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The Joy of Six: Athletic brilliance

Ronnie O’Sullivan

Stephen Hendry is not known for his eloquence, so if he commends something for being average, you should pay close heed. Therefore, hearing his eloquent adoration for Ronnie O’Sullivan is almost as thrilling as witnessing the man himself. “He makes the game look so easy,” said the seven-time world champion of the seven-time world champion. “When it’s not easy at all.”

Hendry, who is also a genius, made playing snooker appear more difficult than a diamond using a flick knife to smoke an Embassy No. 1 while spitting through its fangs. The ability to distinguish oneself from everyone else who has ever done something by making it appear the most natural thing in the world – for example, Whitney’s singing or Ronnie’s five-minute, eight-second 147 – universal first-name terms being another indicator of exceptional brilliance.

The joy of six: athletic brilliance
The Joy of Six: Athletic brilliance

Nor is Hendry the only one who refers to Ronnie in such terms. In principle, “The Most Naturally Talented Player Ever To Pick Up A Cue” (TMNTPETPUAC) is too bland to become a nickname or cliche, but Ronnie made it so because his ingenious uniqueness merits repeated recognition. He is a snooker player, but in a sense, it hardly matters, while of course, it matters absolutely, because of the sensation of witnessing him – of significance, of uniqueness, of transcendence, speaking to the world but also directly to us, personally – exalts our species and soothes our soul.

In his younger years, he was primarily about pyrotechnics, ripping out runs and blazing home long pots – consider his 128 in the 1996 Masters, or the aforementioned maximum that came a year later – teetering on the genius/madness precipice and exuding discontent with himself, his game, and the world.

It was also understandable, young Ronnie being confronted with the amazing responsibility of his awesomeness while also coping with a mind-bogglingly terrible domestic disruption.

What distinguishes him today, however, is not his strength and panache, but the stratospheric bottom and modal levels enabled by clear thought and precise touch – only he could ask for a maximum after sinking the first black and then make one. Consider this historic 92 in the 2012 World Championship final. It is comparable to Christopher Wren designing and then constructing St. Paul’s Cathedral.

He is now gentler to himself, which has improved his intellect. Understandably, it took him a while to come to terms with it. Who didn’t act up in their 20s, even without the aggravating factors of talent, renown, and money? – but he eventually did.

His pursuit of perfection is perpetuated by his pursuit of the enigmatic cue action. At 47, he wants to enjoy his gifts and be himself as long as possible.

Warne, Shane

Shane Warne’s genius consisted in evaluating people precisely, whereas O’Sullivan’s consisted in doing things perfectly. Like TMNTPETPUAC, he reinvented leg spin early in his career using painter’s hands, crocodile-wrestler’s arms, and executioner’s nerve.

Even though he needed physical equipment to twizzle the ball hard enough to fizz when released. He was much more than that, most notably his rare ability to appreciate simplicity. Yes, tearing every delivery was a matter of principle and a life lesson – always pursue offensive options. But it was also the prudent course of action.

Warne realized that he had to impart as much spin as possible while bowling as quickly as possible without the latter impeding the former, and that “natural variation” would eventually assist him if he continued to do so while hitting the correct spot. It seems apparent now, but it wasn’t at the time.

What made Warne Warnie, however, was his charismatic, empathic intelligence, which enabled him to detect artifice like a larrikin Hercule Poirot, reading people as if he had written them and taking great delight in juxtaposing their weaknesses against his ingenuity.

Part of this was technical – Warne’s keen cricketing eye meant no batter could conceal their flaws. Which he then proclaimed as if they were headlines – but his mindset was what made him truly exceptional.

His charisma and theatre skills turned Test cricket into a one-man variety show.

Because of this, Warne was able to recover 40 wickets in the 2005 Ashes despite being 35 years old and having his flipper and googly stolen by injury – his best-ever series figures in the greatest-ever series. Facing a confident, cohesive batting line-up, armed with only leggie, slider, and the occasional toppie, he tapped the full extent of his unique, unparalleled genius to turn every delivery into an occasion and every over into an epic. That is to say, while there are 11 methods of dismissal in cricket, all 708 of Warne’s victims were out-warned and bowled by Warne.

Simone Biles

Gymnastics is the art of the impossible, as Cavour famously said. It’s easy to view it as a straightforward demonstration of athletic ability – either you can do it or you can’t. It’s easy to think Picasso’s main difference from us is his brushwork.

Simone Biles, possibly the best gymnast of all time, has a mind-boggling range of work. She indeed needs the fast-twitch muscle fibers that allow her to run, jump, and tumble to do what she does. But without her courage, creativity, and sensitivity – the love, hope, and determination with which Biles perfects and animates her abilities – they are merely mundane talents.

With them, however, she can imbue gymnastics with her full force, inventing elements beyond the conception of others – those named after her have their own Wikipedia page – and performing them with flair, inventiveness, and personality. Or, to put it another way, Biles is an artist whose muse is the human body, and the things she says with it, about it, and our world are works of brilliance.

Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff was a superb association football player, with feather-dusting feet and the imagination of a poet. However, his ball-handling ability is only a portion of the reason for his inclusion in this team, as it represents only a portion of his contribution to the game.

Inspired by his manager, Rinus Michels, he became the icon of Total Football, a simultaneously systematic and improvisational style of play with Austrian and Hungarian origins that now influences the best of what we see worldwide. Cruyff was also a great manager, which is unusual for a player of his calibre. Because natural talents sometimes struggle to teach others to do or see what they can.

His prowess, however, was supported by a savage, all-purpose intellect that enabled him to communicate celestial visions that he anchored in reality, like a prophet interpreting the divine word — his own — to enlighten the masses. The Gregorian calendar employs BC to denote a significant shift in perspective, and the same is true in football. There is Before Cruyff and After Cruyff.

She is Claressa Shields

It would be simple to enumerate Shields’ accomplishments and stop there: double Olympic gold, then perfect as a professional, in the process of becoming a three-weight world champion, and the only boxer in history to simultaneously hold two belts from all four governing bodies.

But there’s more: the self-proclaimed GWOAT (greatest woman of all time) has only two stoppages, none since 2017. On the surface, which is to her detriment, kayos are afforded significant weight when evaluating the relative merits of fighters. However, to reach 13-0 without knockout power and win unanimous decisions requires exceptional space, timing, and angles.

Add to that her outstanding trash-talk that so irritates her opponents, and she has the total product. The only thing more irritating than someone who speaks is someone who can back it up. And Shields is confident that she can say whatever she wants to whomever she wants because she is a genius.

Michael van Gerwen

In the first golden age of darts, John Lowe was known for his long, fluid, arcing throw. Therefore, when Phil Taylor decided to take the sport extremely seriously – perhaps more seriously than anyone has ever taken anything – he modeled his action after Lowe’s and practiced until he was flawless.

Michael van Gerwen throws tungsten darts like a war god throwing fiery javelins, showing no artistry in the process. “I don’t aim,” he once explained to Joy of Six. “I rely on gut instinct.” The standard he produced from 2015 to 2017 – and against a murderer’s row of opponents – is not only the best darts ever played but also the best darts that can be played; he broke numerous scoring records and at one point held all seven major ranking titles concurrently.

However, the best aspect of him is that he defies analysis. We can analyze what makes the others in this column special, but Van Gerwen transcends that and simply is. He does not grasp why he is so brilliant any more than we do. He is a genius of such genius that not even the genius can comprehend it.

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