The Joy of Six: nearly men and women | Jacob Steinberg and Ian McCourt

Missed finals, unfortunate timing and unfulfilled promise – the sportsmen and women who could have been so much more

1) Michael Ballack

There is a great photograph of a distressed Michael Ballack during the penalty shoot-out in the Champions League final in 2008. Taken just after John Terry had squandered the chance to win it for Chelsea, Ballack is caught slumping to the floor, his legs turning to jelly, his hands holding on to Frank Lampard and Juliano Belletti for support, his eyes closed and his face a picture of sheer anguish. Once again,success had been dangled under his nose and then snatched away in the cruellest way imaginable. All that remained was the stench of failure. In a single moment, the photographer has managed to capture exactly how much winning means to those competing at the highest level and what it means to lose.

Ballack is by no means a failure. If he ever asked the Joy of Six to show him our medals, it would be an extremely short conversation, one that would probably end with us running out of the room crying. Ballack won the Bundesliga four times, once with Kaiserslauten and three times with Bayern Munich. He won the German Cup three times with Bayern. At Chelsea, he won the Premier League in 2010, the FA Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and the League Cup in 2007. He was the German Footballer of the Year three times. There are footballers who would trade in their gold card at Nando's for a fraction of that success. Maybe Ballack is not a nearly man – to say that he is nearly a nearly man would be closer to the truth.

Yet Ballack was so often the bridesmaid in the biggest games. The year 2002 was the most infamous of his career. The heartbeat of a magnificent Bayer Leverkusen side that broke up too soon, the treble was within touching distance for Ballack. Bayer were superb. Managed by Klaus Toppmöller, they had the power of Ballack, the skill of Zé Roberto, the creativity of Yildiray Basturk and the underrated efficiency of Bernd Schneider. This was their time. But they won nothing. They contrived to throw away the title to Borussia Dortmund in the run-in. They lost the cup final to Schalke. Zinedine Zidane then did his Zinedine Zidane thing for Real Madrid in the Champions League final and that was the end of Neverkusen.

Ballack still had to absorb a few more punches, though. No one expected anything from a fairly average Germany side at the 2002 World Cup but in a tournament in which most of the best sides crashed out early, they went about their business quietly enough, forgettable but savvy. Ballack was their only player of any genuine class and he scored the only goal in the quarter-final against USA. The semi-final was against South Korea, the co-hosts, and with the game goalless after 71 minutes, Ballack received a booking that would rule him out of the final for rather cynically stopping a counter-attack. Having taken one for the team, he then Roy Keaned the winner four minutes later, but Germany stood no chance without him against Brazil and lost to two Ronaldo goals.

On it went. Germany, riding a wave of national euphoria, reached the semi-final of their World Cup in 2006 but lost one of the finest games of the modern era 2-0 to Italy. They settled for bronze. Two years later, Ballack dragged them to the final of Euro 2008. They lost 1-0 to Spain.

There was Chelsea's defeat in the 2008 Champions League final to Manchester United. Ballack had arguably been Chelsea's most important player during the second half of the season, finally showing the form that had persuaded them to sign him from Bayern two years earlier, and scored both goals in a crucial 2-1 league win over United in April. But United won the league on the final day.

A year later, Chelsea lost to Barcelona in their Champions League semi-final, a furious Ballack, eyes threatening to pop out of his sockets, chasing the hapless Tom Henning Ovrebo after one last penalty appeal had been waved away in stoppage time.

Ballack's final game for Chelsea was the FA Cup final against Portsmouth in May 2010. He was due to captain Germany at the World Cup a month later. After 44 minutes, Kevin-Prince Boateng went flying in and Ballack's international career was over.

Ballack was a serial winner and a great player, but he never found a way to lessen the significance of surrounding incompetence, misfortune and the maliciousness of fate. JS

2) Andy Roddick

There will be people wondering how Andy Roddick could be included instead of Tim Henman and they would have a point. Roddick won a grand slam, the US Open in 2002, and the best that Henman managed was six semi-finals, four at Wimbledon and one at the French Open in 2004. But Henman was never on court to see his opponent lift the trophy. He never got that close, he just made the most of his talent and enjoyed a moderately successful career at a time when British tennis was suffering from a serious inferiority complex as a consequence of their players' inferiority to everyone else.

David Ferrer is another contender. An unflinching scrapper who can run and run and run all day, and then do 1,000 sit-ups in the evening, he may have been a grand slam champion in another era. Yet the level and consistency at the top of the men's game has never been more intimidating than in the past five years and Ferrer has always fallen short by a considerable margin. His one final was a non-event, a forgettable straight-sets defeat to Rafael Nadal at the French Open last year. Our entry requirements dictate that a nearly man needs to have had a realistic chance of winning and Roddick fits the criteria.

After Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero at Flushing Meadows in 2003, he ended the year as the world No1 and was expected to add more titles in the coming years. Roger Federer had other ideas.

