9.) The 'Death' of Barcelona
Barcelona has been rumored to be killed many times, but never did it seem so real as it did in 2014. In the spring everything literally went to hell in the Camp Nou. The Catalan boys found themselves in a real odd position: not in line to win any of the three major trophies (La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League). They weren’t far off in the first two, finishing 2nd in La Liga (tied with Real Madrid but winning on h2h record), behind Atletico Madrid. They also found themselves in the final of the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid, but couldn’t find themselves in that game either. What’s worse was they came so close to winning those. They played Real Madrid who was sitting an injured Cristiano Ronaldo, but lost because Madrid’s newest glamour-boy, Gareth Bale, sprinted well past Jordi Alba, whose diminutive stature makes him a perfect Barca player, and drove a shot right past Victor Valdes. In La Liga, they hosted Atletico in the final game. A win would give Barcelona the title. Instead, despite leading 1-0 in the 2nd half, they drew and lost the crown.
None of that compared to their flameout in the Champions League. Barcelona had made the Semifinals a ridiculous 6 straight years. That streak would end. Once again, it was Atletico Madrid. They drew the first leg 1-1 in the Camp Nou, and then lost 0-1 in the Vicente Calderon. Come May, in the Champions League Final, Barcelona had to sit on the sidelines watching their two biggest La Liga rivals play in a Final where one would get the double. Real Madrid won ‘La Decima’ after a 12 year break, and Barcelona was almost clearly the 3rd best team in their own country.
Sadly, their problems extended off the pitch. Upper Management was caught up in scandals surrounding their purchase of Neymar, which went into shady payments to ‘corporations’ owned by Neymar’s family, and an incorrect disclosure of the amount which Barca did to skate by tax laws. It ended with Barcelona’s President getting sacked, and having to publicly apologize to the footballing community. There were scandals around the appointment of Tata Martino as manager replacing the, now late, Tito Villanova. Martino had no experience in Europe, and was seen as a dummy coach hand-picked by Messi, a sign of Leo’s growing influence in the club at large. That ended in disaster, and another manager sacked. Finally, there was a transfer ban put in place after Barcelona had been revealed to have violently disobeyed the rules regarding signing foreign youth players. Of course, being Barcelona, the complained and the transfer ban was delayed in time for them to go on a splurge, but Barca showed itself to be just another club on the pitch, and considering how haughty they consider their brand to be, off the pitch as well.
8.) Rory McIlroy has arrived?
It has now been 6-and-a-half years since Tiger Woods last won a major. It has been two years since he’s even come close. Since that incredible US Open win in 2008, Woods has missed more major than he’s finished in the Top-5. His chase of Jack Nicklaus is so much on hold it may as well be a plane at Newark Airport. For the first few years following Tiger’s implosion, the common refrain in Golf is that no one was stepping up to fill his shoes. There was a string of majors with different winners (not counting Padraig Harrington, who won both majors in 2008 after Tiger left to fix his knee – about 30 injuries ago). In 2014, that all was put to bed. We are squarely living in the Rory McIlroy era now.
Rory McIlroy finished 3rd in a major in 2009 at like 15. He won his first major in a Wire to Wire win in the US Open in 2011, beating the field by 5 strokes. He won his second the next year in the PGA Championship, but then his career kind of went to hell. He started dating the beautiful Dane Caroline Wozniacki, who herself had her promising career go to hell. McIlroy was inconsistent, never placing in the Top-10 of a major outside of his wins. He was more Mickelson than Woods, and that was seen as an insult to even Mickelson. The pressure was getting to him, the expectations, the forces of adulthood. Even his relationship came into question; certainly his maturity did when he bluntly broke off his engagement.
While he may not be the greatest fiancée, he became a great golfer. McIlroy won the Open for the first time, finishing -17, beating the field by two strokes, leading after every round. It was brilliant golf by a player who had shown brilliance before. What was more important was he finally followed up on that brilliance. The biggest criticism of McIlroy was that he could be Nicklaus one week and Duval the next. This time he just stayed good. He won a WGC tournament right after the Open. He then cemented his new dominance by winning the PGA Championship in August, fending off a charging Phil Mickelson. He’s now won 4 majors. He’s still well behind Tiger’s early pace, for now we have a real competitor. For now, the questions of ‘Can he catch Tiger?’ are not so stupid. He’s just 10 behind at 25. There really doesn’t seem to be much real young competition, just a bunch of guys that all may win one major at some point but never really challenge. Rory McIlroy’s era has begun. And it could be a long time before he gives it back.
7.) Roger Federer Returns
Because of a rain delay that ruined the schedule of play on Labor Day, 2013, Roger Federer’s 4th round match of the US Open was moved off of Ashe Stadium to Louis Armstrong. Despite Louis Armstrong being more packed than ever before, it was an odd sight. Here was Roger Federer, the 17-time Slam Champion, the guy who won 5-straight US Opens, playing on the 2nd court. Of course, when he proceeded to lose in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, a man Federer had dominated, it all seemed even stranger. It ended a meek season for Federer at the slams. It was the third successive slam when Federer bowed out well before we are used to him seeing. He lost meekly to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets at the French Open. He lost shockingly in the 2nd round to Sergiy Stachovsky at Wimbledon (the day after Nadal was upset in the 1st round). Finally he lost to Robredo in the Round of 16. His tough 5-set loss to Andy Murray in the Oz Open semifinal seemed like a world away. Federer, by year end, had dropped to #7. He was not only behind Nadal, Djokovic and Murray (who had won all four slams and were the finalists for each slam other than Ferrer’s appearance in the French Open Final), but behind Ferrer, Tsonga and Berdych. It seemed slightly natural given his decreasing play over the years. 2013 was the signal of the end.
A year later, Roger is reborn. He, slowly and assuredly, rose up the rankings going up all the way to 500 points behind Novak Djokovic. He finished the year at #2. He finished the year a Davis Cup Champion for the first time, and a man who made the final at the Year-End, along with winning tournaments in Dubai, Queen’s Club, Cincinnati and Shanghai, the last two being Masters-1000 level events. He had a splendid year. He was retooled (literally, using a 98-inch frame after years of sticking with a 90-incher). He was re-energized. And he was close to extending that slam lead.
In a weird way, Federer achieved his high ranking (and nearly #1) in a way he would have never wanted if you go back to Fed’s real prime. Back then he scoffed at the idea of players being highly ranked without winning slams. He always said how slams were the most important. Now that he stopped winning slams, he went in another direction, and it nearly worked. Federer played all the tournaments, despite his age. He went deep almost everywhere. He racked up points at tournaments where Djokovic was on the sidelines. He nearly got to #1 in a real grass-roots effort. He didn’t, really because of one loss in the biggest match he played all year.
Entering the Wimbledon Final against Novak Djokovic, Federer was the people’s favorite. He had navigated an easy draw playing sublime, attacking tennis. Djokovic was a challenge above the pay-grade of his previous opponents, but Federer raised his game. Federer was brilliant early, and hung tough late. He served-and-volleyed, and kept Djokovic off guard in a way only he can. He raised his game to meet the level of the sports (healthy) master. It wasn’t enough in the end. After savings match points in the 4th set, and breaking Djokovic when serving for the match in the 5th, Federer finally gave in getting broken late to lose the set 7-5 and match in 5. It was a great match, the best those two have played at a slam. It didn’t end with Federer upset at Novak for hammering winners like the 2011 US Open Semifinal. It only ended with two winners. Djokovic got the trophy. Federer got the respect and the internal belief that his career wasn’t really all that over.
6.) And Then there were 4...
For years and years and years, the three most dominant letters in College Football was ‘S-E-C’. That, or ‘B-C-S’. One or the other was always a source of controversy, no more so than the SEC benefiting from the BCS. That silly computer system that ruled college football for 14 years finally ended in 2014. What proceeded became one of the most interesting seasons in recent memory. While there were definitely some famous missteps by the BCS, over time the BCS started to weigh computers less and polls more. Computers gave us Florida State in the 2000 National Championship game and not an historically loaded Miami team. Computers gave us Oklahoma in the 2003 National Championship and not an historically loaded USC team. However, computers would have not given us Alabama in the 2011 National Championship Game and allowed LSU to not have to beat a team to win the title that it already beat on the road. Computers and polls would have given us various title games. Now, the four teams competing give us the title game.
Is there still controversy? Sure. The biggest this year probably being that Ohio State jumped TCU in the final weekend despite TCU winning their last game 55-3. Of course, OSU won 59-0 over a ranked opponent, and is a bigger media draw than TCU. My guess, and this is totally random with no real basis, is that if it was Texas in the #4 position and not TCU, they don’t get dropped. Anyway, that Top-4, instead of ruining the regular season as many BCS-supporters claimed, made it even better. Instead of two spots to fight for, there were four. Teams that lost games early in the season weren’t immediately removed from consideration. Alabama lost an early game and got back in. So did Ohio State, and Oregon, and, almost, TCU. Sure, some of the brilliance of this season was just having a lot of good teams, an otherworldly SEC West, and the right mix of upsets at the right time, but it was also what this new system is designed to do.
It helps that the NCAA knew how to market the hell out of this thing. The weird weekly Playoff Ranking review show became must-see TV for College Football fans. It put random old people (including, and I still can’t believe this is true, Condi Rice) on TV. There was no real transparency, no real method. They didn’t have to go by polls, or strength-of-schedule, or quality wins, or computers. Honestly, considering how opaque this process is, if it was this exact same panel deciding which two teams would play in the game, it would have been destroyed. Instead, just multiple the number of spots and it becomes amazing. The inevitably result of this exercise is a more fair and balanced 8-team playoff, but for Year 1 of the great College Football Experiment, all those old fogies who decried the death of College Football’s regular season were proven very, very wrong.