Tennis

The Notebook: 2018 Australian Open

Every Grand Slam forges its own history. Its unique heroes and villains, those who capture the imagination of fans or revolt against the audience, players who relish the spotlight or shrink under it, figures who find redemption and break longstanding ducks and those who leave before we even notice they were there. In the early weeks of every new tennis season and frequently under the brutal heat and humidity of the Aussie summer, tribulations are magnified, storylines get blown of proportion and many take the final outcomes as if it sets up what’s to come on the ensuing 10 months of action.

The most recent fortnight of the Australian Open was no exception to this, although its distinctive feel is expressed on its two singles’ Champions: tasting the same sweet flavour of victory, exuding a similar range of emotions yet incarnating two contrasting outlines: the puerile joy of the first time and the touching breakdown of someone who keeps redefining personal success. Nonetheless, while the emotional portraits of Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer will forever depict the 2018 edition, there were secondary characters aplenty in this sporting tale which engendered something we wish to carry forward. And since those memories eventually evaporate, nothing better than transposing them to words so that we can preserve what they elicit against the backdrop of the unceasing passage of time and whatever the future reserves.

Consequently, about those tribulations, narratives and, above all, the characters, here is the 2018 Australian Open notebook.

 

1 – America (not) First. All in all, despite Serena Williams’ lengthy absence, 2017 was a surprisingly excellent year for American tennis. A Fed Cup title, female representatives in every Major final, the rebirth of Venus, stepping-stone seasons for CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens, a strong run for Madison Keys at the US Open and a resurgence in the men’s side, with Jack Sock shining at the Paris’ Masters and Sam Querrey’s semi-final at Wimbledon. Impressive diversity in scope and scale, felicitations all around, and then… the 2018 Australian Open happened, particularly that abhorrent day one which exposed the vulnerabilities of America’s preeminent players.

A sick CoCo Vandeweghe was one of the early casualties in Melbourne (Andy Brownbill)

Mired in a head-scratching, eight-game losing-streak post-US Open, Sloane Stephens can’t seem to figure out how to handle the expectations of being a Grand Slam Champion and the hyper-motivated opposition that follows. The 2017 AO finalist, Venus Williams, always takes time to shake off the rust of the holidays and primed for an early upset, the cocktail of a streaking Belinda Bencic and suffocating heat proved too much. Corroborating her hit-or-miss nature at the Slams (three first round exits in her last six majors), a flu-affected CoCo Vandeweghe lost her marbles against Timea Babos and was dumped out unceremoniously. Lifeless after a short offseason, Jack Sock completed a disastrous Australian swing by bowing out after one match in his first Major appearance as a top-ten player. Nestled inside the top-20 but getting up there in age, John Isner (World No. 16) and Sam Querrey (No 13) were also directed to the exits quite early. That left Madison Keys and that Tennys-Sandbag-that-shall-not-be-mentioned to save the honour and, for different reasons, they didn’t exactly ace the task.

 

2 – In an era of tennis history where teenage phenomenons are increasingly rare since players take more time to reach the physical and mental standards required to compete at the very top levels of the tour, the sight of a 15-year-old in the third round provoked an adrenaline rush. An already precocious Australian Junior Champion in 2017, Marta Kostyuk got an invitation for the woman’s qualifying in 2018 and she crushed forehands over players more than a decade older for six matches until her run in Melbourne Park was finally halted by compatriot Elina Svitolina.

The youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1996 to reach the third round of the Australian Open or qualify to the main draw of any major since 2005, the Ukrainian charmed with cheeky remarks, fascinated for the crisp ball striking abilities and “easy power” generated by her developing body, and impressed for the way she handled the occasion and the big stage. Tutored by Roger Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and blessed with equal doses of ambition and thirst for self-improvement, Kostyuk looks ready to trail the long road to the top, ditching the junior tournaments to waddle in the lower ranks until free access to WTA Tour events is possible, which won’t happen until she turns 18. That’s obviously a long time from now, but over the next twelve months we should get a better idea of the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. Was this the start of something really, really special?

Marta Kostuyk, a 15-year-old from Ukraine, was the sensation of the first week (Getty Images)

3 – The recently announced return to the 16-seed format at the majors in 2019 promises to be a hot topic of discussion throughout the season, however the first signs at the Australian Open favoured the side campaigning against the idea. Even if everyone knows that, in the men’s tour in particular, the first week of the Slams tend to be rather predictable, It’s still difficult to champion the need for more randomness and upsets when almost half of the 64 protected names in the single’s draws fell within the first two rounds, and 10 of the top 16 ranked ladies headed home before the arrival of the middle weekend. More importantly, though, compelling matches were the norm, not the exception, with the searing heat adding just another layer of uncertainty to intriguing clashes such as Kvitova – Petkovic, Tsonga – Shapovalov or Del Potro – Kachanov, who seeped drama for hours.

 

4 – Garbiñe Muguruza is turning into a mystifying player, equally capable of waltzing through the field or pack her things and leave big tournaments hastily if something doesn’t go according to plan. After retiring in Brisbane (tight injury), the Spaniard was nowhere near her best, nonetheless we’ve seen time and time again that Champions build their form during the fortnight, and the Spaniard simply ought to overcome an unconventional, yet clearly overmatched opponent like World No. 88 Su-Wei Hsieh, a player whose singular brand of tennis had delivered exactly one top-20 victory in a decade and a half.

Possessing the explosive strokes to dictate points from the get-go and chase her second round opponent out of the court, Muguruza was incapable of using them to her advantage and wilted in the heat to depart meekly after two sets, wasting a great opportunity to reclaim the World No.1 she surrendered last fall.

 

5 – Watching Denis Shapovalov is a rollercoaster. It’s both fun and disheartening, it’s exciting and hectic most of the time, sluggish when he simply can’t help himself. It’s always entertaining though, as the kid oozes energy, both good and bad, boasts the swagger of the predestined and the swashbuckling shot making of supreme talents. With his patented backward cap, cartoonish backhand, high-octane tennis and outsized personality, El Shapo is impossible to miss or ignore. You can either love or hate him, but if you like tennis, you’ll be glued to the television and this bustling teenager, waiting for the next highlight-reel shot or dreadful mistake born out of impatience.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov hits the ball during his second round encounter (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Up 5-2 in the fifth set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Canadian teen didn’t choke as much as he lost his cool, judgement and vigour when his legs faltered. No matter how gifted, any 18-year-old is prone to bouts of inconsistency and sudden energy draining, yet the young Canadian will learn from this disappointment against the same man he defeated for his first Major breakthrough (US Open 2017) and who has seen too much to fall for the same mistakes twice. By the way, remember that unfortunate incident with an umpire in Davis Cup competition a mere twelve months ago. It feels ages in the past, doesn’t it?

 

6 – It must have felt like a dream for Jana Fett, the materialization of her childhood visions of grandiosity. She was finally competing in her maiden Grand Slam draw, playing in a major stadium and against a decorated opponent, the World No.2. And then the image got brighter and more vivid. With nothing to lose, she relishes the opportunity and aims for the lines. The ball kisses the white paint, the off-balance shots clip the net and skip past the opponent. She steers bold returns past her rival. Fett gets into a groove and good things continue to happen: there’s a set for you and then one for her. It’s going the distance. Look, a break. And another. You see her racket flying, smashed in frustration. And OMG, you’re serving for the match at 5-1 and you can almost taste the biggest win of your career. And then you battle the nerves to get to the cusp. One…no, TWO Match Points. Go for the killer ace…almost, just wide. Put the ball back in play and, oh no, your opponent survives. Once, twice…after all, they say she has multiple lives.

The murmurs in the crowd augment. You retreat, the tension finally engulfing your body and you hope, no, pray, actually, beg her to finish it for you. No chance, she clearly knows better than that. But it’s still 5-2. You sit down and dwell on what happened. And then it stops clicking. You spray ball after ball. 5-3. Wake up! Keep it in play, Jana! 5-4. Why doesn’t she miss a shot? 5-5. Blink. 5-7. Game. Set. Match. Fett. Wozniacki. Did that really happen?

 

7 – 4-6, 6-4… 15-13! Multiple sets jammed into a gripping decider that showcased the guts and tenacity of the World No.1, but also casted the floodgates on her undersized opponent, an unheralded American that packs way more punch than her figure lets on. Unfortunate that the feet failed her just as the finish line emerged on the horizon, the fast-moving Lauren Davis was still a revelation, a masterful example that a strong lower-body and beefy legs, not unlike catapult-like arms, can assist in generating tremendous power and winners galore.

American Lauren Davis falls during her epic third round match against Simona Halep (Paul Crock / Getty Images)

Matching Simona Halep roar by roar, sprint by sprint and groundstroke by groundstroke – particularly backhands – for almost 4 hours, one of the smallest players in the WTA Tour capitulated by her serve, but stockpiled confidence for the future, where the second week of a Grand Slam is an inevitability.

 

8 – Many believed Maria Sharapova would soar up the WTA ladder as soon as she got the green light to return from her suspension, but six months of ups and downs in 2017 proved the game as evolved and it would take the Russian some time to get back into a groove.

That being said, it’s a bit troubling that she’s still looking rusty and out of it on so many instances, unable to string victories, losing to players she shouldn’t, concocting dominant sets that are immediately followed up with error-filled sequences, and failing to assert her mental strength in prominent matchups. Such as the blockbuster third rounder against Angelique Kerber, the type of match Sharapova used to elevate for. Conversely, in Melbourne, she barely bothered the German and left through the back door. Maybe, it’s time to realize that a return to the top ten in the near future is unlikely.

 

9 – It’s always embarrassing when the fourth seed has a meltdown and gets baggeled with the game on the line, but the real problem for Alex Zverev is that this was not a solitary instance. His startling lack of responses, physically, mentally and tactically, to the challenges posed by long marathons are well documented – he’s yet to win a best-of-five match against a top-50 player on his career – and without breaking that ordeal, there’s no way he’s going to get where he wants and where he should be, the latter stages of the Grand Slams.

The racket paid for the struggles of Alex Zverev in Melbourne (AAP: Julian Smith)

At age 20, time is obviously on the younger Zverev’s side, but he’s got to keep filling his body and find a way to strengthen his splintering legs, so that no one walks over him like Hyeong Chung did in Melbourne.

 

10 – Ashleigh Barty, Australia’s leading female player, lasted just three rounds in Melbourne but the way she managed to rally back from a set down and harness the firepower of Aryna Sabalenka and Camila Giorgi was eye-popping. Blessed with nifty hands, the 21-year-old is able to redirect pace with the best, craft angles, chose the best option at most times and play a combination of spins and slices that bodes well for her chances at future editions of her home Slam.

Eventually outlasted by a better-rounded powerhouse in the form of Japanese youngster Naomi Osaka, the newly-minted top-twenty player is one to keep a really close eye in 2018 since her fast rise up the rankings in the last twelve months may not be completed just yet.

 

11 – There are lingering reservations about Nick Kyrgios’ dedication to the craft and his mental fortitude under pressure, but if Melbourne wasn’t the place for his second career Grand Slam quarter-final, this time it wasn’t due to self-sabotage or energy channelled the wrong way. Fresh of a title in Brisbane, Kyrgios was unusually chilled through 4 matches at the Australian Open, composed in a whole lot of occasions, and brilliant when his unassailable serve and thunderous forehand were firing on all cylinders.

Nick Kyrgios serves during his first round match at the 2018 Australian Open (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Ultimately, this mix would resulted in a statement win over Tsonga in a round three showpiece at Rod Laver Arena, and contribute decisively to one of the matches of the tournament on the men’s side: his adieu after four comprehensive sets against World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov where Kyrgios gave it all but couldn’t overcome three tiebreaks that went the other way. Gracious in defeat as much as in victory, this tournament was a major step forward for the outrageously talented Aussie, destined for greatness shall he desire such thing.

 

12 – With six WTA titles amassed since the beginning of 2017, Elina Svitolina has been the most consistent tour player in Serena’s absence, however the World No. 4, the betting favourite ahead of the Open, took off from Melbourne still searching for a maiden semi-final at one of the tent pole events of the game.

A solid all-around player, the Ukrainian won four matches for a career-best run at the tournament, yet three of them came against qualifiers, and she failed to impress or look comfortable on court before disintegrating against Elise Mertens. Overwhelmed by the speed of the Belgian’s strokes on the fast court of the Rod Laver Arena, Svitolina’s movement flagged and her belief sunk as the games piled up on the other side of the net and the sun rose in the sky. In the end, she mustered just three total games in two sets against an unseeded rival, and displayed a disconcerting inertia on court reminiscent of the quarter-final’s third set at Roland Garros last May. Precocious as it may sound, these might be the initial stages of some light Grand Slam dread.

 

13 – Unveiling an abbreviated service motion after his six-month lay-off, Novak Djokovic was supposedly close to healthy entering the tournament, but game action would betray that notion. The shoulder-to-wrist sleeve on his right arm was a feature throughout, and despite hitting high-levels of performance at times, the Serb never looked loose on his new skin, the groundstrokes lacking punch, the first delivery faltering recurrently and his trademark stamina and agility a work in progress.

Easing past Donald Young, a weakened Gael Monfils, and Spaniard Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Djokovic encountered a mirror image of his younger self in the fourth round, the elastic Hyeon Chung, and couldn’t find the solution to a riddle the six-time Australian Open Champion posed so many times to his rivals. Yielding after just three sets, he will now re-evaluate the state of his elbow and if surgery is the only option, another long leave may be in the cards for a man who is quietly closing on two years without a Grand Slam title.

Novak Djokovic (R) congratulates Hyeon Chung (L) on his fourth round victory (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

14 – Seemingly as quirky inside as off the court, everything in Su-Wei Hsieh’s game is unorthodox: her fragile physique, the way she moves around, how she, more than hit, sometimes batts the ball over the net like she was “swatting away a fly”. Plus the absurd placements she can explore from any position, the angles she finds, the unpredictability and ability to disguise what’s coming next – which completely fritted away Garbiñe Muguruza’s resolve – the variety of spins, amorties and slices that make up for a confounding match if you’re not ready to run around and, more importantly, to dictate from the onset.

Reaching her second AO fourth round at age 32 after tricking the Wimbledon Champion and out-smarting another pace-averse maven, Agnieszka Radwanska, the Taiwanese veteran came pretty close from derailing the Angie Kerber-hype train until her own wheels fell off in the last moments of the second set. Soon after, her surprising run was over, but the name left engraved on the minds of those who had just made contact with the throw-back style of this doubles specialist.

 

15 – Looking like an irrepressible force through four matches, including a 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of eight-seed Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys’ damning no-show in her quarter-final versus Angelique Kerber made for one of the major let-downs of the fortnight. A terrific server with a massive forehand to boot, the American had already compiled just three games in a disastrous first Grand Slam Final at the US Open, and duplicated the lacklustre performance in Melbourne when things started to get out of hand.

Obliged to force the note in order to penetrate Kerber’s exceptional defence, Keys quickly plunged into a tailspin, collecting only 4 of 23 first set points and accumulating unforced errors (25 in 15 games) as her opponent eased to a 51-minute drubbing no one expected. Especially not the flabbergasted Keys, who’s still to fully unlock her ominous ceiling.

 

16 – By stringing a 14-match winning streak to kick off the new season, Angelique Kerber put to bed a puzzling 2017 and resurged in Australia, perhaps, as an even better version of her multi Grand Slam, career-defining form of 2016. At least, that’s what her consummate tear down of Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys resembled, with the German surrendering a total of 7 matches in what were supposed to be two big tests to her revival.

Angelique Kerber serves in the shadows of the Rod Laver Arena (Michael Dodge/Getty Images AsiaPac)

With her head cleared after a coaching change and regained trust on the serve, Kerber relied more than ever on the fundamentals of her previous success: the ability to block one more ball than the opposition and the willingness to run for hours, a gutsy approach to pressure situations, and that patented down-the-line forehand that can be devastating when she takes time away by connecting on the rising ball. Against Simona Halep in a nail-biting semi-final, all the best features of her counterpunching style were clicking and that’s why she came within one point of winning an outstanding battle of wills, eventually succumbing 9-7 in the third set. Kerber picked the wrong side of the coin on that occasion, but that won’t happen a lot if she sustains this form through 2018. Welcome back, Angie.

