The year 1981 in sports had a fairy tale air about it from beginning to end. Everywhere you looked there was a ''Cinderella'' story; ''Peck's Bad Boy'' reappeared on the tennis courts of England; and of course the baseball season was strictly ''Alice in Wonderland'' all the way.

The first and most heartwarming of the year's many rags-to-riches tales occurred in pro football as long-forgotten quarterback Jim Plunkett came back from obscurity to lead the Oakland Raiders to victory in the Super Bowl. In hockey it was an entire team, the upstart Minnesota North Stars, playing the Cinderella role all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before midnight struck in the form of the New York Islanders. Pro basketball gave us an even more improbable story as the Houston Rockets, after losing more games than they won during the regular season, reached the verge of the overall championship before the Boston Celtics brought them back to reality in the finals.

John McEnroe, of course, was the ''bad boy,'' especially at Wimbledon, though one must note that his temper tantrums were frequently provoked by a combination of questionable officiating, boorish behavior by the fans, and outrageous questions by the media. It was also noteworthy that he didn't let any of this affect his game as he finally harnessed all of his considerable talents to break Bjorn Borg's five-year reign, defeated the Swede again in New York to win his third straight US Open title, and led the United States to victory in the Davis Cup to leave no doubt about who was the world's No. 1 tennis player and perhaps its most dominant athlete in any sport.

As for baseball, it started with ''Billyball,'' switched to ''sillyball,'' and wound up with ''chillyball'' in a strike-shortened split season as bizarre as anything Lewis Carroll ever could have imagined. But even all this couldn't take away the game's magic completely -- especially in Los Angeles, where a chubby 20-year-old Mexican rookie named Fernando Valenzuela became a folk hero as the Dodgers won both the National League pennant and the World Series.

Finally, no list of the year's top performances would be complete without mentioning that incredible succession of record-breaking miles by British rivals Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett; Sugar Ray Leonard's victory over Thomas Hearns in the richest match ($38 million) in boxing history; Allison Roe's record-breaking distance running; the exciting three-way rivalry among Chris Evert Lloyd, Tracy Austin, and Martina Navratilova for women's tennis supremacy; and Phil Mahre becoming the first American ever to win skiing's World Cup.

And even all the people and events mentioned so far only scratch the surface, as the following sport-by-sport summaries amply demonstrate: BASEBALL

The season began with the cloud of a prospective strike hanging over it, but even so there was lots of excitement in the spring. Valenzuela provided much of it, winning his first eight decisions to take both the Mexican-American community and the country's media and fans at large by storm. And the hustling Oakland A's put the word ''Billyball'' in the sports dictionary with their unexpectedly fast start under manager Billy Martin.

But the biggest news, of course, was the strike itself, shutting down the game from June 12 to Aug. 1 and wiping out nearly a third of the season. And when the bitter dispute over the complicated issue of free agent compensation was finally settled via the compromise route, the silly business began.

First the owners decided to split the season into halves, declaring that those games already played constituted the first half even though no one had known it at the time and there had been no balance in terms of games played or strength of opposition. Next they set up a playoff system so ridiculous that they had to turn around and scrap it a week or so later when wiser heads pointed out that it might create a situation where teams would have to lose games to qualify.

Continuing their ''Alice in Wonderland'' maneuverings, the owners decreed a revised but still inadquate system in which the Cincinnati Reds, who had the best season-long won-lost record in the major leagues, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who were tops in their division, were both excluded from the playoffs altogether. The extra round of playoffs also pushed postseason action to its latest dates ever, giving us baseball in the wintry mid-October weather of Montreal (and it could have been even worse had not the World Series wound up in Los Angeles and an unseasonably mild New York).

Despite all these minus factors, though, the season still produced its share of memorable achievements.

Valenzuela was the biggest individual story, continuing on from his spring heroics to capture both the Cy Young Award and Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the National League, beating Montreal in the decisive playoff game to clinch the pennant, and defeating the New York Yankees in the pivotal third game of the World Series.

Pete Rose of Philadelphia broke Stan Musial's NL record for most career hits and finished the season with 3,697, only 494 away from the major league record held by Ty Cobb.

Nolan Ryan of Houston set a major league record by pitching his fifth career no-hitter; Charlie Lea of Montreal also had a no-hit effort; and Len Barker of Cleveland pitched the first perfect game in 13 years.

Rollie Fingers of Milwaukee demonstrated the continued importance of relief pitchers in today's game by winning both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player honors in the American League.

Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia firmly established himself as the game's top all-around player by winning his second National League MVP award in a row after hitting .316 and leading the majors in both home runs and runs batted in.

The Yankees, A's, Dodgers, and Expos were the eventual division champions, defeating Milwaukee, Kansas City, Houston, and Philadelphia respectively in the first round playoffs occasioned by the split season.

New York beat Oakland in three straight games for the AL pennant, Los Angeles overcame Montreal in a five-game battle for the NL crown, and the Dodgers took the Yankees four games to two in the Series. Comebacks were the order of the day for the Dodgers, who came back after being down 2-0 in the best-of-five divisional playoffs, overcame a 2-1 deficit by winning the last two games of the championship series at Montreal, then lost the first two games to the Yankees before rallying to win the next four in a row.

Finally, star right-handed pitcher Bob Gibson and slugger Johnny Mize were inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. PRO FOOTBALL

The Oakland Raiders became the first wild card team ever to go all the way, defeating Houston, Cleveland, and San Diego to reach the Super Bowl, then defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in a surprisingly one-sided contest. Plunkett, who started the season on the bench but sparked the team after taking over for an injured Dan Pastorini, was the big man in the finale as he threw three touchdown passes and was voted MVP of the game. But midnight struck quickly enough for both Jim and the Raiders in the 1981 National Football League regular season; he found himself benched in favor of young Marc Wilson while the team as a whole went sour (7-9) and didn't even come close to earning a playoff berth this time around.

With schedules as well as draft choices now weighted against the previous year's winning clubs, in fact, there seems to be an increasing trend of teams turning around from one season to the next -- and so it certainly was this year. Five teams that finished at or near the bottom of the standings a year ago with records of 6-10 or worse made the playoffs this year -- four of them as division champions. Meanwhile not only Oakland but such other recent powers as Cleveland , Houston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have just as suddenly found themselves on the minus side of the ledger.

San Francisco was one of the biggest surprises, rising from 6-10 to an NFL-best 13-3 record and a runaway victory in the NFC West. Astute coach Bill Walsh put together a potent offense, with Joe Montana reaching stardom at quarterback, and a revamped defense featuring newly-acquired pass rusher Fred Dean plus three rookie starters in the secondary.

Cincinnati made an almost equally big leap to take charge of the rugged AFC Central Division and post the best record in its entire conference at 12-4. A balanced attack was one key to the Bengals' success, with quarterback Ken Anderson earning all-AFC honors while running back Pete Johnson gained over 1, 000 yards.

Dallas, Tampa Bay, San Diego, and Miami were the other division champions, while Buffalo, Philadelphia, the New York Jets, and the New York Giants were the four wild card teams, with the Bills and Giants advancing via preliminary round victories to continue into the division playoffs on New Year's weekend.

In the draft, New Orleans made Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers from South Carolina the overall No. 1 pick, and he justified that decision by winning the league rushing title with 1,674 yards.

Off-the-field news included quarterback Vince Ferragamo jumping from Los Angeles to the Canadian Football League and the still-unresolved legal battle between the NFL and Oakland owner Al Davis over his attempt to move his team to L.A. Meanwhile, a la baseball a year ago, the road ahead for 1982 is clouded by the upcoming player-management negotiations, with talk of a possible strike in this sport, too, unless the two sides can work out their differences. PRO BASKETBALL

With Larry Bird leading the way, the Boston Celtics returned to the No. 1 status they have enjoyed in so many past years, compiling the National Basketball Association's best regular season record, then going on to win the overall championship in the playoffs. It was anything but easy, though -- especially at the end.

The first big scare came in the Eastern Conference finals, when the Celtics fell behind the powerful Philadelphia 76ers three games to one before rallying to win the next three games and take the best-of-seven series, 4-3. Then the surprising Rockets, getting an inspired performance from Moses Malone, gave them all they could handle in the overall finals before Boston's superior talent eventually told in a 4-2 conquest.

Houston, after a 40-42 regular season record, launched its Cinderella story by knocking off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round of the playoffs, then continued by upsetting both San Antonio and Kansas City before finally bowing to the Celtics.

