May 14, 2012
May 8, 2012
There's Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." "The Drive" of John Elway. "The Catch" of Dwight Clark.
And in September there was "The Return," authored by Novak Djokovic. In what has to be one of the gutsiest, riskiest and most jaw-dropping moments in the history - yes, history - of tennis, Djokovic basically closed his eyes, went for a one-in-a-hundred chance and delivered a scintillating return, match point down, off a Roger Federer first serve that raced past Federer and left everyone in utter disbelief.
And that was just to stave off the first match point.
On his second chance to win the match, Federer served into the body of Djokovic - a safe and usually effective choice. But Djokovic again surprised Federer and managed to get the ball back in an awkward spot. Federer rushed his shot, and the match was basically over at that point. Though the score was still deuce, the damage had been done, and Federer was never able to recover.
Of course, Djokovic went on to beat Federer and then Rafael Nadal to win his first U.S. Open, his third Grand Slam title of 2011, and complete one of the stellar years in tennis history.
As I was reflecting on the spectacular moments in sports in 2011, this was the first one that came to mind. I couldn't think of a more special, isolated moment in sports this year - not even Game 6 of the World Series, which many will remember as the best game of 2011.
Djokovic was the athlete who stood above all others across all sports and deserves Sports Illustrated's still-relevant Sportsman of the Year Award.
After all, it's high time that Sports Illustrated honored a male tennis player. Never in the award's 57-year history has that happened. Arthur Ashe was given the honor in 1992, but that was for his magnificent humanitarian efforts while suffering from AIDS, not his tennis accomplishments.
Two female tennis players have won - Billie Jean King in 1972 and Chris Evert in 1976, during the height of tennis mania in the U.S.
Every other individual sport has garnered a share of the award - golf, track and field, boxing, cycling, skating, swimming and auto racing.
In the 35 years since Evert won, there have been several years that a male tennis player deserved it. No one was more deserving than Federer, especially in 2004, 2006 and 2007, years in which he won three Slams. But Federer was beaten out by the Boston Red Sox, Dwyane Wade and Brett Favre, respectively.
The always defensive and adoring Federer fans would likely cry foul at their man not being given the honor those years when he richly deserved it, and now seeing Djokovic get it would smart. That would be understandable. But just because Federer was apparently given short shrift doesn't mean Djokovic shouldn't be honored.
Aside from his extraordinary match record and his three Slams, what made 2011 such a singular year for Djokovic was his dominance of Federer and Nadal. Granted, Federer is a couple of years removed from his peak, but he's still one of the top three players in the world. And Nadal is in the prime of his career. Djokovic's record against the two this year: 10-1 (4-1 vs. Federer and 6-0 against Nadal).
Considering that all of Djokovic's victories over Nadal came in the finals of Slams or Masters Series events, his dominance is that much more impressive. Before this year, Nadal was one of the all-time performers in finals, with an especially stellar record of 10-2 in Slam finals before being grounded by Djokovic.
Djokovic formerly played the part of the head case, the incredibly talented but too comical showman who choked and wilted and often gave up when he was down. He seemed perpetually locked in the No. 3 position, and at 24 it appeared he had missed his chance to threaten for the top spot.
To his credit, the outgoing Serb lost weight through his gluten-free diet and, instead of tightening in the big moments, developed a nearly arrogant disregard for nerves and was impenetrable mentally when matches were close. Perhaps most impressive was that he maintained his gregarious nature, which does rankle some.
Djokovic probably won't accomplish half of what he did in 2011 next season. After all, one can't go on hitting impossible shots with reckless abandon and expect it to work more than once.
But 2011 belonged to the fearless Djokovic. and he stood above all others in sports in displaying what the Sportsman of the Year is supposed to encompass: extraordinary triumphs combined with passion and uniqueness that left us in awe.