Roddick was the favourite to win Wimbledon in 2003, certainly after Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion, lost in the first round to Ivo Karlovic. Then he met Federer in the semi-final. Federer had lost in the first round to Mario Ancic in 2002 but now he possessed the mentality to match his unrivalled skill. Here was someone who could not only return the Roddick serve, but hit mind-boggling winners off it. Roddick lost in three sets and Federer beat Mark Philippoussis in the final.

Roddick was Federer's opponent in the final a year later. This time, he began magnificently. Serving well and striking venomous forehands that left Federer grasping at thin air, Roddick took the first set 6-4, only to lose the second set 7-5. "He played very aggressively and I got a bit surprised at the start," Federer said.

But Roddick was not deterred. He broke early in the third set for a 2-1 lead – and then came the rain, halting his momentum. With the English weather conspiring against Roddick, Federer found a second wind once they returned and eventually won 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4. "I threw the kitchen sink at him but he went to the bathroom and got his tub," Roddick said. Even though he must have felt like flooding Centre Court with his tears, he could still deliver a dry line.

The final was far more one-sided the following year, Federer winning 6-2, 7-6, 6-4, before he beat Roddick in four sets at the US Open final in 2006.

None of those defeats compared to the agony of the 2009 Wimbledon final, though. By then, many thought that Roddick's time had gone, that he was too one-dimensional to be a serious threat to the best players, but he played a wonderfully intelligent game in the semi-final to beat Andy Murray and set up a fourth final against Federer, who was looking to break Pete Sampras's record of 14 grand slams.

Roddick won a tight first set but he will always wonder what might have been if he had not squandered four set points in the second set tie-break. Leading 6-2, Roddick was unable to take the first three points, but the set was on his racket on the fourth. Federer was stranded and Roddick just needed to put a high backhand volley away, only to send it wide. "There was a pretty significant wind behind him at that side, it was gusting pretty good at that time," Roddick said. "When he first hit it, I thought I wasn't going to play it. Last minute, it looked like it started dropping in and I couldn't get my racket around on it. I don't know if it would have dropped in or not."

The advantage gone, Federer fought back to level the match and eventually won 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Roddick was resilient and one careless game from Federer in the fifth set would have give the American the title. In the end, Roddick cracked. He had the greatest player of all time on the run but it was not to be. Roddick never got that close to him again. JS

3) Frankie Fredericks

Frankie Fredericks is the only Namibian who has won a medal at the Olympics. He came from a country with no sporting history to become one of the greatest sprinters ever and, in fact, he won four medals at the Olympics. Namibia have won four and Fredericks won them all. Four silvers, to be precise. Four silvers and no golds.

Given his upbringing, Fredericks has said in the past that not winning gold at the Games did not massively bother him. "It [the Olympics] was no big deal to me," he told Observer Sport Monthly in 2002. "I've heard from many athletes how they dreamt of running in the Olympics from when they were kids. But me living under apartheid when Namibia was part of South Africa, I never even thought about the Games. I never dreamt about them as a kid, so the Olympics weren't a big goal when I became an athlete. Winning the South African title was a much higher accomplishment."

Fredericks did win a lot, 200m gold at the World Championships in 1993, the World Indoor Championships in 1999 and the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and 2002. His time of 19.97sec in Victoria remains a Commonwealth record, although he thinks Usain Bolt will break it in Glasgow this year.

But Fredericks never towered above his rivals on the podium at the Olympics. In Barcelona in 1992, he finished second to Linford Christie in the 100m and Michael Marsh in the 200m; in Atlanta in 1996, it was Donovan Bailey in the 100m and Michael Johnson in the 200m. "No matter how good you are at something, there's always about a million people better than you," Homer Simpson told his children once. In Fredericks' case, there were only four.

He did not mind. Fredericks proves that, contrary to popular opinion, second can be somewhere. JS

4) Paula Radcliffe

Running a marathon is hard and lonely. Some people can never understand why anyone would ever put themselves through 26.2 miles of slog and torture. All that training, all that sacrifice. It requires a level of dedication beyond most of us.

Haruki Murakami, a marathon veteran, wrote in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that no one told him to become a runner. "One day, out of the blue, I started to run simply because I wanted to," he said. Murakami wrote that he endures "what needs enduring", a line that would strike a chord with any runner.

Endurance is not infinite, however, as Paula Radcliffe discovered. The body can only take so much and while it is possible to ignore an injury for a while, eventually the pain becomes too loud and you have to stop and listen to it.

Radcliffe is an excellent runner, of that there is no doubt. She won World Championship gold in the marathon in 2005 and she won the London Marathon three times. She won the 5,000m at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and the 10,000m at the European Championships in the same year. She is better at her job than most people are at theirs.

Yet she only experienced heartbreak at the Olympics. She finished fourth in the 10,000m in 2000, failed to finish in 2004 when she was one of the favourites, cramped in 2008 and finished 23rd and could not compete in London in 2012 because of a foot injury. There was no hiding place and she was often criticised, especially in 2004. But marathons are hard. Running 26.1 miles with an injury is nobody's idea of fun.

