Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The 10 Wonders of Sport

The following piece looks at 10 of the most wondrous individual skills in sports today. It’s a current list, limited to active athletes. There are simply too many examples of special moves over history to delve beyond current stars. From the Zidane pirouette to the Tyson left hook, from Iverson’s crossover to Tendulkar’s pull-shot, this list would have been endless. These, then, are today’s 10 Wonders of Sport. Enjoy.

1. Rafael Nadal forehand (Tennis)
The Whip
Ever since Rafael Nadal exploded onto the tennis scene a decade ago as a cargo-pants-wearing 17 year-old, his forehand has been a phenomenon. The simplest way to describe Nadal’s forehand would be to call it a whip, one that has helped the Spaniard to 14 Grand Slam titles and made him the greatest clay-court player in history.

As a weapon it is incomparable, as wondrous as it is deadly. Its mechanics remain unique with everything about the stroke – from Nadal’s body position to his delivery – defying conventionality.

The preparatory stance, for a start, is one of the most remarkable in tennis with Nadal often positioned in a semi or fully open stance. The objective here is to exert as much rotational energy with his body as possible when he swings at the ball.

Simultaneously, his legs work to propel his upper body at a rapid pace for added force.

As he uncoils, Nadal’s whole upper body twists into the shot. The racket, meanwhile, has been positioned below the ball; the racket face will brush the ball as it is thrust upwards, producing spin. Nadal’s fabled extreme grip forms another part of the equation as it enhances the downward disposition of the racket face during the backswing.

As Nadal swings his racket into the ball the racket face repositions in a vertical manner into the contact point. Nadal then follows through in an exaggerated, whip-like motion after contact.

The outcome is heavy topspin achieving high net clearance before the ball dips viciously and shoots up after hitting the surface. It is a nightmare for opponents, especially on clay where the ball can lift up as high as shoulder height.

Frighteningly, as time has passed, Nadal has been able to even better his forehand.

Not only can he impart topspin, Nadal can now flatten out his forehand for stinging winners. It is now the ultimate weapon in tennis, able to bring outright winners from anywhere on the court, often turning defence into definitive attack instantly.

Additionally, such is his body strength, Nadal is able to win points off-balance and from improbable positions.

“He used to have a good forehand down the line, but it was a redirection, a shot to set up the next one,” Darren Cahill, former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, now an ESPN commentator, said during last year’s Australian Open. “Now it’s an outright winner, and it’s a scary shot.”

It is too scary.

In 2011 The New York Times produced a video called "Speed and Spin: Nadal’s Lethal Forehand". It was based on measurements by John Yandell, owner of TennisPlayer.net. Yandell filmed thousands of slow motion videos of shots played by tennis pros and counted their ball rotations per minute (rpm). The video also used stats from Hawk-Eye. It revealed:

-          Nadal’s forehand averaged 3,300 rpms, which was about 18 percent  more than the average topspin on forehands by Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic

-          Nadal’s highest measured topspin was 4,900 rpm

-          Nadal’s heaviest topspin was used on slower, 70-75 mph loops, however Nadal frequently hit his biggest weapon, the inside-out forehand, at 94 mph with less topspin

-          Nadal’s flat put-away forehand was recorded as fast as 107 mph

2. Floyd Mayweather lead right (Boxing)
Floyd Mayweather is one of the greatest boxers of all-time. Certainly, he is one of the most skilled practitioners of the art ever.

Mayweather has a stunningly wide array of skills, both offensive and defensive, and they have helped him to a perfect 47-0 record over 19 years and six world titles in five weight classes.

Of Mayweather’s numerous weapons, the most fascinating is his lead right. It is a punch that isn’t taught in boxing class because of the degree of risk involved.

For a right-hander, it’s a punch thrown with the right hand from a conventional jab stance.

To execute it, one has to leap forward with their right hand outstretched and be quick enough to avoid being countered to a wide exposed chin. The danger here is clear.

Mayweather, however, has mastered this skill. His unbelievable quickness allows him to usually sneak the punch in before the opponent can react. Mayweather then seems to further circumvent the danger by jumping into his opponents after throwing the punch.

When he sees the moment, Mayweather quickly leans forward with his whole body and leads with a straight right hand. Whether he lands or not, he will usually follow through by grabbing the opponent, with a forearm crush or a lifted knee thrust into the opponent’s thigh and lower abdomen region. None of these moves are particularly legal, but they take away the opportunity for Mayweather to be counterpunched off-balance.

At other times Mayweather pulls only his head and upper body back and keeps his lower body in neutral. After landing, he slips out and is swiftly in punching position once again when he recovers his upper body.

These factors help make what is otherwise an unadvisable move a main weapon.

The lead right, as with other skills on this list, is not novel to its current user, Mayweather.

It is something the great Muhammad Ali used to do.

The difference is Mayweather has used the lead right over the years as a main offensive tactic like he did against Ricky Hatton in 2007. That night his strategy against Hatton’s relentless but unguarded pressure was to take pot shots. 100 of the 129 punches Mayweather landed were power punches and the majority were straight right-hand leads. Time after time Mayweather landed the punch flush on Hatton, wearing the Briton down until a 10th round knockout.

