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Five sports stories to watch this fall Add to ...

Globe sportswriters highlight the games (and players) sports fans should track this season

Rafael Nadal's comeback season. No hockey strike. All eyes on the Atlanta Braves for October. A Canadian revolution in basketball. A chance to go “green” in Regina.



1. All eyes on Nadal 0 likes

The last time Rafael Nadal won a Grand Slam on hard court was three years ago, his one, and so far only, U.S. Open title. This year, however, has marked the resurrection of the 27-year-old Spaniard, who some believed was finished in the top tier of men’s tennis, forever hindered by wonky knees, worn down by his ferocious, pounding style of play. Instead, Mr. Nadal has delivered one of the greatest-ever seasons of tennis on hard courts, winning most of the biggest tournaments.

So, while Novak Djokovic may be, for now, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and Wimbledon winner Andy Murray returns to New York as the defending U.S. Open champion, it is surely Mr. Nadal who will command the most attention and perhaps deliver the most memorable tennis. Along for the ride at the Open (which runs Aug. 26 to Sept. 9) are two hotshot young Canadians, Milos Raonic, who in August cracked the world top 10, the first Canadian to do so, and Vasek Pospisil, who cracked the top 40. The likelihood of their extended longevity in New York is not particularly promising but it will be suitably harsh environs to gird the two young men for the Davis Cup semifinal a week later in Serbia.

The Davis Cup final four is a stage Canada has never reached – we’ve only reached the final 16 twice before – and if another major upset is in the offing, after knocking off Spain and then Italy, Mr. Raonic and Mr. Pospisil will have to conjure something special to upend Mr. Djokovic in the comforts of his home.

— David Ebner

2. NHL's hopeful season 0 likes

Call it the annual autumn outburst of irrational optimism. Everything seems possible when NHL training camps open in the second week of September – particularly for hockey fans in the seven Canadian cities represented in the league.

In Toronto, those who root for the Maple Leafs will look at their team’s narrow loss to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins, add it to the summer’s free agent signings, and come up with a team that could be poised for a long playoff run for the first time in 20-plus years. Montreal, meanwhile, finished a surprise second in the Eastern Conference in the lockout-shortened season, and despite a hasty playoff exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, Habs fans will believe theirs is a young team on the rise. Speaking of Ottawa, even the messy off-season divorce with iconic captain Daniel Alfredsson isn’t enough to dampen the warm fuzzies that Sens Nation feels when it looks at an exciting team that includes perhaps the league’s best defenceman in Erik Karlsson, and newly-arrived power forward Bobby Ryan.

Looking west, the denizens of the MTS Centre will point out that their beloved Winnipeg Jets narrowly missed out on the post-season last season, and with the expected arrival of blue-chip prospect Mark Scheifele, they expect to take part in the post-season dance. In Calgary and Edmonton, where the Battle of Alberta of yore has yielded to the battle of the bottom-feeders, the hope is of sunnier days ahead. Oilers fans are more justified in their optimism, given the continuing development of brilliant young players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. In Calgary – well, they can at least cling to the hope that funny things happen in an NHL season, and their team may actually win a few games. On the left coast, the Vancouver Canucks have resolved their goaltending soap opera, with former Team Canada netminder – and part-time Twitter comedian – Roberto Luongo firmly ensconced. The Canucks are still only three years removed from a Stanley Cup final appearance, and can argue they are still well-placed to end the 20-season championship drought for Canadian NHL teams.

— Sean Gordon

3. Baseball's underdogs 0 likes

One prediction that will definitely hold true: the Toronto Blue Jays – their revamped roster and ballyhooed hopes for a sterling 2013 campaign notwithstanding – will not be playing postseason baseball. Beyond yet-another baseball-free October in Canada’s largest city (a tradition stretching back two decades), the season is shaping up much like others, with a number of teams bunched together at the top, and one slightly out in front. That team seems to be the National League’s Atlanta Braves – but there is a lot of baseball left to play in September.

The next stretch will show whether the unlikely Pittsburgh Pirates could end 20 seasons of sub-.500 play and make the playoffs for the first time since 1992, when they lost to the Braves (which perhaps fate will pit them against once more). In the American League, meanwhile, the revived Red Sox aim to excise a short-but-intense recent history of failure, and the still-strong Detroit Tigers, including the erratic Justin Verlander, hope to make the final step, after being swept in the World Series last year, of bringing the bankrupt Motor City its first World Series championship since 1984.

— David Ebner

4. Andrew Wiggins 0 likes

This ESPN-concocted Champions Classic, now in its third year, will be the first big-time showcase of Toronto-raised Andrew Wiggins, as Kansas squares off against Duke (for just the second time in the past 11 years). Mr. Wiggins arrives as a freshman at Kansas with impossibly high expectations and preternatural cool. The No. 1 high school recruit moved this past spring into Division I – he was also named the best high schooler ball player in the United States – is expected to be one-and-out at Kansas, playing with a star-laden freshman class before he ascends to the next perch everyone has long predicted, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 National Basketball Association draft.

Mr. Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 shooting guard, has always delivered on heady demands and this game, featuring two of the best teams in the country, will be an early collegiate acid test. The November game will be the first time many fans will watch Mr. Wiggins against top competition. If all unfurls as imagined, Mr. Wiggins’s draft next year will mark not only his induction into the NBA but back-to-back No. 1s for Canada into the association. That bodes well for the country’s once-moribund men’s national team program; a medal in 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics is realistic possibility.

— David Ebner

5. The Grey Cup 0 likes

It’s one of this country’s few truly national institutions, and if you want evidence of how serious partisans are, look no further than how quickly the 101st Grey Cup sold out. Five thousand tickets were snapped up in a 101-hour window in July, fully five months before the game is to be played on Nov. 24. Canada’s football championship will be contested in Regina this year, the first time the CFL’s glamour event has been held in the Saskatchewan capital since 2003. That year, 50,909 fans braved the chill to watch the Edmonton Eskimos defeat the Montreal Alouettes.

At least as many will turn up in Mosaic Stadium in the dying weeks of this fall to pump for the Roughriders. Particularly since the home team is surely the best edition of the Riders since 2007, the last time the men in green carried the Grey Cup off the field. Regular season dominance is no guarantee of post-season success, but the Riders, who are community-owned, have built what appears to be a juggernaut, led by 36-year-old coach Cory Chamblin, quarterback Darian Durant and running back Kory Sheets. The trio may hail from Alabama, South Carolina and Connecticut, respectively, but they know intuitively how much it would mean for the Riders to win the big game before their crazed, watermelon-hat-wearing fans. To pull that feat off would be a first, and doubtless the greatest moment in the history of a franchise that inspires many of its fans to drive five and six hours to get to games – and embark on the long trek home after the final whistle.

— Sean Gordon

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