Saturday, June 06, 2009

Shifting Sands of Clay/Thundering Thuds of Hooves

Shittin' on 'em. The Competition
"Je veux que vous vous goût aimez juste le miel."
"....merci beaucoup...mon boo."

Why should we care?

Derby winner Mine That Bird and 9 other horsies will run in this afternoon's Belmont Stakes out in the nether-world Queens/Nassau border town of Elmont without Freakness winner Rachel Alexandra.

No rematch between the he/she Mine That Bird, shorn of his bawlz after all, and fab filly Rachel Alexandra?

Every year, the promise of an exciting Triple Crown season returns, struggling a little less each year to avoid becoming part of the vestigal Americana of egg creams, soda jerks, adults playing baseball, automats, newspapers, chomping cockily on cigars, heavyweight champions, suits worn with hats and a strong domestic industry. We are told tales of when horse racing was right there with baseball as our most popular sport, that past champions such as War Admiral, Secretariat and Seattle Slew mattered as much as any star slugger or singer. I suspect the sport would be long dead were it not the only sport on which gambling is allowed. A $5 million bounty still stands for owner of the next Triple Crown champion.

This year, in yet another Triple Crown-less season, horse racing still had a chance to maintain the sporting public's interest with a Freakness-rematch in the Belmont. Instead, Rachel Alexandra's owners have pulled her out of the race, citing "tiredness." If the powers-that-be in the sport don't care about the Belmont, then why should we?

We'll take Frownie's old fav, Luv Guv, at 20-1 in the state that luvs its guv the least, followed by Mine That Bird (2-1), and Dunkirk (4-1).
- - -
Speaking of unconsummated rivalries, Roger Federer will take the court in Paris tomorrow for the French Open title. Winning would not only give him a tie with Pete Sampras for the most Slam titles, it would place him amongst the rare handful of eternals to win on grass, clay and hardcourt. Unfortunately, Nadal, whom Federer has faced in a record 7 times in Slam finals, beat him to that later feat when he won the Aussie Open back in January. Nadal will not be facing Federer, which is a damn shame as their rivalry reached a new plateau as each has adapted to win on the other's dominant surface.

I suspect that Federer will not find it to be a hollow victory if he wins tomorrow, much like how the Celts must have felt in winning the title in '86 over the Rockets instead of the expected Lakers.

The bigger question is where Federer ranks amongs the all-time greats. There is no more difficult sport in which to compare eras than in tennis. None. First there is the fact that the Open Era inaugerated 1968 made comparing tournament track records impossible, much like expanded postseason play in baseball has made a mockery of all-time postseason records.

More important is the change in equipment.I grew up playing with a metal racket that has about half-the-surface area of a modern racket. To play with a wooden racket is simply inconceivable. The rackets held by Big Bill Tilden all the way through McEnroe look like ping-pong paddles compared to today's equipment. They may as well have been playing with their hands. It is nothing like, say, the shift from wooden baseball bats to aluminum ones. It would be more like replacing a baseball bat with a adamantium cricket bat. It is replacing a feather with a bazooka.

Still, judging by Federer's unique-for-the modern-game all-around skill set, he would have likely thrived in past eras. Not everyone agrees on the importance of winning on all three surfaces, but I rank the feat as the most important factor in judging champions. Only Rod Laver and Andre Agassi have won all four titles, which is a major reason why I admire Agassi's career more than Sampras'. And why I think Federer is the superior player to Sampras, regardless of career titles.

Which is good, because I don't think he will win tomorrow. Fatigue has been a major issue for Federer of late. The man had mono after all. His semifinal lasted five sets, and the expectations of the entire tennis world will weigh heavily upon his floppy-haired dome tomorrow. Unless, of course, the fix is in, as hinted by the overly-supportive quotes given by the men's field in Paris. An example, as reported by the L.A. Times, "Everybody wants Roger Federer to win, even his quarterfinal opponent Gael Monfils, who said so in their post-match handshake." We'll be there, bright and early hoping.

How about y'all out there? Share your opinion on who is the greatest player in your lifetime and in history.