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Memorable moments of 2013: Andy Murray buries ghost of Fred Perry

Guardian Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:01

7 July: Andy Murray beats Novak Djokovic to become the first male Wimbledon singles champion since 1936

7 July Andy Murray buries ghost of Fred Perry to win Wimbledon

As Andy Murray hurtled towards history at Wimbledon at 5.23pm on the concluding Sunday of the 2013 championships, bathed in sunshine and communal hope, this most nervous of champions was a prisoner of the past, in more ways than one.

The thousands of hours he had spent on a tennis court since he was three years old in Dunblane invaded his rattling brain and told him not only what he had to do in the 210th point of the match but how he should do it. Novak Djokovic had already pushed him to save three break points, and Murray was serving for the title again without knowing exactly what was going on.

"When I spoke to him later," his mother, Judy said, "he did not remember a single moment of that final service game. Not one. It was not until we got back to his home [in Oxshott, Surrey] about 3am and turned on the recording of the final, that it started to come back to him. He just sat there in amazement."

As Murray struggled to mix intensity with calm before that final serve, he had to trust that what had gone before would adequately inform what he was about to attempt again: killing for good the ghost of Fred Perry.

The ball floated up from his sweating left hand and stopped pretty much where he intended as his right arm, swinging through its familiar arc, made contact with pleasing certainty. The serve was good. Djokovic's reply stretched Murray but he chased it down from an unpromising position. The Serb, still game, knew it was over as he watched his backhand float into the net, his 40th unforced error in three hours and nine minutes, and his finely tuned body was drained of all will to function. After three ragged sets, in which drama sometimes drowned out quality, the deed was done.

Sue Barker, holding the BBC microphone, said it was "horrendous" watching the final point. "Try playing it!" Murray said.

Perry, a winner on Centre Court in 1936 for the third time, the last British man to win the singles title, would have been proud, and the venerable American commentator, Bud Collins, reminded Murray afterwards of the Scot's link to that final, when a wounded Gottfried von Cramm was helpless in the face of Perry's cultured aggression. "Year after year," Collins told him, "the old boy kept hoping this would happen. And I am glad to report that it did happen." Murray spluttered a little, as he does when praised, and thanked Bud for the kind words.

It was not just the achievement that resonates but the manner in which Murray accepted it, with relief and not a little bemusement. He was not triumphal. There was no posturing or overt celebration, save the release of emotion. He had viewed the task as just that: a job to be done. He could not allow his feelings to intrude on his performance, because he knew how bloodlessly his opponent was viewing his own challenge.

They have a rich history, Murray and Djokovic: the Scot just a week older than the Serb, each exposed to trauma in their childhood – Murray in the shootings in his village when he was 11, Djokovic a survivor of bombings in Belgrade – and two previous struggles in the finals of majors.

Now they stood at 2-2 in slam finals, and their rivalry had been properly cemented.

Murray had surfed to the crest of this wave on the strength he took from that Olympic year: his gold medal victory over Roger Federer, then a five-set street fight with Djokovic to win the US Open, his breakthrough at last. He came to Wimbledon as a reigning slam champion and the baggage of expectation was heavier, if anything; he had, after all, proved he was good enough to win a major. Now, he had to just go out there and do it again.

What was much tougher than the mental battle, though, was the physical. Murray had collapsed on the clay of Rome in mid-match against the Spaniard Marcel Granollers, retiring for only the second time in his career – and, for the second time, on his birthday. He decided to skip the French Open to rest a back injury that had nagged him since late 2011, hoping the break would give him the best chance of doing well at Wimbledon.

For all that he returned convincingly to win Queen's, Murray arrived at the All England Club full of apprehension. He knew his back could let him down at any moment. He had de-stressed the injury, not cured it. He was still taking the pain-killers that had kept him on court the previous two years but he was no more certain of their efficiency than he was on the day that his back gave up on him in the first set of his second-round match against Jarkko Nieminen at Roland Garros in 2012.

