Bill: Zito! Let's talk about beautiful sports things. Because I'm starting it out, I'll be gracious and allow you to talk about Roger Federer first.
Zito: I love him, and it's always difficult to talk about things you love coherently. Words always fail. But what I love about him and other beautiful athletes is the practicality and unconcerned nature of their play. Federer plays like that because it's the best way for him to achieve results, and he does it without trying to please the larger audience in a sense. He hits those same shots and moves in the same manner when practicing --alone and away from the cameras and adoring eyes. And there's a constraint to it as well: he can't play the same powerful game as Novak Djokovic because his body is not built for those forceful and devastating movements. He has to make do with the tools that he has: an almost precognitive brain, flawless technique and precise, deadly movement.
So why I love him so much is that his style is essentially futile. He has no other choice but to be that way. But in that reality he's managed to be both mindless of outside pressures and practical in using his few tools to become of the sport's greatest athletes. And I think all three of those aspects are why I'm so enamored with him.
There's much more of course, and I could talk about watching a countless number of his interviews as well but I should probably stop here.
Bill: It took me a while to figure this out, but basically I'm attracted to the athletes that simply make me say, "damn," the ones who do something I didn't see coming. Like, a lot of clearly fantastic athletes or teams kind of follow a formula. Tim Duncan is maybe the best power forward ever, but there aren't that many surprises in his skill set. Tom Brady. Novak Djokovic. Djoker is amazing in his own physical, "How did he chase that down??" or "How is he still standing??" kind of way, but ... he's not Federer.
Federer makes announcers actually laugh out loud sometimes. Like, he and a given opponent are engaged in your typical rally, then suddenly he hits a forehand at an angle that seemed physically impossible and the point is just over.
I swear I was going to make this comparison regardless of current events, but Federer is tennis' Johan Cruyff. He's made me question space and angles. He's never been the most amazing defensive player in the world -- especially now that he's like 73 years old in sports years -- but he has speed and his protractor is different than everybody else's. He's able to create instant offense, and without a 150 mph serve. On the women's side, I see a lot of this in Simona Halep, but she doesn't have the same absurd forehand.
Before we shift from tennis, who else keeps your attention? I adore Andy Murray as a guy, but his game, and to some degree Djokovic's and Nadal's, have been more about body blows and stamina than swashbuckling. Who catches your fancy? Are you a del Potro guy? Ninja Radwanska?
Zito: As much as I posture to hate Novak, I really enjoy his game. I'm envious of disciplined people. And his game is all about that, from the mastering of technique to that of the body. The way he eats, the way he sleeps, the countless hours of practice -- it takes an insane amount of discipline and determination. I would say his game is beautiful as well, but it's beautiful because of its impossibility and distance. If I were to compare him and Federer to basketball players, Federer would be Steph Curry and Novak would be LeBron James. You can almost convince yourself that Federer and Curry are reachable goals if you put in the effort, but there's no imaginable way you can be Novak/LeBron.
Bill: Ha, I almost look at it as the opposite -- you can pretend that if you ate gluten-free food morsels and slept in a cryogenic chamber and trained for 18 hours a day, you could be Novak, but Federer's game just makes so little sense to me that I don't know how you could even try. That doesn't make Fed better; in fact, at the moment Novak is maybe playing better than anyone ever has. But it's kind of like robot vs. artist to me.
Sports beauty is so eye-of-the-beholder, so aside from Fed, here are some of my major "damn!" athletes. Some are specific to a given year or period in time. (I'm avoiding guys like Steph and Bo Jackson because ... duh.)
Danario Alexander in his senior season at Missouri:
He was able to change direction while running full-speed, or go from stopped to full-speed in a way that made defenders run into each other. Of course, his 20 knee injuries prove that what he was doing was almost literally physically impossible.
I saw a Montreal-Baltimore game at Camden Yards a long time ago, and basically any ball that Vlad could get to anywhere on the right side of the diamond, they would clear out because they knew that no one would be dumb enough to run on him.
And of course, someone I believe we've commiserated about before ...
He's off the charts on the Damn! per minute ratio.
Zito: I'm such an unabashed Thiago fanatic that I watch Bayern's training videos just to see his tricks.
