Novak Djokovic

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.

Advertisements

Those Melbourne Days: 2017 Australian Open review

The 2017 Australian Open will go down in history as one of the most memorable Grand Slams of the last dozen of years after a fortnight stock full of stunning beat downs, dramatic upsets and storylines aplenty that culminated in a pair of singles’ finals that had the traditionalists licking their chops in anticipation.

Instead of the usual moniker as the “Happy Slam”, this year’s Aussie Open was broadly baptized the “Throwback Slam” for the spellbinding display of the old guard, which stole the show to add new chapters to rivalries that seemed irredeemably part of the past. However, before the sentimental affairs between Serena and Venus or Rafa and Roger were set up, a multitude of ball-striking action resonated around Melbourne Park under the scorching Australian summer, with the conversation focusing on the inordinate quickness of the hard courts, a major factor for an event that would be dominated by the more aggressive contenders.  No surprise then that, in the end, the trophies rested on the hands of two legends which collected uncountable laurels imposing their offensive mastery on the opposition and are, arguably, the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Yet, while the ripples of their record-setting feats will probably reverberate for a long time, much more transpired throughout the tournament as many favourites were forced to leave the scene way earlier than expected, leaving enormous gaps on the draws for the brave to fill. Therefore, beyond the victors and finalists, surprise contestants arose, prospects finally took a step forward, heavyweights were vanquished and contenders crashed out, a medley that warrants a closer look after the first major landmark of the 2017 season has passed. It’s thus time to recap the first major of the year.

Women’s singles 1st week: Heading back on the first flight home

Bestowed with the privilege of opening the proceedings on the Rod Laver Arena in the inaugural day, Simona Halep quickly jumped aboard a plane home after just 75 minutes on court in what amounted to an inexcusable second consecutive first round exodus for the Romanian. The fourth seed fell in straight sets to Shelby Rogers, a quarter-finalist in Roland Garros last season but nothing more than a borderline top-50 player, and a slew of questions followed her on the way out. She may have been hampered by a wobbled left knee due to resurgent bout of tendinitis, which obviously undercuts her main strengths, superior court coverage and speed, but her patented fighting spirit wasn’t there. Halep huffed and puffed unable to harness her rival’s superior power or shove Rogers into uncomfortable positions, barely making a dent on the return (0/1 in break points) or making adjustments by rushing to the net, where she was perfect on five attempts. It was dispiriting to watch from a player that should be making the second week in her sleep after reaching the last eight in 2014 and 2015.

Simona Halep spent his short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn't last long in Melbourne

Simona Halep spent her short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn’t last long in Melbourne

Meanwhile, third seed Agnieszka Radwańska, a semi-finalist in 2016, also exited the scene prematurely. Fresh off a final appearance in Sidney, “Aga” was still able to scrape past Tsvetana Pironkova on the first round but her progress came to a screeching halt courtesy of Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, whose firepower, to the tune of 33 winners to 8, incinerated the Pole’s delicate wings. The Croatian veteran would author one of the feel good stories of the tournament (we’ll get to it), in contrast with Shelby Rogers, who quietly bowed out in round 2, yet both women further proved the frailty of some of the names ensconced near the top of the WTA rankings.

Speaking of that…Angelique Kerber, the World No.1, was the epitome of shakiness throughout his first Major campaign as the top seed and defending champion. The German, who pulled through on so many instances last year due to a newfound self-belief, looked nervous on her debut against Lesia Tsurenko, and later took advantage of a few precocious jitters by compatriot Carina Witthöft to right a ship that was tumbling on round two, yet her grit couldn’t avoid a pasting from the impressive Coco Vandeweghe.

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

With her serve faltering badly and her strokes misfiring, Kerber was bullied off the court by the big-hitting (sensing a theme here?) American, who bagged 30 winners and four breaks to send the German packing in round four. An outcome that would eventually put an end to the 29-year-old’s brief reign while she was still adjusting to the new condition. Such is life when you share the tennis panorama with Serena Williams.

Men’s singles 1st week: Foreshocks

While favourites were plummeting like bowling pins in the women’s draw, the men’s side was equally susceptible to spectacular knockdowns, even from the more unexpected sources. And while it wasn’t exactly the case of the two top 15 seeds that said goodbye on the third day, both deserve a mention.