 

17 – When Andy Murray announced his decision to skip the Australian Open, no one predicted a British gentlemen would reach the latter stages, but it only took a couple of surprises to dig a massive hole in the draw a dark horse could sneak through. The 22-year-old Kyle Edmund helped his cause by upsetting US Open finalist Kevin Anderson (11th seed) in a five-set thriller in round one, others took care of susceptible seeds like Jack Sock (8) and Lucas Pouille (18), and the soft-spoken 23-year-old trudged ahead, beating three players ranked outside the top-60 to set up a clash with Grigor Dimitrov (3) in his maiden quarter-final.

Kyle Edmund drills a backhand during his semi-final match in Melbourne (Getty Images)

At that stage, merely good was not good enough, but the familiarity between the two competitors indicated this might be a winnable match for Edmund if he just managed to summon his A-Game, and he sure did. The much-improved serve responded in critical situations, his booming forehand hit the marks for most of the match, and Edmund secured a famous victory against the ATP Finals winner. Unfortunately for him, Marin Cilic conquered a forehand battle two days later to dispatch the young Brit home, but few think that’s the last we’ve heard of him.

 

18 – Ranked No. 127 in January 2017, Elise Mertens didn’t participate in the Australian Open last year since she missed the qualifying to attend (and win) Hobart yet, if you were paying any attention to the 2017 WTA season, you noticed her meteoric rise and the rave reviews to her burgeoning attacking game. Equally adept at ripping from the baseline or further up the court, the Belgian who describes her game as a mixture of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters negotiated some difficult early encounters in Melbourne, and stole the spotlight in the quarter-finals, demolishing fourth seed Elina Svitolina to become the unseeded intruder in the final four.

Against Wozniacki, some rookie nerves early on, and the inability to keep her offensive instincts in check and wait for the right opportunities to lace a winner conspired for her demise; although not before she came back from a break down to force the second set tiebreak and give just another display of the arsenal that may guide her to the top ten before long.

Belgian Elise Mertens went further at the Australian Open than ever before (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

19 – A shy, bespectacled Korean ranked No. 58 in the World isn’t anyone’s image of a giant-killer, but Hyeon Chung, the reigning Next Gen Finals Champion, was on a lot of radars well before his sensational back-to-back victories over Alex Zverev and Novak Djokovic. Fast and athletic, the 21-year-old boasts the type of wiping-shield defence that vaulted the career of his Serbian idol, and as you watch him do splits on the baseline, extend his arms to crucially keep the ball in play, and complete passing shots from compromising positions, you can’t help to marvel at the glaring similarities.

That uncanny ability to flip from defence to offense in a hurry is a feature of today’s tennis stars (think Novak, Rafa and Andy) and therefore the Korean looks poise to continue his upward mobility on the rankings, but let’s not anoint him as a future Grand Slam winner just yet. Fellow youngsters like Zverev and Kyrgios bear more options to get there, and while no contemporary beat Chung to a first semi-final appearance, he was still blistered by Roger Federer on the spot.

 

20 – For the second time in eight months, Simona Halep lost a Grand Slam Final against a lower-ranked opponent; however you would be hard pressed to find a World No. 1 that concluded a tournament without the trophy on her hands yet so much to appreciate from the two weeks of action. For instance, for the Romanian, this event was perhaps the last obstacle she had to transverse before completely embracing her status as a dominant figure in the WTA Tour and a player ready to withstand and thrive in every circumstance. At least, that what we hope she is taking from the experience, from all those hours fighting with a sprained ankle, a sore right foot, headaches, cramps and the like, with her body stretched to the limit but buoyed by inspiring bravery and self-belief.

Simona Halep fires a forehand during the women’s singles Australian Open Final (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The common thread between the three best matches of the entire fortnight (the historical 3rd round vs Lauren Davis, SF and Final), Halep saved five match points between the first two encounters at moments when her mind and legs clamoured for rest, and she managed it by stepping inside the court, shorting the points and displaying an aggression, especially on her forehand, unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. Amassing 90 total winners against Angie Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki is something akin to Jelena Ostapenko or Madison Keys, and a true game-changer for the Romanian, representing the roadmap to become a favourite in every major even when the likes of Serena, Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova fully resettle.

One of the best athletes around, Halep sadly capitulated for a third consecutive Grand Slam Final in the last couple of games of the deciding set, her demise accelerated by a second serve that ceased to exist when her batteries finally ran dry after more than 14 hours of competitive tennis. Even if she deserved something other than the runner-up silver plate for her herculean effort, this was an epic performance through and through.

 

21 – With four of the Big five of men’s tennis impaired, it’s just natural that whoever manages to reach a Grand Slam Final is slightly overlooked, yet Marin Cilic, a Grand Slam Champion in his own right, deserves all the respect in the world, not just for his campaign in Melbourne but for a career that is still in the upswing as he nears the thirties. Once merely renowned for his massive serve and the free points he got from it, Cilic evolved into an all-around threat when he started to jump behind the delivery, his heavy groundstrokes a distress to any opponent and his deft touch at the net a nice complement. Moreover, the 29-year-old wouldn’t be able to trade blows with Rafa Nadal for five sets if he couldn’t move surprisingly well for a towering man.

Marin Cilic stretches to return a ball during his semi-final match (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Cruising through the first week, the Cilic we saw in Australia wasn’t the in-the-zone version that romped to the US Open title in 2014, but it was enough to outlast Nadal in the QF when everyone counted on the contrary, and to push Roger Federer the distance in the Final. Ultimately, his chances rested in all those break opportunities in the beginning of the fifth set that the Swiss managed to fend off before kicking into overdrive, still Cilic will get some consolation from his new career-high mark of World No.3, and the bolstered notion that only Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy and Stan can boast better resumes in this golden era of tennis than Marin, the gentle giant of Medjugorje.

 

22 – 811 WTA matches, 12.5 years, 43 Grand Slam appearances, 27 WTA titles, 67 weeks as World No.1, countless questions about a distinguished, yet “slamless” career, so much blood, sweat and tears until that magical moment when Caroline Wozniacki could caress her Daphne. As in the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the Australian Open woman’s single’s trophy, the prize the many millions she has accumulated wouldn’t buy, and the corollary of the Dane’s career.

Jubilation for Caroline Wozniacki at the end of her third career Grand Slam Final (Andy Brownbill/The Associated Press)

Appointed as one of the favourites following her WTA Finals victory at the end of 2017, Wozniacki’s campaign was close, so so close from ending in its infancy, but a mix of poise, experience and luck got her over the hump in round two, and she proceeded to make the best of her time playing with “house money”, breezing to the Final with reckless abandon, new-found aggressiveness and that steely determination of someone who feels her time was arriving less than 18 months since the day she found her name lost on the depths of the Top 100. And she was right about it, because this was the best Caroline we’ve ever seen, the Caroline who can claim cheap points with her serve, who’s not afraid to let it rip looking for winners, who dictates points while still being able to retrieve every ball, play wondrous defence and limit her unforced errors under heavy pressure, especially on the backhand (6 in the final, only 40 from over 1000 points contested through the tournament).

In the Final, after almost three hours of awe-inspiring tennis, the arm-wrestle concluded with a netted backhand off Simona Halep’s racket, and Wozniacki was free to let the emotions flow, let go off all the frustrations, call herself a Grand Slam Champion – the first hailing from the Kingdom of Denmark -, the World No.1, a record six years after she last relinquished the post, and a great of tennis history. Even if, at the time, she could barely think of anythink but Daphne.

 

23 – On the 50th anniversary of the Open Era, men’s tennis got to meet its first 20-times Grand Slam Champion. That’s 10% of the sport’s biggest tournaments claimed by the same individual, the incomparable Roger Federer, the only man who could string sequences of seven best-of-five victories at age 36 like it’s a walk in the park. It very much isn’t, as the tears rolling down his eyes testify, but, regardless of the fact that every other contender in the field surrendered to an upset or injury, the achievement is, most definitely, a testament to Federer’s staying power, his unfettered dedication to the game and a superior intellect, which detected where his weak spots lied during some lean years and adapted, tweaked, improved until he could add glorious new chapters to the “fairytale”.

Roger Federer kisses his sixth Australian Open trophy (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

Unencumbered for six rounds, Roger Federer suffered with Cilic’s ball weight during the Final, especially when the point lengthened, but his refined offensive game and ever-gracious movement prevailed in the vast majority of the points played: short (76% were concluded after 4 shots or less) and usually dictated by Federer’s serve (24-16 in aces) or quick, offensive bursts following the Croat’s second delivery. In short, another example of the blueprint behind Federer’s resurgence, which has earned the Swiss three of the last five majors and now a record-equalling sixth Australian Open. Simply magnificient.

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Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.

What I’m thankful for in 2017

I closed the books in 2016 with a piece on the sports-related items that enhanced my life in some capacity throughout the preceding twelve months, and since the goal was always to circle back to it at every calendar turn, here I am again.

Obviously, there’s no fun in rehashing the same subjects over and over again, therefore, with full admission that living in the same age of Lionel Messi or being able to enjoy the tail end of Jaromír Jágr’s career (just to name two examples from last year’s list) is still an absolute pleasure, this time I had to tweak my approach to capture more of the year in hand and what has brought a smile to my face. This was much easier starting from a clean slate, but after a lot of indecision I eventually decided to go way overboard on a handful of paramount choices and then rattle off a few more, leaving the door open to explore the latter on another opportunity if justified.

All right, that’s more than enough talk, time to say graces before welcoming 2018:

Sports activism

Although the blend of politics and sports has been a perennial point of contention for decades, it’s fair to say that in few instances have we seen so many sports figures join the public discourse, advocate for what they believe and express strong personal views on complex, troublesome subjects.

In a time of societal unrest and with social media serving as a powerful amplifier, it was inspiring and, more notably, extremely important that NFL players stood (or knelt) together, in a peaceful manner, to bring attention to racial inequality and brutality against minorities. But also that basketball superstars with worldwide followings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took the lead to confront bigotry and social injustice, risking the ire of fans, their reputations, marketing opportunities and, ultimately, a lot of money. Or “rich, white male dudes”, such as prominent NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, eloquently expressed their opposition to the causes supported by their right-wing employers. That a behemoth like the NBA delivered a loud statement against discriminatory legislation by pulling its All-Star Game from the state of North Carolina. That hundreds of athletes, including those that have to battle every day to make ends meet in “niche” sports, weren’t shy about sticking their neck out and showing disgust for the buffoon inhabiting the White House and his ilk.

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in September (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The USA and civil rights issues, for the reasons we all know, proved the rallying center for the most high-profile demonstrations of 2017, yet it would be foolish not to prolong this point to include another bubbling matter which surfaced under much dimmer lights as athletes came together to demand change. We’re talking about gender discrimination, with women’s sports’ increasing status and relevance fuelling significant breakthroughs, especially in team sports, which historically have lagged behind individual disciplines in such issues.

Building on the US Women’s football (soccer) team’s suit against wage prejudice that gave way to an improved collective bargaining agreement, their ice hockey counterparts threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship if demands for a fairer pay scale, and equitable support on wide-ranging matters such as youth development, equipment, travel accommodations, and marketing weren’t met. Standing together and supported by the unwillingness of professional, amateur and youth players to break rank, they succeeded in the boardrooms (and later on the ice) and inspired football teams throughout the world to fight for better conditions. The results were significantly improved working and financial pacts for players in countries such as Argentina, Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland and New Zealand, and a ground-breaking deal in Norway, where the national federation devised a deal that’s (essentially) equal for the men’s and women’s national teams.

The USA ice hockey women’s national team triumphed on and off the ice in 2017.

More examples of sports figures making a difference could be cited, including the athletes, Olympic Champions et all, that jumped out of the shadows and to the forefront of the on-going movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment, nonetheless, as a sports aficionado and fan of many referenced above, the bottom line is my appreciation for all the men and women who decided to wield their (enormous) influence and lay so much on the line so that future generations could benefit from a fairer, inclusive, united and more generous sports world and society. May more join them in 2018, when a major event such as the FIFA World Cup will be contested in a country known for dubious human rights practices….

2017 UEFA Women’s European Championship

As a sports fan, few things give me more pleasure than following a major event from start to finish, taking note of the trends emerging over the weeks of competition, the ups-and-down in performance, who rises and falls along the way, which teams burn under the pressure or defy expectations. At the women’s Euro 2017, I could do it all and beyond. Prepare diligently and grow excited as the tournament kick-off drew closer, sit back and watch every minute of action in the Netherlands building up to a riveting Final, and revel in the aftermath as conclusions were drawn and the best of the best celebrated.

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Thousands celebrated the Dutch Women’s National Team in Utrecht after victory at the Euro 2017.

A three week period I will cherish because it represented the first international appearance for my nation, and the chance to experience the pulsating orange throngs that lifted Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Vivianne Miedema and alike to victory, however my investment was rewarded by so much more. The unflinching self-belief of Pernille Harder as she hauled the Danes to the Final. The dogged determination of underdogs Austria. The Dutch footballing lecture instructed on favourites England in Enschede. The Earth-shattering end of Germany’s titanic reign. The decline of Sweden, a reality-check for the ambitious Spain and yet another French fiasco. The reunion with Icelandic fans. Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Tessa Wullaert (Belgium) and Caroline Weir (Scotland) waving goodbye too early, and the acrid tears exuded by Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hederberg and Norway.

Truth be told, there was no team that failed to struck a chord (even you, Russia), no game I desired to shut down or moment I preferred to skip. Gosh, I’ll say it: the 2019 World Cup can’t come soon enough.

The 2017 WTA Tour season

On a year that, for many tennis fans, was all about the return of Rafa and Roger to the top of the game, the female Tour quietly produced a remarkable season that oozed unpredictability, upsets and compelling narratives.

Back in January, the fact that Serena Williams collected an Open era, record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam in Melbourne hardly caught anyone by surprise, but that would soon change with news of her on-going pregnancy, and as the Queen left the stage to join the onlookers, the windfall of remarkable incidents started to transpire on a weekly basis.

The swift eclipse of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitová’s incredible recovery after the gruesome attack that damaged the tendons in her left hand. The perplexing hiccups of Simona Halep with the World No.1 on the line and the brief stints on-the job for Karolína Plíšková and Garbiñe Muguruza. The teenage naivety of Jeļena Ostapenko en route to the title at Roland Garros, and Sloane Stephens’ lightning journey from foot rehab to the US Open throne. Johanna Konta’s journey in front of her compatriots in Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina’s breakthrough season capped with a WTA-best five titles, and Caroline Wozniacki’s successive slips at the final hurdle until she found redemption in Singapore. The late season explosion of Caroline Garcia at the same time compatriot (and recent foe) Kiki Mladenovic crumbled to pieces. The universal reverence of Venus Williams, a stunning two-time Grand Slam Finalist and WTA Finals’ runner-up at age 37.

Sloane Stephens surprising triumph at the US Open was just one of the many great stories of the WTA Tour in 2017 (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Through four contrasting Grand Slam winners and seven major finalists, five different World leaders, and plenty of movement in and out of the top-ten, it was a banner campaign for the WTA Tour which few cared to enjoy. I sure did.

The IIHF World Junior Championships

It’s closing on a decade that my holiday season is engrossed by the brightest young prospects in hockey and the tournament that matches the U-20 elite of the world never stops to daze. Understandably, many disregard the event as just another youth tournament packed with kids that won’t ever reach the highest ranks of the sport, but I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity to fill some dark, winter hours with fast, electric hockey played by talented individuals whose inexperience leads to action-packed, captivating encounters spiced up by national pride.

Moreover, simply by taking the plunge, I improve my personal hockey database and, with every passing edition, get to engrave some instant classics in it, most courtesy of the NHL superstars of tomorrow.

