Tennis star Lleyton Hewitt accuses Bernard Tomic of blackmail, physical threats

“The threats that I’ve received for me and my family that I’ve had had for a year and half now, I don’t think anyone would reach out to a person who speaks like that.

“For me, it was the abuse I copped from him at the end. I drew a line in the sand and I haven’t spoken to him since.

“He won’t play Davis Cup while I have anything to do with it.”

Hewitt said he didn’t feel threatened by Tomic’s abuse but was frustrated after trying to help the world No. 88 and one-time No.17.

Hewitt says that Tomic (centre) will never play Davis Cup while Hewitt is captain of the team. AAP

He said he was disappointed by Tomic’s most recent comments.

“For me, the biggest frustration is that I really went out of my way to help him,” Hewitt said.

“I spent a lot of time with him at a lot of tournaments and tried to get a coaching structure and physical team around him to give him the best opportunity but at the end of the day he kept making the wrong mistakes.

“Deep down, Bernie knows what I’ve done for him … for Bernie to come out and have a go but more to get all of his facts wrong, that’s probably the most disappointing thing.”

Hewitt said Nick Kyrgios wasn’t lost to the Davis Cup cause but needed to match the cultural standards set by the team.

“The biggest thing ‘Rochey’ [Davis Cup coach Tony Roche] and I have is to set cultural standards and I feel Nick isn’t meeting those,” he said.

“The things we feel like we have to push – all we ask is to commit to the sport, go out there and give 100 per cent every time you step on the court.”

AAP

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey creative director apologizes to LGBTQ gamers amid backlash

In the realm of gaming, a medium that often lacks for robust LGBTQ visibility, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey stood out for queer gamers by introducing options to pursue same-sex relationships in a choice-driven ancient Greek setting. But these additions also made the most recent DLC a let down.

Jonathan Dumont, the creative director behind Odyssey, released a formal apology Wednesday over the newly released Shadow Heritage chapter of Legacy of the First Blade. Dumont once told EW, “We never force players in romantic situations they might not be comfortable with,” but this second installment of the DLC story forced players back into a heterosexual relationship, no matter what choices were made along the way.

“Reading through player responses of our new DLC for Legacy of the First Blade, Shadow Heritage, we want to extend an apology to players disappointed by a relationship your character partakes in,” Dumont wrote on the game’s community message board. “The intention of this story was to explain how your character’s bloodline has a lasting impact on the Assassins, but looking through your responses it is clear that we missed the mark.”

Spoiler warning for the Legacy of the First Blade DLC.

If you play as Alexios, the male “misthios” mercenary, you form a bond with the daughter of Persian assassin Darius. If you play as Kassandra (who is female), it’ll be the same, but with Darius’ son. Rebuking the options to flirt is still an option, but many LGBTQ players once thrilled by the ability to play as an identifiable queer character were turned off by the DLC’s conclusion, which sees Alexios/Kassandra conceiving a child with Darius’ offspring.

A response piece on Kotaku reads, “It can feel like a slap in the face, particularly if you were playing Kassandra as gay, to have her embrace domesticity, a heterosexual relationship, and motherhood.”

In a lengthy thread on Reddit, many LGBTQ players called out those earlier comments from the Odyssey creative team. “Players decide if they want to engage with characters romantically,” Dumont told EW. “I think this allows everybody to build the relationships they want, which I feel respects everybody’s roleplay style and desires.”

“I’m a lesbian,” one user wrote in a comment that appears to have been deleted. “I was happy to be able to play a character like myself the same way guys or straight women who play games do. Ubisoft made a big f—ing deal of being able to choose your character’s sexual orientation. It was part of their marketing campaign. They used what is clearly a lie to sell the game.”

In his apology, Dumont said, “Alexios/Kassandra realizing their own mortality and the sacrifice Leonidas and Myrrine made before them to keep their legacy alive, felt the desire and duty to preserve their important lineage. Our goal was to let players choose between a utilitarian view of ensuring your bloodline lived on or forming a romantic relationship. We attempted to distinguish between the two but could have done this more carefully as we were walking a narrow line between role-play choices and story, and the clarity and motivation for this decision was poorly executed. As you continue the adventure in next episode Bloodline, please know that you will not have to engage in a lasting romantic relationship if you do not desire to.”

