The World Cup. The Beijing Games. Baseball milestones. Swan songs in tennis. This year had a bit of everything for sports fans — and here are some of our favorite moments.
Carlos Alcaraz plays free-form jazz on a tennis court.
In the context of a match that lasted five sets, went on for 315 minutes and ended at 2:50 a.m. Eastern time, 24 minutes later than any previous U.S. Open match, this point was ultimately meaningless. Carlos Alcaraz didn’t win that game, or even the second-set tiebreaker that followed. It was 11:25 p.m., but the night was young, and there would be so many more highlight-reel moments on the way to Alcaraz’s triumph in a quarterfinal against Jannik Sinner of Italy.
But this running-the-wrong-way, behind-the-back improvisation is the essence of Alcaraz, already the ultimate tennis jazz musician at 19, making it up as he goes along, the notes and the songs beautiful and breathtaking.
— Matthew Futterman
Ja Morant punches it on a Minnesota defender.
Ja Morant is already known for his gravity-defying dunk attempts at this early stage of his career. A key to becoming a truly successful daring dunker is combining athleticism with a limitless imagination.
Morant has left several victims in his wake, but this one sticks out. It arrived during a first-round playoff series against Minnesota when Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies desperately needed a boost. Morant, one of only a couple of elite players who possess the conviction to begin their ascent beyond the restricted area, triumphantly delivered.
— Jonathan Abrams
A spectacular effort turns the tables.
The point appeared to be lost.
In the opening round of the N.C.A.A. Division I women’s volleyball tournament, a South Dakota spike caromed off Houston’s Morgan Janda, who tried to receive it and bump it, and sailed past the court, headed toward the crowd.
But Kate Georgiades of Houston did not give up. She barreled through a courtside table and made the play. The rally continued, and ultimately Houston won the point, with Georgiades returning to the play and contributing. The Cougars won the match, too, on their way to the third round.
— Victor Mather
Chases for milestone home runs provided thrills.
Eileen Gu takes a star turn at the Olympics.
It came down to the final trick for Eileen Gu in freestyle skiing’s big air competition at the Beijing Olympics. A San Francisco teenager competing for China, her mother’s native country, Gu had one jump to win gold in her first event of the Games, amid all the adoration and all the questions about her ambitions and choice to represent China.
And she nailed it, landing a left double 1620 with a safety grab, a trick that involves four and a half revolutions in the air, and one she had never tried before in competition. (Here’s the video.) She won the gold medal and went on to win another gold and a silver in other events — one of the most clutch performances at any Games.
— John Branch
Justin Jefferson makes the N.F.L.’s catch of the year.
I was sitting about a hundred yards from this play, in the end zone press box at the Buffalo Bills’ stadium, but even from my vantage point, it was obvious that this catch by the Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson made no sense. I thought for sure that Bills cornerback Cam Lewis had pulled the ball down because he was using two arms and Jefferson was using one. Then I thought the ball had hit the ground and the play was over. Only then did I realize that Jefferson had cradled the ball before hitting the turf. If he didn’t make that catch, the Vikings would have turned the ball over on downs and the Bills could have run out the clock. Instead, after even more surprises, the Vikings went on to win in overtime. Remarkable.
— Ken Belson
Serena Williams flashes her brilliance at her valedictory.
This year’s U.S. Open was a prime-time stage for Serena Williams, who used it to flash the kinds of moments that made her a fan favorite as she wound down her tennis career. The crowds in Queens responded to each hype-building scream, and some fans even broke traditional norms of etiquette at times because they wanted her to win so badly. And they responded when she controlled the court, especially when she busted out one of her more difficult signature shots: a swinging forehand volley winner that requires precise timing and often throws off opponents.
— Oskar Garcia
Nathan Chen jumps to the top of the podium.
Four long years after a potentially soul-crushing fifth-place finish at the 2018 Winter Games, Nathan Chen was a stunning example of resilience when he won the Olympic gold medal in men’s singles figure skating, finally. In one of the best Olympic comeback stories ever, he dominated the competition at the Beijing Games, performing with such confidence and flair that he made landing his five sky-scraping quadruple jumps look easy — and even fun. It was a breathtaking performance by one of the best figure skaters in history.
— Juliet Macur
Ángel Di María scores perhaps the greatest goal in a World Cup final.
The 2022 World Cup final has a strong claim to be the best ever, and for a number of good reasons. For the thrilling, pulsating, barely believable 3-3 score line after extra time. For the penalty shootout victory that delivered Argentina its third title and finally ended Lionel Messi’s near two-decade search for the one title he craved.
But it will also be remembered for delivering one of the best goals of all time in a final: a sweeping team move from defense to attack, on the biggest stage possible, with Messi inevitably involved along the journey, a one-touch odyssey that ended when Ángel Di María slammed the ball home.
