The season had started like a fairytale. Despite initially facing the prospect of having no drive for the 2009 season after Honda pulled out of Formula One, Jenson Button was suddenly the man of the moment.
The hastily put-together Brawn GP team had developed a startlingly fast race car. So fast in fact that the British driver - whose career had seemed in terminal decline after one victory had come from six disappointing seasons with Renault, BAR, and Honda - was suddenly the man to beat.
The mark was set early - qualifying on pole for the curtain-opening Australian grand prix - Button led from start to finish to pick up maximum points and deliver a Brawn one-two finish. The first time a debut team had finished first and second since 1954.
With a car that seemingly could deliver, Button had the chance to realize his potential. He won the next five races, punctuated only by a third-place finish at the Chinese grand prix in Shanghai, to put himself top of the drivers' championship by some margin.
But just when it looked as if the 29-year-old's march to his elusive first world title was unstoppable ... the wheels, metaphorically speaking, came off.
Button has not been back on the podium since his win in Turkey, and in all subsequent races has been significantly off the pace with finishes of sixth, fifth, seventh and seventh.
Former triple-world champion Jackie Stewart theorized Button's problems were down to the peculiarities of the Brawn car. During a recent visit to CNN, the Scot revealed the leading constructors have problems getting heat into their tires. This is rarely a problem at races in warm climates - like those at the start of the season - but the cooler tracks of northern Europe have seen a marked decline in performance from the all-white cars.
The more well-financed competitors like McLaren and Ferrari have closed the technical advantage in recent months, however, this does not explain easily why Rubens Barrichello has stayed competitive and managed to outperform his teammate over the same period.
The 37-year-old Brazilian is now Button's closest title-rival, and it's a fair assumption that the wily driver from Sao Paulo plans to take full advantage of the fear he is sensing in his stablemate.
Maybe it's stage fright, it's easy to win when nobody expects you to, but maybe the pressure of being the front runner, the one the paddock looks to for delivery, is proving a heavy burden for the Englishman. Button himself has admitted in recent weeks that he needs to regain his form to prevent a capitulation at the last - the devastating thought of letting the F1 crown pass to another after so much hard work is a negative thought Button must keep from his mind if he is to come through.
His slump worsened at Spa where he retired on the first lap – shunted off by Renault’s Romain Grosjean. Button walked away from the accident relatively unscathed as did his lead at the top of Drivers Championship.
His teammate Barrichello finished seventh (2 points) and Mark Webber ninth. Only Sebastian Vettel who finished third (six points) made up any significant ground on the Briton. But Button can ill afford any more slip ups in the season’s remaining five races.
Champions are often those who are mentally most strong and Brawn's number 22 will have to prove his mettle to prevent 2009 being remembered as the mysterious case of the disappearing Button.
Hands up who prefers watching men’s tennis to women’s right now?
Most tennis fans would agree the men’s game is the bigger draw in its current state. Yes, the return of Kim Clijsters has helped the women’s game, but real competition is lacking. How much better would it be if Justine Henin was back with racket in hand ready to do battle on court? Or if Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic could recapture their major-winning form to truly challenge the Williams sisters?
It's worth pointing out too that according to the WTA's rankings, Venus and Serena aside, the next best-placed American women's tennis player with a chance of lifting the Flushing Meadows' title is Melanie Oudin, rank 67 in the world. Strength and depth of talent is needed and nowhere more so than in the United States.
As for the 2009 champion, well, it’s hard to look past the Williams sisters, despite their relatively poor form heading in to the final major of the year. But as we’ve seen many times in the past, both can turn it on come grand-slam time.
I’d personally like to see Elena Dementieva win it. She’s overdue for a major, but whether she has the nerve to go all the way, still remains to be seen. I thought after she won gold in Beijing that she’d turned a corner, but still have to be convinced.
Dinara Safina’s another who has the ability to grab a first grand slam triumph. She’s the most consistent player on tour, but as we’ve seen this year in major finals, the temperamental Russian doesn’t seem to believe in herself on the big stage.
The men’s game currently sees the top four some way ahead of the chasing pack. Can you really see someone other than Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic winning the U.S. Open? I can’t.
They are sure to be tested somewhere down the line at Flushing Meadows by the likes of Andy Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro, but it would not be the biggest upset to see a top four semi-final showdown, just like at the Cincinnati Masters.
Now he’s won number 15, and claimed his first French Open title, Federer can relax as he goes for a sixth straight triumph in New York. He’s the overwhelming favorite and the winner, if, he plays somewhere near his best.
A lapse could see new world number two Andy Murray clinch his first grand-slam title. You’ll remember that he was Federer’s opponent in last year's final and Murray has admitted that his best chance of major success is likely to come in New York.
Nadal seems to prefer the slower courts of Melbourne to those in the Big Apple, and having just returned from a two-month injury layoff, could be the one to be upset early. Djokovic, meanwhile, is fighting fit, judging by his performance in Cincinnati and is arguably Federer’s greatest threat.
Federer will win the men’s. Serena will claim the women’s.
What do you think?
Portuguese football coach Jose Mourinho, ever the headline creator, has caused further outcry this week after he substituted Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari from his Inter Milan side during a drab 1-1 draw a league game against Bari.
Taking a tired player from the field of play was hardly breaking news, at least it wasn't until Mourinho revealed the move had been prompted because the player's perceived "low-energy levels" were as a result of fasting.
Muntari is a practising Muslim who, like many of the same faith around the world, is currently not eating during the hours of daylight to mark the Ramadan holy period.
A discipline that clearly irked Mourinho who said in a post-match press conference: "Muntari had some problems related to Ramadan, perhaps with this heat it's not good for him to be doing this (fasting). Ramadan has not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match."
Muslim leaders in Italy have criticized the opinions of the coach known as the "Special One", but Mourinho did not rule out the possibility of dropping the player for the Milan derby - between arch rivals Inter Milan and AC Milan - this weekend for the same reason.
"I've always observed Ramadan but I have had to change my habits for health reasons from the first year that I became a professional. Before that I played at Crotone [while fasting] but after two weeks I felt ill and had to stop."
So is Mourinho right to take account of how religious practices may affect his players' performance? Is it wrong to drop a fasting footballer whose energy levels may be lower than his teammates? Should Mourinho contemplate that a player of faith may perform better in a period of self-enforced discipline? And can sport and religion ever be separated in a satisfactory way?
Let us know your thoughts below.
The crowd cheers wildly as athlete Caster Semenya strides through the arrivals hall at O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg.
Despite the police's best efforts, a mass of eager South Africans swirl around her and her escort, trying to touch the teenager or even just get a snap of her arrival on their mobile phones.
The cheering and excited dancing continue outside as Semenya and her fellow-athletes board their bus.
A few bemused tourists wheel their luggage carts gingerly through the jubilant throng looking uncertainly from side to side.
The bus circles the airport and drops Semenya and her team-mates onto a stage erected on a parking lot at the side of the airport.
The crowd has reassembled in front of the stage and they cheer wildly as the politicians, who have come to greet her, make speeches and a popular South African hit song blares out through the chill spring air.
Semenya herself says nothing, but she appears composed despite the chaos surrounding her.
She smiles gently at the crowd. For a rural 18-year-old with little previous exposure to the limelight, she is clearly bearing up well.
Her enthusiastic welcome is a sign of just how the controversy surrounding her gold medal win in Berlin has enraged most South Africans.
The story of this shy, somewhat uncertain young athlete is, at its core, a story about identity.
Firstly, of course, the fact that her gender has been called into question raises uncomfortable, but universal, questions about the nature of gender and who has the right to define that identity.
It raises crucial issues, too, about the politics of sport and the scientific ethics involved in the testing of athletes.
But, crucially, Caster’s rapturous welcome home says something about what it means to be a black South African in post-apartheid South Africa.
Many in the West might find it difficult to comprehend the depth of the rage and the perceived insult at her gender being questioned.
To black South Africans, the testing is a bitter reminder of past European colonial arrogance when Africans were regarded as less than fully human, their bodies objects of scientific curiosity to be displayed in museums to satisfy the novelty-seeking instincts of crowds in Europe.
Many feel that the west cannot accept Semanya's win because they cannot come to terms with the notion of Africans achieving excellence.
This rage is difficult to counter. Who can here say exactly where the politics of sport and the politics of race and of gender begin and end?
These debates will rage for months, and their after-effects linger for years to come. But to understand the deep roots of black South African outrage at their heroine being subjected to this testing one should travel to the far north of the country, to the rural heartland of Limpopo Province where she grew up.
On the edge of Fairlea village is a dusty football pitch where Semanya began to first play and then to run. The field is hard and uneven, covered in stones, at the edges broken glass and rusty cans litter the dry grass. A herd of goats wanders across the bare earth grazing for whatever sustenance they can find.
The poverty of this African field is a long way from the immaculate training grounds of Europe and the west.
It is astonishing that an athlete of Semenya’s achievements could have begun her career here, so far behind her competitors, and have risen so high to have beaten them on their own tracks.
Semenya’s victory means something much more than winning a gold medal, it is a triumph of hope, a feat that celebrates being African and to have achieved struggling against such hardships. Africa will not easily let the west forget that.
Although Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff and all-rounder Stuart Broad hogged many of the headlines following England's defeat of Australia which sealed and Ashes series win at the weekend, it's the captain of the home side Andrew Strauss deserves the plaudits.
It's also a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the man I interviewed in 2006 – then contemplating the fact he had been overlooked as skipper for the Ashes series in Australia. With Michael Vaughan injured, the selectors picked Flintoff instead.
Strauss spoke diplomatically about the decision but the disappointment was plain to see from his expressions. Further indignity was to follow, as Flintoff and his teammates were hammered 5-0 in the series while Strauss's form with the bat suffered so much that he was dropped from the national side.
Forward the clock two years and cometh the hour cometh the man – Strauss was the only candidate for captain in 2009.
Together, with England's new coach Andrew Flower (how many Andy's does a cricket side need?), Strauss has quietly and confidently absorbed all the pressure that comes with leadership.
He has allowed teammates – some of whom failed as captain themselves – to concentrate on playing their best cricket.
At the same time, Strauss's batting has never been better. He has the ability to switch off from the captaincy while out in the middle and finished this Ashes series as the top run scorer and by hitting more boundaries than anyone else.
Strauss isn't controversial but he doesn't duck tough questions or issues – he was right to suggest the current Australian side has less of an aura than in previous years despite the furor it created.
The Ashes triumph was a great achievement but their could be more to come from a captain whose glowing reputation is still growing.
Can someone please help me write this blog?!? I am finding it difficult to come up with words to describe what Usain Bolt has done at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany!
Excuse me if I use simple words like "wow", "amazing", "incredible", and "fantastic"! It's been that kind of run for the man from Jamaica in the German capital.
The pictures, whether moving or still, tell the story of the might of Bolt. Did you see how the far ahead of the chasing pack he was at the end of the 200 meters final? You could have driven a truck through the chasm! Another race, another gold medal, another world record. Is this getting old for you? It's not me for!
Watching Bolt and you can't help but have a smile on your face. Whether it's his unorthodox pre-race primping to the camera, or his sheer athletic ability once the starter's gun sounds, or the post-race prancing around the track interacting with fans lucky enough to get front-row seats to history. Bolt is a very likeable champion.
The crowd is something that excites Bolt as well. He's said that all he wants to do is have fun. Here's betting he's having a blast right about now.
I just conducted a phone interview with United States sprinter Shawn Crawford. He's the guy who finished fourth behind Bolt in Thursday's 200 meters final at the worlds. I asked him what he meant when he said that he felt like he was in a video game out there on the track. Crawford compared the race to playing a simulated athletics game on your home big screen television. You know, when the times are simply "stupid"! I think we all know what Crawford means.
I also wanted to know whether, as a competitor, Crawford thought what Bolt is doing is good for athletics. He immediately said "yes". The American sprinter said that his Jamaican counterpart is bringing added attention to his sport.
Just think, if a talent like Bolt wasn't in Berlin do you really think that we'd be talking as much about the World Athletics Championships like we have been?
That's no slight to the hundreds of athletes who train day after day in their homelands to achieve personal or team glory. But, what Bolt has done has caught the attention and the imagination of millions around the world. Athletics, for so long, was in need of a star as bright as the 23-year-old to put the sport back onto the front burner.
Usain Bolt is someone who constantly wears a smile on his face. He's brought smiles to those of us who can only marvel at his extraordinary talents on the track.
I'm still scratching my head in disbelief! Tiger Woods just doesn't blow two shots leads during the final round of a major.
Yet the facts don't lie and while Y.E Yang celebrates a momentous win for both himself and South Korea, the American world number one is left to contemplate quite how it all happened.
A total of 14 times Tiger had gone into the lead of the final round of a major and 14 times he'd emerged victorious.
So what went wrong on this occasion? Was it over- confidence or was he just upstaged by a more determined and cooler opponent on the day?
I've given this a lot of thought and in conclusion I genuinely believe it was anything but over- confidence. Quite the opposite in fact.
There's no doubt in my view he's the undisputed best player in the world but has he lost that aura of intimidation out there on the course when it really matters?
Look at the way he won the U.S. Open in San Diego last year. That was a terrific achievement given what we now know about his knee injury.
But it was his sheer presence and WOW factor that proved too much in the end for Rocco Mediate. For me, he never quite looked as though he believed he could win. And of course, Tiger took full advantage.
But at Hazeltine, a little over a year on, how things had changed! Woods more than met his match and then some!
Yang proved a much sterner challenge and quite frankly Woods wasn't up to it. There was one player out there looking under pressure and more than a little jittery on those clutch closing holes and it sure wasn't the South Korean.
I think we can safely say for the first time in his illustrious career, Tiger was buckling under the sheer intense heat of the moment.
To say he “choked” is perhaps not appropriate in my view and detracts in some way from yang’s efforts but I do know it’s a term that would be applied to other players in similar circumstances by some sections of the media. Just not Tiger.
Yang’s winning philosophy turned out to be quite simple as he would later reveal. He just relaxed, enjoyed himself and let his playing partner take all the strain...it certainly worked a treat didn’t it?
After all, nobody expected him to win. His ploy worked well and I for one will be fascinated to see how Woods reacts to this huge setback.
It’s the first time since 2005 he’s gone a whole season without winning a major and for all his talk ahead of this event that’s it still been a good comeback season for him, don’t be fooled. It hasn’t .
Tiger’s all about winning grand slam events. He even says as much. And after not seriously challenging at the Masters, the British Open and the U.S. Open, this latest near miss is utterly devastating for his morale.
And to make matters worse, he’s now got many long months ahead to reflect on what by his standards was one spectacular capitulation.
You can be sure Woods will bounce back of course but just how this will effect him remains to be seen. 2009 saw his great friend Roger Federer rise to be the very top of his sport but Tiger is left lagging behind the legendary jack Nicklaus – whose record haul of 18 majors looks just a little safer for now.
It proves that when it comes to winning golf’s biggest prizes, Woods still has plenty of work ahead of him before he too can call truly himself the best ever.
“I’m really happy that Usain broke the record.” Huh? Those, surprisingly, were the words of United States sprinter Tyson Gay after he, and the rest of us, watched the Jamaican smash another 100-meters world record at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
O.K. let’s add some context to Gay’s comment. The American had a front row seat to history in the German capital as he finished runner-up to Bolt in the “world’s” marquee race. While battling through the pain of a groin injury, Gay still blazed a personal best and U.S. record time of 9.71 seconds. This, of course, paled in comparison to Bolt’s lightning-fast winning time of 9.58 seconds. Gay, the second fastest human on the planet, told reporters: “I knew it was humanly possible for someone to run that fast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me.”
What Bolt is doing is something we might not see achieved on the track for a long, long time to come, if ever. The Jamaican is pushing the limits of the human body and he appears to be doing it with the greatest of ease.
After twice interviewing the 22-year-old during last year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, there are a couple of traits that I believe contribute to his continued success. First, Bolt is lanky - 6 feet, 5 inches tall to be exact (1.9558 meters). Long legs create quite an advantage when a sprinter strides down the track.
Bolt is also one of the most laid back individuals that you’ll ever meet. Youthful exuberance when competing in the high-pressure world of athletics goes a long way in remaining cool while the heat is on. Bolt has this happy-go-lucky personality synonymous with someone raised in the Caribbean. In fact, he does care very much about what he’s doing and wants to be known someday as a living legend. Many think that he’s already achieved that goal but Bolt disagrees. Speaking in Berlin after once again doing the amazing in the 100, the sprinter said that he doesn’t think he can reach legendary status in just two seasons of glory. He said that it comes with being consistent year in and year out and with hard work.
So, how low can he go? Perhaps the best is yet to come. Bolt is on record as saying that he thinks he can take the 100-meters world record down to 9.4 seconds. Put me in the category of believers!
It may sound hard to believe but Bolt says that he doesn’t run for world records, he just keeps on working. Well, what he’s doing IS working and we are all benefiting from it as fans of athletics.
Sure, he’s not the most humble of characters, what with his trademark “lightning bolt” stance and his playful antics toward the track side television cameras. But, Bolt is hard not to like. What he’s done over the past couple of years is bring much needed personality to a sport that has lacked it of late. Couple his playful nature with his uncanny ability to wipe out world records in 30-something steps and the sky is the limit for Usain Bolt who, like lightning, will strike again very soon.
One year ago, I was witness to a number of incredible sporting achievements in the Chinese capital.
The opening week of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, belonged to Michael Phelps. The United States swimmer capturing our imaginations with his incredible, gold medal-winning performances in the pool.
