Star gazers' guide to the sporting year

Who will dominate 1997? Independent on Sunday writers join in the prediction game by nominating a sporting personality for each month
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January

Martina Hingis

Australian Open

A New year and a new challenger at the top of women's tennis. Steffi Graf has dominated the game for nearly a decade. She has seen off Martina Navratilova, kept Monica Seles at bay and proved the nemesis of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. But now someone more than 10 years her junior is advancing on her territory.

Martina Hingis is the prodigy whose time may have come. She arrives at the Australian Open after an end to 1996 that put her right up with the very best - her first three titles and a performance over five sets in the final of the WTA Championship that gave Graf her biggest fright for a long time. The relaxed atmosphere at Flinders Park in Melbourne suits the outgoing Hingis with the sunny disposition. The crowd warm to her ready smile and natural manner. She is a throwback to an earlier more gracious age. Those who grew up watching Evonne Goolagong see something of her in the young, almost dainty Swiss. Hingis sails into the semi-finals. Graf awaits her. It is close for the second match running. But Graf prevails over three sets. Her hunger is still not satisfied. Hingis must wait. But for how long?

February

David Beckham

World Cup qualifier: England v Italy

Not quite a glorious 12th for England's footballers as Italy come to Wembley - a few of them on the tube from Stamford Bridge - for a crucial World Cup qualifying match. England had looked competent in winning away matches, in Moldova and Georgia last year, less so at home against Poland. That game, as did this against Italy, saw Paul Gascoigne indisciplined and sub-standard to prompt again the usual debate as to whether he is able to produce the old incisive skills against more accomplished opposition.

It may now mean that David Beckham slips infield from right wing-back to supply the vision, passing and running that is failing Gascoigne. Such a move would obviate the need to surround Gazza with minders and allow the option of more creative players, such as Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton. At 21, the boy David has the key to the door for England. Hoddle sees elements of himself, of the type of midfield player in danger of extinction during the functionalism of the early 90s. Now Beckham seems ready to assume the central role, perhaps in Poland in May - where England should win to secure their place - or in the return with Italy in October.

March

Rough Quest

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Rough Quest, a horse built in the plain, old-fashioned mould, proves himself the best staying chaser in Britain and Ireland as he wins a thrilling 70th running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup for owner Andrew Wates, trainer Terry Casey and jockey Mick Fitzgerald. Thursday, 13 March, cold, wet and windy, is not a day for the faint-hearted. Irish tails sprang up after their surprise Champion Hurdle one-two with Theatreworld and Space Trucker two days previously, and the Queen Mother Champion Chase defeat of Sound Man and Klairon Davis by One Man - diverted to the two- mile event because of the testing ground - has only increased their desire.

After reigning champion Imperial Call's fall at the final ditch, and Danoli's blunder three out, it is left to Dorans Pride to tackle The Grey Monk two out, with Addington Boy and Coome Hill starting to stay on. The Irish roar goes up as they come to the last, but just behind them last year's runner-up Rough Quest is perfectly poised for his trademark late challenge. The 11-year-old gelding noses in front halfway up the hill and holds off Dorans Pride to become only the second Grand National winner, after Golden Miller, to follow up in chasing's premier prize.

April

Tiger Woods

US Masters

Eldrick "Tiger" Woods rides down Augusta National's famed Magnolia Drive at the head of a publicity procession bulging with more ballyhoo than even those sacred shrubs have witnessed. Although his professional golfing career is barely six months old, we are already assured that this slim 21-year-old will carry the game into the next century like the figure- head at the prow of a golden galleon.

The confirmation of that exotic promise, of course, requires certain supporting evidence and the 1997 US Masters on 10 April is his first opportunity as a pro to add a major to his many accomplishments. There is, however, a slight difference from his first appearance here two years ago. Then he was a glittering amateur - youngest winner of the US title - and the dark tinge to his smiling face brought an extra piquancy to the prospect of his lifting such a prize from the heart of Confederate Georgia. A touch of rawness prevented that happening and although he is far better equipped for heroism now he has to learn the lesson of playing sport for money - nobody steps aside. At least two bar his path to glory on this occasion - Nick Faldo and Tom Lehman. And the greater of these is Lehman.

May

John Barnes

FA Premiership champions

The domestic denouements in football see Liverpool as the darling buds of May with John Barnes, whose under-rated and understated passing skills are crucial, lifting the garish FA Carling Premiership trophy ahead of Arsenal in revenge for 1989, the last time the title was won by as few as 76 points. An end to Liverpool's seven-year itch for the title is a fitting reward for Barnes, the outstanding figure in the last title team, when he was the club's top scorer - surpassing the irrepressible Ian Rush - with 22 goals. The Barnes of today is barely recognisable as the dashing figure he was then but, at the age of 33, is an example of the patient, thoughtful player every team should have but few do. There are more explosive, youthful talents at Anfield but if Robbie Fowler gives the team its heart, then Barnes provides the soul.

When it comes to the FA Cup, it is always a smart bet to pick a side with a mean defensive streak, an ability to withstand pressure away from home and a striker capable of poaching a goal on the break. Aston Villa fit the bill for the final on 15 May, giving the headline-writers the opportunity for "It's Cup to you, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke".

June

Glenn McGrath

The Ashes

With another spell of inspired, high-class fast bowling Glenn McGrath undermines the England batting. This was an Ashes series in which, it was supposed, the leg-spin of Shane Warne would be decisive. But the accurate, probing and - significantly - rapid outswing of McGrath has upset all prognostications. The tall, lean man from Dubbo, New South Wales, brings his tally for the rubber to 16 wickets with his match analysis of 10 for 147 in the second Test at Lord's. Centuries for John Crawley and the resurgent Michael Atherton cannot prevent a merited Australian victory by four wickets to bring the series level.

It is worrying for England's hopes of regaining the Ashes that they have, for the moment, silenced Warne, only to be outgunned by McGrath. Since he was discovered by Doug Walters, eschewed basketball and tennis in favour of cricket and made his international debut after only seven state matches, the 26-year-old has made relentless progress. He played a key role in Australia's two successful series against West Indies and since ensnaring Brian Lara at Port-of-Spain two years ago has had the West Indian in his pocket. To reclaim the little urn England must repel him quickly.

July

Tim Henman

Wimbledon

His eyes narrowed, he glances towards the other end of the court, then looks down. Two gentle bounces of the ball. A third. Up it goes. The legs stretch. The torso swivels. The right arm extends skywards and the racket-head whips through in a blur. Across the net from Tim Henman stands Pete Sampras. The ball is coming towards him at 130mph. Or rather, not coming towards him because Henman has hit it wide to the forehand and Sampras has to leap towards it. The contact is good, though, and the shot seems to send the ball back towards Henman with interest. But Henman is there. He is at the net. There is no way past. And the volley - deep to the opposite corner - is such a foregone conclusion that Sampras is already walking back along the baseline for the next point.

It is semi-finals day at Wimbledon. Henman's 1997 has exceded even his 1996, and a lot of it is down to his mastery of serve-and-volley. It seems a long time since Boris Becker was telling him he should come in behind his serve more. Two years ago Sampras beat Henman here in three mostly untroubled sets. But he needs five this time. Henman has still gone one better than 12 months ago. It's getting closer every year.

August

Daniel Komen

World Athletics Championships

Forty-Three years after Roger Bannister broke through the four- minute mile barrier, Daniel Komen does it twice in one race. Running on the European circuit after winning the 5,000 metres at the world athletics championships in Athens, the Kenyan becomes the first man to break eight minutes for two miles. It makes headlines beyond the sports pages but comes as no surprise to aficionados of track and field. The 3,000m world record Komen set in the Italian town of Rieti last September, 7 min and 20.67 sec, equated to a two-mile time of 7 min 58 sec. His astonishing feat can best be appreciated by reflecting that Steve Ovett and Said Aouita both had best times of 8 min 13 sec for the distance.

It seems staggering to recall that at the start of the 1996 track season Komen failed to qualify for the Olympic Games, finishing fourth in the Kenyan 5,000m trial race. By the end of last summer he had not only smashed Noureddine Morceli's 3,000m record by four-and-a-half seconds, he had shattered Haile Gebrselassie's two-mile world best and missed Gebrselassie's 5,000m record by seven-tenths of a second. One year on, still only 21, the record book again stands at his mercy.

