A-Z of the Sporting Year: A bad start for Novak Djokovic, an untimely end for Eddie Jones

Heady days for Katie Taylor, Irish cricket and laser-eyed Pat Spillane; and a heck of a time for tennis, Roy Keane, Phil Mickelson and many more

A is for Aussie Open. A Serb who believed in the medicinal virtues of an “extremely long hug” but not vaccination. Novak Djokovic stormed “Fortress Australia” like any zealot, a tennis racket in one hand and medical exemption in the other. Neither arm with a needle prick. Civil unrest, local politics and the demands of a tennis God collided. Australian Open, not really. In the ensuing covid conflict, party-pooper prime minister Scott Morrison came out swinging and declared “sorry mate, we’re deporting you.” And they did. Australia closed. Could easily have been Ash Barty wins Aussie Open and retires. Classy.

B is for bra. Sports bra. Not an area of expertise. This year football came home in the form of a whipped-off top that showed how Nike are still nicely positioned. The celebration of Chloe Kelly’s cathartic goal in the European Championship final and her trailblaze down the pitch spinning a winning England shirt in the air to 87,192 joyful fans. An England senior football team bringing home its first major trophy in 56 years. Brandi Chastain did the same after winning the Women’s World Cup with the USA in 1999.

C is for computer. It checkmates humans every day at stuff. Then, Galway met Derry in the All-Ireland football semi-final. In studio terminator Pat Spillane, one eye a red laser, the other a whirring telescopic sight, took his sawn-off to Hawkeye, which said a ball was “níl” when it was clearly ‘tá’. The GAA declared “the future has not been written” and decided to eliminate “score detection technology” for the Dublin v Kerry semi-final. Tennis knew the feeling. When it introduced Hawkeye to Wimbledon, superbrat John McEnroe demanded to know who could legally challenge it. Finally, he got his answer: The GAA

D is for the Duckworth Lewis Stern (DLS). Not a contraceptive method. The algorithm Irish cricket used to stun ODI World Champions England in October’s Cricket World Cup. DLS converts all possible combinations of balls and wickets left into a combined resources remaining percentage and these are all stored in a published table or computer. Check. The target score for the team batting second can be adjusted up or down from the total that the team batting first achieved using these resource percentages, to reflect the loss of resources to one or both teams when a match is shortened one or more times. Clear enough?

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E is for Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Santos football club, New York Cosmos soccer club and Brazil. Beyond the game, Pele fronted a cultural coup. He came during English League Division One and mud larks up in Elland Road. He came in colour and sunshine for the first time in our house in 1970. Beautiful yellow tops from the Mexico World Cup. Playing on pitches where the ball bounced, Brazil dazzled with one name players. Pele. Rivelino. Jairzinho. They changed thinking on that and how to kick ball. Turned out for Brazil at 16-years-old. Beat whole teams on his own with the ‘paradinha,’ the ‘little stop.’ We all filled our boots.

F is for farewell, really au revoir. Federer, a talent that outshone even the gold lamé blazer he wore to Centre Court with a game that exhausted all the adjectives available to his five languages. Visuals and backhand by Christian Dior. Choreography and footwork by the Bolshoi Ballet. Precision ball placement courtesy of Nasa. Serena Williams turned pro at 14, won her first Grand Slam at 17, then won 22 more over a career that spanned three decades. Power and athleticism, a black woman and white sport. Roger retired and Serena, through an essay in Vogue, “evolved” from the game. Either way tennis died a little.

G is for gaslighting. An interesting concept, where people seek to “gain power and control by distorting reality and forcing others to question their own judgment and intuition”. The sixth edition of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award was grandly announced in Doha during the World Cup. Nothing to see. Fifa President Gianni Infantino brought his moral heft to the Sheraton Hotel bash. Nuff said. Gaslighting: a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind.

H is for the haters. The ne’er-say-gooders on social media platform Twitter. The class warriors and oval ball agnostics. The success story in becoming the first Irish team in history to beat the All Blacks in a series at their own game in their own backyard was the hippest of trips. Alas a triggering event for some, it generated a social media wailing wall. Decried as a friendly series of matches. Inverse snobbery sprang to life. Lads, rugby, boxing, they have no such thing as international friendlies.

