In A Class Of Their Own

What defines a great sportsperson? There is the obvious answer; being very good, exceptional, at their chosen sport. There are many world class sportsmen and women. I define world class as being of a high enough level of competency to compete on the world stage, regardless of the sport.
The great sportsperson, one that transcends their sport, is usually one who, even within the realms of fellow professionals, is considered to be an extraordinary talent. Fans and followers of sport, even though they might agree, view greatness differently. For the fan, greatness is about entertainment, longevity and consistency.
There is also something else that every great sportsman needs. They need markers, something by which they can be judged and compared. For those involved in individual sports, such as track and field, combat sport, motor sports, what really creates greatness is a nemesis. There have been those sportspeople whose obvious superiority in their field is apparent to everyone, but what the fans like to see is the overcoming, the rising above adversity.
In my lifetime there have been some great tennis players, both male and female. They have all had their strengths, some were powerful, some exquisitely graceful, others a mixture of both. What makes the sport fascinating for those who enjoy it – I must admit I am not the biggest fan – is how a normally brilliant player can be exceptional and ordinary in the space of a full game. The great players were not only fantastic players, they were also very consistent.
If you turned up to watch one of these players, you generally knew what to expect. Like I said, a lot of the great players, even if only for a short time, had a nemesis. Borg had McEnroe, Graf had Seles, Navratilova had Evert, Federer has Nadal, Williams had Williams (not, as many believe, Sharapova). A player who dominated an era but is hardly ever mentioned as a great is Pete Sampras. Pistol Pete, as he was nicknamed, was an undemonstrative tennis machine. He played his game, generally won, then left.
The thing was, that was all he did. It got to a point where his wins were inevitable. As he was not a ‘personality’ and most felt they knew how his games would end, the lack of a natural nemesis, someone who would force him to elevate his game, hurt his legacy. Larry Holmes suffered from the same issue. A gifted heavyweight with a ramrod jab, due to being a left hander who fought orthodox, Holmes came onto the heavyweight scene towards the end of the golden era of heavyweights.
The likes of Ali, Frazier, Norton, were legends in their ring lifetime and had lit up the heavyweight division with many memorable bouts. Though Holmes was and is the same age as George Foreman, he never, unlike Foreman, got a career defining fight. His reputation suffered from being unfortunate enough to fight a way over the hill Ali. Ali, a revered figure by that time, just got beat up for ten rounds. Holmes, a former champion who defended his belts twenty times, was never viewed in the same way as the others of his era.
In other sports, the nemesis is not necessarily a person. In high-speed motor sports, even in a sport such as downhill skiing, the nemesis is the inherent danger in the sport. To not only master the sport, but to face the possibility of injury or death whilst competing, takes a certain mindset. In a team sport, an exceptional player still needs to be in a good to great team. Lionel Messi considered the best footballer on the planet by many, is brilliant in a brilliant Barcelona team, however, he rarely shines in a good Argentina national team. By contrast, his Barcelona teammate, Neymar, shines for both Barcelona and a lacklustre Brazil team.
It is the ability to make what they do seem easy and enjoyable that elevates some sportspeople. We know that what they do is hard, that they are elite athletes who train every day for their discipline, but when we are privileged enough to see one getting into the zone nine times out of ten, then we know we are witnessing world class. We are seeing greatness.

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