2015 was an eventful year for fans of sport. There was World Cup action in cricket, women’s football and rugby. Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Barcelona continued their domination, and Usain Bolt showed us he’s still the king of the track. There was much to cheer about even as some of the worst controversies shook the big leagues.
Here’s HT’s list of the 10 best sporting events of 2015, in no particular order.
1. Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams’ seasons among the greatest ever
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams of the United States tightened their stranglehold as the world’s best tennis players.
The Serb recorded one of the all-time great seasons, going 82-6 for the year. He won three Grand Slam titles, six Masters 1000 titles (of the nine events, he reached the final in eight and did not play one), a Masters 500 event, and a fifth World Tour Finals title.
Williams’ season may have produced a slightly less impressive win-loss count of 53-3, but her season was just as staggering. The American won three Grand Slams, taking her overall Major count to 21, one below Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22.
The two also mirrored each other in terms of disappointments. Both were chasing history, aiming to become the first players since Rod Laver (1969) and Steffi Graf (1988) respectively, to complete the Calendar Grand Slam -- the almost impossible task of winning all four Majors in the same year. Both fell short by just one match.
Djokovic was the first to falter, losing the final of Roland Garros to a can-do-nothing-wrong Swiss Stan Wawrinka. The French Open remains the only Major still missing from Djokovic’s trophy cabinet.
Williams managed to complete the “Serena Slam” -- holding all four Grand Slams at the same time, but across different seasons -- for a second time, but remained two wins away from the Calendar Slam. Her loss was the diminutive Italian, Roberta Vinci’s gain.
2. Roberta Vinci springs the upset of the year
On one side was the sheer weight of history. Arguably the greatest female tennis player ever was chasing a feat that had last been accomplished 27 years ago. Serena Williams, with 21 Grand Slams, was attempting to equal Steffi Graf’s tally of 22 and win her fifth consecutive Major.
On the other was a 32-year-old Italian playing her first Grand Slam semi-final. Roberta Vinci possessed a game that was usually good enough to get her through the opening rounds of the sport’s biggest tournaments, but gave her no chance in the latter rounds in today’s physical, power-based game. She’d enjoyed far greater success in doubles.
Williams’ march to the Calendar Slam had by then assumed an air of inevitability. In Melbourne, she swatted away the challenge of Maria Sharapova, who continues to remain without a win over the American since 2004. In Paris, she fought illness and her own fluctuating game, willing her way to a win over first-time Grand Slam finalist Lucie Safarova.
In London, she was up to the challenge of Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, who had handed the American her worst defeat at a Major, in the second round of last year’s French Open. In New York, two Italians, Vinci and first-time Grand Slam finalist Flavia Pennetta, stood in her path.
Vinci knew she didn’t stand a chance and had accepted it. That was the best thing she could have done as it freed her up mentally to just play her game and enjoy the occasion. Key to her win was her backhand slice. She used the shot to keep the ball low, forcing Williams to bend and dig the ball out with her backhand, ending up off-balance as a result. Vinci then took initiative, moving the American around before coming to the net, as if to say, “I know you’ve got the best passing shots, but can you still pull them off with that Calendar Slam weighing heavily on your mind?”
Vinci broke Williams in the third set, and, most impressively, continued to play her game. There was little sign of nerves as she served out the win in front of a stunned crowd in the Arthur Ashe stadium.
“I called my travel agency to say, OK, book me a flight, because you know...[I’m playing Serena] and then now I have my final tomorrow. So it’s incredible,” an incredulous Vinci said in her post-match interview.
3. Usain Bolt owns Beijing. Again.
There were heavy doubts about whether the fastest man in the world could deliver at this year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing. Since winning his third straight 200m title at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Bolt had been plagued by injuries – his pelvic issues and the rust from time-off was clearly showing.
At the New York Diamond League in June, Bolt laboured his way to victory in the 200m, clocking in at 20.29 seconds. He hadn’t broken the 20-second mark all year. “I wasn’t too happy with the time today,” said Bolt after that run. “But training has been going well and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Bolt’s main challenger, American Justin Gatlin, came into Beijing with the fastest 100m and 200m of the season. But the championships were to be held in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the same venue where Bolt won the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m at the Olympics seven years ago.
Bolt edged Gatlin, just about, in the 100m final, then beat him again in the 200m final, recording the best time of the season at 19.55 seconds, and then went three for three, the Jamaicans beating the Americans in the 4x100m relay.
During his victory lap after the 200, a cameraman lost control of his Segway scooter and collided with Bolt, causing the Jamaican to take a tumble. In a fittingly ironic twist, the cameraman lost control after the Segway ran over a bolt.
Only a man on wheels can take down Usain Bolt, someone wrote on Twitter. It really felt that way this year.
