Stars of 2012: On the brink of the big time
You may not know them now... but you will by the end of 2012 – 'The Independent' writers identify their sport's hottest prodigies
Friday 30 December 2011
Football: Luke Shaw
At 16, Luke Shaw cannot sign a professional deal at Southampton until his next birthday in July but already the buzz in football is that this is a player who is destined to play at the highest level.
Shaw is yet another Southampton academy footballer, a club who are currently among the best at producing elite players. In Gareth Bale they can claim credit for arguably Britain's most in-form player for most of 2011. Theo Walcott is another Southampton old boy. Beyond those two are the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Leon Best and Andrew Surman.
Shaw is yet to make made his first-team debut for Southampton – although he was part of the Carling Cup squad in September. Like another graduate of the club's youth sides, Wayne Bridge, he plays at left-back and is noted for his strength and pace. He is part of the England Under-16s squad and has consistently played far above his age-group for Southampton.
He has not quite made the same impact in the first team as Walcott did at a similar age but the competition for his signature will be intense when finally Southampton signal that they are prepared to listen to offers. Arsenal, who have a close relationship with the club, are very interested in Shaw.
In the meantime, he has the opportunity to break into a Southampton team challenging for promotion. The new Elite Player Performance Plan rules governing the transfer of players on academy contracts come into force from the start of next season, although Southampton will want to have Shaw on a professional deal by then.
Boxing: Lee Selby
Lee Selby will not be on any other lists of fighters to look out for in 2012 and that is because he has gone under the radar. Selby, 24, is the current British and Commonwealth featherweight champion and there was something very impressive about his two title wins: he left both Stephen Smith and John Simpson on the canvas for the full counts.
In 2012 Selby will fight for a European title and will consolidate his position in Britain, including a rematch with Smith. In 12 months, assuming that he is not rushed by the promise of world title fight riches, he will be ready to move up and stay at world class. He is close to becoming a very, very good fighter and needs to be protected slightly from his own expectations. Meanwhile, Selby's brother Andrew will win an Olympic silver or gold at flyweight to complete an impressive year for the Barry boys.
Selby will, I should point out, be overshadowed by the return of David Haye, Anthony Joshua's giant ambitions, Carl Froch winning back a title, Amir Khan avenging his recent loss, Tyson Fury taking on the world and Nathan Cleverly stunning everybody.
Athletics: Holly Bleasdale
Holly Bleasdale has come a long way in a short space of time. At the end of 2010 the Blackburn Harrier was ranked 62 in the world in the women's pole vault, with a lifetime best of 4.35m. She ends 2011 ranked ninth in the world, having raised the bar to 4.71m. That is a 12-month improvement of more than a third of a metre.
A similar hike in 2012 would take the young woman from Euxton in Lancashire to the global peak, beyond the Russian queen of the vault, Yelena Isinbayeva, whose world record stands at 5.06m. It would be unreasonable in the extreme to expect that, but if Bleasdale can continue her progress up into the 4.80m-plus bracket next year she could be standing on the Olympic podium in London. That is a distinct possibility, given the manner in which the 20-year-old has prospered under her French coach Julien Raffalli.
If there were any doubts about her regaining momentum after her failure to reach the World Championship final, they were dispelled three weeks ago. Vaulting off a shortened run-up at a minor meeting in Orleans, France, Bleasdale improved her British record from 4.70m to 4.71m.
"London is not too soon for Holly," says Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics. "She is a typically no-nonsense girl. It is between her and the bar, and what others do is their business. That is a good attitude."
Golf: Tommy Fleetwood
English golf does not have just the one 20-year-old heading into 2012 with all the attributes to crack the big time. Indeed, Tommy Fleetwood might prove every bit as effective as Tom Lewis as the prodigious pair set out on a first full year on the European Tour.
Of course, Lewis already has the fame following his 65 as an amateur to lead the Open and then his victory at the Portuguese Masters on just his third professional start. But some mighty good judges rate Fleetwood's talent as equal. The boy from Southport this year became the youngest winner of the Challenge Tour Order of Merit and then finished in a tie for fifth at the Dunhill Links at St Andrews, on a leader board including Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. The cheque for more than £100,000 was the largest of his career.
