The return of dominant Serena Williams

Maria Sharapova played second fiddle to Williams effectively after Azarenka was laid low by injury in 2014. But now Sharapova is getting her hits mostly on social media. She posts beach and fashionista pictures as she awaits her hearing following a failed drug test.

Angelique Kerber’s lifelong dream came true when she won a Grand Slam title in Australia in February. The accomplishment complicated Williams’ life, but not as much as Kerber’s. She’s ranked No. 2 and had a nice win at home in Germany at Stuttgart a few weeks ago. But Kerber took first-round losses in Madrid and Rome since then and hasn’t come to grips with the pressure that comes with her newfound status.

As for Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza and No. 5 Simona Halep, the winner at a depleted Madrid event last week, and Petra Kvitova, we really don’t know what to expect. Absent an effective Williams, any of them could win the French Open — or fall in the first round.

The most intriguing name outside Williams is Azarenka, who had been a model of consistency. The virtue was ruined by her string of injuries the past couple of seasons. All seemed well once again this year, and true to form, Azarenka hit the ground running. She won Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami. She has lost just one completed match this year, which came against Kerber in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Azarenka got payback in the Miami semifinals.

Williams has reason to be wary of Azarenka. The Belarussian respects Williams and knows how to turn that regard into a full assault. There’s a theory out there that Azarenka isn’t really comfortable on clay. The French Open is undeniably her least productive tournament, although she denies that she struggles on dirt.

This is all true for Williams, too. She doesn’t want that kind of talk getting out of hand, though, or giving anyone ideas.

“Honestly, clay has always been one of my favorite surfaces,” Williams said at her news conference after the Rome semifinals. “I love it way more than grass. Always have. For whatever reason, I have six Wimbledons and just three French. So I had that long hiatus of over 10 years, I think.

“I don’t know what happened. I blanked out for 10 years or so, 11 years.”

The tricky thing is that clay has to love you back. It has done so in Williams’ case twice in the past three years. But each of those successful years has been more demanding — and more significant in terms of Williams’ legacy as she hunts for those two elusive Grand Slam titles that would leave her the Open era singles champion.

“The last three, four rounds were extremely difficult for me,” Williams said of her French Open title-run last season. “Honestly, I don’t even know the words for it. I mean, ‘courage’ is beyond anything I could describe. So, yeah, it was just honestly just a miracle.”

Can another “miracle” happen? After what we saw in Rome, why not?

Jason Day wanted to win The Players Championship so badly that he wasn’t going to let anything stop him.

Not the super slick greens that nearly derailed him Saturday. Not the three muffed chips that turned potential birdie into an unsettling bogey as he made the turn Sunday. Certainly not the best field in golf.

With another commanding performance, Day put his stamp on No. 1 in the world by never letting anyone closer than two shots in the final round, playing bogey-free on the back nine of the TPC Sawgrass for the fourth straight day and closing with a 1-under 71 for a wire-to-wire victory.

It was his seventh title in the past 10 months. The 28-year-old Australian wants to win a lot more.

Next up: LeBron James, who hasn’t missed the NBA finals since “The Decision,” and the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Lowry said of making it this far. “It’s too early to even think about it. But to be honest I’ll sit back and relax and talk to DeMar [DeRozan] about it because it’s funny to think about where we were four years ago to where we are now. It’s pretty cool.

“Everybody’s probably a little bit more excited than I am, though, because I want more. I’m at that point where I just really want to keep playing and growing. I’m confident in our team and what we can do. I’m more confident in that than anything.”

After a seven-point performance in Game 1 against the Heat that prompted him to put on a hoodie and shoot until 1:15 a.m. ET, Lowry’s playoff averages stood at 13 points on 30.6 percent shooting — the worst percentage for any player in 50 years. He admitted he wasn’t himself mentally, and physically he had been bothered by a sore right elbow since late March.

Here are 14 teams that could easily have new QBs beginning in 2017

We’ll go from most combustible to least, as I would size it up presently:

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Frankly, by Week 8, Sam Bradford could be holding the clipboard. His bizarre trade demand/holdout did him no favors.

Carson Wentz is the guy for 2017, but barring a sweeping run of injuries there is no way he’s starting this September.

I have a very difficult time seeing Bradford having so transcendent a season that he’s around a year from now, despite already having a well compensated backup on the roster in Chase Daniel. Not to mention that gave up a bevy to jump up to second overall pick via two trades to be able to draft Wentz.

3. Cleveland Browns

I didn’t realize it until I was on the radio with Marc Lillibridge the other day, but he pointed out that the Browns have five quarterbacks on their roster.

So if the saying is, if you’ve got two quarterbacks you’ve got none, what does it mean if you have nearly triple that?

Josh McCown is the best QB on their roster, but he seems destined to be some sort of mentor.

