“She walks in beauty, like the nightOf cloudless climes and starry skies”
Earlier this week in the biggest tennis tournament in the world Roger Federer was uncharacteristically scrabbling back towards the base line. His opponent’s eyes lit up and he correctly went to the net to cover. However the greatest tennis player of them all had a different script: he opened his legs and nonchalantly flicked his racket and a hit the ball through them. The result was a perfect lob to win the point.
Over countless bar-room tables across the land we – well almost exclusively men – will ceaselessly debate the merits of excellent sportsmen from every generation. I use the word ‘excellent’ because greatness is a rare eminence; a sportsman who can combine consistent numbers, victories, and beauty.
A beautiful and rare gift. A true great is some who leaves not just victories on the board but a beautiful picture in the mind.
To compare Geoffrey Boycott with Alastair Cook or Jimmy Connors with Rafa Nadal is only a fun exercise if the debaters are prepared to be objective. This is very difficult view as we are always swayed by our generation and patriotism; watching the Gold Cup in equine heaven I will always put money on Kauto Star to beat Arkle but my father would only have eyes for Arkle. That greatness is quantified by the fan not the participant makes it even harder to measure.
Sports’ fans want to be at an epoch defining occasion and bask in the greatness and this desire is being egged on by the tub-thumping of Sky Sports. Moreover, establishing excellence or greatness by statistics, especially in the professional era, can be complicated. Does it diminish the legends of the past who played less frequently or are we in an era of groundbreaking “greatness”?
In my 20 plus years of watching and analysing sport there have been, for me, five truly great sportsmen; Federer, Tiger Woods, AP McCoy, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and Shane Warne. This wonderful quintet were prodigious youngsters with classic foundations and techniques. What put their heads above crowded parapet of equally exceptional sportsmen was that, as well as being hugely talented, they changed the way that their respective sports are played.
Great sportsmen transcend their sports and, when at the peak of their powers, become almost synonymous with their respective sports; like Olivier playing Hamlet, the supporting actors are reduced to mere mortals in the Elysian Fields.
When Olivier said “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom….” he left an everlasting mark on the acting world. It was greatness captured in unique moment – a blockbuster Federer forehand, Tiger Woods chipping the ball onto the 16th at Augusta in 2005 with the slow drop into the cup, O’Sullivan cutting a black with his wrong hand, McCoy indelible in the green and gold hoops, and Shane Warne bowling that impossible leg break to bowl Mike Gatting.
Alł of these great men had frailties, both personally and professionally. The media delighted in adding the talent to the pantheon but equally strove to destroy them as perfection became perfunctory. If Warne and McCoy were consistently outstanding, then Federer and O’Sullivan managed to reinvent themselves into a second career, and Tiger….well are we to see Mr Woods mark 2. In a world that craves polymaths they are superbly experts in their own fields.
The great sportsman’s tool appears to be an extension of their flesh; a comfort blanket to their genius. A respect and love for their respective sports is obvious when they are in an almost meditative ‘zone’ of perfection – a reason for the dearth of soccer players in this list.
Today is a day to focus on Roger Federer because it is the final of Wimbledon. A man whose quest for perfection is still rolling on – his greatness is the zenith of all greatness. A man who has a steel and infatuation for victory combined with a perfect game. He makes the plays the adroit shot with facile grace, not running around the court but appearing to serenely glide over the majestic blades of grass. Federer, like the other chaps, possesses the most important skill that only the great posses; he plays with beauty.