American John Carlson beats Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the overtime game winning goal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships Final (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at this collection, just off the top of my head: the heroics of John Tavares and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa 2009; the overtime snipe of John Carlson in Saskatoon 2010; Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko leading Russia’s stunning comeback from a three-goal disadvantage to Canada in Buffalo 2011; Mika Zibanejad breaking the deadlock in OT in Calgary 2012; the impervious John Gibson stealing the show in Ufa 2013; Rasmus Ristolainen shocking a loaded Swedish team in Malmo 2014; Connor McDavid erupting late in Montreal 2015 to power Canada to a first title in six years; Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho running circles around the opposition in Helsinki 2016; Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy going head to head in Toronto 2017 as the Americans stole gold north of the border once again. Not bad, eh? I recommend you jump on the fun ahead of the 2018 knockout rounds scheduled for Buffalo in a few days.

Sports writing

I enjoy reading and it’s only natural that I also derive major satisfaction from dipping into thoughtful, insightful, well-written sports pieces. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that around the World Wide Web, and since I intend to compile a list of the best sports reads of 2018 to pluck in here, might as well just mention a few personal favourites (English, only).

Due to its global reach, the football writing community is one of the most diverse and prolific, but I’m still to find a better place than These Football Times for long-form articles on the beautiful game from an historical and/or modern perspective. Additionally, In Bed with Maradona (IBWM), on the interception of football and culture, and Outside the Boot, with excellent youth prospects and tactical analysis, are great resources to tap on, while staying updated on Gabriele Marcotti’s musings on international football is something I try to do.

In hockey media, few write better features than Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, but Kristina Rutherford and her Sportsnet colleagues come close. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is an essential weekly read for any NHL fan, Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) cracks me up time and time again, and Dimitri Filipovic is my favourite among the analytics-inclined gang (also, his work is not behind The Athletic’s paywall, like so many of his counterparts, which is nice).

For all-things tennis, Jon Wertheim (SI) is my go-to-guy, especially his weekly mailbag write-up, and I’ll invariably make the time when Louisa Thomas dabbles into the sport. Finally, Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur always strikes the nail whatever is the subject of his daily column, and you can’t go wrong with anything published at The Players Tribune.

Rapid Fire

The (Winter) Olympics to come; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić, the new kings of European Basketball; Tom Dumoulin, shaking cycling’s World Tour one step at a time; Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, the present and future of swimming; PK Subban and Nashville’s flourishing hockey scene; Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel (sorry, not sorry); Juan Martin Del Potro and his flair for the dramatic; Karsten Warholm, Europe’s new track star; Jackie Groenen, the Dutch “Ant”; the half-pirouettes and no-look passes of Isabelle Gulldén (recency bias, wee).

Tom Dumoulin, of the Netherlands, holds up the trophy after winning the Giro d’Italia. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

My teams

What’s better than hitting the jackpot once? Doing it twice. In consecutive years. Even if, as privileged as I feel for what happened over the last two seasons, the taste of the latest months is one I want to eschew. Quickly.

Weekend Roundup (November, 26th): France spurns Belgium to lift first Davis Cup in 16 years

On his first stint (1991-92) as France’s Davis Cup captain, Yannick Noah won a Davis Cup, breaking a 59-year drought. On his second spell, between 1995 and 1998, he lifted a second Cup in 1996. In his first period in charge of France’s Fed Cup team, the former World No.3 in singles conquered the country’s maiden trophy.

Success wearing the colours of his nation may have eluded the 1983 Roland Garros Champion as a player, a lost final in 1982 the closer he got to clutching the trophy, but the boisterous Noah has more than made up for it as a coach, a leader and an inspirational figure for French tennis. The latest title, in front of a pulsating crowd in Lille, is simply another feather in his cap, the magical touch of Yannick Noah the solution for another long drought, this one particularly ridiculous due to France’s unmatched depth of top players at the men’s highest levels.

The Davis Cup Final contested between France and Belgium at the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium this weekend was intense, spiced by the rivalry of neighbouring nations and, obviously, emotional, but lacked the drama that could only come from titanic, enduring clashes where the tension hikes through the roof and any mistakes can mean the end of a lifelong dream. The Final series went the distance (3-2) yet, outside of the doubles rubber, every match followed the script put forth in the first set, with the victors racing to claim the spoils in just three sets.

Ricard Gasquet (L) and Pierre-Hugues Herbert (R) celebrate their victory in the third match of the 2017 Davis Cup Final (Pascal Rossignol, Reuters)

Take the example of the first match, between World No. 18 Lucas Pouille and the in-form David Goffin, the Belgium linchpin clawing his way to a 7-5 triumph in the first set before dispatching the next two (6-3, 6-1), obtaining a maiden victory over Pouille in four confronts. Or that of the second encounter, when French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vanquished World No.76 Steve Darcis in the three quick sets (6-3, 6-2, 6-1) to level the proceedings. Naturally,  it would happen twice more on Sunday, with Goffin toppling Tsonga in a straight sets (7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2) blockbuster after surviving a frantic first set where he saved six break points, and Pouille redeeming himself in front of friends and family with an imperious, Cup-clinching performance (6-3, 6-1, 6-0) over the overmatched Darcis.

In between, on Saturday, a four-set affair vindicated Yannick Noah’s bold decision to drop Nicolas Mahut from the squad and play his regular partner, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, on his offside and besides the exquisite Richard Gasquet. After claiming the first set, the French pair surrendered the second to Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore, but stepped up with the visitors serving at 5-3 in the third, hustling to claim victory in 6-1, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.

A win in the third rubber that would essentially render useless the two triumphs secured by the unwavering Goffin  – the best player in the series and now 21-3 in Davis Cup single’s action – since “Mr Davis Cup” Steve Darcis never looked about to unveil his “superhero” cape in Lille.

Instrumental to eliminate Germany in the first round (when Goffin was missing), the 33-year-old had a perfect record in five Davis Cup fifth rubbers, yet he proved no match to a fired-up Pouille on Sunday, and as the large French contingent (the Champions used 8 (!) different players en route to the title) mugged the elated winner, Belgium were left to lick the wounds of a third lost Final, and second in three years after capitulating to Great Britain in 2015.

As for France, the 2017 title is their first since 2001 and the 10th in history, matching Great Britain and lagging way behind the totals of Australia (28) and the USA (32). In the last 16 years, the French went to the Final on three occasions, with the most recent taking place three years ago in this very same venue and against a fellow neighbour: the Switzerland of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

With the Davis Cup World Group wrapped up, the 2017 tennis season is finally over at the top-level, but it won’t take long before the stars of the sport return to the courts. In just five weeks, they’ll be back in action and, in seven, the first Grand Slam of 2018 will kick off in Melbourne.

Winter sports 

Biathlon: Norway triumphs in the first mixed relay of the season

Stuck right in the centre of Sweden, the city of Östersund usually hosts the inaugural events of the IBU Biathlon World Cup and the beginning of the 2017-18 season was no different.

With the first individual events only scheduled for the end of the week, two relays raised the curtain on Sunday to provide a first glimpse of the athletes’ form in an Olympic year. As usual when multiple relays take place in the same day, strategy took a huge part in defining the allocation of resources for each race, and in Östersund the teams from Norway and Austria reaped the benefits of their choices as France misfired badly by putting all of their eggs in a single basket.

The members of Norway’s mixed relay team show the medals from Östersund (Photo: IBU/biathlonworld)

Tapping their best male and female athletes for the single mixed relay (2 x 6km (W) + 2x 7.5 km (M)), the French were clear favourites to repeat the victory of last year, but were ultimately betrayed by a terrible shooting day from their star pair. Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin Habert combined for 10 blanks on the day, and not even their speed over the skis could reel them back, ending up in a four-team sprint for third which Kazakhstan (Galina Vishnevkaya /Maxim Braun) brilliantly won.

Runner-up in 2016, the Austrian duo of Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder rode a brilliant shooting performance, missing just two targets, to claim victory in the early afternoon of Östersund, while Germany’s Vanessa Hinz and Erik Lesser finished second despite nine spares.

Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder won Östersund’s single mixed relay event on Sunday

By sending a secondary unit to the single mixed relay, Norway put their faith in the strongest possible quartet (Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold, Tiril Eckhoff, Johannes Thingnes Boe, Emil Hegle Svendsen) for the mixed relay (2x 6km (2 W) + 2x 7.5 km mixed relay (2M)) event, and through ups and downs, eventually came out on top. With the ladies leading the line, Sweden’s Hanna Öberg and Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen transmitted in the lead after the first and second exchanges, respectively, however it was Italy who closed the third leg in first place after Dominik Windisch cleared all targets.

Anchor Lukas Hofer took over with a 23-second advantage over Slovakia and Norway, but he struggled badly on the prone position, served a penalty lap and ceded control to Norway and veteran Emil Hegle Svendsen, who would stumble in the last shooting range. Needing three spares to pass, he let the chasers get within 5 seconds, but the 2010-11 Total Score winner would hold off the streaking Hofer (who blitzed the standing shots) to secure the win ahead of Italy. Germany took bronze, with Arnd Peiffer overthrowing Matej Kazar and the surprising Slovakia in the last climb.

Ski jumping: Jernej Damjan records shocking win in Ruka

At age 34 and with a single individual World Cup triumph listed on his résumé (Sapporo, 2014), Slovenian Jernej Damjan is far from a leading figure in his national team, much less the Ski Jumping World Tour. However, all it takes to grasp the spotlight in this sport are two inspired jumps in succession, and that’s precisely what Damjan manage on Sunday in the Rukatunturi large hill (HS 142), beating a smattering of Norwegians and Germans for a superb triumph under the Finnish sky.

Pure joy reflected on the face of Slovenian veteran Jernej Damjan after his astonishing triumph in Ruka (Reuters)

Out of nowhere, Damjan jumped 140m in the first round to take the surprising lead, waited a long time for the encore, and then delivered under pressure, with the 142m and final total of 301.4 points proving enough to brush aside the challenge of a pair of 22-year-olds, Johann André Forfang (298.6 pts) of Norway and Andreas Wellinger (293 pts) of Germany. A grand total of seven athletes from these two nations found their way into the Top 10 on Sunday, whereas one man in particular came to rue his luck in Ruka, defending World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft.

For the second consecutive week, the Austrian dominated qualification and landed farther than anyone else during the three days of competition, even setting a new hill record of 147.5m on Saturday, however a mistake during take-off on his first jump in the individual event imploded his chances of victory. Kraft would correct in the final round, clearing 145m to escalate from 26th to 13th but, similarly to what had happened the day before, that wouldn’t amount to much as his outstanding performance wasn’t enough to corral Austria to the podium in a team event once again won by Norway.

The four Norwegian athletes took victory in the team event for the second consecutive week

Displaying great team spirit and homogeneity in performance for the second consecutive week, Robert Johansson, Anders Fannemel, Daniel-André Tande and Johann André Forfang collected 1184.2 points for Norway, a massive 68 more than second-place Germany, who knocked Japan to third in the last jump following a Richard Freitag 138m-leap that Junshiro Kobayashi couldn’t answer to. Fourth-place Austria was followed by Slovenia, and then ranked an unlucky Poland, whose sixth place came in spite of the disqualification of Piotr Zyla before his first jump due to irregular crotch length.

The next stage of the Ski Jumping World Cup is the Tramplin Stork, in Nizhny Targil, Russia, where athletes will compete in two individual events next weekend.

Alpine Skiing: Mikaela Shiffrin opens her win account in Kyllington

It’s not her native Vail or even nearby Aspen, Colorado, but Kyllington, Vermont, will do just fine for American star Mikaela Shiffrin on her quest for a second overall World Cup title. Usually fertile ground for the Slalom Queen, the early season swing through North America has brought 180 out of a possible 200 points to her mantle, and Shiffrin is already clear of the field in the general classification.

Overshadowed by dark clouds and light rain, the ultimate spoiler for the home favourite on Saturday’s giant slalom came in the form of German Viktoria Rebensburg, the 2010 Olympic Champion. Making it two of two in GS this season, the 28-year-old authored a pair of flawless runs on her way to secure a 15th career World Cup triumph, besting Shiffrin by 0.67 seconds and Manuela Mölgg by almost 1.5 ticks. Matching her surprise third place of the season opener in Solden, the Italian veteran is thus third on the discipline’s classification, tied with crystal globe holder Tessa Worley at 120 points, five behind Shiffrin and 80 from Rebensburg’s total.

American Mikaela Shiffrin drew all the attentions in the Alpine Skiing World Cup races in Kyllington, Vermont (Andrew Shinn)

Although she was pipped in GS, Shiffrin would reign supreme on Sunday’s slalom, riding with unparalleled bravado to avenge the result of two weeks ago in Levi. Slovak Petra Vlhová was no match for the American this time, but a competent second run vaulted her from fifth to second on the day, a hefty 1.64 seconds off the winner’s pace, while Austrian Bernadette Schild took advantage of Wendy Holdener’s error-filled second round to claim a fifth career World Cup podium. With 180 pts each and well ahead of everyone else, Vlhová and Shiffrin share top honours in the slalom classification so far.

North of the border, in Lake Louise, Alberta, the men contested the first speed competitions of the year with victory smiling on a pair of high-profile names. Reigning downhill World Champion Beat Feuz drew first blood on Saturday, edging the discipline’s Olympic Champion Matthias Mayer by 0.09 seconds in the fastest of the Alpine races. Returning to the tour after another severe knee injury, Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal was 0.32 seconds away from a dream comeback, eventually settling for bronze ahead of two-time crystal globe winner Peter Fill of Italy.

Fifth on the downhill, Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud rose to the top of the podium on Sunday’s Super-G to kick off the defence of the discipline’s title in style. The 32-year-old’s closest opposition was provided by a pair of Austrians, runner-up Max Franz (+ 0.28s) and 2015 Super-G World Champion Hannes Reichelt, who finished third (+0.32).

Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud won the men’s Super G at Lake Louise Ski Resort (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

For now, Jansrud leads the overall World Cup classification followed by Feuz and Svindal, but the picture might change significantly next week when the men’s tour moves to Beaver Creek, Colorado, where three more events will be held: a downhill, a super-G and the first giant slalom of the season. At the same time, the speed demons of the ladies circuit have a first opportunity to showcase their form as the inaugural downhill and Super-G races of their season take place in Lake Louise.

Football: Madness in Dortmund

It can be claimed that more than the aggregate totals of wins, draws and losses, what levitates a rivalry are those magical games that stay in the minds of supporters positioned both sides of the fence. More times than not, it would correspond to those days when one team emphatically crushes the other, but while that wasn’t the case on Saturday, it can be argued one of the combatants abandoned the pitch in Dortmund broken to pieces.

Everything went smoothly for the struggling Dortmund in the early going. They scored one, then another, and another, and another. Not even the most irrational supporter could have foreboded a four-goal spree inside 25 minutes against their bitter rivals, but there it was, the perfect cleansing needed after some terrible weeks.

The game settled down and with thirty minutes to go, Schalke 04’s consolation goal bounced off the head of Guido Burgstaller. Four minutes later, another marker for the visitors. Is it possible? Aubameyang is stupidly sent-off. Maybe? Daniel Caligiuri smashed one inside the top-corner. Alright…it was four, it’s now one and soon… it’s none. Naldo meets the last-minute corner, sets alive the visiting horde and silences the Yellow Wall. 4-0. 0-4. 4-4. Crack open the history books.

The bottom line? With the draw both teams recovered a point to the leaders since Bayern Munich lost for the first time in Jupp Heynckes most recent tenure. Thorgan Hazard and Matthias Ginter scored for Borussia Moenchenglabach in their 2-1 victory, Arturo Vidal discounted, the hosts climbed to fourth, with 24 pts, and they’re two behind second-place RB Leipzig, who cut the deficit to Bayern after a 2-0 triumph over Werder Bremen.

Winless in six matches, Borussia Dortmund are fifth with 21 pts, while Bayer Leverkusen climbed to sixth, leapfrogging their opponents in round 13, Eintracht Frankfurt (0-1), but also Hoffenheim (3-0 L in Hamburg) and Hannover 96 (1-1 vs Stuttgart). Bottom-feeders FC Köln, who beat Arsenal on Thursday in the Europa League? An 11th loss in 13 games after succumbing to Hertha Berlin at home (0-2).

Premier League

Thirty-seven points amassed from the first 13 games mean Manchester City have started better than any other Premier League competitor in history, yet this weekend was just another reminder that, even for them, the danger lies in every corner of the toughest league in World football. Fortunately, soon after Nicolás Otamendi’s own-goal sent Pep Guardiola’s men to half-time down 1-0 at Huddersfield Town, Sergio Agüero levelled and Raheem Sterling found an 84th-minute winner that extends the winning-streak to 11.

