And so it begins again, the quest for two of the Holy Grails of sports, as sure signs of spring as cherry blossoms and roses.
American Pharoah will attempt to become only the 12th horse – and the first since my beloved Affirmed in 1978 – to win horse racing’s Triple Crown when he competes at the Belmont Stakes June 6, D Day in more ways than one.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic will attempt to unseat nine-time champion Rafael Nadal for the French Open title, which will be contested at Roland-Garros in Paris May 24 through June 7. Should Nole win, he would be halfway to doing what no man – not even Roger Federer – has done since Rod Laver in 1969 and that is win the Grand Slam in a calendar year.
These are pretty big Ifs. Can AP and Nole do it? Of course. They have the talent. But what makes life a horse race is that talent is not enough. You have to have luck, fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it, on your side. And, more important, you – or, in AP’s case, his handlers as well – have got to believe not just that you can win but that you will. And that’s not easy when you’re a Thoroughbred – or have the high temperament of one.
The Pharoah – he of the spongy earplugs – is said to be a gentle soul, unnerved by large crowds and noise. Nole, as finely tuned as one of his rackets, has had his moments of self-doubt that have played out in public – the meltdown in the final of the Miami Open earlier this year and the Hamlet-like bathroom break in the final of Wimbledon last year, to name two. Neither cost him the title. But at the French two years ago, as he and Rafa played a semifinal that John McEnroe called the greatest clay-court match he had ever seen, Nole tripped into the net on a crucial point and let the tenacious Rafa back in. Such moments are the difference between a championship and heartbreak.
Both AP and Nole will have fresh competitors gunning for them. History will be against them. So will the surfaces – the 1 ½ mile “Big Sandy” oval that is Belmont Park, the unforgiving clay of Roland-Garros. And the many skeptics. Feddy for one says, Don’t count Rafa out despite his recent struggles:
“…he seems like he’s doing just fine and regardless of what anyone says to me he’s the favourite to win the French Open,” he told The Telegraph. “The guy’s only lost there once in 10 years. There’s no way past that guy being the absolute favourite for that tournament.”
(OK, what does Nole have to do to get some respect from Feddy, whom he just defeated soundly 6-3, 6-3 for his fourth Italian Open title? Even Rog’s Champagne gives Nole no respect. When Nole popped the cork on a bottle of Moët & Chandon on the court in Rome, the cork hit him in the face. Some people just don’t like you, because, what? You’re you. I’ve seen it in my life, in the workplace, in family and it’s the sub-theme of my novel series “The Games Men Play.”)
OK, enough venting. I digress. So Nole’s no Fed, and AP’s no Secretariat. We live with the past, not in it, as tennis player Alí Iskandar –who has his own rivals and challenges to overcome – observes in my debut novel, “Water Music.”
It doesn’t matter what the greats have done before you. All that matters is if you can successfully play the hand you’re dealt.