Rafa’s Sad Demise
After a successful Olympics in which he took home the Doubles gold along with Marc Lopez, fourth-seeded Rafael Nadal was upset last week in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, losing to 24th seeded Lucas Pouille in five sets. It was a disappointing exit for the Spaniard, but perhaps more sobering was the fact that this has become all too frequent for the former World Number 1. By falling to Pouille, Nadal ensured that 2016 would be the first year in more than a decade that he failed to make a single Grand Slam quarterfinal. It’s been a sudden and stunning fall from grace for a man that used to be all but unbeatable, the single greatest tennis player of my lifetime. With apologies to Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, I have never seen an athlete so physically dominant in the sport. Nadal covered an ungodly amount of real estate in his prime, sprinting side to side along the baseline for hours on end and only seeming to strengthen as the match wore on. His game wasn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing, lacking the transcendent grace and silence of his rival Federer and instead punctuating every swing with a guttural exaltation to the gods of sweat and wedgies, but there was never any denying Rafa’s unparalleled ability. And that’s what makes it so sad to watch him now, a shell of his former self, his body wracked by injury and the strain of putting 110% into every volley of his career. At just 30 years old, less than a year older than Djokovic and six years younger than Federer, Nadal’s run at the top of the tennis world appears to be coming to a swift end. It will hurt his legacy to go out this way, especially given the current high level of play and more gradual decline of his contemporaries, but those of us who watched him at his best will never forget it.
Greatest Pitcher Ever?
After months on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his back, Clayton Kershaw returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation on Friday to pitch against the Miami Marlins. Eased back into the swing of things, Kershaw pitched just three relatively unproductive innings, giving up two earned runs. Of course the outing wasn’t entirely a waste: with five strikeouts on the night, he reached 150 on the season against an impossibly low nine walks, becoming the first pitcher in history to reach such a milestone before their walk total hit double digits. That may seem like one of those pedantic “baseball stats,” but it serves to further illustrate Kershaw’s greatness, which might just be unprecedented. Before he got hurt he was having one of the greatest seasons by any pitcher ever. With an ERA well below 2.00 and a 0.73 WHIP that makes the best specialty relievers in the league jealous, his season has been so special that it still might net him baseball’s top pitcher prize, even with all the time he’s missed. Either way, it will cap a six-year run that ranks right up there with the best years of any of MLB’s all-time greats, be it Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove or even the hallowed Saint Sandy Koufax. Baseball’s romantic conception of its past prevents most observers from seeing Kershaw (and similarly, Mike Trout) in this light, a true-blue Hall of Famer even if his career ended tomorrow, but knowledgeable fans should recognize that we may be watching the GOAT at work.
The Long and Short of It
In a sport as obsessed with size as basketball, it seems fitting that three players most defined by their physical appearance would be entering the Hall of Fame together: Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Allen Iverson. The former two were giants in every sense of the word. Shaq, the heaviest player in NBA history, brought a combination of raw power and quickness to the game that nobody had thought possible, and used his outsized charisma to became the biggest star the league has seen outside of Michael Jordan. Yao, a whopping 7’6” and by far the most skilled of any player in history coming within three inches of his height, had a great career cut short by injury but still managed to become the international face of the NBA, one of its most cherished global ambassadors. Iverson, meanwhile, existed on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, listed at six feet but whispered to be two inches shorter. Nevertheless, The Answer proved himself the toughest SOB in the Association, developing into a superstar with his peerless handles, high-flying athleticism and borderline reckless rim-running. He was a controversial figure, but for the most part avoided any significant scandals. Besides, it would make sense for Iverson to carry a chip on his shoulder when he had to survive in a world where everyone else was literally head and shoulders above him. Three different players, three different sizes, three different careers, and all brought together by the beauty of basketball. Congratulations, gentlemen.