The triumphs and the tragedies

A year that contained FIFA's quadrennial spectacle, multiple multiple-event games, a packed cricket calendar and an even tighter tennis schedule was always going to be special. Add to the mix a world title defence disrupted by volcanic ash and the sequel to the sordid Tiger Woods saga and what resulted was a complete package, writes Kunal Diwan.

Never judge an Injun without having walked a hundred miles in his moccasins. Who are we then to judge anybody — the fixers, the launderers, the under-performers, the technically deficient and the mentally unsound? In the illumination of the prior statements, consider this annual exercise a highlight of the good, a cleansing attempt to catalogue and categorise the highs and all but ignore the lows.

As we consign another year — and who knows how many we have left — to the cobwebbed vault of memory, some remembrances, in the act of putting them away, jump out. A year that contained FIFA's quadrennial spectacle, multiple multiple-event games, a packed cricket calendar and an even tighter tennis schedule was always going to be special. Add to the mix a world title defence disrupted by volcanic ash and the sequel to the sordid Tiger Woods saga and what resulted was a complete package.

To start with the supremo, Sachin Tendulkar, moved further into a zone he alone has had access to for years now. The records he felled during this cycle of planetary motion included an ODI double-hundred, a mark many had flirted with without getting to bed it.

The Indian icon managed just that, against South Africa's more than decent bowling attack, and perhaps justifiably so, for who except blinkered Zimbabweans would have wanted Charles Coventry's name pencilled on top of the ODI high-scorers list? On a fateful February evening in Gwalior, Tendulkar made an entire nation pause breathlessly before their television sets. A swish on the off-side that took him to 200 — for the first time in almost 40 years of limited overs cricket — led to eruptions of the kind the cricketer has become accustomed to initiating.

In his 38th year on earth (and his 21st as an international), Tendulkar struck his 50th Test century and amassed over 1,500 runs from 13 Test matches, inclusive of seven hundreds — a record for the number of centuries scored by an Indian in a season. His 14,000th run came in his 171st Test — against old foe Australia in Bangalore — when he cut Nathan Hauritz to once again go boldly where no man had gone before. Cynics point out the vacuum in Tendulkar's resume that should ideally be filled with a World Cup on home soil. But the confining nature of a team game, the dependence of success on collective performance means that an individual's role can only be so much of an influence, and no more.

Rafael Nadal ensured in 2010 that his curriculum vitae suffered from no such gaping hole by securing his first U.S. Open in September. The Majorcan is a specimen of the species, a well-formed, iron-wrought illustration of the human male; a product of good genes, extra-impact mitochondria and indestructible will. This year, Nadal proved that nothing — not cell-mediated inflammation, not divine avatars (read Roger Federer), not even the deleterious after-effects of the impossible hardball he plays — could stop him from finishing the most dominant player on the circuit.

He began under a pall, a susurrus that surrounded his competitiveness at the highest level, the viability of his knees — would they last the season, leave alone allow him to win? At the season-opening Australian Open, not many thought they would.

When Nadal threw in the towel against Andy Murray after trailing by two sets in their quarterfinal, the dirge was sounded. This situation, many surmised, would be Nadal's story hereafter; one could not, they said, be a pioneering mountaineer without risking hazardous exposure; the consequences of Nadal's style of play — his battered patellar components — were an inescapable eventuality like radiation from mobile phones or a dry mouth from cold medicine. How wrong everybody was.

As speculations swirled around him like vultures above the Tower of Silence, Nadal retained the No. 1 ranking in June after winning his fifth French Open and by October had built an unbelievable lead of 5245 ranking points over his second number. A dominant clay-court season was followed by further success and the Spaniard topped the hard-court season with his first win in New York, thus becoming the youngest player, at 24, to win the career Grand Slam. Also won were a record 18th Masters event (at Monte Carlo), 24 consecutive sets in the majors, and the unique honour of a Slam on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard) in the same year.

