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Swiss athletes serve up mixed success

Injured skier Lara Gut, who won two World Championship silvers in 2009, still has a golden advertising future

After an Olympic 2008 – which included the Swiss-hosted Euro football tournament – 2009 was always going to be quiet, but that didn’t mean sporting cold turkey.

The year started with a slam: the Australian Open. Roger Federer proved all his critics wrong and ended up in the final – in addition to all three other grand slam finals.

Admittedly he lost in Melbourne to long-time rival Rafael Nadal in five sets, but Federer would have the last laugh when he finally won in Paris – sealing a career Grand Slam – and then beat Andy Roddick in a 77-game epic at Wimbledon for his 15th grand slam singles title, surpassing Pete Sampras’ record. He also returned to the number one men’s tennis spot.

Federer aside, Swiss tennis’ star waned a bit in 2009. Men’s number two Stanislas Wawrinka dropped from 13 in the world to 21, and the top female player, 31-year-old Patty Schnyder, plummeted from 14 to 43.

Tennis fans celebrated in September however when Switzerland won a Davis Cup play-off against Italy – with Federer’s help – to stay in the World Cup group. They face current champions Spain in March.

On the pitch

But the biggest sporting celebrations of the year occurred on October 21, when Switzerland qualified for the 2010 football World Cup.

Rarely can a 0-0 draw have been greeted with such delight, but the result against Israel guaranteed Ottmar Hitzfeld’s boys one of 32 places in South Africa.

June 16 – write that day in your diaries – is when the Swiss face Spain in their first group match. They have also drawn Honduras and Chile. Only the top two teams advance, and it’s going to be close. On paper Spain should finish top and Honduras bottom, but who will come second out of Switzerland and Chile? A tough call.

But while the national side’s performances rarely rise above functional, Switzerland’s Under 17 team received a deserved heroes’ welcome in November when they returned from Nigeria as world champions.

While that result should in theory bode well for the future, 13 of the squad are dual nationals and, from past experience, Switzerland needs to work to hang onto them.

The news wasn’t as good in Uefa’s Champions League, where the Swiss representative – this year FC Zurich – was once again its group’s whipping boy.

On the piste

Swiss skiers also had mixed fortunes. The season started badly when the reigning super-combined world champion Daniel Albrecht lost control during training in January and flew through the air for 50 metres. He suffered life-threatening injuries, but left hospital three months later and vowed to return to the sport within two years.

In February Didier Cuche won the Super-G at the 2009 World Championships in Val d’Isère, in addition to silver in the downhill. Then in November he won the season-opening men’s World Cup downhill, becoming, at 35, the oldest ever downhill winner.

The following week Carlo Janka became only the second skier ever to win three consecutive alpine men’s World Cup ski races in three days in different disciplines. French ski legend Jean-Claude Killy achieved the feat in 1967.

Val d’Isère was also good for 17-year-old Lara Gut, who took home two silvers. But Gut damaged her hip during training in September and is now looking doubtful for February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The biggest Swiss-hosted event of the year was the Ice Hockey World Championship, which pucked off in Bern and Zurich in May. In the final Russia came from behind to beat Canada 2-1. Switzerland disappointed by failing to reach the quarterfinals.

Other notable guests included triple Olympic champion sprinter Usain Bolt, who took part in Lausanne’s Athletissima in July, and boxer Vitali Klitschko, who defended his heavyweight belt in Bern in December.

Also, crowds at the Zurich Weltklasse athletics meeting in August witnessed a new world record set by Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.

Salchows and cycles

Elsewhere, in April 21-year-old Ariella Kaeslin won gold in the vault at the 2009 European Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Switzerland’s first gold for a Swiss female gymnast came 24 hours after Kaeslin’s bronze in the overall competition, the first time a Swiss woman had appeared on the podium.

In September Olympic gold-medal cyclist Fabian Cancellara dominated the time trial world championships in Switzerland to win well ahead of his closest rivals, but the speed specialist had to content himself with fifth place overall.

Swiss racing driver Sébastien Buemi finished his first Formula One season in 16th place with six points after a late revival. The 21-year-old has re-signed his contract with Scuderia Toro Rosso for 2010.

In November German car maker BMW agreed to sell its Formula One team back to previous owner, Switzerland’s Peter Sauber – provided the team gets a place on the grid in the 2010 season. BMW decided earlier in the year to pull out of Formula One racing.

Lest we forget…

They might not be athletes in the traditional sense, but here are a few honourable mentions from the past year.

In November Yves Rossy, a Swiss airline captain and ex-fighter pilot, tried to fly between North Africa and Europe with a DIY jet wing strapped to his back, but ended up in the Atlantic after encountering heavy turbulence and visibility problems. He was fished out unhurt.

A hat tip also to 20-year-old Zurich footbagger Tina Aeberli. Footbagging involves juggling a tangerine-sized sack (a hacky sack) with your feet, and in July Aeberli was crowned world champion.

Finally, the Non-Sporting Event of the Year goes, without any doubt, to the America’s Cup. No one seems to know what’s going on in this farce, but after more than a year of courtroom drama between Swiss sailing syndicate Alinghi and United States rivals Oracle, the race is currently scheduled to take place in Valencia in February – but don’t hold your breath.

Thomas Stephens,

Male: Didier Cuche (Alpine skiing)

Female: Ariella Kaeslin (gymnastics)

Team: ZSC Lions (ice hockey)

Newcomer: Dario Cologna (Nordic skiing)

Honorary award: U17 football squad

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR