The past week felt like a watershed for two currently-active athletes among the greatest of all time in their sport: Serena Williams, the most accomplished person, man or woman, ever to have picked up a tennis racquet, and more dramatically, the ageless, basketball-cerebral, statistically ever-present LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending National Basketball Association (NBA) champions.
Is Father Time calling them? They can point to other great competitors who are holding him at arm’s length.
Last week Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price ran her best-ever time and the second fastest ever in the women’s 100 metres. She is 34. That’s young for many of us, but in athletics it’s an age when the pounding and stress of world-class sprinting exacts irreparable wear and tear; particularly on a top-level competitor of more than 15 years, and one supposedly slowed by motherhood.
Shelly-Ann’s accomplishments since she announced her arrival on the big stage in Beijing almost 13 years ago deserve to be talked about in the same breath as her great contemporary, Usain Bolt, who introduced himself on the same stage.
Phil Mickelson hit the gym, slimmed down significantly, took up meditation, and late last month won the US Open, one of golf’s major tournaments. He turns 51 next week. Part of an elite that hunted prizes with Tiger Woods, Mickelson had last won a major in 2013, and had fallen to 116th in the world rankings. He had to be given a special exemption to compete.
And then there was Tom Brady, who at 43, won his seventh Super Bowl in February with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has no plans to retire. No country for old men (or women?) Think again.
So what are we to make of Serena and LeBron, two athletes who are regularly part of Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) conversations? For Serena, the end of her dominance has long been telegraphed.
Her last slam was the Australian Open in early 2017 and she’s now 8th in the world. Younger guns like Naomi Osaka are out-hustling and out-hitting her on the court. On Sunday, in Naomi’s absence from the French Open, she lost in the fourth round to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan.
LeBron had more recent success as the leader of the 2020 defending champions, so his fall in the first round of the playoffs was much harder. His teams have been fixtures in NBA finals. And he has dragged into championship contention some average Cleveland Cavaliers teams that had no right to be in the mix.
This time was different. Down 3-2 in their best-of-seven match-up with the Phoenix Suns, facing elimination and with the team’s other star Anthony David doubtful with a groin injury, game six in LA needed peak LeBron and one of his famous 40+ point surges.
He couldn’t do it. The great man couldn’t find that sixth-gear in which he willed his way to wins against considerable odds. For the first time, at 36, he looked mortal and uncloaked in his Superman cape.
Instead it was Suns young gun Devin Booker who channelled LeBron and the late Kobe Bryant, in one of the most determinedly merciless displays you’ll see in sport. He killed Lakers’ hopes with a barely-believable 22-point first quarter.
King James’ frustrated and beaten look brought to mind tennis great Pete Sampras’ last match at Wimbledon in 2001, a venue he’d ruled with seven championships. He couldn’t summon his superpower to beat the determined teenager on the other side of the net, one Roger Federer of Switzerland.
The high-def cameras mercilessly zoomed in on a beaten Sampras, slumped courtside in his chair, bits of towelling fluff caught in his five o’clock shadow. For a man used to finals, fourth-round elimination was a brutal come-down.
LeBron’s support cast could be described as the Flakers. A wannabe Instagram model, a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot straight most nights, and a starting point guard who scored zero points in Game 5. In the absence of the two stars earlier to injury, no one stepped forward to offer leadership. The roster needs serious surgery.
The Lakers’ deserved elimination brought out James’ serial critics to argue again that he doesn’t deserve to be in the GOAT conversation with Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships.
Jordan edges it, but he had a better cast than some LeBron Cavs teams. MJ didn’t have one of the great offensive players of all time, Kevin Durant join an already stacked Golden State Warriors. Most of all, he didn’t have LBJ’s longevity (18 years at the top), which matters a lot in intense elite competition.
It depends on what you value more. Was Lara or Sobers West Indies’ GOAT? Lara twice broke the record for the highest score in tests, and scored 501 in a First-Class innings. Sobers held the test record until Lara broke it, could get into a team on his batting alone, and also bowl spin, swing and seam. Refuse to choose. Have them both.
For Serena, 40 in September, her case for being the GOAT is unarguable. She has won 23 Grand Slam titles, the most in the modern era. The sheer length of her sustained excellence in the sport is unheard of. Sensing a Lakers loss last week, ESPN’s Stephen A Smith said that LeBron’s legacy was not on the line. He was right. And neither was Serena’s.
—Orin Gordon is a media
and communications consultant