CompuBox stats: Mayweather v Hatton
Total Punches
Pct. Landed
Pct. Landed
Power Punches
Pct. Landed

Mayweather, thus, has made the lead right a two dimensional and accurate weapon. As a counterpunch, he’ll lean his body forward, baiting his opponent to throw a punch. Mayweather then avoids the punch by pulling his head back, arching his back, and then springing back forward with a right hand counter.

As an out-and-out attack weapon, he jumps in cat-like and lands the punch. In an instant his opponent is tagged often not knowing what has hit them.

It is money.

Here’s a comparison from 2012 of Mayweather to his contemporaries in the plus/minus category - the difference between a fighter’s punch connect rate to that of his opponents
Floyd Mayweather
9 fights
Andre Ward
7 fights
Vladimir Klitschko
8 fights
Yuriorkis Gamboa
6 fights
Manny Pacquiao
7 fights
Timothy Bradley
6 fights
Nonito Donaire
7 fights
* Data through February 2012
- Statistics courtesy of CompuBox

3. Kobe Bryant fadeaway (Basketball)
Kobe Bryant's fadeaway
Kobe Bryant has mastered basketball’s fadeaway jumper, arguably the toughest shot in the sport. The original master of the shot is Michael Jordan while other players like Dirk Nowitzki have used the stroke to deadly effect over their careers.

Bryant, however, has come to master the fadeaway in his own Mamba way and is able to score from any position and any situation.

Because of his underrated elite physical abilities, Bryant is able to rise up, hang suspended mid-air – while leaning away from a defender, or two – and then have enough strength to shoot the ball with enough arc to loop over the defender’s outstretched hand.

The difficulty is enormous; the grace and cunning, unmatched.

As Bryant explains in this video, he uses his fadeaway jumper in a variety of situations.

With it he is able to beat double teams. He is able to score with no space. He can back down a defender then use a spin move and score. He can jab-step, then rise up and shoot on the slightest misstep by his defender.

Simply, Bryant has given the fadeaway stunning variety.

It is this variation that has made the shot a devastating weapon as Bryant has won five NBA championships, two scoring titles, two Finals MVPs and become the league’s third top scorer of all-time over a glittering 19-year career.

Finally, it is typical Bryant that the move was perfected by watching a cheetah hunt on TV.

To quote Bryant: “When you watch me shoot my fadeaway jumper, you’ll notice my leg is always extended. I had problems making that shot in the past. It’s tough. So one day I’m watching the Discovery Channel and see a cheetah hunting. When the cheetah runs, its tail always gives it balance, even if it’s cutting a sharp angle. And that’s when I was like: My leg could be the tail, right? … Inspiration surrounds us.”

4. Ronaldo freekick shot (Football)
The cream is about to hit the fan...
Cristiano Ronaldo packs an incredible shot and has the ability to shoot powerfully with either foot from any angle. The only other examples of this extreme ability in history are perhaps fellow Portuguese legend, the late Eusebio, and Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta.

By mixing his natural striking power with unconventional technique, Ronaldo has made his freekick shot into a unique spectacle and, over the course of his prolific career, has scored 43 of them.

Ronaldo’s freekick strike is examined in some detail here, but, to break it down in short, Ronaldo strikes the ball in a manner that maximises velocity and produces vicious dip and movement.

Whereas the conventional freekick method is to approach the ball from a side angle and use the side-foot to strike, Ronaldo approaches the ball head on and hits it with his laces, with his foot pointing downwards.

The technique and follow-through aim to put as little spin on the ball as possible. This causes Ronaldo’s thunderbolt strike to dip and move violently, pretty much the nightmare scenario for any goalkeeper.

The key, again, is the lack of spin on the ball. Experiments on football design technology have revealed modern-day footballs lose between 30 and 40 percent of their speed shortly after impact. Ronaldo’s technique makes sure the ball loses less speed than normal.

“Every time a ball rotates through the air it creates drag and slows down, so the more spin a player places on the ball the more speed his shot will lose in flight,” Dr Andy Harland, part of the team that developed the official ball for the Euro 2004 championship, said in 2009.

“Ronaldo’s aim when he strikes the ball, whether he’s aware of it or not, is to eliminate as much spin as possible and then leave the fate of the ball to nature’s randomness.”


5. Colin Kaepernick fast-ball (Gridiron/American Football)
Rocket arm... CK7
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick could have been a professional baseball pitcher and the velocity of throw shows. It is a cannon.

Kaepernick was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round of the 2009 MLB first-year player draft before choosing to pursue a career in the NFL.

In 2013 he threw an 87 mph ceremonial pitch before an MLB game and until last year jointly held the throwing velocity record at the NFL draft combine, a 59 mph throw from 2011.

This pure speed has been evident often in his NFL career.

Kaepernick was at his most devastating during the 49ers’ magical playoff run in 2012 when he led the 49ers to within one play of winning the Super Bowl. His arm, complemented by his equally lightning legs, made Kaepernick the pin-up for the future dual-threat quarterback at the time.

