Sports in 2021 Tried to Return to Normal

The coronavirus pandemic still had an impact, but players and leagues had their moments.

Leave it to a couple of old guys to remind us that sports can not only be a thing of beauty but also be enjoyed guilt-free and outside spectator-less bubbles. We needed some relief from the pandemic this year, and that’s exactly what Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson offered as the calendar flipped to 2021.

In February there was the 43-year-old Brady at the Super Bowl — again — but with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bullying the Kansas City Chiefs with pinpoint passing and outsize swagger. Sixty minutes of football later: Bucs 31, Chiefs 9, and Brady had earned his seventh championship ring.

It was a home game. Sort of.

But instead of a stadium packed with the Bucs’ faithful, it was played before a scaled-down crowd of around 25,000 — a third of them health care workers, which was both a fitting tribute to their heroics as well as a reminder that sports were being played very much in the shadow of the coronavirus.

Three months later, on a late May afternoon in South Carolina, Mickelson, 50, defied Father Time while hundreds of fans joyously marched alongside him on the final fairway of the P.G.A. Championship. So much for social distancing.

Two putts later, Lefty, as Mickelson is known, became the oldest golfer to win one of golf’s four major tournaments.

“I’ve never had something like that,” said Mickelson of the rolling mosh pit that escorted him to the final hole. “It was a little bit unnerving but it was exceptionally awesome, too.”

We all could relate as sports lurched back to life through 2021 after games in 2020 were played in “bubbles” or canceled altogether. In February, the Australian Open took place under an extreme lockdown. By late August, the United States Open unspooled before packed houses.

The Covid-19 vaccination wars raged throughout the year. Depending on your point of view, superstars like Kyrie Irving (N.B.A.), Aaron Rodgers (N.F.L.) and Novak Djokovic (ATP) were either iconoclasts for refusing to get vaccinated or dire threats to public health.

Leave it to a pair of young women, however, to bring the importance of athletes’ mental health off the sidelines and into center court and onto the Olympic mats.

Naomi Osaka, 24, withdrew from the French Open after being fined $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory. She was then threatened with the possibility of disqualification or suspension by all four Grand Slam tournaments if she continued to avoid the media.

Instead, she pushed back.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

She earned the support of Serena Williams.

“Girl, do you. Your life is yours to live!” wrote Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

So, Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, skipped Wimbledon altogether. Her loss in the third round of the U.S. Open ended her chances to defend her 2020 title.

Now what?

“Basically, I feel like I’m at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” a tearful Osaka said after the match.