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Monday, December 20, 2010

Year in Review: The great showdowns

Duels of 2010:  The best showdowns

We continue our look back on 2010 with a recap of some of the great duels of the year.  It's been a year without an Olympic Games, a year without too many Federer v Nadal matchups (which would normally provide at least one of these "nominees"), but a year of exceptional one-on-one sporting contests, and my top 3 are summed up briefly below.

In reverse order, they are:

3.  Alberto Contador vs Andy Schleck, Tour de France

The Tour de France's final mountain stage, a climb of the Col du Tourmalet from the reverse side, provided the backdrop for one of the year's most memorable duels as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck raced side by side through the mist and clouds for the yellow jersey.  The Tour had produced a memorable battle between the two as they traded blows in the first two weeks - first Contador went ahead in the Prologue, before Schleck struck back on the cobbles of Stage 3, gaining over a minute on Contador.

Then, on Stage 8 and Stage 12, the two traded 10 second gaps, first for Schleck and then for Contador - this trend of "canceling out" one another's time gains would be a theme in the race from this point on.

The drama kicked up a notch on Stage 15, the now infamous "chain-gate" state, where Schleck, in yellow at the time, attacked and then dropped his chain, only to see Contador continue to ride.  The debate was fierce as to whether Contador should have waited or not.  Amazingly, he gained 39 seconds on the day, which was to be his eventual victory margin, so inseparable were the two riders.

The climb of the Tourmalet also provided what, in my opinion, was the most interesting power output analysis of the Tour so far.  You can recap that analysis here, where we discussed the SRM data of Chris Horner, and used it to estimate what the two leaders were producing on the climb.  Horner provided the perfect barometer on the day, because over the final 5km, he lost only a handful of seconds, so his final 5km performance is a good measure for what the leaders will have produced.

That comparison revealed a power output of around 6 W/kg, in what was the race's decisive stage, and only 5.6 W/kg over the final 5km (where, admittedly, tactical racing slowed Contador and Schleck down).  However, the climb was a fitting end to a debate that created a lot of discussion - whether a sustained power output greater than around 6.2 to 6.3 W/kg was possible without the doping we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.  In my opinion, it is not, and the duel on the Tourmalet provided some great evidence for this.  When the best two cyclists are racing for the yellow, holding little back and still "only" average 6 W/kg for the climb, then it puts into perspective the 6.2, 6.3, 6.7 W/kg performances we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.  Doping still happens, certainly, but the days of "supercharged" riders are over.

Of course, since then, the rivalry has been tainted by the allegations around Contador's clenbuterol positive, and the race's result may well be altered after the fact, which tarnishes the duel substantially.  It may also deny future head-to-head racing like we saw, which will be a great pity for the sport, but such is cycling that this possibility is never far away, sadly.  However, while it lasted, it provided some amazing theatre.

More reading (just in case you missed it, or for the recap):
2.  Game, set and match Isner: He wins by 3 sets to 2.  6–4, 3–6, 6–7(7–9), 7–6(7–3), 70–68!

183 games, 980 points, 138 games in the fifth set alone.  11 hours and 5 minutes.  You cannot dream those numbers up, it's so ridiculous.  The previous record for the longest match ever played was 122 games in a Davis Cup match in 1973 - the Isner v Mahut match beat this in the 5th set alone.  And, that previous record came before the introduction of tie-breaks, of which there were two in the Mahut-Isner epic.

In terms of time, the longest match ever played had been 6 hours, 33 minutes.  Once again, the fifth set of this epic far exceeded that, taking 8 hours 11 minutes.

When a match lasts this long, it produces moments of hilarity.  For example, the scoreboard froze at 47-47, because it had only been programmed to reach 47.  Luckily, bad light stopped play so they could fix it overnight, but then at 50-50, it was reset to 0-0, and viewers were reminded to please "add 50 to the Isner/Mahut score".

It was a remarkable two days in tennis, and as John McEnroe said, it was a great advertisement for the game.  Astonishingly, there were calls afterwards for the introduction of fifth set tie-breaks, to prevent this kind of match from happening.  This is absolutely ridiculous, because this kind of match is exactly what sport needs when it is competing in the entertainment sphere.  It was dramatic, epic and put tennis right on the front pages.

Physiologically, the numbers are staggering.  I did a post with some estimates of what such a match might have meant for the workload of the players, and that was after day 1, when play was suspended with the score at 59-59.  You can read that post here.

I was then contacted by the Washington Post, who used some of those estimates to produce a nice graphic summing up the remarkable physiological performance of the two men:

We are unlikely to ever see that kind of match again, but it was one of the greatest moments in sport in 2010.  In fact, it was a strong challenger for the win, because it's difficult to find such an epic duel in sport.  However, in the end, it was pipped only because our main focus here on The Science of Sport is running, and so we went with a running duel instead.  It's no less worthy, though.

More reading:
1.  Wanjiru vs Kebede in Chicago

As I mentioned above, this probably isn't the most extra-ordinary battle of 2010, Isner v Mahut was.  So by that criteria alone, this shouldn't claim the number 1 spot.  The rankings are nominal anyway, but Wanjiru v Kebede wins because a) it's running related and our focus on this site is running, and b) the stakes were so high - not only was the race on the line but so was the title of world's best marathon runner, winner of $500,000 as World Marathon Majors champion, and for Wanjiru specifically, his status as the world's best marathon racer.

It had been a relatively lean year for Wanjiru - defeat in London, at the hands of Kebede, and a series of DNFs and relatively slow performances on the roads had chipped away at the Olympic champ's "invincible status".  He'd also had injury problems, and it would later emerge that his training had been hampered.

Kebede was on the rise, the win in London his highlight of 2010.  And the race in Chicago threw the two together in what was one of the great finishes in marathon running.  It wasn't the closest finish of the year - 19 seconds separated the men at the end, which doesn't tell the story.  It also wasn't the fastest race of the year - 2:06:24, with a second half 1:03:47.  But it was tactical, and brutal, more like a track race than a road race over the final 5km.  At times, it looked more like a cycling race, with pulls at the front, fast-slow, surges and counter-surges, and all the while, Wanjiru was hanging on, looking dropped on numerous occasions, before fighting back to make one final, decisive surge for victory.

You can watch the final mile of the race below, and relive one of the epic duels, which TV and words can't really capture:

Track and Field Videos on Flotrack

The two are signed up for London 2011, so let's hope for more of the same then!

Still to come

The Year in Review series is nearly complete - only Team of the Year, Sportsman of the Year and Sportswoman of the Year to go.  And as always, we'll try to analyse just what has created that status, the science and insight to the performances of those teams and athletes!  So join us in the coming days for those recaps!