Sporting superstars of 2023

Credit - Getty/PA/AP Photo

Credit - Getty/PA/AP Photo

Mary Earps

Few sportspeople made as big an impact on 2023 as Mary Earps.

Not only did the England No 1 further enhance her reputation on the field with starring performances in goal for the Lionesses and Manchester United, she took on one of the world's biggest brands – and won - to underline her status as a role model for the younger generation.

The Lionesses may have ultimately fallen at the final hurdle in their attempt to follow up Euros triumph from 2022 with World Cup glory in Australia, but Earps was a standout star on their road to the final.  She saved Jenni Hermoso's second-half penalty in the final to keep England in with a chance against Spain, while she took home the Golden Glove award as the tournament's top goalkeeper.

The 30-year-old had already won the WSL’s own Golden Glove award for a record 14 clean sheets in 2022/23 as Man Utd just fell short to Chelsea in pursuit of a first league title, while she also helped them to a maiden FA Cup final appearance, where again the Blues narrowly triumphed.

England Women’s Player of the Year also achieved the highest placing for a goalkeeper in the 2023 Women's Ballon d'Or, finishing fifth, before capping her year by winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

But for all the individual accolades and outstanding performances, it was Earps' decision to stand with fans against England's kit manufacturer Nike's controversial decision not to produce a replica of the goalkeeper shirt for the World Cup that perhaps will be the longest-lasting legacy of her year.

Earps, who described the decision as "hugely hurtful" and backed a petition calling on Nike to overturn the decision which reached 170,000 signatories, felt she needed to make her voice heard in support of aspiring young goalkeepers.

The public pressure on Nike ultimately told. In October, the firm released a limited number of her shirts for sale, which immediately sold out. A second larger release of shirts earlier in December on the England online store then did likewise within five minutes.

Whether on or off the field, there is certainly no stopping 'Mary Queen of Stops'.

Erling Haaland

Record-breaking goal tallies, big trophies, personal accolades, there was barely anything Erling Haaland did not achieve or win in 2023.

Let's start with the goals. All the goals. To put it simply, no one has scored more for a club side in European's top five leagues in the calendar year to date thanks to Manchester City striker’s 44 strikes.

No one had more doubles (11) and hat-tricks (4) either. Haaland’s debut season in English football concluded with a new record for the most goals scored in a Premier League season (36), while his 12 strikes in last season's Champions League were four more than any other player.

Of course, those goals were a major factor in Man City's milestone 2023 and the achievement of just the second Premier League-Champions League-FA Cup Treble in English football history.

Although Haaland’s dozen goals in Europe in that campaign may have come before the semi-final stage, the fact City's maiden Champions League triumph at the 12th time of trying coincided with his first season at the club was certainly testament to his impact and goal-getting through the campaign. He undoubtedly gave City a different dimension.

After a season like that, it was inevitable the individual honours would follow. A selection of the awards the Norway international received included: Premier League Player and Young Player of the season, PFA Players' Player of the Year, and UEFA Men’s Player of the Season.

Had the World Cup not been staged in the winter for the first time, and therefore mid-way through a season rather than at the end of the previous one, it's also probably fair to assume he would have added a first Ballon d'Or to his collection too instead of finishing second to Lionel Messi after the Argentina captain's genius in Qatar.

A league-best 14 goals in 15 games at the start of this latest Premier League campaign, plus five in five in Europe, maintain Haaland's blistering start at City. All this at just 23 years of age too.

Nat Sciver-Brunt

England all-rounder Nat Sciver-Brunt enjoyed a fantastic year, both in terms of performance and pay packet. She was signed by Mumbai Indians for a cool £320,000 during the inaugural Women’s Premier League auction – only Australia’s Ash Gardner fetched as much money among overseas players – and went on to win that tournament with successive fifties in the semi-finals and final.

Sciver-Brunt struck back-to-back ODI hundreds for England in the Women’s Ashes, too – the first coming in vain as Australia edged the match by three runs to secure an Ashes retention, the second propelling her side to victory in the 50-over leg part of the series. But her briskest ton was to come.

