What a wonderful year!

In the great theatre of sport, there is always the Second Chance, there is always the opportunity — after a disastrous performance when the lead actor forgets his lines and the greasepaint melts, so to say — to slip in back-stage and return to produce a breathtaking tour de force, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

Suddenly he looked old, much older than his 21 years. As he stood there on the turf at St.Denis on the fateful night of July 12, an Atlas who had let the world come crashing down on his own head, rather than a megastar who was supposed to have the world at his twinkling feet, he looked time-worn and battle-weary, like a grizzled warrior who has survived one too many skirmishes. Great grief has a way of turning sprightly young men into jaded, care-worn and haggard figures. And, on that day, the most gifted and celebrated player in the planet's most popular ballgame was a squirming wreck, wishing he was somewhere else.

Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo holds up the Golden Ball (left), the award for being named the European Footballer of the Year, and the FIFA World Player of the Year Trophy.

IN A basement pub not far from Trafalgar Square in London, an establishment that wouldn't have looked out of place in downtown Rio de Janeiro, one packed with Brazilian tourists and supporters of the world's most popular football team, watching Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima walk up to receive the World Cup winner's medal with a trademark toothy grin, you could not but ponder, yet again, the caprices of life and sport.

It was a day when Ronaldo simply did not want to leave his field of surpassing glory at Yokohama in Japan, a day when the world was truly at his magic feet, a day when he looked much younger than his 25 years and feeling as proud and overwhelmed by emotion as any sportsman might have been on the greatest day of his career.

At the basement pub, watching revellers sing and dance and make merry, chanting the name of their hero — Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo — now and again on that unforgettable June Sunday, when Brazil outplayed Germany 2-0 in the World Cup final, I suddenly thought of July 1998 and the italicised words at the beginning of this piece which I wrote for The Sportstar four years ago.

And, even as the greatest footballer of all time, Pele, hugged Ronaldo and thousands of digital cameras clicked all at once to record the moment for posterity, a marvellous aspect of the ever-turning wheel of sport struck me like never before.

While I agonised four years ago over sport's cruel twists and its fickle finger of fortune, on that marvellous June Sunday in London, it was time to celebrate one of sport's greatest virtues: its generosity in offering its practitioners a Second Chance.

Who would have thought that Brazil would be beaten 3-0 by France four years ago and Ronaldo would look as inept and zombie-like as he did then? And who would have thought, on the eve of Asia's first World Cup this year, that a seemingly half-fit Ronaldo would turn the event into his own classic Redemption Song?

Indeed, in the great theatre of sport, there is always the Second Chance, there is always the opportunity — after a disastrous performance when the lead actor forgets his lines and the greasepaint melts, so to say — to slip in back-stage and return to produce a breathtaking tour de force.

Pete Sampras... striking when least expected.

Then again, it is never quite as easy as all this sounds. ''Such are the capricious ways of sport that from Hero to Zero is not a long journey — the crash landing is complete in 90 minutes, sometimes even less. But it takes long months, even years, to clear the debris'', this writer noted in these columns on Ronaldo's fall in the summer of 1998.

Indeed, it took the gifted Brazilian footballer a good part of four full years — years marred by a series of potentially career-threatening injuries — to haul himself back on to the big stage and make it his own on a memorable night in Yokohama — a remarkable turnaround that saw him become the first player ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year for a third time.

And when the second chance came, the great marksman was there, in the right place and at the right time, to conjure up a one-two that decided the Cup final against a German team limited in skills but unlimited in spirit. The picture of irony, of course, was complete when the born again Ronaldo scored the first goal thanks to a rare error from the owner of the safest pair of hands in world football, the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn!

Will Kahn himself get a Second Chance? Who knows? But during a year which witnessed its greatest sporting moment halfway through at the climax of the quadrennial football World Cup, one other legend did get a Second Chance and he grabbed it with the hunger of a gifted rookie snatching at his first slice of championship glory.

Pete Sampras, in my mind inarguably the greatest tennis player of all time, proved everyone — including this writer — wrong by reinventing himself as a Grand Slam champion at the U.S. Open after twice losing to young hotshots — Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt — in successive finals there.

``One has to pay dearly for immortality. One has to die several times while one is still alive,'' wrote the incomparable philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Both Ronaldo, in the years between the disaster in Paris and his moment of surpassing glory in Yokohama, as well as Sampras, who had not won a single title after July 2000 when he won a record-breaking 13th Grand Slam at Wimbledon (until this year's U.S.Open), both died a hundred deaths.

These are men that paid the price — Ronaldo for his great brush with immortality and Sampras for his assured status as the First among Immortals in the game of tennis — and who can now say that they did not deserve what they got?

Sourav Ganguly... laying down his own rules.

Then again, did Hansie Cronje deserve what he got? If you aren't the sort to person who'd climb on a high horse and hand out sermons on morality and so-called natural justice, you'd surely have shed a tear this year for one of the greatest captains cricket has seen in recent times, a flawed champion who died — in a plane crash — long before he might have found his hour of redemption, his Second Chance.

Sport, dear sport, capricious sport, benevolent sport, would have surely offered Cronje a second chance if fate had not intervened.

But, then, life itself sometimes — very rarely, to be sure — gives a man a second chance if he is single-minded enough in his pursuit of that special concession. And who, in today's sport, displays the one-pointed focus and granite will of Lance Armstrong, the American who, a few years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, won the most arduous sporting event on earth — the Tour de France — and, this year, made it four in a row.

Indeed, this has been a rather special year in the world of sport, so special, in fact, that Anna Kournikova banked over $10 million without winning a single title!

Then again, on a serious note, few would dispute the fact that 2002 has been one of the most dramatic and action-packed seasons in recent times. From the packed, colourful stadiums across Japan and South Korea to the hallowed home of cricket in London where a pair of young Indians — Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif — scaled great heights in the NatWest final against England, from the cauldron of Flushing Meadows, where a 31-year old genius with thinning hair — and watched by a heavily pregnant wife — beat the only record he could beat anymore (his own) to win his 14th Grand Slam title, to a quaint little stadium overlooking parched brown hills in Vijayawada where Marlon Samuels pulled out the red rag like a Roman Emperor in the coliseum after playing one of the greatest one-day innings seen in this country, this has indeed been a year to remember.

But heroes were not to be found only in Cup finals and on the Grand Slam stage. To me, among the lasting images of 2002 would be that of a Senegalese forward — Papa Bouba Diop — dancing with his team-mates after a stunning victory over defending champion France in the opening match of the World Cup; and so indeed would be the picture of a burly Englishman hugging his Indian rival with a wonderful smile on a cricket ground in Chennai in December. Both had made hundreds in the match.

These two men could not see each other — they were players in the Petro World Cup for the Blind — but if you knew what is the essence of sport, you'd have seen enough reason to celebrate that image, that moment.

For many of us, seeing is believing. For special people like Nathan Foy of England and Sushil Gourd of India, believing is more than seeing. Because they believe, they have a vision that we don't possess. And to see them play is to be a part of a very special celebration of sport and life.

Indeed, there is more to sport than the Ronaldos and the Samprases, the Ashes and a Tendulkar hundred.

The following is not a comprehensive list of the highlights of 2002 in the world of sport. It is rather limited in its sweep, for these are bits and pieces culled from the memory of one man.

Viva Ronaldo, Bravo Brazil

Is there anything in the world of sport that can, for its sheer beauty and soul-lifting quality, match Brazilian football at its very best? Perhaps not.

And, in last summer's World Cup in Japan and Korea, we did see Samba magic at close to its best as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu and Roberto Carlos orchestrated a virtuoso exhibition of attacking soccer.

Ronaldo may have been an executioner par excellence but the Brazilian side that Luiz Felipe Scolari coached improved with every match and dished out breathtakingly beautiful soccer, not the least in the 2-1 victory over England.