As he played himself into the 2013 Wimbledon tournament, others fell, none more dramatically than Rafael Nadal and Federer. Murray did not drop a set in his first four matches, but began to struggle in the quarters, coming from two sets down to beat Fernando Verdasco, then had to negotiate the power of Jerzy Janowicz, a tall, menacing Pole for the future.

Perhaps he was helped by Juan Martín del Potro, who took Djokovic to the edge of his resources in a five-set semi-final that could have gone either way but, as they stepped up for the final, these "professional friends" as Murray termed them, none of that counted much. They had dug deep in New York and they would do so again. That he out-gutted Djokovic gave Murray nearly as much satisfaction as burying Perry. He respects history but he does not want to be chained by it, and he judges himself by his results against his peers, nothing else.

As he limped away to his winter training camp in Miami to recuperate after finally having surgery on his back, Murray was determined that there would be more days of sunshine to come.

Kevin Mitchell
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Memorable moments of 2013: Ben Ainslie masterminds America's Cup win

Guardian Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:00

25 September: Tactical know-how of Britain's Olympic hero helps Oracle Team USA to produce stunning comeback

In the history of great sporting comebacks, Oracle Team USA's defence of the America's Cup will rank alongside Liverpool's 2005 Champions League victory over Milan and Botham's 1981 Ashes – a crew seemingly sinking like a stone emerged spluttering victoriously from the waves. While it is difficult to attribute that success to one man, the revival began after Sir Ben Ainslie joined the crew.

Thousands of sailing converts followed Olympic hero Ainslie's introduction to a rudderless team on the brink of defeat. Oracle – defending the Auld Mug off the coast of San Francisco – had fallen 8–1 behind the challengers, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ), and were only one defeat away from losing. But Ainslie's arrival as tactician led to Oracle reeling off seven victorious races in a row to take the Cup to an electrifying winner-takes-all final.

When the Oracle boat crossed the finish line – Team USA with arms aloft and champagne popping – it was one of the sporting highlights of the year. "To come back from where we were, it's one of the most amazing things I've ever been a part of," said Ainslie.

Even before taking to the water, Oracle Team USA had been on the back foot. The team had been fined $250,000 (£150,000), had three crew members banned and two points docked for infringing rules, and controversy raged around the 72-feet long, 13,000lb behemoth AC72 catamarans dreamed up by the billionaire Larry Ellison: whether they were safe (two had already been destroyed in accidents); whether throwing money around had cheapened the competition (the Italian team boycotted the Louis Vuitton Cup to decide the challenger). The sport was also grieving the loss of British helmsman Andrew "Bart" Simpson, who had died practising with the Swedish team Artemis, and who was a close friend of Ainslie's.

When the America's Cup proper began, things would only get worse for Team USA. The Kiwi boat was whipping through the water as the Oracle struggled upwind. Skipper Jimmy Spithill looked despondent in press conferences, tugging at his cap and blowing out his cheeks, and conceded: "It's obvious we've gotta make some changes."

After the fifth race, Oracle used their one and only postponement card. They bought time. They regrouped through the night at their Pier 80 headquarters and drafted changes. Ainslie, the four-time Olympic gold medallist, replaced John Kostecki as tactician – a role the helmsman had never before assumed. "I spent the night before cramming as though I was back in school, revising for the biggest exam in my life."

Already 4-1 down, they lost the next race. And the next. Ainslie described his introduction to the crew as a "baptism of fire". New Zealand pushed on to 6-1, building a seemingly unassailable lead. "They've almost got it in the bag," admitted Spithill. "But imagine … if these guys lost from here?" No one really believed it was possible. Then, something changed. Oracle began to get faster, cutting quick through the wind at 50mph leaving ETNZ treading water. Ainslie's influence was being brought to bear, his tactics turning the competition on its head. In race eight, in the middle of a raging tacking battle, the NZ boat began to list, coming perilously close to capsizing. Oracle won the next seven races to go 8-8 and force a deciding race. "I don't think anyone in their wildest expectations would have predicted this," remarked the strategist Tom Slingsby.

