LONDON: So, it has finally arrived — the business end of any NFL season. As exciting and intriguing as the regular season can be, the playoffs always pique the interest of fans. And they always throw up gridiron of the highest quality and games that live long in the memory. Now that we know the teams that are left gunning for Super Bowl glory, Arab News offers up some predictions for this weekend’s Wild card round.
Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts
We have seen this season that the Texans are perfectly set for the kind of games we see take place in the postseason. The one-score, tight affairs which always hang on a knife-edge until the very last second. The Texans have played in 11 such games during the regular season, so you fancy them to last the distance should this one go down to the wire. Their only worry will be the form of Deshaun Watson in the final few weeks.
As for the Colts, they will be thanking their “Lucky” stars that quarterback Andrew Luck has been back to his very best in 2018. Often a bridesmaid, he has come good this year and has been influential in turning around their 1-5 start. And all of the praise Luck has received has overshadowed the incredible work of the Colts' defense over the same period.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS: Texans to edge it, based purely on home advantage
Dallas Cowboys vs. Seattle Seahawks
It was not the best end to the season for the Cowboys — they limped over the line in the end, only just pipping the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC East title. But this Cowboys offense will be confident that they have enough to cause problems for the league’s very best, let alone an off-the-boil Seahawks. Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be the aces in the pack for Dallas.
Seattle’s offense has been a shadow of its Super Bowl-winning self in recent years, but 2018 was a particular nadir. Not something that fills the Seahawk faithful with much hope of going deep in the playoffs. But one silver lining is that they entered Week 17 with a chance to tie the NFL record for the lowest total of turnovers (10) over a full season in league history. Russell Wilson and Co. will have to be on top form to win this one.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS: Cowboys to seal a comfortable win and move onto the Divisional week
Baltimore Ravens vs. Los Angeles Chargers
It has been quite a remarkable second half of the season for the Ravens, who appear reinvigorated by one of the NFL’s best defenses this year. Second only to the impenetrable Chicago Bears in the league, it has been a masterclass of restricting and suffocating opposition offenses. Regular readers of this column will know we often advocate the value of defenses if teams want to win the Big Game — a strong defense and solid special teams are a vital and rare commodity in the playoffs.
This Chargers team have finally enmeshed their obvious talent with a mental resilience that was so often missing in recent years. Victories at Seattle, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs attest to that. But they have so often started games far too slowly, and will need to be on fire from the first kick-off to the final whistle in the playoffs if Philip Rivers is to finally fulfil his potential as a QB and win the Super Bowl.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS: Rivers to have the game of his life and kick-start a glorious run to the Super Bowl
Chicago Bears vs. Philadelphia Eagles
What a difference a year makes. The Bears finished last season second-last in the NFC with a 5-11 record. They have now produced one of the finest defensive runs in a generation (or since the last great Bears defense of 1985) and now find themselves with a genuine chance of Super Bowl glory. This Bears defensive line should be able to keep playoff games low-scoring enough for their offensive line to finish the job.
As for the Eagles, their blistering, Super Bowl-winning offense of last year has petered out and it will be the upset of the season if Philadelphia go to and steal a win. Their only hope is the clear chemistry between coach Doug Pederson and on-off QB Nick Foles, and the latter’s telepathic connection with his offensive linemen.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS: A valiant effort from the Eagles will not be enough to stop Chicago’s defensive juggernaut rolling on
‘Stan the Man’ Wawrinka primed to weave tennis magic at Diriyah Tennis Cup
Wawrinka will battle it out with eight of the world’s best tennis players in a tournament which is being staged as part of the Diriyah Season – featuring Formula E and World Heavyweight boxing
Stan Wawrinka: For me, it has always been my passion. I loved tennis because it is a game where you play against someone and you need to find a solution
Updated 20 min 40 sec ago
RIYADH: He’s a fan favorite known around the world as ‘Stan the Man’ and now tennis enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia will be able to watch three-time Grand Slam in action with the announcement of the $3 million Diriyah Tennis Cup.