He added, “We have read your responses online and taken them to heart. This has been a learning experience for us. Understanding how attached you feel to your Kassandra and your Alexios is humbling and knowing we let you down is not something we take lightly. We’ll work to do better and make sure the element of player choice in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey carries through our DLC content so you can stay true to the character you have embodied throughout.”

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Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar had a meme-tastic Saved by the Bell reunion

Talk about Saved by the Meme.

With the advent of the new year, many social media users have been posting photos of themselves as they appeared 10 years ago, and how they look now. But Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez took it a little further than most. Lopez tweeted a photo of himself and Gosselaar on Saved by the Bell from back in 1989, alongside a photo of them in the present. The reunion was precipitated by Gosselaar coming on Extra (which Lopez co-hosts) to talk about his new show The Passage.

Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

“We see your #10YearChallenge, and we raise you this #30YearChallenge with @MPG and @MarioLopezExtra,” the official Extra account tweeted.

“Old school homies…” Lopez wrote in another post, while Gosselaar posted a video to Instagram with the two of them joking around. “Do we have history?” He wrote alongside laughing emojis in the caption.

While Gosselaar and Lopez are still famous thanks to their time on Saved by the Bell — where they played teenage heartthrob Zack Morris and star athlete A.C. Slater, respectively — they aren’t making much money from it. In a recent appearance on Watch What Happens Live, Gosselaar told Andy Cohen that he and the rest of the cast made “really bad deals” back in the day, and aren’t really profiting from the show’s syndication.

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Falz: The Nigerian rapper rebelling through music

Lagos, Nigeria – When Fela Anikulapo Kuti died, so too did the flavour of Nigeria’s music scene.

At the time, music in Nigeria was more than a lyrical lush, it was also about people power and activism. Fela’s Afrobeat from the 1970s to ’90s helped those to flourish.

There was always entertainment though, but far more vitality went into social commentary and the promotion of human rights.

The music of those days was a reaction to reality. The military that ruled Nigeria for a better part of its 58 years’ independence had created so many problems. The urge to fight back was there but always suppressed. Fela stood out because he stepped in aggressively with his music.

Music academics say Fela’s death in 1997 was far costlier than the country would later realise. He had kept the government restless, he was a driving voice against military dictators – all done with a music that dispelled larger frustrations bottled up against corrupt politicians and military hardliners, with a rich mix of instruments, dance steps, and styles to even-up boredom.

Yet, there is not much change between the era of the military and the return of civilian democracy in 1999.

There has been rampant allegations of corrupt practices by top politicians. Hunger and poverty have also worsened. But unlike the past where musicians stepped in, this time the response has been muted. Or rather, few have had as much impact as those of the past.

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti performs on September 13, 1986 with his band in Paris, France [File: Laurent Rebours/AP]

That was until Nigerian Folarin Falani, stage named Falz, entered the scene in the 2000s. He was only seven when Fela died. 

Understandably, there was a content shift after Fela’s death – noticeably marking a huge departure from the expectations of local music lovers.

“There is a total deviation from the moral and social relevance of Nigeria music. We left music that tackled problems,” professor Onyeji Christian, of the Music department, University of Nigeria, said of the era.

Still, the line between that era of socially and politically conscious music seem to intersect with Falz, a young Nigerian lawyer turned rapper, who reminded millions of Nigerians of the legendary figure.

Far more, however, this nostalgia comes with the optimism that beyond filling the fame of Fela, Falz can recast the Nigeria music industry – bringing back a far-fading tradition with a sprinkle of modernity.

“They are very different artists operating at separate levels with perhaps the thread of socio-political resistance binding them. I prefer to think of Falz as the inevitable evolution of Fela’s activism,” says Nigerian-based music journalist Wilfred Okiche.

This is Nigeria

It started when in 2018 Falz released a controversial song This Is Nigeria, a cover version of American Rapper Childish Gambino’s This Is America.

It became a hit with more than 10 million views on YouTube in a matter of weeks and was globally praised. In the United States, hip-hop star and entrepreneur P Diddy shared the video on his Instagram account, celebrating “artists changing the game”.

The song – critical of corrupt politicians, places of worship, and the security forces – soon drew the anger of some institutions such as Nigeria’s Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC).

A few weeks later, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, banned the song saying it had “vulgar lyrics”. Many believed it was the government that executed vengeance through the NBC.

Starting off with troubles was not a setback. It was rather a trademark for which Fela, who was arrested more than 200 times, which sharpened the comparison from content to torment.

Music journalist Joey Akan was quick to compare Falz to Fela Kuti, saying his song “embodies the revolutionary and rebel spirit of Fela Anikulapo Kuti”, in an opinion piece online.

Falz’ This is Nigeria garnered more than 10 million views on YouTube in a matter of weeks [Photo via Twitter] 

Falz returned with his singles Talk and Moral Instruction on his fourth album comprising nine tracks. The songs criticised politicians, corruption, police brutality, prostitution, social injustice, and internet fraud.

There was remarkable semblance, experts observed, between his return and that of Fela in the 1977. After nearly dying of torture for his song Zombie – a scathing attack on the Nigeria military, Fela returned stronger with two songs Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier, which was a direct attack on the military president Olusegun Obasanjo.

More narrowly, in his new album, Falz mocked the president’s constant ailing health, using the sarcastic phrase, “four years’ tenure, three years’ holiday” to describe his constant absence as a result of medical trips abroad.

His “we buy your story but you no give us change” line attacked the many failed promises of the present government. The traces of his revolting lines was wrapped thus “and the cup don full, we done tire for all this rubbish”. 

Revolutionsing industry

Prior to the album release, Falz held a school-themed listening party to explain the purpose and concept behind the album.

“I feel like a lot of artists stay away from making content like this,” said Falz, 28. “But I have decided that if we have to change the mentality then we need to be bold, we need to be brave. The album is movement, a re-education and a re-orientation. Quite obviously, we have lost a plot as a people, as a country.”

But the connection between both artists or what music critic Dami Ajayi described as Fela’s influence, is not narrowed to music alone. For instance, it was Falz’ father, Femi Falana, a renowned human right lawyer, who became Fela’s lead lawyer.

It was President Muhammadu Buhari, then a military head of state, who jailed Fela in 1983. It was Lemi Ghariokwu, most renowned for providing cover images for the recordings of the late Afrobeat Legend, Fela Kuti, who designed the cover art of Moral Instruction. 

If we have to change the mentality, then we need to be bold, we need to be brave

Falz, Nigerian singer

Does this mean Falz can revolutionise the Nigeria music industry as Fela did?

Local artist, Amarachi Amachukwu says it’s a hasty verdict to make. But if anything, he has the potential to reach that height especially if he can endure the pressure from the government and the music market. Falz first fight, Amachukwu says, would be to recognise he is taking an “odd path” in an industry flushed with romance, sex, money and greed.

“A lot of musicians are afraid. The government has shown in the past that they can be mean in dealing with critics. Nobody wants to be the Nigerian kind of hero again. But if Falz prevails, greater courage would return to the music industry,” says the 21-year-old Afro-hip-pop singer.

This year Falz released singles Talk and Moral Instruction on his fourth album [Photo via Twitter] 

There would be the pressure to remain relevant in a music market titling towards sex, wealth and romantic patronage. He is risking moral and financial support as did others like Chinagorom Onuoha, aka African China, Eedris Abdulkareem who came so close to Fela but faded away.

He also risks losing his fans who followed him for the genre of music he brought into the industry: the comical, romantic flavour of afro-hip hop.

Falz would have been the new Fela easily if only for the content of his music alone. But it takes more than making socially conscious music to be Fela. After all, being Fela is strange, controversial, and radical.

“Among his peers, he has assumed a leadership position,” Okiche says. “If there is as little as a slight increase in political or socially conscious messaging by Nigerian artists, it would be because Falz has led the charge for a new generation. He is certainly one to watch.”

In his 10 years’ journey through professional music, Falz keeps evolving. Prior to his song Marry Me he was relatively unknown. With four albums, several awards and nomination to his name, he has established himself as one of Nigeria’s finest hip-hop talents.

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Capital Economics becomes fourth forecaster to call for RBA rate cut

“Our forecasts for GDP growth and inflation are more downbeat than the consensus. What’s more, banks have raised mortgage rates in response to higher funding costs,” Mr Thieliant wrote. “As growth weakens, the RBA may want to offset higher bank lending rates by reducing the cash rate.