Former US Open Champion Marin Čilić confirmed the worst fears of his fans by crumbling to British Dan Evans in round two with the ghosts of his debacle at the Davis Cup final still lingering. In four sets, the Croat smashed 69 unforced errors and proved inept to deal with the talented Evans, a rising player on the ATP Tour that hits sliced backhands in abundance and made headlines in Melbourne for his non-descript clothing plucked off a retail shop after being dropped by his sponsor. Evans, who came a point away from seeing off Stan Wawrinka in New York last year, then defeated Bernard Tomic in round three to the dismay of the home crowd, which had already lost their biggest calling card on the men’s event.

In fact, Nick Kyrgios, the flamboyant Aussie of Greek roots, was tipped for a good showing in Melbourne as an explosive fourth-round matchup with Stan Wawrinka beckoned, yet he fell at the second hurdle. After cruising on his first match with a superb display of his tremendous offensive arsenal and athleticism, the 21-year-old wrapped up a two-set lead against Italian Andreas Seppi only to allow his rival to rally back and avenge the result of 2015, when Kyrgios overcame a two-set deficit to prevail 8-6 in the fifth-set on this same event.

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

On a late classic at the Hisense Arena, the Aussie grew increasingly frustrated as the tide turned, throwing his usual tantrums, berating the umpire and smashing rackets while the unassuming Seppi kept plowing, taking advantage of his chances (5 of 10 on break points over the last three sets) and tempting fortune, as he did when he saved a match point with a bold forehand winner.  Kyrgios’ reaction after the loss, acknowledging a less than ideal offseason – he banged his knee playing too “much” basketball – and the need to hire a coach was a welcomed sight, but he needs to start turning those good intentions into action quickly as to not to miss the train.

Giants gone missing

In any case, Kyrgios’ fallout was a short lived story in Melbourne since less than 24 hours later a cataclysmic toppling rocked the tennis world. Six-Time Australian Open winner and defending Champion Novak Djokovic was ousted by World No. 117 Denis Istomin and everyone stood agape trying to process what had happened in almost five hours of mesmerizing action.

When the Serbian uncharacteristically let the first set slip away in the tiebreak despite possessing set points, and later conceded a break in the second, a glimpse of the shock was in view, but Djokovic was able to turn the page and romp to take the lead after the third set as his opponent looked increasingly tired. By this time, few expected a reversal of fortunes but Istomin strikingly resurfaced to claim a break early in the fourth set, and then rode the performance of a lifetime to clinch the biggest victory of his career in five sets.

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

How did he do it? The Uzbek, who had to win a qualification tournament just to clinch the Asia Pacific wildcard and enter the event, blasted sensational shot after sensational shot past the vaunted defensive wall of the Serbian, served at his best under pressure and won the majority of the important points, especially in the tiebreaks on the first and fourth set. An incredible coup to pull off for a man who fought cramps and foot complaints for much of the last two sets, and was still able to slug it out from the baseline with Djokovic.

However, for all of Denis Istomin’s unquestionable excellence on the evening, the World No.2 couldn’t take the wheel when he had to. Djokovic fed Istomin’s rhythm for too long, let him dictate too much, couldn’t muster the controlled aggression on his own shots, and failed to find the angles he’s used to in order to stretch his foe, explore his deficit of mobility and force off-balance strokes. Still, despite all that, he usually finds a way to escape from the brink of defeat. This time, he didn’t and his goal of a record-breaking 7th Australian Open went in fumes.

It was Djokovic’s earliest defeat in Majors since Wimbledon 2008 and a third consecutive Major below expectations after looking untouchable just 8 months ago. It may not be panic time for the Serb, yet the term “crisis” is now unavoidable as he closes on his 30th anniversary and may not be able to rely on his physical prowess for much longer. Is this just a bad phase he will snap out off to restitute his domination? Has the hunger for more just left him for good? Is he already slowing down? The plot thickens. Stay tuned.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Djokovic’s farewell was still on everyone’s thoughts when another heavyweight was upended three days later, none other than World No.1 Andy Murray, who similarly to Angie Kerber was making his debut as the top seed at a Grand Slam draw. The 29-year-old, a runner up in Melbourne on five occasions, breezed past his first three opponents in straight sets, and was already envisioning a coronation following his main rival’s departure when he was tricked by the unorthodox style of 29-year-old Mischa Zverev.

A serve-and-volley specialist, the German understood he had to stick to his guns to have a chance and followed his strategy to a tee. He managed to rattle the favourite with a combination of clutch holds of serve, incessant net approaches (65/118 at the net) and copious amounts of sliced backhands, disrupted Murray’s rhythm and limited the rallies from the baseline, a staple of the Scot’s game, sealing a famous win that made his young brother jealous. Who would have wagered Alex wouldn’t be the first Zverev on the QF of a Major?

