We like to tell the story of the underdog. Sport is designed that way. A triumph against the odds. An unexpected success. Victory in adversity. Those are naturally attractive headlines. Conversely, we await the fall of a dominant champion. Who seems always to have the trophy in hand. Forever at the top of the podium. Always with a gold medal around his neck. When he is beaten, we celebrate. Here's the theory: Sport is at its most compelling when the underdog wins. What utter balderdash. 2011 was an ode to dominance. To men who denied the headline writers their preferred form of pontification.
It was the year when a Serb triumphed on a relentless circuit with joyful exuberance. On clay and grass. On cement and rebound ace. Novak Djokovic pounced on every opponent on every surface with skill and substance. He won in Melbourne and London and then in New York. And in nearly every city he journeyed to. He beat two of the greatest players known to tennis not once or twice- but TEN times- in the course of the year. Players not in decline, but those who had dominated the sport so that only a handful of major titles had gone to other men over the last half a decade. Djokovic was dominance at its most beautiful. He counter-punched from the back court against Rafael Nadal. And won. He played the angles against Roger Federer. And won. When he was challenged he found a way to win. And when he started to pulverise an opponent, there was no way back in. In 2011, Djokovic won 70 of the 76 times he stepped on court. Only as the year ended did his weary limbs give in. And there was the odd blemish on a near spotless record.
While tennis players were plotting ways to tame Djokovic, Formula One drivers were consumed by a similar quest: How to catch Sebastian Vettel. The cynics say its really just the car. Jump in. Push the buttons. And let the technology guide you to the chequered flag. Perhaps there is merit to that argument. Yet for a 24 year old to win 11 of 19 races on a circuit where one mistake made in a nano-second can be fatal was a remarkable feat. Defending titles can be arduous. Vettel's defence was sensational. In 15 of 19 races he started in pole position. He wasn't on the podium for just 2 of those 19 races. Djokovic dominated with panache. Vettel's dominance was clinical. This is a sport consumed by its self-perpetuated distractions. And littered with former champions- Schumacher, Button and Hamilton. Yet Vettel stayed wise and ruthless. His dominance was a tribute to method and preparation. Vettel won't lose to mere talent in the future. He is too smart for that.
There is a fervour of anticipation among neutrals when two equally matched teams are about to contest for a trophy. The Champions League final in May was one such occasion. Manchester United vs Barcelona. On paper, there was little to separate the teams. Champions in their own land. Gifted players. Passionate supporters. Canny managers. An edge of the seat thriller was a given. How wrong we were. For that night divinity visited our planet. And devoured the men in red. Barcelona weren't playing football. They were producing a symphony ordained by the gods. It was impossible not to be dazzled. It was sport at its purest. Not a shred of violence. A deft touch, a serene pass, a little shimmy and a football obeying the command of a bunch of magicians. Score-lines have a way of disguising the truth. 3-1 wasn't even in the territory of describing the magnificence of Barcelona's performance. Sir Alex Ferguson said his team hadn't endured a 'hiding' of this kind in 25 years. Not to mortals in any case. When Barcelona dominated that evening, millions were grateful to have witnessed such mastery in their lifetime.
Sportsmen recognise a 'now or never' moment. They prepare for the eventuality of its arrival. In distant corners of their mind is an awareness of the need to be ready to seize their 'all or nothing' moment. India's cricket team always knew three games stood between them and those two words: World Champions. Yes, there was a qualification process. Yes, there were minor hurdles to be crossed and upstarts to vanquish. But their march to the world cup title was about three days. And those three days will define the men who conquered them for the rest of their living days...and beyond. That group will forever recollect with pride the quarter-final against Australia, semi-final against Pakistan and final against Sri Lanka. They were gritty when asked. Unleashed the flair when needed. Found a hero in every adversity. Conjured a solution to each problem. Tagged favourites when the tournament began their fall was eagerly awaited. And almost predictable. Yet it never arrived. India dominated when they were expected to. The hardest kind of dominance there is.
2012 offers some mouth-watering delicacies. Perhaps one among the pack of women's tennis players will break away to start an era of her own? Federer or Nadal may find a second wind. Djokovic could stumble. Vettel might be denied a hat-trick of titles. Usain Bolt might actually be second best in a 100 metre dash he isn't disqualified from! Maybe Rory McIlroy will be the new Tiger Woods? Who knows, Tiger Woods might yet be the new Tiger Woods! Barcelona's titles could be snatched away. Dominance is never permanent. But it is also never dull. 2011 showed us: Don't just root for the underdog!