate in another sport while growing up back home in Serbia.

"I credit my childhood spent on the skis. I used to spend a lot of time skiing," Djokovic said. "That had an effect as well, with kind of coordination and changing movement from one side to another. Even though they're different sports, in essence, you're using some major muscle groups and joints and stuff like this in most of the sports."

It is Djokovic's right elbow that gave him the most trouble a couple of seasons ago.

He missed the last half of 2017, including that year's US Open because that arm was bothering him, then wound up having surgery in February 2018. It took some time for Djokovic to get going after that. All's good these days, though.

"Novak had a couple years where he didn't seem like the same guy," ESPN's John McEnroe said. "Now he's back with a vengeance."

Only 1½ months have passed since Djokovic edged Federer in that classic title match at the All England Club.

Not a lot of time to savor the victory. Not a lot of time to rest a weary body.

"This sport can be a little bit 'cruel,'" Djokovic said, using fingers to indicate air quotes, "when it comes to, I guess, marveling or celebrating your own success. You don't have that much luxury of time to really reflect on everything because the season keeps going."