LONDON: One of the best books I read this year was "Federer and Me – A Story of Obsession" by William Skidelsky. In it the British journalist and author explored what it is about the Swiss sensation that mesmerizes him, the part beauty plays in tennis and sport as a whole, and the psychology of fandom.
Written two years ago it was also, in part, an ode to the greatest tennis player of his generation, if not ever. It was Skidelsky’s love letter to a star that had brought him pleasure and relief from everyday life’s grinds and challenges. Federer, so the accepted wisdom went, was a shadow of his former, majestic self, he was on the wane and never to win another Grand Slam. Skidelsky’s book was, for many who read it, a fitting tribute to one of sport’s all-time greats as he departed the autumn of his career and meandered into winter and eventual retirement.
All of which makes the events of this year even more remarkable. The Swiss started the year having only just returned from six months out with a knee injury, without a Grand Slam title in nearly five years and fast heading toward the pack labelled also-rans.
He ended it, having dealt a forehand smash to that accepted wisdom, with two Slam successes, three Masters titles, seven tour titles and a record of 52-5. Federer’s win at the Australian Open gave the year its best match (see boxout), and his record eighth Wimbledon crown was achieved without losing a set. It was Federer at his most dominant and serene. A throwback to when he was without question the best on the planet. That he set new records, playing at a level most, even Skidelsky, assumed was now beyond him has only added to his legend and proved once and for all the Swiss is the greatest player to ever lift a racquet.
Statistically it was Federer’s best season since 2007, which is what the tennis world felt like throughout the year. It was not just the Swiss who turned back time, but also his arch-rival Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard goes into 2018 as world No. 1 having won a record 10th French Open title and the US Open – his 16th Grand Slam title overall, to leave him just three behind Federer’s record 19.
The peerless pair dominated the season while their natural heirs – Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – both had a year to forget. Both were supposed to battle it out for the No. 1 and confirm themselves, along with Stan Wawrinka, as the dominant forces in the game. But injuries to all three dealt aces to their hopes of not only challenging for top spot, but also match wins and titles. An elbow injury has meant that Djokovic has not played since July and Murray has had six months out with hip problems.
It was not just in the men’s game where it seemed more like 2007 than 2017. The Australian Open final saw Serena Williams play her sister Venus. It was the first time the pair had faced off in a Grand Slam final in eight years and with Federer and Nadal playing in the men’s final 24 hours later only underlined the sense of déjà vu that permeated the tennis year. Having set the record for the most slams in the open era when she claimed her 23rd title beating Venus, Serena announced she was pregnant and did not play for the rest of 2017. However, her sister ended the year as leading money winner on tour in a season which ended with Romania’s Simona Halep as world No. 1.
Serena is set to return to the courts in the new year and it cannot come soon enough. Without her the women’s game failed to seize the public imagination and that Maria Sharapova’s return after a drug ban was seen as a huge positive for the sport said a lot both about the state of a Serena-less game and tennis’ attitude toward doping.
Meanwhile, on the fairways and greens golf did its very best to prove it did not need Tiger Woods to generate stories and headlines to sell the sport to the world. A new generation of young American big-hitters dominated the Majors with only Sergio Garcia’s victory at the Masters – his first ever Major victory (see boxout) – preventing a clean sweep for the stars and stripes. But while the wins for Brooks Koepka (US Open), Jordan Spieth (The Open) and Justin Thomas (US PGA) underlined the talent, and sheer big-hitting ability of the young guns, the year ended with a familiar big beast returning to action.
During the summer many were predicting Woods’ career was over. Mugshots of the golf’s biggest ever star were beamed across the world after the 41-year-old was arrested for driving under the influence in May. It was found that Woods was suffering from the effects of painkillers and sleeping tablets; he later pleaded guilty to reckless driving. But the episode only served to underline his fall from grace — in pain and incapable of ever returning to the fairways, let alone dominating in the way he once did.
Or so the story went.
The year ended with Woods back in action at his own Hero World Challenge tournament finishing ninth in a field of 18. While it was not the biggest event out there the field was very good – Tiger beat Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas – and it was the manner of his play that really caught the eye and got, as if any invitation were needed, tongues once again wagging about whether he can climb back to the top of the sport.
In his first competitive start in 10 months, and after his fourth spinal surgery, Tiger was hitting the ball 315 yards off the tee with the ball speed touching 180mph. Those are the numbers of a golfer neither in pain nor making up the numbers.
