- June 17 down the years
The making of a tennis star
Venus Williams was born Venus Ebony Starr Williams in California - so her parents obviously wanted her to be somebody. And ebony star was right. She made her pro debut when she was only 14 - but her parents must have learned from Jennifer Capriati's youth, because Venus played very sparingly until 1997, when it was clear that this was one of the power players who were going to dominate tennis from now on. At 17, she reached the final of the US Open (losing her first set in a Grand Slam singles final 6-0). By 2000, she was winning Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year, a feat she repeated the following year. Remarkably, she hasn't won a Grand Slam singles event outside London SW19 since then (her sister Serena once beat her in four finals in a row) - but she's been a fixture in Wimbledon finals, reaching eight and winning five, including one against Serena, who beat her in the three she lost. Together they won the Fed Cup in 1999 and the Olympic Games doubles title in 2000 and 2008. Serena has won all four Grand Slam events, but only Venus won the Olympic singles, beating Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Monica Seleš in Sydney. Admired if not loved, the sisters will only get their due when they retire. Look at McEnroe and Navrátilová.
Eddy Merckx was born in Belgium and grew into the most successful road cyclist of all time, leaving room for only a list here. He won the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia five times each, including both in the same year a record three times. When he added the road race at the World Championships in 1974, he became the first to do the treble. It was his third win in the road race, equalling the record, and he won the amateur version in 1964. So he was unbeatable in the mountains, in a tactical flat race, and time trials (world champion in 1973): the full armoury. His world record for distance covered in an hour (49,431 metres) wasn't broken for 11 years (January 19, 1984), and wasn't broken by a rider on a bike with spoke wheels and drop handlebars until Britain's Chris Boardman 18 years later (October 27). So fast Eddy was the best ever, then? Well, he failed three drugs tests. In 1969 he was slung out of the Giro after testing positive for a stimulant; in 1973 he lost his win in the Tour of Lombardy; and he was caught again in 1977. So he was tops at that too.
Jack Nicklaus won a professional golf tournament for the first time. Starting as he went on, it happened to be a Major. He was only 22 when he tied for first at the US Open with the world's No. 1. Arnold Palmer had just won the Masters in a play-off, but the crewcut Bear beat him by three shots in this one. Nicklaus won the US Open for the fourth and last time on June 15, 1980 and a Major for the last time on April 13, 1986, a record span.
When he won the US Open in 1973, Johnny Miller set a record that's been equalled but never broken. He owed his win to a last round of 63, a new low for a golf Major and just enough to pinch the event by a single stroke from John Schlee, who never came this close again.
In rugby union, France have a habit of turning World Cup semi-finals into bigger events than the Final. They did it in the inaugural tournament (June 13, 1987), big time in 1999 (October 31), and again in 2007 (October 13). Today in Durban was always likely to be a lively affair, simply because most of the pitch was under water. Then the rain came back during the game, so the ball was slipping out of everyone's hands and sticking in the pools and mud. South Africa, playing at home, adapted better. Keeping the ball close to the forwards, they scored the only try of the match from a maul after their big scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen made a typical break from a lineout. France were 10-0 down after 26 minutes but the boot of Thierry Lacroix kept them in it. When he and Joel Stransky had finished exchanging penalties, France trailed 19-15 with only minutes to go. Then their powerful flanker Abdelatif Benazzi aquaplaned towards the line and seemed to have scored the winning try. But he was held up inches short, and the Springboks went on to the Final against the favourites on June 24.
The first player to score six tries in a match for the British & Irish Lions. New Zealand provincial combo West Coast & Buller weren't a strong team, and that was one of the best Lions teams of all time - so a big win was always likely. David Duckham played only because his mate John Spencer twanged a hamstring - so Colin Skates was doubly unlucky. He tossed up before the match to see which wing he'd be playing on - and had to watch Duckham score all six tries in his corner. If Duckers' pace and swerve were worth the entrance money, Bob Hiller's kicking was a great support act. He nailed six conversions on a muddy pitch, most from the touchline, including one of his own try, when he joked that he was too tired to run round the posts. The Lions scored eight tries in all, so their 39-6 win would be worth 55-8 today. Duckham's six pack was matched by JJ Williams on May 29, 1974.
The night John Conteh tried to regain the WBC light-heavyweight title. He'd been stripped of it the year before, and tonight was always going to be a tough ask. He'd needed two operations on his right hand, broken in a non-title fight three years before, and he never really trusted it again. Also, he was fighting in Belgrade, his opponent's backyard. And Mate Parlov was no dummy: Olympic champion in 1972 and a strong defensive southpaw with a big chin. Parlov had trouble making the weight, starving himself for three days before the fight, and he'd picked up a cut eye in sparring. But he came into the ring with a kind of cement over the cut. It was illegal but referees and officials turned a blind eye at the time - and it probably saved Parlov from defeat. He finished the fight with his face bruised and swollen, and won only because someone at last got to grips with his opponent's naughty side. Conteh had always been notorious for his use of the head. Chris Finnegan christened him Pickle Head after Conteh beat him twice on cuts; Len Hutchins complained bitterly after his eye was cut in the first round of a Conteh title defence; and when Lonnie Bennett was stopped in another, he claimed 'It was the most blatant butt you could imagine'. Tonight the referee warned Conteh twice, for butting and elbowing, and even though he still awarded him the fight, the two judges took the warnings on board and gave Parlov the title on a split decision. He lost it in his first defence, while Conteh tried to win it from Matthew Saad Mohammed in 1979, when he came up against the same eyebrow cement.
Michael Gross was born in Frankfurt and grew and grew. With a wingspan like that, his nickname of The Albatross was understandable but utterly inappropriate. No albatross ever swam like Michael Gross. No butterfly either, though was probably his best stroke. He was Olympic champion at 100 metres fly (in a world record time) and 200 freestyle in 1984, and 200 fly in 1988. So he won his share despite being famous for three Olympic defeats, two by Australian underdogs and one in a fantastic relay against the USA. Gross won 13 World Championship medals, including five golds at various 200 metre events, and 13 golds at the European Championships. He set four world records at 200 free, four at 200 butterfly, and two in the long relay.
In his last match for Wales, brilliant winger Gerald Davies scored his 20th try, equalling the national record. He captained a team in which JPR Williams, normally a great full-back, achieved a life's ambition by playing Test rugby as a forward, drafted in as a flanker after injuries on tour. Despite scoring two tries to one, Wales lost 19-17 to Australia in Sydney.
Iztok Čop was born in Slovenia. From 1995 to 2007, he was a world champion rower four times, once in the single sculls, three times in the double. And he won gold in the double at the 2000 Olympics. But he's not in here for all that. It's his surname and profession. A man called Cop was a policeman!
Tommy Burns was born Noah Brusso in Ontario. The shortest boxer to become world heavyweight champion, he was one of the cleverest, and he didn't lack heart. Despite being only 5' 7, he weighed a good 12½ stone, perfectly average for a heavyweight at the turn of the century. His legs were slabs of ham and his arms were long, giving him the leverage for some seriously hard punching. Plus he was a crafty in the ring and out. After winning the world title in 1906, he successfully defended it 13 times on a whistlestop world tour, reeling off quick knockouts against outclassed opponents (poor Bill Squires was knocked out three times). So he made his money, little Tommy - and he earned it in his last title fight, when he showed bravery and spirit against the great (and big) Jack Johnson on Boxing Day 1908. Burns's last fight was for the Commonwealth title in 1920 when he was 39.