Love of the game? Yes. Money and fame? Sure. But athletes in the highest ranks are driven most of all by the desire to be the best. There can be only one Sportsman, but there is individual excellence to be recognized across the sports landscape
BY MICHAEL BAMBERGER
EVEN IN the just-the-facts austerity of Rory McIlroy's Wikipedia page, his 2014 campaign looks impressive. There's that tidy color-coded chart near the bottom that shows his career results in golf's four major championships, with green boxes for wins and yellow boxes for other top 10s. For '14, McIlroy has two green boxes and one yellow. He doubled his career green-box total by winning the British Open at Hoylake, and the PGA Championship, outside Louisville. Some year.
But no encyclopedia entry could tell you what McIlroy's 2014 was really all about. That's because this was the year that Rory McIlroy broke the code, like Benedict Cumberbatch does as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Rory McIlroy is only 25, too new at adult life to have developed any real patterns in it. The Irishman (Northern division) has been known for his prodigious talent since before he turned pro, in 2007. But heading into this year he looked like a guy who would win big and then go on holiday for a month or six. McIlroy appeared in Nike ads with Tiger Woods but never indicated that Woods's résumé was any sort of template for him.
Then came '14—the second half of it, really, when McIlroy played with a relentlessness that brought to mind one person: Tiger Woods in his 2000 prime. In May, McIlroy broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and that week he won one of the biggest events on the European tour, the BMW PGA Championship. Then in July, McIlroy won the British Open going away.
Right about then, you expected naptime would be next for the young master. But no. The new Rory seems to need no sleep. He won his next time out, a World Golf Championships event at Firestone. And the time after that, at the PGA. He tied for second at the Tour Championship, then wore a kilt and a wig in the bacchanalia of another European Ryder Cup victory. The colors missing on his Wiki page are red, for his blood, and silver, for his steeliness.
Now McIlroy is talking about a new goal: becoming the greatest player in European history. He has four majors, one fewer than Seve Ballesteros. If McIlroy wins at Augusta, he'll be one shy of Nick Faldo's modern-record total. He'll also become the first European with the career grand slam.
And if he doesn't complete the career slam in '15, no big whoop. If he stays hungry and healthy, he'll still be at it in 2025, in '30, in '35. The Stones could have been anticipating Rory when they wrote this line: "Time, time, time is on my side." Get used to him.
BY TIM LAYDEN
ATHLETIC PRODIGIES are not allowed to grow at the customary pace. As soon as they exhibit extraordinary talent, they are expected to swiftly achieve extraordinary things. They compete not just against opponents but also against projections based on their potential. So it was with Alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin in 2014. She arrived at the Olympic Games at age 18, having already won a world championship in the slalom and more World Cup races than all but three U.S. women in history. She was part of an American team full of injured and aging stars in need of a new and transcendent face on which to project its future.
All of this anticipation would live or die on the razor-sharp edge of a racing ski. On the night of Feb. 21 in the Caucasus Mountains, Shiffrin took a commanding lead in the first run of the two-run Olympic slalom. Three days earlier she had finished a game but disappointing fifth in the rain-swept giant slalom; now she was poised to win the first of many gold medals and smile winningly for a nation of television viewers. Instead, 30 seconds into the second run, Shiffrin's left ski lost its grip on the icy surface and flapped into the air. Yet she miraculously completed the turn on her inside ski and won the gold medal, becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion in history. Afterward, her agent Kilian Albrecht, himself a former Olympic slalom competitor said, "She had so much pressure. She took her heart in her hands and brought it down [the hill]."
The day after her victory, Shiffrin talked of winning five gold medals in 2018 and spent the rest of the year walking that quote back, embarrassed at her bravado. Then in October she began the new season by winning her first World Cup giant slalom event. Clearly, there's no going back now.
