The Atlantic's writers and editors pick the most memorable sports events of the year, from Wimbledon to the NBA Finals.
The Pittsburgh Pirates win their first postseason game since 1992
In 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their third straight division title but lost to the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. The next season, their first without superstar Barry Bonds, the Pirates finished with a 75-87 record. Nobody thought much of it. But the next year, 1994, the Pirates finished with a losing record again. And the next year. And the year after that.
For 20 consecutive seasons, a major-league record, the Pirates lost more games than they won. They changed owners. They changed general managers. They changed field managers, and went through hundreds of players. They even changed stadiums. It didn’t matter. Whatever the Pirates tried to do, it backfired—spectacularly.
But slowly, the Pirates began to turn their organization around, focusing on scouting and player development and investing in the amateur draft. In 2011 and 2012, the team began the season strongly but collapsed in the second half, finishing below .500 in each season. This year, it all came together for the Pirates: Buoyed by strong pitching and their dazzling center fielder Andrew McCutchen, later named the National League’s most valuable player, Pittsburgh finished 94-68 and bested the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in a one-game playoff.
The Pirates’ dream season ended about a week later—they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series. But with a team full of good, young players, they’ll be back. And this time, Pittsburgh fans won’t have to wait another 20 years.
Andy Murray defeats Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final
The most surprising thing about the 2013 Wimbledon final was the ease with which Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic.
Prior to that match, Murray’s tennis career was, with the exception of one U.S. Open victory, characterized by a string of heartbreaking losses. Since making a surprise run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008, Murray had played the role of Britain’s great tennis hope, the player who could finally return the Wimbledon championship trophy to its native land. But year after year, Murray faltered at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. Critics labeled him a choker, a failure, a player with gobs of natural talent but without the mental wherewithal to win multiple Grand Slams.
Few would have been surprised, then, had Djokovic beaten Murray in 2013 and once again denied the Scot the title. Even the most optimistic British fans expected a hard-fought match.
It wasn’t to be. This would be the year when the Murray narrative shifted. The Scotsman walked onto Centre Court and calmly defeated Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon. When Djokovic’s final shot hit the net, Murray didn’t fall to the ground, as is the unofficial custom for Grand Slam winners. He didn’t look surprised or overwhelmed. He threw off his cap and pumped his fists, looking very much like a tennis player comfortable in his own skin and ready to move on with his career.
Louisville stuns Baylor in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament
For almost the entire 2012-2013 season, the dominant question in women’s college basketball had been, Can anyone stop Brittney Griner and the Baylor Lady Bears from earning a second consecutive NCAA title? Griner had sparked debate over whether she was the best to ever play the women’s game, and by the time the Lady Bears met the Louisville Cardinals in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Bears had won 74 of their last 75 games.
“We heard that the only way we were going to win is if Baylor's bus didn't show up," Louisville forward Monique Reid said later.
But that was after she’d sunk the two most important, narrative-changing free throws of the year: Reid’s two points from the line pushed the Cardinals past the Lady Bears by one point for a startling 82-81 upset victory.
While the Baylor players wiped away tears in their locker room afterward, the Cardinals celebrated and posed for photos with NBA star Kevin Durant. But the real celebrity at the scene, make no mistake, was Louisville’s junior guard Shoni Schimmel, who provided one of the tournament’s most showstopping highlights: a behind-the-back three over Griner’s head (despite being, at 5’9”, almost a foot shorter than Griner).
Before the game, coach Jeff Walz had told his Louisville players, “If you come out and play scared, it's not going to matter.” Schimmel took that seriously, it seems, telling reporters later that her plan had simply been to “keep going at her”—Griner was human, after all. “I mean, she’s Brittney Griner,” Schimmel said. “But I’m Shoni Schimmel.”
Tom Brady leads the Patriots to a comeback victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos
Anytime Tom Brady meets Peyton Manning, the whole football world pauses to watch the two active quarterbacks with plaques reserved in Canton compete against each other. But after one half of Sunday Night Football in Week 12, Brady's Patriots looked incapable of scoring a point, much less overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit. New England had committed three first-half turnovers and could not stop Manning and the high-powered Denver offense.
Whatever Brady and coach Bill Belichick said to the team at halftime, it worked. The Pats scored 31 points in the first 22 minutes of the second half, led by three Brady touchdown passes. Manning and the Broncos scored a late touchdown to force overtime, and the game seemed destined to be a tie. But Denver fumbled a punt late in OT, and three plays later, New England's Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal. The 24-point comeback was the largest in the Pats’ franchise history, and even the notoriously grouchy Belichick said afterward: "We'll enjoy this one."
The Red Sox defeat the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series
Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Fenway Park. Eighth inning. The Red Sox trail the Tigers 5 to 1 and, having lost Game 1, look like they’re going back to Detroit down two games to none.
But, facing Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, the Sox load the bases. And up steps David Ortiz, the (bearded) face of the franchise, the only player left from the Sox’ curse-busting 2004 World Series team.
Of course, it had to be Ortiz, a player known throughout baseball as “Big Papi.” Earlier in the season, on April 20th, the Red Sox held a pre-game ceremony honoring victims of that week’s Boston Marathon bombing. Flanked by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Papi addressed the crowd: “This is our fucking city!” he said. “Nobody can dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
So the Red Sox did. After a dismal, last-place season in 2012, Boston rebounded to post the major leagues’ best record this year, behind a patchwork team that had no true superstar.
Except Ortiz, that is. And in Game 2, when his team needed him the most, he delivered a line-drive grand slam that tore through the air like a rocket, eclipsing the outstretched glove of Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter by inches. Hunter, for his part, flipped backward over the fence and landed on his head, where a nearby policeman—too busy celebrating—neglected to see if he was okay. A photograph of the incident, captured by the Boston Globe’s Stan Grossfeld, became the single most iconic image of the baseball postseason.
Ortiz’s bat stayed hot for the rest of the playoffs, and just days later he and the Red Sox, having recently gone 87 years without a championship, won their third in 10 years.
Timothy Bradley earns a scorecard victory over Ruslan Provodnikov
In March of 2013, Tim Bradley—one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world—set out to defend his world welterweight championship title in Los Angeles.
Bradley, the “Desert Storm,” picks apart opponents while trying not to get hit; he doesn’t have a knockout punch. His opponent, meanwhile—Ruslan “The Siberian Rocky” Provodnikov—was a slugger; he’ll take a hit but come back wailing away.
For some reason, Bradley attempted to out-hit the Russian. The two fighters started loading up their punches in the first round, and the underdog knocked Bradley down. In press row, they were already tittering about the unfolding battle as the fight of the year.
In Round 2 it only got worse for Bradley, who was wild with his punches, and was hit. He was knocked out on his feet. He needed the ropes to hold him up. The crowd started chanting in Russian. But Bradley was somehow able to come back in the next rounds; in Round Six, Provodnikov caught Bradley with a left and then another right hand, and a bunch more. Bradley staggered but wouldn’t go down.
When you sit ringside at a boxing match, it’s a different sport from what you see on television. The gloves are striking flesh, and a human being’s brain is being sloshed around in its skull, and the sensory overload of all these forces at work bring about more drama than any sport in the world. And it is at these moments that you can’t believe the courage within the brutality. Bradley’s trainer said he would stop the fight, but Bradley kept going, winning round after round while taking blow after blow. Bradley’s wife couldn’t take it and left the arena.
Then the American fighter started hearing his name chanted. In the 12th—and final—round, with 12 seconds to go, he took a strategic knee: Be knocked out cold and lose, or take a knee and let the fight go to the scorecards. He was up by the count of six, and the fight was over.
Bradley had been beaten down, but had risen with courage and will. The judges, and the fans, deemed him the winner. Fight of the year.
Sloane Stephens defeats Serena Williams at the Australian Open
Before it was ever known as the infamous match that drove a wedge between Sloane Stephens and her supposed mentor, it was simply a dazzling three-set quarterfinal: The poised 19-year-old muscled her way to a victory over the overwhelming tournament favorite after losing the first set, then scampered around the net to warmly congratulate her opponent.
Williams, though injured, graciously admitted she’d been outplayed. Stephens, in turn, gushed to reporters that she couldn’t believe she’d beaten a player she’d had a poster of in her childhood bedroom. In the span of a few hours, Stephens’s Twitter following ballooned from 17,000 to more than 40,000. In other words: A star was born.
Later, of course, the afterglow faded. In May, an ESPN Magazine profile of Stephens quoted her as saying Williams had stopped speaking to her after the upset. A media commotion ensued, and then so did a much-hyped (and much-manufactured) revenge narrative. But on January 23, in the wee, wee hours of the Eastern time-zone morning, it looked almost like the queen had appointed her successor.
