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Sporting feats to remember 2018 by

January 10, 2019 09:02 IST

With mind and body both more willing now, the only way for the World No 3 is up, says Dhruv Munjal.

P V Sindhu

P V Sindhu

Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

Anyone who has followed P V Sindhu's career even remotely will tell you that reaching tournament finals is never really a worry with her -- winning them is.

When the Hyderabad shuttler prevailed over Japan's Nozomi Okuhara at the World Tour Finals in Guangzhou last month, she sank to her knees. It wasn't the exhaustion of the encounter that got to her. Nor elation, really.

This was sheer relief, a giant weight off the shoulders of a young athlete. The victory against Okuhara was her first win in eight finals.

The year otherwise was a bleak one for Indian badminton.

The men -- Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth and H S Prannoy -- mostly struggled, and Saina Nehwal, despite sporadic glimpses of quality, once again showed that she's still not back to being the player she was before her career-threatening knee injury.

The salvaging job was left to Sindhu and she did make a great fist of it.

Despite going all the way only once last season, the 23 year old won silver at the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, all fiercely competitive clashes that Sindhu lost after battling gallantly.

In seasons past, Sindhu's game suffered both physically and mentally. Faster, technically better players ran her ragged on court. And whenever she found herself in the ascendant, she also almost always found ways to self-destruct.

Both aspects showed tremendous improvement in 2018. With mind and body both more willing now, the only way for the World No 3 is up.

 

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

IMAGE: Tiger Woods during a practice round prior to the 2018 PGA Championship at the Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, August 7, 2018. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

He was done.

A relic from an antiquated era whose significance very few understood because only a handful had seen him in his glory days.

A career cut short by crippling injury and rampaging adultery.

Tiger Woods was supposed to be a memory.

The year ended on a lousy note for the 14-time major winner, with a string of Ryder Cup defeats and a much-hyped but low-quality direct face-off worth $9 million against fellow American Phil Mickelson in Las Vegas also ending in a loss.

But it was the preceding months that saw the 42 year old produce the kind of golf that enthused galleries for over two decades.

Woods briefly led at The Open Championship at Carnoustie before finishing tied for sixth. He bettered that performance at the PGA Championship, ending the tournament in second place.

But the sporting moment of the year undoubtedly came at the Tour Championship at East Lake in September, when Woods won for the first time on the PGA tour since 2013.

Thousands, with their mobile phone cameras at the ready, walked with him to the 18th green, creating the kind of raucous scenes that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Woods, with his game ravaged by four back surgeries, began the year ranked outside the top 1,000. He will end it at No 13.

The next number Woods should be gunning for is 15. Woods hasn't won a major since the 2008 US Open, but the charge to Jack Nicklaus's aggregate of 18, which seemed like a formality once, looks to be back on.

He will have the youthful likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth to contend with, but with a restructured new swing and the swagger of old, it would be foolish to write off Woods, again.

 

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

IMAGE: Novak Djokovic dismissed Juan Martin Del Potro to collect his third US Open title, giving him 14 Grand Slams to move into a tie for third on the all-time list alongside Pete Sampras. Photograph: Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA

Novak Djokovic's return to the acme of men's tennis in 2018 was perhaps as unexpected as the signs of his mysterious decline that first surfaced some two years ago.

In June, Djokovic was sent packing from the French Open by a little-known Italian called Marco Cecchinato, whose decent ability with the racquet was probably overshadowed by his uncanny resemblance to the South African cricketer A B de Villiers.

The performance in Paris was typical of a Djokovic whose career seemed to be in free fall: Iffy and submissive to a point that made you wonder if the guy playing out there was an imposter, a lily-livered alter ego of an indomitable serial winner.

When the two met again four months later, this time at the Shanghai Masters, it was almost as if Djokovic's impaired game and muddled mindset had undergone a tectonic shift. He treated Cecchinato with the casual imperiousness that superstars reserve for also-rans, dismantling him in straight sets.

The sheer inevitability of the manner of defeat was made possible by Djokovic's twin Grand Slam successes in the months running up to Shanghai.

In September, he had breezed past the formidable Juan Martin del Potro to win his third US Open. And at Wimbledon two months earlier, Djokovic had staved off a predictably tenacious Rafael Nadal in a monumental five-hour semi-final, before dispatching Kevin Anderson in the final two days later.

The gladiatorial contest with Nadal, in fact, was more proof that, despite the hyperbole generated by the Nadal-Roger Federer engagement, there is nothing that can quite match the intensity, brutality and sublimeness of a Nadal-Djokovic duel.

This may not have been the annus mirabilis that was 2011 for Djokovic, but, in some ways, it was even more remarkable, for the Serb prevailed in circumstances and against opponents in a way that seemed impossible just a year ago. And the fans relished it thoroughly.

