Sunday, February 08, 2015

Biggest Choker in History?

Andy Murray was up 2-0 and serving in the third set of the Australian Open Final two weeks ago with a chance to forge ahead and take a two sets to one lead on his arch-nemesis Novak Djokovic. And then he played a loose game, was broken and changed ends back on serve 2-1. From there Djokovic won 11 of the next 12 games to close out the match 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. And while it was clear that Djokovic upped his game and began playing great tennis, particularly when he faced break point at 3-3 in that third set, there was also a sense that Murray blew a strong chance to win the match.

Murray essentially disappeared after losing that break point and failed to win another game. This was his fourth chance to win an Australian Open, on top of three other Grand Slam finals he’s lost and even after his incredible 2012-2013, when he won an Olympic Gold, a U.S. Open and became the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon, the old questions about choking have reared their ugly head yet again. Coming into the Finals this year, he was playing among his best tennis in two years. For two and a half sets, he fought valiantly, and really should have won the first set tiebreaker, but for an ill-timed double fault that took away his lead and momentum. But that complete collapse begs the question of whether Murray should be considered as a challenger in the Pantheon of “greatest sports chokers” of all times.

So who are the other contenders for the dubious title? Rather than looking at single events and reiterating a list that has been written many times before, I’m going to go with athletes who have made a career of choking, even if they earlier (or later) did find success in their career. Given that team sports are, by definition, team oriented, I’m going to skew toward individual sports, considering a few players from the major American sports leagues. I am generally looking at a “body of work” rather than one iconic moment, though a few entries seemed necessary for their one infamous blunder. Some might be wondering if Russell Wilson should be on the list after that Super Bowl interception, but most people are blaming Pete Carroll instead, it was a great pick, he did win a Super Bowl a year earlier and had the best postseason QBR in league history (until, I assume, those last two games get factored in). In any case, here is my list …

The Contenders (to rival Andy Murray)

1. Greg Norman: in 1986 alone, Norman led all four majors after the third round but only won the British Open. Most famously, he took a six-stroke to Sunday at the Masters in 1996 before shooting a 78 and losing to Faldo by five strokes. That kid from Northern Ireland pulled a similar feat a couple of years ago, but has been pretty unstoppable ever since. Norman was considered the best golfer in the world in the mid-90s, but choked away more majors than anyone else I can think of.

2. Phil Mickelson: one of the most beloved and richest golfers in the history of the sport, Mickelson has won five majors and 42 PGA events. But he has lost countless other majors that he had a strong chance of winning. Between 1999 and 2003 alone, he had six second-place or third-place finishes. Among his most obvious chokes is in the U.S. Open, where he has come in second a record six times, including blowing the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, where a part on 18 would have been enough to win (he double-bogeyed and didn’t even get into the playoff the next day, after inexplicably hitting a driver on the last hole). His career is winding down now, though the 2013 come-from-behind win at the British Open has quelled some of the talk of his long career of coming up short in the big ones.

3. Michelle Kwan: considered the best female skater in the world for five years, Kwan somehow lost two Olympics in a row to upstart teenagers – first Tara Lipinski in 1998 and then Sarah Hughes in 2002. It wasn’t so much that she was beaten as beat herself, failing to perform to her best in either of those Olympics. The skating rink is littered with failure on the biggest stage, but Kwan stands out for the two losses, even as the judges and fans wanted her to win so badly.

4. U.S. Ryder Cup 2012 Team (“Meltdown at Medina”): the only team entry in the list followed one of the greatest collapses in the history of the event, as Europe charged back from 10-6 down (10-4 at one point) to win the title in a series of singles events they were often heavily favored to lose. The U.S. had done the same back in 1999 (coming back from 10-6 down that is), but that victory was at home and felt more like an incredible performance by the Americans rather than a European collapse. The reason I include a team on the list is because the Americans, who generally have more talent on paper, have won only two of the last 10 biannual events, after dominating it until the mid-80s.

5. Dan O’Brien: Reebok decided to spend considerable money touting the Olympic decathlon battle between Dave Johnson and Dan O’Brien at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The problem, Dan forgot to read the script and passed on lower heights before missing his target pole vault of 15’9” and was unceremoniously out of the event. He did come back to win four years later in Atlanta, but few will forget the choke of 1992.

6. Scott Norwood: several kickers have missed key kicks in the playoffs, including Gary Anderson against the Falcons with a chance to get the Vikings back to the Super Bowl, but the miss by Norwood will stand in Super Bowl lore as one of the most memorable failures, starting a trend that would continue for the Bills three additional trips to the Big Game in the 90s. It’s hard to define a guy by one kick, particularly a 47-yarder, but does any non-Bills fan remember any other kick he ever had in his career.

7. Osafa Powell: a sprinter that has lived in the shadow of his countryman Usain Bolt for many years now, Powell can be forgiven for failing to win the gold in the 100 meters. But finishing 5th in two consecutive Summer Olympics, and then dead last in a third, while holding the record for breaking the 10 second barrier more times than any other runner (82 in total) and having a personal best of 9.72, does beg some questions. In 2004 he skipped the 200 meters final, even as he had qualified for the event, and then finally won a medal in 2008, in the 4x100 relay, recording the fastest split time in history (8.70). Hopes were higher in 2012, but then he pulled up after realizing he wasn’t going to win, claiming a “hamstring” injury that seemed suspect at best.

