Sports in 2021 happened at a rapid pace. With the cloud of pandemic looming around, sportspersons faced challenges in mental, emotional and physical terms apart from on-field happenings. But some of them managed to overcome all sorts of obstacles and be great in their pursuit of sporting excellence. As we step into the new year, we look at the top 21 male sports performers of the previous year.
1. Neeraj Chopra (Athletics)
If there was a moment in Indian sports which will forever remain etched in the mind, it was star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Chopra became only the second Indian after shooter Abhinav Bindra to win an individual gold at the Olympics. Chopra's throw of 87.58m in the second round of the final all but sealed India's first-ever Olympics medal in track and field, sending the nation into a state of frenzy.
2. Bajrang Punia (Wrestling)
Hours before Chopra won the gold medal in men's javelin throw, Bajrang Punia won the bronze medal in men's freestyle 65kg category after defeating Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan in the Tokyo Olympics. Punia, seeded second in his event, had to face a 5-12 defeat to Azerbaijan's Haji Aliyev in the semifinals. But in the bronze medal bout, Punia earned India's sixth medal in the mega event with an 8-0 victory in the bronze medal match despite having suffered a knee injury weeks before the Olympics began.
3. Ravi Dahiya (Wrestling)
When the spotlight was firmly on Bajrang Punia to spearhead India's campaign at the Tokyo Olympics, Ravi Dahiya managed to steal the thunder from him. In the semifinal of the men's 57kg freestyle event, Dahiya was trailing 9-2 and with less than a minute to go against Kazakhstan's Nurislam Sanayev, he spectacularly turned the bout on its head and pinned his opponent down, thus winning by fall. In the gold medal match, Dahiya couldn't replicate the semifinal success against Russian Olympic Committee's Zavur Uguev, taking a silver medal after losing by 4-7.
4. PR Sreejesh (Hockey)
One of the vital cogs in the wheel of the Indian men's hockey team winning an Olympics medal after 41 years, Sreejesh delivered the goods when it mattered the most. In the tournament, he made numerous saves but the one which ensured India's bronze-medal finish at the podium was the most important. With seven seconds left for the final hooter to blow, Sreejesh saved a drag-flick from Germany's Lukas Windfeder on a penalty corner to clinch a medal for India in hockey. His picture of sitting at the goalpost after the bronze medal thriller match ended was one of the heartening pictures from India's campaign in Tokyo.
5. Sumit Antil (Para-Athletics)
One of the most memorable performances by an Indian athlete in the Paralympics, Antil won gold in the men's javelin F64/44 category final with a massive world record throw of 68.55m at Tokyo. The 22-year-old bettered his own previous world record during the competition. Antil was consistent in the final of the event, recording throws of 66.95m, 68.08m, 65.27m, 66.71m and 68.55m. In his six throws, he beat his own previous world record thrice.
6. Pramod Bhagat (Para Badminton)
Living up to his top-seed billing in the competition, Bhagat added to India's medal tally in the Tokyo Paralympics by winning the gold medal in the men's singles SL3 event. The Odisha-based shuttler defeated Daniel Bethell of Great Britain 21-14 and 21-17 to win the gold medal. In the process, Bhagat, a two-time world champion in his category, became the first Indian to win a gold medal for India in para badminton competition in the Paralympics history.
7. Krishna Nagar (Para Badminton)
The Jaipur-based para shuttler clinched India's second gold medal in the Tokyo Paralympics, after his compatriot Pramod Bhagat had earlier won a gold medal in the SL3 event. Nagar, seeded second in the competition, beat Chu Man Kai of Hong Kong 21-17, 16-21 and 21-17 in the men's singles SH6 final. After he won the gold medal, Nagar jumped into coach Gaurav Khanna's lap, making for a heartwarming moment from India's campaign at the Tokyo Paralympics.
