DUBAI: It took the most elite, most exclusive sport on the planet to remind us just how heartwarming an underdog win can be.
Only the most cold-hearted of cynics couldn’t have been touched by Pierre Gasly’s reaction to winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday.
From banging his steering wheel in joy after passing the checkered flag, to celebrating with his delirious Alpha Tauri team, the childlike glee of his interview and finally standing on the podium as “La Marseillaise” played in recognition of his victory.
When it was all done, and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who had finished second and third respectively, had departed the scene, Gasly sat alone amid the confetti, his head still shaking in disbelief.
At the highest strata of competitive sports, these moments are becoming rarer by the year.
As Gasly would admit, almost everything has to go right for the underdog on the day. And so many things have to go wrong for your rivals. For the 24-year-old Frenchman, the stars aligned in Monza when world champion and comfortable race leader Lewis Hamilton was handed a stop and start penalty for illegally entering a pit lane; Max Verstappen had to retire with car trouble, and Valtteri Bottas had a poor race.
The golden opportunity was grabbed by Gasly as he held off the challenge of another beneficiary of circumstance, Sainz, to become the first French winner of a Formula 1 (F1) Grand Prix since Olivier Panis triumphed in Monaco in 1996.
Significantly, in a sport where the gap between the best and the rest is practically unbridgeable, it was the first time since 2012 that a driver from Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari did not win an F1 Grand Prix.
Formula 1, a sport practiced by just 20 drivers, may be the most extreme example of a closed shop, but other sports also stand to benefit from seeing different winners once in a while.
Tennis will soon experience the novelty of a US Open, and Grand Slam, champion other than Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray since Stan Wawrinka won there in 2016, and the latest first-time winner since Marin Cilic claimed the title two years earlier.
Since the start of the 2004 ATP season, only six of the 64 Grand Slam finals (the US Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Australian Open) have been won by someone outside the dominant four players of their generation; two for Wawrinka and one each for Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martín del Potro, and Cilic.
No doubt whoever triumphs next Sunday will have been helped by the withdrawals of Federer and Nadal (due to coronavirus safety concerns), the second round loss of Murray and the disqualification of Djokovic for unintentionally, but recklessly, hitting a line judge in the neck with a ball between points during his match against Pablo Carreno Busta earlier this week. That is some alignment of stars, though the eventual winner will hardly care.
In the women’s US Open, however, something of a reversal is happening, with all eyes on the legendary Serena Williams as she looks to win a record-breaking 24th Grand Slam, with favorite Naomi Osaka standing in her way.
But who can forget the bittersweet moment when the then 20-year-old Japanese upstart shocked the world by beating Williams in the 2018 US Open final, only to have her big moment overshadowed by the American’s unseemly dispute with the match officials.
That the usually popular Williams was so widely condemned for her tantrum was in no small part down to the fact that what should have been a bright young talent’s joyous celebration after a first ever Grand Slam win had been compromised is such a manner.
Even team sports suffer from same-winners fatigue, and nowhere is that more blatant, and getting even more pronounced, than in football.
The UEFA Champions League, widely accepted as the pinnacle of excellence in the sport, has not seen a new winner since Borussia Dortmund beat Juventus 3-1 in the 1997 final in Munich.
Between them, Barcelona, with 10 wins, and Real Madrid (5), have won 15 of the last 16 La Liga titles in Spain, the lone exception coming in 2013-14 when Atletico Madrid pulled off a fairytale triumph. In Germany, Bayern Munich have won eight Bundesliga titles in a row and 15 of the 21 this century. In Italy, Juventus have just been crowned Serie A champions for the ninth consecutive season. And Paris Saint-Germain were awarded a seventh Ligue 1 title in eight seasons when the French top division was suspended due to the pandemic.
It is why Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League title win in 2015-16 is still a scarcely believable achievement, one that transcended the usually toxic partisanship of football’s big clubs.
The chaos brought about by the halting, and ensuing restart, of sporting competitions due to the coronavirus disease has no doubt helped, as in the case of the next US Open champion, in bringing some freshness to certain sports. It has also condemned others to miss out on a once in lifetime opportunities.
Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski has just completed a record breaking individual season which has also seen him win the treble of Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Champions League. The Ballon d’Or, which since 2008 has been won a record six times by Lionel Messi and another five by Cristiano Ronaldo (Luka Modric won it in 2018), was the Polish goal machine’s for the taking. Alas, we were denied the novelty of seeing a new winner when the award was cancelled, prematurely in many people’s opinion, prior to the Champions League final.
For now we have to content ourselves with Gasly’s fairytale win in Monza and, against all odds, the next winner of the US Open next weekend. Enjoy it while it lasts, before the usual suspects get back to winning ways.