Golfing insiders have long known about this son of a builder's labourer. As an eight-year-old he was featured on Sky Sports, while as a teenager he won both the English and Scottish Amateur championships, was ranked No 1 amateur in the world and played in the Walker Cup. Team Tommy believe their golf-ball wizard is ready. "He'll win one next year," says his father, Pete, who was on his bag for his Kazakhstan Open win. "I have no doubt about that."
Cricket: Joe Root
In the well-ordered structure that English cricket has become, breaking into the England team is tough. Some players simply emerge more quickly than others. Joe Root is 21 next week, lean, tall, comes from Sheffield and has already evoked comparisons with that city's most famous recent cricketing son, Michael Vaughan.
Root was spotted at the age of 12 and was the youngest to be awarded a schoolboy scholarship by Yorkshire. He made his second-team debut at 15, appeared for the first XI in 2009 and made 63 in a one-day match against Essex.
He was in the Championship side throughout last season and looked immediately comfortable. Root has a sound method – elegant and tight à la Vaughan – and, importantly, is strong off the back foot.
There are not many vacancies in England's teams for opening batsmen at present (the jobs are currently being held by the captain, Andrew Strauss, and the run machine, Alastair Cook) but Root is definitely exciting the people who matter. He made 1,013 runs in his maiden season and scored his first century, a beautifully upholstered 160 at Scarborough in August.
If he can crack the Lions team quickly a Test debut may follow. "I had to develop a good technique to make sure that they couldn't get me out," he says. "Accumulate is what I do. I think one of my strengths is my mental approach to the game."
Rugby Union: Lloyd Williams
Back in the 1970s, the brilliant Welsh scrum-half Brynmor Williams found his international ambitions thwarted at virtually every turn by a certain Gareth Edwards, who was not a bad No 9, as No 9s go. It seems highly likely that Lloyd Williams, son of Brynmor, will experience few such frustrations, if any, as he seeks to make a career in the Test arena.
Just turned 22, the Cardiff Blues half-back already knows what it is to keep a cool head in the molten heat of a World Cup tournament, having travelled to All Black country with a single cap to his name, and he flew back home on an air current of praise from everyone who saw him play. True, he did not knock the far bigger, infinitely more aggressive Mike Phillips off his perch – having gone through a tough time on and off the field, Phillips recovered to play a significant part in driving Wales to a fourth-place finish – but now that the older man is playing his club rugby in France, there is an obvious opening for Williams to exploit.
And exploit it he will, provided he stays fit. In scrum-half terms, he has everything on his side except size – and with feet as quick as his, that problem is hardly terminal. He passes beautifully and skins defenders alive on the break. Above all, he has awareness. In 2013, the Lions head to Australia for a three-Test tour. The way things are shaping, Williams will be on the trip before 2012 is out.
Olympics: Missy Franklin
When, earlier this year, the world's best swimmers gathered in Shanghai among their number was a 16-year-old American. After her first training session in the competition pool, she turned to her coach and said simply: "I belong here."
By the end of the World Championships Missy Franklin had proved that emphatically as she returned to Colorado with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Each Olympics produces a swimming star who grabs the globe's attention in the first week of the Games, and in August there is every chance it will not be Michael Phelps, despite another probable golden haul, but Franklin, who will be taking time out from her high school studies (and competing for the school swimming team) to travel to London.
"She's super good. Oh my gosh!" was how Phelps summed up her first major meet in Shanghai. There is a telling comparison to be made with Phelps. He too took part in his first World Championships aged 16, winning one gold. Two of Franklin's wins in China were as part of relay teams, but there can be no denying her huge talent. In October she became the first woman to break a world record since bodysuits were banned at the start of 2010 – in her premier event, the 200m backstroke.
At 6ft 1in she has a height advantage over most of her opponents and a Phelps-esque wingspan. She also swims freestyle and the individual medley and is already a key part of the three US relay teams. By September, four Olympic golds could be on show at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado.