I is for Independent Review. Paradise lost. It began with the impertinence of Irish women rugby players going over the heads of the IRFU and writing a scathing letter to the Irish Government expressing loss of “all trust and confidence”. The group of 62 called on politicians Jack Chambers and Catherine Martin to intervene in the hope of seeing “multiple cycles of substandard commitment from the union” ended once and for all. This year’s pamphlet was the answer. Paradise regained. A lot of smiley faces and 52 glossy pages of “Key findings”. Key frustration: we know nothing, the IRFU don’t do full publication of reviews.

J is for jolly Boris Becker once again. The larger-than-life tennis player and Tabloid King was released from HM prison days ago over tax unpaid and deported from the UK. You might wonder how he’s dealing with the lack of restricted space after eight months in the embrace of close quarters. For the winning teen phenom, whose life defining moments were within the confined lines of Centre Court three times, the walls of Wandsworth Prison and the tight dimensions of a broom cupboard in the Nobu restaurant off Park Lane in London, where he consorted with waitress Angela Ermakova, suggests agoraphobia. The new freedom may be challenging.

K is for the undisputed Katie “blessed” Taylor, who hauled herself around sun-splashed New York in April. Midtown Manhattan and Ireland’s greatest (temporary) export decided to go toe to toe with Amanda Serrano in the fifth round. For the 20,000, mostly Irish in the building, naked fear. It was open-heart surgery for the collective, a high-wire act over the Niagara Falls. The current undisputed lightweight champion survived a Puerto Rican pummelling to hold on to her world straps. Katie wins another fight. Has there ever been a different ending?

L is for Loving thine big busting heart for LIV, the not-for-winners Saudi-backed golf tour that, for the love of money, allows for players not making the cut; a conceit for PGA losers. The totally for-profit event is sport’s version of Sheltered Accommodation for the preternaturally concerned wealthy who never have enough and always require more. Phil “My Bank Account” Michelson laid it on the line. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” he said.

M is for Maradona. M is for Messi. Both beautiful game messiahs, both Argentinian gods of trickery. Both filling the space in the club car park reserved for the “greatest”. The latest greatest, the little bewitching Messi, whose shorts seem too long and legs seem too short, but who allowed us, for a few beguiling weeks, days and finally hours, to forget the 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who perished since Qatar won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. An international crime scene some have called it.

N is for Notorious. It is also for noxious and for know nothing, numbskull. “you sad little pox of a thing. Sit up right and smile for a change will you, you sad c**t hahaha wife left you an all and your crying in the paper bout depression, posture like a prawn sad bastard. I am Ireland. Don’t forget it. There’s blood on my flag.” Comedian PJ Gallagher felt the wrath of a self-proclaimed big man. Irish football great Paul McGrath entered the pitch and decried the Tweet. Beyond parody, the Notorious’ solution was a charity boxing match to ... listen up ... “raise money for anti-bullying campaigns and mental health organisations”.

O is for outrageous. The undermining of high-performance boxing with a repeat performance. Bernard Dunne joined Billy Walsh, one flying out east, the other flying out west. Anywhere. Just out. How boxing and its governors managed to self-harm and exposé the sport’s darker side to the public for two Olympic cycles is itself an accomplishment.

P is for poetry’s dark side. The wonderful thing about a bard’s life is that it’s dead easy to rhyme stuff. It’s also dead easy to be queasy. See. “That stomach, those abs, those pictures you send so I can keep tabs / You make me feel funny down there. Especially when you’re there and you look up and stare / I’m gonna end by saying you are my love, my friend, my soul / And most of all you believe in me which makes me as hard as a totem pole.” Lyrics by Wales and Manchester United hip-shaker Ryan Giggs. Read out during his trial for displaying controlling/coercive behaviour towards Kate Greville. A retrial is rescheduled for next summer, another rendition eagerly anticipated.

Q is for QAnon and UFC champion Tito Ortiz, beating a fast path towards strip mall shamans and whack-job conspiracy theories. MMA and its image problem is not all about blood splatter. Ortiz thumps the bible of global conspiracies and doom-scrollers. Enemies set out to diminish American freedoms that would have succeeded had it not been for one heroic man. “Donald Trump is that person,” said the former UFC light heavyweight champion. Ortiz, scarily part of a trend of current and former MMA fighters and coaches waiting for “The Storm”, is likely to say “WWG1WGA” (where we go one we go all).