On the final day, the teams were watched by a jubilant and resurgent crowd, waving US flags, sweating stars-and-stripes face paint and shielding their eyes against the sun glinting off the water. "This is it, this is it! Work your asses off," screamed Ainslie above the spray, as they headed into the final stretch. The moment Oracle ploughed past the finish line, 44 seconds ahead of the Emirates boat, was "almost euphoric", said Ainslie, nominated again this year for Sports Personality of the Year and becoming the first Briton aboard a winning Cup boat since Charlie Barr in 1903.

"No one gave us a prayer at 8-1 down. It truly was one of the great sporting comebacks and felt like an absolutely huge moment in my career," he said.

Ainslie's aim now is to build his own British team to challenge for the Cup, partly in memory of Simpson. "He would have been proud. It was the most amazing final." The 34th America's Cup had it all.

Hannah Jane Parkinson
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Memorable moments of 2013: Chris Froome destroys Tour rival

Guardian Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:00

14 July: Froome's burst of speed on Mont Ventoux defined 100th Tour de France and perhaps Team Sky rider's career

A Tour de France can be won in a few hundred metres. In this year's race, those metres were near Chalet Renard, the huddle of buildings and rusting ski lifts high on Mont Ventoux, at the point where the road climbed by the Tour comes up through the tree line before sweeping left to enter the rocky moonscape that caps the Giant of Provence.

It was here that a violent, prolonged acceleration by Chris Froome left his principal rival, Alberto Contador, reeling and put Froome in a position where he was never likely to be beaten in the seven days before the Tour reached Paris. That burst of climbing speed will define the 100th Tour, and perhaps Froome's entire career.

For Froome's trainer, Tim Kerrison, if there was a worry, it was that Froome had ditched the plan. "Chris had decided a long time in advance that this was a stage he was going to win. We think a lot about the way we race but sometimes an individual's resolve on a given day overrides the big picture. This was one occasion when the significance of the stage in its own right superseded the grand plan.

"The scientific side of you is concerned with making sure [the riders] do things efficiently, to do enough but never more than it takes. We know that Chris can produce phenomenal performances, go so deep that it can affect his ability to recover and learning to control that was one thing that contributed to his becoming a great stage racer. So it was a bit of a worry that he was not conserving his energy, but on the other hand, I can't wipe the smile off my face when a rider attacks and puts time into the field. It's what sport is all about. It's a fantastic feeling that all the work they do and we do is paying off."

For a journalist, it wasn't that simple. The Tour has to be viewed through the prism of the last 15 years, of never-ending doping episodes, big and small, comic and tragic. For the reporter on the Tour, the process has three phases: watch, wonder, interpret. It has been that way since the landmark Festina scandal in 1998. But that process has become more complex since, in the past few years, the likelihood has increased that the rider who is making your jaw drop on a given day may actually not be taking drugs or injecting blood.

So in a sports hall 20 miles away – the Ventoux is exceptional not just in its landscape but for the fact that 20 miles away is as close as they can find a space big enough for the race's media – my jaw dropped in unison with many others. The drama of the moment could not be denied, nor could the power of Froome's contorted body as he spun the pedals at a fantastically elevated cadence, nor could its impact on the race. But what were we seeing? The million-dollar question is, what is too good to be true?

Eventually – too late for that day's deadline – I recalled that a year earlier Kerrison had mentioned a certain kind of interval training their Tour riders do: "lactate clearance" or "spiked" intervals. Next day, he explained to me that I wasn't the only one to make the connection. Peter Kennaugh – the young Manxman who rode so well in his first Tour – had laughed as he watched Froome's attack later on television, the brief intense burst, then the way he throttled back, permitting Nairo Quintana to join him before eventually leaving the young Colombian higher up the mountain.

