Djokovic versus Neymar. Ten-metre race. Who wins? This idle thought races through my delighted head on a Sunday night. LeBron James once says "for me, a second is a long time" and athletes move with such speed they seem to stretch time. And make us feel we live in the Land of Slow.
Andy Murray drop shots in Paris. A slick one. Underspins it just over the net. Djokovic's weight is going the wrong way. No chance. Zero. Except Djokovic goes from zero to whatever speed he moves at in less than a second. He doesn't win the point but he gets to the ball.
Only Muhammad Ali wouldn't be impressed. In 1969, in a Sports Illustrated story written by Martin Kane, a unique photograph is taken of Ali. For that to happen "he was asked to jab at and smash a balsa board 16½ inches away when a light was flashed. Timed with an Omegascope, he did it in 19/100 of a second. His fist actually covered the distance in 4/100 of a second, about the period of an eye blink".
Fast is only one part of fantastic. Against Villarreal, in a flash of seconds, Neymar maps the geography of a field, gauges the bounce and pace of a ball, decides on a course of action. But only genius can make a complex set of decisions, some instinctive, some calculated, appear elegantly simple.
When Suarez crosses, Neymar, who has been sprinting, brakes. First, the ball bounces off his abdomen. Not too close to him, not too far. Second, he hooks the ball over his head. Not too high, not too strongly. Third, a defender is behind him. Neymar knows he is there but not where exactly, not how close, not at what angle he is arriving nor at what speed, but through experience and intuition he can feel the defender's presence.
Because when he hooks the ball it goes perfectly over the onrushing and stunned defender. Onto Neymar's foot. Into goal. Inch-perfect inspiration.
Why do we watch sport? Partly because we wait for goals like this. From the mundane, and we see a lot of it, emerges the abruptly magnificent. A writer friend tells me about walking though the National Gallery of Scotland, past walls of paintings fine but not fabulous, and then, suddenly, one leapt from a wall and grabbed her by the collar.
It was by an old master, Neymar is a young one. He is a reminder that sport produces pieces of great art which always demand our attention. Like the cheetah in full flight as it hunts, it scarcely matters if we have seen this image before because its sheer beauty always elevates the human experience.
Neymar and Djokovic are intriguing because they have sublime form while everyone else seems only to be searching for it. For them, time slows and solutions arrive. On Sunday, Murray had a patch of brilliance in the second set and Djokovic responded almost casually. It was as if Murray had ascended briefly to a higher plane where the Serb lives and the Scot doesn't quite belong.
Playing Djokovic must be exhilarating because everyone wants to beat the best and yet agonising because you know your best will not be enough. To know you must be more perfect than the planet's most perfect player is exquisite pressure. Weaknesses can be exploited but weakness precisely where?
On the ATP Tour this year the Serb has been first in second-serve points won, fifth in service games won, seventh in break points saved, second in first-serve return points won, first in second-serve return points won, sixth in break points converted, second in return games won. Just to confirm he is man and not machine he is not in the Top 10 for aces. Only No. 20 with 455.
Djokovic is fascinating because he barely falls. This year he has lost once in January, once in February, never in March, April or May, once in June, never in July, twice in August and never in September or October. He evidently doesn't even have weak months.
We watch him because defeat would be an event. We watch also because the great athlete in search of his finest self is one of life's great privileges. We do not see it as often, or as closely, with the pianist or dancer or sculptor. "If you are going for perfection, you might reach excellence," says Djokovic and we have been privy to this journey.
Neymar is slowly rising towards his greatest self, Djokovic might already be there. "I think in terms of physical and mental ability I have reached my peak," said this man as resilient as a wire and as fast as a current. Yet he won't accept he can't improve and added: "I'm not trying to keep the status quo because for me then that's a regression."
Djokovic is 78-5 this year; Roger Federer was 81-4 in 2005. He reached all four Grand Slam finals this year; Federer did that thrice. He has won 10 tournaments this year; Federer won more than 10 in three consecutive years. Simply the Serb has places to go. He has winning to do. And we have watching.
This article was first published on Nov 10, 2015.
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