As delightful as Federer's resurgence and Nadal's valiance have been, the truth is that the sport was sorely missing the competitive spirit of a Djokovic.

Circumstances were obviously favourable: Djokovic's rise in 2018 coincided with a dip in form for Federer, and routine visits to the treatment table for Nadal, but that is to take little away from the Serb.

Which brings us to the all-important question: Can the 14-time major winner now chase down Federer and his once-untouchable haul of 20 Slams?

 

Eliud Kipchoge

Eliud Kipchoge

IMAGE: Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge celebrates winning the Berlin Marathon and breaking the world record. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

When Eliud Kipchoge is training in his native Kenya, he makes sure to scrub the toilets when it's his turn.

He may be a wealthy man, but he's not one to shirk humdrum duties.

In mid-September, 34-year-old Kipchoge swept again -- this time the entire field at the Berlin Marathon.

In the process he decimated the world marathon record, his time of 2 hours 01 minute 39 seconds, a staggering 78 seconds faster than the one set by Dennis Kimetto in 2014.

How did he do it? For one, Kipchoge is widely considered the greatest marathon runner of all time.

Berlin was his ninth-straight successful conquering of the distance in first place, astonishing consistency in an event that demands incredible endurance.

Then, technology did its bit. The Kenyan wore a customised version of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, a controversial shoe with a carbon-fibre plate that can improve an athlete's performance by as much as 4%.

Along the way, he also sipped a carbohydrate-rich Swedish energy drink (perfectly legal, by the way).

Kipchoge's case was further helped by the flat nature of the Berlin course, which, unlike Paris or London, lacks many turns and bends, and is ideal for setting fast times.

Even if you take all of this into account, Kipchoge's was a superhuman feat.

Kipchoge has often been hailed as the 'Usain Bolt of long-distance running' and his Berlin showing has spawned a question similar to the one Bolt's ground-breaking performance in the 100 metres at the Beijing Olympics did: Just how fast can man go?

For now, Kipchoge looks like the only guy who can break the 2 hour barrier in the marathon, an achievement thought to be unimaginable only a few years ago. He, in fact, came close to the mark in 2017.

As a part of Nike's Breaking2 project, Kipchoge ran 2:00:25 on a racetrack in Monza, Italy. The time wasn't officially recognised as a world best because Kipchoge used rotating pace-setters during the race.

And while enhancements in technology and human physiology will be key here, you wouldn't put a similar time again past Kipchoge -- this time in an actual race.

 

Manchester United

IMAGE: Manchester United sacked manager Jose Mourinho. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

France's gilded class of 2018 won the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Croatia very nearly prevented them doing so. And a young English side surpassed all expectations and almost 'got it home'.

Yet, the most absorbing of football stories of 2018 came from Old Trafford, the home of a club that was once among the super-elite of Europe, but is now struggling to stay relevant.

How did a club of United's stature, currently sixth in the Premier League and an astounding 19 points off the top, fall on such pitiful times?

For starters, manager Jose Mourinho made them unwatchable to the point that no one would've faulted you for choosing to watch a televised game of darts instead.

It was dour, joyless football.

Worse, Mourinho was made to look like an anti-football man whose defensive shtick appeared archaic compared to the free-flowing ways of Liverpool and Manchester City.

Towards the end of his tenure -- he was finally put out of his misery last month -- Mourinho, once a legendary charmer, increasingly starting resembling that cantankerous, homeless drunk the local community was desperate to get rid of.

An analogue manager in a digital age -- a man out of ideas and out of time.

The players played their part.

Paul Pogba, the team's star midfielder, was a picture of inconsistency, drifting in and out of games like a faulty wind-up toy needing urgent repair.

Romelu Lukaku, another big-ticket signing, was like a nightclub bouncer out to score goals -- plenty of brawn but little brain.

And the others -- Nemanja Matic, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones -- simply failed to stand up to be counted in a team without a plan or pattern.

Mourinho's interim replacement, the Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjær -- who famously scored the winning goal for United in the European Cup final of 1999 -- has already shown in his games in charge how well this United team can perform with all the players that the club has at its disposal.

Against Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, United played with verve and imagination, almost as if they'd been let out of jail following Mourinho's dismissal.

Solskjær's cheery presence has lifted the mood for now, but the United management cannot count on it for long.

A club like United can no longer be run in the ham-fisted way that has become a norm, where commercial interests take precedence over matters on the field.

Who the Board appoints as manager in the summer will go a long way in determining if United can once again establish themselves at the top.

United will hope to become the football story of 2019, too, but for altogether different reasons.

Dhruv Munjal
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