While it is perhaps too much to expect him to ever dominate in the manner he once did if he can keep in shape, admittedly a big if, get some tournaments under his belt then you never know that elusive 15th Major – he knows his way around Augusta and will always have a chance at The Open – could be his.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but if this year has taught us anything it is that the passage of time need not bunker hopes of unlikely success and that nous, experience and undoubted ability are still commodities worth something in top-level sport. That is the lesson dished out by Federer and you do not need to be an obsessive on the level of Skidelsky to admit that 2017 belonged to the Swiss sensation.
TENNIS: BEST TENNIS MATCH OF THE YEAR – Australian Open final, Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal
Two players who were past it and for whom sporting obituaries had already been penned served up not just the best match of the year, but one of the all-time great finals. It had been six years since they met in a Grand Slam final and at two sets all and a break down Federer was letting surely his chance of a last slam title slip. But he stormed back to claim the last five matches to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. It was the first time Federer had beaten his arch-rival in a Grand Slam final away from Wimbledon and set up what was to be a thrilling year for both supposed ‘has-beens’. It was sporting romance at its most seductive and entertaining – simply superb.
GOLF: MOST ROMANTIC VICTORY OF THE YEAR – Sergio Garcia at the Masters
Depending on who you speak to you can get two versions of Sergio Garcia. The fun-loving, joyful, effervescent, popular golfer who lit up the sport when he ran Tiger Woods close at the 1999 US PGA Championship, or the sullen Spaniard who blamed his lack of Major titles on lady luck. Whichever one you subscribed to you had to have had a heart of stone or no soul, or both, not for a little part of you to be happy Garcia won the famous Green Jacket. Sport, especially individual ones like golf, is as much about mental fortitude and dealing with failure and mental anguish as it is about talent and titles. Garcia was supposed to have won a sackful of Majors by now, that he had to wait until he was 37, and the smile on his face once the winning putt went in, made it all the more memorable.
GOLF: GUTSY DISPLAY OF THE YEAR – Jordan Spieth at The Open
Jordan Spieth is many things: An all-American hero, a fine upstanding young man, golf’s hottest talent, a multiple Major winner aged just 24. What many did not have him down as, and this was as much to do with his career being relatively young, was as a grit and determination kind of guy; a golfer who can look adversity in the face, smile and punch it in the face. But that is exactly what he did at Royal Birkdale. Barely a year after he sank his hopes of another Masters title at Augusta’s infamous 12th Spieth was once again looking at a final round disaster with victory in sight. He drove the ball wildly on Birkdale’s 13th and had to take an unplayable lie. After nearly 20 minutes deliberation with rules officials he took a drop in a practice area as much as 50 meters right of the fairway with huge dunes between him and the unsighted green. He escaped with no more than a bogey and gained five shots over the next four holes to claim the Claret Jug – gutsy does not begin to cover it.
TENNIS: UPSET OF THE YEAR – Sloane Stephens winning the US Open
In some ways it is very hard to have an upset in the women’s game when Serena is not playing, such is the open nature of competition and multitude of potential (some may say average) winners. But Stephens’ victory at Flushing Meadows was ultimately a triumph of the human spirit and endeavour over injuries and loss of form. Just six weeks before the final the American was ranked as low as 957th in the world having only comeback from 11 months out with a foot injury at Wimbledon. But she found the sort of form that saw her become one of the sport’s hottest young talents in in the early part of the decade, to reach the final beating 15th seed Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0. The 24-year-old became only the fifth unseeded woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open era and the first American woman from outside the Williams family to win a major singles title since Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open.
GOLF: MUST DO BETTER IN 2018 – Rory McIlroy
This time last year the Northern Irishman was ranked No. 2 in the world and focused on finally landing the career Grand Slam by winning the elusive US Masters title. Today he finds himself at No. 10 in the rankings, his lowest for several years and without any title all year, let alone a Green Jacket. Granted he was affected by a rib injury which ultimately put an early end to his season. But even taking that into account there is little avoiding that the tale of 2017 on the fairways is not the one he or anyone else would have expected or desired. In the meantime, the talent pool at the top of the game has grown with Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, to name only two, joining the ever-expanding list of genuine contenders before every Major. McIlroy, though, has talent few others possess and he will doubtless be raring to go in 2018, not least because he has a lot of time to make up for.