If you’ll allow us to get nationalistic for a moment…
What a year it was for Australian sport. Amid the pandemic, we still managed to run tremendous seasons of our leading winter codes, while our national teams drew plaudits for their skills abroad.
With apologies to Quade Cooper, Madison de Rozario, Dylan Alcott and many others, the staff of Foxsports.com.au combines to reveal the 10 best Aussie sports performances of 2021.
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GOAT KILLER: ARNIE TAKES DOWN LEGEND LEDECKY
Emma McKeon’s astonishing seven-medal haul will go down as one of our greatest ever Olympic performances. However Ariarne Titmus overcoming living legend Katie Ledecky in their first duel is hard to beat as the single greatest moment of Australia’s glorious performance in the Tokyo pool.
Nobody had ever beaten Ledecky at the Olympics until Titmus overpowered her on the final lap of the 400m final; the perfect fruition of a gruelling, meticulous campaign that took the Aussie star and her colourful coach Dean Boxall to some “dark places”.
“I’d thought about that moment probably every day for probably two years. People probably don’t understand the work that went into that race … and the amount of pain that Arnie had to go through. It was enormous,” said Boxall, who became a global viral sensation over his now-iconic celebration.
– Liam Fitzgibbon
BARTY PARTY MIGRATES TO SW19
The number one tennis player in the world doesn’t quite get the respect that her ranking suggests; and admittedly, Ash Barty has benefited slightly from a virtual ranking freeze, allowing her to stay No.1 from September 2019 until now.
But after breaking through for her first grand slam singles title in 2019 at Roland Garros, it was time for Barty to prove once again she’s one of Australia’s greatest ever woolly ball exports. And that time arrived at Wimbledon.
Coming in as the top seed, Barty dropped a set in her opening round match with beloved veteran Carla Suarez Navarro but didn’t lose another until the final, when she came up against her third Czech opponent of the tournament – former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova.
With an astonishing two million Aussies staying up past midnight to watch the final, Barty claimed the opening set 6-3, then dropped the second in a 6-7(4) tie-break, before roaring home to win the final set 6-3 – and claim the title she’d been dreaming of since childhood.
She became one of a dozen women to ever win both the French Open and Wimbledon and the first Aussie woman to win on the famed grass courts since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley 41 years earlier; a fitting note for the two Indigenous stars.
“I hope I made Evonne proud,” Barty said tearfully after her win.
She did. And she made all of us proud, too.
– Max Laughton
MILLS LEADS BOOMERS TO ‘ROSE GOLD’
Patty Mills was already one of Australia’s most beloved sporting icons. But he cemented his legacy in its sporting folklore with a 42-point explosion in the Boomers’ bronze medal triumph over Luka Doncic’s Slovenia 107-93 at the Tokyo Olympics, the nation’s first men’s basketball medal.
The Boomers had been on the precipice of winning a medal for some time including a heartbreaking 95-88 loss to Spain at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the clock was ticking with the current squad.
And it was only fitting that Mills was the man to lead the country to glory for the first time as its superstar leader for so many years. His 42 points marked the 10th-highest of all-time at the Olympics and the second-most ever by an Aussie.
– Ben Cotton
AFL’S LONGEST FLAG DROUGHT BROKEN
Few predicted Melbourne would make the finals in 2021, let alone challenge for a premiership. But on the last Saturday of September, Simon Goodwin’s side produced one of the AFL’s most famous Grand Final victories to break a 57-year flag drought.
When Western Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli kicked his second goal 12 minutes into the third quarter, Melbourne fans began dreading familiar heartbreak. Cue an exhilarating 51-minute blitz that saw the Dees kick 16 goals to one and turn a 19-point deficit into a 74-point victory.
Star midfielder Christian Petracca played one of the all-time great individual Grand Finals, finishing with an equal-record 39 disposals, 24 contested possessions, 15 score involvements, 11 inside 50s, nine clearances and two goals to claim the Norm Smith medal.
The only downside to the night was the fact the Dees weren’t able to lift the premiership cup aloft on the hallowed turf at the MCG in front of Melbourne-based fans as Victoria was in the midst of a significant Covid outbreak at the time of the Grand Final. But with more games set to be played in Melbourne next year and the Demons expected to challenge again, loyal fans could see a Dees premiership live after all.
– Ben Waterworth
NATION IN TEARS AS FOX PROVES HER GOAT STATUS
The crown of “greatest of all-time” is heavy, especially when you haven’t even won an Olympic gold medal yet.
Expectations were high for canoeist Jess Fox heading into Tokyo, given she was already a seven-time world champion, but had ‘only’ a silver and a bronze to her name at the Games.
