Stirring comebacks, rise and fall of superstars and record-setting feats marked a season where resilience was the key.
This was a year of resilience. Sport demands it all the time and rewards it too — handsomely at that. The season that is about to come to a close was made special by those resilient men and women who braved the odds to come out triumphant.
From Rafael Nadal’s gutsy fightback from a knee injury to Sebastian Vettel’s relentless pursuit of another Formula One title and from Serena Williams unwillingness to bow to the march of time to Andy Murray’s determined surge at Wimbledon, the streak of resilience shone through.
No sporting comeback was more appealing than Nadal’s return to the tennis summit after missing seven months, including the Australian Open, with chronic knee problems.
Nadal lost his first tournament, falling to 73rd-ranked Horacio Zeballos in the final in Viña del Mar, Chile.
But that was about it for vulnerability, as the Spaniard proceeded to win 10 tournaments, including his eighth French Open and second US Open, and ultimately relieved himself of the tape around his knee and relieved his new archrival, Novak Djokovic, of the No 1 ranking. In New York, Nadal outlasted Djokovic in that brutal Open final, which featured a 54-shot rally and more sweat than Roger Federer had ever allowed to exit his pores.
Teams and individuals seemed to relish the comeback route. Although Lance Armstrong, who was finally and definitively unmasked as a cheat, did no favours to comebacks, the athletes seemed to pick up the pace when it came to staring down deficits that should have been decisive and shaking off rust that should have been restrictive.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat were behind by five points in Game 6 of the NBA finals in June with less than 30 seconds left in regulation and still found a way to grab enough offensive rebounds and sink enough 3-pointers to beat the San Antonio Spurs and force a seventh game. The Heat won it to secure their second straight title.
In Europe, Franck Ribéry and the French national football team were down and very likely out of next year’s World Cup after losing the opening leg of their playoff against host Ukraine, 2-0. But then Les Bleus roared back to win at home, 3-0, book their against-the-odds spot in Brazil and give their downbeat country a big lift.
In the Champions League, Borussia Dortmund, on the brink of elimination in the quarterfinals, got goals in added time from Marco Reus and Felipe Santana to defeat Málaga, 3-2, and eventually advanced to the final in May, when Bayern Munich was good enough to be immune to comebacks.
At Muirfield in Scotland, Phil Mickelson, a Southern Californian once allergic to links golf, started the final round five shots off the lead and proceeded to shoot one of the finest rounds in British Open history to secure the claret jug.
In Moscow, Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu, far behind at the final turn, relentlessly ran down Botswana’s Amantle Montsho, then leaned as far forward as she could to win the women’s 400 metres by one-hundredth of a second at the World Championships in Athletics that was once again lit up by the brilliance of Usain Bolt. More than once, he mentioned age catching up with him. But on the track, his rivals couldn’t even come close as the Jamaican won another triple crown.
Age didn’t seem to dent another champion’s armour. Serena Williams, the oldest No 1 and all that, was a cut above her rivals on the tennis court, raking in the trophies as the year wound to a close.
Trophies also continued to pile up at Red Bull with Vettel shaking off a slow start to sweep every title in the second half of the season. A fourth straight Formula One crown was a foregone conclusion well before the season ended for the German who even had cope with boos from the crowd at some venues.
As in every season, new stars emerged and old ones faded away. The chess world welcomed a new king with Norway’s Magnus Carlsen dethroning Viswanathan Anand in the championship contest in Chennai. Sachin Tendulkar stepping back from the cricketing field after more than two decades of classy dominance was another emotional moment for India. In England, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to call time as the boss at Manchester United, his departure also signalling the Red Devil’s slide from the perch.
Boston and the sports world absorbed an attack in April on the right to play in peace and moved on with energy and optimism. Nicole Gross, an American triathlete whose legs were badly injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and wounded more than 260, returned to the pool in October.
She returned to a racecourse last month to watch the Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte with her sister and her husband, who were also injured in Boston. “We’re here to tell the world that we’re not scared to be at a finish line again,” Gross told the runners in that race. “We will embrace the finish line one more time.”
Crime entered the sporting arena in another country when South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, the much decorated paralympian, found himself in trouble after gunning down his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his Pretoria home back in February.
Those were forgettable moments in another year of thrilling action and the coming year promises more, with football’s World Cup being the highlight.