8. Manish Narwal (Para Shooting)
Though India couldn't get a single medal from shooting in the Olympics, the Paralympics ensured that the country will get some medals from the sport. One of them was para shooter Manish Narwal. The 19-year-old, who has a congenital impairment to his right hand and can't even raise it, won the gold medal in the P4 Mixed 50m Pistol SH1 event with a total of 218.2 to make his Paralympics debut a memorable one.
9. Kidambi Srikanth (Badminton)
After missing the cut for Tokyo Olympics, Srikanth clinched a historic silver medal in the 2021 World Badminton Championships after a 15-21 and 20-22 defeat to Loh Kean Yew of Singapore in the final of men's singles. Srikanth's silver is the best ever performance by an Indian in the event of the prestigious tournament. A former world number one, Srikanth bettered the past efforts of legendary Prakash Padukone (bronze medal in 1983), B Sai Praneeth (bronze medal in 2019) and Lakshya Sen (bronze medal in this edition), whom he had defeated in the semifinals.
10. Ajaz Patel (Cricket)
The New Zealand left-arm spinner achieved a very rare feat in Test cricket, dismissing all 10 batters in an innings in the second Test against India at Mumbai, the city of his birth. The 33-year-old Patel, with his spell of 10/119 on day two of the second Test, became the third ever bowler after Jim Laker and Anil Kumble to achieve the rarest of rare feat in the cricketing world. Patel aptly called his achievement "The stars have aligned for me".
11. Joe Root (Cricket)
Even though Root the captain had an underwhelming year, Root the batter had an incredible time with the bat in Test cricket. Root ended 2021 as the highest run-getter in Test cricket and surpassed many greats to become the third-highest run-scorer in a calendar year in history of Test cricket. Root amassed 1708 runs at an average of 61 in 2021, sitting just behind Pakistan's Mohammad Yousuf (1788 runs in 2006 at 99.33) and West Indies legend Vivian Richards (1710 runs in 1976 at 90). The 30-year-old had six hundreds and four half-centuries, including two double hundreds in Galle and Chennai.
12. Mohammad Rizwan (Cricket)
Before the start of 2021, Mohammad Rizwan's record in T20I was modest, comprising just one half-century. But this year, Rizwan turned the tables spectacularly, becoming the first batter to breach the 1000-run mark in a calendar year in T20I cricket. In 26 innings, Rizwan has scored 1326 runs at an average of 73.66, including a century and 12 fifties. On the way to such jaw-dropping numbers, Rizwan also became the first batter to score ten-plus fifties and hit hundred-plus fours in one calendar year of T20I cricket. Such was his determination of scoring runs throughout the year that being hospitalised due to a severe chest infection before the semifinal against Australia in Men's T20 World Cup didn't stop him from reaching another fifty.
13. Ravichandran Ashwin (Cricket)
The leading wicket-taker in Test cricket this year has been putting up an impactful show with the ball and bat. He began 2021 with a resilient 128-ball 29 to draw the Sydney Test against Australia alongside Hanuma Vihari. Ashwin was in full form in the home series against England, picking 32 wickets in four matches at an average of 14.72 while scoring 189 runs with the bat, earning him 'Player of the Series' award. Despite not playing a single Test in a series against England, Ashwin bagged another 'Player of the Series' award at home, this time against New Zealand. The off-spinner picked 14 wickets in two matches with an average of 11.36 while contributing some runs with the bat. The year also saw him make a comeback to T20I cricket and have impactful performances with the ball.
14. Axar Patel (Cricket)
If there was a debutant who made an immediate impact in Test cricket, it was left-arm spinner Axar Patel. Since his debut Test against England in Chennai, Patel has been a force to reckon with at home Tests for India. In the series against England, where he left the batters in a trance, Patel picked up 27 wickets in three matches at an average of 10.59, including four fie-wicket hauls. Though he didn't get to play when India went to England, Patel got a chance in the series against New Zealand, picking up nine wickets in two matches at an average of 15.67.
