Monday, June 08, 2015

Day of Greatness

By Joe Posnanski
June 6, 2015

American Pharoah ridden by Victor Espinoza made his way to the record books by winning the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes and thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown June 6, 2015 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.   (Skip Dickstein/Times Union) Photo: SKIP DICKSTEIN
American Pharoah ridden by Victor Espinoza made his way to the record books by winning the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes and thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown June 6, 2015 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union) 

The wonder of horse racing’s Triple Crown is that it seems utterly impossible for so long … and then, when it actually happens — like it finally happened Saturday with American Pharoah — you wonder why it doesn’t happen every other year or something. That’s the thing about legendary performances. We know intellectually that we are seeing extraordinary things, rare things, unforgettable things. But it doesn’t always feel that way. The great ones make it look too easy.

Saturday was packed with those extraordinary things. It was a day for Serena Williams, a day for Lionel Messi, a day for the misspelled but indomitable Pharoah. It was also a not-so-great day for another legend, but we’ll get back to him later.

Serena Williams is the greatest women’s tennis player of them all. There’s really little to argue about anymore. You can never PROVE that a player from one time could beat a player from another (especially in tennis, where the game changes so rapidly because of the equipment). And yes, for statistically driven people like me, it is true that Williams does not yet have the number of grand slam victories as Steffi Graf or Margaret Court.

That said, there seems to me no doubt watching Serena Williams play that nobody in history could touch her. Look, Steffi Graf couldn’t beat the young Monica Seles. Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert and vice versa.

Look at Serena Williams’ record against the Top 10 players in the world:
2. Maria Sharapova: 17-2
3. Halep, 5-1
4. Petra Kvitova, 5-1
5. Carolina Wozniacki, 10-1
6. Eugenie Bouchard, 2-0
7. Ana Ivanovic, 8-1
8. Carla Suarez-Navarro: 6-0
9. Ekaterina Makarova, 4-1
10. Andrea Petkovic, 4-0

If you want to add that up – that’s 61-7, which is 90 percent, which is essentially Steph Curry’s free-throw percentage. Serena Williams is beating the other nine best players in the world at the same rate that the greatest shooter of our time makes an uncontested 15-foot shot. That’s the sort of dominance we’re talking about here.

Saturday in the final of Paris, Williams played the French Open’s happy story, Lucie Safarova, who made it to her first Grand Slam final after a decade of kicking around the Top 30. She is, by all accounts, beloved by the other players for her grace and sportsmanship. Serena Williams’ record against her was 8-0 when the day began.

And for about an hour or so, it seemed like Williams would dispatch Safarova quickly. Williams had a strange French Open, filled with drama and near-losses and some sort of killer flu bug that Saturday made her look like the before picture in a NyQuil commercial. She wanted to get off the court quickly and get back into bed. The first set was like a professional hit – no fuss, no mess, an early break, easy service victories, leave the gun, take the cannoli. She was up 4-1 and 40-15 in the second set, and it seemed time to start brewing some tea.
Then two things happened. One, Safarova proved to be feistier than expected. And two, Williams – by her own account – choked. She started double-faulting and hitting balls three-feet long, She played an abysmal tiebreaker, then fell behind 2-0 in the third set, and she gave every indication of being in complete freefall.

But this is what I mean when I say that the greatest athletes can make things look so simple. Because at that point Serena Williams ran off six straight games by hitting breathtaking shots and making them look roughly as easy as the puzzles on children’s menus in restaurants. Safarova would hit a serve and Williams would almost casually swing at the ball, rocket a winner into the open court, and … it just can’t be that effortless can it? You watch her hit those shots, time and again, and after a while you lose a little bit your sense of awe and can’t help but think: Why can’t everybody do that?


That’s the wonder of Lionel Messi, too. If you only watch Lionel Messi play soccer, you would think soccer was a pretty undemanding game. All you have to do is keep the ball at your feet, slip and slide and cut and dance past comical henchmen defenders, rocket a shot toward the open corner of the net or (could this be easier?) flick the ball to a teammate who has sprung free and is in perfect position to score.

Messi did not score in Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League final against Juventus, but he set up Luis Suarez’s game-winner with a spectacular (for anyone else) run where he easily disposed of two would-be defenders, tilted a third with a salsa move, unleashed a shot that goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon somehow blocked. Suarez, as Doc Emrick might say, tucked home the rebound. Barcelona won 3-1.

But this one moment of brilliance from Messi was routine – he had a dozen moments just as good. He had so many other brilliant moments (and echoes of his goal for the ages last week still reverberate) that, once again, it’s natural to ask: Why can’t other people do that? What’s so hard about it? All he does is keep the ball close, dribble through, pass smartly, shoot accurately. Why is it that the soccer ball bounds away from other people’s feet? Why do their shots sail 20 feet over the goal? Why don’t other players see the passing angles he sees? Every single time Messi touched the ball against Juventus, three defenders jumped at him … but it did not matter, he imposed his will, he moved as he liked and the ball followed him as if magnetized.