“We now expect the RBA to cut interest rates to 1.25 per cent by the end of the year and to 1 per cent by the middle of 2020. Those forecasts are more dovish than what is priced into the markets.”

Informing the Capital economist’s view is the state of the housing market, where he sees the downturn intensifying.

“The experience from housing downturns in other advanced economies is that central banks nearly always end up cutting policy rates,” he said. Capital expects prices in the capital cities to drop 15 per cent from their peak making the current downturn the longest and deepest on record.

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Hanley Ramirez Is the Former $88M Superstar No MLB Team Wants to Sign

FILE - In this May 24, 2018, file photo, Boston Red Sox's Hanley Ramirez is shown during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Red Sox have designated Hanley Ramirez for assignment to make room for Dustin Pedroia on the 25-man roster as he returns from the disabled list.(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

Once upon a time, Hanley Ramirez was one of MLB‘s biggest superstars. It’s safe to say those days are over.

In May 2018, the Boston Red Sox designated Ramirez for assignment, which is a polite way of saying they opted to pay him approximately $15 million-plus to not play for them.

“I don’t think he didn’t fit in, but I think his role was going to diminish and for how good of a player he is, it was going to be difficult,” manager Alex Cora said at the time, per MLB.com’s Ian Browne.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to read between the lines.

In 44 games in 2018, Ramirez slashed .254/.313/.395. It was a low moment for the three-time All-Star and three-time top-10 MVP Award finisher. 

Now, after celebrating his 35th birthday in December and watching the Sox hoist a Commissioner’s Trophy without him, Ramirez is angling for a comeback in the Dominican winter league. 

In 18 games with the Tigres del Licey, he’s hitting .266 with an .829 OPS. Here he is swatting a baseball with extreme prejudice:

Yet, no offers have rolled in.

Partly, that’s due to the slowly developing free-agent market. With superstars such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper unsigned, it makes sense for Ramirez to wait in line. It’s worth wondering, however, if a contract offer will ever come.

Ramirez’s hard-contact rate dipped from 35.3 percent in 2017 to 31.3 percent in 2018, per FanGraphs. Meanwhile, his weighted runs created plus (wRC+) fell to 89 from a career average of 125.

All of that paints a picture of a former star in decline. He’s in his mid-30s, which is not typically a time when renaissances occur.

It wasn’t that long ago—November 2014, to be exact—that the Red Sox gave Ramirez a four-year, $88 million deal. The notion was to move him to the outfield. 

That was, to put it bluntly, a bad notion.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

After spending his career as an infielder, Ramirez posted minus-19 defensive runs saved in left field in 2015 and ultimately moved to first base. 

As his offense continued to tumble and he became more of a defensive drag, Ramirez went from impactful to superfluous to an albatross. As Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Tayler put it in May 2018:

“At 34 years old and with bad peripherals all over the place, it does feel like Ramirez has reached the end. Once a prolific slugger, Ramirez now struggles to catch up with fastballs, hitting just .257 with a .349 slugging percentage against them. … Some of that may be the residue of a shoulder injury suffered last year that required offseason surgery, but whatever the reason, that kind of offense isn’t tenable for a first baseman on a championship contender.”

The Sox moved on. And, it seems, the other 29 MLB teams moved on as well. Ramirez didn’t sign so much as a minor league pact after his release from Boston, and he still hasn’t.

It’s possible an AL club in need of a DH will take a flier on him. A minor league deal with a spring training invite feels about right. 

That’s a steep decline for a man who got MVP votes as recently as 2013. 

When the Red Sox cut Ramirez loose last season, they denied him a $22 million vesting option based on plate appearances. 

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

“I’ve got my money already; it doesn’t matter,” he said, per Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. “I just want to win.”

Fair enough. But now, the question isn’t whether he wants to win or lose. Instead, it’s whether he can secure a major league gig.

Once upon a time, Hanley Ramirez was one of MLB’s biggest superstars. Now, he’s scraping desperately to stay in the league. 

That’s a dizzying fall.