A visit to Old Trafford beckons for City in two weeks, but before the short trek across Manchester, the Red Devils needed a deflected shot from Ashley Young to beat Brighton at their holy ground (1-0) and, consequently, preserve the difference at eight points.

Further behind, Arsenal escaped Burnley (0-1) with three points, courtesy of a last-minute Alexis Sanchez’s winner from the spot, and the Gunners were further rewarded with reclaimed land from the closest opposition. That would be city rivals Tottenham, who disappointed at home to West Bromwich (1-1), and the pair Liverpool / Chelsea, who drew (1-1) at Anfield Road on matchday’s 13 blockbuster after Willian’s lofted shot surprised Simon Mignolet and cancelled Mohamed Salah’s game-breaker.

Starting at Chelsea, third with 26 pts, and ending on eight-place Watford, who now possess 21, every team around the European zone has a one-point advantage over the next  while, at the bottom, Cristal Palace’s second win of the campaign (2-1 vs Stoke City) pulled them within 3 pts off the safety zone.

La Liga

Unbeaten on the season and nine-games deep into a fantastic winning-streak, Valencia welcomed leaders Barcelona into the Mestalla with eyes set on moving closer to first place, but it took them quite some time to show it. The visitors dominated the first half and Lionel Messi’s shot clearly crossed the line to give them the lead, however the referee fell into a different reality and only then Los Che woke up to the top-of-the table clash. Their speed down the flanks created Barça some problems, and as Rodrigo poked in the opener at the hour mark, the rest of La Liga celebrated.

Not so fast said Jordi Alba, concluding a beautiful feed by Messi to forge a late equalizer that kept things equal at the very top, but not right below, since Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid cut their deficit by two points this week. The latter erupted offensively to pepper Levante with five goals, matching braces from French forwards Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro doing the heavy lifting, while the Champions of Europe suffered to overcome Malaga at the Bernabéu (3-2) until Cristiano Ronaldo notched the winner in the 76th minute correcting his saved penalty attempt.

Meanwhile, on the round’s best game, Sevilla completed the second stunning comeback of their week, a nice follow-up to that three-goal outburst against Liverpool mid-week. Down 2-0 at Villarreal, the visitors tied the match with consecutive goals, added the winner from the spot later on, and hang on to an impressive 3-2 away victory that distances their opponents.

Serie A

Another eventful weekend in Italy, with the top three completing their mission with success, the next three dropping points and AC Milan finally completing the shakeout everyone was waiting for.

Going through a strenuous period, leaders Napoli filled in the minimum requirements at Udine by snatching the three points after Jorginho impelled home the rebound off his missed penalty shot. The 0-1 road win wasn’t brilliant, but it was enough to keep the two-point advantage over Inter Milan, who travelled to Sardinia and saw Mauro Icardi bag two more in their 1-3 victory over Cagliari, the argentine’s 15th tally equalling Ciro Immobile’s total on the Capocannonieri’s race.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi scored twice in his team’s 3-1 victory in Cagliari (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP)

Meanwhile, third-place Juventus are still four points off the top, the challenge presented by Crotone dealt with after a three-goal barrage in the second half (3-0), but their advantage increased following the draws conceded by the two teams from Rome. Daniele De Rossi’s brain-stop resulted in a red card, a penalty converted by Genoa’s Gianluca Lapadula and two points left by I Giallorossi at the Luigi Ferraris (1-1), while Lazio’s substitute Felipe Caicedo kicked a Fiorentina player in the box deep into injury time to allow Khouma Babacar a late equalizer (1-1) in the Italian capital.

Moreover, one week after beating Juventus, sixth-place Sampdoria crashed and burned in Bologna (3-0), while AC Milan’s goalless draw to Torino at the San Siro signified the end of the road for coach Vincenzo Montella. Former midfielder Gennaro Gattuso takes over the coaching duties with the team in seventh place and already 18 points behind Napoli.

Ligue 1

Two seasons ago, Paris St. Germain won the French title with 96 pts and an absurd 31-pt advantage over the closest opposition, and after the Parisians thoroughly outclassed defending Champions Monaco at the Principality on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder if we’re bound for something similar.

With Julian Draxler joining Neymar, Cavani and Mbappé on attack, the visitors dominated at will for more than an hour, scored twice, left a few more for another occasion, and didn’t really sweat until João Moutinho’s free kick deflected on the wasteful Mbappé. The final 1-2 may be slim for the difference between the two sides, but the nine-point gap on the standings is, most certainly, not. Highly unlikely to retain the title, Monaco’s counterparts in Ligue1 will be Lyon, who caught up to them after another five-spot away from home, this time against the free-falling Nice, and Marseille, who solved Guingamp due to an individual effort by Florian Thauvin.

These three teams are separated by a single point after 14 rounds, and the fifth-place, still occupied by Nantes, is already at a five-point distance after the Canaries fell at Rennes (2-1).

Moment of the weekend

So long, 2017 tennis season. We’ll miss you, but historical landmarks always take precedence.

That’s why this space rightfully belongs to Naldo, Schalke 04’s central defender who culminated his team’s monumental 4-goal comeback with a furious header in the last minute of the 151th Revierderby. The Gelsenkirchen outfit may have 58 victories in the history of the derby (to Dortmund’s 51), yet the goal that settled the 42nd draw will resonate through time more than many game-winners.

Weekend Roundup (November, 19th): Running away

It’s not even December yet, two thirds of the league calendars are still to be played and one simply can’t shake off the feeling that we already know too much about the ending.

On a weekend where Bayern Munich, PSG and Napoli saw their lead incremented and the pair Manchester City and Barcelona watched strong rivals fall further behind, the hopes of dramatic title chases fuelled by rival fans and neutral spectators alike wrinkled like a rapidly deflating air balloon. With the exception of Napoli, municipalities can safely draw up parade routes, yet we’re far from running out of compelling storylines to follow until May.

Take a gander at the footballing action around the continent this weekend:

La Liga

The first Madrid derby at Atlético’s new home, the Wanda Metropolitano, didn’t satisfy any of the contending sides but elicited big smiles out East, in Catalonia. With Los Colchoneros struggling to find the goals at home (now just five in the same number of matches) and Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a slump, the 90-minute stalemate hardly came as a surprise and, in result, both teams are now 10 points adrift of leaders FC Barcelona, a distance that has never been overcome by a title-winning side in La Liga history.

The Blaugrana also ventured into the capital region on Saturday, paying a visit to Leganés, and they were delighted that their own misfiring striker came to life. Luis Suárez notched twice in the 0-3 win, Paulinho signed up for the other, they went home with another three points in the bag and the weekend could have only turned out better had their rivals Espanyol been able to slow down second place Valencia. In the Cornellà-El Prat, the home side threatened many times but couldn’t convert, and Geoffrey Kondogbia’s belter in the 67th minute greatly simplified the job for the visitors, who then added a second by Santi Mina for good measure.

The difference between the top two, who face off at the Mestalla next week, is four points, while, further back, Sevilla returned to the top five with a 2-1 home victory against Celta de Vigo to profit from Villarreal’s 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Premier League

The streak it’s already at ten and Pep Guardiola’s army keeps making it look easy. At Leicester, Manchester City pampered us with two wonderfully crafted goals, one concluded in a tap-in by Gabriel Jesus and the other with a thunderbolt off the left foot of Europe’s best midfielder these days, Belgian Kevin de Bruyne, to seal a 15th win in the last 16 matches across all competitions.

The leaders have the look and feel of an unstoppable side, but with the derby fast approaching, Manchester United will do anything in their power to arrive there with the current 8-point disadvantage. In Old Trafford, with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in the fold, the Red Devils roared back from a goal down to dispatch Newcastle United by 4-1, and recover full possession of second place with 26 points, one ahead of defending Champions Chelsea, who scored three times in the first half – and one in the second – to brush aside West Bromwich at the Hawthorns (0-4).

Tumbling to fourth this week, Tottenham left the Emirates Stadium complaining about two offside goals, yet the referee can’t overshadow an uncharacteristically poor exhibition from Mauricio Pochettino’s men in the London derby (2-0). Outplayed by rivals Arsenal, the two teams are now separated by 1 point, 23 to 22, double digits behind City and in close proximity with Liverpool (22), convincing conquerors of Southampton at Anfield (3-0) with a brace from the surprising Premier League top goalscorer, Egyptian Mohamed Salah. Also with 22 pts in the table, the remarkable Burnley keeps racking up the victories after taking down Swansea (2-0).

Ligue 1

Claudio Ranieri may be Italian and a certified miracle-maker after his time in Leicester, but this Nantes team, placed in fifth on the Ligue 1 table, is still a world away from Paris and the implacable goal-scoring machine that energizes the Parc des Princes twice a month. In the team’s round 13 affair, PSG pumped out four more to elevate their tally to 26 goals in seven home matches, and two came off the boots of forward Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayan’s 15 goals making him one of the strongest candidates to the Golden Boot award.

Nevertheless, more important, the Parisians 4-1 triumph increased the gap at the top since their three closest rivals couldn’t gather the three points this weekend. Second-place AS Monaco struggled in Amiens and the 1-1 draw was all they deserved, while Olympique Lyon couldn’t find a way (0-0) past a well-organized Montpellier at the Groupama Stadium. For their part, fourth-place Marseille was seconds away from doing even worse in Bordeaux, but midfielder Morgan Sanson rescued a point (1-1) in the very last play of the game.

With a six, nine and ten point disadvantage, respectively, the trio is bound to watch PSG’s triumphal march from afar unless Monaco can claim the three points when they receive the leaders at the Principality next week.

Bundesliga

The Bayern Munich that dominates the Bundesliga at will is the one that picks up comprehensive wins week after week without breaking a sweat, and that Bayern is definitely back to torment the rest of the German league.

This weekend, a clinical performance stake three unanswered goals past Augsburg and, in the process, they extended the gap at the top to six points following RB Leipzig’s 2-2 draw at Leverkusen. Last year’s runner-up grabbed a 2-1 lead in the second half after a couple of penalties, but Kevin Volland manage to level for the hosts despite Bayer being reduced to 10 men. With 23 points on the table, Leipzig were caught by Schalke 04, who fended off Hamburg (2-0) at the Veltins Arena, while Borussia Monchengladbach climbed to fourth after getting the better of Hertha Berlin in a goal-filled battle (2-4) in the German Capital.

The other Borussia? Well, it goes from bad to worst after another loss, the third in succession and the fourth in five matches. In Stuttgart, a ridiculous miscommunication between Marc Bartra and Roman Burki opened the door for the hosts, and they capitalized to secure a 2-1 victory that sinks Dortmund further down the table. They’re already at fifth, tied with Hoffenheim (1-1 vs Eintracht Frankfurt), and another disaster next week, when they host Schalke 04 in the Ruhr Derby, could spell the end of the road for coach Peter Bosz.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Werder Bremen collected their first league win of the season, thrashing Hannover 96 (4-0) with a hat trick from Max Kruse to create distance from FC Köln, whose nightmarish season annexed another chapter in Mainz (1-0).

Serie A

Unconvincing for much of the season, Juventus’ second Serie A loss is just another reminded that the road to a seventh consecutive title is full of dangers, and resting key starters on a recognizably difficult visit is the wrong way to go about it. Yes, a Champions League clash with Barcelona looms on Wednesday, but sixth-place Sampdoria are a really tricky opponent and Massimiliano Allegri’s team learned it quickly as the hosts raced to a three-goal lead in the second half.

Masking the score with two stoppage time markers accomplished nothing, and now the rivals are even more confident that the Vecchia Signora’s reign may be in jeopardy. Just ask leaders Napoli, who cleared another hurdle with a sound, 2-1 victory over AC Milan at the San Paolo. Or Inter Milan, who reclaimed second on the shoulders of Mauro Icardi’s double header against Atalanta (2-0). Or AS Roma, only a point behind Juventus with a game in hand after triumphing on the explosive capital derby (2-1) against fifth-place Lazio, now 7 points off the leaders but also with a rescheduled game to play.

This Serie A season is shaping up to be a classic, and the only thing missing is a better AC Milan, whose defeat in Napoli was the sixth of their campaign, the same number of victories they’ve amassed so far. Incidentally, every setback occurred against a top-six side, which is both recognition of the I Rossoneri’s distance to the top and its relative strength.

Furthermore, on the opposite side of the table, Benevento collected a 13th defeat in 13 games to establish a new European record for worst start of the season. We may be 25 games from the finish line, but only a miracle can salvage the newcomers from a ticket back to Serie B.

Tennis: Grigor Dimitrov captures the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals

Without last year’s finalists (Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic) as well as regular secondary figures such as Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic, the smart money ahead of the ATP Finals resided on the “dream” Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the perfect bookend to a season dominated by the two legends of the sport.

However, the Spaniard’s nagging knee problems led to a precocious abandon following a three sets battle against David Goffin, and the plucky Belgian would be responsible for further casualties in London. Busting every pre-tournament predictions, he knocked down Federer in a stunning semi-final encounter on Saturday to became just the sixth men to defeat the two superstars in the same tournament – the first not named Novak Djokovic to do it in seven years – and thus set up an improbable Final between two of the five first-time qualifiers in the eight-men field.

David Goffin raises his arms after the victory over Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the ATP Tour Finals (Tony O’Brien, Action Images via Reuters)

Both Goffin and fellow 26-year-old Grigor Dimitrov hadn’t played under brighter lights than what they faced on Sunday at the O2 Arena, yet the pressure and responsibility didn’t weight down the level of both men tasked with capping the 2017 ATP season. Undefeated in London after cruising through the round robin to later overcome American Jack Sock in the semi-finals, Dimitrov collected the first set by 7-5, fighting back from a break down, but then Goffin found the breakthrough at 3-3 in the second to make it clear this wouldn’t be a repeat of their one-sided group stage encounter a few days earlier.

In that occasion, the Belgian had won just two games in the entire match, yet he displayed superior power and shot-making in the Final to hold on to the lead (6-4), force a decider and enjoy a bevy of opportunities to break again in the first game of the third set. His Bulgarian opponent, though, was able to maintain the composure and when his rival’s backhand sailed wide at 3-2, Dimitrov picked up the decisive advantage. Moments later, up 5-2, he let three Championship points slip away on the response, but the same wouldn’t happen as he served the match out (6-3), the fifth match point wrapping up the 2.5h-showdown on a heart-breaking missed volley by Goffin.

Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov gazes at his ATP Finals trophy (Tony O’Brien, Action Images via Reuters)

With the victory, the most important of his career, Dimitrov is the first debutant to win the ATP Finals since 1998 and he finishes the year as the World No.3, a notable ascend from his 17th position at the beginning of 2017. Meanwhile, Goffin also climbs to a new career-high No.7, but he can’t head to holidays just yet since the Belgian will spearhead his country’s representation in Lille, France, for the 2017 Davis Cup Final next weekend.

Ski jumping: Junshiro Kobayashi upsets Kamil Stoch and Stefan Kraft in Wisla

One week earlier than usual, the 2017-18 edition of the Ski Jumping World Cup was off the ground in Wisla, Poland, a first time host of the season opener. Situated a stone throw away from the border with the Czech Republic, the hometown of the legendary Adam Małysz is renowned for the passionate support of the local fans, who usually steer the home boys to the top of the podium, yet, this time, the champagne popped from the hands of others as the Poles came close but not close enough.

In the individual competition, reigning Olympic Champion Kamil Stoch was one of the favourites, his two victories in the Malinka hill last January still fresh on the memory of his compatriots, however the 30-year-old fell behind in the first round, posting only the eight best total, and then couldn’t make up all the ground despite leading the field by a fair margin with his second jump (137.6 pts).

Stoch eventually ended up as the runner-up to 26-year-old Junshiro Kobayashi, in great form since the qualification on Friday and whose consistency paid off big time to secure a maiden World Cup triumph. Levelled in points with defending World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft after the initial leaps, the Japanese bested the Austrian in round two by 2.9 pts, and then took advantage of the adverse wind conditions that derailed the second attempt of leader Richard Freitag (Germany) to claim the win with a combined total of 260.5 pts, just ahead of Stoch (258.2) and Kraft (257.7).

