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American Pharoah, Novak Djokovic: What defines greatness?

  American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza take the Preakness. The Pharoah hangs up his racing shoes after the Breeders’ Cup this Saturday.

American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza take the Preakness. The Pharoah hangs up his racing shoes after the Breeders’ Cup this Saturday.

American Pharoah has arrived at Keeneland in Lexington for the Breeders’ Cup Classic Saturday, the final race of his career. He’s going to face an older woman, Beholder; older guys like Tonalist and Honor Code; and old rivals like Frosted and Keen Ice.

But hey, is that any worse than the naysayers, the ones who remark that he’s good but not great – certainly not as great as the greats of the 1970s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and my beloved Affirmed; and, that if he doesn’t win the Breeders’ Cup, he really won’t be considered great.

This is the same conversation about Novak Djokovic, who will lead the field at the BNP Paribas Masters Paris, which begins also on Saturday and runs through Nov. 8. If he doesn’t repeat in Paris and at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London the following week, he won’t have had a great season.

Let’s review, shall we?

American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, the first horse to do so since Affirmed 37 years ago.

Novak Djokovic won three slams (the Australian and US opens and Wimbledon) and reached the final of the fourth (the elusive French).

They’ve already had great seasons.

We get it: American Pharoah isn’t Secretariat, Nole isn’t Roger Federer….

I’m not Hemingway. Should I stop writing? Here’s the thing: No one is anyone else – and never will be. We are all of and in our time. I had this argument with an interviewee the other day. She said that not everything is of its time. But even timeless subjects are rendered in time. If you look at Richard Burton as Alexander the Great and Colin Farrell as Alexander, you’ll see an ancient conqueror interpreted through the scrim of the 1950s and that of a half-century later. The 1956 film is psychological as befits a period that was still heavily influenced by Freud. The hairstyles and costumes are mid-century interpretations of ancient Greek dress. The 2004 film – made as America went to war in Iraq, Alexander’s old stomping grounds – has a sexual freedom and fluidity that wouldn’t have been possible in the ’50s.

I think we get the stars that our time requires. And that it’s only when they and we live within time that we can hope to transcend it.