After reading an article entitled ‘Ronnie O’Sullivan: Da Vinci of the Baize,” on the BBC website yesterday, I’ve finally been inspired to try writing a blog. As much as anything, it’s just a few thoughts… I’m not trying to come to any perfect conclusions. In my eyes, too often we try to answer impossible questions about “who is the greatest” based on distorted criteria and unfair comparisons. Does it really matter whether Messi is better than Ronaldo? Why can’t we just see them both as great without needing to judge who is greater? You might disagree with me, you might not… but hopefully it might get you thinking.
“In the hands of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, a tennis racquet is a rock hammer and a tennis court a quarry. In the hands of Roger Federer, a tennis racquet is a paint brush and a tennis court a canvas.” (Ben Dirs, 2014)
For me, the quotation above summarises almost perfectly the difference between the greatest sportsmen and the greatest performers. The quartet above, undoubtedly four of the best tennis players ever to have graced a court, are all phenomenally difficult to beat and at times unbelievable to watch. A 54-shot rally between Djokovic and Nadal in the 2013 US Open Final had me standing up, oohing, aahing, roaring and eventually settling back into my chair chattering in disbelief; the sheer athleticism, determination, speed, power and skill was astonishing. The tennis these men can play is verging on superhuman at times. In a different way, Serena Williams can make her opponent look like a cowering schoolgirl at times with a terrifying mix of pace and accuracy; she is a strong and powerful woman but simultaneously has the footwork of a ballerina and balance of a gymnast. But despite all of this, Roger Federer is the only player amongst these greats who can silence me with one perfectly executed backhand. His is the only stroke with the elegance of a bird, the fluidity of water, the ability to seemingly slow time as you see it happening. It looks completely natural. What’s my favourite thing about Federer though? He can do the hot dog.
That brings me onto my next topic: Flair; creativity; the very essence of sport as ‘art’. A coach once directed me to read a chapter in a book by a highly successful Australian hockey coach, who describes flair as, “superior practised skill,” and believes that we should not actively seek it out in sports performance. I would disagree with this sentiment. Although I agree with his assertion that a highly skilled player such as Federer may able to achieve a greater percentage of success at shots like the hot dog owing to more and better practice, and whilst of course I wouldn’t advocate using it mindlessly in each and every situation, I would never discourage a player from attempting such a shot. Winning is important, making good decisions is important, not overcomplicating things at the wrong time is important… but I also believe fun, enjoyment, and the ‘spectacle’ are crucial parts of sport. There’s a reason we all deify Messi, Ronaldo, and historically Maradona and Pele… of course they are (or were) all extremely capable at the basics of football. They also have the skills but more importantly the courage to try something far more creative. The risk is getting it wrong. The opportunity is getting it right – and greatness comes from getting it right in spectacular style. There’s also a reason that players like Jay-Jay Okocha, Matthew Le Tissier and Paolo di Canio became cult heroes at their clubs – despite their relative lack of success as a team. They brought something new, different, unexpected. They gave their fans – and, I’d suggest, their teammates – something to get excited about. The idea of flair scares some coaches. They don’t like players doing things that they can’t control or predict from the sidelines. I absolutely believe top level sport is about winning, but I also think it is about entertaining. As a coach, if you encourage creativity and imagination in your players, there is one vital ingredient: you have to be prepared that it could go wrong. But if I was coaching, I’d much rather lose and have tried to have some fun along the way than lose and be boring. As I said earlier, you might disagree with me on some of this stuff… but as I’m not just talking about winning, I’m talking about great performances, the question I would ask is which goals or victories do you truly remember? The unforgettable ones are those with the drama, the skill, and the audacity to try something out of the ordinary. Of course most sporting ‘artists’ don’t do these skills out of the blue; they aren’t flukes. They are the result of practice, determination and understanding. Essentially though, they are also partly motivated by an enjoyment of trying to become extraordinary. “You could be good if you took it seriously.” I think you could be great if you took it less seriously. That doesn’t mean practise less, or try less hard. It just means enjoy the creative process of doing it.
Finally, what about those sports that actually base themselves around art? In figure skating, freestyle skiing and synchronised swimming, your success is actually measured in terms of your ability to perform skills with aesthetic precision. There is of course considerable physical and mental prowess required to complete moves and routines in these sports, and the perceived difficulty has a big impact on how you are scored. However, the results or assessment of performers in these types of activities is ultimately based on a visual interpretation of events. Pioneers or world leaders are those who invent new, more difficult dives or make a seemingly impossible physical action come to life in front of our eyes. I would suggest that a ballerina is a ‘physical artist’. Ballet may not elicit discussion in the same way as football or cricket, but many of the characteristics – balance, grace, and dare I say it, flair – held by the world’s greatest ballerinas can certainly be seen in performers like Lionel Messi and Sachin Tendulkar. The Winter Olympics has in some ways become increasingly competitive and ‘serious’ as time has gone by, but I still believe there is often a greater emphasis on pushing the limits of performance on the basis of art rather than the quicker times and better scores sought in many Summer Olympic sports. The sight of a snowboarder midair, blue sky behind them, white snow beneath them – that’s art. Competitors want the crowd standing on the side of a mountain watching them to see things that defy gravity and belief simultaneously. There is still that desire to win – but these are people who want to look good doing it.
I’m not trying to make a judgment about whether the results or the performance are more important. The thing I do know though, is that as a spectator, I cherish those who take my breath away not just in winning, but in the manner they perform. As a sportsperson, I know I might not ever achieve what I set out to when I was a kid… but I’ll make damn sure I don’t get bored trying.