Sri Lanka were the side Sciver-Brunt thumped an England-record 66-ball century against in September, with her innings eclipsing the 70-ball effort Charlotte Edwards managed in 2012 and leading head coach, Jon Lewis, to call his player "the best in the world in the ODI format".

Sciver-Brunt is one of the best in the world all formats, with her 40-ball 81 powering England to the highest total at the Women’s T20 World Cup earlier this year as they piled on 213-5 versus Pakistan.

England were eventually eliminated at the semi-final stage, slumping to defeat against South Africa after Sciver-Brunt was dismissed for 40 in a chase of 165. If they are to go one better at 2024's T20 World Cup in Bangladesh and win the tournament for the first time since the inaugural edition in 2009, you would imagine Sciver-Brunt will play a crucial role.

Pat Cummins

World Test Championship? Check? Ashes retention? Yep, that as well. Cricket World Cup? Also secured.

Australia captain Pat Cummins lifted three big trophies in 2023 as he led his side to victory in two ICC events and ensured that the Baggy Greens left England with the urn intact after a 2-2 draw in an Ashes series that had everything – sledging, stumpings, Stuart Broad's fairy-tale finish – except a winner.

Australia defeated India in June to win the second cycle of the World Test Championship before Cummins helped them into a 2-0 Ashes lead, striking a match-winning 44 not out in the first Test at Edgbaston when his side looked beaten and then taking two early wickets in England's ultimately failed run chase at Lord’s. Ultimately failed, despite yet another stunning Ashes ton from Ben Stokes.

England came firing back, clearly galvanised by the contentious stumping of Jonny Bairstow at Lord's – the wicket standing after Cummins opted against withdrawing his appeal – and if not for rain wrecking the third Test in Manchester, the hosts may well have won the series 3-2.

Cummins' tactics, some of them extremely defensive, were called into question with Australia unable to turn a healthy advantage into a first outright overseas Ashes win since 2001, but his critics slid back into the woodwork as the side recovered from losing their first two World Cup matches in India to rack up nine victories in a row and claim the 50-over trophy for a sixth time.

After hitting the winning runs in a nervy-semi-final against South Africa, Cummins delivered a captaincy masterclass in the final versus India.

His field placings and frequent bowling changes – members of his attack often given one-over spells so as to not let the home side settle – and crucial wicket of Virat Kohli meant Australia were only chasing 241 to win. Chase it they did.

Coco Gauff

It was not to be for the American in Paris in 2022 when she lost the French Open final to Iga Swiatek but teenager Coco Gauff finally broke her Grand Slam duck on home turf in September, becoming the first player from the United States to win a major singles title since Serena Williams bagged the last of her 23 Grand Slam crowns in 2017.

Gauff was also the first American teen to triumph at Flushing Meadows since Serena in 1999 as she completed a come-from-behind victory over Aryna Sabalenka, winning 2-6 6-3 6-2 in front of a fervent home crowd, a victory she said silenced those who had "talked trash" about her.

US Open glory came amid a golden summer for Gauff, with a maiden WTA 500 title in Washington, DC in August and a first 1000 title in Cincinnati later that month followed by her biggest win of all.

Gauff said after victory in New York: "I want to thank all the people who didn't believe in me. I won a 500 title and people said I would stop at that. Two weeks ago, I won a 1000 title and people were saying that was the biggest it was going to get. Three weeks later, I'm here with this trophy. To those who thought you were putting water on my fire, you're adding gas to it. I'm burning so bright right now."

Gauff won four titles all told in 2023 - her three successes in the States over the summer following victory in Auckland in January - and the 16-match winning streak she embarked on was the longest by a teenager on the WTA Tour since Bianca Andreescu won 17 in a row in 2019.

Novak Djokovic

With Roger Federer retiring in late 2022 and Rafael Nadal missing all but the first few weeks of 2023 through injury, it was left to Novak Djokovic to fly the flag for tennis' 'big three' – and he did so by winning another 'big three' to take his tally of Grand Slam titles past Nadal’s 22 and up to a leading 24 in the men's game.

The Serb claimed the Australian Open title in January – a year after being deported ahead of the event for not being vaccinated against Covid-19 – before going on win the French Open for a record 23 major title, seeing off Carlos Alcaraz in four sets in the semi-finals at Roland-Garros.