Sir Andy was the last of the leading knights to be overrun before the tournament evolved to the second week, where the clashes of the remaining titans were looming and a new batch was sent packing.

Women’s singles 2nd week: The contenders who missed out

In the women’s side, the quarter-finals proved to be the final stop for a couple of high-flying players that were picked by many as the two biggest threats to Serena Williams in Melbourne. For many pundits, World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was the player to watch and those predictions looked on point as she overwhelmed her first two opponents while dropping just four total games, yet the Czech barely survived in the third round against up-and-coming Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who served to close the match twice in the third round before getting “so tight” with an eminent triumph in sight.

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching frequently on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

A convincing win over the last Aussie still alive in Melbourne, Daria Gavrilova, promised to put her back on the rails, but in the quarter-finals Plíšková was bested by the stirring Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, who beat her to the punch on her own game. The best server in the WTA Tour got broken seven times, amassed less aces than her rival and was out-powered, losing the winner count 42 to 23. Still, she was in position to edge through, up 3-2 in the third set, until the Croatian reeled off 12 of 13 points contested after a medical timeout to close out the match and end the 24-year-old’s dreams of a maiden Grand Slam title.

A feat that Johanna Konta also had circled as she skidded through a loaded part of the draw at Melbourne Park. Feisty Belgium veteran Kirsten Flipkens and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, one of the prominent youngsters in the WTA Tour, were her first victims, yet most fans only took notice of the Brit’s tremendous form when she crushed Caroline Wozniacki in round three, as the tenacious Dane, a deft defensive player, looked helpless trying to deter a boatload of winners blowing past her left and right. Konta’s next opponent, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, was dumped out unceremoniously in just over an hour, setting up a meeting with Serena in the last eight.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

The 25-year-old was oozing confidence, having yet to concede a set in the tournament and been broken just twice as her serve and both groundstrokes got showered with plaudits, however she was about to experience the toughest task in women’s tennis for the first time and it showed. Konta’s serve faltered, producing more double faults than aces, Serena’s return netted four breaks, the errors doubled the winners (22 to 11) and, in the end, an anticipated meeting had turned into yet another routine victory for the American. Nevertheless, the Brit’s splendid improvements turned a lot of heads Down Under, on the land of her birth, and if she can maintain the level displayed, the top-five can be a reality in no time.

Unexpected Final Four contestants

With Konta and Plíšková falling short of expectations, the semi-finals pitted the Williams’s sisters against surprising opponents, and for seniority reasons we’ll start with the older challenger.

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni's campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Throughout this article, we’ve already underlined how Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s power game clicked against top-level adversaries, yet her success had the ancillary benefit of bringing back to the forefront her incredible life story. The 34-year-old was once a tennis prodigy, winning her last match in Melbourne back in 1998 and reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999, but, while still underaged, she was forced to flee Croatia to escape an abusive father. It wasn’t long before her fledgling career went down the drain and financial troubles derailed successive attempts to come back to the Tour for a few years.

Her return to a major stage happened at Wimbledon 2010 and four years later she upset second-seed Simona Halep at the US Open 2014, yet few could have predicted a run like this from the World No.79, who failed to contain her emotions in the on-court interview after beating Plíšková to reach the second semi-final of her career, 18 years after the first. Serena Williams would then dispatch the Croat in just 50 minutes, but that’s just a footnote on her fairy-tale.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, a novel tradition of the women’s singles event was continued as a fresh face secured a place in the semi-finals for the 15th consecutive Grand Slam. The lucky girl was American Coco Vandeweghe, whose breakout tournament encompassed much more than the scalp of Angelique Kerber. The 25-year-old swept aside 15th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round and then outmuscled Eugenie Bouchard in the third round on a match that exemplified her best qualities. Down a break on the decider, she let the arm loose to exert pressure and crawled back into contention riding her booming serve, eventually prevailing due to superior mental resiliency. The same cocktail got her out of trouble against the fizzling World No.1, with Vandeweghe lambasting on Kerber’s short balls, and on her “first-strike” battle with Roland Garros Champion Garbiñe Muguruza, another player that succumbed to her aggressive groundstrokes on the way to a humiliating 0-6 partial on the second set.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

Still, amid this succession of victories, Vandeweghe looked always cool and unimpressed with herself, shrugging off the pressure of the big points and showcasing unusual self-confidence for someone of her status, as if the conscience of her tremendous athleticism and power was a guarantee that success was just a matter of time.