Staged as part of the Diriyah Season (which includes Formula E, World Heavyweight boxing and an elite equestrian event) Stan Wawrinka will battle it out in a unique tournament featuring eight of the world’s best men’s tennis players, all with their eyes on the coveted Diriyah Cup. It will be the first time international tennis has come to the Kingdom and, ahead of the contest, ‘Stan the Man’ spoke about his excitement of playing in the Diriyah Tennis Cup, staged in an iconic venue at the a UNESCO world heritage site, in the 15,000-seater purpose built Diriyah Arena.
Arab News: You were so close to winning the European Open in Belgium, can you tell us what happened and how Andy Murray won at the end? Stan Wawrinka: First it’s always been a pleasure sharing a court with Andy, great to have him back and congrats on a strong tournament, As for the match he hung on in the end and did not want to lose, it was so close, sure I do not like to lose but I’m happy to see Andy back and on the winning track.
AN: How important is it for tennis to be coming to Saudi Arabia and bringing the game to a new market? How excited are you to be playing here? SW: I think it is great for tennis, but it is more important for the kids here around to see some live tennis action. I’m really excited to be playing in the first tournament ever to be played here. So that is going to be really special and hopefully it will be a great atmosphere, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the young fans.
AN: As an international tennis player you travel a lot throughout the year. How do you feel about visiting and playing in Saudi Arabia? SW: I always enjoyed traveling and you need that as a tennis player because you travel 10 months a year, but also after so many years on the tour I enjoy it even more when I get to a new place, a new tournament and see something new, and that is something great here.
AN: What do you think of the ongoing sporting revolution in Saudi Arabia? What does it mean for you as an athlete? SW: I have heard a lot of good stuff [about Saudi Arabia] and especially what they are doing now for sport. They are making a lot of big events in different kinds of sports, and that is something great for the country, for the fans and the kids to see all the sports and events coming here. I’m sure it is going be something amazing. To build a tennis court here with so many people attending a tennis tournament for the first time will feel really special as a player to come here.
AN: Diriyah Season features different high-profile sporting events. What do you think of the season and its program? SW: It is a big program with many events such as Formula E, boxing and tennis. It is going to be really busy for everybody and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard only good things about Formula E last year, and I saw where the tennis court is going to be and I’m sure it will be great.
AN: Speaking of the other events in Diriyah Season, the tennis competition is a few days after the Clash on the Dunes which pits Andy Ruiz Jr against Anthony Joshua in the first World Heavyweight title fight in the Middle East. Who is your pick for this incredible showdown? SW: They’re going to be at the same stadium. We are going to play the tennis after [the fight, which will be] a few days before us. Joshua is a big one and I’m betting on him.
AN: You’ll be up against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, Belgium’s David Goffin and Italy’s Fabio Fogini and four more competitors to be announced later. How do you see your participation in the inaugural edition of the Diriyah Tennis Cup? How does it impact your preparations for the next season? SW: I think it is going to be a perfect start [to the season]. It is going to be at the end of the pre-season. Starting with a tournament like that with so many good players is going to be super great for my tennis. I think the atmosphere is going to be great. It is the first tennis tournament here and it will be really special, so I’m happy to be playing here for the first year and hopefully many more years.
AN: Some fans might be tempted to watch the games on TV rather than attending the action live. How different is it living the whole experience in the stands? SW: It is completely different from TV. [In reality] you can see the speed, you can see the spin and the way we are moving. I think it is way more impressive to watch it live. You also feel the atmosphere, the tension on the court and the stress from the players, so it is always something special to watch sport live.
AN: Looking ahead to the new season, what are your aspirations? What do you want to achieve? SW: I need to finish the year and then have a good off-season and pre-season and work out to keep improving. This year I’m really happy to be back in the top 20 and I saw that I can still beat the top players and make some big results. Hopefully next year I can keep pushing in that direction and try to get back higher in the ranking and try to push a little for more big results.