Alcaraz exacted revenge at Wimbledon, pipping Djokovic in a five-set epic to bag his second Grand Slam title and end his opponent's 34-match winning streak on the London grass, but those predicting a changing of the guard were wide of the mark with Djokovic going on to triumph at the US Open for Slam No 24, during which he recovered from two sets down against Laslo Djere in the third round.

Djokovic guaranteed he would end 2023 as world No 1 at the ATP Finals, an event he won for a record-extending seventh time to cap a superb 12 months which included topping Steffi Graf’s record 377 weeks as world No 1 across either men's and women's tennis. Expect more success in 2024.

British wheelchair tennis player Alfie Hewett also enjoyed a glittering 2023, winning two Grand Slam singles titles (Australian Open and US Open) after reaching all four finals and clinching three doubles crowns with Gordon Reid as the pair prevailed in Melbourne, Paris and at Wimbledon.

AP Photo

AP Photo

Katarina Johnson-Thompson

British heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson secured her second World Athletics Championship gold – four years after her first and three since suffering a serious Achilles injury that left her questioning her future in the sport.

KJT defeated America’s Anna Hall by 20 points in Budapest after running a personal best of 2:05.63 in the 800 metres, capping a superb Sunday which had seen her run a competition-leading 23.48 seconds in the 200m, leap 6.54m in the long jump and throw a javelin personal best of 46.14m.

Victory was all the sweeter for the Liverpudlian after her previous injury hell. Having recovered from the Achilles problem ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, she then suffered a calf tear in the 200m at the event itself and stubbornly limped to the finish line after refusing the aid of a wheelchair.

Johnson-Thompson was unable to compete in the final three disciplines but, fitness-permitting, should be one of the favourites for gold at Paris next year, with a potential showdown between the Brit and long-time rival, two-time Olympic champion Nafi Thiam, something to savour.

KJT was one of many athletes to star in 2023, with Kenyan runner Faith Kipyegon setting world records in the 1500m, 5,000m and mile during a season in which she won two gold medals at the World Championships and French pole vaulter Armand Duplantis twice breaking the world record.

Patrick Mahomes

When Patrick Mahomes hobbled off the field with an ankle sprain at the end of the first quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs' opening 2023 NFL playoff game, the quarterback and his team’s hopes of winning a second Super Bowl in four years appeared to be all but over.

Having sat out most of the second quarter Mahomes would return after half-time, with his movement clearly limited, to will the Chiefs past a Jacksonville Jaguars squad they had been expected to beat comfortably, but bigger challenges were to come.

Somehow, Mahomes rose to the challenge a week later to avenge his team's 2022 playoff loss to Cincinnati Bengals. The key play coming in the closing seconds as Mahomes ignored the pain in his right leg to bravely scramble for a first down and draw a penalty that would put the Chiefs within range for a game-winning field goal. 

The two-week break before a spectacular Super Bowl matchup with Philadelphia Eagles gave Mahomes' ankle some time to heal, but he would re-aggravate the injury in the second quarter, with the Chiefs finding themselves 10 points down as Rihanna emerged for the half-time show. 

With the odds stacked against him once more, Mahomes threw two second-half touchdowns to put the Chiefs in position to convert a late field goal for a remarkable 38-35 victory. 

While it had long been evident that Mahomes was a generational talent, this glorious playoff run, pulled off without any star wide receivers, proved that the 28-year-old possesses the gritty, championship mentality that only sporting greats are blessed with. 

Leona Maguire

Several members of Europe’s victorious 2023 Solheim Cup squad could have laid claim to a place on this list, but there were ultimately two leading lights.

Carlota Ciganda, who won all four of her matches on home turf in Andalucia, ultimately took the headlines with the most incredible finish to get Europe over the line, but the Spaniard wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do that if it had not been for the inspirational Leona Maguire. 

With Europe's backs to the wall after going 4-0 down in the opening foursomes session, Maguire produced one of the most clutch shots in the competition's history by holing a chip on the 18th green to seal a 1UP victory for her and partner Georgia Hall, and helping to reduce the USA's lead to 5-3. 

Maguire, one of only two Europeans to play in all five sessions, would claim another fourballs point on Saturday as the scores were left at 8-8 going into the decisive singles. 

Sent out second by Suzann Pettersen, Maguire produced another inspirational display to put Europe's first singles point on the board with a 4&3 win over Rose Zhang, before Ciganda later won the point required to seal a 14-14 tie and retention of the trophy for the hosts.  

Away from the Solheim Cup, after winning the week before at the Meijer LPGA Classic, Maguire also came close to making a major breakthrough as she led the KPMG Women's PGA Championship after three rounds, before falling away on a frustrating final day. 

Regardless of whether the Irish star can break through at a major in 2024, she has established an aura at the Solheim Cup reminiscent of the special spirit Ian Poulter brought to Europe's Ryder Cup team in years gone by. 

Viktor Hovland

While Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm dominated golf's headlines for much of the year amid the ongoing power struggle at the top of the sport, their Ryder Cup team-mate Viktor Hovland was quietly turning Europe's 'top two' into a 'big three'.

After a sluggish start to 2023, he found form at just the right time, taking third at The Players before coming close to a maiden major title as he finished seventh at The Masters and second at the PGA Championship. 

A first victory of the year soon followed at the Memorial Tournament, but Hovland would fail to build on that success as he took 19th and 13th at the final two majors, the US Open and The Open. However, he got on a roll again at just the right time for both his bank balance and continent. 

A course-record 61 saw him overturn a three-shot final-round deficit to Scottie Scheffler to win the BMW Championship and reduce the world No 1's lead at the top of the FedExCup standings going into the Tour Championship. 

What followed at East Lake was simply spectacular, with Hovland shooting 19-under across the four days to win by five shots, claiming a £14.2m ($18m) payday and the biggest win of his career. 

Perhaps the form player in the world going into the Ryder Cup, Hovland stepped into a leadership role, holing out a chip at the first hole on the opening morning to set the tone as Europe raced into a 4-0 lead that the USA never looked like turning around. 

The 26-year-old rounded out his campaign by finishing second at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. It would take a brave individual to bet against Hovland winning one of 2024's majors, each of which will be shown live on Sky Sports. 

Max Verstappen

Redefining domination. That is what Max Verstappen achieved in the most astonishing fashion in Formula 1 in 2023 as Red Bull's Dutch star joined the pantheon of drivers with three or more world drivers’ titles.

Although seasons of single-driver dominance are not altogether unusual in F1, with many of the sport's greatest drivers enjoying years of near-invincibility, Verstappen's stranglehold on F1 2023 proved something else altogether.

Nineteen wins from 22 races, including 17 of the season's last 18, saw the 26-year-old break a 71-year record set in the world championship’s first decade by becoming the first driver to win more than 80 per cent of a season's races. 

Considering this year's schedule ran to a joint-record 22 rounds, that winning ratio proved testament to Verstappen's speed, consistency and, particularly once the title was won in Qatar in early October, supreme hunger and determination to just keep on extracting the best from his supreme Red Bull car.

And what a car. Red Bull, who themselves won all-but one race, provided Verstappen with one of the sport’s all-time great packages but it was the 26-year-old who truly ensured its place in the history books with his performances on track. Whereas team-mate Sergio Perez increasingly struggled in the other RB19 after a strong start to the year, Verstappen was near-faultless from start in Bahrain to finish in Abu Dhabi as an array of all-time landmarks tumbled.

There were wins in the wet, wins on street tracks, wins when races were disrupted by the Safety Car. Verstappen started from pole 12 times – and incredibly won each time – but it was perhaps the few times he started off the front row that underlined the level the Dutchman is currently operating at.

The best example was Miami where he went from ninth to first in the space of 20 laps. That was the first of what proved a record 10 wins in succession.  As perfect a season as you are ever likely to see in Formula 1.

Simone Biles

It was all smiles for Simone Biles in 2023 as she became the most decorated gymnast in history. The American took her haul of world and Olympic medals to 37, exceeding retired male gymnast Vitaly Scherbo’s tally of 33, as she claimed five medals at the 2023 World Championships in Antwerp.

