In sport, there’s a sense of inevitability that separates the greats from mere mortals. A clear demarcation. Not just of skill, but of mindset.
No matter the ‘big game’ situation, they know where to move, what to do, and more importantly, when to make their mark. They’ve done it before. And they know they’ll do it again.
For their adoring fans in that player’s cheer squad, it’s like watching a beloved film for the umpteenth time. They’ve studied every scene, memorised every line, and gleefully await the triumphant finale.
Opposition fans have – rather traumatically – seen that same film a similar amount of times. Only this time, they’re frantically clutching the idea that this edition might a previously unseen ‘Director’s Cut’, with a – hopefully – different ending.
To be frightfully cliched, Michael Jordan perhaps best encompasses this concept. Following several playoff defeats early in his career, once Michael broke through to the ‘big dance’, there was no stopping him.
Six NBA Finals. Six NBA Championships. Six NBA Finals MVPs. As his former teammate Jared Jeffries, explained Jordan had already mapped the game out in his head, therefore needed only to follow the ‘directions’ he had dreamed up:
“He would break down getting 40 points. It would be like ten free throws, a couple layups in transition, curl screen; little things where he knew how to break the game down to get 40 points”.
Similar remarks have been made about Roger Federer. With a record 20 Grand Slam titles to his name, he’s made a career out of out-thinking and out-moving opponents, and often, emerging triumphant through sheer weight of expectation.
Journeyman tennis player Scoville Jenkins expressed this following a first-round rout at the hands of the Swiss master in 2007.
“You’re always under pressure, like, if I don’t do something, he’s just going to go back into maybe hitting a great forehand across, or up the line…I would say the biggest thing with [him] is you’re playing chess out there and he’s just constantly a step ahead of you and you know it”.
New England Patriots fans experienced the same giddy sensation every time their beloved quarterback Tom Brady led them onto the Super Bowl field.
Gaining his edge through the building of a preternatural knowledge of his opponents tendencies and machinations, he diligently studied film to crawl inside the heads of his opponents, knowing their tendencies to such an extent that there was next to nothing they could adjust in a game.
As noted by Fox Sport’s Ray Lewis: “The thing about Tom is he’s super clutch. He’s on time. When the game’s on the line, he has no fear”.
In a different way, Simone Biles’ gymnastics exploits have taken on a familiar pattern, with the four foot eight inch gymnast is developing a borderline unstoppable set of skills that sees her in a winning position before she even sets foot on the mat.
With the ‘Perfect 10’ system of scoring abandoned in favour of a score relative to each selected skill’s degree of difficulty – with deductions taken off for errors – the 105-pound dynamo has such immense start values that she effectively enters any competition with a full point advantage.
The subsequent performance of such moves is almost trivial compared to the sheer sense of impossibility of success facing her opponents.
Which brings us to Dustin Martin.
The AFL isn’t played on the same global scale as the NBA, Wimbledon, the NFL, or the Olympic gymnastics arena. However, the same inevitability exists whenever Dusty takes the field on the league’s biggest stage.
You can sense it in his demeanour pre-game, his subtle aura of invincibility gently shining; his intensity standing out among his teammates, storing energy for his explosive outbursts.
Two previous grand finals have resulted in two Norm Smith Medals. A third was – as we’ve examined – inevitable, a mere formality that simply needed to be ‘ticked off’ at some stage of proceedings.
So it was that deep in the second quarter – with Geelong holding a 21-point lead and seemingly having found the solution to the pressure filled Richmond puzzle – that Martin chose his time.
He’d been somewhat subdued to that stage, but when a long-bomb from Liam Baker landed in his lap following a spoil from a pack, and as his snap across the body sailed through the goals you could physically feel the change of momentum that had just occurred.
The third quarter saw the Tigers roar back into a winning position, and Martin again was at the forefront. Pouncing on a loose ball on the cusp of the forward 50, he accelerated past Jack Henry, launched a check-side from 40 metres out, the ball bouncing and curling over the line to hand Richmond the lead – a position of power they never relinquished.
Dusty’s fourth quarter exploits were simply the icing on the cake – a tumbling 55m bomb following a quick handball from Kane Lambert once again had him firmly in the sights of the Norm Smith judges, and his fourth goal well and truly sealed the deal – brushing off rival Patrick Dangerfield, swivelling on the boundary and snapping truly over his shoulder. The tongue-wagging celebrations said it all.
It didn’t matter who – or what – they threw at him. The fend-off would emerge. The speared passes lasering off his boots would find teammates in space. The freakish ability to find a ball in a space that didn’t exist, seemingly teleport to a similarly non-existent space, and bend the Sherrin through the uprights appeared again and again.
Joel Selwood was questioned after the game if Martin was ‘unplannable’ in terms of opposition sides quelling his influence.
His response: “maybe, maybe, yep, maybe”. Those few, repeated words say it all. It’s been widely remarked that the Richmond superstar is clearly the best finals player the AFL has ever seen, and that he’s firmly making a case for being one of the greatest of all time.
If the Tigers happen to expand on their ‘dynasty’ in 2021, and make a deep finals run it’s only the bravest of souls who would bet against the script following much the same manner it has in 2017, 2019, and 2020.
After all, it’s inevitable.