But for me, first, I would go with Andres Iniesta in the Euros 2012 but especially in the game against Italy:
He's an Aikido master playing soccer. He beats so many defenders by using their momentum against them --just look at how he goes past Christian Maggio at the 5:48 minute mark by waiting for him to commit and then turning the ball to the outside:
I don't think I've ever watched a Seattle Seahawks game that Kam played in where I didn't whisper "oh dear God" when he ran to tackle an opposing player. Naturally he scares me, but more astounding than that, he scares NFL players. Which is incredible because it's the NFL: a league full of impossibly athletic humans who go to work every Monday, Thursday and Sunday to hurt their opponents. They live and breathe pain. Yet Kam manages to inflict them with fear. He turns them into ordinary human beings, into victims. I know I shouldn't consider that beautiful but I can't help it.
I don't think any list about beauty and sports is complete without Ricky Rubio. He shares Federer's precognitive mind and the audacity to make passes that should come with NSFW disclaimers.
Bill: Actually, one more, since soccer lends itself so well to artistry.
Christen Press is like 2/3 Alex Morgan, 1/3 Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe was so important to that 2011 US World Cup team because she seemed like the only one in the front half of the field with any sort of artistry. You had these blunt force weapons in Morgan and, of course, Abby Wambach, but you need a little bit of creativity when you can't just physically overwhelm an opponent, and she had it in droves. And by 2015, Press had kind of developed into a hybrid of all of them, and maybe a better dribbler to boot. She has just about every trick in the bag.
So what does our idea of sports beauty say about us? Granted, I was a downright average tennis player in high school, but I have far more experience watching sports than playing them, and I tend to delight in the things I didn't see coming. (And in guys who can throw flames from the warning track, I guess.) You, the actual athlete, seem as or more impressed by the physical traits most don't have -- Djokovic's impossible stamina, Iniesta's balance, Chancellor's physicality. Is that fair?
Zito: I think that's fair but it's only because when you're in the athletic realm, you realize that most athletes are physical specimens by the nature of the work. Other tennis players have a great deal of stamina, soccer players work on balance almost every day and NFL players are obligated to be strong. It comes with the territory. So, when you have athletes that somehow go above and beyond that already high level, it's pretty impressive. In the same way that when someone like Iniesta manages to conquer the soccer world without being a stereotypical athlete, I enjoy it as well.
But I do delight in the element of surprise. I like it when those things happen because they seem unreasonable at first but weirdly understandable after the fact. They tilt our understanding of the sport on its head. Take for example, Ronaldinho's goal against Chelsea in 2005:
The first and ultimate goal for any team, Barcelona in this case, is to score. And Ronadinho as an attacker is one of those responsible for that and for creating chances for others. When he gets the ball at the top of the box in the video, he has two defenders in front of him and one running from behind him; he's surrounded. It looks as if he only has two choices here: pass to the Barcelona player free on the left or to the one closest to him on the right.
No one but him considers the third choice: swivel the hips and top-poke it between the defenders and past the goalkeeper. It's audacious but if the ultimate goal is to score and he has the ability to do something like this, then why not?
It's like Steph Curry pulling up from 38 feet. For anyone else and from our general understanding of the game, that shot is stupid. But considering his skill set, it's not just understandable but totally sensible that he should do the insane thing. And I think there's beauty in breaking the mold and showing a different perspective of the game.
Bill: I think we end up following the beauty more than success. Front offices don't necessarily do that, but we imitate the things we haven't seen before. I'm old, but when Jim Courier was perfecting that inside-out forehand, we all had to try it. I'm really curious where the Steph Effect takes us in that regard.
Again, I'm old, but when I was still at a college age and playing pickup games at the rec center, the games were already littered with three-point shooters (that's the only thing I was any better at than others). You also had guys emulating Allen Iverson or Charles Barkley or attacking the rim and unconsciously sticking their tongue out like Michael Jordan. But now, you've basically got free rein to take any shot you want because Steph does it and it's amazing when it goes in. And unlike dunks, which require height and some semblance of hops, anybody can just back away from the goal until the defender doesn't follow, then shoot.
But I digress.
Zito: Yeah, I see a lot of people worried about that but we survived Jordan and Kobe Bryant convincing kids to shoot the lowest-percentage shot on the field in the mid-range jumper. We'll survive this. And if kids want to shoot threes, teach them the proper technique and movements for it so they can do it well. It can't be overlooked that for all of the flair of the players we've talked about, their technique and form are of the highest quality. That's a base that gives birth to both the beauty and results of their play.
Like Arsene Wenger said: "I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art. "
Bill: And hey, if these kids start making Steph 3s, that would be pretty fun.