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India's best sportspersons of 2009

Last updated on: December 23, 2009 09:36 IST

Breakthrough year for young talent

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It's that time of the year when we look back and take stock of what happened over the last 12 months in Indian sport.

In terms of achievements, it was a topsy-turvy year, a mixed bag, so to speak.

If on one hand we had a few good results, with the likes of Leander Paes, Saina Nehwal, Pankaj Advani and Vijender Singh adding to their already-bloated trophy cabinets, on the other we had controversies ranging from Indian athletes testing positive to the bitter war of words between Suresh Kalmadi and Commonwealth Games Federation CEO Mike Hooper, to question marks about New Delhi's ability of hosting the Games per se, especially since things are way behind schedule.

Coming on the heels of an Olympic year (2008) -- highlighted by India's first ever individual gold medalist in Abhinav Bindra -- 2009 paled in comparison. However, there were a few bright spots, a handful of achievements to cherish and a few heroes (existing and up-and-coming) to look up to!

Thus, if we had the above-mentioned sportspersons continuing their success stories, it was also a breakthrough year for the likes of Somdev Devvarman, Suranjoy Singh and the badminton duo of V Diju and Jwala Gutta.

A lowdown of the Indian sports achievers of 2009.


Image: Vijender Singh
Photographs: Reuters
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Gambhir the key in India's ascent to the top

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Gautam Gambhir is the top-ranked batsman in Test cricket and it is no coincidence that Team India too is ranked number one in the longer version at the same time.

Gambhir was certainly the architect of India's ascent to the top of the rankings in both Tests, and even in One-Day Internationals before the team slipped up earlier this year.

The New Zealand tour was the defining moment of the left-hander's career as he finished as the top scorer with 445 runs to set up India's series triumph.

He followed that up with two centuries in two Tests against Sri Lanka for a 2-0 series win, underlining his credentials as one of the most consistent batsmen in the last couple of years.

His team-mate Virender Sehwag termed him the best India opener since Sunil Gavaskar. Those words really mean something, especially coming from someone who himself is regarded as one of the most destructive batsmen of his era.

He was rightly named the ICC Test cricketer of the year and BCCI's Indian Cricketer of the Year for 2008-09.


Image: Gautam Gambhir

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Dhoni the first Indian captain to lead the team atop the Test rankings

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The man with the Midas touch continues to take cricket to heights never seen before. If taking India to the top of ODI rankings was not enough, he went a step further and became the first Indian captain to lead the team to the summit of the Test rankings following the 2-0 series victory over Sri Lanka.

Dhoni has led from the front when it comes to batting, especially in One-dayers. In 2009 he scored 1019 runs in 26 matches at 67.93. Under him, the Indian team, this year, registered ODI series victories in Sri Lanka thrice, including a tri-series tournament, in New Zealand and the West Indies.

But were also disappointments -- in the ICC Champions Trophy, the ICC World Twenty20 and the home ODI series against Australia, which they lost 2-4.

Even in Test matches, Dhoni played his role to perfection both with the gloves and bat. In 2009, batting at number six, he scored 369 runs in five Tests at 92.25, including two centuries and two fifties.


Image: Mahendra Singh Dhoni

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Tendulkar's 20 glorious years and 30,000 runs

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There are some things that refuse to change; one of them is Sachin Tendulkar and his habit of scoring runs.

He completed 20 years in international cricket but the hunger for runs never seems to subside. 2009 proved to be one of his good years with the bat as he scored 541 runs in six Tests at 67.62 and 756 runs in 17 ODIs at 50.40 respectively.

The veteran batsman also went past 17,000 runs in ODIs and followed that up by scaling the magical 30,000 runs in international cricket during the three-Test series against Sri Lanka.

At 36, he looks keener and fitter than some of his younger colleagues and it's hard to see him stopping soon. If 2009 was any indication, Tendulkar is only getting better and fans will have a lot in store in the year ahead as he gets to grips with his body.

It is not only the runs or catches that Tendulkar, or the 'grandfather' for that matter, makes a contribution with. It is also his experience that he passes on to his younger colleagues. As Yuvraj Singh said last month, his passion and keenness to improve when practicing are a source of inspiration to the other members of the team.

"We call him grandfather. Someone who has played the game for so long and is a legend and still wants to improve; it is just amazing. He still wants to bowl in the nets, he still wants to improve," Yuvraj had said.


Image: Sachin Tendulkar

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A tenth major doubles title for Paes at US Open

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At 36, Leander Paes continues to be the brightest star in Indian tennis. The veteran player was, without doubt, India's most prolific winner in 2009, his success in the doubles events continuing unabated.

The year, which started with a runner-up finish at Auckland - with makeshift American partner Scott Lipsky - peaked at the right time.

With regular Czech partner Lukas Dlouhy in tow, Paes tasted major success again when the duo prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 over the Belgian-South African combine of Dick Norman and Wesley Moodie in the final of the French Open.