September

Severiano Ballesteros

The Ryder Cup

On the eve of the Ryder Cup, Seve Ballesteros gazes over the tips of the cork trees that pattern the sharp dips and rises of Valderrama and feels content that he made the right decision to select himself in the European Team. He may be on an unstoppable spiral from the heights of his playing career but he feels entitled to take a place on the barricades. Such is the superior strength-in-depth of the American team that he has to search for less definable qualities. What had done for the USA in 1995 was a lack of bottle at the crucial time. Ballesteros' presence in the European team stiffens the hackles.

El Cid, the legendary Spanish hero, led his army to victory over the Moors despite being dead. They strapped his body to a horse and put the invaders to flight. Seve does not need strapping to a caddy car but his appearance as a player is inspirational. Unfortunately, it does not lead to triumph, but it still adds to the event's traditional drama. If we had a better team, Seve might have resisted the urge to throw himself into the fight. But if destiny decreed that home blood has to be spilled on Spanish soil it is right that it should include that of the greatest European golfer of his time.

October

Jacques Villeneuve

Formula One world championship

An exciting month for motor racing fans as the world championship, truncated by a boycott of both Italian races in the light of the interminable adjournments of the Senna inquiry, concludes in Japan and Portugal.

Damon Hill registers his first win for the Arrows team at Suzuka, where his Japanese Bridgestone tyres seem uncannily well-suited to the track surface. Then on to a nail-biting final race of the championship at Estoril. Michael Schumacher of Ferrari goes into the final contest nine points clear of the Williams team leader Jacques Villeneuve. Schumacher needs only to finish in the points to sew up his third title, and his first for the Italian team. The German holds a comfortable lead over Villeneuve when, with 10 laps to go, he prepares to lap Hill's Arrows, which is running well down the field. In what is described later by the Briton as "a classic racing accident" the Ferrari's nose is terminally crumpled, and Villeneuve sweeps on to victory and the championship. Villeneuve's celebrations are interrupted by the news that he will be replaced at Williams for 1998 by Hill. "Damon is a lot cheaper now," a team source reveals.

November

Alex King

England v the All Blacks

Amid the gloom of another black day for English rugby union, Alex King provides a shaft of light. The nightmare of the 1995 World Cup semi- final in Cape Town returns to haunt England as New Zealand put 40 points past them once again, this time in football's Theatre of Dreams. The international at Old Trafford on 22 November might have been an unadulterated Black- wash but for evidence that in their King England at last seem to have found a suitable heir to Rob Andrew in the outside-half position.

After his encouraging baptism midway through the Five Nations' Championship, and the understudy role he played to Gregor Townsend for the British Lions in South Africa, the 22-year-old Wasps outside-half produces his most assured performance to date on the international stage. The highlight is a sidestep and swerve which launches the England three-quarters out of defence for Tony Underwood's consolation try. One national newspaper columnist says it reminds him of the blinding break-out which yielded a roaring touch-down for the other Underwood boy in the Calcutta Cup match of 1993. High praise indeed from one Mr Stuart Barnes.

December

Naseem Hamed

Sports Personality of the Year

Voting for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year is thrown into confusion when a glitch in the E-Mail system registers five million votes for the former model Fiona Wright. The culprit is a North London teenager with a sticking computer keyboard who had attempted to register a single vote for Ian Wright. The title is finally awarded to Prince Naseem Hamed, who during the year added the IBF featherweight title to his WBO belt with victory over the American Tom Johnson. His on-off contest with Wayne McCullough for the WBC bantamweight title has been scheduled for 1998, when Hamed will have decided what weight he wants to be. Meanwhile, he is locked in a legal dispute over his wish to rename himself "King" Naseem Hamed. Don of that ilk claims the sole promotional rights to the name.

There is further controversy during the awards, when a stunt involving celebrities bowling at Michael Atherton goes wrong. Atherton is clean- bowled by Tim Henman, caught behind off Jenny Pitman, given out hit wicket to Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, plumb lbw to Frank Bruno and caught and bowled by Desert Orchid. The contest is declared a five-way tie. "Bring on the West Indies," Atherton remarks.

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