The tactical battle went to Sam Kendricks at the seventh IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season in Paris as he defeated pole vault rival Renaud Lavillenie on his home ground.
The question was: when had the battle started?
The 30-year-old French world record-holder was visibly upset by his inability to earn another victory in a meeting that has been his domain for so long, failing to clear 5.77m after delaying his entry to the competition until 5.62m.
He was comforted by his brother, Valentin, as he sat dejectedly by the runway in the Charlety Stadium with his head covered. He was even comforted by Kendricks.
Lavillenie had made a point of saying at the previous day’s press conference that he was “on one leg” in February, and had not recovered sufficiently to train properly until May, which meant he had only been operating on a reduced run-up so far this season.
Kendricks – who beat Lavillenie at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai in May and had arrived in Paris from clearing his first six-metre vault at the US Championships – had responded, very affably, by pointing out that his own preparations for the season had also been adversely affected by his commitments as a second lieutenant in the US Army Reserve.
“I spent five months in the off season working with the US Military,” said the Olympic bronze medallist. “I have to fit athletics in with my military requirements, so I don’t get to have a vacation – but I can always take vacations later.
“I did zero vaulting in the off season, and very little track training whatsoever. A little bit of weight training and a lot of calisthenics with the army. There’s lot of rough marching, driving heavy trucks, carrying heavy gear – it’s just the standard thing when you are at army officer school. I am in the transport unit – go road dogs!
“When I am with the army, I have a daily commitment to my soldiers to make sure they are all happy and taken care of. I had to have a real honest accounting of myself when I got back to athletics in February, just as Renaud had to do when he got back in May.”
Kendricks is a man for whom the phrase 'duty calls' might have been invented. A man, indeed, who halted one of his run-ups during the Rio Olympics when he heard the US national anthem being played.
The 24-year-old downplayed his achievement in clearing six metres for the first time. “I seem always to be following in the steps of Titans,” said the world indoor silver medallist. “6.00m was great for my confidence. But more important was clearing eight jumps in a row at the first attempt. It is good to know I can be consistent at a series of heights that matter.
“But I have jumped 6.00m once. Renaud has done it 17 times. So by my reckoning he is 17 times better than me right now.”
Kendricks added, in response to a question about why he always came in at a lower height than Lavillenie: “I think it’s kind of a joke we have. Renaud will probably tell you he’ll say ‘Hey Sam, where are you coming in today?’ He already knows the answer because I’m going to say the first bar, right? I came all the way to Paris, I trained all these years to pole vault, why not take a few extra jumps? Because in the beginning I’m going to be ahead of Renaud before he comes in, and I need all the help I can get.”
For all the expressions of respect, however, which were clearly genuine, the fact was that the US vaulter proved a far more solid competitor on a day of blustering winds, in a stadium more open to the elements than the larger Stade de France, at which this meeting has been held since 1999.
As he said he would, Kendricks came in at the first height, ticking off first-time clearances at 5.37m, 5.52m, 5.62m and 5.72m. The Frenchman, meanwhile, took the opposite strategy, clearing 5.62m first time before passing, unsuccessfully, to 5.77m.
“Tonight I feel very frustrated,” said Lavillenie. “I am not here in Paris for this kind of result. But strong wind was a problem all through the competition. With these conditions, it’s very hard to perform.”
That failure was all that was required for Kendricks to win, but he made certain by clearing 5.77m himself on his third attempt before rubbing things in with a 5.82m clearance.
With just over four weeks to go until the IAAF World Championships London 2017, Kendricks is looking in good shape.
“My main goal is to jump 5.80m at every competition this year,” he said after his latest win. “I do not want to go under this mark. But the most important thing tonight was the consistency and the clear jumping until 5.72m.
“The harder things are, the easier it is for me. It is always hard to jump with the wind in your face and we can be glad there were no injuries tonight. There was a lot of waiting, the competition was very long but it is good before London.”
And there was yet another doffing of the cap to the Frenchman: “We need to be ready for everything,” he said. “Every competition with Renaud, you can expect something big. You never know if he is going to jump six metres.”
This is true. If Lavillenie can get to work on that run-up with the sun on his back, who knows what will happen. Whatever transpires in London’s Olympic stadium, it will be a spectacle not to be missed.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF