To begin with, sustained domination at the highest level of any sporting endeavor is something to be awed and marvled at. Its occurrence is not only exceedingly infrequent but more often than not, it is just plain breathtaking.
But when that domination, achieved in three different disciplines, takes place within a window of less than 48 hours, now that’s earthshaking stuff – to the point of being almost biblical in its magnitude.
And yet beginning on the evening of June 8 in a basketball arena in Cleveland, Ohio and running through the afternoon of June 10 on a red clay tennis court in Paris, an unprecedented trifecta took place.
It all began on a Friday night when the ever-growing stature of the Golden State Warriors took on yet another dimension as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and crew swept past the Cavaliers of the valiant LeBron James, marking the third time in the last four seasons that coach Steve Kerr’s club had captured the NBA crown.
Fast forward to the following afternoon/early evening in New York when a remarkably athletic chestnut colt answering to the name of Justify stamped himself as a genuine immortal when he delivered a truly inspired race at the 150th Belmont Stakes – thereby becoming only the 13th horse to achieve the impressive distinction of winning the Triple Crown.
And then came the coup de grace on a memorable Sunday when left-handed tennis savant Rafael Nadal, who plays on clay as if he invented it, took home the French Open trophy for a mind-blowing 11th time.
This was greatness, heaped upon greatness and finished off with greatness. In all likelihood, the earth will stop spinning before such time-compressed excellence will ever transpire again.
Let’s take a closer look at that these three examples of superiority and brilliance in action.
Warriors continue to roll
Expected to take care of the Cavs with dispatch, the Warriors did exactly that with a four-game sweep. Coupled with its 4-1 dismantling of Cleveland the previous year in the Finals, Golden State has now set a standard that has it in the discussion of all-time best championship runs. And had the fiery and invaluable Draymond Green not earned a suspension during the 2016 Finals that eliminated him from a pivotal fifth game, a strong case can be made that the Warriors might have snared a fourth title.
Without a doubt, Golden State is a wondrous and fascinating team. In Curry, they possess the game’s best-ever shooter who can go off like no one else can. Very few seem to embrace the big moments like this baby-faced assassin. When the multi-skilled Durant, whom many experts consider to be the second best player in the league behind LeBron, joined the Warriors two years ago, he pushed them into another pantheon. Klay Thompson can bomb away with practically anyone and his impact on the team’s success can’t be overestimated. And then there’s the emotional Green, a hustling forward who can score, rebound with gusto and pass with surprising effectiveness. Furthermore, Green brings with him an edge and energy that his teammates willingly absorb and utilize.
Throw in the meaningful and important contributions of role players like Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee and Shaun Livingston and it’s no wonder the Warriors have become the NBA’s preeminent glamour team since 2015. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a crackerjack front office and a cool and perceptive coach like Kerr who might not get quite the credit he deserves.
By securing three titles and narrowly missing another during a four-year span, the Warriors can arguably claim they are a dynasty and certainly a team that has dominated over an extended period of time. Their recent takedown of the overmatched Cavs put them in another class, among the most rarefied of company.
Justify states his case
American Pharoah was deservedly exalted when he became the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to conquer the curse that had become the pursuit of the Triple Crown. It had taken 37 long years before a horse showed that he had the talent, wherewithal and endurance to turn the trick and it was the splendid Pharoah who proved to be up to that daunting task.
Three years later, Justify matched that remarkable feat but because it came so closely on the heels of Pharoah’s accomplishment, some have tried to downplay its impact and detract from its significance. Those who attempt to minimize what Justify has accomplished are not only ignorant, they’re full of the stuff he periodically leaves behind in his shed.
A compelling case can be made that Justify’s march to the Triple Crown might be one of the most amazing in the annals of the sport. In the condensed period of just 111 days, this marvelous animal went from being unraced and unproven to becoming an absolute world-beater.
During that abbreviated period, he won six races at varying distances and in vastly different conditions. Along the way, he became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to capture the “Run for the Roses” without a start as a two-year old. Perhaps even more noteworthy, Justify joined Seattle Slew as the only other equine in history to secure the Triple Crown while being undefeated.
A big, strapping specimen with a powerful and rhythmic stride, Justify has demonstrated there’s very little he can’t do. At the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, he deftly handled muddy tracks that might have undermined and doomed most other favored horses.
Alert out of the gate, Justify has drawn kudos for his telling ability to go wire-to-wire and beat back opponents whenever they begin closing in on him. He seems to possess an uncanny sense as to when to settle in and when to deliver that decisive spurt or kick that invariably spells the difference. His competitive will is off the charts and his massive heart is reflected in the manner in which he simply refuses to get beat. What he’s been able to accomplish while his stamina, heart and ability to recover has been tested to the max, already qualifies him as a legitimate legend.
As of now, trainer supreme Bob Baffert isn’t exactly sure where Justify will next get down to business – it could come at the Haskell Invitational, the Travers or maybe at the Pacific Classic to be held later this summer at Del Mar. But unless something totally unexpected occurs, you know he’ll be the marquee name among the many other headliners at November’s Breeder’s Cup.
When he rumbled down the stretch at the Belmont and made a declarative statement that resonated throughout the horse-racing community, at that moment Justify and the word dominant became synonymous.
A Spaniard in Paris
Rafael Nadal may not own Paris but it sure seems like it. Why, he’s made himself as much an integral part of “The City of Light” as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
When Nadal outclassed Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in this year’s French Open Finals, it marked the 11th time since 2005 that the indomitable Spaniard had left Roland Garros as both conqueror and king.
No player in the Open era, man or woman, can touch that kind of mastery at any of the Grand Slam events. Though Roger Federer’s eight titles at Wimbledon are indeed astounding, that sublime achievement still falls substantially short of the magic that Rafa has wraught in France.
When it comes to performing on the clay, Nadal gives the appearance of being born to it. It’s as if there’s some sort of spiritual connection between the 6’1” maestro from Manacor and the surface that has, in essence, become his partner in crime. Virtually no other athlete, in any sport, seems as much in his element as does Nadal when he takes to the dirt.
Watching Rafa operate on clay is a feast for the eyes as he glides smoothly around the court, covering vast amounts of real estate and defending in ways that have to be seen to be believed. And then there are those fearsome and loaded-up forehands that the high-bouncing clay sets up like a golf tee and which Rafa smacks with devastating accuracy. Add to all that his countless crosscourt winners from the backhand and his decisive volleys when coming to the net and it’s no wonder that the French is where Nadal has become practically unbeatable.
Now with a total of 17 Slam titles to his credit which trails Federer’s magnificent output by just three, the 32-year-old Rafa still has realistic hopes of perhaps someday eclipsing Roger as the man who owns the most Majors. As long as his aggressive and physical style doesn’t unduly burden his taxed knees, Nadal just might have a shot at that historic goal.
Because for Nadal, like the lovers Rick and Ilsa from “Casablanca,” there will always be Paris. A place where he can clean up and usually makes out like a bandit. When it comes to getting down and loving the dirt, only Pig Pen rivals Rafa on that account.