In a previous blog I wrote of the Homeric immortality that is offered to sporting greats such as Roger Federer or Sachin Tendulkar and recent events have swayed me to look at the sports left behind when such players retire.
Take the recent Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Federer is no longer viewed as a genuine competitor to Nadal or Djokovic yet the support for this giant of the game was still extraordinary. The outpouring of emotion for Tendulkar in his final test, from the deafening roars greeting his entrance and walk to the crease, to the almost unfathomable sense of disbelief when he made his final long walk back to the pavilion after a wonderful, if not fairy-tale, 74. Federer, can play matches in any country with almost equal support to a home player – including Wimbledon against Andy Murray. Tendulkar they say is the greatest of our generation – perhaps the greatest of all time, a man so defined by the sheer weight of expectation from a billion countrymen and women that stats do not do the player or man justice. In the midst of this it seems that Kevin Pietersen’s 100th test in next week’s first Ashes test is almost forgotten.
Watching England v New Zealand over the weekend, despite England’s stirring performance it was difficult to take the eyes away from Richie McCaw and Dan Carter (albeit for 25 minutes, and not only for their sporting abilities..!) – now seen as the greatest proponents of their individual positions and in my mind the two greatest rugby players of my lifetime.
Some athletes are titans of their disciplines, others transcend their sports for marketing reasons (David Beckham, Maria Sharapova), but a select few have that intangible star quality, the aura of genuine brilliance, talent unmatched, sporting genius that their absence leaves their sport a lesser place.
What will cricket be without Tendulkar? What will Tennis do when Federer goes? What does athletics look like without Usain Bolt? And what is golf without Tiger Woods or even with this supposedly lesser version of him? Such people have raised the profile of their sports, drawing the crowds, the masses in search of the chance to view that sporting apotheosis. Because sport of the 21st Century requires more than simple success or brilliance, we want to be dazzled by those who can do things which mere mortals cannot imagine – winners will win but the real greats will conquer the record books and fan opinion. That is why Lara and Tendulkar outstrip Dravid, Ponting or Kallis; that is why Federer usurped Sampras and remains ahead of Nadal despite his losing record (Nadal calls Federer the greatest); that is why Woods is called the greatest golfer despite many thinking that Nicklaus’s 18 majors may now elude him.
True greatness relies on the means and the ends being one and the same. Style, grace, imagination, a sporting arrogance to go with the weight of numbers. That is why Kareem Abdul Jabbar does not have the global profile of Michael Jordan or why Schumacher or Vettel have not usurped Senna’s place in the hearts of F1 fans.
For the past generation we have been privileged to live under the thrall of Lara, Tendulkar, Federer, Woods, Bolt, McCoy, McCaw, Messi et al…giving birth to countless “greatest of all time” conversations – Ali, Pele, Bradman however remain within that “untouchable pinnacle” their achievements locked in sepia hues of record books and rose tinted vision of fans’ memories.
But what of the next generation? Who is around to take the mantle of these sporting titans? Are we about to move into a sporting world of lesser champions? Feel for Virat Kohli, a wonderful player charged with assuming Tendulkar’s mantle (never mind Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag and Ganguly in India!) or for Grigor Dmitrov who is seen as Federer’s stylistic heir. Who will match the sheer all round excellence of Dan Carter – who has given a new meaning to “the archetypal fly half – or the indomitability of his leader Richie McCaw who has seemingly made his position the most important in world rugby? And what about Men’s athletics when Bolt retires? How will anyone compare favourably to a man whose 9.58 is so far ahead of the field?
Bolt, like Michael Phelps is a freak of nature – someone with the talent and drive but also physiologically a body so suited to their sport that they do not have to work as hard to compete.
At 40 in his final innings the one thing that was so noticeable about Tendulkar is the purity of his stroke play, the balance and the timing. Perhaps the reality is that these “Greats” are freaks to admire and appreciate whilst they are around…and the rest are simply the best of the mere mortals.
But unhappy is the sport in need of such exceptions…
Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes – Anna Henderson