YOU MIGHT HAVE WITNESSED it all last Sunday, right there from the sofa with your remote control in hand, and still the rarity of the moment probably escaped you. That's understandable, since we're used to significant events in sports coming with a sound track, with some operatic broadcaster bellowing a call he hopes will last for the ages or reciting an arcane statistic meant to convey the supposed magnitude of what we are seeing. ("Sammy Shortstop just broke the National League single-season home run record for lefthanded-hitting middle infielders born east of the Mississippi! Can you feel the magic?")
There was no such accompaniment on Sunday. This was more like a star shooting through the sky, an awesome event that slips by unless you know where to look. If you were deft with the clicker, you saw things that may never come together again in quite as small a window of time—three masters of their sports, each one at the height of his art.
It wasn't just that Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, all in the prime of their careers, were at the top of their game on Sunday. It was that within hours of each other they each completed a feat that reminded us of why they are either widely acknowledged to be the greatest player their sports have ever known, in the case of Federer and Woods, or are quickly ascending the short list of candidates, as A-Rod is. Federer's U.S. Open tennis title (page 56), Woods's final round 63 to win the BMW Open and A-Rod's 52nd home run—the fifth straight game in which he had homered—followed each other so closely that it was as if we had ordered up the Greatness Package on our cable systems, a classic sports network in real time.
There is no way to know how often, if ever, serendipity has smiled on the sports fan this way, which is part of the beauty of it. Sunday's harmonic convergence was unquantifiable, having less to do with statistics than with aesthetics. It required a step back to fully appreciate the ease with which each man displayed his excellence. Perhaps that is part of the reason it might have escaped our notice—they all seem to dominate with hardly a drop of sweat. Federer escaped seven set points on Sunday with a stunning calm. Woods deposited ramrod-straight, 300-yard drives on the fairways with a swing at once powerful and effortless. A-Rod doesn't corkscrew himself into the ground like the last great Yankee slugger, Reggie Jackson; he sends balls into the bleachers, as he did Sunday, with a seeming flick of his wrists.
Likewise there is no Elias Sports Bureau research that can tell us the last time three legends in the making almost simultaneously left opponents so completely humbled. "I was mentally weaker on the important points," admitted Federer's latest victim, Novak Djokovic, who lost in straight sets. As Woods rolled in a 50-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th, his psyched-out pursuers thought he was toying with them. "It looked like he looked back to make sure we were watching him," said third-place finisher Steve Stricker. A-Rod's bomb left Kansas City Royals pitcher Zach Greinke, who served it up, in awe. The soon-to-be gopher ball caught just the edge of the strike zone, a barely hittable pitch "to a normal person," Greinke said. A-Rod is not normal, then? "Not when it comes to baseball."
When you try to explain your love of sports to the nonfan, isn't this one of the things you mention, the chance that at any moment you might witness something transcendent? On Sunday there was the chance to see exactly that, times three. If you saw it, remember it, and tell your grandchildren about the time you saw Tiger, A-Rod and Federer, a trio of the best, at their best. But tell them not to go running to the record books for confirmation. Better to watch and wait for the next once-in-a-generation moment. Seeing a shooting star is rare enough, but when three come together at once, it is not to be missed.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND