A goal, a quote, a record, a race. Return, failure, achievement, farewell. Every year we take a small piece of the sport with us to carry on forever. The brain is like a bookshelf at home, it has no space for it creaking under the weight of stories. So from the blur of photos we choose a personal and meaningful moment.
As of 2022, you might have chosen Elaine Jo’s last jump to win the big gold medal of the freestyle skiing at the Winter Olympics or Mondo Duplantis’ space exploration. Perhaps it was that coach diving to save the life of an unconscious technical swimmer or Katie Ledecky breaking the 1,500-meter short track world record and leaving her second-place competition 40 seconds behind.
You will probably never forget Christian Eriksen, who suffered a cardiac arrest last summer and, 287 days later, scored for Denmark with his first touch on his return in March. You might have swooned over Lionel Messi giving Croatian Josko Gvardiol a 12-second tutorial on creative control, a piece of choreography that someone on social media put together so cool to classical music.
But I, I will take the picture of the two old men, weeping on the bench in London.
Eighteen years of trying to destroy each other ended with a bullying Spaniard crying a Swiss tearful farewell. No, this I have not seen before. You probably never will.
The tennis masters, Roger and Rafa, as we were reminded that Laver Cup night once again, give the sport value beyond the forehand. They understood that a competitor is also a fellow, and appreciated that the value you place on your rival makes your victory over him more rewarding.
In a year of figure skaters caught up in a drug scandal, monotonous ka-ching of LIV golf, controversy over Kyrie Irving’s alleged anti-Semitic views, Novak Djokovic’s vaccine visa swagger, and chess cheating smears, these weeping retirees have brought another dimension to the sport. Down the road of history they pursued each other fiercely, but never let desperation force them into an irreverent turn.
We love daring in sports, we’re okay with a few insults, we enjoy the adrenaline of pulling a shirt and our ears pulsate at the first sound of runner. But it’s also as if we’re conditioned to the rivalry being gruff and tense, like Max Verstappen telling a newspaper that “people have told me he (Lewis Hamilton) doesn’t use my name”.
But perhaps the sport goes too far too often, as rivalries between clubs become caricatures in all their belligerent expressions and the hype gets out of hand. Nick Kyrgios has turned disrespect into an art form and athletes have become trademarks of scripted bullshit. Not those old people. They are holding hands for God’s sake.
Balance is among the hardest things in sports, especially when overzealous support teams are trying to convince one player to undercut the other. In the book The Rivals, tennis player Chris Evert said of Nancy Lieberman, one of Martina Navratilova’s coaches, “What bothered me was Nancy making it personal, and not just about tennis. I thought Martina would play better if she hated me.”
Evert-Navartilova has played 80 matches and they are still friends, and Lin Dan and Li Zhong Wei’s badminton rivalry hasn’t paid off their respect for each other. But it’s a test and as Larry Bird, whose relationship with the character Magic Johnson was unfailingly respected, once told NPR News: “I always thought you had to keep the edge … You don’t want to get too close to someone because you’ll get a little soft.”
This is the tightrope that Rafa and Roger walked and the picture tells you they have maintained this deceptively delicate balance. Somehow it seemed fitting that the final photo on the field wasn’t for victories over each other. This is going to be very difficult for the guys who have given us depth for so long.