As 2011 winds down, it’s time to look at the year that was in sport.
Unpredictability is why so much of us love sport. Throughout a whole year it produces some shocks and surprises. Some storylines go, idyllically, according to script; others divert in the most irrational of ways.
Choosing the highlight in any other given year would normally cause a great deal of fuss but it’s almost unanimously agreed that there is one standout this year – Cadel Evans’ Tour de France triumph.
For three weeks, Evans engulfed the national television audiences in the late hours of the night. In one of sport’s most torturous events, he stayed just in touch of the leaders through the mountain stages and then made his move in the individual time trial on the penultimate stage before strolling through the Champs-Elysées to grab the yellow jersey.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about, we’ll put it into perspective. Save for Lance Armstrong, Europeans have dominated this event throughout its 108-year history. It’s not just the first time an Australian has won, it’s the first time anyone from the southern hemisphere has!
They don’t call Queensland the ‘Sunshine State’ for nothing. It was two Gold Coast girls who lit up their respective sporting arenas. At the World Athletics Championships, Sally Pearson captured our only gold medal by winning the 100m hurdles in the second fastest time in history. But this was no fluke. She sailed through the season winning 14 other gold medals in her pet event and topped it off by being awarded the female athlete of the year by the IAAF. She was in elite company as well, with the legendary Usain Bolt taking out the male equivalent.
Sam Stosur’s heroics through the US Open were super impressive. She’d won two gruelling three-setters in the earlier rounds and then beat Serena Williams in the final. Coming out into that New York crowd was meant to be quite daunting but Stosur surprised everyone with her composure to prevail quite easily in the end.
Meanwhile our future looks somewhat bright. As Lleyton Hewitt’s career is waning, much is expected from teenage prodigy Bernard Tomic and he finally broke through with a crushing defeat of Robin Soderling at Wimbledon on his way to a quarter-final loss to Novak Djokovic. The Serbian had one of the most imperious seasons ever, collecting three of the four Majors and finishing the year with an astounding 70-6 win-loss record. Spain, led by Rafael Nadal, claimed a fifth Davis Cup.
In many ways it was Queensland’s year in sport. Along with Stosur and Pearson, a fellow Queenslander in Jason Day also broke through. Whilst he didn’t quite win a Major on the golf circuit, he did finish runner-up twice, so here’s hoping he can go all the way next year.
It wasn’t just the individuals who tasted glory. Brisbane Roar broke the record for most unbeaten matches in Australian sport, undefeated 36 times. In the process they claimed their first A-League title in unbelievable fashion, coming back from the dead against Central Coast to win in a penalty shootout.
In the Asian Cup right at the start of the year, our Socceroos fell at the final hurdle, losing to Japan. Over in Europe, Barcelona continued to prove the world that they are not just the best club in the world right now, but one of the greatest ever. With the dazzling Lionel Messi, the Spanish giants won the UEFA Champions League beating Premier League champions Manchester United in the final.
In State of Origin, Queensland continued their supremacy over bitter rivals New South Wales, winning an unprecedented sixth consecutive series. In netball, the Firebirds took out the trans-tasman championship, while in Super Rugby, the Reds took the major gong.
Across the ditch, New Zealand finally kicked the monkey off their back as they won by the narrowest of margins against France in the Rugby World Cup final. The Wallabies finished third, but did claim the Tri-Nations for the first time in a decade.
The Aussie-Kiwi rivalry is brilliant. Although we were outdone in the rugby, we did pip them earlier in the year as our Diamonds beat the Silver Ferns in over-time in a dramatic final of the World Netball Championships.
Following the humiliating Ashes loss, a review to rejuvenate cricket in Australia was conducted. This meant positional changes in the team with Ricky Ponting handing the captaincy to Michael Clarke. A fresher approach has been adopted under our first overseas coach, South African Mickey Arthur, who replaced Tim Neilsen. Meanwhile cricket powerhouse India won the World Cup for the second time.
While it may have been the year of the rabbit according the Chinese Zodiac, it was the Cats who reigned supreme in the AFL, winning their third premiership in five years – a great achievement in anyone’s book. Many believe it is their most satisfying win of their dominant era as they were written off as genuine contenders by most pundits following the defections of coach Mark Thompson and star Gary Ablett at end of the 2010 season. Collingwood went unbeaten against all teams throughout the year, bar one – Geelong – losing all three encounters, the third of which was the most painful, a 38-point grand final loss. There was some joy for Collingwood, in the way of a Brownlow Medal for Dane Swan, collecting 34 votes, the most ever in a season. Meanwhile, the AFL broke new ground, confirming a $1.25 billion broadcast contract with SEVEN and Foxtel over the next five years.
In the NRL, Manly capped off a fine season under the guise of Des Hasler winning a second premiership in two years. But it all went pear-shaped in the weeks to follow as Hasler signed on to be coach of Canterbury from 2013, whilst continuing to coach Manly through 2012 – a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, it was never going to work and Hasler was sacked and then fast-tracked to Canterbury immediately . The farewell tour of one of the all-time greats seemed to meander on for an eternity but eventually Darren Lockyer left the game in the best way possible – scoring a try in the last minute of his professional career as the Kangaroos clinched the four-nations title, beating England 30-8 in the final.
It takes a special horse to be even mentioned in the same breath as Phar Lap but Black Caviar is just that – special. Thousands more than normal flocked to the autumn and spring racing carnivals just to witness the Peter Moody-trained mare sprint to victory. Ridden by Luke Nolen in his now famous salmon and black polka-dot racing colours, Black Caviar seemed to ease to victory streets ahead of the field. Her unbeaten streak stands at 16 with an even bigger test to come when she races overseas for the first time at Royal Ascot next year. I say bring it on!
The Melbourne Cup resulted in the tightest finish ever. Ironically, replays to determine a winner took longer than the race itself. French-trained Dunaden edged out Red Cardeaux by nearly nothing.
Speaking of closest ever finishes, the last lap at Mount Panorama had everyone out of their seats. After more than five hours of racing, it was harsh that 0.29 seconds was the difference between first and second.
Everything went according to plan for Casey Stoner on his 26th birthday. He won a fifth consecutive Australian MotoGP and in so doing, secured a second drivers’ championship after winning in 2007. As dominant a season as that was, Sebastian Vettel was even better in his Red Bull car. The German won 11 of 19 races throughout the season and was the pole-sitter on 15 occasions, breaking Nigel Mansell’s record of 14.
So what does 2012 hold in store for us? Well, for a start, it’s an Olympic year so we’re guaranteed off-kilter stories to entertain us. Ian Thorpe will endeavour to go all the way in London. Although he may not make it at all if he fails to qualify. Sally Pearson has proven she has the mettle to perform on the biggest stage of all. Anna Meares, Alicia Coutts, James Magnussen and our hockey teams, among others, are also bound for gold. Can Cadel go back-to-back in France? Euro 2012 sees Spain, Germany and the Dutch as the favourites, but you just never know. So many questions. Lots of speculation. Only time will provide the answers.