And, although Kaepernick hasn’t quite progressed in expected manner since, his fast-ball is still an incredible skill.

6. Roger Federer backhand (Tennis)
A thing of beauty
Roger Federer is the king of grace and his one-handed backhand is possibly the most beautiful sight in all sport. It is a magical stroke that produces under pressure in both offensive and defensive situations.

Despite using one hand, Federer’s backhand is authoritative and efficient. That is because of the Swiss Master’s immaculate mechanics; the stroke flows seamlessly from one part to the next.

Federer’s preparation is significant, preparing for the stroke with a unitary body turn in which the body turns and coils as a unit. This loads up power into his core muscles which is essential in generating power. By the time Federer reaches the contact point his arm usually is straightened in front of his body and the follow through almost always finishes up high.

Sometimes Federer uses some element of a brushing motion to impart additional topspin other times Federer will drive his backhand and flatten out the shot.

Because of this adaptability on the stroke, Federer has the ability to dictate play from various areas of the court. He can also use his backhand from deep behind the baseline or on the rise, oftentimes making the unbelievable seem mundane.

Federer’s backhand is, simply, a glorious shot.

With tennis evolving and greater emphasis on power, the two-handed backhand is now the standard.

It means we may never see anything like Federer’s classical backhand again.

Just as its master, the Federer backhand will go down as one of the most beautiful gifts ever to sports.

7. Lionel Messi chip (Football)
Messi chip time... it's late for someone
Lionel Messi can chip a football into the net from any angle and any situation. It is an incredible skill, just one of the many extraordinary talents the Little Flea possesses.

Certainly, the challenge of lobbing a ball over a highly trained goalkeeper, while on the run, for example, is difficult to explain. The science behind it is quite unimaginable; it sometimes seems Messi is simply flicking the ball with his toes even though this would require legs the strength of Hercules.

Then again, this is Messi; anything is possible.

He does the insane for fun.

8. Victor Matfield lineout (Rugby)
Victor Machine
Victor Matfield winning a lineout in a tight rugby game is about as close to a sure thing as you can get in sports. Matfield is the best lineout practitioner in rugby history; it is arguable he has ever lost his own lineout legally.

At 37 and coming off a three-year retirement, he is still going strong solely on the strength of his unmatched lineout ability.

Matfield initially retired in 2011 as a World Cup, Lions series and two-time Tri-Nations winner. With his club, the Bulls, he had won three Currie Cups and three Super Rugby titles making him South Africa’s most successful player ever.

However, last year, Matfield was coaxed out of retirement and then proceeded to make a seamless return to the game. He had the second most lineout wins in Super Rugby in 2014 and made the Bulls the best lineout team in the competition.

Most lineout wins – 2014 Super Rugby season
Stephan Lewies
Victor Matfield
Ben Mowen
Rob Simmons
Michael Rhodes
Jake Schatz

Matfield then returned to his role as Springbok inspiration and, as things stand, will be a vital cog for South Africa in what would be his fourth Rugby World Cup, later this year.

“I’ve always prided myself on my ability to read the lineout,” Matfield was quoted as saying before his 2011 retirement. “It’s like it’s a type of Matrix and somehow I’m able to see the answer through all the complexities and make the right decision often.”

Yes, when it comes to lineouts, Matfield is The One.

9. Tim Duncan bank shot (Basketball)
The Unstoppable Timmy
Tim Duncan is one of the most refined basketball players in history and, to many, the greatest power forward to ever. He is Mr Fundamental, the owner of five NBA titles spanning 15 years, three Finals MVP crowns and 10 All-NBA first team selections.

His entire game is a living, breathing coaching manual but of all his polished moves, his signature is his bank shot. It is almost impossible to defend.

That is because Duncan’s bank shot probably has the quickest release in the game as it doesn’t require arc or strength. It is also flexible because Duncan hasn’t committed himself to anything until the last second.  When he is able to read his defender is going for the bank, Duncan can always put the basketball back down, re-establish a triple threat stance – and proceed to the next phase of Timmy work, whatever it may be.

His bank shot is typical Duncan – unspectacular, but terrifyingly efficient. It is Mr Fundamental's fundamental move.

10. Aaron Rodgers deep ball (Gridiron/American Football)
Time to go deeep!
Aaron Rodgers has re-written many a rule about the quarterback position in his seven years in the NFL.

He is the ultimate quarterback, a perfect combination of head, arm and legs.

One of his lethal weaponry is his accurate deep ball and Rodgers ranks first in NFL history for most career touchdown passes of 70 or more yards with 16. It is a record he established in November with a 73-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson – surpassing Peyton Manning and Brett Favre who have 15 each.

According to John Parolin, since 2011, Rodgers has thrown 211 passes of 20 yards or more. Nearly half of those have been completed, and of those, nearly 35 percent have gone for touchdowns. Furthermore, Rodgers has thrown 7.2 deep-ball touchdowns for every interception, a rate twice that of the next quarterback on the list, Tony Romo.

All the while, Rodgers makes it look easy, perhaps another wonder of sport. 

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