Perfect Pete

On the eve of this year's U.S. Open, even die-hard Pete Sampras fans would not have believed that the great man had it in him to win the year's last Grand Slam title. For, the last time that Sampras had won any title was at Wimbledon in July 2000.

A father-to-be, he had been humiliated by a little known journeyman in the second round at Wimbledon. When he beat Greg Rusedski in a tough match at the U.S.Open, the Briton had sworn that Sampras would not get past the next round.

As it turned out, the great man turned the clock back and came up with top-drawer stuff, serving and volleying like never before at the Open.

That the final was contested by two men with a combined age of 63 may not be as much a reflection on the skills of the younger ones as it was a tribute to the genius of Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Lording it over at Lord's

It was the sort of performance whose merits might have forced you to ignore the not-very-pleasant sight of Sourav Ganguly ripping off his shirt and swirling it overhead in the balcony of the Indian dressing room at Lord's.

For even as the old members of the most famous cricket club in the world choked on their gin-and-tonic, the heroic Mohammed Kaif was being hugged by Yuvraj Singh. The two men had brought off the impossible in the NatWest final against England.

With India five down for 146, and Ganguly, Sehwag, Tendulkar and Dravid back in the pavilion, the bloke whose job it was to inscribe the winner's name on the trophy might have been tempted to carve out the home side's name. But Kaif (87 not out) and Yuvraj Singh (69) helped India scale heights (326) it had never before ascended to.

Michael Schumacher... making F-1 a one-car race.

The Schumacher supremacy

Imagine a scenario like this: there comes a time in the world of cricket when a fast bowler is so good that the ICC decides to increase the length of the pitch, to move the stumps back at either end!

Ludicrous idea? Well, maybe it is in the context of cricket. And that is because it has still not seen anything quite like the Michael Schumacher phenomenon in Formula One racing.

This year, a season in which the German maestro became the winningest driver in history and tied Juan Manuel Fangio's world record of five drivers' championships, the FI bosses have come up with all sorts of ridiculous ideas to try and make the sport more competitive next year.

What do you do when one man is so good that his excellence makes a mockery of competitive intensity? Nothing, really. You just sit back and enjoy, as did everyone when Sir Donald Bradman put a thick swathe of daylight between himself and the rest.

Asia's carnival

Brazil might have walked away with the Cup that matters but Asia's first World Cup threw up other heroes as well, not the least men from Senegal, South Korea and Japan.

It started with Papa Bouba Diop and the fascinating journey through which we celebrated many a heroic performer stretched for four weeks and more.

But among the biggest winners during those memorable weeks were the hosts themelves, particularly the well behaved fans in Japan and Korea.

India's Steve Waugh

They call him The Wall. They call him Mr.Reliable. They call him many other things. But none of these descriptions touch the soul of the man, none of these names capture the essence of Rahul Dravid.

In a year in which the batsman from Bangalore hit four Test centuries in a row and played key innings in ODIs, what was obvious was that Dravid is to the Indian team what Steve Waugh has been to Australia for many, many years.

In Tendulkar, we might spot the heart of the Indian side but it is in Dravid that we see its soul, the spirit that drives it in the new millennium. He is the custodian of the soul of Indian cricket today.

The Sportstar editorial team did not have to spend a lot of time debating competitors' before choosing Dravid as the magazine's Sportsperson of the Year 2002.

Hewitt and Serena

Serena Williams... the women's tennis sensation.

Not since Steffi Graf at her best have we seen a woman's champion quite as dominant as Serena Williams. This was the year in which the younger one confidently moved out of the giant shadow of Venus and outmatched the older sibling as few women have on the women's tour.

While Lleyton Hewitt, who also finished the year at No. 1, was not quite as dominant in the men's game, the Wimbledon crown and the year-end Masters title saw the Aussie stay ahead of his challengers.

An anti-climax

In my mind, if there is one thing worse than actually losing a game or a championship final, then it is sharing the trophy. Say what you want about honourable draws and the spirit of sharing, but why play sport at the highest levels if winning was not important. While it might have been some consolation to many Indian cricket fans that the team at last got a piece of the spoils in a truly world level event after a long time, the fact that rain prevented India from actually winning the ICC trophy by beating Sri Lanka was something that came as an anti-climax to a wonderfully entertaining championship.

