“Sure is fun to be great, huh Rog?”
“Oh yeah. That’s why we shake left-handed, because we’re great.”
As an ardent devotee of sports, history, and Bill and Ted, I often wonder what it would be like to travel back into time and witness legendary athletic triumph in the flesh. Wilt. Babe. Wooden. Secretariat. Ali. Legends with 20 ft. statues erected in their honor, with schools, streets, and awards attached to their names. The once-in-a-lifetime brand of greatness. For seeing an individual reach the apex of their trade, a level of utter domination and virtuosity, makes you a direct purveyor of history. It is us who will one day impart the subsequent generations with grandiose tales topical to us today. The old man rocking away on his front porch, cynically gazing at the traffic of progress and mumbling idioms like, “these athletes today, I tell you what, they’re ruining the game. Let me tell you about Michael Jordan…” Or at least that’s my sappy idea of romance.
For some, yesterday may have been an ordinary January Sunday. It’s brutally cold, Kentucky notched a victory in Rupp, and the IRS is beginning to bring us all down a peg. Yesterday, however, was a monumental showcase of modern greatness. Two men: two authors expertly rewriting record books and redefining the term “greatness” in their perspective sports, all right before our very eyes. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.
San Diego’s Torrey Pines has always been good to Tiger Woods, winner of 3 of the last 4 Buick Invitationals. Yesterday was no different, as Woods knifed through the competition like, well, like this.Tiger has now won the last seven PGA tournaments he’s played in; that’s 28 rounds of golf against fields comprised of 150-200 of the best golfers the world has to offer in a sport that is shaped by randomness and luck (and is really, really hard). Well, there’s no luck here, just sheer dominance at a previously unimaginable scale.
Sharing the stage of individual supremacy yesterday was Roger Federer. In our lifetime of Gretzky’s, Jordan’s, Montana’s, and Tiger’s, Federer may go down as the most dominant of all. All R-Fed did yesterday was win the Australian Open without losing a single set, a feat not seen since 1980. Similar to golf, tennis is a game of unsystematic outcome, where the 100th ranked player can easily get hot and take out a top-10. Hell, at least nab a set or two. Yet, Federer made a mockery out of the competition, defeating the best the world has to offer in 100 degree heat without breaking a sweat, maybe not even a string. Federer has not lost a match in 36 tries, has won 6 of the last 7 majors, and oh yeah, is all of 25-years-old. That gives him at least 5-6 more years to set the bar at unreachable heights, and who knows, us Yanks might even pay some attention along the way.
While dynasties such as the Celtics in the 60’s, UCLA in the 70’s, the Niners in the 80’s, and the Bulls in the 90’s are extraordinary feats, perpetual conquest on the individual sports front is even more remarkable. If MJ was a little off one night, there were still seven or so other guys available to pick up the slack. Similarly, team sports open the door to justifications and excuses; for instance, “if Montana had a better offensive line maybe the Niners would’ve won 10 Super Bowls.” But when it’s just you against the field, the onus is directly in the mirror.
You know someone has complete reign over their sport when the competition is driven to insanity. The Andy Roddick’s and Phil Mickelson’s of the world who’ve made a career out of second place, can only ponder how great their legacies could be if they were born in different eras. There are no rivalries, there are no equals. Even worse, Woods and Federer have become good friends. Talk about conversations we’ll never have in our lives: “So Roger, I see you’ve only been number one in the world for five years, hit seven and I might return your phone calls.”
So I urge you, fellow sports fan, to cherish this exhibition of greatness parading before our very eyes. And always remember days like yesterday, when the greatest golfer to ever swing a club and the greatest tennis player to stroke a racquet, symbolically flipped off their competition and years of convention. Take note sports fans, your grandchildren will need some answers.