And, of course, in the game before, Messi had an incredible assist against Croatia, schooling Josko Gvardiol, a young man who is destined to develop into one of the best defenders of his generation.
Running performances befitting the stage.
It took Erin Jackson 37.04 seconds to make history. Over 500 meters on the speedskating oval at the Beijing Olympics, she swung her arms and pushed her legs into the record books, becoming the first African American woman to win a medal in the sport. She beamed after her race but had to wait a couple more minutes for the final heat of the event before her time was confirmed as the fastest, finally giving her joy.
“I was just waiting and watching,” she said, later adding, “Hopefully we can see, you know, more minorities, especially in the U.S.A., getting out and trying some of these winter sports. And I just always hope to be a good example.”
— Randal C. Archibold
Alessia Russo sticks with the play.
With England already leading by 2-0 in the semifinals of this year’s women’s Euros, Alessia Russo looked to tack on another goal. Sweden’s goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl, stopped her initial shot but she arrived to the rebound first and brilliantly slipped a backheel through her legs and into the back of the net. Football came home for the Lionesses in the final, but the men didn’t have the same fortunes in the World Cup, losing to France in a quarterfinal.
— Evan Easterling
A horse’s dominance draws comparisons to the greats.
In September at the Pacific Classic, held at Del Mar north of San Diego, Flightline won by 19¼ lengths and earned comparisons to Secretariat and other immortal horses in the sport’s lore. He was retired undefeated to stud in November after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic that month by 8¼ lengths, above.
— Joe Drape
A high school football team steals a win.
Here’s a pass from a Washington State high school football championship game this month. It was briefly intercepted — but then stripped from the defender’s hands by the intended receiver, who ran it into the end zone for the winning score.
Leon Edwards changes the scorecard in an instant.
Entering the fifth and final round of the main event of U.F.C. 278 in August, Leon Edwards was down on the judges’ scorecards, three rounds to one, to Kamaru Usman, the welterweight champion. Usman has held the 170-pound belt since 2019, and a win over Edwards would have been his 16th consecutive victory, tying the Ultimate Fighting Championship record long held by Anderson Silva.
Before the round started, Edwards’s corner admonished him to finish the fight with a knockout. Usman dominated much of the round with wrestling. But as both men stood with about one minute remaining in the fight, Edwards landed a devastating kick to the jaw, sending Usman unconscious to the canvas. The unlikely ending shocked much of the mixed martial arts community and showed that anyone can win a fight at any moment. Dana White, the U.F.C. president, said the two will fight in a rematch in 2023, likely in London.
— Emmanuel Morgan
An unlucky bounce goes against Louisiana State.
Louisiana State faced long odds of winning when it met top-ranked Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game. But when a pass ricocheted off a Tiger’s helmet to give Georgia an interception — not long after Georgia returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown on another heads-up play — the showdown seemed more like a showcase of the wacky.
— Alan Blinder
Nils van der Poel saves his best for last.
Distance speedskating is not a sport of moments. It is a sport of endurance, that pushes the human body toward, or over, the red line, and keeps it there as long as possible.
Nobody in the world can do that better than Nils van der Poel.
With three laps remaining in the men’s 5,000-meter race at the Winter Olympics, van der Poel trailed Patrick Roest by more than two seconds. The gap seemed to be insurmountable. The television commentators wondered if van der Poel could place third.
But while Roest’s final three laps were his three slowest, van der Poel’s were three of his fastest. He held on, and then accelerated, taking Olympic gold, and an Olympic record in the process.
Rory McIlroy gets closer than close.
LIV Golf’s stepping into the men’s professional ranks provoked ample drama around this year’s British Open. (Greg Norman? Uninvited. Tiger Woods? Fuming.) But there was still plenty of expert play, and perhaps no better example than when Rory McIlroy found himself in one of the brutal bunkers of St. Andrews in Scotland. He lifted his second shot at No. 10 onto the green, where it bounced and rolled and, firing up the gallery, dropped for a stirring eagle. Later, McIlroy mused that he had only been “trying to get it somewhat close.”
— Alan Blinder
A comedy of errors gives the Raiders the last laugh.
When historians search Google for “brain lock” and “N.F.L.,” they may find the ending of Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Las Vegas Raiders near the top of the list.
With seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied at 24, the Patriots opted not to run out the clock and guarantee overtime. Instead, they handed the ball to running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who ran 23 yards before pitching it to receiver Jakobi Meyers. Trying to extend the play, Meyers ran backward toward quarterback Mac Jones and lofted the ball in his direction near midfield. The problem was that Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones was standing there. He grabbed the ball, swatted Jones away and ran into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown.
Meyers said afterward: “I was just trying to do too much and trying to be a hero, I guess.” That was an understatement.
— Ken Belson