Biles won gold in the all-around, team, balance beam and floor exercise events plus silver on the vault, making a glittering return to competition after two years away prioritising her mental health.

The 26-year-old had pulled out of five of her six finals during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after suffering from 'twisties' – a condition that causes gymnasts to lose their sense of space in the air and do additional flips that they had not planned.

But she returned in style in Belgium, becoming the first woman to complete a Yurchenko double pike vault, with the move now renamed Biles II in her honour, and hoovering up medals. Earlier in the summer, she won her eighth US Gymnastics all-around title, breaking a 90-year-old record held by Alfred Jochim.

So, where next for Biles? Well, she has hinted she may now compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics so perhaps that medal tally will swell further still.

AP Photo

AP Photo

Frankie Dettori

The 2023 Flat season was set to be Frankie Dettori's last hurrah after he announced in December last year he would be retiring following the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Santa Anita in November.

After riding Lord North to victory in the Group One Dubai Turf at Meydan in March, the Italian began his supposed farewell tour of British racecourses at Newmarket with his first win coming on board Covey, trained by John and Thady Gosden, in a maiden on April 18.

An early setback saw Dettori unseated from the Andrew Balding-trained Chaldean as they left the stalls when hot favourite for the Greenham Stakes at Newbury, but they made amends in style as Dettori guided the colt to Classic glory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on May 6.

That was the 22nd British Classic win of Dettori's career and, after more Group race successes on Arrest, Soul Sister, Free Wind, Haskoy, Little Big Bear and Emily Upjohn in the Coronation Cup, he took his record to 23 when Soul Sister, trained by the Gosdens, stormed to Oaks glory at Epsom on June 2.

There was to be no Derby triumph as Arrest trailed home in 10th behind Auguste Rodin, but Dettori's 'farewell' at Royal Ascot provided plenty of highs with wins on Gregory, Porta Fortuna and Coppice topped by a Gold Cup success on board Courage Mon Ami.

Mostahdaf in the Juddmonte International and Absurde in the Ebor were highlights of a successful August meeting at York as the big-race winners continued to flow and speculation was mounting Dettori would perform a retirement U-turn after he partnered Inspiral, trained by the Gosdens, to victory in the Group One Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket on October 7.

It was perhaps no great surprise then, given Dettori’s fitness and form, when he confirmed on October 12 he would continue riding next year and relocate to California.

The 'retirement celebrations' were therefore cancelled for Champions Day at Ascot on October 21, but Dettori still stole the show on the big day when he followed up a win on Trawlerman in the Long Distance Cup by driving King Of Steel to victory in the Champion Stakes.

King Of Steel was unable to follow up at Santa Anita as Auguste Rodin won the Breeders' Cup Turf, but Dettori was once again in the limelight at the scene of his originally intended retirement, with his final victory of the year coming on his old favourite Inspiral in the Filly & Mare Turf.

Dettori has since enjoyed a spell on reality TV show I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, celebrated his 53rd birthday on December 15 and claimed a top-six finish in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year vote, but we have certainly not seen the last of him the last of him and his celebratory flying dismount on the racecourse just yet.

Ardie Savea

New Zealand's all-action, supremely talented No 8 Ardie Savea was named World Player of the Year on October 30 after what can only be described as a year to remember on the international stage, seven years on from his debut for the All Blacks.

Savea showed his class back in July when he led the All Blacks to a Rugby Championship title on Sky Sports, playing 80 minutes in all the games and leading from the front in every single one.

He then gained everyone's attention once again as he shone in the World Cup with imposing displays for his country from the group stages all the way to the final.

Savea was clearly the best player on the pitch when New Zealand knocked out World Cup favourites Ireland in the quarter-finals, scoring a try in an all-round sensational individual display.

He was integral to leading the All Blacks to the World Cup final against the odds and as the stand-in captain for 50 minutes of the clash, he was the notable player in the side.

Despite losing in the showpiece as New Zealand fell to an agonisingly close 12-11 defeat to South Africa, Savea was by far the best player on the pitch despite his side playing from the 30th minute with 14 players after captain Sam Cane's red card.

Savea's display of mental steel, resilience, and leadership under pressure solidified that, without question, he is currently the best rugby player on the planet.