It goes without saying that one has to be an outstanding athlete to win in sports. When someone dominates a sport or is at the top for a long time, is it because he possesses the ultimate athleticism among peers? It sure looks more and more so in today’s world.
But first look at the alternatives. A competing factor may be that he is just smarter or learns and masters techniques better. Some of that may be due to athleticism as well, as a quick reflex, etc, but suppose he just has a good touch with his racket and does wonder that nobody else can. In short, he wins because he is technically superior, not because he is the fastest or strongest.
Another alternative may be that he has a good coach or team that helps him prepare his matches better.
Such factors undoubtedly influence the outcomes of competitions, for no two players are the same with the same environment. But in this day and age when video analyses are ubiquitous, and so many players and coaches are investing heavily, it is practically impossible to monopolize any techniques or hide any strategies. This leaves us with the only other option that if you have better practicing partners, your level of play should be higher. But then again in most sports nowadays your best practicing partners are your actual competitors in the tour.
So a general conclusion is that in any sport there could be about a dozen players, more or less, that have a similar level of skills, but being the winner requires the best athleticism, at least in the particular events he wins. This is amply illustrated by recent results in the table tennis, badminton, and tennis competitions.
In the latest World Table Tennis Championship concluded in May 2015 in Suzhou, China, Ma Long finally won the men’s singles event. He is certainly well deserved it, but the real story was how the defending two-time champion Zhang Jike performed. He started out nicely in early rounds, constructing and manufacturing points well and not making many customary mistakes. When he played Vladimir Samsonov, who gave him trouble numerous times before, the match was close early on, but ZJK was never in stress. During these matches ZJK played a deliberate, controlling game, relying on spins but not outright power or speed to beat his opponents. ZJK continued this game plan against Mizutani, but showed signs of distress in later sets, which gave the first impression that he was not completely well and that his risk-averse game plan was his only capable way of playing at the moment. This turned out to be the case, as ZJK fell to the massive attacking style of Fang Bo in the semi. ZJK could not control FB’s forehand topspins, and he could not initiate his own attacks either, so he had zero chance in that match. It might have been fortunate that he played Samsonov and Mizutani, who themselves are finesse players. Had he had faced a furious attacking player like some Korean, he would have been ousted earlier. It was revealed that ZJK had a shoulder discomfort during the tournament, like Xu Xin. ZJK has always been a supreme athlete, but physically he is not 100%, and this shows.
Turning to badminton, which is muddled water right now, as nobody can win two tournaments in a roll. Parity in competition is good, but one can’t help but thinking about LCW winning one event after another in recent years. A surprise is that Lin Dan hasn’t won any super event, not for a lack of trying. In the last two events he lost in a similar fashion to two different players in the first round: winning the first set closely and losing the next two. This implies that he can’t maintain his intensity in three tough sets. LD being a legend now has always relied on his athleticism. In fact, he is arguably among the best athletes in all sports ever. But perhaps age finally catches up with him; i.e., he is simply too old. In any case, LD can’t possibly be as quick or strong as 5 years ago, and, of course, we are not sure how motivated he is these days.
Women’s singles tell a similar story. It is common for one wins one event and loses the next match in the next event. A big disappointment is Li Xuerui, who hasn’t done anything since London 2012 and performs worse and worse with every passing year. She has a script of winning the first set, losing a close second set, and losing badly in the third set. This is a clear sign of passable techniques but poor stamina. She has never had the best athleticism, but her style of playing has become more and more conservative, which is terribly suited for her. In 2012, she had the same stamina issue (she is still not that old), but she attacked a lot, making her opponents spending a lot of energy defending. So at the third set she was still the fresher one. But as she plays more and more the rallying style these days, she is wasting a lot of energy, and her opponents are having more and more reserve in the third set, leading to her sure defeat at the end. I think the culprit is Chen Jin, the Chinese coach. Chinese women’s singles have performed poorly in recent years as a whole, and no one particular person has been any better, which clearly demonstrates the failure of Chen Jin, for not adjusting to the latest evolution of women’s attacking style. With Chen Jin at the helm, there will be no world or Olympics championship for China in 2015 or 2016.
Finally tennis, Serena Williams is the best example of being the best athlete winning the most. At such an old age, she conserves her energy well and stays calm during matches. In terms of ground strokes she is not better than many others, but her serves are much better, and she gets to more balls when the stakes are higher. She wins all the three setters, as her opponents see chances but never quite finish it. The only question about GOAT (see blog "Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013") is whether her contemporaries (really the younger generations) are just too weak, as one can’t possible be better in the 30s than 28.
On the other hand, recent results including the French Open 2015 clearly show that Federer and Nadal are too old to be the athletes they used to be. For Federer it has been a while. For Nadal, it remains to see if he can bounce back to be competitive for any grand slams. Novak Djokovic is by far the best male player, but if there is one who can beat him now, it is Stan Wawrinka, and he did. Djokovic’s backhand is his best weapon against Nadal, but Stan’s single handed backhand style, as Federer’s, is its best antidote (see blog "2012 French Open men's final"). Compared to two-handed backhand, single-handed backhand is more versatile and easy to get to, but lacks stability and power. But if one has the stability or variations or power, he can neutralize Djokovic's advantage better than Nadal. Federer is no match to Djokovic today only because Federer is too old, but Stan’s athleticism is higher, and his backhand, while lacking finesse, has much more power. Also, Stan serves faster than Djokovic, which can’t be said about Federer or Nadal. So it is plain that the better athlete won the French Open. In fact, the battle between Stan (not the much hyped Federer, Murray, Nadal) and Novak in GS events have been the real story in the past two years and could continue for two more.