Kennaugh's amusement was because Froome's manoeuvre was something he and his team-mates did every other day in training. Athlete trains hard to win bike race is not exactly newsworthy; what mattered here was the precise way in which the effort Froome was putting in in training matched what he was producing on the road. To the onlooker it might have seemed outlandish; delve half an inch below the surface and perhaps it wasn't.

There were other factors that didn't immediately hit the eye and the mind as the eyebrows went up and the jaw dropped: by remaining seated in the saddle while climbing, Froome was more aerodynamic than the man scrabbling for his slipstream, Contador. And even as the French commentators rolled their eyes, the slow-motion replay of footage from their helicopter showed their television-camera motorbike a few metres in front of Froome – dragging him, but not Contador.

The interview with Kerrison drew its share of criticism but the argument was more nuanced than it seemed: what I felt was that a relatively superficial look at what went on showed that there were factors that suggested the attack that won the Tour was not quite as superhuman as it seemed to be at first glance. And in a sport where to see is to doubt, and there is pressure to state that doubt both immediately and publicly, that second look has to be worth the taking.

William Fotheringham
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Memorable moments 2013: Mo Farah seals double-double at Moscow worlds

Guardian Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:00

16 August: Farah knew repeating 5,000m and 10,000m golds at London 2012 would be hard so he changed his approach

We have reached the point in Mo Farah's career where the public can be forgiven for lapsing into complacency. Such is his dominance at 5,000m and 10,000m that he appears an impossible puzzle to his rivals, and a simple equation to the rest of us: Mo runs = Mo wins.

Farah, however, knew that repeating his London 2012 successes at the world championships in Moscow in August would be even harder. Not only did he have a day fewer to recover between finals, but none of his Kenyan and Ethiopian rivals were doubling up. So when he crossed the line to add 5,000m gold to his 10,000m title – having held off the cloying attentions of Hagos Gebrhiwet from Ethiopia and Isiah Kiplangat Koech, the Kenyan champion, in a desperate sprint – his victory roar was also one of relief.

Then came the familiar celebrations: eyes wide and hands open as if wanting to hug the world before his body flopped on the track, tension escaping like air from a popped balloon. His victory meant that Farah was only the second man, after Kenenisa Bekele, to achieve the double-double of 5,000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics and the following world championships. It was also his fifth global title, two more than any other British athlete.

And, incredibly, he did it nursing a stitch from eight laps out, something that he hid from his rivals. "Mo has an amazing mental capacity to deal with adversity," says the UK athletics performance director, Neil Black. "He has become a master of not panicking and he calmly used his strategies to get over the stitch."

The Farah of 2013 was a very different athlete to a year earlier. Being the hunted brought different pressures. He was no longer chasing gold medals but trying to hold on to them. And so, unnoticed except by his closest confidants, he changed. Gone was the joker who left things to the last minute and who deliberately kept his opponents waiting. He became, according to Black, "Mr Serious".

"He understood how difficult it was to do it again after London 2012, so he changed," said Black. "It was like he told himself: 'I'm going to shock everyone by being prepared and on time and entering the call room early.' Without question he was different in 2013 than he was in 2012."

Physically, he was better too. Farah showed that bybreaking Steve Cram's 28-year-old, British 1,500m record in Monaco, three weeks before the world championships in July. His rivals already knew they were unlikely to beat him in a final-lap sprint: now he was making another statement, that he had the speed to run hard over four laps of the track too.

Farah's first challenge came in the 10,000m on a muggy Saturday night: a race that reunited him with Ibrahim Jeilan, the Ethiopian who had beaten him in a chest-to-chest sprint finish at the world championships in 2011. For a worrying moment in the last 200m it looked like history was repeating but while Farah kept glancing over his shoulder, as if fearing the bogeyman was about to get him, he had just enough. "I could see he was there and I was thinking: 'not again, not again, not again'," admitted Farah. "But I had that little more."

