Mark Reason: A lot to be excited about in 2014
With football and basketball World Cups, a Commonwealth Games, a cricket visit from India, and anticipated Super Rugby and All Blacks seasons, 2014 has much to offer.
The Australian Open tennis (13-26) is like some sort of weird '80s revival. Djokovic now has Boris Becker in his corner, Roger Federer has Stefan Edberg, Andy Murray still has ol' stoneface Lendl - and Nadal just has to turn up with uncle Tony to look like some 80s clubber washed up from Ibiza. But what a treat it should be. Djokovic is going for his fourth consecutive Aussie title, but comes in short of preparation; Murray has been in three of the previous four finals but is returning from back surgery; the great Nadal is world number one, Federer is not gone yet and kids like Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic need to start challenging. Can't wait.
The Black Caps play two tests against India, the Wellington Sevens comes to town and Superbowl organisers will try to remember to pay the electricity bill, but the main event is surely the Winter Olympics in Russia (6-23). As usual, we will become absurdly excited about events we won't watch for another four years. We will wonder whether some half-trousered kid in dreadlocks can do eight somersaults in the air with a plank of wood strapped to his boots and we will cheer on some house proud matron who is sweeping up on ice. My big hope, though, is that some brave gay lad stands atop the podium and does the clenched fist salute with a rainbow mitten.
The UK has all sorts of stuff going on with the last two weekends of the Six Nations, football madness and the mighty Cheltenham Festival. But in New Zealand the Super 15 is now well under way. It is a month that may well define the season for the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. How much will the defending champions miss Craig Clarke's leadership against the Highlanders, the Stormers, the Force and the Bulls? The Canes have a brutal few weeks against the Stormers, the Brumbies, the Cheetahs, the Highlanders and the Crusaders, a run that will determine whether they are yet good enough to challenge.
It will be fascinating to see what dish Steve Williams will choose at the Masters champions' dinner and if he can retain his green jacket at a major that has had seven different winners in the past seven years. And how will Lydia Ko go at the Kraft Nabisco, the first major with her new coaching team? But the pick of the month are the semis and the final of the T20 slogfest (April 4-7) in Dhaka. Despite their recent troubles in Bangladesh, it is far from improbable that New Zealand could make the final stages. They have England and Sri Lanka in their group, both diminishing powers, along with South Africa who look like omitting Jacques Kallis and have a reputation as chokers in the one-day formats.
The Champions League final and the French Open tennis will be compelling, but the Badminton horse trials (7-11) should be full of intrigue and drama. Will the defending champion be there? Jock Paget is awaiting a hearing date over the drug reserpine that was found in his horse, Clifton Promise, after their victory at Burghley. Paget and Mark Todd have won the previous two Badmintons, but Andrew Nicholson may well start favourite ahead of them despite not having won previously and could be on his way to a Grand Slam of Burghley, Badminton and Kentucky.
The sporting world will be on samba watch in Brazil. Football's World Cup has been held on the continent of America on seven occasions, with Brazil winning three times and Argentina and Uruguay twice. The last final to be played in Rio was seen by 174,000 fans back in 1950. It will be hard for the European teams to compete against that sort of heat, but they have some special players.
Sometimes we are spoiled for choice. We are just coming down from Rio, when Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games and the Tour de France all show up. But my eyes will be on Liverpool and the Open golf (10-13, 17-20). Just to the north of Scouseland lies Royal Birkdale with its strange deco clubhouse and brutal golf course. The toughness of the links may just suit Ko, although Yani Tseng's power will be tough to beat. To the south of Liverpool winds Royal Liverpool, aka Hoylake, where Tiger Woods annihilated all comers in 2006 with a spectacular exhibition of iron play. What a fortnight it will be.
The Super Rugby final may prove to be a hit in Canterbury and beyond - surely it is the Crusaders year - but the women's Rugby World Cup (1-17) in France will be a fascinating preview of rugby sevens' entry to the Olympics. I attended the second women's World Cup in Scotland and the PC brigade got very upset that someone should have the temerity to write the obvious - this was a game in its infancy and many of the players could scarcely run and catch, let alone kick a ball. Women's rugby has come a long way since then, with New Zealand doing the most to pull up the standards. With the lure of gold and the Olympics, more and more women athletes are now taking up rugby, making this year's World Cup a fascinating prospect. The Tall Blacks will also take on the best in the world at the Basketball World Cup in Spain.
The US Open tennis and the Rugby Championship have their appeal, but the Ryder Cup, even for the many New Zealanders who have no patriotic allegiance, remains one of sport's great contests. America could have, should have, won last time but for Europe's great come back in the singles. The Yanks will be peeved and they are on the rise. They currently have five players in golf's top 10 and half of the top 30. Europe look top heavy, but Paul McGinley is a shrewd captain and a class act. Gleneagles is the venue, McGinley and Tom Watson are the captains, America want revenge - it could be an epic.
After years of Red Bull domination there is a new set of Formula 1 regulations in 2014. By October we will be in the business end of the season with races in Japan and a new one in Russia. The odds are that we will be acknowledging the greatness of Vettel and the genius of Adrian Newey again, but change may bring closer racing. Basically the size of the engine has been reduced in a search for more efficiency and technological development that may be useful on our roads. Alain Prost said, "We come back to the essence of the competition that we have lost a little bit. I never said to myself in the last few years ‘it would be good to drive', but for 2014 I really said to myself I would have loved to participate." Let's hope the prof is right.
One or other of the All Blacks' matches against England (8th) and Wales (22nd) may well be a preview of next year's World Cup final, so it was tempting to slot them in as the pick of the month. But the Melbourne Cup (4th) still holds our attention. It may no longer stop a nation, but it at least makes us pause for a moment. Aussie horse racing is not exactly populated by thoroughbreds. This year's Cup winner was ridden by a jockey who had just returned from suspension after betting on another horse. But rogues and bloodstock is what it's all about - and the fillies who arrive in all their finery and then totter out, champagned to the gills, clutching their broken heels to their hearts.
In some ways the empty month in these parts of the world. But presumably the Black Caps will have lined up some serious opposition by December. At the moment the future cricket calendar is strangely empty, with the 2015 World Cup curtailing other planning. This needs to change. In 12 months' time the current New Zealand team should be moving up the rankings. They can't pull a crowd at the moment, many people still disgusted over the sacking of Ross Taylor. But . . . well, it is a time for hope.