The U.S. makes a historic comeback at the America's Cup
The 34th America’s Cup sailing competition started off badly. From the moment Larry Ellison announced his plan to race 72-foot-long catamarans driven by carbon-fiber wings rather than old-school sails, the event was beset with issues. The design choice was prohibitively expensive, even for a billionaire's sport, and a shockingly small number of teams entered; the much-anticipated crowds in San Francisco didn’t materialize; TV ratings were abysmal; and the city's fundraising efforts fell seriously short. Even worse, safety issues plagued the fast but unstable boats, and Sweden's Artemis Racing had a crash in May, drowning a crewman. To cap an ugly summer, Ellison's Oracle Team USA fell down 8-1 to challenger Emirates Team New Zealand in the final round, a first-to-nine competition.
But Team USA, skippered by 35-year-old Jimmy Spithill, then went on a dazzling run, winning an incredible eight straight races. In the winner-take-all 19th heat, Team USA defeated the New Zealanders by 44 seconds, pulling off a 9-8 win to take the trophy. It was the greatest comeback in the 162 years of the America's Cup event, one of the most improbable in all of sports history, and redeemed an otherwise disastrous event.
The Miami Heat defeat the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the NBA Finals
The headband game. The lost shoe game. The why-is-Tim-Duncan-sitting-on-the-bench-during-crunch-time game. The how-the-flip-did-Ray-Allen-
Game Six wasn't just the sporting event of the year because it was the best game, though. It also epitomized how much fun it's been to watch sports in 2013. When I wasn't peeking at my television through the cracks of my fingers, I was glued to Twitter, cracking up as jokes and GIFs rolled in. That second screen was an indispensible part of the experience. I'll remember Game Six for a lot of reasons: the back-and-forth lead changes, LeBron's dominance, Danny Green's slump, Ray Allen's incredible buzzer beater, to name a few. But it marked an even more significant cultural shift: It was the night I learned that Twitter is perfect for playoff basketball.
The Miami Heat defeat the San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the NBA Finals
It’s no secret that a winner-takes-all mentality pervades American culture: From politics to economics to sports, trying your best is frequently not good enough. When it’s over, the champion receives all the adulation—probably more than he or she deserves—while the loser gets pushed into some dark, atavistic corner, unrecognized and underappreciated.
This is why the aftermath of Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals was such a welcome display of sportsmanship and mutual respect between well-matched competitors.
After the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88, giving LeBron James & Co. their second straight championship, the Heat players and coaches could have invoked past championship celebrations by dancing on the scorer’s table and ignoring their vanquished opponents. Instead, James, coming off a series in which his unparalleled individual brilliance was on full display, embraced Kawhi Leonard the way an older brother might embrace a younger sibling. Dwyane Wade literally ran down Tim Duncan and put his arm around the aging big man. The two coaching staffs engaged in a group hug, as if a verse of Kumbaya was in order. Gregg Popovich then hugged James, looking genuinely happy for the player who had just denied him another ring.
The whole scene came across less like a coronation of one team than a shared celebration of one of the greatest NBA Finals series ever played. All involved parties had reached new athletic heights and put on an absolute show—and if there was ever a circumstance where both the winner and loser deserved a trophy, the 2013 NBA Finals was it.
The Tampa Bay Rays defeat the New York Yankees in Mariano Rivera's last MLB game
In a 19-year career spent entirely with the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera accumulated a list of accomplishments that made him, unquestionably, the best relief pitcher in the history of the game. So when the 43-year-old announced on March 9th that 2013 would be his last season, 20 teams around the major leagues expressed their generosity through gifts to the pitcher. These included, for instance, a custom fishing pole from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The San Diego Padres gave him five beach-cruiser bicycles. And the Minnesota Twins, perhaps a little too creatively, provided the Panamanian with a “chair of broken dreams.”
Amid the tributes, Rivera played as brilliantly as ever, compiling 44 saves and issuing just nine walks in 64 innings for a Yankees team that, unusual in the Rivera era, failed to qualify for the postseason. So on September 26, in the 8th inning of a game against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays, Mariano Rivera strode out to the pitching mound for the last time in his major league career, and, characteristically, retired each of the four batters he faced.
Then, as 48,000 fans at Yankee Stadium stood and cheered, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte made the slow march to the mound and relieved Rivera of the ball. Technically, this isn’t allowed: Managers and coaches are the only ones allowed to fetch pitchers. But umpire Mike Winters wisely made an exception. Jeter, a teammate since 1995, whispered, “Time to go.” And Mariano Rivera walked off a major-league baseball diamond for the 1,115th and last time.
In the words of Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky, baseball fans everywhere, even ones who hate the Yankees, turned into “blubbering children.”