R is for Roy. The ITV bacon slicer, the ornery Corkman Keane. The look is Ernest Shackleton on The Endurance in South Georgia, or Dubliner Ronnie Drew perfectly outré for World Cup television coverage. Ne’er the over-the-moon, game-of-two-gutted-halves, early-doors cliche from him. Ne’er the acquiescent pass-the-football-panel peace-pipe. The man Graeme Souness chided by saying “you are not here for your opinion”. For that he got locked into the Keane stare.

S is for the Streisand Effect. Pick a song. Sing it. Record on phone. Put on social media. Be pleased with 11 likes. Qualify for the women’s football World Cup. Repeat. Viral because the song has the refrain “ooh, aah up the ‘Ra”. Wolfe Tones Brian Warfield dismissed critics of Celtic Symphony as being “cranks and unionists or people who side with them”. Others claimed it as a celebration. It was written in 1987 for the centenary of Celtic Football Club in 1988, and attempting to stop it being sung has had the same opposite effect as when the diva tried to censor pictures of her mansion and more people looked. The Streisand Effect.

T is for three as in three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. There’s a lot of devotional practice going around town. Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s outhalf, has become a religiously targeted player – by rosary. People are embarking on pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, Gurudwara Shri Hemkund Sahib and Rameshwram to pray for the Irish captain’s safe delivery to the Rugby World Cup next year in Paris. Hand me my lead-weighted oxtail whip.

U is for underhand and what bountiful things a well-positioned chevron bead may do for a game of chess. Magnus Carlsen, world number one and World Chess Champion since 2013, resigned unexpectedly while playing against Hans Niemann. “I believe that Niemann has cheated,” claimed the master, now at the wrong end of a $100 million lawsuit. The chess world clutched its pearls and Elon Musk posted an unsubstantiated but technically possible Tweet that a sex toy may have been used - vibrating anal beads. “If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it. I know I am clean,” Niemann said. Finally taking chess to the masses.

V is for Vera and her affronted description of allegations of body shaming players in the USA while coach at Houston Dash as “an insult to my personal values and to my behaviour as coach”. Between her own speaking out of sexual assault, the play-off win over Scotland to earn a first ever World Cup finals for Irish women, a goal from Donegal’s Amber Barrett days after the Creeslough tragedy and taking heat for belting out a Wolf Tones number, it has been a heavy issue-laden year. “Ten beautiful souls,” said Barrett of her county’s grief after Ireland had qualified.

W is for Wimbledon, a tennis tournament, a culture war and a pub quiz question few get right. Name the two 2022 women’s singles finalists. Doh! Bidding to be the first female Arab Grand Slam champion, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur won hearts and minds on the final day while Kazakhstan’s Russia-born Elena Rybakina claimed the trophy. With Russian players banned from Wimbledon, Rybakina was asked every question short of home address and telephone phone number to try to pin her as a pesky impostor. In the end it was a tearfully happy 23-year-old Kazak/Muscovite champion.

X is for X-rated and the anatomy of a dangerous tackle in rugby. Bundee Aki is suspended for eight weeks for a self-propelled cleanout on Stormers wing Seabelo Senatla, who walks away unscathed. Bloodied Ulster hooker Tom Stewart leaves the field for a HIA after a head-to-head collision with Leinster’s Cian Healy, who is red-carded. The card is then rescinded. Ulster centre James Hume is sinbinned for a high tackle on Leinster captain Garry Ringrose, who nimbly spins away to score a try. Three tackles, three different outcomes. The Six Nations to be a red-card, yellow-card, guess-the-colour lottery.

Y is for male chromosome. Most of the life of Lia Thomas was lived as a man competing as a male. Transitioning and competing as female, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer moved from a mid-500s ranking (554th in the 200 freestyle) in men’s competition to one of the top-ranked women swimmers in the USA. Heads turned. Thomas was described as “the face of the debate on transgender women in sports” and the culture war of our time. Swimming body Fina said, “it’s not just the chromosomes stupid”. They then banned transgender athletes who had reached male puberty believing that process engenders irreversible male strengths. This will roll.

Z is for “zut alors”, a polite way of saying “merde”, which is an impolite way of saying darn, dang, damn. They sacked Eddie Jones. They zeroed him nine months out from a World Cup. With Jones goes Wales as a “little shit place” and the “scummy Irish”. Hearts hardened to the tasteless swipes, the psycho wars and the tongue lashing. An Aussie in Pom’s clothing, last July he was called a traitor by an Australian fan with a pint in his hand. No context, just offensive. From Jones’ own playbook he should have understood. But didn’t.