Did Radcliffe care? Given that she relieved herself on the side of the road during the London Marathon in 2005, she probably doesn't pay much attention to what people think of her, which is the best way to be. JS

5) Michelle Wie

"If Michelle Wie is not the most talented sporting teenager on the planet," wrote Lawrence Donegan in January 2004, "then she is definitely in the front row of the group photo. Aged all of 14 years, she can drive a golf ball 290 yards and hit seven-irons with the kind of precision that makes heroes out of brain surgeons. In the past year she has finished in the top 10 of an LPGA major and won one of America's most prestigious adult amateur titles, the USGA Women's Public Links. Davis Love describes her swing as 'one of the best I have ever seen, period'." It was high praise but high praise was what Wie deserved. While her class-mates in Punahou High School were studying hard, she was breaking amateur records like twigs under an overweight elephant's foot. While they were taking tests, she was teeing off at the 2004 Sony Open, thus becoming the youngest person ever to play in a men's PGA tour event; she missed the cut by one stroke. A year later and a week before she turned 16, Wie went professional and the million-dollar contracts and the press conferences with Bill Clinton came rolling in. In fact, everyone was so convinced that Wie was going to be the next the big thing and everyone was so desperate to be associated with her that some chancer in South Korea that shared the same last name as her raised $14m from 970 investors for his shoe sterilisation business by falsely claiming he was a relative of hers.

Unfortunately for her, it has not quite turned out as planned. Since becoming a pro, she has picked up plenty of perfunctory top-10 LPGA finishes but has won only two titles – the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2009 and the CN Canadian Women's Open in 2010. The closest she has come to claiming a major was finishing second in the LPGA Championship, three shots behind Sweden's Annika Sörenstam, but that was nine years ago. With the exception of 2006 – when she had two joint-third place finishes – her best result since then was sixth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2011. "What I see now," said Sörenstam last year, "is that the talent that we all thought would be there is not there." It certainly wasn't there in 2012, her annus horribilis, when she missed 10 of 23 cuts, had one top-10 finish and finished miles down the LPGA rankings. The next year showed some improvement but still she missed seven cuts at 26 events. Elsewhere on the course, her famous long drives remain so (though their accuracy is not what it used to be) and her approach play remains good but she has failed to master the putter and over time it has grown from being her achilles' heel to her achilles' leg. Aged just 24, it seems a little harsh to write Wie off as one of those who nearly made it but she has done precious little over the last few years to suggest that she will revive the golfing success of her youth and translate her prodigious capabilities in to professional success. IM

6) Ireland rugby union team

Wales are pushing hard, they need to get their hands on the ball, they know what is riding on it. Peter Stringer holds, and holds, and finally releases the perfect pass to his fly-half. "This must be it," shouts Ryle Nugent. "This must be it for Ronan O'Gara. Drop at goal. Grand slam at stake." Nugent could not contain himself. "HE'S GOT IT," he screamed, taking one giant leap over the line that separates the commentators from the cheerleaders. Many may have found that unacceptable but many more will have understood exactly why he did. It had, after all, been a long time coming. For years before this win, there had been talk of a golden generation of Irish rugby. The Guardian first mentioned the term in 2007 but the players who would help to form the spine of that sentiment first came together (in a very raw and very rough form) in the win over Scotland in Lansdowne Road back in 2000 that saw Warren Gatland introduce a raft of young changes after a humiliation at the hands of England. It was an opinion that was not without merit. Many of the players that would emerge for Ireland in the years after that victory would go on to be some of the best that the country – possibility even the world – had ever seen, from Brian O'Driscoll to Ronan O'Gara via Paul O'Connell. Many would also go on to become multiple winners of the Heineken Cup and the Magners League. Two would even go on to captain the Lions.

However, before that win in Wales (and, indeed, after), this gilded group of Irish internationals have been the biggest flirts of northern hemisphere rugby, promising much but delivering little. This is especially true in terms of silverware, real silverware, not triple crowns for they, in the words of Brian Moore, are just "comfort blankets for those who do not win the title". Since that Six Nations in 2000, they have finished top once; second six times; third five times and fifth once. By means of contrast, England have won it four times with one grand slam; Wales have won it four times with three grand slams; and France have won it five times with three grand slams. That is an abysmal record for an Irish rugby team jam-packed with so much talent but it is not that it restricts itself to the Six Nations. Ireland have not made it past the quarter-finals of the three World Cups since 2003 – they did not even make it out of their group in 2007 – and they bottled it against New Zealand in the autumn internationals when with seconds to go and the ball in hand, it looked easier to win than lose. A victory on Saturday in Paris would not just be a fitting way of saying goodbye to O'Driscoll but a fitting way to help shake off that tag of Six Nations nearly men. IM © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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