4. Andy Murray gives Great Britain its first Davis Cup since 1936
There’s something about Andy Murray and ending long, infamous streaks in British sport. In 2013, the Scot ended the 77-year-long wait for a British Wimbledon champion, beating Novak Djokovic in the final to become the first home player since Fred Perry in 1936 to lift the men’s singles trophy.
And this year, virtually singlehandedly, Murray took the nation to its first Davis Cup triumph since 1936.
Representing his country brings out the best in the Scot, almost as if he’s a different player altogether. In 2012, a month after a loss to Roger Federer in his first Wimbledon final left him in tears, Murray returned to the All England Club to dismantle the Swiss in straight sets in the London Olympics final to claim gold.
Murray’s Davis Cup record this year is a staggering 11-0, including an 8-0 singles record and 3-0 in doubles with brother Jamie. His singles wins were the backbone of Britain’s run to the title.
And in the team’s 3-1 win over Belgium in the final, there were no players in the three matches won whose names were not Murray.
5. Barcelona win the treble for a second time
The Catalan club this year became the first European team to twice clinch the treble -- winning the domestic double and the Champions League in the same season. Barcelona had previously won the La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Uefa Champions League in 2008-09.
Much of this success was thanks to the prolific goalscoring trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who became the trio with the most number of goals in Spanish football.
En route to the Champions League final, Barca even humbled Bayern Munich 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinal, with Messi’s finesse causing Bayern defender Jerome Boateng to trip on himself, making him the object of ridicule on social media.
Barcelona is the best club in the world at the moment. Arguably the best club in the world, Bayern and its fans might say.
6. Chile are finally champions of South America
It took all of 99 years, but Chile finally managed to win South America’s premier football tournament for the first time, and it did so on home turf.
Messi’s Argentina edged their way past Colombia on penalties and then hammered Paraguay to set up a title clash with the hosts. The Barcelona striker has often been criticised for not accomplishing enough with the national side, and after their runner-up finish to Germany at last year’s Fifa World Cup, his team fell short yet again.
Despite a contentious, highly physical match, neither side could find the back of the net in 120 minutes and so the match went to penalties. For the Argentinians, Messi scored but Gonzalo Higuain and Ever Banega missed. The Chileans didn’t miss any of their penalties, with Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez finishing things off in style.
7. US are women’s football world champions for a third time
The US men’s national football team may be ranked a lowly 32 on Fifa’s charts, but the American women, on the other hand, became world champions for a third time, marking a thorough, dominant performance with a 5-2 win over Japan in the final.
The Jill Ellis-coached, Carli Lloyd-led side gave their all-time leading goalscorer Abby Wambach the perfect retirement gift, putting five past the Japanese and handing Wambach the captain’s armband in the final minutes of her last international game.
8. Australia are cricket world champions for the fifth time
After losing out on the bid to host the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, Australia won the right to host this year’s edition of the tournament, along with New Zealand. And there’s nothing like winning a tournament at home, right?
So the Aussies went ahead and did just that.
Apart from one loss to the Kiwis in the group stage, Australia were solid throughout, beating defending champions India convincingly in the semifinals to set up a rematch in the final against New Zealand.
The Michael Clarke-led Australian side, with more experience and confidence than the first-time finalists, overcame their opponents to give their captain and their wicketkeeper Brad Haddin a retirement present, which came perfectly wrapped with a bow on top.
9. New Zealand win the Rugby World Cup
The Aussies may be one up on the Kiwis when it comes to cricket, but New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby team ensured the Trans-Tasman rivalry in World Cups this year would be tied at 1-1, as they beat the Wallabies 34-17 to win their third Rugby World Cup in Twickenham, England.
In the final, All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter scored four penalties, converted two tries, and kicked a drop goal that gave the Kiwis the win. He was named Man of the Match and also received his third World Rugby Player of the Year award for his performance.
10. Golden State Warriors overcome LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals
The Cleveland Cavaliers were in search of their first Final title, while the Golden State Warriors were looking for their first since 1975. LeBron James was contesting his fifth consecutive Finals, having played the previous four for Miami Heat. He had contested one Finals for the Cavs previously, outplayed by the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in 2006-07.
Despite trailing 1-2, the Warriors came back to win the next three games and the series 4-2. Andre Iguodala was named Most Valuable Player of the finals and it was his inclusion in the starting lineup from the fourth game onwards that proved crucial to the Warriors’ turnaround.
Billed the best player in the world, LeBron wanted this one badly. In the end though his individual brilliance was not enough to push the Cavs past the finish line against a Warriors side that, despite the absence of players without prior Finals experience, pulled through, thanks in large part to Iguodala and Stephen Curry.
The Warriors haven’t stopped there, either. Their winning streak of 24 games this season was ended by the Milwaukee Bucks only two weeks ago and the team is now 28-1 thus far this season.