Black, who has worked closely with Farah for years, knew his athlete had slayed a demon. "Anybody who really understands what is going on will know that in the last 600m Mo was running scared," he says. "He feared Jeilan could take it away from him. The public assume that he is unbeatable, but he is the one, more than anyone else, who understands how tough it is to repeat his successes."

After the race over-zealous Russian officials refused to allow Farah and his family into the warm-up area for his rub-down because they were not accredited, which meant Black – who is Farah's physio – was forced to pull out his portable treatment table in the Luzhniki Stadium car park and treat him.

Perhaps it did the trick. Certainly the British team were stunned to find that, despite having a day fewer to recover for the 5,000m final than in London, Farah felt much better a year on. Physically and psychologically he knew he was ready. And so it proved as he fought off Gebrhiwet and Koech in a nerve-jangling finish. Once again Farah had made defeat seem an abstract concept, something that does not apply to him. Once again he was smiling on the nation's TV screens; and Britain was smiling back at him.

Sean Ingle
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Memorable moments of 2013: Memorable moments of 2013: Tony McCoy rides his 4,000th winner

Guardian Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 17:00

7 November: Northern Irish jockey rides Mountain Tunes to historic victory at Towcester's small country track

Tony McCoy went 10 days without a winner before registering his 3,000th career success under National Hunt rules at Plumpton in 2009. Bad weather played a part, but McCoy suddenly seemed to find so many ways to pluck defeat from certain victory – including a last-flight fall when on 2,999 and clear of his pursuers – that the magic number brought as much relief as celebration.

Four thousand was different. A couple of news reporters standing next to me on the press balcony at Towcester high-fived each other to celebrate the fact they would not need to find their way to Southwell the following afternoon, but the overriding thought as McCoy returned to receive the acclaim of a bumper crowd was that neither the moment, nor the ride that made history, could have been more perfectly timed.

For McCoy, it was special because his wife, two children, parents and several other close family members were at Towcester to join in the party. JP McManus, whose three-figure string supplies so many of McCoy's winners, was there to greet him too, and stand everyone at Towcester a drink.

But above all, this was a race that McCoy did not seem likely to win almost until the moment when he actually did – and the action unfolded not at Aintree or Cheltenham, but at a small country track in Northamptonshire that scarcely receives a mention in the back pages of the newspapers, never mind the front.

Before his 4,000th winner, a good part of the British public would have nominated McCoy's Grand National win as his greatest performance, mainly because it is the only one they remember. Racing fans might point to his win on Wichita Lineman on the first day at Cheltenham, when he somehow helped his partner to overcome a series of jumping blunders in one of the most competitive events of the year.

McCoy's legend, though, has been built at the small, midweek venues, where he performs similar heroics on a regular basis. So Towcester was an entirely appropriate location for McCoy's moment of history, as he somehow conjured an irresistible finishing effort from Mountain Tunes and ran down the leader on the short run from the final hurdle to the winning post, having been five lengths behind on the approach.

Afterwards, McCoy spoke movingly of a pride in his latest achievement that he had not allowed himself to feel in the past. That, though, was then. A few weeks on, is the glow still there?

"It's gone, long gone," McCoy said this week. "It was fantastic and a great day, and, as I said, I'm very proud of it – but the long and the short of it is that it's gone and can't be brought back.

"It really was the first time that I felt really proud and happy for what I'd achieved, and felt brave enough to say that I was proud of what I'd achieved. I was third in Sports Personality of the Year because of it, and I was pleased to bring some good publicity to the sport because the sport has been very good to me. If I can give a bit back, that's fantastic.

"But there's always a new story tomorrow that's more important. It's sad in a way, but I enjoyed it at the time and, who knows, maybe there might be another moment like that again some time."

Greg Wood
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Munster 22-16 Connacht

BBC Sport - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 16:24
JJ Hanrahan scores all Munster's points as the Pro12 leaders beat Connacht although the visitors snatch a bonus point.

Christmas baby

Stabroek - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 16:00

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Holiday cheer for Enmore children

Stabroek - Fri, 12/27/2013 - 15:59

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