RG3 should start this season, but his ability to avoid injury will be tested greatly. I can’t see him making it through this season, nor starting Week 1 of 2017. Besides, they can’t stop talking up rookie Cody Kessler.

They should be poised to take a QB in the first five picks of the 2017 draft should one prove to their liking, and I personally figure at least three different dudes will start for them this season.
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Josh McCown is perhaps the best QB on the Browns’ roster right now.
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4. Buffalo Bills

I really liked a lot of what Tyrod Taylor did last season, but the Bills could not have made it any more clear he has won nothing beyond the right to begin this season as the starter.

Cardale Jones will need more than a year to develop. Then again, if the Bills don’t resemble a playoff team this year, I expect sweeping changes in the coaching staff and front office — which could mean drafting another potential starter.

This is a make-or-break year for Taylor and his bosses. Does he have the build to stay healthy? And, after Buffalo passed on throwing any coin his way this offseason, would they be willing to pay top dollar to keep him should he perform well again?

I don’t see any hometown discounts here.

5. Miami Dolphins

The Ryan Tannehill deal was never anything more than basically guaranteeing his fifth-year option salary a year before the fact and securing the right to pay-as-they-go with him beyond that.

New coach Adam Gase is a QB guru and inherits a kid who has major limitations. If it’s not the right fit, then Gase will move on from him regardless of where a prior regime drafted him or how much money he’s already banked.

Personally, I haven’t seen much growth from this quarterback. His inability to make the big-money throws downfield will work against him perhaps now more than ever. Not one penny of his $18 million base salary for 2017 is currently guaranteed, and he will need to evolve this season or risk finding work elsewhere a year from now.
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Ryan Tannehill will need to evolve this season or risk finding work elsewhere.
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6. San Francisco 49ers

Blaine Gabbert will have every shot to open this season as the starter. Considering his career arc, one would imagine that tenure ends up being measured in weeks rather than months, much less years.

Colin Kaepernick isn’t long for San Francisco. Should a viable trade option emerge for him before or during the season, projecting him on the 2017 roster would be the ultimate long shot.

At some point Chip Kelly will have to take a QB high in a draft. I suspect that comes next spring.

This team has two stop-gap veterans right now, neither of whom I suspect is all that long for Santa Clara. As with all of the other teams listed to this point, there is a very, very high probability of someone else under center next year.

7. Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler has made a lot of money and generated a lot of headlines … and thrown a ton of picks. With Gase gone after doing great work with him a year ago, things might just revert back to 2014 form.

Cutler being in a lame-duck situation may not bring out the best in him — it didn’t the last time around, but then the Bears ended up giving him a massive contract, anyway. Under new management that likely won’t be the case again without a big season, as young GM Ryan Pace will certainly want to find a QB of the present/future in the draft soon enough.

The loss of Matt Forte’s leadership could hurt that offense as well. This team’s array of weapons on that side of the ball pales to what it looked like just a few years ago.

I’m not loving how this could be shaping up for Bears fans.
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Will Jay Cutler revert back to his 2014 form?
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8. New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton has done a ton of work on quarterbacks the past few drafts and dabbled with the prospect of taking one very high.

Contract talks with Drew Brees haven’t gone anywhere to this point. Given Brees’ unique impact on this franchise and all that he and this team have gone through together professionally and personally, post-Katrina, etc., I would never discount the possibility these sides find a way to work it out for another two to three years.

But it would be impossible to make a list like this, at this point, and not include the Saints on it somewhere in the middle.

With quarterbacks who haven’t accomplished 20 percent of Brees getting mega-deals, Brees could end up doing very well on the open market should it come to that. The fact is the Saints are probably at least another few years from contending given the depth that defense has fallen to.

9. Arizona Cardinals

Carson Palmer has several years left on his deal and the Cardinals have no viable alternative to him. Plus he’s coming off a superb regular season. Which explains in large part why he is not higher on this list.

But his age, injury history, playoff meltdowns and the structure of his contract — he has an $8.15 million roster bonus due in March — at least begs the question of how much more Bruce Arians can get from the 36-year old QB.

This team is entering Super Bowl-or-bust mode and it’s going to have to develop the next QB sooner rather than later.

If Palmer were to suffer another serious injury, there would have to be some pause about paying another $17 million, and, man, if someone like Brees was on the open market this would be precisely the kind of contender who would have to covet his postseason pedigree.

They are low on this list for a reason (several of them), but are on here for a few as well.
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Age, injury history, playoff meltdowns and the structure of his deal could work against Palmer.
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10. Kansas City Chiefs

This is usually about the time when Andy Reid has at least one eye on the future of his quarterback position. And he is a guy who always believes in drafting quarterbacks, even if there isn’t present-day need.