Kamil Stoch, Junshiro Kobayashi and Stefan Kraft (L-R) shared the podium in Wisla (Grzegorz Momot /PAP)

The unlucky Freitag fell to fourth, leading the German contingent that will miss the injured Severin Freund for all of this season, while three other Poles (Piotr Zyla, Stefan Hula and Dawid Kubacki) finished in the top 10 to give the home crowd some reason to cheer after the disappointment of the previous day.

On Saturday, kicking off the defence of their first Nations Cup title, the Polish squad composed of Stoch, Zyla, Kubacki and Maciej Kot squared off with Norway and Austria throughout the team event, only to be pipped by a Norwegian team (Johann Andre Forfang, Anders Fannemel, Daniel-Andre Tande and Robert Johansson) propelled by the massive score (141 pts) earned by Forfang in the beginning of the final round.

Relegated to shared possession of second place, Polish and Austrians skiers have an opportunity for redemption next week in Finland as individual and team events are scheduled for the Rukatunturi hill when Kuusamo/Ruka becomes the second of this season’s eighteen World Cup stops.

Moment of the week:

With 2017 winding down, I’ll jump on this second-to-last opportunity to feature a majestic tennis point here and relinquish the stage to Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin.

One of a handful of gorgeous rallies during the ATP Finals decider, the Bulgarian eventually took this point in a crucial hour of the match when his overhead shot met the standard set by Goffin’s exquisite between-the-legs lob. The smash allowed Dimitrov to move within two points of victory, and invigorated the decidedly partisan crowd inside London’s O2 Arena for the final moments of the ATP season.

Weekend Roundup (November, 12th): CoCo Vandeweghe shines as USA reclaims the Fed Cup title

Seventeen years ago, when the United States claimed their 17th Fed Cup at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, you would have to be borderline crazy to wager that it would take almost two decades to bag No.18.

After all, four Grand Slam Champions (Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Lisa Raymond) had just thrashed Spain to capture a second consecutive title, and two young phenomena by the name of Serena and Venus Williams were already in the process of changing the WTA Tour and collecting Majors by the bucket load. However, having tasted victory in 1999, the Williams sisters have sparingly participated in the competition this century and by notably skipping the American’s last three Final appearances (2003, 2009, 2010), they left the job for the likes of Meghann Shaughnessy (2003), Alexa Glatch (2009) or Melanie Oudin (2009/2010).

From this perspective, it’s perhaps not as surprising that the most successful nation in the history of the tournament had to toil for so long to reclaim world domination, the wait for a new generation of female tennis stars finally paying off this season. Shrugging off a broken-down Germany squad (4-0) in Hawai last February, and a weakened Czech Republic (3-2) in Tampa two months later, the Americans were back in the decider and prohibitive favourites ahead of the slew of matches in Minsk’s Čyžoŭka-Arena.

Ultimately, no adverse conditions should make up for the massive disparity between the two sides, with the visitors fielding a top-10 player and a Grand Slam Champion while the modest Belarus countered with two players ranked outside the top 70 and trying to step up, once again, for two-time Australian Open Champion Viktoria Azarenka, a national hero stranded in California, USA, due to an ugly custody battle for her infant son.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich was instrumental to Belarus on their way to a first Fed Cup Final (The Associated Press)

Having operated their fair share of miracles without Azarenka, ousting rivals Russia in Moscow on the 2016 World Group playoffs and shocking the Netherlands (4-1) and Switzerland (3-2) in emotional home ties to reach the Final in their maiden World Group appearance, Belarus’ magic would certainly have to run away at some point, and when an authoritarian CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 6-4 in the first rubber, many thought the USA would breeze to victory.

However, Belarus still had a few more rabbits to pluck of their hat and Aryna Sabalenka, their pugnacious 19-year-old, decided to throw caution to the wind against US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the second match; dozens of winners (31) and plenty more unforced errors (57) later (6-3, 3-6, 6-4), she actually managed to level the score at the end of day 1.

Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka reacts after defeating Sloane Stephens in game 2 of the 2017 Fed Cup Final (Getty Images)

Unimpressed, Vandeweghe bounced Sabalenka (7-6, 6-1) to push the USA to the brink of the title Sunday morning, yet Stephens, winless since her triumph in Flushing Meadows, succumbed again, this time to Sasnovich after an exhilarating 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 classic, the home crowd urging the World No.78 as she erased a 2-5 deficit in the third set.

Belarus extraordinary campaign merited the fifth and decisive rubber, a doubles match that could give Sasnovich and Sabalenka immortality if they were able to complete the greatest team sports achievement in their country’s history; however it wasn’t meant to be.

The conspicuous Vandeweghe and partner Shelby Rogers took the first set by 6-3, and then endured the pressure long enough in the second, coming back from 2-5 to crucially break serve three consecutive times and force the tiebreak. The dreams of a nation, the fairy-tale ending, hanged by a threat and it would evaporate when a wayward forehand from a fatigued Sasnovich collided into the netting, a celebration 17 years in the making erupting in its place after an historic performance from a surging 25-year-old star.

Defeated in 2010, well before evolving into an elite singles and doubles players and two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, CoCo Vandeweghe has come a long way since she was, simply, a promising teenager crestfallen by a loss to Italy in San Diego. Contributing with 8 total points and the maximum of 6 singles victories, an unprecedented feat since the World Group format was tweaked in 2005, Vandeweghe is now a Fed Cup legend, the perfect cherry on the top of her breakthrough WTA season.

With the Fed Cup handed out to the USA, the 2017 season for the women’s tour is officially over. Hence, attentions will now turn in full for the men, whose ATP Finals started Sunday in London right after the end of its new-fangled appetizer, the Next Generation ATP Finals.

Held in Milan for the first time, this season-ending event for the best singles players that are age 21 and under stood out particularly for the trial of a series of innovative rule changes tested for the first time in a competitive environment. The most interesting solutions included shorter sets (first to four games in each set with tie break at 3-All), no lets, no line judges  – with all calls made by Hawk-eye –  and possibility of on-court coaching and spectator movement during the match, nonetheless it’s still to be seen whether it can really increase the appeal of the game amongst sports fans.

As for the tennis, the tournament was won by Hyeon Chung, the first player from South Korea to lift an ATP Tour trophy since 2003. Victorious in all three group matches, the 21-year-old survived a tough, five set semi-final against Daniil Medvedev, and then defeated another Russian, World No. 35 Andrey Rublev, by 3-4(5) 4-3(2) 4-2 4-2 in the Final contested at the Fiera Milano.

Alpine skiing: Joy for Petra Vlhová and Felix Neureuther in Levi

Situated deep into the Arctic Circle (latitude 67.8°N), the weather in Levi is too chilling in winter for even the staunchest members of the white circus, making it impossible to hold a sporting event in Finland’s largest ski resort later in the season. Therefore, Lapland always kicks off the World Cup proceedings in respect to the most technical of the alpine disciplines, and the brightest slalom racers have gotten used to thriving from the get-go.

In 2016, ski stars Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin triumphed in Levi in the dawn of their winning campaigns, but they would strike out this time. We won’t know for a few months if this is a sign of things to come, but the road to retain their titles is certainly full of dangers and prospective rivals came out guns blazing for the first clash.

The World Cup venue in Levi in Finnish Lapland (Fis-Ski.com)

Shiffrin, the reigning slalom World, Olympic and World Cup Champion, once again showcased her unmatched mastery of the short skies in Levi, breezing to take the lead after the first run on Saturday, yet a sensational second leg by Slovak Petra Vlhová denied her intents of a third career victory in Finland. Racing off the blocks with a 0.21 second-disadvantage, the 22-year-old clocked 54.11s in the second turn for a combined 1:49.98 aggregated time, which Mikaela Shiffrin would miss by a tenth of a second. In Levi, the top duo was on a class of their own, with the third place finisher, Swiss Wendy Holdener, blowing past Frida Hansdotter to claim bronze some 1.25 seconds off the winners pace, nevertheless setting up a podium with the same three ladies of 2016 but in a different configuration.

The up-and-coming Vlhová, third twelve months ago, collected her third career win to push her rivals down a peg, and as consequence ascended to second in the overall classification, 10 pts behind Shiffrin, which is nice and all, but lags in comparison to the honour of naming a reindeer for the first time, the singular dividend granted to World Cup winners in Levi.

Levi Slalom winner Petra Vlhová makes new friends after collecting her prize (SITA/AP)

An amazed Vlhová wouldn’t disclose her choice in the immediate moments after the race, however the men’s victor had no such qualms. Veteran Felix Neureuther recently fathered a girl, and young Matilda will someday meet her namesake since the German skier was offered an unexpected gift in Levi.

Trailing British Dave Ryding after the first run by 0.14 seconds, Neureuther went fast in the second leg but not as much as the 30-year-old, whose advantage grew to more than half a second by the middle of the course. On a harmless left turn, though, Ryding would stumble a bit and miss the next gate, handing out to Neureuther a 13th career victory and the first since February 2016.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, the discipline’s 2015-16 crystal globe winner, took runner-up honours on the day while Swedish veteran Mattias Hargin posted the second best time of the second leg to grab an eight career podium and edge Swiss duo Luca Aerni and Daniel Yule, who tied for fourth, just 0.09 seconds away from a maiden podium for either man. As for the six-time overall World Cup Champion Marcel Hirscher, making a surprising appearance less than three months after breaking the left ankle in training, he was fourth at the mid-point of the event before surrendering to lack of form, concluding in 17th.

German Felix Neureuther (C) was flanked on the podium in Levi by Henrik Kristoffersen (R) and Mattias Hargin (L) (Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS )

The FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup returns in two weeks in North American soil. On the 25th-26th, the men will be in Lake Louise (Canada) for the inaugural downhill and Super-G events of the year, while the women tackle two technical events (GS, slalom) south of the border in Killington, Vermont.

Football: Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Croatia and Switzerland punch their tickets to Russia

The final international break of 2017 is also the ultimate opportunity to clinch a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, making these days a whirlwind for the national teams still in contention. From the nine open spots, five have already been claimed and the rest will be awarded until Wednesday night, so let’s take a look at the latest from World Cup qualifying.

CAF

Nigeria and Egypt, already qualified since October, met their travel companions on the weekend as the African qualifiers reached their climax.

In Group A, Tunisia knew in advance that a point was enough regardless of RD Congo’s result against Guinea, and Les Aigles de Carthage fulfilled their duties, securing a nervous goalless draw at home against neighbours Libya to return to the world stage 12 years after the last appearance.

Fellow North African side Morocco is also heading to Russia after locking down Group C with a famous victory in Abidjan. Still to concede a goal entering the last game, the Lions of the Atlas stunned the Ivory Coast in the first half when Nabil Dirar and defender Medhi Benatia scored on a five-minute blitz, and then milked the clock to guarantee a result that served their intents. Morocco will make its first World Cup appearance since France 1998, while the Ivorians miss out after three consecutive tournaments.

Filling out CAF’s five team representation, Senegal will return to the World Cup after their only previous appearance ended in the quarter-finals in 2002. Back in South Africa to play a rematch of the encounter that had been annulled by allegations of match fixing, Senegal proved stronger than the Bafana Bafana this time and took the vital three points courtesy of an own goal and a marker from striker Diafra Sakho. With the victory, they amassed 11 pts, five more than Cape Verde and Burkina Faso with a round to go.

UEFA

Four playoff series were in order to complete UEFA’s 14-team contingent, and half are already consummated.

Northern Ireland – Switzerland, 0-1 on aggregate

On what was probably Northern Ireland’s most important match in 30 years, the hosts played second fiddle to a disciplined Switzerland team that dominated the ball in Belfast and deserved more than a victory tainted by a ludicrous refereeing mistake. Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka wasted good opportunities, but the visitors would eventually get their breakthrough in the 58th minute, the Romanian Ovidiu Hategan somehow detecting a deliberate handball from midfielder Corry Evans after a shot from Shaqiri, and left back Ricardo Rodriguez coolly converting the penalty on the game winner.

Absent from the World Cup since 1986, Northern Ireland lacked the artifice to threaten the Swiss goal and they went into the second leg, in Basel, with the daunting task of rescuing the tie away from home. A gutsy effort in the water-drenched pitch of the St. Jakob-Park kept Michael O’Neill’s men in the fray until the final moments, but when Rodriguez cleared a ball on the goal line in injury time, their dream was over. Switzerland will be in Russia for a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance.

Croatia – Greece, 4-1 on aggregate

Deprived of defensemen Vasilis Torosidis and Kostas Manolas, Greece wilted under the pressure of a talented Croatian team to all but seal their fate after the first leg in Zagreb (4-1).

The early mistake by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis allowed Luka Modric to open the score from the penalty spot, shortly after Nikola Kalinic augmented the advantage for the hosts, and not even Sokratis Papastathopoulos header to pull one back inspired the 2004 European Champions to a rally. Their slim hopes were engulfed by the strikes of Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric, putting the tie squarely in Croatia’s corner, and with a comfortable three-goal advantage, Zlatko Dalic’s squad entered the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis at ease. Croatia easily managed the game in Athens, held the 0-0 and booked a trip to Russia, barely bothered by an insipid Greece that couldn’t direct a shot on goal, at home, for 87 minutes.

Since their first World Cup qualification as an independent nation (France 1998), Croatia only missed out in 2010.

Sweden – Italy, 1-0 (2nd leg on Monday)

The only former World Champion yet to book a place in Russia, Italy will have to improve dramatically from their performance in Stockholm to avoid a first absence from the World Cup final tournament since 1958.

At the Friends Arena last Friday, the Azzurri were outplayed by a plucky Swedish side aspiring to end a 12-year World Cup drought, and Jakob Johansson’s drive, deflected on the way to goal by Daniele de Rossi, was simply the materialization of it. Without the suspended Marco Verrati, Italy will have to turn around the tie at the San Siro on Monday, or Gianluigi Buffon’s 175th international cap may well be his last.

 

Denmark – Republic of Ireland, 0-0 (2nd leg on Tuesday)

The visitors from the Republic of Ireland flew to Copenhagen determined to keep the deadlock for as long as possible, and they completed their mission with success, dragging Denmark to a dreadful game of football.

Neither team looked particularly capable of engineering a goal throughout the 90 minutes at the Parken, but they’ll need to do it in Dublin, on Tuesday, if they want to avoid taking their chances on a penalty shootout. Were they to succeed and go through, Denmark would return to the World Cup after last showing up in South Africa, while Ireland’s last appearance dates back to 2002.

Inter Confederation playoffs

Honduras 0-0 Australia. New Zealand 0-0 Peru. Four teams, two matches, 0 goals.

Fans in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Wellington, New Zealand, left the stadiums frustrated by the lack of offensive entrepreneurship as their teams’ chances of going to Russia took a dip. Conversely, a home win is all that separates Australia and Peru from the objective, but you shouldn’t be surprised if things go down to the wire in the return legs to come.

Australia and Honduras drew 0-0 in the first leg of their 2018 World Cup playoff (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Sidney will stop to discover whether the Socceroos will qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup or Honduras will make it three in a row and, a few hours later, the spotlight will shift to Lima, where the 32nd and last spot will be snatched, either by the hosts, who haven’t qualified since 1982, or the visiting Kiwis, last seen dawdling in South Africa seven years ago.

Moment of the weekend

Dave Ryding was a man on his way to history until disaster knocked him down with the same weight of a glacial blow from freezing Artic wind.

On his second slalom run in the slope of Levi (Finland), with the finish line in sight, a small skid off a turn was all it took to wreck Ryding’s perfect exhibition. The theatrical nature of slalom racing was in full display as he tumbled, and Great Britain’s wait for a maiden victory on the Alpine skiing World Cup continues.

 

Weekend Roundup (November, 5th): Sock’ed in and the Final absolutely no one saw coming

Positioned on the calendar as the last regular ATP tournament of the year, the Paris Masters 1000 is premium territory for surprises and breakout runs, blending in-form journeyman making a late surge for crucial points ahead of the new season, everyday competitors fighting the effects of the long season, top-level guys chasing a position in the year-end Championships and stars managing their energies in preparation for the ATP Tour Finals.