It was Paes's third men's doubles title at Roland Garros - after triumphs in 1999 and 2001, and his first sans Mahesh Bhupathi.

The Paes-Dlouhy combo continued their glorious run at the US Open a few months later, a come-from-behind 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over the Indo-Bahamian pair of Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles ensuring them their second major title of the year.

It was Paes's 10th major doubles title - six in men's doubles, four in mixed!

Besides his achievements in men's doubles, Paes, in partnership with Zimbabwean Cara Black, also reached the mixed doubles final at both Wimbledon and the US Open.


Image: Leander Paes

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Mixed fortunes for Bhupathi

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Mahesh Bhupathi started the year with a bang. A runners-up finish alongside Bahamian partner Mark Knowles in the men's doubles final of the Australian Open was quickly traded for a winner's trophy in the mixed doubles final - with compatriot Sania Mirza.

Bhupathi and Mirza scored a comprehensive 6-3, 6-1 victory over Israel's Andy Ram and Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy to put the disappointment of the previous year's final loss behind them.

He suffered a slump in form thereafter, with a lone title at the Montreal Masters and a runner-up finish at Barcelona being his best results in the next seven months.

However, he (and Knowles) put together an excellent run to reach the final of the US Open, where, despite leading, they eventually finished second best to Leander Paes and Lukas Dlouhy.

The last four months of the year were forgettable for the Indian ace at both personal as well as professional fronts.

While his marriage to model Shvetha Jaishankar ended in divorce, his partnership with Knowles also ceased.


Image: Mahesh Bhupathi

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Somdev the rising son of Indian tennis

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The year 2009 witnessed the coming of age of Somdev Devvarman.

After being considered a prospect for some years, the twice NCAA champion finally converted promise into performance, his first result of note coming in front of his home fans.

At the Chennai Open, Somdev beat bigger names like Carlos Moya and Ivo Karlovic en route to the final - where he came up short against Croat Marin Cilic.

After a topsy-turvy six months, Somdev avenged his defeat to Cilic, beating him at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington.

His performance at Washington helped him qualify for the year's last major - the US Open. In doing so, Somdev became the first Indian to be in the main draw of a Grand Slam singles tournament since Prakash Amritraj in 2002.

At New York, Somdev won his first round match against Frederico Gil 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 but lost to 24th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany 6-3, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 in the next round.

However, a brilliant effort in the Davis Cup match against South Africa was Somdev's high point. The 24-year-old's showing in the singles helped India qualify for the World Group for the first time since 1998.

Somdev rallied from two sets down to script a spectacular 3-6, 6-7(3), 7-6(5), 6-2, 6-4 victory over South Africa's Rik De Voest in Johannesburg and clear India's passage to the elite league after a long wait of 11 years.


Image: Somdev Devvarman

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Saina superb

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Saina Nehwal scripted history yet again when she became the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament in June.

A stunning 12-21, 21-18, 21-9 win over higher-ranked Chinese Lin Wang in the final of the Indonesian Open in Jakarta marked the best ever performance by any Indian woman on the international stage.

A quarter-final exit (16-21, 19-21) at the hands of the Chinese second seed Lin Wang in the World Badminton Championships in her home town, Hyderabad, was a bit of a dampener, especially considering the fact that she squandered a healthy 9-1 lead in the second game.

Nonetheless, Saina was satisfied with her effort.

The 19-year-old was rewarded with the Arjuna award in August and, later in the year, Sports Illustrated India named her the Indian Sportsperson of the Year.


Image: Saina Nehwal

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Jwala-Diju first Indian mixed doubles pair to win Grand Prix gold

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After year of hard work, Jwala Gutta and V Diju finally had the results to match their efforts on court.

The duo's first success came at the Yonex Sunrise Indian Open at Hyderabad in March when they reached the final.

However, their dreams of winning a first Grand Prix gold went up in smoke as they suffered a 14-21, 17-21 defeat against the Indonesian pair of Flandy Limpele and Vita Marissa.

In the World Championships at Hyderabad in August, the pair squandered a 9-6 lead in the first game of their last eight match and went down 16-21, 14-21 against the Indonesian pair of Nova Widianto and Liliyana Natsir.

However, their moment of glory came later that month when they became the first Indian mixed doubles pair to win a Grand Prix gold in Chinese Taipei.

A hard fought 23-21, 21-18 win over the Indonesian duo of Hendra Aprida Gunawan and Vita Marissa ensured them a place in Indian sporting history.


Image: Jwala Gutta and V Diju

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Advani the king of the green baize

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Pankaj Advani created history when he won the World Professional Billiards title. The 24-year-old beat defending champion Mike Russell to win the prestigious crown in Leeds in September and became only the second Indian after Geet Sethi to win the crown in its 139-year history.

The billiards ace from Bangalore also continued his reign at the national level by winning his third consecutive National billiards crown after defeating veteran Geet Sethi 5-4 in the final.

In April, Advani won his tenth international title when he beat two-time World champion Peter Gilchrist in the final of the Asian billiards championship in Pune.