             

All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

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Why investors should fear ‘fallen angels’

“US junk bond issuance has been prolific, and the quality has been poor,” Gundlach said. “Many issues have been floated with no covenants [legal agreements regarding issuer behaviour].”

But Gundlach also pointed to the huge growth in the so-called investment-grade section of the market — those bonds that boast a credit rating of BBB-minus or above.

“The investment-grade corporate bond market has also grown massive; it is much larger than it was going into the prior credit crisis” he said.

It’s not only the explosion in the size of the investment-grade corporate bond market that’s worrying analysts. They’re also worried about the quality of these bonds.

Boom in Triple B bonds

The decade since the global financial crisis has witnessed an explosion in the issuance of the lowest quality investment-grade bonds — those with a credit rating of Triple B. These bonds have a credit quality that is only slightly above that of junk bonds.

It’s estimated there are about $US3 trillion worth of Triple B bonds, a huge increase on the $US700 billion bonds in 2008.

In fact, Triple B bonds now make up about half the $US6 trillion of the investment-grade bonds on issue. A decade ago, they made up less than a third of the total investment-grade market.

At the same time, high-quality bonds — those boasting a Double A or Triple A credit rating — now represent only about 10 per cent of the investment-grade market, down from almost a quarter two decades ago.

Triple B bonds now make up about half the $US6 trillion of the investment-grade bonds on issue. A decade ago, they made up less than a third of the total investment-grade market. Michael Nagle

What’s more, these Triple B bonds are now riskier than they used to be because their leverage — that is, debt divided by earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) has climbed sharply since the financial crisis. The debt levels of BBB credits now stand at around 3.2 EBITDA on average, compared with 2.1 per cent in 2007.

Fear of a slowdown

The big fear is that the US corporate bond market could be hit hard if, as many economists predict, the US economy slows and corporate earnings come under pressure.

Debt-laden companies that suffer weaker cash flows will become “fallen angels” as ratings agencies cut their credit ratings to junk status. Other companies will become “fallen angels” because of their failure to deliver on plans for slashing their debt levels.

For the past decade, companies have been easily able to raise debt to fund mergers and acquisitions, and many of the bonds issued sport a Triple B rating. But in many cases the investment-grade rating is conditional on management’s stated resolve to reduce debt levels. An economic downturn or a tightening in financial conditions could play havoc with any plans to cut debt by offloading surplus assets. Delays in cutting borrowings could result in a credit downgrade.

The US corporate bond market will struggle to keep its balance as it tries to find room for these “fallen angels”.

Firstly, many institutional investors, such as insurance companies, are prohibited from investing in junk bonds. When the investment-grade corporate bonds are downgraded to junk territory, they’ll have little choice but to dump these “fallen angels” at whatever price they can get. Indeed, nervous investors will start to dump highly leveraged BBB credits for fear they could be downgraded.

But it’s unlikely the $US1.2 trillion junk bond market will be able to absorb a large and sudden increase in supply. The imbalance between supply and demand is likely to cause a sharp spike in yields. (Yields rise as bond prices fall.)

That bodes ill for companies whose past borrowings are now coming due for repayment. Last year, only about $US50 billion of corporate bonds (both investment-grade and junk bonds) matured. This year, however, some $US700 billion in bonds are coming due for repayment. And that means that many US companies will have no choice but to issue fresh bonds to repay their maturing debt, even if they face higher borrowing costs.

It’s often tempting for investors to ignore potential turbulence in the corporate bond market and to focus on issues dearer to their hearts, such as corporate earnings or valuation ratios.

This is likely to turn out to be an ill-advised attitude to adopt in 2019, because global equity markets will not be insulated from problems in the US corporate bond market.

That’s because equity investors stand right at the back of the queue when it comes to repayment, well behind debt holders. If a company can’t repay its debt holders, then its equity holders will inevitably be wiped out.

Another risk is that the slowdown in the US corporate bond market will finally reveal how cheap debt has powered the rise in the US sharemarket over the past decade.

Since the US sharemarket recaptured its pre-crisis level in early 2011, there have been some $US4 trillion in share buybacks, or about a third of the $US12.5 trillion gain in the S&P 500 over that period.

A shake-out in the US corporate debt market will discourage company chiefs from borrowing to fund fresh share buyback schemes — removing a key pillar of support for the US equity market.

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