After this season, the guaranteed money (all $45 million of it) will have been paid to Alex Smith, who has proven to be a solid starter who can stabilize a team.

But Smith’s limitations can only take the Chiefs so far. This may be the year in which Reid draws the same conclusions that former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did, which led to his trade to Kansas City in the first place.

Thinking out loud here, but could Colin Kaepernick make sense in this offense come 2017? That would be weird, eh?

Of the QBs recently drafted by the Chiefs, I’m not positive the next guy is already on the roster as currently constructed. In all likelihood, 2017 becomes the defining year for this quarterback with this franchise, and not 2016.

I’d be surprised if the Chiefs don’t take a QB high next spring, regardless.

11. Denver Broncos

I am doing this list on my assumption that rookie Paxton Lynch ends up being the Week 1 starter. If in fact Mark Sanchez manages to hold him off for even that long, then you can go ahead and move Denver right up to the second spot on this list, in a tie with Philly.

It just depends how this quarterback competition goes this summer as to how quickly this inevitable transition takes place.

12. Washington Redskins

General manager Scot McCloughan really likes Kirk Cousins, believes he is a winning quarterback and a playoff-caliber quarterback. While ownership was hesitant to pay Cousins big-money long-term, the fact he’ll already make $20 million this year on the franchise tag, and this team’s woeful QB situation over the totality of Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner, puts Cousins in great stead.

Cousins has plenty to work with around him and he’s become a leader. I wouldn’t bet against him playing at the level he did a year ago, in which case McCloughan’s boss will have no choice but to slide another huge check across the table.
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Everything is in place for Cousins to have a solid year, but there are still questions.

There’s never been a better time to be a quarterback.

Unproven quarterbacks, middling quarterbacks and, heck, even projected future middling quarterbacks have been the story of this NFL offseason. From the combine to free agency and through the draft.

They have gotten paid like never before. The $18 million to $20 million stratosphere became a lot more crowded. It seemed hardly a week went by in which some quarterbacks — generally one with a spotty resume at best — was commanding the league’s attention.

Guys like Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins and Brock Osweiler got huge bucks. Ryan Fitzpatrick keeps waiting for a bigger contract offer that likely will never come. Colin Kaepernick remains shackled to the 49ers. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz ended up as the top two picks via trades no less. And in the third round, previous afterthoughts in Jacoby Brissett and Cody Kessler have drawn headlines for their high-profile benefactors — Bill Parcells and Hue Jackson, respectively.

WHITE SOX DEFENSE SEES RECORD STREAK COME TO AN END

Lawrie’s smooth transition to second base is one reason why the White Sox have improved defensively this season. The error was his fourth in 38 games.

Overall, the White Sox defense entered Sunday seventh in Ultimate Zone Rating (4.8) and 13th in Defensive Runs Saved (5). Those figures are much higher than in 2015 when the White Sox finished in the bottom three in the majors in both categories.

It was the second time in the contest where a throw by Lawrie later resulted in a run. He made a nice play and one-hopped a throw to Jose Abreu in the first inning in an attempt to throw out Ellsbury. But Abreu couldn’t scoop it and Ellsbury would score on a Beltran sac fly.

The White Sox were also charged with a second error in the seventh inning for catcher’s interference on Alex Avila.

Prior to Sunday, the White Sox hadn’t committed an error since April 30, when they made two.

After months of treatment, constant updates on social media and nationwide support, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still shared the news he hoped to hear for over a year. His daughter, Leah’s cancer is officially in remission.

“Today we received news from Leah’s oncologist that her cancer, stage four neuroblastoma, is officially in REMISSION! After 296 days of day dreaming about what it would feel like to hear the doctors say my daughter is in remission, I finally know the feeling,” Still said in an announcement Wednesday on his Instagram page.

“That was as good as we’ve seen Cole in a while,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “so give him credit. … There’s nothing to complain about. Just a really well-played baseball game and we got beat today.”

A Zobrist double and an Addison Russell infield single were the only two legit hits off Cole all day.

Jon Lester took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before Starling Marte singled to right field on Lester’s 101st pitch of the day. Two batters later, Jung Ho Kang drilled a double in the gap and the Pirates were on the board.

Bears rookie TE aspires to be infectious-disease doctor

Braunecker’s love of medicine developed over the last two years.

“I worked in a lab at Harvard Medical School for the past two summers,” Braunecker said. “[It is] a mitochondrial protein regulatory lab, so it’s not infectious disease, but basically it’ll give you the fundamentals to be able to work in (an infectious disease) lab.”

In addition to his lab work, Braunecker found time for football. Signed by the Chicago Bears as a priority undrafted free agent, Braunecker had a breakout 2015 season for Harvard, catching 48 passes for 850 yards and eight touchdowns.

That earned him an invite to the NFL combine, where Braunecker tested well enough that many considered him draft worthy.