That in both matches Sri Lanka did not post scores that looked formidable made the final outcome even more hard to digest of Indian fans.

Sweet and sour

After a slow start, Indian athletes did start galloping away in the Asian Games in Busan. One after another, the track and field athletes added to India's collection even as the odd one or three came from other events such as tennis where Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi set aside their differences for a week to win the gold.

But, in the end, it was the Sunita Rani affair that dominated the headlines and left a bad taste in the mouth. And the way the whole thing was handled by the officials was thoroughly unprofessional and once again reflected poorly on sports management in the country.

Promise and performance

The Indian hockey team has been blowing hot and cold in recent times. This year was no different. A potential world beater, the team time and again failed when it mattered after scaling great heights in the early stages of tournaments.

In the Champions Trophy, India, after beating Pakistan early on, lost to the same team in the play-off for the third and fourth places while, more importantly, in the Asian Games final, went down 3-4 to South Korea after a glorious fightback which saw the team pull back from 0-3 to 3-3.

Yet again, a case of so near, yet so far! A man and his mission

There are few more inspiring stories in Indian sport than the one featuring Leander Adrian Paes in the context of Davis Cup tennis. This year, during a season in which he hardly played any singles on the Tour, the enigmatic Cup hero became the winningest active Cup player in the world.

Maintaining a clean slate against Lebanon and then New Zealand, in Wellington, Paes ended the year with a Cup record of 60 wins and 29 losses. Only Jaideep Mukherjea and Ramanathan Krishnan have won more Cup matches for India.

At a time when India is still struggling to identify a strong second string, Paes, in the twilight of his career is still an inspired performer in Cup play, as is his former Tour partner Mahesh Bhupathi in doubles play in Grand Slam tennis.

Bhupathi had a another wonderful year on the Tour capped by his victory in the U.S. Open doubles championship in the company of Max Mirnyi of Belarus.

Tendulkar and the Don

A lot has been said and written about Sachin Tendulkar in comparison with the late Don Bradman since the day the Aussie icon said that the young Indian reminded him of his own batting style.

And when Tendulkar overtook Bradman in the number of Test centuries scored, many of his fans were predictably ecstatic. It was indeed a great moment for the Mumbai maestro and for Indian cricket itself.

But let us get this straight one last time: Sir Donald George Bradman is incomparable, more so than any sporting great in any other sport. Tendulkar is by far the greatest batsman of his generation, and arguably the greatest ever produced by India. And there ends the matter.

The Cup that cheers

Normally, the cup that cheers for Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian President, is the one that contains a double peg of vodka. But, a few weeks ago, the boisterous silver-haired man was seen dancing with a Cup that is the symbol of team supremacy in world tennis.

In a marvellous final that produced seat-edge thrills until the very end at the Bercy stadium in Paris, Russia, with Marat Safin winning two rubbers and Mikhail Youzhny, an inspired choice for the last rubber, coming from two sets in the red to beat Paul-Henry Mathieu of France, won the Cup for the first time.

And Yeltsin immediately left his seat to move to centre stage. The celebrations went on for a long time and predictably they included the other cup that cheers too!

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

It's the same old story for English cricket. The most prestigious trophy in the world of cricket, the Ashes, is not so much a competition these days as it is a ritual slaughter.

The gap between English cricket, clearly on the decline, and Australian cricket, which is in robust health, is so huge that it is perhaps time to retire the Ashes and grant it a permanent home at the MCG in Melbourne.

Even in a spiritual sense, it doesn't belong in England anymore.

Tiger's tale of heroics

The man who seems destined to become the greatest to ever lift a golf club — Tiger Woods — won as he pleased now and again but this was also a year in which he was, from time to time, pulled back down to the level of mere mortals.