Five years ago, this cocktail resulted in a Cinderella run by a qualifier, the unknown Jerzy Janowicz, and 2017, the year of “Stranger things”  in tennis, was probably predestined for a rehash. Like the Pole Janowicz, Serbian Filip Krajinović had flown under the radar of most tennis fans until this week, however he did enough to warrant consideration, amassing five titles and 47 match victories on the ATP Challenger Tour throughout 2017, and then found a way to put it all together in the City of Light.

With one match victory recorded previously at the ATP Masters 1000 level, the 25-year-old waltzed past the qualifying in France and then brushed aside 10th seed Sam Querrey and 9th seed John Isner on his way to the Final, Rafa Nadal’s withdrawal before their quarter-final matchup simply a blip on the road.

Filip Krajinović reacts during his semi-final encounter against John Isner in Paris

By sake of our comparison, where Janowicz had a hammer of a service, Krajinović has a big two-handed backhand, and both have in common a massive jump towards a career-high ranking after their magical run – the Serbian from 77 to No. 33 in the World – and eventual defeat to a more experienced, yet first-time Masters 1000 winner. In 2012, Spanish veteran David Ferrer took the trophy, the most important of his career, this time American Jack Sock avenged his compatriots to claim the biggest honour of his (singles) career after three hard-fought sets (5–7, 6–4, 6–1) and 118 minutes.

While this edition will be remembered as the tournament of Krajinović, particularly if he fails to build on it like Janowicz, in the grand scheme of things Jack Sock’s triumph looms way larger,  delivering a sensational final twist on the ATP Race to London. Entering the week, 10 men were vying for the last two spots available in the ATP Tour Finals’ lineup, and after Belgian David Goffin secured one despite losing in round three, the race went down to the wire.

For much of the tournament, Juan Martin Del Potro looked poised to confiscate the place of Pablo Carreño Busta (eliminated in round two), yet the Argentine succumbed to Isner in the quarter-finals, and the American’s subsequent loss to Krajinović swung the door wide open for Sock, the man fiddling with the lowest odds at the beginning of the tournament.

American Jack Sock returns a ball during the Final of the Rolex Paris Masters on Sunday (AFP Photo/CHRISTOPHE SIMON)

The World No. 22 needed everything to go his way, from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s withdrawals, to the successive failures of his rivals and other major names in the draw – none of the top 8 seeds made it to a Masters’ last four for the first time in sixteen years –  and he seized the opportunity when the improbable happened to conquer his third title of 2017. A 25-year-old from Nebraska, Sock is also the first American to lift a singles trophy at the Masters 1000 level since Andy Roddick in 2010 (Miami), and he will gallop into the top 10 for the first time, holding the ninth spot ahead of the ATP Finals.

With Paris in the books, the men’s tennis season will run for three more weeks, with the maiden Next Generation ATP Finals, featuring the best under-21 players in the ATP Tour, starting on November 7th and being followed by the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup Final.

Conversely, on the women’s ranks, only the 2017 Fed Cup is still to be awarded after the WTA Elite Trophy concluded Sunday in Zhuhai, China.  The year-end tournament, contested by the top eleven players that didn’t qualify for the 2017 WTA Finals (plus wild card Shuai Peng) was captured by German Julia Görges, who swiftly moved from a six-year trophy drought to two consecutive tournament victories in the final weeks of 2017.

After defeating 1st seed Kristina Mladenovic and Slovakia’s Magdaléna Rybáriková in the round robin phase, the 29-year-old proceeded to vanquish Latvian Anastasija Sevastova (6-2, 6-3) in the semi-finals and American CoCo Vandeweghe (7-5, 6-1) in the Final to lift the most significant trophy of her career without dropping a set. Consequently, Görges ends the year on a nine-match winning streak and as the World No. 14, her best ever ranking.

Football: Man United capitulates to Chelsea to extend Man City’s gap at the top

Even if he claims otherwise, José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge as an opponent will always be a special occasion for the man and Chelsea fans. Unfortunately for the Portuguese manager, it is also becoming significant for reasons that extend beyond the emotional realm, since for the fourth time in the same number of visits with Manchester United, he left empty-handed. An Alvaro Morata header was all it took for the Blues to overcome the Red Devils (1-0), and they moved to within one point of their adversary and rivals Tottenham in the standings.

With an injury-depleted lineup, the Spurs managed to battle past a feisty (and recovering) Crystal Palace side at Wembley – a long-range shot from Heung-min Son the difference on the day – and remain in the fray, yet another round came and went without a rebuff to the notion that this is Manchester City’s league to lose. On the other blockbuster matchup of round 11, the Citizens amassed a ninth consecutive victory by defeating Arsenal (3-1) at the Etihad to extend their lead to 8 points, with Arsène Wenger’s team threatening at times but never looking particularly close to snatching the draw.

With the loss, the Londoners dropped to sixth, their 19 pts levelled with the surprising Burnley, winners at Southampton (0-1), and Liverpool, who cruised past West Ham (1-4) to drop the hammer on Slaven Bilic’s coaching tenure. With two wins on the year, West Ham fell into the relegation zone, from which Everton exited after a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Watford (3-2).

Ligue 1

Goals, goals and more goals. A full boatload of them in round 12 for France’s top four, who combined for a 21-0 record this week.

Five tallies for leaders Paris St. Germain in Angers, Neymar’s absence a mere footnote when you have Kylian Mbappé (2) and Edison Cavani (2). Six for AS Monaco at the principality, with Argentine striker Guido Carrillo filling in for Radamel Falcao and young Adama Traoré netting a brace against Guingamp. Five for Olympique Marseille in the reception to Caen, two of them courtesy of French international Florian Thauvin. And, finally, five for Olympique Lyon on a one-sided Derby Rhône-Alpes, with Nabil Fékir stirring the pot in Saint Etiénne’s face after center-back Léo Lacroix was ejected early on the second half with the score sitting at a respectable 0-2.

As a result of the goal scoring festival, PSG keeps the four-point advantage over Monaco, the seven points above Lyon’s total, and the eight over Marseille, with Nantes hanging in fifth place after a 2-1 victory over Toulouse. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, the afflicted Lille returned to the winning column for the first time since round 1, the three points obtained in the venue of last-place Metz (0-3) not enough to leave the relegation zone, but providing some temporary relief nonetheless.

La Liga

Far from authoring their best performance of the year, frontrunners FC Barcelona collected a tenth victory in 11 games after dispatching Sevilla at the Camp Nou (2-1) on Saturday. Much-maligned forward Paco Alcácer notched both tallies on Leo Messi’s 600th game for the Blaugrana, and their four-point advantage stays intact for another week since second-place Valencia keeps hoarding the goals and the points.

This week, Los Che gifted their fans with three more of each against Leganés, and they’re still unbeaten on the season and navigating clear of both Madrid outfits, which healed their European scars with triumphs one week before meeting at the Wanda Metropolitano. While Champions Real Madrid bounced back from two consecutive defeats with a comfortable 3-0 win over Las Palmas, Atlético’s scoring woes continued in Galicia. a last-minute free kick from Ghanian midfielder Thomas Partey eventually secured the three-points against Deportivo La Coruña, but Diego Simeone’s men will need to step up their level to hold back a team like Villarreal, fifth with 20 points after a 2-0 victory over bottom-feeders Málaga.

Serie A

A fascinating Serie A season got even more compelling following a testy round 12 for the pacemakers at the top. Defeated mid-week for the third time in four Champions League matches, leaders Napoli faltered on the return to domestic action as they couldn’t buy a goal in Verona against Chievo. The 0-0 marked the first time this season the Napolitans were blanked, and they only kept sole possession of the top perch because Inter Milan couldn’t do better at the San Siro, tied down (1-1) by a talented Torino side.

Napoli and Inter have 32 and 30 pts, respectively, and sandwiched in between is now Juventus, who had to suffer far more than expected to overcome last-place Benevento. Still pointless after 11 matches, the visitors jumped ahead on a free kick by captain Amato Ciciretti, but second-half tallies by Gonzalo Higuaín and Juan Cuadrado saved the defending Champions from an embarrassing result. Since Lazio’s reception to Udinese was postponed due to the inclement rain that fustigated Rome this weekend, Juventus were actually the main beneficiaries of the round’s results in conjunction with AS Roma, who came out on top of an intense, goal-filled encounter in Florence (2-4).

Argentine Gonzalo Higuaín scored the tying goal for Juventus against Benevento on Sunday (EPA)

In serious need of a triumph to ease the pressure on coach Vincenzo Montella, AC Milan fared well at Sassuolo (0-2) to reach 19 pts, while Sampdoria prevailed (0-2) in the always volatile Derby della Lanterna, beating rivals Genoa, who are stuck at six points and under the red line.

Bundesliga

On the eve of the previous international break, at the end of September, Borussia Dortmund was running high in the Bundesliga, holding a five point lead at the top of the table. One month and four games later, Peter Bosz’s side has picked up just one more point and they’re six behind Bayern Munich after the surging Bavarians produced a ruthless display of strength in Der Klassiker (1-3). Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba scored Saturday at the Signal Iduna Arena, with Marc Bartra discounting for the hosts in the final moments, and the road for an unprecedented sixth consecutive title cleared out.

With Dortmund seemingly in shambles, at this time the closest opposition to Bayern are last-year’s runners up RB Leipzig, who came from behind to beat Hannover 96 by 2-1 with goals from forwards Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner. Moreover, levelling rivals Dortmund at 20 pts, Schalke 04 rose to fourth after claiming the three points in Freiburg (0-1), while Hoffenheim’s 3-0 victory at Köln vaulted them to fifth, and prolonged the hosts’ dreadful campaign. After the fifth place of 2016-17, FC Köln is yet to win this season and they’re stranded at two points after 11 rounds.

Another loss for FC Köln on the Bundesliga this season, the ninth in 11 matches (Foto: Bongarts)

Winter sports season gets under way in Sölden

Leafs are falling, temperatures are plunging, and the winter sports season is around the corner. As I alluded to in the first Weekend Roundup, in a year that will peak with the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games next February, these disciplines warrant increased screen time, consequently we’ll closely monitor them here over the next few months.

Since I can’t do them all, we’ll focus on three of the centrepieces of every Winter Olympiad: biathlon, ski jumping and alpine skiing. The World Cup circuit for the first two sports will begin later this month, but the alpine skiing 2017-18 World Cup season has already kicked off, and since we missed the boat last weekend, let’s take the opportunity to quickly recap the first race(s) of the year, the beginning of a trek spanning two continents, two dozens of venues and almost 80 different events (men + women) up to the season ending in Åre, Sweden, by mid-March of 2018.

As customary, the first stop of the Alpine Skiing World Cup was Sölden, in the Austrian Tyrol region, and on Saturday, October 28th, the ladies had the honour of raising the curtain on the 2017-18 season with the inaugural giant slalom race, won by German Viktoria Rebensburg.

German skier Viktoria Rebensburg celebrated victory in Sölden on the first race of the 2017-18 Alpine skiing World Cup (AFP Photo/Johann GRODER))

The 2010 GS Olympic Champion, who struggled in 2016/17 with back problems and a tibial fracture, overcame a 0.33 seconds deficit after the first run to snatch a second triumph in the season opener, seven years after collecting her maiden World Cup victory in the same venue. Expected to be on the hunt for a third GS crystal globe (2011, 2012), the 28-year-old’s campaign is off to a great start after she kept at bay the incumbent Tessa Worley, who placed in second to claim a first ever podium in Sölden.

The French skier, only sixth after the first run, was the fastest competitor in the second leg, and managed to leapfrog Italian veteran Manuela Mölgg, who had to settle for third place after a blistering inaugural descent in 55.57 seconds. As for last season’s overall World Cup Champion, American Mikaela Shiffrin, she clocked 55.69 in the first leg, right behind Molgg, but trailed a bit in the decisive segment to dip to fifth on a bright, autumnal day on the Rettenbach Glacier.

Lamentably, the conditions would change dramatically over the next few hours, with powerful wind gusts forcing the cancellation of the men’s event scheduled for the following day. A setback to the male competitors, especially the GS specialists whose cherished opportunity was wiped out from the calendar (opening events can’t be rescheduled), yet the tour will move on. As soon as next weekend (12th November), the Finnish ski resort of Levi hosts the first slalom races of the new term.

Moment of the weekend

With all due respect to Marco Asensio’s thunderbolt in Real Madrid’s triumph over Las Palmas, Nabil Fékir’s first goal on Sunday gets the nod for three reasons: the individual effort to back off the defence and the smooth finish, the impact of the strike on the eventual outcome, putting Lyon firmly in the driver’s seat on the derby at Saint Etiénne, and its role as the first domino for what would happen on the second half.

 

 

Weekend roundup (October, 22nd): Inter Milan slows down Napoli’s scintillating start

It’s been a while since the Serie A inhabited the imagination of football fans around the world, the combination of boundless pockets of money, elite skill and tactical majesty vaulting the Italian League to rarefied air amongst its counterparts throughout the 90s and early 2000’s. Over the last few seasons, Juventus utter dominance has obscured the overall rejuvenation of the Calcio, yet Maurizio Sarri’s exceptional job at SSC Napoli is finally getting bandied across the continent, the Partenopei enjoying deserved recognition for their bustling footballing machine on the wheels of a perfect league start with eight wins in eight matches.

Consequently, it came as no surprise that after a massive mid-week clash with Manchester City, Napoli’s reception to second-place Inter Milan was, arguably, the match of the weekend in European football, a brimming San Paolo expecting another step forward on the long road towards a Championship they’ve craved for 27 years. However, if this Napoli team is perfectly qualified to trade punch for punch with the continent’s elite, it isn’t afforded the same roster depth as others and that may well be their demise as the season rolls on.

Against Inter, Sarri elected nine of the players that started against City last Tuesday, recalling midfielders Alan and Jorginho to fill in for Amadou Diawara and Piotr Zieliński, and despite preserving the foundations of their exquisite passing game and trademarked accelerations, the fatigued hosts failed to bust the rigid block set up by Luciano Spalletti’s side, also undefeated so far on the season.

Buoyed by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, namely on a miraculous save on José Callejón’s point-blank shot in the 24th minute, and the last minute stop on Dries Mertens’ flick, the visitors actually could have left victorious had Mario Vecino’s inspired run and chip not been cleared at the goal line by center back Raúl Albiol.

Nevertheless, in the end, what will go down is the 0-0, Napoli’s unblemished record coming to an end, and the Serie A table cluttering with Napoli (25 pts) and Inter (23) watching as Juventus and Lazio (both 22) creep up on them.

Overshadowed and looking bewildered in occasion, this hasn’t been Juventus’ best start, yet Il Bianconeri sent a clear message this week, whipping Udinese (2-6) away with a hat-trick from German international Sami Khedira. Peek through the numbers and you’ll notice Juventus was, above all, extremely clinical, notching five times in five shots on goal and profiting from an own-goal, however Massimiliano Allegri’s squad will take it at this time. Meanwhile, in Rome, Lazio banked a fourth consecutive triumph, clocking Cagliari (3-0) as the inevitable Ciro Immobile upped his account to 13 goals with another brace.

Moreover, fifth place AS Roma won at Torino (0-1), a 69th minute free kick by left back Aleksandar Kolarov proving decisive to reach 18 pts with a game in hand, precisely against Sampdoria, sixth with 17 after routing Crotone on the strength of five unanswered goals at the Luigi Ferraris. As for AC Milan, the crisis is an evidence after a 0-0 home draw with Genoa in a game where prized summer acquisition Leonardo Bonucci was sent off in the 25th minute. I Rossoneri dropped to the second half of the table, putting Vincenzo Montella’s job in serious jeopardy.

La Liga

In the wake of another round of European matches, all top-four La Liga clubs won their encounters but only one managed to impress in the process. Welcoming Sevilla at the Mestalla Stadium, Valencia dismantled the opposition with four straight goals to secure second place, notch a fifth consecutive triumph and keep the four-point gap on leaders Barcelona (25 points), who got help from a controversial goal in the early moments of their 2-0 triumph over Malaga at the Camp Nou.

