Thursday, September 15, 2011

Novak's Look

On October 1, 1932 in the fifth inning in Game 3 of the World Series, Babe Ruth pointed out towards center field at Wrigley and hit the next pitch at least 440 feet. It is an absolutely iconic moment in sports. One could argue it is the most iconic moment in American sport. The outsized personality of Babe Ruth, the unabashed arrogance, the walking the walk of some of the biggest talk ever committed to film. People around the world, in wiffle ball games, video games, office contests, and other random situations, will now point vaguely in front of them to “call their shot.” Now imagine that instead of Charlie Root, throwing that pitch, it was Cy Young.

On Saturday September 10, 2011, Novak Djokavic had just gone down two match points to Roger Federer. It was the fifth set of the semi-finals of the US Open. Federer has won more majors than any other man in tennis history. He had gone up 2 sets to none and had won 182 of his previous 183 matches in which he had won the first two sets. Federer went up 40-15 on an ace, and is, arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. The crowd was cheering for Federer because many still remembered Djokovic's antics at the US Open a few years ago, because Federer is a great tennis player, and because they might witnessing the resurgence of one of the word's great athletes. Then this happened:

After a series of “I got this” smirks and, “Alright, if that's going to be the way he's going to play it” nods and perhaps a quick “Fuck this guy, he does commercials for private jets,” Djokavic settles into the standard ready to return position and hits what has to be one of the single greatest returns in the history of the game of tennis. Going through Djokovic's mind had to be how he earned the No. 1 ranking in tennis, how he had beaten Federer before, how Federer had his time and now it was Novak's time. The audience is stunned into a rumbling silence, because they were ready to cheer the return of Federer to the top of the tennis world, and then it wasn't just that Djokavic hit it back, he flicked his wrist and returned a pretty good serve at a physics stretching angle, and it is only when Djokavic casually raises his arms in a gesture correctly described as “Hey, I can hit some pretty big shots too,” that the audience realizes their minds had just be blown. That's how blown their minds were. Djokavic's towel guy wasn't even around. And the return absolutely shatters Federer. And then what was a foregone conclusion becomes a foregone conclusion only inverted.

If you're still unsure about just how amazing that return was, listen to Federer press conference. Its like watching a particularly sensitive child come to grips with his dad running over the bike, that he just bought with his own chore money. In a very roundabout, almost Luongonian way, Federer says it was a lucky shot and mumbles away until its time for him to, I don't know, decide which private jet to take home.

It had already been an excellent match but that look made it iconic. Sport does the moment perhaps better than anything else in human society. Because of how it is compartmentalized and because of how it is recorded,we are able to find and preserve these moments. In some ways, the whole moment is a lot closer to Bobby Orr soaring through the air than Babe Ruth calling his shot, but however you ultimately categorize it, Novak smirked his way into the annals of sport.

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