Golf: Matteo Manassero - 'The next Seve'
The cat is out of the bag – and now the golfing world waits to see if Matteo Manassero can become a Tiger. Of all the interesting storylines in 2011 the continued progression of this remarkable young gentleman of Verona could very easily send the rest into the footnotes.
After all, here is a teenager who has already turned amateur potential into professional success. In October, the 17-year-old became the youngest winner in the history of the European Tour. After turning pro in May, it took Manassero just five months to enter the winner's circle at the Castello Masters.
It was a remarkable achievement, but by then the teenager himself probably considered his maiden title overdue. After all, Manassero has been breaking golfing records since he left school. The youngest winner of the Amateur Championship in 2009; the youngest winner of the silver medal at The Open the same year; the youngest player ever to make the cut in the Masters in April.
With a style reminiscent of Seve Ballesteros it was little wonder that Tom Watson, who played alongside him in the first two rounds of The Open, declared "I have seen the future". But even old Tom admitted his surprise at how quickly that future proceeded to come into focus.
Perhaps his fellow Italians have been left most open-mouthed. For a country whose previous claims to golfing greatness started and finished with Costantino Rocca, the last 18 months have been, as Edoardo Molinari says, "unbelievable". "But what Matteo has been doing has been most unbelievable," so the elder of the brothers who played in October's Ryder Cup told The Independent. "We all knew he was special." Molinari first came across Manassero on a range four years ago. "You could even see it then," he says. "But then you talk to him and you realise he has the personality and temperament to succeed as well. This could be a big year."
At No 62 in the world rankings, Manassero's mission is to enter the top 50 by the March deadline to become the youngest professional ever to qualify for the Masters.
Formula One: Paul di Resta - 'Better than Vettel'
His cousin, the three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, thinks he's better than new world champion Sebastian Vettel. He's managed by Lewis Hamilton's father, Anthony. But right now Paul di Resta is still sweating on whether he can turn the test driver's seat at Force India which he occupied this season into a full-time race ride next.
"Force India has given me a great opportunity this year," says Di Resta, who beat Vettel to the 2006 European Formula Three Championship when they were team-mates, and recently clinched Germany's premier DTM racing championship for Mercedes in Shanghai. "It's always been my dream to be involved in an F1 team and I've been able to do some great things with them this year."
"He definitely has the skills," 37-year-old Franchitti insists. He regularly advises Di Resta, though he's the first to confirm that his cousin stands on his own two feet.
"We speak once or twice a week, we're very close. But he's doing his own thing. He'll ask advice but will definitely make his own decisions.
"He's one of the most talented drivers I've ever seen. Sebastian [Vettel] is a good driver, but Paul is better.
"Paul got up to speed in his first F1 test in a McLaren, then in the Force India, he was on the pace from the first lap. So, I think he has taken maximum advantage from any opportunities that have been given – simply because he's an amazing driver."
Cricket: Danny Briggs - Future King of Spin
It used to be said that all the people of the world could fit on the Isle of Wight if standing shoulder to shoulder. These days, it would presumably be a tighter squeeze because of the growing global population and all.
If they all decide to go, Danny Briggs may just make a bit of room. He is from the island town of Newport but he should soon be going places. Briggs has spent the winter so far with the England Performance Programme in Australia and will be going on the Lions Tour in February.
He is 19, an age when spinners know nothing, but may have the attributes to resume England's long line of accomplished left-arm slow bowlers. It is always a tricky business picking out spinners of the future as it takes so long to learn the trade.
Briggs has yet to take five wickets in a first-class innings and has a bowling average of 39. But he seems to have a crucial component for a spin bowler: nerves of steel.
Briggs was an important part of Hampshire's success in the Twenty20 Cup last season. He took 3 for 29 in both the quarter-final and semi-final. When it looked as though Essex were going to blast their way to an unapproachable total in the semi-final Briggs entered the fray and with a combination of guile and flight removed three of the top four to stop the gallop. In what was to be a nerve-shredding final he took one for 30 in four more clinically calm overs.
