I watched the French Open Final on Sunday. If you are a regular reader perhaps you remember that I am not a big Roger Federer guy. Federer won too much, at times seemed falsely humble, and you know I was just a Sampras fan. Simple as that. I started paying more attention to tennis when Federer starting losing, and in the business of beating Federer, no one is as good as Rafael Nadal, who is pretty much the only blemish on Roger’s “best of all-time,” resume. Of course, now Nadal is reaching a historic level himself, and rooting for him isn’t much different from rooting for Federer, but on Sunday morning, I was still squarely in Nadal’s camp.
This isn’t about Federer/Nadal, though. It’s more about an impression I got watching the match. These guys are freakishly athletic. I think what discredits tennis players to a certain extent is that it is impossible to get perspective on how fast the ball is traveling when watching on television. It’s like a great fastball. To really get an idea of how hard the guy is throwing you’d need a stiff up there swinging about 2 seconds late. Same thing with tennis. Put a civilian out on the court and he’d be taking serves off his forehead. But, with these guys ripping the balls back and forth without hardly ever missing they could be going 30 mph, they could be going 130, it’s hard to tell.
One move in particular really caught my attention. A serve clipped the net, or something made the point or serve dead and Roger didn’t play the ball, he just dropped the racket quickly between his legs and sent a perfect one-hop volley to the ball kid up at the net. Maybe it was lucky, but it was this display of casual hand-eye coordination that kind of blew my mind the more I thought about it. These tennis players are powerful (at least in their dominant arm), they usually have elite speed and quickness, and off the charts hand-eye coordination. That’s a pretty athletic combination. But, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a tennis player brought up when people talk about the best athletes in the world.
The default argument, at least at the present time, seems to be the NBA guys are the best athletes. The one man argument is LeBron James. The defense rests. And, that is one hell of a case. I admit that. Now, there are some stiffs in the NBA, some guys that are overweight, but your general population of swingmen are clearly among the best athletes. Endurance, body control, explosiveness, they’d rank near the top in all those categories. And, I still might rank the NBA guys at #1, but lets look at some other sports.
Some have no chance. My beloved golf, for example. I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this one. Golf is very difficult to play, and the professional ranks are dotted with some great athletes, but it’s not really in the discussion. The longevity thing is what kills golf the most, I think. If Tom Watson can almost win a British Open at 60, well, that’s amazing, but not athletic in the sense we’re talking about. If age doesn’t quickly thin the field of players, the sport is out.
Next to get the boot? How about distance runners? I feel like becoming a great endurance athlete is definitely a feat, but I don’t know if it speaks to overall athleticism. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit in with our conditioned view of athleticism. I think cyclists kind of fit into this profile as well. Ok, you did an Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean I want you on my rec-league softball team.
Ok, this is going to take all day, so let me just get to my top-7 here.
7. Soccer. I’m probably biased against soccer. Since I’m on record not really giving credit for endurance, we’ve got to take that part out. They have a tremendous amount of skill, but it seems a bit too specialized for me. Also, anecdotally, I’ve seen too many soccer players that are awful at other sports to put them any higher.
6. Baseball. Baseball is a very tough one, and really all these are hard to put into order. I equate the Bartolo Colon and John Kruk arguments to being baseball’s version of offensive lineman. Hitting is the crowning achievement of hand-eye coordination and baseball players have a great track record of being all-around athletes, but without a ton of contact and with the pace of the game, I can’t go higher.
5. Boxing/Wrestling/MMA. This is the toughest one for me to rank, because I’m absolutely clueless about what it really takes to do any of these things. The conditioning aspect is unparalleled. I’ve also got to give a little bonus for the whole putting yourself in harm’s way thing. There are contact sports, and then there are sports where you are actively trying to knock the other guy out. I think the speed/power/explosiveness combo here is enough to make them top-5.
4. Tennis. Obviously, it is fresh in my mind, and the reason I am doing the whole post. I actually contemplated a top-3 ranking. One thing that works so much in favor of tennis is that it is unquestionably a young person’s game. Short primes, it wrecks your body, which isn’t great for tennis players, but is reflective of the all-out effort and pounding these guys take in a non-contact sport.
3. Football. I think the elite guys in each sport would be a different discussion. A running back, or a defensive back might be the most athletic guy on the planet at a given time, but football has too many specialists, too many guys that get by without a well-rounded set of skills. Your giant nose tackles, even some quarterbacks, etc. It’s all about the burst too. Everything is ten or fifteen second windows. Top-3, but if there are multiple guys on the field that can’t run 100 yards without getting oxygen, I think that’s a little damning.
2. Hockey. The thing about hockey is no one in the entire league is out of shape. It’s impossible to play hockey and not be in good shape. I guess you can say the same for soccer, but hockey has more elements. The most obvious being…they’re on skates. The hand-eye coordination, endurance, I think it is all there. Also, hockey players are often pretty well-rounded athletes. If you’ve ever seen one hit a golf ball for example…
1. Basketball. A long way to go to get to the cliched conclusion, but I’m not ready to discount the NBA guys. And, it might be the argument I made earlier in the post: LeBron. LeBron is a unique athlete, and it’s his combo of size and skill along with the other NBA guys that set them apart, I think. Really the only thing working against the NBA is the stiff center, but I don’t think there are enough of those guys, or they play a big enough role to take them off the top spot.
I suppose Rugby should be somewhere on the list, maybe 2.5 between football and hockey, but not mainstream in these parts enough for me to rank it, possibly need an honorable mention for sprinters, but I think that’s about it. List over.