The remarkable moments that made 2007 a year to remember
Defeat for Ricky, two of Europe's finest fought out The Open and Federer reminded us of his genius again. 'Independent' writers nominate the high points of an unforgettable 12 months
Monday 31 December 2007
Two major nights involving British boxers stand out. November and 50,150 people are inside the Millennium Stadium for Joe Calzaghe's super-middleweight world unification fight against Mikkel Kessler. Both are undefeated but at the end of 12 technically flawless rounds Calzaghe is a clear winner. Kessler has no idea what went wrong and Calzaghe would struggle to explain his ring brilliance. It was a night of perfection from Calzaghe and the boxing world applauded. That was 3 November but another gruelling sporting contest involving Calzaghe unfolded on 9 December in Las Vegas. It was the Sports Personality of the Year show and it was the last seconds of the final round, so to speak. A total of 9.3 million people watched as Lewis Hamilton came second for the second time and Calzaghe, in front of an audience of just 18 including Lennox Lewis and Ricky Hatton, stood up in the final moments to hear the words: "The sports personality of the year for 2007 is Joe Calzaghe." It was an honour and a privilege to be ringside for both events.
Golf: Paddy's Carnoustie comeback
"Hi, Paddy." The scene is the right-hand bridge over the first section of the Barry Burn and the greeting is from Sergio Garcia to Padraig Harrington. The former just happens to be walking on to the 17th fairway just as the latter is fishing his ball from the water on the 18th.
Harrington is clearly too focused to answer his young Spanish rival and that is perfectly understandable as he holds a one-shot lead in the Open. As Garcia strides on he hears that unmistakable mixture of groans and gasps that mean one thing in golf: trouble. Garcia swivels to see Harrington with arms on hips, wondering how he had managed to hit a second into the snaking hazard. Surely Sergio will win now? El Niño marches on to the penultimate green with the swagger of a champion who has at last arrived.
Fast forward 90 minutes and what is this? Harrington hugging his caddie and Garcia shaking his head? How did this come to pass? Simple. It's called the Open, it's called Carnoustie and together they add up to drama.
That magical Sunday evening in July reconfirmed to us that, in this unique sport, nothing is ever certain. Garcia learnt it most painfully.
Tennis: Swiss relish for 'hot dog'
The "hot dog", when a player hits the ball between his legs with his back to the net, is usually reserved for exhibition matches. On a balmy February night in Dubai, Roger Federer used it to strike one of the most extraordinary shots of the year.
Daniele Bracciali had lobbed the world No 1 and was at the net by the time Federer reached the ball, several feet behind his baseline. The Italian was probably expecting a simple lob, but instead could only watch as Federer played the "hot dog" with such power and precision that it flew past him for a winner.
Bracciali promptly went down on one knee in mock deference to Federer, who could barely wipe the smile off his face at the replay on the big screen. It was yet another reminder of the brilliance of one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
Football: April rules for English success in Europe
As the goals rolled in for Manchester United against Roma at Old Trafford in the Champions League on 10 April, those of us who were in Valencia watching Chelsea felt a bit short-changed. Missing United hitting seven against the Italians was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities but the action at the Mestalla that night did not disappoint either.
Chelsea's 2-1 triumph did not have the wow factor of United's victory but Michael Essien's last-minute winner was every bit as dramatic. It was a great night for two English clubs, who made up three of the semi-finalists with Liverpool, and the highlight of a year which was a disaster for the England team.
There was excruciating embarrassment for Steve McClaren and England's Euro 2008 failed qualification campaign. Liverpool's victory over Barcelona at the Nou Camp runs the 10 April night close but will always be cheapened by Craig Bellamy's idiotic golf club swing celebration to commemorate him beating up John Arne Riise while he slept. What a nice bloke.
Motor Racing: Dennis weeps at McLaren milestone
Lewis Hamilton's stunning first grand prix victory in Canada, where Michael Schumacher stood ignored on the pit wall as a new hero basked in the spray of champagne, came close. But my highlight came at Monza when Hamilton trailed his team-mate Fernando Alonso home as McLaren scored their first one-two at Italy's temple of speed, home of arch-enemy Ferrari.
All season the team principal, Ron Dennis, had been stretched on the rack of the "Stepneygate" scandal, which many perceived to be little more than a witch-hunt against an honourable man. The fact that Dennis was told that, were he to retire, all of McLaren's problems would "go away," tended to endorse that view. Now, in the elation of a great sporting success, a sometimes prickly yet deeply committed man wept as he succumbed to the emotion of the moment. This was raw passion revealed, the hallmark of the true racer.