BY BRIAN CAZENEUVE
WHILE THE L.A. Kings were winning the 2014 Stanley Cup without a player who dominated in the regular season and the playoffs, Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews cemented his status as hockey's premier leader. He lifted Chicago to within a game of the finals and also won his second Olympic gold medal for Canada.
No NHL team has enjoyed more sustained success than Chicago in the salary cap era. Toews was named the Blackhawks' captain at age 20 in '08, after just 64 NHL games. Since then Chicago has played in 94 playoff games, more than any other team, and captured two Stanley Cups, with Toews the postseason MVP in 2010. There are no holes in his game. In '13--14, he had 85 points in the regular season and playoffs combined, was fifth in the league in face-off percentage and was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward. Though Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos and even teammate Patrick Kane are more dynamic offensive players, Toews's all-around game and even-keeled demeanor has earned him the reputation as the NHL's best captain.
BY CHRIS MANNIX
HE WASN'T THE MVP; that honor went to Kevin Durant. He wasn't the most popular player; that distinction belonged to LeBron James, whose jersey was the NBA's top seller for a second year in a row. In 2013--14, Tim Duncan maintained the same fixation that has fueled him for 1,270 games in the regular season and 234 in the postseason, including 34 in six NBA Finals. "The individual stuff means nothing to Timmy," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "He's all about winning championships."
Last season's run was San Antonio's most impressive. With the sting of a stunning defeat to the Heat in the 2013 Finals fresh and whispers of the aging team's demise growing louder, the Spurs ripped off a league-high 62 victories. They ousted the Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Thunder in the playoffs before smacking around Miami in five games in the Finals. Duncan's output in the regular season (15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists) was as dependable as ever. He can still turn it up when he has to: In Game 1 of the Finals, Duncan contributed 21 points and 10 rebounds. Mostly, though, the 6'11" Duncan defends, controls the glass, finds cutters, sets bone-crunching screens and generally serves as a walking master class on how to age gracefully.
In 2014, as in every year since he arrived, the Spurs were anchored by the Big Fundamental—drop-stepping and bank-shotting his way to being the greatest power forward in NBA history.
BY L. JON WERTHEIM
Hi, it's me, the Tennis Establishment. I was going to text you but I don't know how to work this gadget. I know, I know: old school!
Anyway, as you wrap up 2014—cozy in the penthouse of the rankings, going strong at 33, still possessed of that butane torch of a serve—I figure this is as good a time as any to acknowledge what's been obvious lately: You were right; I was wrong. You were wise; I was short-sighted. You were bold and innovative; I was, well, the Establishment. You could announce that you plan to play the 2015 season with unstrung rackets and I won't doubt you. Took a while, but I finally see the light.
It seems just like yesterday that your sister Venus made her pro debut. This should be good, I snickered. This gangly girl—all arms and legs and beads—who steered clear of junior tennis and didn't sacrifice her adolescence at some academy, thinks she can hang with the WTA's finest? Hah! Turned out Venus could play, but my cynicism was just beginning. Richard Williams began ranting that he had a younger daughter named Serena who was just as gifted as Venus but might turn out to be even better because "she was much meaner." Good one! I thought.
It became clear, of course, that you were as good—and mean—as advertised. But when asked whether you would become a Grand Slam champion, I couldn't contain my skepticism. Not with those technical hitches and glitches. I should have realized that playing with fearlessness is a lot more important than having textbook strokes. But if I'd admitted that, I wouldn't be the Establishment.
Once you started winning Slam titles to become the brightest star in the tennis-sphere, I found myself stretching to find fault. You were cocky; you swaggered and wore provocative clothing; you were unafraid to speak your mind. When you were injured and lost some matches, I had a hoary explanation handy: You lacked proper coaching, relying on your parents rather than on experienced professionals. (True, I was simultaneously praising Roger Federer, coachless for much of his career, for his self-reliance and ability to think outside the box, but who says the Establishment has to be consistent?)
