Paris. What a horrific dilemma this could be. The men’s 100-meter sprint final and men’s tennis final fall on the same day, Aug. 5, at the London Olympics.
If forced, which of those would you choose to miss: Usain Bolt possibly becoming the first man since Carl Lewis to win the 100 at consecutive Games or Novak Djokovic perhaps putting a golden sheen on what promises to be another astounding year?
Until Sunday, Bolt would have been a comfortable winner. Now? Impossible choice. And what a memorable day it could prove to be for those with time to rush from one event to the other or to tune into both.
Like Bolt, Djokovic is becoming one of those special athletes who transcends the confines of their sport, a figure whose achievements on the field of play teach us not only new things about sporting endeavor but also about the bottomless well of human possibility.
Bolt’s 100, 200 and relay golds at the 2008 Beijing Games made the Jamaican more than just an Olympic champion sprinter but one of the greatest sportsmen of all time because he redefined our understanding of how fast humans can run.
Likewise, in outlasting Rafael Nadal for 5 hours and 53 minutes in the longest-ever Grand Slam final, Djokovic played far more than a mere tennis match to win the Australian Open. He tested our definition of human endurance. How did he find those last drops of energy to first reel in and then finish off the Spaniard who, with a 4-2 lead in the fifth set, looked as though he might wriggle free?
It was the incredible will Djokovic demonstrated that made this feat immortal. Like Muhammad Ali flooring George Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle or Lance Armstrong picking himself up from a crash at the 2003 Tour de France and powering up a climb with cold-eyed fury on his broken bike, this was epic because it was as much about heart as it was about physical ability.
“You’re going through so much suffering, your toes are bleeding,” Djokovic said. “Everything is just outrageous, you know, but you’re still enjoying that pain.”
At the end, he ripped open his shirt with a primal scream. It wouldn’t have been that much of a shock if Djokovic had also ripped open his hairy chest to show us just how fiercely his ticker beats.
Is Djokovic the most impressive athlete in activity? Certainly, he is part of the debate that question provokes. The hypochondriac Djokovic who in years past looked unlikely to ever match Nadal’s physicality, the joker Djokovic who seemed unlikely to equal Roger Federer’s cool professionalism, has been body-snatched and replaced by Superman on a gluten-free diet.
Andy Murray, the world No. 4, came away from his five-set, 4 hour and 50-minute semifinal loss to Djokovic feeling that he was edging closer to the No. 1. But on Sunday, Djokovic and Nadal then shifted the benchmark further forward. The ferocity of their contest made the idea that Murray could beat first one of them and then the other in a Grand Slam semifinal and final look fanciful again.
Same goes for Federer, the world No. 3. As long as Nadal and Djokovic are fit, it’s only going to get harder for the 30-year-old Swiss to get his hands on a 17th Grand Slam title by toppling those men five and six years his junior.
For Nadal, Sunday’s final offered evidence the No. 2 no longer looked in trepidation across the net at Djokovic and that the deep hurt done to his confidence by losing six finals to the Serb last year may not be permanent. But as positive as Nadal sounded about this defeat — “I always said it’s good to suffer” — will the scabs on his psyche simply flake right off the next time they meet?
One hopes not. Like the best Hollywood blockbusters, this epic cried out for a sequel and left us hungry for more.
Some, including seven-time major winner Mats Wilander, are already talking up the possibility of a calendar Grand Slam for Djokovic this year. That is premature, but it won’t be if Djokovic wins the French Open — the only major he let slip away in 2011 — in June.
After that, Wimbledon’s Center Court will be calling, with the men’s final on July 8 and the Olympic final a month later. Just imagine if those produce a Djokovic-Nadal double-bill.
If that happens, then the Aug. 5 dilemma won’t seem so quite knotty anymore.