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What Rafa Can Teach Us About Giannis: The Structure of Athletic Revolutions

Tennis: Citi Open Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The weekend before last brought the finals of the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of the calendar year. Former cricketer and all-around badass Ash Barty won her third title in front of her home crowd, and Rafael Nadal won his 21st (!) title in an incredible, come-from-behind victory. With the win, Rafa surpassed rivals Roger Federer and Novacc Djokovic for the most Grand Slams ever.

Why does this matter for Bucks fans? It matters because, as I pondered in the wee hours of the morning during Rafa’s nearly five and a half hour triumph over Daniil Medvedev, there are parallels between Rafa and Giannis’ quests for greatness. Through the lens of tennis gods - and an assist from an influential history of science book - we (or at least I) can gain a deeper understanding of the evolving pantheon of NBA stars.

To do that, I’ll first provide more background on the last two decades of tennis (which, to be honest, I am better informed to discuss than basketball). In 2003, Roger Federer captured his first Grand Slam. With impeccable aplomb, a beautiful one-handed backhand, flowing hair, and expensive Swiss watches, he quickly became the man to beat. More importantly, he became a paradigm for how tennis should be played: in an effortless way that David Foster Wallace likened to transcending mortality.

Unfortunately for him, a rival arrived almost immediately. Rafael Nadal was Federer’s perfect foil. Their rivalry became a study of contrasts: lefty vs. righty, swashbuckling vs. suave, clay specialist vs. grass specialist, Adidas vs. Nike, and so on. As a tennis fan, you were either on Team Roger or Team Rafa - there was no in-between. Importantly, Rafa fashioned the perfect mix of success and respect that he gained entry into the top flight of the game. The tennis monopoly that was Federer’s first few successful years became a duopoly. Even though they played the game differently, they were perceived as playing the game “the right way.”

The third wheel arrived a few years later. Novak Djokovic spoiled the tennis world’s love affair with Roger and Rafa. He did not fit neatly into either mold: too measured for Federer’s grace and too fit for Nadal’s grit. He hailed from Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe, and his speciality - hardcourt - was played at major tournaments in Australia and the US rather than Europe. He was quite vocal about wanting to win the most Grand Slams, whereas Roger and Rafa demurred whenever asked. He was granted a pass to the pantheon for his results, but nothing more.

The next wave of stars - Medvedev, but also players like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev - take after Djokovic more than Federer or Nadal, in terms of playing style, character, and regional nationality (with the exception of Zverev). This was readily on display in the Australian Open final. Medvedev called out the crowd after they cheered one of his boneheaded errors that gave Rafa an advantage. The commentators tutted, saying that he should let it go. In terms of the Roger / Rafa paradigm, this makes sense. In terms of reality, this does not. The crowd was cheering his mistake - why shouldn’t he take umbrage?

The vestiges of Federer and Nadal’s hegemonic order linger, as they continue to churn out W’s even as they approach Brady’s age. But it seems a new paradigm is on the horizon that redefines what greatness entails: tennis that embraces unorthodox strokes and flamboyant characters in a quest to win over all else.

The progression of tennis greatness - and basketball greatness, which I’ll get to next - can be understood via a quick detour to Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 masterpiece, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn wrote that science is not linear, a steady march of incremental progress towards capital-T truth. Instead, he provocatively posited that science unfolds through a series of revolutions. For a while, scientists operate in a dominant paradigm: a system that provides a particular blend of theory and method to solve problems. This period of normal science syncs with the public understanding of science. However, at a certain point, enough results accumulate that cannot be adequately explained by the paradigm. These anomalies ultimately lead to the creation of a new paradigm; consider Einstein doing a number on Newtonian physics with his theory of relativity.

Federer, and Rafa to an extent, constituted the dominant paradigm in tennis for a number of years. Their style of play - and their approach to the sport in general - became the baseline (pun intended). Up and coming players were compared to them because they represented success.

Djokovic represented an anomaly. The previous way of doing things was challenged because Novak was able to achieve incredible success, both in general and head-to-head with both Roger and Rafa. (He was able to do so because he was more consistent than Roger and his two-handed backhand was less of a weakness against Rafa... but I digress.) As such, a new paradigm is currently being fashioned, with Djokovic as the baseline. Players like Medvedev, Tsitsipas, and Zverev suddenly face fewer doubters and haters because their styles of play and overall demeanors comport with Djokovic’s Einstein than Roger and Rafa’s Newton.

At this point, the parallels that I am attempting to draw with basketball are hopefully coming into focus. When attempting to understand Giannis’ greatness, it is important to consider the period of “normal basketball” that came before him. In basketball, this is less clear-cut than Rafa and Roger because there are multiple positions. Yet, in recent years, players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant come to mind. LeBron especially is the standard-bearer here: a clutch player who can score around the floor. KD fits this mold to an extent. (Steph offers a minor departure due to his three-point shooting prowess and small stature, but could perhaps be separately considered as a guard paradigm).

Giannis represents an anomaly to this paradigm. His unique blend of physicality and skill confounds comparison with the standard bearers of the previous era. It is hard to use LeBron as a measuring stick for Giannis in the same way that it is hard to compare Djokovic to Federer (and likewise Einstein to Newton). To a certain extent, they are playing different games. According to Kuhn, one isn’t necessarily better. Rather, they are different perspectives toward the sport. One simply progresses into the other.

Until Giannis’ style of play is more widely recognized as the new dominant paradigm, he will still get vestigial questions like: How can he be the GOAT... if he can’t hit jumpers? if he can’t hit free throws? if he can’t hit threes? if he can’t hit game-winning shots? The reason those questions are asked is because they were used to evaluate stars in the LeBron era. I would argue that they do not apply now.

Looking forward, do players like Jokic, Luka, and others fit better into the Giannis paradigm than the LeBron paradigm? Similar to Djokovic’s disciples, other players need not be carbon copies of Giannis, as long as their styles of play run orthogonal to the previous era and they hold roughly similar approaches to the sport. Interestingly, the Eastern European heritage of these players dovetails with the evolving tennis paradigm. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Medvedev succeeds on the tennis court in large part because his unorthodox strokes confuse his opposition, which is almost uniformly trained in Western tennis academies; Jokic likely derives success from a similar formula.

Thus concludes my meandering thoughts on tennis, history of science, and basketball. Ultimately, I want to emphasize that greatness - independent of domain - is socially constructed by the past. It takes an impressive individual to redefine a paradigm, and we are lucky to watch Giannis try to do so.

Author’s note: Thanks to stoneAge for suggesting that I write my tidbits in a stand-alone piece. Please come back next week for your trivia fix!