2017 was the year women’s sport finally got some of the respect it deserves, from men. It’s the year British tennis player Andy Murray made a statement about women in sport: that they should be treated, spoken about and assessed in the same way as men.
After losing the Wimbledon quarterfinal in July to Sam Querry, Murray was asked his views about his opponent being the first American to reach the semi-final of a Grand Slam since 2009. Rather than provide an opinion, Murray corrected the journalist by stating that Querry was the only male player to achieve that feat.
For his troubles, Murray was lauded by Serena Williams who said female players “love” him for speaking out, and she had good reason to feel that way.
At least one of Serena or her sister Venus had played in the Wimbledon final for all but three years since the 2000. In 2017, with Serena out of action on maternity leave, Venus staged a remarkable comeback from an autoimmune condition, to become the oldest Grand Slam finalist in 23 years, underlining Murray’s point.
It’s only natural that our list of sportswomen to watch in 2018 starts with a tennis player but we also look at which women to watch at three major events and a runner with a proud record to preserve.
Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open
Not only did Sloane Stephens become only the fifth unseeded player to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era when she lifted the US Open Cup in September, but she also became the first American woman whose surname is not Williams to triumph at a major tournament since 2002. Her victory was made even more impressive because in 2016, she suffered a foot injury that sidelined her for 11 months and saw her ranking plummet to 957.
More important than Stephens’ victory for herself, was her emergence as a role-model for scores of young black African women. Stephens comes from a rich sporting pedigree – her father was an NFL player and her mother, a swimmer – and has been playing tennis since the age of nine. Though her form dipped towards the end of 2017, she has already shown she knows how to return strongly.
Nigerian Bobsled Team at the Winter Olympics
It’s unusual for Africa to be represented at the Winter Olympics, because the continent does not have the same lengthy period of cold (and often snow) needed for sports like ice-hockey and skiing but three Nigerian women, Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga, aim to change that. The project is driven by Adigun, who once dreamed of becoming the first woman in the NBA, then changed her focus first to sprinting and now to bobsled – a sport in which teams of between two or four members make their way down twisting iced tracks on an engine-less sled.
Bobsled is an expensive pursuit that requires specialized equipment and training gear and, to that end, Adigun launched a gofundme campaign to raise $75,000 to aid her cause. The trio trained in western Canada and clocked impressive times in their first two qualifying events.
At the time of writing, they were placed 12th out of 13 participants in the North American Cup but with the cut off for the Winter Games only in January, they may have a surprise up their sleeves and could yet appear in South Korea.
Mary Keitany at the London Marathon
Think Kenya and you automatically think of runners and Mary Keitany is one of the country’s finest and quickest. A seasoned marathoner, Keitany has claimed gold medals everywhere from Seville to Delhi but she seems to save her best for the biggest races. She has won the London Marathon four times, and in 2017 broke the record for a women-only marathon, finishing in a time of 2:17:01. Doubtless, she will return to the event with an intent to dominate.
Also keep an eye out for her later in the year in November when the New York Marathon takes place. Keitany won the race in 2014, 2015 and 2016 but could not notch up a fourth consecutive win in 2017, finishing second to Shalane Flanagan. Pre-race, Keitany was tipped to win and to break the course record, something she will want to go back for in 2018.
South Africa’s Women’s Hockey Team at the Hockey World Cup
The only African women’s team at the Hockey World Cup, South Africa have historically been the continent’s strongest with stick in hand. They’ve qualified for the last five World Cups with a highest-placed finish of 7th in 1998, and have been the only African side at the event since Nigeria in 1978. But that does not mean it’s all plain sailing for them.
Though South Africa is better resourced then some of the other teams in Africa, they have also had recent hiccups. At the African Hockey Cup of Nations, played in Egypt in October 2017, the women’s team had to share a coach with the South African men’s side, but still managed to go on and win the event.
Impressively, they put 24 goals past their opposition and did not concede any, to maintain a clean sheet for the duration of the event. South Africa won all four of their group stage games and beat Ghana in the final.
Better news for the South African Women’s team is that they have smoothly transitioned from one corporate backer to another. Investec sponsored them for five years from 2009 to 2014 and when they chose not to renew their affiliation, Private Property stepped in.
African Women Cup of Nations
The continent’s favorite sport, football, will dominate 2018, with all eyes on Russia mid-year to see if an African country can finally go beyond the last eight at a World Cup. Then, attention will turn to qualification for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations but the year will end with the African Women’s Championship in Ghana from November 17.
Unlike the men’s competition, which has been expanded to 24 teams from the usual 16, the women’s event is played between only eight teams which make the qualification, which will be contested among 24 teams, almost as important as the tournament itself.
It’s a two-stage process, the first of which will see 20 teams play off against each other over two legs with winners progressing to a second round, where the four highest-ranked African women’s sides, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, have been automatically included. The 10 winners and the four other teams will then have home and away play-offs, with the seven victors joining Ghana in the main tournament but the pressure does not stop there.
As important as being crowned queens of the continent is, there is also an added incentive to make it as far as the semi-finals. The finalists and the winner of the usually bland third-place playoff will qualify for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
Only two countries have won the tournament in its 27 year history. Nigeria are 10-time and defending champions while Equatorial Guinea were crowned champions twice. – Written by Firdose Moonda