"The big thing for me to keep a clear head is to stick to your own gameplan and don't take much notice of what batsmen are doing," says Briggs. "A sense of calm comes from experience as well. Obviously I've got to get used to it because batsmen always want to take on spinners."
Briggs has some way to go but the fact that Hampshire are giving him encouragement – he played 12 Championship matches in 2010 – and that England are fast-tracking him suggests an emerging talent of some skill. He is orthodox in the sense that he relies on the old skills, turn, change of pace, drift, accuracy.
England have a rich tradition of slow left-armers, going back to Johnny Briggs and up to Monty Panesar. Danny Briggs can extend the lineage.
Athletics: Lawrence Clarke - Hurdling forward
Lawrence Clarke's mission in life is to make a name for himself in his own right – as a title-winning star of the track, rather than as an hereditary baronet. After little more than two years of serious, structured training, and just the one season in the senior competitive ranks, the 20-year-old heir to the baronetcy held by Sir Toby Clarke, is already forging a reputation as one of the brightest young things in British athletics.
In July 2009 he won the 110m hurdles at the European Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia – a title that eluded the great British king of the high hurdles, Colin Jackson. In October just gone, he completed an England 1-2-3 in the 110m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, taking bronze behind Andy Turner and William Sharman. That was an impressive enough achievement for Clarke in what was his first major championship at senior level but also a remarkable one given that he had torn a hip flexor muscle in the heats earlier the same day.
The medics advised him not to line-up for the final but he chose to go for broke, settling into his blocks without risking a warm-up. That he proceeded to squeeze his way into the medal frame, in 13.70sec (a mere 0.01sec outside his lifetime best) showed the mettle of the young man.
For many of the athletes who seized the hand of opportunity and made it into the first three in the severely weakened track and field events at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the medal podium in Delhi will probably be as good as it gets. For Clarke, it is likely to be a stepping stone to much higher achievement.
Rugby Union: Owen Farrell - Chip off the old block
This time last year, the brilliant form of a young Saracen back armed with a well-developed appreciation of rugby's possibilities and a rare ability to summon order from sporting chaos was driving much of the talk amongst the clubhouse chatterati. Twelve months on, the brilliant form of a young Saracen armed... well, you know the rest. For Alex Goode, read Owen Farrell.
It is not that the door has closed on Goode. Far from it. But Farrell, three years his junior at 19, also appears to have what it takes, and it is far from fanciful to suggest that the two of them might share the international stage at some point during the next World Cup cycle.
"The best outside-halves look as though they're playing in dinner suits." So says Andy Farrell, a great in rugby league, a World Cup midfielder in rugby union, a highly-regarded coach at Saracens and, it should also be mentioned, the father of Owen. "They look settled and in control. It's particularly good to see him kicking so well tactically, taking his time and making decisions calmly. I've been watching him and analysing him all his life, so he knows I'm an objective critic. He'll make mistakes, as all academy boys do, but he'll learn from them, as we all did."
Farrell's first three Premiership performances – at Gloucester, at Bath and at home to Harlequins – hinted at riches to come, in both marksmanship and game-management. The way he orchestrated, with considerable patience and intelligence, a long attack that led to David Strettle's fine opening try against Quins was striking indeed.
England were hardly awash with outside-halves when Farrell Snr played at the 2007 World Cup in France and there is no great strength in depth as they head towards the next global gathering in New Zealand. But there are stirrings in the undergrowth. Freddie Burns of Gloucester has something about him, and there are one or two bright sparks up north who might turn into proper players.
Farrell Jnr is the one ahead of the game, though. As long as he turns out to be just a little quicker than his old man, he'll be fine.
Racing: Joseph O'Brien - The name says it all
Though literally the freshest face on the scene, Joseph O'Brien is bringing renewed distinction to the most resonant surname on the Irish Turf. His father, Aidan, is the record-breaking trainer who has supervised a series of champions for John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore Stud, at their Ballydoyle stables in Co Tipperary. Earlier this month O'Brien, still only 17, rode two winners on the final Flat card of the Irish calendar to join Gary Carroll and Ben Curtis in an unprecedented three-way tie for the apprentice championship. In terms of both genes and opportunity, he could soon prove himself first among equals.
