So, farewell then to this glorious and elongated summer of sport, which has captivated and enthralled ever since the clocks skipped forward. Truly, you were one of the finest. Lord’s 2019 is already shorthand for the greatest one-day cricket match in history. Wimbledon served up its longest and most dramatic men’s final ever and introduced tennis’s most dazzling talent in more than a decade, Coco Gauff, to the world. Meanwhile the Women’s World Cup shattered viewing records and rust‑encrusted prejudices, while the Ashes embedded itself deeper into the public’s consciousness than at any time since 2005.
Yet that was barely half of it. Will we ever forget Megan Rapinoe repeatedly sticking it to Donald Trump or the USA women’s football team winning the World Cup while engaging in confrontation with their own federation in a bid to be paid as much as their less successful male counterparts? Or, come to think of it, Kane Williamson’s remarkable sportsmanship after the cricketing gods had conspired against New Zealand when a throw to the wicketkeeper on the third last delivery of the Cricket World Cup clunked off Ben Stokes’s bat and ran away to the boundary, turning a likely victory into eventual defeat?
And then, as a forerunner to the glorious summer, there was Tiger Woods, who somehow defied the multiple spinal surgeries, serious knee issues and the passage of time to win his first major in 11 years on a delirious Sunday at Augusta. Many reckoned it was the greatest comeback in history – although it is difficult to dismiss Niki Lauda’s fourth place finish at Monza in 1976 six weeks after half his face was scorched when his Ferrari burst into flames.
There was something else, too. In an age of weariness and wilfulness, mistrust in our politicians and political processes, of exhausting fractiousness and fake news, sport repeatedly provided sweet relief.
There are antecedents for this, most notably in 1934 when, as Robert Winder’s fine book, Half-Time, points out, “the simplicities of sport” became very appealing in a year when 50,000 marchers converged in Hyde Park to protest against poverty and unemployment, Hitler was murdering critics of the Nazi regime and “the dreadful silhouettes of new demons were darkening the public discourse as tangled ideas about war, peace, social progress and imperial decline quarrelled in the mist”.
It was against this backdrop that Fred Perry became Wimbledon’s first English men’s champion for 25 years, Hedley Verity bowled England to victory against Australia at Lord’s with figures of 15 wickets for 104 and Henry Cotton, having been recommended a diet of minced steak, carrots and red wine while convalescing from stomach ulcers in Biarritz, found his health and golf game in better shape than for years as he won his first Open.
Such was Britain’s sporting success in 1934, incidentally, that the New York Times even ran a piece, “Bully for John Bull” claiming: “It’s about time they declared a Bank Holiday over there, to celebrate the comeback of Great Britain in sports!” However Winston Churchill was less blinded to the realities elsewhere, writing a week after Perry’s victory: “I look with wonder upon the thoughtless crowds disporting themselves in the summer sunshine. All the while, across the North Sea, a terrible process is astir. Germany is arming.”
There have been great British sporting summers since then, most notably in 2012 when an unprecedented harvest of Olympic medals was matched by a glut of think-pieces hailing how open-facing these isles had become. True, in London that summer everyone seemed to carry a permanent smile on their face, as if serotonin has been pumped into the water supply. But, with Britain in a permanent state of cultural civil war, those days now seem like a mirage.
Seven years on it is also harder to trust what we saw given that 132 athletes who competed at London 2012 have now been disqualified for performance-enhancing drugs – while Richard McLaren, the Canadian lawyer who investigated Russia doping, has suggested that those Games were “corrupted on an unprecedented scale”. Meanwhile Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Mo Farah, two of the British stars of the Olympics, no longer carry quite the same sheen, either given Wiggins has faced questions over therapeutic use exemptions and mystery packages while Farah’s former coach, Alberto Salazar, remains under investigation by the US Anti‑Doping Agency – although both men deny any wrongdoing.
At least in 2019 we know we have flawed heroes for these flawed times. Anyone who has read Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s brilliant biography of Tiger Woods knows that for years off the course he was the living embodiment of Philip Larkin’s This be the Verse. His father really did fuck him up, at least emotionally. And while Steve Smith has batted with a sustained brilliance rarely seen since the days of Bradman and Brilliantine, he has been repeatedly reminded of his past misdemeanours every time he steps to the crease. Stokes, who will rightly win the 2019 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, has also faced turmoil of his own.
This year we were also fortunate enough to continue to witness three of the all-time greats – Woods, Roger Federer and Serena Williams – still rage against the dying of the light while others, such as Joffra Archer and Rose Lavelle, sparked into flame. It really was one of the great summers of sport. Alas now, with the Ashes over and the nights drawing in, all we have left are our memories. But what memories.