“This is more than a dream for me,” the Spaniard said after winning at Wimbledon, and a dream it was indeed, equally so for the spectator, who even at the height of wishful thinking couldn't have hoped for the careers of two players of the calibre of Nadal and Roger Federer to coincide. Nadal collected $10,171,998 as prize money — another record — in 2010, but there's half a chance he'd have traded all of it to handle another cup from another sport. He did (handle that Cup). And it didn't cost him a dime.

Spain played what some sports journalists proclaimed to be the best football ever played on its way to winning its first World Cup. The conquistadors drowned host South Africa in crimson as the incessant drone of vuvuzelas swept across the Rainbow Nation. Led by the prolific David Villa, La Furia Roja strung together impossible moves to slither across befuddled defences. It began with a shock defeat against Switzerland and gained momentum as its magnificent midfield reached impossibly high levels of motility and craftiness, the moves usually culminating in Villa coolly slotting the ball home.

Spain became the first country to win the grand prize after losing the first match and Villa came through with the Bronze Ball and the Silver Boot for his five goals and an assist. No amount of statistical surveying however could bring to life the florid flexibility of his team's mid-pitch mastery. Spain ran into Germany in the semifinal in what was expected to be a goal riot, a contest between improvised beauty and Aryan preparedness. This time, Germany's young stars Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil and Sammy Kedhira were left stupefied, Carlos Puyol's powerful late header putting Spain for the first time in the World Cup final — a tempestuous affair against the Netherlands that ended 1-0 on the back of an Andres Iniesta strike.

Villa's eventful year saw him surge past Raul Gonzalez as Spain's all-time highest goal-scorer and his five in the premier tournament soared his goals-per-game average (in World Cups) beyond that of Brazil's Ronaldo, the competition's most prolific converter. Villa and his mates — in the company of one Lionel Messi — then shifted their attention, almost en masse, to taking Barcelona to the top of the La Liga. The highlight of the season was a 5-0 thrashing dealt to arch-rivals Real Madrid in the El Classico as The Special One sat seething in the dug out. It was only fair that the group that played the best looking football walked away with the highest prizes.

The rush and roar of Formula One witnessed its youngest ever Champion for the second time in three years when baby-faced German Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull clinched the title at the last race of the year. The 23-year-old Vettel entered Abu Dhabi trailing Fernando Alonso by 15 points and Mark Webber by seven. Alonso was required to finish at least fifth to claim the title, but managed only seventh place, with Vettel displacing Lewis Hamilton as the junior-most Championship winner. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a creaking Michael Schumacher joined the league of unsuccessful comebacks.

Across the Atlantic, Northern America continued to function in reciprocative sports insulation. LA Lakers rode on Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to annex yet another NBA title, Tiger Woods realised that recovering from a torrid 2009 was yet beyond his control, and the United States lost what they were considering as theirs for the taking — hosting rights for another FIFA World Cup. Oil-rich Qatar, meanwhile, promised air-conditioned stadia to beat the searing summer in 2022.

Elsewhere, Serbia won its first Davis Cup; Herschelle Gibbs squealed on team-mates, stirring a hornet's nest with his tawdry tittle-tattle; Australian cricket plumbed unused to depths sparking comparisons with Kim Hughes' lot of the 1980s; Pakistan grappled spot-fixing and an utter failure to guide its immense talent; Andy Murray spent another year in the vain pursuit of a first Grand Slam; Viswanathan Anand drove himself across Europe for a fourth Word Championship (against Veselin Topalov) and Muttiah Muralitharan and Andrew Flintoff sacrificed their Test careers at the altar of injury and shorter formats respectively.

Saina Nehwal made ripples by clinching three Super Series titles (in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong) and also getting a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games. It was Saina's medal in Delhi that lifted India, for the first time, past England to the number two spot in the CWG medals tally. After a rocky start, the Games were declared a success, and the only ones smarting were the whiny Aussies who in frustration at losing an event hurled out a washing machine from their multi-storey accommodation.

Late in the year, Paul, the clairvoyant Octopus, escaped a bloody conclusion on the dinner plate, attaining moksha of natural causes after maintaining a cent-per-cent record of World Cup predictions. Paul joined Juan Antonio Samaranch, Olympic official of questionable ethics, in the afterlife.