In professional sport, athletes that are usually celebrated are in their prime – typically between 27-29. These athletes typically rack up awards and trophies. Today, however, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate three athletes on the other side of 30 who all had great weekends.
First, Serena Williams. My defining Serena Williams moment was in the Australian Open 2003. If my memory serves me right, she was 5-2, 40-0 down in the final set and, against all odds, went on to save three match points and win the match 7-5. She was not just an incredible talent, but an incredible fighter too. Serena had her downs – some upsets, some on-court controversy, some difficult personal circumstances. But, since 2012, she has won 9 out of 15 possible grand slams. That is incredible. I haven’t watched Serena play in years but, my god, even following her exploits on the news is inspiring. She is now tied with Steffi Graf for a record number of grand slam titles in the Open Era (22) and is only 2 behind Margaret Court. On current evidence, there won’t be many who’d bet against her beating that.
Second, if you aren’t a Real Madrid, Manchester United, or Portugal fan, there is a lot not to like about Cristiano Ronaldo. There were many Cristiano moments from his time at Manchester United – his debut as a teenager with colored hair against Bolton 13 years or so ago, a Champions League semi final performance when he destroyed Arsenal Football Club almost single-handed, his blistering counter attacks among others. Cristiano left Manchester United to join Real Madrid for a record transfer fee and massive expectations. He has since gone on to score 364 goals in 348 appearances – that is unprecedented. What makes Cristiano incredibly annoying is that he loves the attention a bit too much and revels in his own greatness in a way that goes against any idea of humility. Even yesterday, despite having to leave the pitch at 25 minutes due to an injury, he was back on the sidelines toward the end egging his team on and irritating football watchers all over the world.
The other side of this story is that Euro 2016 has demonstrated a different side to Cristiano Ronaldo – it has shown a player who has truly stepped up as a leader, an inspirational force and one who has sacrificed his individuality for the team. Time and time again in Portugal’s run to the final, Cristiano was the perfect team player. It showed in what his teammates had to say about his inspiring message to them at half time. It showed in how they all spoke of him after the defeat. It showed in the result – Portugal were massive underdogs. Humility will never be his strength. On the flip side, there is something to be said for his incredible self belief. As a well written Football365 feature put it, “it’s not even so much that he thinks he’s great, rather the thought he might not be doesn’t occur to him.” He expects to perform. And, he inevitably does. That this victory came from the sidelines must have, in some ways, been incredibly sweet.
Finally, there are many who termed Roger Federer’s loss in the semi finals as a failure, as a time when Roger choked. In some ways, he did. The match was his to lose in the 4th set. The issue here is that Serena Williams’ dominance at the age of 35 almost makes Roger Federer look bad. I say almost because the field is entirely different. Depending on how Novak Djokovic’s career unfolds, in terms of statistics, Roger Federer will either be the greatest of all time or the second greatest player of all time. There are, however, some things numbers will never capture. Novak Djokovic is a great athlete. But, Roger Federer on song was a surreal experience. If Sampras could “walk on water,” Roger Federer seemed to be able to walk on water and paint at the same time. Last week, we saw a different Roger Federer – a fighter who had to dig really deep to play his best. This has been the case over the last few years. Pete Sampras and Bjørn Borg had long retired at 35. His one time adversary’s, Rafael Nadal’s, body seems to have given up. But, Roger continues to soldier on.
I once wrote here that, while Roger is the genius, Rafa was the better role model because we could all channel his fighting spirit in our lives. Roger, in his peak, would likely have dismantled Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic in 3 sets and moved on to win Wimbledon. But, age and slowing reflexes requires him to dig deep into those reserves of grit and tenacity that we all know he possesses. We take it for granted that a 35 year old Roger Federer still reaches the final 4 of a grand slam. That is a measure of his genius. He doesn’t reach it like he did in his prime – without losing a single set. Instead, he fights his way back from 1 or 2 sets down in at least one match, if not two. But, he still makes it – somehow.
That, in my mind, is a measure of his greatness.
It’s been a very inspiring weekend watching these athletes set an example. I am very grateful to them for choosing to be the best they can be and showing us what is possible when you combine single minded focus, a great work ethic and determination. Thank you Serena, Cristiano and Roger.