After Barcelona and Valencia fulfilled their duties on Saturday, the two Madrid outfits responded positively to their mid-week setbacks the next day. Real Madrid cruised to a no-frills 3-0 victory over Eibar, while Atletico negotiated the complicated visit to the Balaídos with a narrow 1-0 triumph over Celta de Vigo courtesy of Kevin Gameiro’s opportunistic finish. The capital rivals are separated by a point in the standings, and are now followed by the surprising Leganés, who amassed their fifth success in nine rounds after beating Athletic Bilbao (1-0). With their second consecutive league defeat, Sevilla dipped to sixth, their 16 points now equalled by Real Betis (2-0 over Alavés) and Villarreal (4-0 to Las Palmas).

Bundesliga

In a span of two weeks, Borussia Dortmund’s five point advantage vanished as their European hiccups spilled into Bundesliga action. Following the home defeat against Leipzig, the black and yellow allowed hosts Eintracht Frankfurt to roar back from two goals down in their round 9 contest, conceding a draw which restored Bayern Munich to their customary placing at the top of the table.

Traveling North to Hamburg, the Bavarians looked far from brilliant, however Corentin Tolisso’s second half marker expressed on the score (0-1) the numerical advantage the visitors benefitted from after midfielder Gideon Jung was dismissed in 39th minute.

French midfielder Corentin Tolisso netted the game-winner for Bayern Munich in Hamburg (AP)

Dortmund and Bayern have amassed 20 points from 9 games, and RB Leipzig comes right behind, totalling 19 after Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer scored the lone goal against Stuttgart. In round 10, Leipzig visits Munich in a match that can further muddle things at the top.

Schalke 04, victorious (2-0) against Mainz on Friday, is fourth with 16 points after catching an Hoffenheim team that once again gave away two points (1-1 at Wolfsburg) in the dying moments of their encounter, while Bayer Leverkusen, absent from Europe this season, approached the top five after a devastating second half performance at Borussia Moenchengladbach. Down 1-0 at half time, they pumped five past Swiss goalie Yann Sommer in a 33-minute stretch to sink Die Fohlen, and now get a great opportunity to keep ascending with a reception to rivals – and last place – FC Köln (0-0 vs Werder Bremen) next week.

Ligue 1

In spite of the current resource disparity, every clash between fierce rivals Marseille and Paris Saint Germain is slapped with the “appointment viewing” tag and the round 10 encounter at the Velódrome was no exception. Le Classique was tense and intense, controversial and vicious inside and outside the pitch, marked by the ejection of debutant Neymar, and capped by a spectacular Edinson Cavani free kick in injury time that shattered Marseille’s heart and salvaged a point for PSG.

With the 2-2 draw, the Parisians conserve their lead at the top of Ligue 1, holding a 4-point advantage over Monaco, who returned to the winning column after a 4–game dry spell domestically and abroad. Forwards Keita Baldé and Radamel Falcao were on the mark against Caen, and Les Monégasques closest competition is now the surging Nantes, who brushed aside Guingamp (2-1).

In Troyes, a Memphis Depay hat-trick powered Olympique Lyon to a bloated 0-5 away victory and up a few rungs on the standings, surpassing Marseille, Saint Etiénne, surprised at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard by Montpellier (0-1), and Bordeaux, who fell at Amiens (1-0). Down at the bottom, another defeat, this time in Rennes, saw 2010-11 Ligue1 Champions Lille drop into the relegation zone.

English Premier League

One week after being denounced for the conservative game plan in Liverpool, Manchester United bombed spectacularly in the visit to newly promoted Huddersfield Town (2-1), their maiden loss of the campaign speeded up by defensive miscues and remarkable passivity.  José Mourinho’s men are now five points adrift of Manchester City, who glided towards three more points in the reception to Burnley (3-0), and levelled with a Tottenham team getting hot.

Several Huddersfield Town players celebrate with fans after their famous triumph over Manchester United on Saturday (Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes)

In front of a Premier League record crowd (80,827) at Wembley, the Spurs dispatched Liverpool by a conclusive 4-1, with Harry Kane bagging two more goals on their fourth consecutive league win to condemn the visitors to a pedestrian ninth place after nine rounds. Still, the Reds can take some solace on the fact that their city rivals, Everton, are considerably worst, submerged below the red line after another defeat at home to Arsenal, who took full advantage of Idrissa Gueye’s dismissal in the 68th minute to inflate the score.

The hefty 2-5 defeat cost Ronald Koeman’s job, while another coach under intense scrutiny, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, found some relief on the Blues late rally against Watford. The visitors stunned Stamford Bridge when they tallied twice around half time in reply to Pedro Rodríguez fantastic opener, yet César Azpilicueta and substitute Michy Batshuayi (x2) found the net in the last twenty minutes to secure a 4-2 victory, which propelled Chelsea past the opponent in the standings and maintained the defending Champions nine points behind Man City.

Cycling: Fernando Gavíria feasts in China

We’ve arrived at the end of the road for the 2017 World Tour season, with the first edition of the Gree-Tour of Guangxi taking place in the faraway lands of South China since last Thursday. A six-day race, the event will only finish on Tuesday, but so far it’s been dominated by the two Belgium teams in the peloton.

With the first three stages marked as flat, Colombian Fernando Gavíria looked the man to beat and the Quick-Step Floors sprinter confirmed his favouritism, compiling wins No. 11, 12 and 13 of his 2017 season in imperious fashion. The likes of Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb), Magnus Cort Nielsen (ORICA-Scott) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) were left in the dust by Gavíria, and the scenery then changed for stage 4, which concluded with the ascension to the Mashan Nongla Scenic Spot.

Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens edged Bauke Molema (Trek Segafredo) at the finish line to claim victory on the Queen stage, and he now leads the Dutch rider in the general classification by four seconds, with Irish Nicholas Roche (BMC) standing nine seconds behind. Since the last two days will tackle the rugged terrain around Guilin, including 6 categorized climbs, it’s early to appoint Wellens as the future winner, but he should like his chances of picking up a fourth WT overall triumph after the Eneco Tour in 2014 and 2015, and Tour of Poland in 2016.

Belgian rider Tim Wellens celebrates his win in stage 4 of the Tour of Guangxi (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Tennis: Juan Martín Del Potro defends title in Stockholm to enter ATP Finals fray

The ATP Tour year-end Championships are less than a month away and, at this time, just four names have booked their trip to London: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Hence, with four spots still up for grabs, this week of action was absolutely pivotal for many of the contenders, who could choose between the final three ATP 250 tournaments (Moscow, Antwerp and Stockholm) of 2017. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the idle Marin Čilić inched closer to qualification, yet David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta, who hold the last two places, had performances that made them no favours.

Playing at home and with the recent conquests in Shenzhen and Tokyo still fresh, Goffin fell to qualifier Stefanos Tsitsipas in the QF of the European Open to complicate his situation and boost the chances of fellow hopefuls Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Diego Schwartzman. The French and Argentine eventually jostled in Antwerp’s Final, with Tsonga keeping his perfect 2017 record in tournament-deciding matches with a 6-3, 7-5 victory. After Rotterdam, Marseille and Lyon, this was a career-best fourth title of the year for the powerful 32-year-old, who’s looking for a fourth ATP Tour Finals appearance, whereas the diminutive Schwartzman lost the Final in Antwerp to a French player (Richard Gasquet) for a second consecutive year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest player in the European Open, contested in Antwerp last week (ATP Tour)

Meanwhile, in Moscow, where he defended the 2016 title, Spaniard Carreño Busta, battling a finger injury, was knocked off in the second round by Russian Daniil Medvedev. That meant the Kremlin Cup ended up on the hands of Damir Džumhur, who beat unseeded Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in three sets (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) to prove his predilection for Russia. Just one month ago, the Bosnian had captured his first ATP Tour title in Saint Petersburg.

Moreover, in Stockholm, as a result of the best draw contested this week – all eight seeds reached the QF – the Swedish crowd was rewarded with a sumptuous Final between World No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov and fourth seed Juan Martin Del Potro, two former winners of the event.

Making good use of a relentless delivery, the lanky Argentine dominated the match to amass a straight sets victory (6-4, 6-2) that secured a 20th career title and his first of the 2017 season. It was also the second consecutive triumph in the Swedish capital for Del Potro, who moved to 14th in the Race to London (or 11th, discounting the injured Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka), just 470 points behind Carreño Busta, while Dimitrov is fifth, having failed to lock his place but well on his way to do so over the next two weeks.

On the women’s side, with the WTA Finals kicking off in Singapore yesterday, the weekend marked the conclusion of the regular WTA Tour calendar and the final smiles were reserved for two German players.

In the WTA Premier of Moscow, missing defending Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and with Maria Sharapova flopping on her first appearance since 2007, it would emerge 28-year-old Julia Görges to put an end to a personal six-year drought without a WTA Tour title.

Enjoying a bounce back season after several years toiling on the second half of the Top 100, the former World No.15 (2012) had already reached three finals in 2017 (Mallorca, Bucharest, Washington D.C.) but could only capture her third career title on Saturday by crushing (6-1, 6-2) 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina. With the victory, Görges ascends to the top 20, breaking into the WTA Elite Trophy field at the last minute, and leapfrogging Angelique Kerber as the leading German player on the rankings.

Julia Görges (L) and Daria Kasatkina (R) hold their trophies from the Kremlin Cup (Pavel Golovkin, AP )

A week of overwhelming feelings for Görges, but also for her compatriot Carina Witthöft, who conquered her first WTA Tour trophy at the Luxembourg Open. The 22-year-old bested Monica Puig, the Rio 2016 Olympic Champion, in two sets (6-3, 7-5) to close the season ranked just shy of the top 50 (No. 51), and with eyes set on further progression in 2018.

Moment of the weekend

Precision, power and transcendent speed on this magical run and sublime finish from Portuguese winger Gonçalo Guedes, one of the key figures in Valencia’s great start to La Liga in 2017-18. On a season loan from Paris Saint Germain, the 20-year-old’s belter was the inaugural goal of Los Che emphatic 4-0 victory over Sevilla, and he would add another marker plus an assist on a night to remember at the Mestalla.

Weekend Roundup (October, 15th): Roger Federer’s rampant 2017 season continues in Shanghai

More than Federer’s return to the top of his game at age 36, one of the sports stories of 2017 has been the meticulous, unanticipated turnaround we’ve been able to witness on year 13 of “Fedal”, the biggest rivalry in tennis history. Since that sensational fifth set in Melbourne, when Roger Federer came back from a break down to stun Rafael Nadal and collect the Australian Open, the dynamics of the pair’s meetings have shifted significantly, and after comprehensive straight set wins in Indian Wells and Miami, Shanghai hosted yet another magnificent display from the “Swiss Maestro” against his long-time foe.

Playing under a closed roof and in fast conditions that favour his wicked offensive game, Federer jumped on his rival from the onset in Shanghai, breaking serve in the first game of the match, and never looked back on his way to a commanding, 71-minute, 6-4, 6-3 victory. When the one-handed backhand is dissecting the court and the serve firing on all cylinders, the Swiss is virtually unbeatable in hard courts, and those two weapons were once again the main catalysts to a fifth straight victory over Nadal, who fought till the very end but never managed to dent his rival’s delivery, failing to muster a single break point all night and capturing just 17% of the points contested on Federer’s first serve.

The two tennis legends share a moment in Shanghai after another chapter of their rivalry (Reuters)

With the victory over the World No. 1, which guaranteed a 94th professional trophy – just 14 off Jimmy Connors’ Open era record – Federer is now 10-1 against top-ten players in 2017, the only setback coming in Toronto to youngster Alex Zverev in what was also his only loss in seven finals to date. Moreover, he further diminished his head-to-head deficit with Nadal to 15-23, shaving off the 31-year-old’s lead at the top of the ATP rankings to 1960 points.

Three tournaments are still left on the schedule for both men: the Swiss Indoors in Basel, the Paris Masters and the ATP Tour Finals in London, hence there’s an outside chance the lead changes hands to allow the Swiss a six year-end No.1, an incredible feat that would come eight years after the last. For that to happen, Rafa would have to stumble early somewhere along the way, which is unlikely, yet we’ve seen far stranger things in this tennis season…

In the WTA Tour, the biggest news of the weekend was the return of Maria Sharapova to the titles, more than two years after triumphing in Rome (May 2015), and just on the seventh tournament appearance since the end of her doping suspension. In Tianjin’s WTA International, the Russian star, ranked No. 85 in the World, brushed aside a fearless Aryna Sabalenka in two sets, 7-5, 7-6 (8), with the 19-year-old from Belarus handling her first WTA Tour Final with impressive poise.

Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Maria Sharapova (R) exhibit their trophies after the Final in Tianjin (Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a tournament which lost plenty of star power in one fell swoop with the withdrawals of Elina Svitolina (1st seed) and Caroline Wozniacki (defending Champion) coupled with defeats for Venus Williams (2) and Agnieszka Radwanska (4) in the same day, was rewarded with a gripping Final between two Russian-born players.  Rallying from a set down, the 26-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (6th seed) prevailed over Daria Gavrilova (7) by 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3) to claim the third title of the season (Monterey, Rabat) and 11th of her career.

Finally, in Linz, Austria, with no top 25 players in the draw after Jelena Ostapenko and defending champion Dominika Cibulkova dropped out, the Final was contested by the first and second favourites, a rarity in the wildly unpredictable female professional Tour. Entering the decider under the weight of an ugly 1-6 record in WTA Finals, Czech Barbora Strýcová was able to rise to the occasion this time, besting Slovak Magdaléna Rybáriková by 6-4, 6-1 to capture her first title since September 2011, when she lifted her maiden singles’ trophy in Québec City.

Football: Juventus startled as Napoli marches on

With the top-six sides in direct confrontation, round 8 of the Serie A promised fireworks and it delivered in spades, beginning with Juventus’ first loss in 41 home league games. The Vecchia Signora, resting the likes of Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanic ahead of an important Champions League clash, still managed to get in front when Douglas Costa scored in the 23th minute, yet the raging Ciro Immobile took over in the second half, tallying twice in seven minutes to power Lazio in front.

The in-form Ciro Immobile fired Lazio past Gianluigi Buffon’s Juventus

The burly striker passed Dybala in the goal scoring race, and Massimiliano Allegri was forced to send in his Argentinian joker, with the No.10 coming off the bench to hit the post and then waste a last minute penalty, the second consecutive match where his shot from the 11m mark was parried by the goalkeeper.

The final 1-2 outcome meant Lazio caught Juventus in the table, the two sides square at 19 pts, and now five back of Napoli, who preserved their perfect record with an impressive 1-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. It would belong to winger Lorenzo Insigne the role of expressing the Partenopei superiority over AS Roma on yet another show of strength by the well-drilled squad of Maurizio Sarri.

Finally, in a Milan Derby that elicited flashbacks of great battles of the past, Inter ruled in an emotional, back and forth thriller (3-2) decided by striker Mauro Icardi, who converted a penalty in injury time to complete a hat-trick. The Nerazurri collected their seventh win in 8 matches, and are in second place, just two pts behind Napoli, while the revamped AC Milan, despite all the good signs, are tenth, already 12 pts off the top.

Ligue 1

Even with Edinson Cavani safeguarded for the battles to come and a misfiring Kylian Mbappé, Paris St. Germain collected three points in Dijon (1-2) to extend their lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table. A late equalizer by Benjamin Jeannot put a scare on the visitors, yet right back Thomas Meunier emerged in additional time to complete his brace and help PSG capitalise on the stumble by the closest opposition.

Conceding in injury time for the second consecutive round, this time a perfect free kick by Olympique Lyon’s captain Nabil Fékir, defending Champions AS Monaco lost (3-2) for the second time in the league to let the leader out of sight. Now six points adrift, they need to start watching their back as the pack is approaching, with five teams positioned at arms-length.

One of them is Lyon, who rose to fifth, catching Bordeaux, who drew at home to Nantes (1-1), allowing the Canaries to secure an important point away to keep pace with Marseille, involved in the round’s best game in Strasbourg (3-3), and Saint Etiénne, who rallied from a goal down to beat Metz (3-1). Further back, reference to the persisting Lille crisis, with the Northerners still looking for a first triumph since the opener after a late penalty allowed Troyes to snatch a point (2-2) at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Bundesliga

In Jupp Heynckes’ first game back in charge, Bayern Munich thrashed SC Freiburg (5-0) at the Allianz Arena and the victory allowed the Bavarians to approach the top after leaders Borussia Dortmund lost for the first time.