In the semi-finals, Venus Williams’ long limbs softened the blow of Vandeweghe’s kicked serve and the veteran edged forward with a delivery that posed different challenges to Coco’s return, with the Californian  failing to catch up to the score in the third after surrendering an early break. Nonetheless, the tournament accounted for Vandeweghe’s ability to become an impact player on the WTA Tour in the near future, especially on faster surfaces, such as the grass of Wimbledon.

Defying time, Part I

After a season that promised a change of the guard on the women’s tour, the final of the first Major of the season would be a return to the past, with the Williams’ sisters facing off once again at a Grand Slam final, almost 8 years after the last encounter (Wimbledon 2009).

It was the 28th meeting of the most celebrated sibling rivalry in the history of tennis and probably the perfect finale, as two woman inextricably bounded eyed each other on opposites sides a staggering 19 years after the first time, a period where they first helped change the perceptions of tennis fans, later reshaped the matrix of the female game with their ground-breaking style, and finally rewrote the record books.

Moreover, while it was strange Serena held the opportunity to leap past Steffi Graf on the singles’ Grand Slam titles count against her older sister, the match provided a singular chance to honour the remarkable career of Venus Williams, whose endearing joviality was in full display in Melbourne as she reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in 7 years. After every win, she flashed a beaming smile, danced like she had just been blessed for tasting victory one more time, and followed it up with the whimsical words of a person enjoying life. Battling a debilitating disease for the last while, the 36-year-old could have stuffed her racket anytime knowing her HoF-worthy accomplishments were established long ago, yet she kept persevering despite never knowing in what conditions she would show up on court.

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

In Australia, even with a full day of recovery between games, her limitations were supposed to ruin any ideas of getting back to the end stages of two-week tournaments if not for the fast surface playing to her advantage and a draw that broke her way, with Venus squaring off against only one seed (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, QF) en route to encounter her sister.

Still, while Venus deserves full credit for sticking to her habits and strengths, standing on the baseline to swing hard at the rising ball, smashing it flat and deep on the other side, it was inevitable the lights would shine brightest on her sister as they have for so long. Serena has always been just a tad better on the serve and off the ground, hitting harder and with more accuracy, and especially displaying a meaner competitive drive, and that edge was once again the difference at the Rod Laver Arena after a tense start, as she roared louder in key instances, flushing aces when it mattered and exposing the less reliable second serve of her partner.

The conquest padded Serena Williams’ trophy case with a 23rd Grand Slam trophy, just one off Margaret Court’s all-time tally, but also re-established her indomitable aura, which pulsates much more due to her ability to roll through a Major at age 35 without dropping a set than for wrestling back the World No.1. Furthermore, the American has now collected Majors standing 18 years apart, a singular case of longevity, and hasn’t failed to reach the last four in three years. It’s fair to say that while the others are playing hide-and-seek, Serena just shows up, flattens the field, sets new rules and collects the spoils. When will it stop?

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Men’s singles 2nd week: Setting up the inevitable

With the voices of the past floating around Melbourne Park, the cracks in the men’s draw resulting from the removal of the top two favourites seemed primed to supply another nostalgia-inducing final, one that had been on the back of the mind of tennis fans around the world from the beginning but necessitated a tremendous amount of swivelling to coalesce.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were, by virtue of their absence late last year, just the 9th and 17th seeds, respectively, and naturally multiple top players stand in their way to a repeat of the five-set thriller of 2009. However, after the landscape cleared at the end of the first week, they presumptuously jumped to the front as only one other player left had a Slam in his curriculum (Stan Wawrinka) and none could boast a decent head-to-head record against either the Swiss or the Spaniard.

Thus, it wasn’t long before the takedown of the remaining seeds started. Roger Federer decimated 10th seed Tomáš Berdych in the third round before seeing off Kei Nishikori, 5th in the hierarchy, in five sets as the Japanese executed the usual physical breakdown late. Crucial would prove the next step, as the 35-year-old was able to escape a brutal QF with Murray and instead bustled past Mischa Zverev to set up an all-Swiss SF against Stan Wawrinka, a five-set battle that would tilt to the most experienced  contender.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men's singles final.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men’s singles final.

Meanwhile, Rafa Nadal prevailed in five against German wunderkind Sascha Zverev in a game where his body proved ready to withstand the rigours of Grand Slam action, and the boost of confidence was in full display as he dominated 6th seed Gaël Monfils in the fourth round. Most saw the QF showdown with Milos Raonic, the highest ranked player left, as the final exam to Nadal’s condition and the Spaniard passed with flying colours, defeating the lanky Canadian in three sets after his opponent withered by wasting six set points in the second. Finally, in probably the best match of this year’s Australian Open, Nadal faced the rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, who had grasped with both hands the opportunity afforded by Djokovic’s early demise. During five gruelling hours, the Bulgarian exchanged pleasantries from the baseline with Nadal, whipping his backhand like never before, amassing more winners and points from long rallies, but eventually falling due to the Spaniard’s nerve and timely prowess at the net (25/29).