Adam Scott breaks the Aussie drought at the Masters
Despite the rich history of Australian golf champions, no one from Down Under had ever donned the green jacket at Augusta until Adam Scott outlasted Angel Cabrera in a thrilling Sunday afternoon battle in the rain. Scott and fellow Aussie Jason Day traded the lead with Cabrera down the stretch until Scott (with former Tiger Woods caddie Steve Williams on the bag) moved one ahead with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, bellowing, "COME ON AUSSIE!!!" after the putt dropped.
Undaunted, Cabrera stuffed his approach shot to four feet and made the putt, forcing a sudden-death playoff in a refreshing spring downpour. But on the second playoff hole, Scott stood over a 10-foot birdie putt for the win and brought in Williams to help read the green in the rain. The read and the putt were true, and Scott had made history for himself and his country.
Rafael Nadal overcomes Novak Djokovic in the French Open semifinals
Among sportswriters, Djokovic-Nadal matches frequently inspire comparisons to boxing matches, wars of attrition, and heavy metal rock concerts—pick your metaphor. But tennis historian Bud Collins abandoned figurative language entirely when via Twitter he called their matchup at Roland Garros this year “one of the most thrilling matches played at the French Open.” It wasn’t the tournament’s final match, but that didn’t make Rafael Nadal’s 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7 9-7 victory over Novak Djokovic in the semifinals any less magnificent.
Both Nadal and Djokovic get stronger as matches persist, and this mixture of endurance and clutch was on display during their semifinal showdown. The first two sets were, at least by the standards of these rivals’ past matches, rather perfunctory: Nadal took the first by a slim margin; Djokovic rallied and took the second. Nadal cruised in the third set 6-1, looking like a vastly superior clay court player. And when Nadal took a one break lead in the fourth set, it appeared as if he would cruise to another routine victory at his favorite venue.
But Djokovic broke back in the next game and took the fourth set in a tiebreaker. He then broke Nadal again early in the fifth. Prior to the tournament, Djokovic had made it clear how much he wanted to win the French Open, the one major championship that has thus far eluded him. Leading 4-3 in the final set, he seemed poise to make that dream a reality.
Nadal, though, would not go quietly; he would later tell reporters, “I was ready for the fight.” With Djokovic serving at 4-3, Nadal broke back, aided by a point on which Djokovic fell into the net while trying to put away a smash. From that point on, the Spaniard had the momentum. Djokovic kept fighting, but finally lost serve in the 16th game of the set, giving Nadal the victory.
Nadal went on to win the tournament several days later with an anticlimactic drubbing of countryman David Ferrer. And Djokovic would later tell reporters that losing to Nadal in the French Open was the toughest moment of his 2013 season.
Auburn conquers Georgia and Alabama
November 16 and November 30
I'm an Auburn fan by marriage—my wife's folks both attended the school—and, as fans go, I'm pretty much of the fair-weather variety. I've long been regaled with stories of "Punt, 'Bama, Punt," and I thoroughly enjoyed the Cam Newton Experience of 2010.
But Auburn in the latter half of November offered perhaps the finest opportunity ever to be a fair-weather fan. First, on the 16th, there was the Georgia game: the oldest rivalry in the Deep South, and one that stood tied at 54 wins apiece going into the game. After blowing a 27-7 lead, the Tigers won in the final minute, when Ricardo Louis caught a tipped pass—quickly dubbed “the immaculate deflection”—for a 73-yard touchdown. (My father-in-law, who was visiting, leapt higher off the sofa than I would have imagined possible.)
And then, following a one-week layoff, came the Iron Bowl: undefeated Alabama, pushing for a third straight national title, on No. 4 Auburn's home field. Nursing a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter, the Tide got stuffed on a 4th-and-1 on Auburn’s 13 when coach Nick Saban decided not to send ice-cold kicker Cade Foster onto the field. Auburn scored to tie the game with 32 seconds left and then, with one second remaining on the clock, Saban put in freshman Adam Griffith to attempt a 57-yard field goal.
Mike Lupica called what happened next “the greatest ending to any big game college football has ever seen.” Forbes called it “the holiday weekend’s best movie.” I'll just let the play speak for itself—and note that, as a result, it’s Auburn, not the Tide, headed to Pasadena to play for the national championship.
Marion Bartoli defeats Sabine Lisicki in the Wimbledon final
Its fairytale ending on the men’s side makes it easy to forget that Wimbledon 2013 was, overall, something of a hot mess. Call it the Year of the Rando: Defending champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams were knocked out in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, by the little-known likes of Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine and Sabine Lisicki of Germany; French Open champ Rafael Nadal lost in the first round to unseeded Steve Darcis of Belgium; and five—five!—former No. 1 women’s players suffered upset losses in the second round to far less decorated players. (And the chaotic list goes on.)
