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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Science of Sport awards: Comeback of 2011

The best sports comeback of 2011

The third of our 2011 Awards is for the best comeback of the year.  We'll do this one in reverse order - winner first, and then a list of "honorable mentions".  

South Africa vs Australia, IRB Sevens World Series, Edinburgh

I admit, I am unashamedly biased on this one, but it's the one that I was part of, and it was the most amazing three minute stretch I've experienced.  The equivalent of three touchdowns, two with recovered onside kicks, in three minutes.  At half-time, just to give some background, we were 21-7 down, then fell 28-7 behind, but scored twice to make it 28-19 with 6 minutes to play.  At that point, the next score would win the game, and the momentum was with us.  But it was Australia who scored, and they went 35-19 ahead with 2:54 to go.  We also had a "skeleton" team with three players out to injury, and a few others playing despite injury.  We really had no business winning from the position we were in, but for the next 3 minutes, all the hard work of the players and the management paid off.  The video starts with Australia going 35-19 clear.  As for that dive at the end, we didn't see it from the sidelines, we were too busy celebrating, but that was a heart-stopping moment.  I asked him about it after the match, he said he had it "under control, no worries".  It was three minutes of being in the zone, and I suspect that Sibu Sithole was experiencing life in slow-motion by that point!

On that note, this is a great advertisement for Sevens, a game where anything can happen and the result is almost always unknown until the final play of the match.  That's the essence of valuable sport - compare this to some sports where only three or four teams can ever win, and the result is a ground out procession.  So if the world's rugby bodies would get out of their own way (IRB at the top, and all the national federations below), then this sport, which will make its debut in the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio, can become one of the most popular in the world.  And most commercially lucrative.  We are in Las Vegas on February 11 and 12 next year, for those who fancy a weekend of great sport and entertainment.

Honorable mentions

First, the comebacks to the sport after retirements and injuries, followed by single match comebacks:
  • Liu Xiang - as we approach London 2012, remember back to Beijing 2008.  Difficult to think of an athlete who carried as much expectation as Xiang did for China.  He was "spared" some pressure by virtue of the fact that China was collecting gold medals almost hourly, but as their only real medal chance for a track gold, the pressure on Xiang was enormous.  He was also the defending champion in the men's 110m hurdles, but failed to get out of the blocks, leaving the Bird's Nest stadium in tears and stunned silence.  The injury was an Achilles tendon one, and it forced a 13-month layoff before Liu Xiang returned in 2009.  Strictly speaking then, his "comeback" is not a 2011 event, but it was 2011 that saw his return to the medals in Daegu, when he won silver (upgraded from bronze after Robles' controversial disqualification).  But for Robles, people argue that Xiang may have won gold, signaling a return to the summit of the sport.  That may have to wait for London 2012, where Xiang will once again mark an Olympic cycle with expectation, and perhaps, delivery.  It will be one of the best races of the Games.

  • Swimmers - it's probably inevitable that with the Olympic Games one year away, a number of athletes who had previously retired would return for one last 'dance'.  It seems most common in swimming, where perhaps the highest profile return was that of Ian Thorpe, Australia's swimming legend.  To a lesser extent, Michael Phelps is on something of a comeback trail, at least in terms of winning global medals, though he was slightly overshadowed by Ryan Lochte at the World Champs in Shanghai.  Their duels will be a highlight of London.  One most relevant to South African Olympic followers who are banking on a medal from Cameron van der Burgh, was that of Brendan Hansen.  The former world record holder retired in 2008, but returned to win the US Nationals in 2011, posting a time that would have placed him fifth in the World Championships.  It will be interesting to follow the progress of the comebacks in 2012.

  • Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who came back from 2 sets down to win matches against Roger Federer.  Amazingly, the Swiss champion had never lost a professional match when leading 2-0, but then did it in consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.  The first, at Wimbledon, saw Tsonga's raw power and serving overwhelm Federer to win 6-4 in the fifth.  Then in the US Open, it was Djokovic who came back from the dead to win an epic, which featured a point that Federer would later label a "lucky shot".  It happened on match-point, with Federer serving, and Djokovic coiled and unwound a winning return with apparently no fear.  I guess a season like he was having would create a perception of being bullet-proof.  That point, and the comeback, helped Djokovic into the final, where he won his third Slam of the year, leaving Federer without one for the first time in many years.

  • The St Louis Cardinals, 2011 MLB World Series champions.  Baseball is not a sport I follow much from SA, but the Cardinals completed a historic World Series triumph in 2011, twice facing down defeat to come from two runs down to beat the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the 7-match series.  They went on to win Game 7 6-2, but it was the Game 6 comebacks that grabbed the attention.  The nature of baseball (much like tennis, in fact) is that a game is often one strike from being won, and that was the case in Game 6, where the Texas Rangers were a strike away from a first World Series on two occasions.  They couldn't close the deal, the Cardinals resisted and history records them as champions.  
In the last two comebacks, spare a thought for the loser, who by definition, has had victory snatched away at the last possible moment.  Having won the Edinburgh tournament in such a dramatic comeback fashion, for example, we found ourselves in the opposite position in Port Elizabeth only two weeks ago, when New Zealand came from behind to beat us in the World Series final.  It really is a dark place to be! So for Australia, Roger Federer and the Texas Rangers, a word of consolation - they're the unwilling participants in the drama of sport!

Next time, a collection of the best sports videos of 2011!