2015 had a fair number of predictable results but overall it must go down as a year of surprises.
Who back in January thought that Tyson Fury would end the year as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? Who thought that Japan, those game novices of rugby, would beat mighty South Africa? And who, without access to strong hallucinogens, foresaw Leicester City’s incredible march to the top of the Premier League table? Or the champions, Chelsea, plummeting towards a relegation battle and the unceremonious exit of José Mourinho?
The rise of the underdogs began back in March when New Zealand’s cricketers brought the World Cup to life with their wonderfully cavalier style of play. They carried on in the same vein against England, who had a disastrous World Cup, in a captivating couple of Tests and one-day series at the start of the summer. But not the least of the year’s surprises is that England, suddenly underdogs themselves, matched the Kiwis in spirit, focus and verve.
The final day of the Lord’s Test, to which much of the crowd was admitted on cheap tickets, was enthralling cricket played at great intensity but without malevolence. It also featured the best atmosphere I’ve experienced at a ground that, for all its glorious history, can often feel on the deathly side of somnambulant. That led in turn to another fine Ashes series. If it never reached the vertiginous heights of 2005 that was because while both sides played some great cricket, they rarely managed it in the same Test. The final score was 3-2 to England, but all the Tests were so one-sided that it was hard to draw any lasting conclusions about the relative strengths of the teams, other than, as usual, it would be different in Australia.
It was another brilliant year in tennis for Novak Djokovic, who so very nearly bagged all four grand slams, and yet still struggles to be fully appreciated for the sublime talent he is. The reason he lost the French Open was because Stan Wawrinka, someone who looks less like an elite sportsman than he does the guy who’s come to fix your boiler, played astonishing tennis with some of the most lethal backhand shots ever committed to clay. Yet again the underdog played like the champion.
Equally dominant, and perhaps even more amazing, given how long she has been around, was Serena Williams. She completed four slams in a row in winning Wimbledon but narrowly missed out on a calendar slam when she lost in the semi-final of the US Open to Roberta Vinci – a result, once more, that no experts saw coming.
The other great tennis story of the year was, of course, Great Britain’s Davis Cup victory, the first in 79 years. Such embarrassing records appear to exist so that Andy Murray can rewrite them. Like the Ryder Cup in golf, the Davis Cup weaves individuality into a team ethic. Yet for all the talk of the great team spirit in the GB camp, it was Murray who took GB through each round to the historic victory in the final against not so mighty Belgium.
Others played their part, not least Murray’s older brother, Jamie, in the doubles and James Ward against the American John Isner in the first round, but it was a singular achievement by an ultra-motivated and, as his Cup-clinching shot in the final rubber against Belgium proved, supremely gifted sportsman that did the job.
You wait 109 years for a British winner of the Tour de France and then three come along in quick succession. Chris Froome’s second win this year was almost routine, spoilt only by the continual speculation from which the sport and, in particular, Froome have suffered. No one has subjected themselves to greater testing or transparency than Froome, yet he remains curiously unloved. Not just by the French, who doused him in urine. But the British too. Let’s hope a third win will change that situation.
As hosts to the Rugby Union World Cup, England were always going to be contending with large expectations. Unfortunately they also found themselves contending with Wales and Australia in their pool. A mixture of bad luck, bad nerves, bad tactics and bad team selection proved too much in what must rank as one of the most disappointing tournaments for an English rugby or football team for many years – and that’s saying something.
But if England were distinctly average, New Zealand were so much better than anyone else that it was as if they were playing a different sport. Certainly it was very different to the game England played, especially in the manner that the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw kept winning the ball from the opposition at the breakdown. Who knew that was allowed?
The final, the second-best team, was a stirring affair featuring a great Australian comeback that was ultimately crushed by New Zealand’s exhilarating superiority. How does such a tiny population continue to dominate a sport with global aspirations? No doubt the answer is complex, but it might possibly have something to do with the fact that no All Black, regardless of position, ever looks surprised that the ball is heading his way.
It’s been a treading-water year for football on the global stage, except in administrative terms, where Fifa is starring in its own extended pantomime, with Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini as the Ugly Sisters. The England team were unlucky to go out in the semi-final of the Women’s World Cup, playing some impressive football along the way. But the real sporting drama has taken place in the topsy‑turvy world of the English Premier League. Not only have Leicester deservedly defied the odds, consensus opinion, other teams and the general flow of history, but other unglamorous teams like Crystal Palace and Watford are also threatening to overthrow the elite status quo.
It’s a bracing reminder that in all sport confidence is the mysterious ingredient that makes the difference. The best will falter without it, and with it, even the lowliest can force themselves to the top. Staying there is another question. But that can wait till next year.
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