Tweener Sunday provides some super fireworks

Sunday was supposed to be the day the sports potatoes got off their couches.

This is the NFL's contribution to society. No games — and no, the Pro Bowl is not a game. It is an exhibition. The kids down the block playing flag football hit harder.

It is a day to be devoid of five guys, sitting at a table in a TV studio, making six-figure salaries to state the obvious for an audience that will nod in deep appreciation at being told that the Patriots need to establish their running game.

On this annual blessed day in January, there weren't even any concussions.

It was Tweener Sunday, the weekend day between the semifinal mayhem and the final mayhem, that football game with the Roman numerals. Various reasons have been given for this pause in the action, including allowing teams more time to heal from a season of mayhem.

The real reason is that the NFL seeks another week for the media to get on its hands and knees and worship. One more five-column picture, one more TV interview with the extra-point holder, and those 30-second commercials during the Roman Numeral Game will cost even more millions next year.

So, just because the NFL allows a Tweener Sunday doesn't mean we are supposed to lose focus, as Jimmy or Howie or Coach Cowher might say.

But this time, two noncontact sports — tennis and golf — messed that up.

First, there was this tennis tournament on the underside of the world, the Australian Open. If you were really into it you could have stayed up all night and watched the men's final. If not, there it was on a Sunday morning replay, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, going at it in one of the more riveting tennis matches in recent memory.

They played seven minutes short of six hours. Djokovic won in five spellbinding sets. They served for the entire time at speeds reaching 130 mph. Most of us, even in our youth and even with decent athletic skills, wouldn't be able to twitch before those were past us.

They say that pro basketball players are the best-conditioned athletes. They say that major league baseball players have the best eyes and reflexes. You watch Nadal and Djokovic and you wonder about that.

Men's tennis now has incredible three-headed star power — Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer. It also has a No. 4, Andy Murray, trying mightily to make it a Big Four and always putting up a great fight before falling short. The entertainment value is huge, and Southern California gets the next dose. The next big event on the tennis calendar, featuring all four of the Big-Three-Plus-One, will be at Indian Wells in mid-March.

If that didn't keep you on the couch, the replay of the golf from Abu Dhabi did. Tiger Woods was contending, Rory McIlroy was looking as sharp as he did when he ran away with last year's U.S. Open, and a delightful new player was emerging. Robert Rock, with a playing style that mirrored his name, beat them both and won a tournament that had one of the better fields ever in a non-major.

The bearded Rock, looking like a cross between Luke Wilson and Brad Pitt, was selling tees and golf gloves in a pro shop in England nine years ago. He was also hero-worshiping Woods, whom he beat Sunday and said of afterward, "Just playing with Tiger is a special honor in itself."

Rock, 34, was asked in his news conference what he thought he would be most remembered for, before this win. He smiled, thought about it, and said, "Not much."

Handsome, self-effacing and able to putt. Meet golf's newest matinee idol.

And then there was Brandt Snedeker, another budding star and kind of a Huck Finn character. He won the day at the San Diego Zoo, also known as the Farmers Insurance Open.

For a while, this had everything Tweener Sunday is supposed to: a boring golf tournament with somebody holding a big lead going into the final round. That somebody was Kyle Stanley, a familiar name to dozens who had sports reporters writing their leads and planning dinner and sports editors making room on Page 6 when he still had six holes left. Going into No. 18, Stanley led by three shots and Snedeker, who was second and had finished, was already in the media tent, talking to reporters about how satisfying second place could be.

Then Stanley hit a decent third shot onto the sloping, par-five 18th green and the ball spun back and rolled, agonizingly, down the slope and into the water. His next shot, his fifth, went too high onto the green to assure himself of the needed two putts to win. And when he, indeed, three-putted — for an eight! — they went and found Snedeker for a playoff, which he won on the second extra hole.

It was a stunning reversal of fortune. Stanley hadn't even choked. He just got horribly unlucky. You could almost imagine fans who had walked in the gallery and watched Stanley dominate the entire tournament, turning to each other and doing their best Jim Mora imitation.

"Playoff? Playoff??"

After their match in Australia, an exhausted Djokovic praised an exhausted Nadal and Nadal returned the favor. In Abu Dhabi, Rock talked about being in awe of Woods, and Woods praised Rock's unflappable play. At Torrey Pines, Snedeker repeatedly voiced empathy for Stanley's misfortune, and Stanley wept in the media room.

It was great theater on Tweener Day — competition, sportsmanship, drama. The Roman Numeral Game will have to go some to match it.

It might take five concussions.

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