With her dad commentating on TV, Australia was heartbroken when Fox went fastest in the K1 event but earned a penalty which dropped her down to bronze; another chance was gone. Yet she bravely rebounded, and soared to glory in the inaugural Olympic C1 final, finally claiming the gold she so richly deserved.
“It’s relief. It’s, like, yeah. You know, she’s such a good paddler. Such a good person,” her dad Richard said on commentary, breaking down in quiet tears – as the rest of the nation did with him.
– Max Laughton
SUPER SAM IGNITES MATILDAS
The Matildas’ talismanic skipper Sam Kerr claimed the league, league cup, and the FA Cup with Chelsea, and guided Australia to a best-ever fourth-place finish in the Olympics – while becoming the nation’s all-time top scorer.
Oh, and she was voted the third best player in the world, only behind Barcelona pair Alexia Putellas and Jennifer Hermosos in the Ballon d’Or Féminin.
And to cap it all off she delivered her best Andrew Symonds impression to flatten a pitch invader. Proving there’s nothing she can’t do, she also published a children’s book.
– Zac Rayson
TOMMY TURBO’S ALL TIME RUN OF FORM
Tom Trbojevic pledged to make it up to his team when he was bizarrely ruled out for the first month of the 2021 season due to a slip in the shower, the morning after racing a punter in the Manly corso.
A man of his word, Trbojevic did so and then some, producing arguably the greatest run of form in NRL history – edging out Jarryd Hayne’s spectacular 2009 season and Ben Barba’s year in 2012.
Trbojevic finished the season with the second-most try assists (31), the second-most tries (28), the third-most linebreaks (32) and the third-most tackle busts (131), all while playing just 18 games due to injuries.
The 25-year-old took Manly from an 0-4 start to the year without him, to only losing three more games all season with him in the side, helping the Sea Eagles to go from last place in Round 5 to the top four by year’s end.
Trbojevic was rewarded for his spectacular season when he was named the deserving winner of the game’s highest individual honour, The Dally M Medal, with 35 points from 18 games, five clear of second placed Nathan Cleary.
– Mark St John
AUSSIES BACK ON TOP OF THE T20 WORLD
The Big Bash’s success hasn’t always equated to glory for our men’s T20 side, given that most of Australia’s big names don’t play in the domestic tournament; it’s an advantage India, in particular, often holds.
And so going into the T20 World Cup – which we would’ve hosted in 2020, if not for the pandemic – there was minimal expectation around the Aussies. After all they’d only made the final once in six attempts (2010) and failed to make it out of the groups in their last two appearances.
But the magic of T20 cricket, especially with a star-laden side like Australia’s, is that anything can happen. And so after narrowly sneaking through the groups, a thrilling semi-final saw Matthew Wade dropped before hitting three sixes in a row on route to victory, while the much-maligned Mitch Marsh combined with David Warner for a 92-run trophy-winning partnership to run down New Zealand.
– Max Laughton
PIASTRI’S TRIPLE-PLAY SETS HIM UP FOR F1 STARDOM
Only the most ardent motorsport fans would’ve known Oscar Piastri’s name before 2021, and those who only watch the F1 dash around Albert Park still may not. But they will soon enough.
The 20-year-old Melburnian isn’t in Formula 1 just yet but it appears inevitable after he claimed his third consecutive championship in a third different circuit – first the Formula Renault Eurocup, then the FIA Formula 3 crown, and now the FIA Formula 2 title; that’s the three championships leading up to F1 itself.
“He couldn’t have done a great deal more. It was really the way he dominated the Formula 2 Championship this year,” his manager and former Aussie F1 star Mark Webber said.
“We all know, there’s no one questioning that he deserves to go up to Formula 1 next year, but it’s just the way the market rolled out. There just wasn’t many seats available … he certainly went on a bit of a rampage to finish the year off. That was really special to see with the five poles in a row and plenty of wins and fastest laps and obviously no one in the field had an answer for him, which was brilliant to see.”
Only new Mercedes driver George Russell and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had won F3 and F2 in consecutive seasons before Piastri, who will be the reserve driver at Alpine behind Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon in 2022, hoping to replace Alonso in 2023.
– Max Laughton
KAMBOSOS CLAIMS ALL-TIME UPSET
George Kambosos Jnr was written off by the boxing world when he entered the ring against undefeated world champion Teofimo Lopez. Then the rank outsider did the unthinkable, claiming a decision victory to snatch the IBF, WBO, WBA and The Ring lightweight world championships.
It wasn’t just the result that was one of the most impressive in Australian boxing history, but his sublime performance from the first punch to the final bell.
Manny Pacquiao, a former sparring partner of Kambosos, declared how proud he was of the Aussie while local boxing writer Grantlee Kieza declared it “one of the greatest performances ever by an Aussie boxer”.