If Phelps whet our collective appetites, then Usain Bolt delivered the dessert!
The Jamaican sprinter closed out the Beijing Games with a bang…three races, three world records, three Olympic gold medals.
A year later, at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Bolt is ready to defend his title as “World’s Fastest Man”. It is not likely that he will leave Germany disappointed.
Proclaiming that he is in the best shape of his life, defending world champion Tyson Gay is prepared to give Bolt the challenge that he never had in Beijing.
The anticipated Bolt-Gay Olympic showdown did not materialized after the American pulled a hamstring muscle in the U.S. Olympic trails. Berlin provides Gay a platform to show that he can give Bolt a “run for his money”.
The last time these two men met was in May 2008. It proved to be Bolt’s coming out party. While previously running in relative anonymity, Bolt burst onto the scene that night in New York with the first of his two world records in the 100-meters. Gay has been playing second fiddle ever since.
It would probably be for the good of athletics if Bolt had some real competition. Then again, don’t we wish that for other sports? Who has stepped up to tame Tiger Woods in golf? Why hasn’t anyone halted, or even slowed, the Roger Federer Express in men’s tennis?
Tyson Gay doesn’t sound intimated by Usain Bolt and he’s quick to give the Jamaican his “props”. But, until he proves otherwise, Gay will always have to hear that that he is a good but not a great sprinter.
Last month, before a meet in London, Bolt told a reporter that on his best day he doesn’t think that Gay can beat him. The Jamaican has had a number of “great” days over the past year. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t enjoy a satisfying stay in the German capital.
So now we have it, the final confirmation that the Olympic motto of "citius, altius, fortius" – or faster, higher, stronger - counts for absolutely nothing when it comes to the selection of sports for inclusion in the 2016 program and beyond.
With the greatest of respect to golf, and I happen to believe that Tiger Woods lays claim to being the greatest sportsman of all time, it no more fits that Olympic ideal than an energetic game of tiddlywinks.
I have this vision of a by-then 50-year-old John Daly chain-smoking his way to gold at the 2016 Games, his not inconsiderable belly peaking over a set of garish trousers in the colors of the United States of America, with the silver going to Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, giant cigar in one hand, and bronze to 66-year-old Tom Watson, revived after his second artificial hip operation.
More than likely, the gold will be won by Tiger, but in his heart of hearts how will it rate against breaking Jack Nicklaus' record for 18 major titles, as he surely will, sinking the winning putt at the Augusta Masters, claiming the British Open at St Andrew's or the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach ?
Which brings me to my second argument, and leave aside questions of athletic ability, the strongest argument for Olympic inclusion should be that winning a gold medal must be the very pinnacle in their respective sport.
Think of the runner Paula Radcliffe's abject misery after failing to win the women's marathon at the Athens Olympics. She would willingly, I am sure, swap all her world records just to get her hands on gold, just once.
And however much professional tennis players and now golfers enjoy playing for the countries at the Olympics, it remains a secondary ambition – whatever Colin Montgomerie might have told the IOC in golf's apparently impressive presentation to the executive board. So what's it to be Monty, an Olympic gold in golf or winning the major that has always eluded you ? I think I know the answer.
Which is why I cannot find a vestige of enthusiasm for the inclusion of rugby sevens, a game requiring considerable physical ability, but just a watered-down version of the proper 15-a-side game, which has its own World Cup and Tri-Nations and Six Nations titles as the highest honors in its sport.
In fairness to the IOC executive board, the opposition to golf and rugby sevens was not terribly strong, with baseball and softball, whatever their advocates might say, played in too few countries and having been hardly a roaring success with their inclusion in previous Olympics to satisfy the American television audience which pays the IOC a hefty sum for the rights.
Karate undoubtedly had a case. However, it's a sport which might look good in Bruce Lee films, but like Taekwondo is rather disappointing visually and full of obscure rules which make it difficult to understand, which brings me to squash and roller sports.
Most people believe that squash is already in the Olympics because it's the sort of sport that should be, requiring immense skill, stamina and courage, played by some of the fittest sportsman in the world and in most countries in the world.
While roller sports – and I used to be very sniffy about the Extreme Games and the like – captures the imagination of youngsters all over the world in a way that, quite frankly, golf and rugby sevens will never do.
But of course they never had a chance against the cash-rich federations representing golf and rugby and the vested commercial interests which are threatening to undermine the Olympic ethos. They should have a new motto: Money Money Money.