Tennis: Kei Nishikori
Successful male Japanese tennis players are about as rare as Scottish sumo wrestlers but Kei Nishikori has the ability to floor the very best his sport can offer. The graduate from the Nick Bollettieri Academy, who turned 22 yesterday, underlined his potential with a series of outstanding displays in the latter stages of the 2011 season and will begin the new campaign as the world No 25, the best ranking ever by a Japanese man.
Nishikori went to Florida at the age of 14, when he could not speak a word of English. His language skills improved as quickly as his tennis and by the age of 18 he had won his first tournament on the main tour, at Delray Beach. However, the ATP's "Newcomer of the Year" for 2008 missed most of the following season with a serious elbow injury and it has only been in recent months that his results have again started to reflect his undoubted ability.
Having reached the semi-finals in Kuala Lumpur, Nishikori enjoyed his best run at a Masters Series tournament in Shanghai, where he fell in the last four to Andy Murray. He went one round better in Basle, where he beat Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic before losing in the final to Roger Federer.
Dante Bottini is his travelling coach, but Nishikori also works with Brad Gilbert, who counts Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Murray among his former charges. Given that Gilbert is a master at maximising a player's talent, Nishikori could go a very long way. The Japanese is a flamboyant shot-maker who likes to attack, but he can be erratic. Gilbert's biggest challenge will be to make him more consistent without restricting his flair.
It might seem too much to ask, but some are wondering whether another champion is already developing in the slipstream of Frankel. For everything about him – from his name, to his luminous quality, to the excitement of the expert horsemen around him – suggests that Camelot may be next.
Camelot tested the water just twice in his first season, but could scarcely have made a bigger splash. Trained by the record-breaking Aidan O'Brien, when he first surfaced at Leopardstown in July the son of the mighty Montjeu was preceded by rumours of extraordinary deeds on the Ballydoyle gallops, and made short work of his task.
He then disappeared until the Group One Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster in October, when he cruised to win at his leisure.
It remains to be seen how Camelot will respond in a battle. We will presumably find out in both Classics for which he is already hot favourite, the 2,000 Guineas and Derby. If he emerges unscathed, he will guarantee 2012 as another vintage year simply by turning up – somewhere – and taking on Frankel.
Rugby League: John Bateman
The England Academy's matches against their Australian contemporaries always throw up an exciting prospect or two. A very young English side lost narrowly at Leigh last month, but they had the most accomplished player in captain John Bateman. The 18-year-old Bradford Bull led the team with an outstanding display at loose-forward, showing ball-handling skills and defence out of the top drawer.
A product of the Bradford Dudley Hill amateur club, Bateman made four first-team appearances for the Bulls last season, including his first try against Wigan, from stand-off, though he fancies himself more as a second-rower. In either role he has plenty to offer as Bradford try to rebuild in 2012.
Formula One: Jean-Eric Vergne
When Alain Prost first tested at McLaren, he thought team boss Teddy Mayer was crouching by the cockpit with lap times. He wasn't. Mayer had a contract he wanted the young Frenchman to sign, he was so impressed.
Well, Red Bull didn't need to give Jean-Eric Vergne a contract when he dominated testing recently in three young driver days in Abu Dhabi, driving Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, because they already had him signed up. But the 21-year-old from Pontoise, near Paris, is being spoken of in the same manner Prost was back in 1979, and has all the hallmarks of a future world champion. He dominated British Formula Three in 2010, and showed strong form in World Series by Renault and as Toro Rosso's Friday morning driver on occasions in 2011. Next year he'll be partnering talented Australian Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso, where he's being groomed as a potential replacement for Mark Webber alongside Vettel in 2013.
So what's special about JEV, as he likes to be known? Well, he and Ricciardo have shown similar pace and commitment, but Red Bull's Christian Horner admits that there is that little bit of steel, that bit of "bastard" within Vergne that all champions display.
"I'm really satisfied," Vergne said after lapping the Yas Marina circuit within tenths of Vettel's best. "Those were three mega days for me and I'm really happy with what I did for the team. Everything went well."
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