15. Max Verstappen (Formula 1)
The Dutchman was the toast of the Formula 1 world when he won the title decider at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi, edging his rival Lewis Hamilton by a very narrow margin. It was a very thrilling win for Verstappen, who was behind Hamilton throughout the race. But once the safety car came into play and then got out for the final lap, Verstappen with his fresher tyres overtook Hamilton at turn five and clinched the title. After clinching his first-ever World Championship title, Verstappen was recently voted by F1's team principals as the number one driver of 2021 in the annual poll. In 2021, Verstappen had 18 podium finishes, the most by a driver in the season.
16. Novak Djokovic (Tennis)
The Serbian won three Grand Slam titles in Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, surpassed Roger Federer for most weeks on world number one position and went past Pete Sampras' record of six-year end number one finishes. Outside these achievements, Djokovic had chances for a Golden Slam but failure to win a gold medal in men's singles at the Tokyo Olympics and losing in the final of US Open to Daniil Medvedev meant he couldn't complete the rare feat. Still, Djokovic had a great year in tennis.
17. Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)
The star swimmer was selected as a co-captain for the USA men's swimming team in the Tokyo Olympics alongside Ryan Murphy. Dressel was at a gold rush in Tokyo, collecting five medals to be at the top of the podium. His first gold came in the 4x100m freestyle relay. He then went on to establish two new Olympics Records in 50m and 100m freestyle. He signed off from the mega event by setting two world record timings in 100m butterfly and 4x100m medley relay. By winning five gold medals in Tokyo, Dressel became the fourth male swimmer from the USA to achieve the feat in Olympics history after Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, and Michael Phelps.
18. Max Whitlock (Artistic Gymnastics)
The artistic gymnast from Great Britain defended his gold medal in men's pommel horse which he had first claimed in Rio Olympics 2016. The gold medal at Tokyo Olympics, with a score of 15.583 gave him his third medal in the event (he had a bronze in London 2012) and his sixth overall at the Olympics, making him the most successful-ever gymnast on pommel horse and from Great Britain.
19. Ma Long (Table Tennis)
The ace table tennis player from China reiterated his status as one of the greats of the game by defending his men's singles medal from Rio Olympics 2016. In an all-China final against compatriot Fan Zhendong, Long, the world number one, prevailed 4-2 (11-4, 10-12, 11-8, 11-9, 3-11 and 11-7). In the process of defeating Zhendong, Long 'The Dragon' became the most decorated male table tennis player in the history of Olympics with another gold medal from the men's team event, taking the total of gold medals from Olympics to five.
20. David Warner (Cricket)
Warner began 2021 by rushing from a groin injury to play in two Tests against India, making scores of 5, 13, 1 and 48. Warner faced misery in IPL 2021, when he was removed as the captain of Sunrisers Hyderabad as the franchise won just one out of their six matches. After the second half of the tournament resumed in the UAE, Warner was unable to get runs and was dropped from the playing eleven altogether. In the warm-up matches, Warner made only a duck and two. But as the Super 12 stage began, Warner came into his own, scoring 289 runs from seven innings, at an average of 48.16 including three half-centuries. His efforts meant Australia clinched its maiden Men's T20 World Cup title and Warner was adjudged as the 'Player of the Tournament'.
21. Kevin Durant (Basketball)
Apart from signing a four-year $198 million extension with the Brooklyn Nets and dishing out performances in the NBA, Durant led USA to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. USA didn't have best of the starts to the campaign, losing to France. But Durant took charge of the team and ensured that USA came on top when it met France in the final. He was the only player from team USA to average more than 20 points in every match and in the final, scored 29 points with six rebounds and three assists. During the course of the Olympics, Durant broke Carmelo Anthony's record of most career points, having 435 points in three Olympics appearances, surpassing Anthony's 336 from four Olympics appearances. Durant also joined Anthony for being the only three-time gold medal winners in USA's men's basketball Olympics history.