He now holds the prestigious record of being the current World professional billiards champion, current IBSF World billiards champion, the Asian Games billiards champion, the Asian billiards champion and the National billiards champion.


Image: Pankaj Advani

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Big accolades for Vijender, Suranjoy

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Whether it was winning India's maiden World Championship medal in Milan or attaining the world No 1 ranking in the middleweight category, 24-year-old Olympic bronze medallist Vijender Singh was India's brightest star on the boxing firmament. And, it was not surprising that he and his female counterpart M C Mary Kom were conferred the country's highest sporting honour - the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, a first for Indian boxing!

But while Vijender settled for bronze in every tournament he competed in, it was Suranjoy Singh, a 22-year-old from a small town in Manipur, who was the golden boy of Indian boxing in 2009.

The flyweight pugilist clinched three gold medals at prestigious international events. Suranjoy made history when he claimed the gold medal at the European Grand Prix in May, in the Czech Republic. It was the first time in the 40-year history of the event that an Indian emerged best.

The Asian Championships, a tournament in which India had not won a gold for the past 15 years, was next up on the calendar in the Chinese city of Zhuhai in June, and Suranjoy again stole the thunder, winning the country's lone gold.

Then came the season-ending President's Cup and the Manipuri gave the Indian boxing fraternity more reason to celebrate as he clinched the gold medal and also emerged the best boxer at prestigious season-ending event, where confederations from Asia, America, Africa, Europe and Oceania are pitted against each other.

Representing Asia One the Asian champion humbled Olympic bronze medallist Vincenzo Picardi 6-4 in the quarter-finals and then went on to beat Frenchman Nordine Oubaali 8-1 in the final, in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Way to go Suranjoy!


Image: Suranjoy Singh

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Yuki shows promise

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Yuki Bhambri had been knocking at the doors of world tennis for a while. Everyone knew he had the talent, and he proved everyone right when he won the Australian Open 2009 to become the fourth Indian to win a junior Grand Slam.

Top seeded Yuki swept aside Alexandros-Ferdinandos Georgoudas of Germany 6-3, 6-1 in 57 minutes to pocket his first Grand Slam singles title.

The other Indians in the elite list to achieve the feat are Ramanathan Krishnan (1954 Junior Wimbledon champion), his son Ramesh Krishnan (1970 Wimbledon and French Open junior champion) and Leander Paes (1990 Junior Wimbledon and Junior US Open champion).  

Following his success at the Australian Open, Yuki got a Davis Cup call-up against South Africa. And he delivered with an impressive 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Izak Van Der Merwe in the fifth rubber of the crucial World Group play-off.

Pray the youngster's impressive show continues in 2010.


Image: Yuki Bhambri

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Force India to the fore

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If it were magically possible, the Kingfisher on the Force India logo would jump out and animatedly chirp about the achievements of the Vijay Mallya-owned Formula One team in 2009.

From logging a podium finish to enjoying pole position to clocking the fastest lap, there was much to brag about for the Indian team.

The good tidings began in July at the German GP when Sutil finished seventh, the highest ever qualifying finish for the Force India team so far. The team, however, faced tough luck after Kimi Raikonnen rammed his Ferrari onto the German's VJM02 when he was just three laps away from a fourth place finish in the race.

Giancarlo Fisichella gave Mallya and his fans much to cheer about in the second half of the season when he took pole position at the Belgian GP. The biggest high of the year then followed after Fisichella gave Force India their first ever podium finish and logged their first points at the Spa Francorchamps. It was an unforgettable race in Belgium where the Italian driver was barely seconds behind Raikkonen.

And, then, Adrian Sutil's fourth place finish in the very next leg at Monza proved that Force India was more than just a 'small team'. They were contenders!

Despite these highs, Mallya had to face the hard news of Fisichella -- who was now his No 1 driver after the podium finish at Belgium -- expressing interest in joining Ferrari for the rest of the season. With or without Fisi, expect some more surprises from Sutil and Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi.


Image: Giancarlo Fisichella

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Muniyappa gets Asian Tour recognition

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Golf may be the pastime of the elite in India, but the sport is being brought into prominence by new talents. And count C Muniyappa to do that to a tee.

The caddie-turned-pro had a year of good results, beginning with the title-clinching Hero Honda Indian Open.

The Bangalore pro held his nerve and survived a playoff to be crowned India's newest Asian Tour title winner.

Muniyappa, who turned pro in 1997, made a name for himself after his first professional win in the Toyota Altis Open in 2008.

His golden run in 2009 continued with a second-place finish at the Crompton Greaves PGTI Open at Mumbai in late October.

But his biggest accomplishment came earlier this month when he was named 2009 Asian Tour Rookie of the Year.

The 32-year-old was the lone Indian in Asian Tour's annual roll of honour and wrapped up his season in 10th place on the Order of Merit with $223,269 through one win and three other top-25.

The Asian honour is just the beginning of better things to come. So watch out for Muniyappa in 2010.


Image: C Muniyappa

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