After a hiatus in the Covid year of 2020, sports returned with vigour to playing fields and TV screens in 2021. The year began with the greatest underdog turnaround in India’s Test cricket history and ended with the longest game ever in world championships defining the Magnus Carlsen era in chess.
In between, the Tokyo Olympics, postponed from last year, was the stage for Ma Long of China to settle the question of who deserves the mantle of GOAT (greatest of all time) in table-tennis (TT). Neeraj Chopra threw a javelin far enough to win India’s first Olympic gold medal in athletics. And in another first, two teenage girls — Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez — met in the final of the US Open on 9/11. These were five red-letter days of sports in 2021.
BREACHING FORTRESS GABBA
Australia had not lost a Test at the Gabba in Brisbane for 32 years from the time Vivian Richards’ West Indies breached the fortress in November 1988. India hardly seemed a likely candidate to reprise that performance. They had no Malcolm Marshall or Curtly Ambrose. In fact, all their leading pace bowlers - Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma - were missing in action due to injury. So were their top two spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. The most experienced of India’s five bowlers in the match — Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Navdeep Saini, T Natarajan, and Washington Sundar — was playing only his third Test. What’s more, the team’s skipper and main batsman, Virat Kohli, had returned home to attend the birth of his daughter.
The home team, on the other hand, was at full strength with the return of the prodigals, Steven Smith and David Warner. Their bowling lineup led by Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc was almost the same as the one currently thrashing England in the Ashes series. Under the circumstances, who could have imagined that India would go for the 324 runs needed for a win on the final day? Stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane changed the tempo of the innings with a brisk 24 and then the precocious Rishabh Pant’s 89 not out finished it with three overs left in the day to give India a 2-1 series victory. That’s as dramatic as it gets in an underdog turnaround story, rivalling the 1983 World Cup triumph that’s been made into a movie.
THE GOAT OF TT
China has dominated table-tennis ever since it became an Olympic sport in 1988, winning almost all the medals on offer. The captain of the Chinese men’s team over the last decade has been Ma Long. Back-to-back world championship titles in 2015, 2017, and 2019; two World Cup titles in 2012 and 2015; and the 2016 Olympic men’s singles gold medal in Rio earned him the moniker of The Dictator. Despite his dominance in the game, however, aficionados argued over who should be considered the GOAT of TT. The contender was the Swedish legend, Jan-Ove Waldner, who even featured on a Chinese postage stamp after winning the Olympic men’s singles gold medal in 1992 and the silver medal eight years later.
Even diehard Waldner fans would have to accept Ma Long as GOAT if the ‘horse dragon’, as his name translates from Chinese, were to win a second Olympic singles gold medal. It wasn’t going to be a cinch as the 32-year-old had dropped to No.3 in the world ranking after knee surgery in 2019. He got past his German challenger, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, in a seven-game thriller in the semifinal to face his 24-year-old Chinese compatriot, Fan Zhendong, the reigning world champion. In a battle between the speed and reflexes of the upstart and the versatility and strategic nous of the defending Olympic champion, Ma Long prevailed 4-2 and even Lao Wa (‘Elder Waldner’, as the Chinese refer to him) would have applauded.
THROW THAT MADE HISTORY
Out of the 10 gold medals India has won at the Olympics, eight were in hockey. The first individual gold medal for an Indian went to Abhinav Bindra for shooting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So when Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw on August 7 this year won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, it was only the second such feat in history. It was also the first gold medal in athletics for India.
A Junior Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army, hailing from Haryana, Chopra’s second throw of 87.58 metres remained at the head of the leaderboard after the final round of throws to put him in top spot on the podium in Tokyo. He is yet to breach the 90-metre mark unlike his two main German rivals, Johannes Vetter and Julian Weber, who could not reproduce their best throws under pressure at the Olympics. Chopra’s biomechanical coach from Germany, Klaus Bartoniez, feels the young Olympic champion, who was the Junior World Champion in 2016, has scope to improve his technique. The 24-year-old can aim for a second Olympic gold medal in 2024 in Paris.
CLASH OF THE TEENS
Tennis has become a more muscular game in this millennium, even in the women’s section, as slower surfaces and heavier balls have lengthened baseline rallies and marginalised net play in singles. That’s why it has become rare to see teenagers, whose muscles aren’t fully developed, advancing to the final of a Grand Slam event. Serena Williams was 17 when she beat 18-year-old Martina Hingis in the 1999 US Open final. Then it was a 22-year wait before we saw two teens again in a US Open final.
This time it was 18-year-old Emma Raducanu who beat 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez in a final that lived up to its billing with neither player showing any sign of nerves as they went for their shots. They brought a new style to the court, squatting low to power their strokes from both flanks. Though Raducanu won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, it was much more closely fought than the scoreline suggests. Both players also brought a cross-cultural flavour - Raducanu is British with parents whose ethnic roots are in Romania and China; Canadian-born Fernandez’s father and coach is a former soccer player from Ecuador and mother is a Filipino Canadian.
Bobby Fischer’s sixth game against Boris Spassky in the 1972 world chess championship is imprinted in our minds from the film Pawn Sacrifice. The Russian stands and applauds after his American rival Fischer wins the game. It was the cold war era and Russia was dominant in chess, which made it an event larger than sport. There was no political agenda in the 2021 world chess championship, but it was again the pivotal sixth game that became a gripping drama. This time it was a Russian, Ian Nepomniachtchi aka Nepo, challenging the Norwegian world champion, Magnus Carlsen.
Computerised preparation is making it harder by the day to produce a winner in the classical, long form of chess at the highest level without resorting to tiebreaks. Carlsen had won his previous two world championship titles with tiebreaks and was determined to show he could still win a title in the classical format. He sacrificed his queen for two rooks and went into a long, complicated end game which is his forte. Finally, after 136 moves, Nepo resigned. It was the longest game ever played in a world chess championship — a magnum opus for Magnus Carlsen to round out a magnificent year in sports.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at email@example.com
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