Some day, if all goes well, Woods will surely overhaul Jack Nicklaus's record but there is still a long way to go. But, when he is on song, the American genius puts so much distance between himself and the rest that golf tournaments become as predictable as Formula One races featuring Schumacher.

Another feather in Kapil's cap

Kapil Dev... The Inidan Cricketer of the Century.

For a man who accomplished so much on the field, Kapil Dev Nikhanj went through a harrowing time following the allegations made by his former team-mate Manoj Prabhakar. While his name was cleared by the BCCI, that was still not enough to erase memories of those difficult days when his name was headlined for all the wrong reasons.

But the Wisden award — strangely called the Indian Cricketer of the Century rather than the Greatest Indian Cricketer of all time — went a long way to reinstall the great all-rounder in his pedestal as an icon.

For the sheer range of his achievements, with the bat and the ball and as team leader, Kapil certainly deserved the award.

Different strokes

As personalities, Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden have few things in common. One is as flamboyant as the other is not. One is a conjurer of magic, the other is a footsoldier who's become a General through sheer application and hard work.

But both them have served Australia well this year, piling on records and helping the team retain its pre-eminent place in the rankings. Some of the brightest moments in world cricket this year have featured Warne and Hayden on centre stage. It was unfortunate that Warne should have injured his shoulder late in the year, something that raises a question mark over his chances of playing an influential role in the World Cup.

Something, at last

Anybody for Indian football? A dying sport was at last hauled back from its death bed and given a fresh lease of life in Vietnam as the Indian team starring Baichang Bhutia won the LG Cup international tournament.

India is still way below Asian giants such as South Korea and Japan but obituary writers can put their pens down for some time. The sport is still not dead in India.

The young blasters

They are not master blasters, really. They still have a long way to go. But Virender Sehwag and Marlon Samuels gave us some of the most exhilarating moments watching cricket this season, the former more often than the latter who, in turn, obliterated everything else in memory with his believe-it-or-not heroics in Vijayawada.

That Sehwag has ignored all the ridiculous comparisons with Tendulkar — come on folks, that's like comparing Marat Safin with Pete Sampras — has still managed to hold his own and score runs heavily.

Vishy does it again

The man who has triggered a one-man revolution in Indian sport, Viswanathan Anand, added another trophy to his collection by winning the World Cup of chess in Hyderabad.

With each Anand success, the game's momentum gains that much more in India with a string of other gifted players winning a variety of honours. But let us remember it all began with Vishy.

The contracts controversy

The game of brinkmanship involving the ICC, BCCI and the Indian cricketers almost killed the ICC trophy event in Colombo. But the issue was resolved in the last minute and the superstars of Indian sport did make it to Sri Lanka.

But a lot needs to be done before a permanent solution to the controversy is found. The ICC and the BCCI will have to understand that this is the age of the playing professional and that the players' image rights will have to be honoured.

Innings of the year

The greatest innings of the year was played at Christchurch by Nathan Astle against England early this year. His 222 will go down as one of the finest Test innings of all time. He made the runs in 168 balls with 11 sixes and 28 fours. Two balls were lost.

THE World Cup may be a few weeks away. But in The Sportstar, the big games have already begun. Long before the first ball is bowled and struck in South Africa, The Sportstar has geared up to offer its readers a special treat leading up to the big event in February 2003.

Beginning with the issue dated January 4, The Sportstar will contain a special World Cup pull out section of 32 pages in five successive issues. Each special section will focus on a World Cup winner — five teams, West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have won so far with the first two triumphant on two occasions — and take the readers down memory lane.

The lead feature focussing on the winners will be followed by detailed reviews of finals played in the past and highlights of other World Cup matches as well as profiles of leading stars. The issue dated January 11 will feature India's magnificent triumph in 1983.

The five issues will be followed by The Sportstar's World Cup bumper, dated February 8, which will truly be a collector's item with a variety of features, statistics and previews of the chances of the leading contenders.

Indeed, at The Sportstar, the games begin rather early. Come and join the party. It's not an opportunity you'd want to miss.