In the end they really mattered

The year was a blur of heroes, losers, champions and charlatans. Rohit Brijnath lists his 10 best moments/people of 2006.

Federer cried in January and Ganguly was stoic in December and everyone had an opinion about Chappell. Sania and Saina jostled for headlines, Dravid held off the Windies, Henin refused to crack a smile and Italy cracked open the champagne. Warnie said sayonara, Schumacher split, and Brazil failed to hold it together. Genius, madness, tears, the year was a blur of heroes, losers, champions and charlatans. To pick 10 moments/athletes has only one guarantee and that is to offend. How did you miss him, or forget her? As athletes love to say, "I gave it 100 per cent."

The weeping Tiger

When he sank the last putt, the British Open his, he embraced his caddie. We've seen that before. Except this time Tiger Woods' face crumpled like a boy whose sorrow cannot be contained. He wept and could not stop.

Tiger played the Open without emotion, only with calculation, and by blanking out the death of his father he was in fact honouring his father. As he said: "He (Earl Woods) would have been very proud. He was always on my case about thinking my way around the golf course and not letting emotions get the better of you, because it's so very easy to do." But once victory came, the dyke burst, and it was a precious moment. A reminder that within this machine lurks a man.

Nadal v Federer Rome: 6-7(0-7), 7-6(7-5),6-4,2-6,7-6(7-5)

After 306 minutes, no corner of the court without a footprint, one man designing, the other defacing them, Federer was the last man standing. Nadal was on his back in triumph.

This was not about one match, but history. Federer was valiant, but again his route to immortality was blocked by one surface, one man.

Clay and Nadal did the impossible: they exposed a poet's imperfections, the flaws in his meter.

Federer played well, but, incredibly, not well enough. He was up a set, 4-2 in the second set tiebreaker, 4-1 in the fifth set, 4-1 in the fifth set tie-breaker, then two match points. It was a loss manufactured in Rome whose importance was felt weeks later in France.

Jeev keeps the faith

Now we celebrate him, embrace him, for he wins. But for long he didn't, from 2000 to 2005, the years dripping away, the headlines none. What happened, people ask; sometimes they don't ask at all. And there is something uplifting about the athlete who still, amidst this loneliness of non-winning, holds on to his self-belief. Jeev believed. So when he was jostled by the brilliance of some of the world's best players at the Volvo Masters, he did not flinch.

The silverware is beautiful. The Volvo China Open, the Casio World Open, the Golf Nippon Series JT Cup. But the best prize is within his heart. He did not lose his faith.

A New York goodbye

"The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I've found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I've found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you."

After 60 titles, eight Grand Slams, in New York, a stylish player said a stylish thank you to us.

And us? We'll be thankful for Andre Agassi all our lives.

Anil Kumble's 500

So many adjectives fit him, patient, wise, disciplined, but let's pick this one. Honest. To his team. Always, like this year, we hear stories, about insurrections in the team, about whining about the coach. But never do you hear his name. Never. He just plays. Throw him an almost-new ball and he'll bowl. Throw him the ball on a batsman's pitch and he'll bowl. Ignore him while making a dreadful noise about batsmen who can't shine his shoes and he'll bowl. Without complaint.

He is what we've forgotten how to celebrate: the old-fashioned hero. Of course he got to 500 wickets this year: he's the best damn bowler India's ever had.

Riding with Rossi

One night I made some friends watch MotoGP and, heathens, they moaned, "motorcycling, c'mon, this is televised tedium." Till I pointed him out, and the race wound down, and they began to ride with Valentino Rossi.

Into a man's slipstream and out, knees kissing track, a late brake, an overtake, his machine a gliding, blurring, swaying study in balance, a man so elegant he's like a yellow ribbon threading through the field, a nerveless saint meditating at 300kmh.

He may have fallen in his last race, but it didn't matter. Sport is about winners, but first it is about pleasure. And riding with Rossi, as my friends know now, is like taking a flying lesson from God.

Zidane loses his head

Materazzi tugs his shirt. Zidane says, "If you want my shirt so much I'll give it to you afterwards." Materazzi says he would prefer his sister. Zidane head-butts. Disbelief. Outrage. Sadness.

The head-butt was extraordinary in its surprise and its timing. For an experienced player to allow himself to be incited in a World Cup final was astonishing. It displayed a lack of awareness of the moment and possibly the exhaustion of an older player. In itself it made the moment compelling; that it might have cost his nation sports' most coveted trophy makes it staggering in its effect.

Mistress of surprise

It's a bad idea, we said. Your absence had been too long, your feet too slow, the power too great. Eventually all Martina Hingis' return proved was our capacity for being unwise. Still, for once we did not care, any embarrassment at our failed prediction compensated for by the pleasure her racquet-work brings. She is not just tennis player, but fencer, embroider, juggler, tactical sage. Three years she was away; first year back she finishes at No.7. If sport is partly the art of the impossible, then her comeback would stand up in court as proof.

Cannavaro & the art of defence

We came to the cup for Ronaldinho and we left hand-in-hand with Cannavaro. This is unusual. Defenders, we often believe, are thugs with sharp elbows, who own the creativity of a bulldozer. It is a fallacy. If midfielders are visionaries, designing the play, then defenders must be seers for they must read those plays, and none did it better than Cannavaro, just about 5ft 10in but a towering genius of anticipation, poise and clean tackling. Here was necessary proof that football is not the artistic preserve of the attacker, and somewhere in an Italian bar Franco Baresi and Paolo Malidini are still toasting him.

Baskets of hope

The film is grainy, scratchy, and it's of a boy who suggests champions come in more sizes than we think. His name is Jason McElwain, 17, five feet six inches, a student at Greece Athena high school in America. He helps the basketball team, hands out kit.

He is also autistic.

In the school's last game, coach Jim Johnson gives McElwain a jersey, hoping to give him a few minutes on court, a fleeting taste of a world seemingly beyond his reach. With four minutes left, McElwain runs on.

He misses his first two shots. Then he sinks a three-pointer. And another. His six three-pointers are a school record. In four minutes he scores 20 points. Team-mates yell. People cry. The crowd lifts him up. His mother says: "I look at autism as the Berlin Wall, and he cracked it." Sometimes amidst the hype, moaning million dollar athletes, swollen egos, we need stories like this. The kid dreamed, he inspired. He was the best of us.