Defying time, Part II

It was clear both men faced a daunting task to reach the decisive match, but Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were able to persevere and the 35th chapter of one of the greatest (and most affable) sports rivalries of our days was arranged against the odds and conventional wisdom, providing an extra opportunity to appreciate the contrast of styles that for so long split the tennis world in two. The classical, elegant one-handed backhand against the thunderous, high-bouncing forehand. The nimble feet-movement versus the shuddering stride. Brute force opposing God-given flair. In so many previous occasions, Nadal relentlessly beat down Federer into submission, but under the brisk conditions in Australia things could prove different and the Swiss Master soon understood what he had to do to make it happen.

After so much time off, Federer believed he was playing with house money and that freedom from outcome was expressed on a much more attacking mindset, as he looked to aggressively take the ball as early as possible – especially on his backhand – and go big instead of holding back, slice it down and wait to be cornered.

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men's final

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men’s final

The success rate of the strategy fluctuated throughout the encounter and, likewise, the effectiveness of both contestants ebbed and flowed, with Federer coming out guns blazing to take the first set and later scorching through the third, while Nadal took advantage of a stuttering Swiss to bag the second before holding court on a fourth decided by a single break. When the fifth set rolled on, Nadal drew first blood to complement his momentum but, surprisingly, Federer didn’t fold – like it had happened regularly in other confronts – and upped the pressure at the net and from the baseline, jumping all over the short balls that Nadal was leaving consistently. For the audacity, he was eventually rewarded by hoarding five consecutive games to seal the Championship, the elusive 18th Grand Slam of the Swiss’ unparalleled career and certainly one of the sweetest and most unexpected.

For Nadal, who hadn’t been to a Grand Slam Final in 30 months, this is a loss that will sting for a while, at least until he lands in Paris to try to recapture his crown at Roland Garros. After bouncing back from yet another surgery, and having already disavowed those who claimed he was in steep decline, the 30-year-old couldn’t have asked for a better situation: he stared at a man he defeated in 9 of 11 Grand Slam confrontations and 6 of 8 Major finals, was up a break in the final set and held the mental edge. Still, he let it slip away as the fatigue of the semi-final sank in, his shot timings fell by the wayside, his balls started retreating back on the court and his rival sniffed weakness before wrestling control of the match for good. Nevertheless, Nadal is back healthy, performing at an elite level, his favourite season is on the horizon and the defending Roland Garros Champion is mired in a personal crossroads. The stars are aligning for the Spaniard’s goal of ending his Major drought, which is approaching 3 years.

Rafael Nadal's gutsy performance wasn't enough to break Federer on the night

Rafael Nadal’s gutsy performance wasn’t enough to break Federer that night

Meanwhile, Federer’s five year Slam-less spell was ripped apart in a rather unbelievable fashion, as the Swiss fended off four top 10 players on the same big tournament for the first time and became the oldest player to gather a Major trophy in 45 years. As it stands, the time off in the second part of 2016 proved a blessing in disguise as the Swiss arrived in Melbourne springy and fresh, needing just two rounds to attune his condition to the intensity of a Grand Slam. From then onwards, he quickly showcased his prototypical gliding hop, the venomous, multi-faceted serve of his best days, the sweeping strokes that backed his rise in the early 2000’s, and the killer instinct that consolidated his legacy and had vanished in recent years.

Furthermore, to cement his credentials as the best of all-time, Federer needed to score a meaningful victory over his arch nemesis before retiring, concealing the memories of so many instances where he capitulated for lack of answers, and it’s just perfect that it included a furious late rally that completely flip-flopped the screenplay we grew expected to wait. With, admittedly, few else to accomplish, Federer can now focus on being a pain-in-the-ass for his foes and #19 may just tumble to his lap.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would't live to see.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would’t live to see.

——————————————-/-/——————————————

A career-defining match bookended the 2017 Australian Open, and it’s fair to say it fell in line with what can only be described as an all-around majestic tournament, a promotion of the best attributes of sports competition: riveting levels of sports excellence, cliff-hanging drama, concurrent jubilation and despair, the rise, fall, revival and collapse of heroes.

Venus Williams described it best after her emotional semi-final triumph and I’ll leave you with her words:

“What I will say about sport, I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. It’s either you do it or you don’t.

People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person also who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life.”

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

***********
And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!