By John Feinstein
Monday, July 13, 2009 3:00 PM
Every once in a while, you look up as a sports fan and realize you are witnessing something extraordinary.
When Michael Jordan was at the peak of his powers in Chicago, there was little doubt that we were witnessing a player not likely to be seen again anytime soon. John McEnroe, before he fell to earth, was a sight to see in the early 1980s, not just with because he won but because of the artistry he brought to tennis. Anyone who has watched golf for more than 15 minutes knows that every time Tiger Woods tees it up, something amazing can happen.
Which is why it is worth pausing, right now, smack in the middle of July 2009 to realize that we may well be in the midst of a summer none of us has ever seen before and may not see again.
Let's throw out four names: Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong.
Each is, at the very least, very much in the conversation as the greatest athlete in the history of his sport. Phelps and Armstrong -- unless you are one of those who still insists there has to be a positive drug test hiding out somewhere in France -- are unquestionably the best swimmer and the best cyclist in history. Federer has now won more major tennis titles than any man who has ever lived and is 1 and 1A with Rod Laver as the greatest tennis players ever. And, unless he's struck down by lightning -- Jack Nicklaus is powerful but not that powerful -- Woods is going to surpass Nicklaus statistically as the greatest golfer to ever live sometime in the next few years.
And here they all are, performing right before our very eyes.
Phelps has come back from six months out of the pool and nine months out of competition to prove he is still the most dominant force his sport has ever seen. It wasn't just that he won all three events he entered in last week's U.S. championships, but the way he did it. As always, he made the hardest event in swimming -- the 200 butterfly -- look easy, coming within a second of the world record he set in Beijing last year when he was in the best shape of his life. He cruised in the 200 free and then broke the world record in the 100 butterfly, the only one of his regular events in which he was not the record-holder, finishing in a mind-boggling 50.22 seconds. Prediction: He will become the first man in history to break 50 seconds at the world championships in Rome in a few weeks.
With all due respect to back stroker Aaron Peirsol, who is a wonder in his own right, Phelps' ability to change distances and change strokes and to come back after the greatest performance in Olympic history ready to try to make more history in London in 2012, is beyond remarkable.
Why? Because maintaining greatness -- real, absolute greatness -- is really hard to do in swimming for the simple reason that training is such drudgery. Even a great coach such as Bob Bowman has to have a difficult time coming up with new workouts and new sets to keep Phelps interested and motivated. Swimming new events helps, but after all that Phelps has accomplished, to be willing to put himself through the hours and the pain to stay this good is beyond belief.
Armstrong at least had the advantage of taking several years off from the painful hours that bikers put in. He was able to come back fresh and rested and, no doubt, eager to prove doubters wrong. Having said that, the fact that he's right there as the Tour de France hits the halfway point, with a legitimate chance to win, is cause to bring out all the same superlatives applied to Phelps.
Armstrong is 37. He was retired for most of four years. He's still got the French hounding his every step hoping to prove he's a doper because they simply can't deal with the idea of an American dominating their event the way he's dominated it.
For his part, Woods has had a fascinating year even before the British Open begins Thursday. Woods has played in nine tournaments so far. He's won three. He did not win the Masters or the U.S. Open and we all know the number he cares about is 18 (Nicklaus's major championships), not 82 (Sam Snead's PGA Tour wins). He's on 14 and 68 right now, and there's every reason to believe he's capable of winning one, if not both of the year's last two majors. So, after major knee surgery, if he wins a major and, say, five tournaments, he'll undoubtedly be the PGA Tour's player of the year yet again.
And what about Federer? After many people thought his time might be over as a major champion when he lost (again) to Rafael Nadal in Australia in January, he's bounced back to win his first French Open and his sixth Wimbledon. It doesn't matter that Nadal didn't make the final in Paris or didn't play Wimbledon. You can only play those who show up. Plus, Federer won an all-time classic final from Andy Roddick at Wimbledon for his 15th major title.
If he wins a sixth straight US Open in September -- whether he plays Nadal in the final or not -- that would give him three majors (and a loss in the fourth final) for the year. By any stretch, that's a miraculous year, especially for someone whose tennis epitaph was being written as recently as this past spring.
The bottom line is this: We are watching four incomparable athletes right now who are either at the absolute peak of their powers or very close to it. We are watching them try to climb heights never before climbed in their sport's history. They may succeed or they may not, though the betting money is if they do not succeed, they will come about as close as possible before falling short.
Most of sports is over-hyped these days. If you watch the John Deere Classic on CBS, you might think you had stumbled into a replay of Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills or (appropriately enough this week) Nicklaus vs. Watson at Turnberry.
Right now, though, four men are doing things that need absolutely no hype. There's no need to add words to their deeds as they perform them. What we should all do is simply sit back and enjoy.