Horse racing’s Triple Crown had not been won for 37 years, not since Affirmed dueled with Alydar in 1978. Affirmed became the second horse in a row to win the Triple Crown; Seattle Slew had won the year before. One year after Affirmed, Spectacular Bid went to the Belmont with a chance to win and famously stepped on a safety pin. No one knows if he would have won otherwise, but the point is that it was almost three in a row. Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen remembers people saying then that the Triple Crown was too easy.

And then it was 37 years – horse after horse went into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win, and horse after horse failed. Pleasant Colony didn’t fire down the stretch. Alysheba was no match for Bet Twice. Sunday Silence was clearly beaten. Silver Charm got caught by Touch Gold. Real Quiet faded and was beaten by a nose. Charismatic couldn’t hold on. War Emblem stumbled at the stretch. Funny Cide wilted on a muddy track. The beloved Smarty Jones was passed by Birdstone. Big Brown didn’t show up. I’ll Have Another was hurt and retired. California Chrome labored and gave way.

After Chrome lost, his owner Steve Coburn said that there would be no Triple Crown winner in his lifetime, and even though it sounded an awful lot like sour grapes, well, the logic seemed pretty sound. It sure seemed like asking a 3-year-old horse to win three grueling races in five weeks against the best of his class was asking too much.

And then, one year later, American Pharoah not only won the Triple Crown … he won with such comfort that it hardly even seemed notable. He won the Kentucky Derby in a pretty decent stretch duel with Firing Line, but he was not too troubled. He won the Preakness on a muddy track, pulling away.

Then came Saturday, the Belmont, so much drama coming in, so much talk about history, so much talk about the difficulties, so much talk about all the things that could go wrong. Then, at the start, Victor Espinoza took Pharoah to the front, and he stayed in front, and he kept staying in front, and then he won, wire-to-wire, nothing to it. When Espinoza was asked when he knew he had the race won, he said, “At the first turn.”

And, like with Serena, like with Messi, I found myself asking: “Why is this so hard?”

One of the wonderful things about the Triple Crown is that, generally speaking, everybody in America wants it to happen. There are people who root against Serena, against Messi, against Clayton Kershaw, against LeBron James, against Jonathan Toews, against Usain Bolt. Their particular genius is viewed through different prisms; some idolize them, some admire them from a distance, some look for flaws and hope for cracks.

But when it comes to horse racing, unless you have money on another horse, you want the Triple Crown. Watching Saturday’s race with my daughters felt important somehow. When it ended, the 14-year-old said, “I feel like I just watched history.” That’s how it did feel. Each of those 37 years without a Triple Crown felt like a disappointment, but that only made this one feel more special, a brilliant end to a brilliant day.

A final few words must be saved, though, for Tiger Woods. He shot an 85 on Saturday, the worst round of his professional life, and I watched every painful minute of it on my phone while Serena Williams soared on television. No athlete of my lifetime more perfectly demonstrated the point I tried to make about Serena and Messi and Pharoah – he made golf, that ridiculous and unbeatable game, look like a 20-piece jigsaw puzzle. He hit the longest drives, hit the highest approach shots and made the most putts. When he made the rare mistake, he hit the most amazing recovery shots. When he faced the most difficult obstacles, he imagined the most astonishing shots, and then he hit them. When the pressure was at its thickest, his power of focus was awe-inspiring. When the tournament was there to be won, he won it.

Tiger Woods was just so much better than everyone else – like Serena. Think of this: He made the cut 142 consecutive times. Rory McIlroy is the best golfer in the world now, and he misses cuts all the time. Tiger Woods did not miss a cut for SEVEN YEARS. At his worst, he was still among the best. When he was merely average, he often won. When he was good, nobody could come close.

All that’s gone now, and there’s no real point in asking if any of it will ever come back because (1) Nobody knows, including Woods and (2) It’s not likely. The best hope at this point seems to be that he can get his game back to something reasonable and that, every now and again, he will have a hot week and maybe offer a few more thrills. But, honestly, after enduring a year when he has gone through chipping yips, when he has stepped away from the game for a couple of months to relearn how to play, when he has shot an 82 and 85, even that meager goal seems like a faraway dream.

But if there’s one good thing about watching Tiger Woods play this way it is this: It does help put into focus just how great he once was. He was too good then, perhaps, to fully appreciate. He hit the ball so purely, he putted so flawlessly, he played so brilliantly that at some point it was easy to shrug and say, “Hey, easy game.”

Saturday, though, he looked positively mortal – and it was a stark reminder of what mortality looks like. On a day when we watched Serena win her 20th grand slam, the day we watched Messi will his team to the Championship, the day we saw American Pharoah go wire-to-wire, it’s good of Tiger Woods to remind us just how high they are flying.

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