“Projections had me anywhere from a fourth-rounder to a sixth-rounder, and I sat there on draft day for about seven hours on my couch with an ESPN camera in my face watching every pick go by,” Braunecker said. “That definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. I want to make this team, I’m driven to make this team and I’m really thankful the Bears gave me this opportunity.”

Braunecker has a decent shot to stick in Chicago. The tight-end position is somewhat thin after the Bears traded former Pro Bowler Martellus Bennett to the New England Patriots. But with an Ivy League education in tow, Braunecker is ready to enter the real world if necessary.

“You don’t go to Harvard to be a professional football player,” Braunecker said. “I just did that because it was the best educational opportunity for me and the best of both worlds really because while I was there we won three straight Ivy League championships. But I still have aspirations to be a doctor post-football, so thankfully I have something to fall back on if this doesn’t work out for me.”

“Every Mother’s Day it kind of gets to me,” he said. “I know she’s watching from afar, and she’s one of those angels that continues to pray for me. So I’m very blessed.”

The Bills have not issued No. 78 to any player since Smith’s final season with the team in 1999.

Smith, 52, played 15 seasons (1985-99) with the Bills and four seasons (2000-03) with the Washington Redskins. His 200 career sacks remain the most in NFL history.

The first overall selection of the 1985 draft, Smith was an 11-time Pro Bowler and two-time Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2009.

Michael Vick to Lobby for Law to Protect Animals

Dozens of fans applauded Vick as he joined several legislators at a news conference and crowded around him afterward seeking autographs and selfies.

Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons when he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges in 2007 for his role in a dogfighting ring. He served nearly two years in prison. He has played in seven NFL seasons since, including five with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Hampton, Virginia, native is now a backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and, off the field, an advocate for animal welfare.

He said he met separately with a group of children from York County before the news conference and urged the youngsters to talk about the importance of caring for animals.

“I know that I’m an enlightened advocate” for animal welfare, he said. “I was part of the problem when I was at my lowest. I made decisions to make change and I stand by them.”

The bill was introduced in September and is pending in a House committee. A summary offense is the most minor type of infraction in Pennsylvania, usually punishable by a fine.

Seventeen states have laws making it illegal to leave pets in vehicles on warm days, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom filed a court petition dismissing a divorce filing, but the reality TV star says that doesn’t mean they’re reconciling after the former NBA star was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel.

Kardashian says in an interview with People magazine that she halted the divorce to make medical decisions on Odom’s behalf.

In the heart of River North, Butler just purchased the 10,000 square foot mansion for $4.3 million. It includes a 750-bottle wine cellar, 3-car garage, spacious deck, ‘man cave’ and billiards table – one thing it didn’t have is a super swanky fish tank, but luckily that’s now changed.

What Animal Planet’s Wayde King and Brett Raymer revealed to him was a 6,000-pound epic boom box aquarium that even has speakers inside so his new fish can hear the music too.

Jets fan already has Marcus Mariota Jets jersey

If the New York Jets pull off a crazy trade during the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday and somehow end up with Marcus Mariota, there will be no one happier than this guy, who already owns a Mariota Jets jersey.

To get the former Oregon quarterback, the Jets would have to outmaneuver the Eagles, Browns and Chargers — and that’s only if the Titans would even be willing to budge from the No. 2 spot.

The problem for the Jets is that if the Titans are willing to trade, the Browns have more ammo to trade with and the Chargers could unload Philip Rivers.

Then there’s Chip Kelly, who would probably trade his entire roster and agree to name his first son “Titan” if Tennessee’s willing to make a deal with him for Mariota.

Anyway, I love this guy’s blind optimism, but I hope he still has the receipt.

If you want to go to the store and purchase a DeMarco Murray or Byron Maxwell jersey, no problem. Plenty are available as of April 8th at the Eagles Pro Shops in Cherry Hill, Philly, and Lancaster, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks.

“No doubt, no doubt,” Spadaro said. “It is available. Sam Bradford is available online. Sam Bradford, if there is a large demand for Sam Bradford—I think right now the Pro Shop—not in cahoots with Chip Kelly—but the Pro Shop is taking the approach that, look we just don’t do it with one-year contracts unless there is high demand.

“They know that DeMarco Murray has a five-year deal and he’s gonna be here for awhile,” Spadaro continued. “They went out and ordered jerseys. There is no conspiracy theory here. If the Eagles extend Sam Bradford, then there will be jerseys of Sam Bradford. The expectation right now, as their business decision, the fans are not rushing out to buy Sam Bradford jerseys.”

However, the Cowboys can’t wear that combo anymore because of a rule the NFL implemented last year that stipulates that teams can only wear one helmet this season, so the Cowboys weren’t allowed to switch from their standard silver helmets to the white helmets for Thanksgiving.