It was barely 18 months previously that O'Brien had his maiden ride in public. In that time, he has developed a remarkably precocious repertoire as a jockey – timing, strength and style. All the adolescent still lacks, necessarily, is experience. That much became transparent in the suspensions that denied him the title outright. But his father has been hastening to redress this one shortfall in the only way possible.
The name O'Brien will open doors, clearly. Far more significant, however, is the accompanying pedigree. And this young man is doubly blessed, in that his mother, Anne-Marie, is also an enormously accomplished horsewoman.
O'Brien has duly found support from many trainers with no agenda other than giving their horses a better chance. Of his 39 winners in 2010, in fact, 18 were for "outside" yards.
You can be certain that O'Brien will have been raised neither to expect nor seek short cuts. Yes, he has the sort of overnight opportunity that remains a remote prospect for Carroll and Curtis. But his privileges have come at a corresponding price, in pressure and expectation. And the fact is that cynics have been obliged to confine their jealousies to the chances O'Brien has been given – rather than the way he has handled them.
Such people, of course, would be immune to the poignant sense that O'Brien must make hay while the sun shines. He has grown dangerously tall for a Flat jockey, whose physique is still developing. It certainly remains possible that he may have only a limited career in the saddle, in terms of time. But you could hardly say the same, in terms of talent.
And he is likely to find giddy new opportunities falling his way in 2011. The resignation of the Ballydoyle stable jockey, Johnny Murtagh, has left no practical alternative superior to the promotion of his deputy, Colm O'Donoghue. In turn, that is likely to create huge new challenges for O'Brien. The stable often has more than one runner in elite races. On other occasions, it will be simultaneously involved in two such races at different tracks. It will be fascinating to see how O'Brien, winner of a solitary Group prize to date, copes with fancied mounts in Group One races.
And, no less so, whether Magnier and friends remain as eager as his own parents to fast-track O'Brien. Judging on what they have seen already, however, they may well believe that O'Brien will soon be known no longer simply as "Aidan's son". And even, perhaps, that their trainer will himself win new fame as "Joseph's father".
Tennis: Heather Watson - Hidden gem
Laura Robson beat her to a junior Grand Slam championship but Heather Watson, who won the US Open girls' title a year after her fellow Briton won Wimbledon, has been making the more significant progress on the senior tour. Watson, who at 18 is 16 months older than Robson, is already world No 176 and has only Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong ahead of her in the British rankings. Robson is world No 217.
Watson enjoyed her biggest senior victory when she won a $50,000 International Tennis Federation title in Toronto in November. Earlier in the year she beat Sania Mirza to win a $25,000 ITF tournament in Wrexham and enjoyed her best run at a main tour event at Eastbourne when she beat two top 100 players, including the eventual Wimbledon semi-finalist, Tsvetana Pironkova.
Blessed with natural speed and athleticism, Watson has honed her game at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, where her competitive spirit was noted from an early age.
Rugby League: Liam Watts - Artful prop forward
When British rugby league fans are not bemoaning the lack of commanding home-grown half-backs, they can be heard lamenting the dearth of ball-handling front-rowers.
Supporters with long memories can invoke the memory of Brian McTigue or Brian Lockwood, but will tell you that the species is extinct.
Not quite, it isn't. Eorl Crabtree has played his way into the England side with his ability to slip the ball out of the tackle; Danny Sculthorpe might have done the same, if he had stayed fit for long enough.
Most exciting of all, for those with a taste for retro prop forward play, is Hull KR's Liam Watts. He is just 20, but the way he plays the game turns the clock back several decades.
"He's the old-fashioned English front-rower and I like that about him," says his coach at Rovers, Justin Morgan. "I've never seen a 20-year-old front-rower with better ball skills. In fact, I've never seen one better at any age," Morgan says of him. "He's got a great offload, especially that one-handed one around the body of the tackler."
Last season he was named as the Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year and included in the preliminary England squad for the Four Nations.
"He's got that X-factor, which makes it exciting for me to coach him," Morgan adds. "Liam's got the potential to do as much as he wants to do in this game."
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