But while the unpredictability of the men’s draw eventually evened itself out with a final matchup between the No. 1 and 2 seeds, the end of the tournament on the women’s side was a perfect representation of all the bracket-busting weirdness. A continually astonishing fortnight ended with—what else?—a surprising match between a pair of unlikely finalists: The perpetually puzzling Marion Bartoli, seeded 15th, shocked the giant-slaying No. 23 seed Lisicki (who was favored to win) in straight sets to claim her first Grand Slam title.
A month later, Bartoli retired from the sport.
A bad, regular-Season NFL game outdraws the World Series
The 2013 World Series featured two of baseball's most storied franchises—the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals— and included thrilling comebacks, controversy galore, and more facial hair than a lumberjack convention. But TV ratings for the World Series nevertheless continued its decades-long downward spiral: Game 1's overnight rating was one of the worst in series history.
Even more telling, though, was what happened Monday, October 28. In the all-important TV demographic of 18-49 year-old males, a very lackluster Monday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams pulled a 6.1 rating, compared to a 5.2 mark for the Fall Classic's pivotal Game 5. Especially given the World Series was available on free broadcast television and Monday Night Football is on cable's ESPN, there could scarcely be a more vivid illustration of the World Series' decline as a national event.
Mayweather beats Alvarez
In September, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the best boxer in the world and the sport’s most clever matchmaker and marketer, faced Canelo Alvarez, a solid fighter from Mexico who was a perfect match for “Money” Mayweather: Alvarez is relatively slow and a straight-forward fighter, which plays into Mayweather’s incredible lateral movement and defensive skill.
There are hundreds of boxing matches throughout the year, but there's usually one boxing event per year that becomes the focus of the sport. Mayweather-Alvarez was that event. It wasn’t the best fight of the year, but it was boxing’s most significant event of the year. There is a difference—it’s like how the Super Bowl can be different than a great NFL playoff game.
Yet it was a win—of several kinds—for undefeated Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. Alvarez is a handsome young athlete who has weak English skills but potential for crossover appeal. He was undefeated at the time, and incredibly popular in the Mexican community, which is passionate about the sport and willing to pay to watch it on Pay-Per-View; Mayweather was guaranteed $41 million regardless of the outcome. That all adds up to a Mayweather win, and a large Mayweather payday—as well as a huge win for boxing.
Jimmie Johnson wins his sixth Sprint Cup title
On November 17, Jimmie Johnson finished ninth in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He could have finished as far back as 23rd and still won--but with crew chief Chad Knaus in the mix, the No. 48 team's top-10 finish was good enough to clinch a sixth title in NASCAR's top series.
Maybe most remarkable about Johnson: He isn't Southern. Like his mentor, Jeff Gordon, Johnson comes from California, and his domination of the series is emblematic of NASCAR's growth from regional to national sport. Unquestionably the greatest driver of his era, Johnson's win drew him within one championship of tying the all-time record, set by Richard Petty and matched by the late Dale Earnhardt. If Johnson could win an eighth title—which is well within reach for the 38-year-old—he would emphatically lay claim to the title best driver ever.
Rafael Nadal defeats Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final
In real time, it looked as if Rafael Nadal had fallen—tangled his feet and tumbled to the green asphalt of Arthur Ashe Stadium. But when he started rhythmically pumping his fist with the kind of intensity one expects from the indomitable Spaniard, it became apparent that he was celebrating Novak Djokovic’s forehand error, which had given Nadal the third set and a commanding two sets-to-one lead in the 2013 U.S. Open final. The spontaneous and atypical celebration embodied Nadal’s unquenchable desire to win: After all the years Nadal has spent in the professional ranks, after his many victories and unfortunate injuries, he still competes with a ferocity not seen in any sport since Michael Jordan played basketball.
Years from now, we’ll remember the 2013 U.S. Open as one of the finest moments in Nadal’s illustrious career. Though he has never relished playing on hard courts, he unleashed some of the best tennis of his life on Flushing Meadows DecoTurf this past summer. He dominated his early-round opponents, confirming his tennis genius in the process. Then, in a four-set final filled with momentum swings and memorable exchanges, Nadal broke Djokovic’s will. It was a showdown between two rivals at the top of their respective games; Djokovic may have won the match’s most important battle (a ferocious 54-shot rally), but it was Nadal who once again won the war, decimating the Serb with vicious up-the-line forehands and unparalleled hustle.
The match punctuated a remarkable season and confirmed Nadal’s status as one of the greatest tennis players ever. It also moved him within striking distance of Roger Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slam titles and proved Nadal is once again the player to beat.