Rugby Union: Hernandez passes out for Pumas
A mischievous sort might identify three highlights of 2007, all of them cut from the same World Cup cloth: Fiji's glorious victory over Wales and Ireland's defeat by the marvellous Argentines, followed by New Zealand's quarter-final pratfall in Cardiff. The three losers found themselves on early flights home, taking their "perfect systems" with them. So much for the four-year planning cycle.
But this is not the time of year for smirking. Of all the rugby played over the last 12 months, little or none of it matched the majesty of the Pumas' bronze medal play-off performance against the French. And the most magisterial moment of all was a single piece of visionary distribution from Juan Martin Hernandez, "le Maradona du rugby", that discombobulated the Tricolore defence and created a try for Federico Martin Aramburu. If this correspondent never sees another pass thrown, he can die happy.
Cricket: Lara makes a slow and sad exit from the stage
Brian Lara and Shane Warne, two of the game's greatest players, waved goodbye to international cricket in 2007 and each will be sorely missed. For the last 15 years the prospect of watching Lara bat or Warne bowl was the principal reason why thousands of fans turned up to matches and why millions tuned in on television or radio. Even when they were scoring runs or taking wickets against your side they were a pleasure to watch.
Warne made a triumphant farewell in Sydney after Australia had thumped England 5-0 in the Ashes but Lara's low-key lap of honour at the Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, was to me a more emotional moment. The West Indies had just lost narrowly to England in a thrilling yet meaningless World Cup match and many of the home fans had left before Lara began shaking hands as he slowly made his way around the ground.
Lara's career has not been faultless. He has made mistakes and at times failed to set the right example. But he deserved better, he deserved a warmer and more appreciative reception than that he received. His genius has provided the modern game with some of its greatest moments, innings that will be talked about for decades to come. Cricket is poorer without him.
Racing: Fallon's victory out of the wilderness
A year that explored the full emotional spectrum, from the joy of Henry Cecil's return to the big time at Epsom in June to the despair of George Washington's death at the Breeders' Cup in the autumn, reached a peak of intensity on a golden afternoon in Paris on 7 October.
The next morning Kieren Fallon was due to appear at the Old Bailey to face a charge of conspiracy to defraud punters. Though banished from British racing for 15 months pending his trial, the six-times champion jockey was allowed to ride elsewhere and was duly able to partner Dylan Thomas in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the greatest prize of the European turf.
With a ride arguably beyond the reach of any peer, Fallon won by a short head and returned to heartfelt public acclaim. Even then he had to endure a 35-minute stewards' inquiry, a heartless prologue to the far graver tribunal ahead.
Nobody could know, then, that the case against Fallon would collapse two months later or that he might then face a long suspension for failing a drugs test. But few present had ever experienced such a charged atmosphere on a racecourse.
Athletics: Sanders revs up a gold
Running a 400 metres indoors is more akin to Formula One than athletics. While an outdoor race involves a single circuit of one unimpinged lane, the version under cover involves two hectic laps, of which the second is contested as a free-for-all. That Formula One moment occurs shortly before the bell for the second 200m as the runners break from their lanes and a clear picture of the order emerges.
When Britain's Nicola Sanders lined up in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena for the European indoor 400m final on 3 March she did so as favourite to claim her first big title, having twice clocked a personal best of 50.60sec in the preceding month.
She was under pressure. But as the bell clamoured, and the runners slid towards the inside lane, there was gratifyingly clear space between Sanders and her closest rival, Ilona Usovich, of Belarus. The gold was hers to lose, and she didn't.
Rugby League: Raynor's silent running
Great Britain were trailing New Zealand by a couple of points eight minutes into the second half of the opening Test at Huddersfield in October when they turned the series around with a bizarre try.
Rob Burrow belted the ball upfield, with nothing more in mind than gaining ground. It was running dead, with the Kiwi full-back Sam Perrett shepherding it to safety. But then two things happened. The ball defied the laws of momentum by putting on its brakes inches short of the dead-ball line and Gareth Raynor arrived, without registering on Perrett's rear-view mirror, to touch it down sneakily.
Raynor explained that he had deliberately kept quiet as he went on his long and hopeful chase, so that Perrett would remain unaware of his presence. It was a match won by stealth and Great Britain went on to win the series 3-0 to give the end of the season a stronger feelgood factor than for years.
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