This year was like your career in miniature. You were supposed to cement your status as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) but you were KO'd early at both the Australian and the French Opens. At Wimbledon you lost in the third round. Three days later came that bizarre afternoon: Partnered with Venus in a doubles match, you couldn't even catch the balls before serving. Vertigo was the official explanation. Now, you're really done, I reckoned.
You responded by playing some of the best tennis of your career, hammering the ball, competing as though losing carried a price in blood. At the U.S. Open you sheared through the draw. In the final you beat your best friend, Caroline Wozniacki, 6--3, 6--3 in what was less a match than a formality. A full 15 years after your first major win you took your 18th, tying you with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second-most in the Open era, behind Steffi Graf's 22. You remain the dominant force in the game, the spindle on which the WTA is wound.
All of which is to say: Sorry we haven't gotten along better in the past. Here's hoping I can make it up to you for the balance of your career. The longer that interval, the better.
BY TRISHA BLACKMAR
NATIONAL TITLES in women's basketball may seem preordained at UConn, but that doesn't make them any easier to win. Talent doesn't always prevail, even when the Huskies have a wing as skilled as 6'4" Breanna Stewart. Just look at the run the Connecticut men made in 2014. Senior guard Shabazz Napier used his savvy and scissor-kick jumpers to propel the seventh-seeded Huskies, a team few believed would survive the first weekend, to the NCAA title. Unburdened by expectations, UConn beat four higher-seeded teams to become the most surprising champs since Villanova in 1985.
The Connecticut women never have the element of surprise on their side, and Stewart has courted pressure ever since she declared, upon committing to Storrs in 2011 out of Cicero--North Syracuse High, that she planned on winning four straight NCAA titles. "It takes a particular kind of athlete to want to attend UConn," says Doris Burke, an NCAA and NBA analyst for ESPN. "Breanna is a fierce competitor who wants to be considered among the best to ever play the game. At the most important moments she's been able to find her game and deliver."
Deliver she has, scoring from all ranges, with both hands, in transition and out of half-court sets. Many teams would be thrilled with the distribution of points in her typical shot chart. As good as she has been through her first two regular seasons, Stewart has been exceptional in March. In the 2014 final against Notre Dame—a matchup of undefeated teams that was billed as the biggest game in women's basketball history—Stewart scored 21 points, grabbed nine rebounds and flustered the Irish on defense with her 7'1" wingspan. UConn romped 79--58 and Stewart was named Most Outstanding Player for the second straight Final Four.
In September, the most versatile player in college added to her repertoire by practicing and playing against the best vets in the world as the only collegian on the U.S. team that took gold at the world championship in Istanbul.
She has two more NCAA titles left to win. Expect nothing less.
BY LINDSAY SCHNELL
AT TA RA RIN, a Thai place in Eugene, Ore., quarterback Marcus Mariota has a standard order: pad Thai, mild. Mariota, the joke goes, might be the most most exciting player in college football ... and the most boring. The junior from Honolulu has thrown for 3,773 yards with 38 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season. The most prolific quarterback in Oregon history, he has also totaled 669 rushing yards and even tacked on a 26-yard touchdown reception. In three years as a starter his record is 35--4.
Boring? Only if extended excellence dulls your senses. Mariota's exploits have sparked a nickname and a hashtag—#SuperMariota—and he may soon be known as a Heisman winner. He's an appealing choice for voters beyond what he does on the field. He volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club, sidesteps praise and has maintained his privacy—and his dignity—amid a hail of media attention. Which is not to say he isn't confident. Asked recently how many ticks he and the Ducks need for a game-winning drive, Mariota said, "If we have the ball, there's enough time." Boring off the field. Brilliant on it.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno For Sports Illustrated
ALEXIS BOICHARD/AGENCE ZOOM/GETTY IMAGES (SHIFFRIN)
ROBIN ALAM/ICON SPORTSWIRE (TOEWS)
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BEN VAN HOOK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STEWART)
JONATHAN FERREY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MARIOTA)