In a tumultuous match between Champions League teams, RB Leipzig went 3-1 up in Dortmund, responding in style to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early tally, but two bookings in succession by midfielder Stefan Ilsanker levelled the number of men on the pitch just nine minutes after Sokratis had been sent showering. Borussia pressed to rescue some dignity, with Aubameyang cutting the deficit from the penalty spot however that was all she wrote, with the defeat shrinking Dortmund’s advantage at the top to just two points.

Forward Yussuf Poulsen scores RB Leipzig’s second goal in Dortmund. (Foto: Lars Baron|Bongarts|Getty Images)

Meanwhile, with the triumph, Leipzig managed to climb to third since Hoffenheim dropped two points at home, an 89th minute own goal by Kevin Vogt cooperating to let Augsburg leave Sinsheim with a 2-2 draw. Borussia Moenchengladbach and Schalke 04, who captured assertive victories at Werder Bremen (0-2) and Hertha Berlin (0-2), respectively, approached European territory, while FC Köln’s agony continues as their 7th loss in 8 games was settled by a 94th minute game-winner for Stuttgart.

La Liga

At the eight hurdle, FC Barcelona finally tripped to concede points for the first time on the 2017-18 campaign. Facing a difficult test at Atletico Madrid, the Catalans found themselves chasing following Saúl Ñíguez long-range shot 21 minutes in, and they couldn’t do more than draw level when Luis Suárez found the end of an excellent delivery by Sergi Roberto with 8 minutes to go.

The leaders have amassed 22 pts to date, retaining a six point advantage over Diego Simeone’s team, which got leapfrogged by city rivals Real Madrid this weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal of the campaign oddly arrived deep into October, but the Portuguese superstar at least saved it for when it mattered, notching in the 85th minute to overcome a pesky Getafe side (1-2).

Concurrently, Sevilla, who were second entering round 8, fell in Bilbao (1-0) to an Athletic team that was on a six-match winless streak, while Valencia’s trip to Andalusia turned into an exhilarating experience. The visitors scored four times until the 74th minute to get a firm handle on the match, yet Real Betis countered with three in a five minute spam to set up a furious finish where Valencia tallied two more to come out victorious by 6 goals to 3. With these three points, Los Che are now in second place, 4 pts behind Barcelona.

Premier League

The calendar of the Premier League is saturated with exceptional clashes year round, but none is quite like the most traditional match in English football, the North-West derby between Liverpool and Manchester United. For their 169th league encounter, Anfield Road hosted a colorless 0-0 that didn’t really help anyone, even if Liverpool can claim to have carried the better of the play for most of the afternoon only to be deterred by a sublime David de Gea.

With the result, the Reds of Jürgen Klopp picked up their 13th point in 8 games, seven less than Man United, who lost contact with their city rivals after they unsurprisingly pummelled Stoke City (7-2) at the Etihad Stadium. Although it wasn’t as easy for Man City as the score might indicate, the Citizens holding a three-goal advantage inside 27 minutes and the visitors scoring twice around halftime before the game truly got out of hand. Nevertheless, Pepe Guardiola’s side, boasting a staggering 29-4 goal record, are finally clear at the top and few would bet that anyone will reel them back.

Rolling five points behind City, Tottenham Hotspur edged Bournemouth (1-0) with a lone tally from Christian Eriksen securing their maiden Premier League triumph at Wembley, while Chelsea plunged down the table after a shocking defeat (2-1) at Selhurst Park to Crystal Palace. The last-place team was still looking for their first goals and points of the campaign, and César Azpilicueta’s own goal was the kick they needed to clinch a famous victory over a side whose lack of depth was exposed by the absences of N’Golo Kanté and Álvaro Morata.

Wilfried Zaha shoots past Thibaut Courtois to put Crystal Palace 2-1 up on Chelsea (Reuters)

The London Blues are now levelled in points with Liverpool, Burnley and Arsenal, who have yet to win away from home following another disappointing result at Watford, where the hosts earned a come from behind victory (2-1) that vaulted them to fourth.

Cycling: Diego Ulissi presides over the Tour of Turkey during Sam Bennett’s party

At the same time most of the world’s best lay on some paradisiacal holiday destination, the 2017 cycling season slowly trundles to the finish line under a small fraction of the attention destined to the major races in the rear-view.

The (Presidential) Cycling Tour of Turkey may have been elevated to the World Tour this season, yet you would be hardly pressed to believe it simply by looking at the peloton that departed last Tuesday. Comprising a total of 104 riders and 13 formations, including just four from the premier category (Astana, UAE Team Emirates, Trek-Segafredo, BORA-hansgrohe), it’s fair to say the change from late April to October did nothing to increase the profile of the event and, as a consequence, many shrugged the forgettable, uninspiring competition of the six-stage race, concluded in the bustling Istambul on Sunday.

Sam Bennett (BORA-Hansgrohe) celebrates his triumph in stage 5 of the Tour of Turkey (Bettini Photo)

Many but certainly not Sam Bennett, the 27-year-old sprinter from BORA-hansgrohe who did his best Peter Sagan impression to dominate for most of the week, taking four of the first five stages and later missing out on the finale after falling on a corner in the final meters. Opportunity for Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) – twice runner-up to Bennett – who took advantage to bag the stage victory on that last day, and for the race Champion, Italian Diego Ulissi, who snatched the general lead after sweeping the field on the uphill finish in Selçuk on day 4.

Moment of the weekend

The tremendous volley on the run by Dijon forward Benjamin Jeannot, which left goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola rooted to the ground and threatened to halt Paris St. Germain’s triumphant march in Ligue 1. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, it was worth no points in the standings, but that’s no reason we can’t celebrate it here.

Weekend Roundup (October, 8th): Simona Halep’s special day

In sports, just like in life, you’re seldom granted second chances to realize your ultimate dreams. A third or fourth opportunity to hop on the train headed to your divine destination? Forget about it.

Nonetheless, if Simona Halep should thank a whirlwind 2017 WTA Tour season for affording multiple occasions to stand a single triumph from “becoming” the best tennis player in the world, such an achievement can’t, in any way, be called fortuitous.

In fact, it is the deserved recognition for three years of top-notch tennis from the longest active member on the WTA Top-10, the reward for the regular appearances in the latter stages of tournaments this season (11 quarter-finals and 7 semi-finals in the last 13 events she contested), the deserved compensation for the hard work and difficult decisions undertaken to convert into one of the fittest players in the Tour and, above all, the triumph of resilience and determination to overcome successive setbacks as she edged ever closer to her lifelong goal.

The 26-year-old, who pursued the World No.1 incessantly through 2017, could feel it within touching distance in three previous instances this year only to languish when it went away. First, in Paris, when Jelena Ostapenko recovered from a set and a break down to snatch Roland Garros and crush the Romanian’s thoughts in double fashion. Later succumbing in three sets to Johanna Konta on the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, when all she needed to do was capture the second set tie break. Finally, in Cincinnati, when Halep was annihilated by Garbiñe Muguruza in the Final, opening a door the Spaniard walked into after the US Open.

Hopes dashed in heart-breaking fashion over and over again until last Saturday, at the Premier Mandatory of Beijing, the Romanian’s tortuous odyssey coming to its happy end, to a certain extent culminating her steady rise since a breakthrough 2013 season. Poetically, Halep faced the same Ostapenko that had delivered the first and most scathing blow, and she fought  through the nerves to expunge all the demons in a convincing 6-2, 6-4 triumph which showcased the assets that brought her here: consistency, superior speed and agility, the ability to turn defence into offense in a blink, the understated aggressiveness.

Reunited after the 2017 Roland Garros singles final, Jelena Ostapenko was the first to congratulate Simon Halep on her achievement (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it may have been just a semi-final of a late season tournament, but this match meant the World to Halep, the first Romanian to reach the pinnacle of the female tennis rankings, the 25th woman to hold the top position since 1975, and the third to do it for the first time this year, after Muguruza and Czech Karolína Plíšková. It was indeed her special day, even if that elusive Grand Slam title still looms large on the career arch she will follow from here on.

Somehow lost in the shuffle of Halep’s milestone was the reality that a Final still had to be played in Beijing the next day, and another woman also craved her share of the spotlight. Fresh of a title in Wuhan the previous weekend, Caroline Garcia scampered to the Chinese capital and proceeded to reel in victory after victory to reach a second consecutive Final, eventually toppling the impending No.1 in a tight decider (6-4, 7-6(3)) to lift her first Premier Mandatory title.

An upset that capped a stunning fortnight and improbable eleven-match winning streak for the soaring 23-year-old, vaulted into the Top-10 (No.9) for the first time, and now firmly enmeshed in the race to Singapore, where the WTA Finals will be contested later this month.

Caroline Garcia compiled an unprecendented Wuhan/Beijing double (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, as a new No.1 emerged on the women’s tour, the ATP’s top dog was strengthening his grip in same venue. The week may have started with a scare for Rafael Nadal, who fended off two match points from Lucas Pouille in round one of the ATP 500 of Beijing, but he quickly got acclimated to the Asian humidity and blossomed into his dominant self for the rest of the event, demolishing 8th seed Nick Kyrgios by 6-2, 6-1 in the Final to collect his 6th title of the year and 75th of his career.

Concurrently, in Tokyo, David Goffin confirmed his push for a spot on the ATP Tour Finals by securing a second straight title following the triumph in Shenzhen the previous week. The Belgian defeated France’s Adrian Mannarino in the Final in two sets (6–3, 7–5) to pick up an ATP 500 for the first time, and denied his 29-year-old rival of a maiden tournament victory on the highest professional circuit.

Cycling: Vincenzo Nibali reigns at Il Lombardia for a second time

Contested against the spectacular background of Lake Como, the “race of the falling leaves” is the last landmark of the cycling season, the final Monument Classic of the year and a gruelling finish to the autumnal series of Italian one-day classics. Almost 250km long, featuring plenty of steep uphill sections and treacherous, swerving descents, it favours the riders that can sustain their form until the latter stages of the season, are well versed on the terrain in hand and have the technical skills to operate the bike in challenging conditions.

In resume, it is perfect for Vincenzo Nibali, the pugnacious Italian star that is not only one of the greatest climbers in the World, but also a great terrific time-trial list and exceptional descender. Victorious at Il Lombardia in 2015 and unable to defend his title last year after an unfortunate crash at the 2016 Olympics, the Shark of Messina was the prohibitive favourite heading into the 111th edition of the famous event, and he made his presence felt when it mattered.

Home favourite Vincenzo Nibali captured his second win at the Giro di Lombardia (Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

With less than 20km to go, as the action picked up on the penultimate climb (Civiglio) of the race, Nibali sniffed the danger when Thibault Pinot (FDJ) went on attack for a third time and he lunged across to join the French before the hill’s crest. From there, the Bahrain Merida leader furiously hurried downhill, skimming the bends to distance Pinot and opening a gap that only widened in the final ascent to San Fermo della Battagli and short run-in to the finish line in the city of Como.

With authority, the 32-year-old sealed the 69th triumph for the home nation in the history of the event – but only the second in the last 9 years – while, further back, Pinot’s forces faded with Nibali out of the sight and he was absorbed by a small chasing group from which compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) free wheeled in the final kms to take second on the day, 28 seconds off the winner and 10 ahead of Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), who won the skirmish for third.

Italian and French riders split the top seven at the Giro di Lombardia, and when attentions shifted to France for the prestigious Paris-Tours the following day, the hosts wanted to get their neighbours back. It wouldn’t happen since the in-form Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) once again displayed his mettle, pushing the pace on an elevation inside the last 10km to break away from the pack alongside Danish youngster Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), and then imposing his will in the final sprint with a small boost from teammate Nikki Terpstra, the only man who had managed to bridge across.

Matteo Trentin edged Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on his final race for Quick-Step Floors (Getty Images)

By securing a seventh victory in just over two months, Trentin bid a perfect adieu to Quick-Step after six and a half seasons with the Belgium outfit. The Italian will represent Orica-Scott when the peloton returns to the European roads next season.

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

No domestic leagues action this weekend, so we’ll instead dive into the final stretch of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One Confederation at a time, which teams have already punched their ticket and who’s still in play?

CONCACAF

Costa Rica joined Mexico in the group of qualified nations after a last-gasp goal by Kendall Waston secured a dramatic draw against Honduras on Saturday, and the United States are in the driver’s seat for the last spot after a commanding 4-0 win over Panama.

Due to their superior goal difference, a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday should be enough for the Americans to clinch third place, while Honduras and Panama will fight for fourth and the corresponding playoff wild card to face the Asian representative. Panama currently holds the tie breaker by a five-goal margin, and therefore any triumph over Costa Rica may do the trick.

AFC

Regulars Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are already gearing up for Russia, and that prominent list is only missing Australia, pipped on goal-difference by the Saudis on the group stage.

The Socceroos can still make it for a fourth straight time, but they’ll need to finish off Syria in Sidney on Tuesday before tackling a final playoff round with the fourth place team from the CONCACAF.  Meanwhile, the Syrians are eyeing an astonishing debut appearance in the midst of a raging Civil War that forced their home leg (1-1) to be held in Malaysia.

Syria and Australia will meet again in Sidney on Tuesday to decide who advances to the final playoff round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (AP Photo/ Vincent Thian)

CONMEBOL

With Brazil having already booked their trip a few months ago and Uruguay virtually qualified by virtue of a +10 goal difference, the South American 18-game marathon will meet its explosive finale on Tuesday, four days after a sensational round of games scrambled the standings even more.

Five teams (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay) are currently separated by two points and there’s only a pair of direct slots up for grabs plus a wild card for a final playoff with New Zealand in November. Strap down, this is going down to the wire.

CAF

The first two African nations to arrange their trip to Russia were Nigeria, who bagged group B after edging 2012 African Champions Zambia, and Egypt, who secured qualification for the first time in 28 years with an injury time winner from the penalty spot against Congo on Sunday.

In group A, Tunisia and DR Congo are still in the race, with the Tunisians only requiring a draw from the reception to Libya next month to return to the World stage for the first time since 2006, while in Group C it’s down to Ivory Coast and Morocco, who will square off in November with the Ivorians ahead in the table and holding home advantage. Conversely, Group D is a mess, with all four teams alive after the decision to repeat the polemic South Africa-Senegal, whose original outcome was invalidated for allegations of match manipulation.

UEFA

In the first round of the final group-stage double-header, powerhouses Germany, Spain and England joined Belgium and hosts Russia on the list of qualified teams, with Poland securing their spot on Sunday following a nervy victory over Montenegro.

With four groups yet to settle, there are a lot of moving parts to take into account regarding the remaining group winners and the eight teams that will advance to the playoffs, but it’s safe to say France (Group A), Serbia (Group D) and Iceland (Group I) should qualify when they host weak opposition (Belarus, Georgia and Kosovo, respectively) on the closing match day.

After a spectacular 3-0 win in Turkey, Iceland is on course to reach a first World Cup tournament (STR / AP)

That leaves a trio of games to track feverishly on Monday and Tuesday. Wales and the Republic of Ireland (Group D) clash in Cardiff and Ukraine meets Croatia (Group I) in Kiev in pair of encounters where draws could sentence both sides, while the Lisbon battle between Portugal and Group B immaculate leaders Switzerland sees the European Champions in need of a win to leapfrog their rivals.

Moreover, welcoming Gibraltar to Athens, Greece (Group H) is three points away from pairing with Northern Ireland (Group C), Italy (Group G) and Denmark (Group E) in November’s two-legged playoffs, while only a disaster – an inconceivable seven goal defeat – in Amsterdam would stop Sweden (group A) from doing the same. Finally, with their schedule complete, Slovakia, the Group F runners-up, can’t do much more than crunch numbers and wait as others determine whether they did enough to reach the playoffs.

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

It’s probably the dream of every live sports announcer. Nailing the call of an everlasting moment for the history of their nation.

The 95th minute equalizer by Kendall Waston, which secured Costa Rica’s fifth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, certainly fits the description, sending into raptures every one of the 35,175 spectators blessed to celebrate inside the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, and most of the other 4.9 million that populate this Central American country.