Thursday, June 4, 2009


Maybe you're good at your job. Heck, maybe you're among the very best. If you are, the world will never know, because there's no real way to quantify excellence among office managers or grocery cashiers.

Professional athletes, however, have the opposite experience. Their entire careers take place on a public stage, held up for scrutiny regardless of their brilliance or medocrity. Plus, their sports are rife with statistics that make their feats easy to compare, even among athletes of different eras.

From time to time, an athlete is so accomplished that you don't even need to look at the numbers to know they're the best in the world. Then you do look at the numbers, and sure enough, they're nothing short of stunning.

Take Rickey Henderson, the Platonic ideal of the baseball leadoff man. Watching Henderson play was a free lesson in how to get on base, advance around the diamond, and score runs; in short, in contributing to a victory. He helped his teams win countless games with his signature "Rickey rally": draw a walk, steal second, steal third, and score on a putout. Net result: no hits, one run scored.

Opposing pitchers and managers didn't need any numbers to tell them this guy was a lethal weapon. Still, Henderson's numbers are as impressive as he was in person. Not only is the iconic ballplayer his sport's all-time leader in stolen bases, he has about 50 percent more steals than the guy in second place. Think about that. No other player in history at the highest professional level has managed more than two-thirds of his total.

That level of excellence is Jordanesque. Throughout Michael Jordan's career, I marveled not only at how outstanding he was, but also at the fact that he was so much better than the other guys on the floor. It was like watching an adult playing with a bunch of kids, and easy to forget that they too were considered the best players in the world.

Rickey Henderson did a lot more than steal bases, by the way. He also set baseball's career marks for walks and runs, and for home runs to lead off a game. That some of his records have since been tarnished, "broken" by a known steroid abuser, does not diminish his many accomplishments.

Now to Roger Federer. The princely Swiss is up to his old tricks, dispatching the field at Roland Garros with his customary elegance.

Federer hits shots that no one has hit before. No one. His mastery is stunning in its completeness, and he does it with a balletic fluidity that makes the formerly impossible look easy. As for comparing eras, Andre Agassi calls Federer the best he's ever played against and John McEnroe pronounces Federer the best player of all time.

Anyone who's watched Federer over the past few years, slashing through his sport like a scythe through a meadow, doesn't need the help of statistics to marvel at his singular ability. Still, here's a quick statistic that neatly summarizes Federer's excellence:

By reaching the semifinals of the 2009 French Open, Federer has now made it to the semis of 20 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Twenty! The next-best in this department are two pretty fair players named Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl, who each made ten straight Slam semis.

Like Henderson, Federer has separated himself from a pack that is itself deeply talented and accomplished. And with his personal playgrounds Wimbledon and the U.S. Open up next, he figures to continue his long march unabated.

The Grand Slams, the four major tennis tournaments, are a reasonable measure of ability because, unlike most other events, they draw complete fields of the world's best; at two weeks in length they test endurance and consistency, requiring seven consecutive victories to win a title; and as a group are played on grass, clay and two types of hard court, and thus try the full range of players' skills.

We must also acknowledge Rafael Nadal, the brilliant Spaniard whose shocking loss this week to Robin Soderling ended his remarkable run at the French Open. Nadal had won four straight titles and 31 consecutive matches at the French; in fact, having won it as a teenager in his maiden voyage, he'd never lost there. He's also made inroads against Federer, getting closer and closer at Wimbledon before winning it last year in an epic final.

Speaking of statistical outliers, a high-speed camera recently measured the incredible spin that Nadal puts on the ball. He was found to generate an average of 3200 rotations per minute (to Federer's 2500 and Agassi's 1800) and topped out at an unbelievable 5000.

Nadal's sledgehammer groundstrokes have played a big part in his recent success. By imparting so much spin, he can destroy the ball but keep it in the court, and make opponents hit shots from shoulder height, out of their comfort zone.

That Nadal's Paris streak was snapped in an instant, by a player who'd never contended in a major tournament, only reminds how deep the tour is, and how difficult there to sustain consistent results.

In turn, it only burnishes Federer's greatness. Like Rickey Henderson, Federer is leaving his entire sport far behind, climbing a mountain whose height he keeps redefining.


The Needle Shop said...

I'm so glad you used the word "balletic". I've always felt I was watching ballet with Federer. Like you, I've watched tennis for years and years and years, and can't remember being as captivated by anyone.

Mick Jammer said...

As I write this, the office manager and grocery cashier boycott of your blog nears the 12-hour mark...