Pictured: A young Andy Murray
Sports are separated into two segments, team sports and individual sports. Fandom of the former is much more standard. Most fans have a team they follow intently or otherwise, purchase their merchandise and buy their tickets. Individual sports are a different animal. Rarely do fans have just one athlete they are interested in, and more often than not, the result of an individual sport leaves a “fine by me” reaction. Because of that, our perceptions and desires change as the seasons move along.
Entering the London Games, two big questions seemed to dominate the hype. First was the end of Michael Phelps. The London Olympics would be his final Olympics, with a very realistic shot at leaving as the most decorated Olympian of all time. Yet it was Ryan Lochte who got the attention. Lochte was next. Lochte was the second coming. It was Lochte’s turn. Over the week of swimming competition, Lochte belly-flopped, and Phelps took control yet again.
Once swimming was done, attention shifted to the track. And with two uninspiring performances in qualifying, everyone began to wonder whether Usain Bolt had lost a step, and more importantly, his swagger. Focus quickly shifted to his compatriot, Yohan Blake, the man who knocked him off the top of the track and field radar heading into the Olympics. And what happened? Bolt overcame a slow start to easily take the 100 and cakewalked to the 200. He’s the fastest man alive (again), and the only person to sweep the Olympic sprints twice.
We’re so quick to look ahead in individual sports. We desperately want the next king to emerge. But it’s easy to forget just how difficult it is to unseat the current ruler. It took Rafael Nadal three attempts before he knocked off Roger Federer on something other than his native clay in a major. It took Novak Djokovic six attempts at any major to unseat Nadal. And look at this year. Djokovic won Australia (over Nadal), Nadal won Paris (over Djokovic), Federer won Wimbeldon (over Murray). Throw in Andy Murray winning the Olympics (over Federer), and who’s the king of tennis right now?
When Tony Stewart held off Carl Edwards last year, NASCAR fans were itching at who the next king of speed would be. In fact, most NASCAR fans were hoping for anyone but Jimmie Johnson to be the sport’s dominant driver. Look at where we are now. Johnson is eight points back in the Chase, tied with the most wins this year and first in top five finishes. The king wasn’t overthrown, he took a nap.
America has been desperately searching for the next Tiger Woods. We thought Rory McIlroy was it. We thought Phil Mickelson would finally take charge. We thought wrong. And when you think about it, the only reason Tiger Woods isn’t still on golf’s throne is he crashed himself off of it, not because anyone kicked him out (other than his wife). The same can be said about women’s tennis, where injuries knocked Serena Williams off the top, only for her to return to freakishly dominant form this year.
It’s time for us to reassert how we absorb individual sports. We’re so quick to look for who’s next, we forget about who’s now. All the uncertainties about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt two weeks ago seem so foolish today. Did Michael Phelps suddenly forget how to swim fast? Did Usain Bolt suddenly forget how to run fast? No. Did we forget that? Maybe.
The kings we have come to know and love in individual sports the last half decade still reign supreme. All others are left wanting until they can prove otherwise.
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