8. Jana Novotna: her career was marred by chokes in the Finals of major events, even as she was ultimately inducted into the tennis hall of fame. Two Wimbledon matches should suffice to provide the requisite evidence: she had six match points up 6-7, 6-4, 5-0 before losing to unseeded teenager Chandra Rubin then lost in the finals the next year to Martina Hingis, after being up 2-0 and a point from 3-0 in the third set (she lost 6-3).

9. Brett Favre: so Norwood wouldn’t feel lonely on the list, I thought I would add one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, who also had a tendency to choke in big games. Maybe most memorable was the interception he threw in overtime of the 2010 NFC Championship game when his adopted Vikings looked sure to beat the Giants and head to the Super Bowl, but there is also the 6-8 playoff record and 24 interceptions that followed the Packers’ SB win of 1996. In fact, his record in the playoffs, and big games, was pretty bad in the second half of his career (and I’ll never forgive him for his late fade in his one season with the Jets, costing us a sure playoff spot).

10.Chris Webber: I’ll include one basketball player in the list, the one that called the timeout that wasn’t, costing the Fab Five their championship. Webber would go on to have an incredible NBA career, but never won a title, arguably partially due to his inability to perform at his best when the pressure was on.

Honorable Mentions

Donovan McNabb: maybe he should be in the list above, but I’ll leave him here. He was 1-4 in NFC Championship games and 0-1 in Super Bowls. This doesn’t come down to him alone, but his performances did seem to dip on the biggest stage.

Bill Buckner: again, a guy that had a very respectable career but will be forever defined by one play, missing a simple grounder that led to a loss in Game 6 before Clemens blew Game 7 and the Red Sox heartache went on for another 18 years. Actually, one could have just put the entire Red Sox franchise between 1918 and 2004 on the list, though maybe the Cubs would be more appropriate these days.

Patrick Ewing: Ewing had a great game in the heartbreaking 1982 NCAA Finals loss to North Carolina and it was Fred Brown that actually threw the pass to a ghost that sealed it, but it was the start of a trend for the seven footer, who won one title at Georgetown, but lost two others (the other the famous Cinderella Story loss to Villanova in 1985). Ewing then moved onto the NBA and found his way to the Finals twice. In one of those Finals, against the Rockets, he had his classic fading jumper from the right corner to win the Title, but missed it. And that was how his career ended, without a single NBA Title to his name.

Karl Malone: in a similar vein to Ewing, though with an even more distinguished career, Malone was one of the greatest forwards in NBA history over his long 17-year career. And yet he and Stockton were unable to finish the job and win a Title (though that guy Jordan had something to do with it). We might also add Charles Barkley to that list, though his chances were arguably more limited.

Ernst Byner: the list of football players with key interceptions, drops or fumbles is long (add Russell Wilson to the list, of course), but Byner’s fumble on the one-yard line that led to the drive and a Super Bowl trip for Elway’s Broncos stands out as among the most infamous. Those Browns missed a trip to the Super Bowl two years running, but that is the play that stands out. More a play than a career, but the defining play of that career, I imagine.

Peyton Manning: Manning is arguably the greatest regular season quarterback in league history, though some might argue for Marino, Brady or even Fouts. But his record in the postseason has marred any claim to “best ever,” which probably currently resides with his arch nemesis Tom Brady. Brady, in fact, holds the record for most playoff wins (21), most Super Bowl appearances (6) and, of course, is tied with Bradshaw and Montana (whom many think is still the greatest ever) for most Super Bowl titles (4). Manning has one Super Bowl ring (2003), an 11-13 record playoff record and couldn’t win the big game in college either, losing the Championship Game to Nebraska his senior year. And his less touted brother has one more ring than him, both earned by beating the guy Manning so rarely could. Maybe he should be in the top 10 above?

Alex Rodriguez: he’s had an incredible career and with six more homers passes Willie Mays on the career homer list, beyond finally winning a World Series ring in 2009. But A-Rod will be remembered not only for his cheating but also his general futility in 75 playoff games. His career numbers in the postseason are so out of line with his regular season numbers, he has arguably had the most abject playoff career of any star in the history of the game. To hit the low notes: his career batting average is .299, but falls to .263 in the playoffs; his RBI to at bat percentage drops from 17.35 to 12.57 percent in his 326 post season plate appearances (though he did walk a respectable 39 times); his home runs per at bat falls from 1 in 17 to 1 in 25; and his strike outs per plate appearance goes up from 18.29 to 23 percent in the post season. Beyond that is the fact that Yankees have to keep paying this chump about $20 million a year for the next three years, with little hope of getting much for that 60 plus mill.

Mary Decker (Slaney): In 1982, Decker set six world records in distances from the mile to 10,000 meters and received the James E. Sullivan award as the best athlete in the U.S. In 1983, she swept the 1500 and 3000 meters events at the World Championship in Helsinki, making her the huge favorite to win an Olympic medal the next year. But instead she tripped over Zola Budd’s foot and didn’t even finish the 3000. She came back four years later, after a birth and a year out injured, but failed to medal again, then failed to qualify for the Olympics on two other occasions. Considered among the greatest female runners of all times, and still holding world records in several events, she either got unlucky or failed on the biggest stage, not once but twice.

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