For Sports Immortality, The 3rd Or 4th Time's The Charm

May 27, 2015
Originally published on May 27, 2015 10:56 am

There is hardly a sport that has not named a version of its annual multiple championships. Two wins is not enough; you have to win three (a "Crown") or four (a "Grand Slam"). For example, if you win the three major races in thoroughbred racing, it's called the Triple Crown. In men's and women's tennis and men's golf, to win all four majors is to earn a Grand Slam.

It is difficult to come up with a name for multiple wins in women's golf because the sport keeps changing tournaments so often. Women's golf has now five major tournaments, which is one too many. Unlike Triple Crown and Grand Slam, there's no neat name that goes with five. Even a fifth of whiskey is passé now that we sell liquor by the liter.

When it comes to multiple championships, 2015 could be a special year. Next week, American Pharoah — the racehorse who won the Kentucky Derby — will attempt to become the first equine Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

That same weekend, in Paris, American tennis player Serena Williams and Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic each have a chance to win the French Open and get halfway to winning Grand Slams. Both players are blitzing their opposition, so they are favorites. Spanish player Rafael Nadal has taken nine of the last 10 French Opens, but he is vulnerable on clay courts this spring. If Djokovic wins on the clay, he would be in position to sweep Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and to become the first men's Grand Slammer in 46 years. If Williams were to win all four, she would be the first woman to do so since Steffi Graf 27 years ago.

But winning crowns or slams sure is not easy. The only time in the 21st century that a player has accomplished this feat — in any of these sports — was when Venezuelan baseball player Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers managed it in 2012, topping the American League in batting average, home runs and RBI. It was the first time that a major leaguer won baseball's hitting Triple Crown in 45 years. Since the current championship golf tournaments came into existence, no golfer has won the grand slam.

So, anyone who manages to win a Triple Crown or Grand Slam deserves a big high-five.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An exceptionally highly trained and high-achieving horse has a chance at the elusive Triple Crown next week. And commentator Frank Deford points out that America Pharaoh is not the only athlete going for a shot at sports immortality.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Hardly a sport exists that hasn't created some titled version of a designated annual multiple achievement. Two is not enough. No, you got to win three or four. They are crowns and slams. I would say the best-known are a couple of crowns and three slams, to wit, the Triple Crowns of thoroughbred racing and for baseball hitters and the Grand Slams of men's and women's tennis and men's golf. I'm sorry. I just can't fit women's golf in because it not only revises its major tournaments so often, but, in fact, now women's golf has five major tournaments, which is one too many. And anyway, unlike crown and slam, there's no neat name that goes with five. Even a fifth of whiskey is passe now that we're into liquor liters. But here's the thing - as rare as it is, we are looking at what could be a crowning achievement of the year, a veritable 2015 slam dunk.

Starting off on D Day, or Diadem Day for our purposes, American Pharaoh will attempt to become the first equine Triple Crown winner in 37 years. This is by statute the hardest of these sorts of things, too, because the horse only gets one shot at it as a 3-year-old.

Moreover, that same weekend in Paris, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic can, by winning the French Open, get halfway to the Grand Slams of tennis, and since both are blitzing their opposition, they're heavy favorites. Rafael Nadal's taken nine of the last 10 French Opens, but he's vulnerable on clay this spring. So if Djokovic wins on the red dirt, he'd be in a position to sweep Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to become the first male Grand Slammer in 46 years since Rod Laver in 1969. If Serena were to win all four, she'd be the first woman to do it since Steffi Graf a mere 27 years ago.

You see, winning slams or crowns sure ain't easy. The only time in the 21st century that it's been accomplished in any of these categories was when Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers managed it in 2012 - that the first time in 45 years. And no golfer has ever won the modern professional slam, although the title was appropriated from a card game - from bridge- when Bobby Jones, an amateur, did win all four U.S. and British Amateurs and Opens in 1930. The Triple Crown came into common currency that same year when Gallant Fox won all three 3-year-old spring classics. And if you can figure out a snappy collective name for that excessive quintet of women's golf majors, give me five.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Frank Deford here each Wednesday on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.