AN: What does a tennis player do in the pre-season training? How does your preparation differ from some of the other big players? SW: We take the time to have an off-season in tennis. We don’t have a super long off-season, so after the last tournament normally we will take a little bit of holiday, maybe 10 days or maximum two weeks but probably 10 days and then you have a few weeks to basically work on your fitness and your tennis. Most of the time I start first on the fitness side and move onto tennis and fitness together, and finish with only tennis. That is the work you put in. For sure when you are 34 years old you don’t work the same as when you were 20. Now for me I focus more on small things. I don’t need to put in so much quantity. I still do it because my game needs it and l know that is how I get to the top of my game, but it is slightly less than when I was younger.
AN: What do you think of next year’s majors? Do you have a favorite? Is it the clay where you had a lot of success? SW: I think they are all different and amazing. Australia is the first in the year and I love the atmosphere and the fans. They really enjoy and celebrate the sport. It is great because in Europe it is wintertime, so you arrive first in a sunny place. French Open is clay court and I grew up on clay. It is close to my home and all the friends and family come. [Wimbledon] is always special with the grass and there is so much history in the tournament. New York is a bit more like the crazy one. The atmosphere is crazy and electric, and the city is amazing. So, I always enjoy each tournament I compete in, and I always look at the positive and enjoy what I love.
AN: Are you looking forward to the Olympics? Are you excited by the potential to play alongside Roger again? How do you compare it the majors? SW: Olympic year is always very busy on the schedule. It is tough to make the right schedule. It is a big calendar. I’m looking forward to all the tournaments. For sure the majors are important, and the Olympics can be something really exciting, [and I’m excited] to play in Tokyo. But again, for us there is so much happening week after week that you need to be focused on the present and you need to be focused on what you are doing. Put some goals but the rest of the time you need to stay in the present because if not, you miss so much.
AN: What does a tennis player eat during a tournament and in training? SW: I think we are all different. It is an individual sport. We all have different bodies and different metabolisms, and we eat differently. For me, it is simple food. I love and enjoy food and I always try food from the country [I’m in]. But again, we are athletes and we need to be careful. We plan but I’m not that extreme and I try to enjoy and eat healthy.
AN: Do you enjoy Arabic food? Have you tried any of the local food? SW: Yes, I do for sure. Not every day but I enjoy it every once in a while and eat that kind of food.
AN: What does tennis mean for you? What role does it play in your life? SW: For me, it has always been my passion. I loved tennis because it is a game where you play against someone and you need to find a solution. You enjoy, you are on the court, you can try a new shot. So, it has always been special and since I [turned] professional, [playing] in front of people and in a great atmosphere is the reason I keep playing tennis.
AN: And what about sport in general? How do you think it shapes one’s personality? SW: I think any sport is a good school of life. We are lucky with tennis that we travel a lot. We need to take care of our own team. We need to stay humble and to never forget the hard work that you have to put if you want to be on the top of your game. For me, it has always been something special to be a tennis player. I think it is great to do sport and be active. It makes you do something that you can really enjoy [as] it is a game. Any sport starts as a game that you can play with friends and enjoy in the afternoon and be challenging a little bit.
AN: What advice and tips for success would you give to the young Saudi talents who would like to be the next Stan Wawrinka? SW: It is all about the love of the game. It is all about the passion. Never forget why you started playing the game. It is a game, [so] you need to enjoy it. You need to enjoy going on the practice court. It has to be fun and that is the most important [thing].
AN: How did you start playing tennis? Why did you choose it in particular? SW: My parents wanted my brother and I to play a sport outside school and we had a tennis court five minutes away and that is how we started [playing tennis].
AN: You are known for your serves and powerful backhands. How important is the physical aspect of your game? SW: I practice a lot ever since I was young and I always enjoyed the fitness side, [which] is also important. It is my game to be powerful from the baseline and try to [forge] an advantage with my shots.
AN: Have you started thinking about a retirement date and the next chapter of your career? SW: It is tough to answer this question. I’m close to the end of my career. I’ve got a few more years but as long as I feel great on the court and as long as my body is there, mentally I want to keep going. I enjoy what I’m doing and that is the most important [thing].
AN: How was the nickname “Stan the Man” coined? Is there a story behind that? SW: It came long time ago when I was playing a big match in US Open in New York. The next day I was in the newspaper and they called me “Stan the Man” and that is how it started.