Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Novac and Serena

In recent years, we have watched -- arguably -- the best male and female tennis players of all time. Novac Djokovic and Serena Williams. They are, and have been, the #1 players in the world for quite some time. Love them or hate them -- that is beyond dispute. 

But the "best of all time" is quite a mouthful and takes in a lot of history, including other former great players. 

There can be little doubt that modern day tennis players are vastly superior to those of previous eras. As an example, put Rod Laver on his best day during his prime against Djokovic and the Aussie would be lucky to win a single game during a match. Same with Serena and say -- Chris Evert. It's not even a close call. Today's players are faster, stronger, hit harder -- just better -- by a long shot. They also grunt and scream a lot more, but that's a column for another day.

Consider the Serb Djokovic. Is he the best of all time? Statistically, not yet. If one goes by "major" titles, he still has quite a ways to go. ND has 12, having just completed the career "grand slam" by finally winning his first French Open. However, it should be noted he became the first player since the above-mentioned Rod Laver to hold all 4 titles simultaneously. This is very impressive stuff. 

Roger Federer has 17 such major titles to his credit and remains a fearsome force on the court indeed. He could add to his total -- or maybe not. It seems the Serb has had his way with the Swiss in recent times. More ominous is the age factor. Federer will soon turn 35, definitely on the back side of his bell curve, while Djokovic is only 29 and still very much in his prime. Six years is a lifetime in the pro tennis world. If Novac continues at his current blistering pace for just a few more years, there is little to suggest he won't win at least 5 or more majors to equal and surpass Roger's mark. 

But you never know. The same was once said of Tiger Woods chasing Jack Nicklaus. Ten years ago, everybody thought Eldrick would easily blow by the Golden Bear's all-time major mark. Then his personal life exploded and he was beset with leg and back problems. Now 40, and not even ranked in the top 200, nobody knows for sure if Tiger will ever play again, let alone at an elite level. As the months and years click by, his chances of ever recapturing glory are slip-sliding away. Nobody, likely even Woods himself, thinks he has a prayer of catching Jack these days. Dude will be lucky to make a cut if he ever comes back out on tour. The competition is just too brutal these days, and Tiger's aura of invincibility was shattered long ago. The young guns are going to keep coming while Father Time continues to erode at Woods. He had his magical decade -- and now it's over. 

Consider Serena. Is she the best of all time? Like Djokovic, not yet. She's still chasing Steffi Graf and Margaret Court for the most major wins. But she's getting close and remains the best female player on the planet. It's entirely possible, perhaps likely, Williams will win a few more majors, maybe even this year. Yet her window is rapidly closing as well. Nobody knows when a player will "hit the wall" and begin their often swift descent from greatness to mediocrity -- and then gone -- but it happens to all of them if they hang around long enough. 

Serena's elder sister Venus (only a year older) is a case in point. Yes, she's still a very good player -- better than anyone on your block --  but she hit the wall. These days Venus can win a few early tournament matches against much lesser competition, yet few consider her a legitimate threat to even make it into a semi-finals, let alone winning a tournament. It ain't gonna happen. Like Tiger, her time has come and gone. 

The same will happen to Serena. At 35, ala Federer, Father Time is relentlessly tugging at her as well. She just got thrashed in the finals of the French Open by a younger player most of us had never heard of before. To her credit, Serena didn't come up with the lame excuses she has in the past after being defeated. Her knee hurt. Cramps. Indigestion. A mysterious illness. Sunspots. Aliens conspiring against her. It was always something. Anything except giving credit to the woman who had vanquished her fair and square. But the media filled in for her. "Did you see her touch her hamstring after that last point? Poor thing must be in agony". To which I say -- shut up and get real. She got hammered by a superior player on that day. It happens.

And the young guns in tennis aren't going to quit coming either. Serena may or may not go on to become the GOAT, at least statistically, but, like her sister, the fall is coming. It's just a matter of time if she plays long enough.

Yet for now, between Novac and Serena, we are likely seeing the best two tennis players that have ever played the game. Whether or not either or both of them will go on to win the most majors remains to be seen. 

And who knows? Maybe someday in the future another wunderkind will pop up -- male or female -- to dominate their sport as others have in the past. 

Some marks seem unattainable, though. Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak. Did you know that after the streak was finally broken, he immediately went on another 18 game streak? Nobody will ever eclipse Cal Ripken Jr.'s record of playing in consecutive major league baseball games. Too much money these days and nobody hangs around that long. Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game in the NBA has never been seriously challenged and never will be.

Given free agency and salary caps, no NBA team will ever reel off a decade of dynasty like the Boston Celtics did from the mid 50's to 60's. 

Will any team ever approach the current 108 year (and counting) World Series drought the Chicago Cubs have suffered through? Probably not, because it's likely only a matter of time before some lunatic somewhere pulls the nuclear trigger and the retaliation eventually sends much of the planet back into the stone age. Sports will be the least of the worries of those that manage to survive. 

But hey, the Detroit Lions are working on it. Sixty years down and no hope in sight. They might give the Cubs (assuming they win any year soon) a run for their money yet when it comes to all time futility -- if our descendants are around long enough to watch it.






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