Bird, with his combination of scoring, rebounding, and playmaking plus his uncanny ability to make those around him lift their own levels of play, had a good case for top individual honors, but ironically he didn't get either of the major awards. Philadelphia superstar Julius Erving beat him out for regular season MVP honors, while fellow-Celtic Cedric Maxwell was voted the playoff MVP. Adrian Dantley of Utah was the scoring leader with a 30.7 average, while teammate Darrell Griffith took Rookie-of-the-Year honors. The biggest financial winner, though, was the Lakers' Magic Johnson, who signed an incredible 25-year, heights to which pro sports salaraies have escalated. HOCKEY

The New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup again while Wayne Gretzky continued to dominate the individual statistics in a National Hockey League season that seemed almost identical to the one before -- and so far nothing looks much different in 1981-82 either.

The talented Islanders, featuring offensive stars like Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier, a defense led by Denis Potvin, and superb goaltending by Billy Smith and Glenn (Chico) Resch, were just too much for the rest of the league once again. They also swept through the playoffs with a minimum of difficulty -- their only semblance of a scare coming when an outmanned but upset-minded Edmonton team led by Gretzky forced them to six games in the quarterfinals.

The Oilers indeed played over their heads in the playoffs to upset Montreal and then give the Islanders a battle, but meanwhile an even more unlikely Cinderella story was being written in Minnesota. The upstart North Stars, who for most of their existence had been patsies on the road, turned into veritable tigers in enemy rinks as they swept Boston 3-0 in the preliminary playoff round, stunned division-winning Buffalo 4-1 in the quarterfinals, and overcame Calgary 4-2 in the semifinals before finally succumbing to the Islanders.

Gretzky, who led the league in assists and total points (164) was an obvious MVP choice for the second straight season, while the Islanders' always-hustling Butch Goring gained that honor for the playoffs. Bossy was the goal-scoring leader with 68.

Meanwhile on the international front, the Soviet Union rebounded from its shocking loss in the 1980 Winter Olympics, winning the world championship and also defeating top pro teams from Canada, the United States, and other nations to win the Canada Cup. TENNIS

McEnroe was clearly the player of the year with his succession of victories in the matches that counted most. Biggest of all, of course, was Wimbledon, where he defeated Bjorn Borg 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the final to end the great Swede's streak of five consecutive championships. He beat Borg even more easily in New York, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 to win his third straight US Open crown, then capped a fantastic year by leading the United States to its victory over Argentina for the Davis Cup.

Among the women, there was no such clearcut leader. Chris Evert Lloyd won her third Wimbledon, routing Hana Mandlikova in the finals. But 18-year-old Tracy Austin won her second US Open title. And Martina Navratilova, though denied either of the big ones, established her own claim by knocking off Evert Lloyd in New York to reach the US Open final and by finishing the year as the top money-winner overall with more than a half-million dollars. GOLF

1981 was another of those years when no one player was able to dominate the increasingly competitive and closely contested men's tour. Tom Watson won the Masters, Australian David Graham took the US Open, Bill Rogers prevailed in the British Open, Larry Nelson won the PGA, and the overall money leader for the year was none of the above, but Tom Kite, who won only one tournament but had 21 finishes in the top 10 and also wound up with the best scoring average.

On the women's tour, Donna Caponi led the way with five victories, JoAnne Carner had the best scoring average, and in a very close race Beth Daniel edged Carner for the money title. COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Georgia, led by its spectacular freshman running back Herschel Walker, launched the year by beating Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day to lock up the No. 1 ranking in both wire service polls.

This year, though, the top spot was a hot potato from start to finish, with no less than seven teams holding it at one time or another. Michigan, the preseason choice, started the parade by getting upset in its first game by Wisconsin. Then rising to the top in order only to be shot down were Notre Dame , Southern Cal, Texas, Penn State, and Pittsburgh. Finally, almost by a process of elimination, the mantle fell to Clemson, which completed its regular season at 11-0 for the only perfect record among the top teams. If the Tigers prevail in their Jan. 1 Orange Bowl meeting with Nebraska, they're pretty well assured of their first national title, but a loss would throw things open once again.

Individually, the season belonged to Marcus Allen, who became the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season (he wound up with 2,342), and the fourth Southern Cal tailback to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation's outstanding player. Walker had another great year, rushing for 1,891 yards and leading Georgia to a 10-1 season, but finished a distant second in the Heisman balloting. Brigham Young's great passer Jim McMahon was third even though he set 23 NCAA records during the year to bring his overall total to 55, including 9,536 career passing yards.

The most historic moment of the year, however, was reserved for Alabama's legendary coach Bear Bryant, who finally overtook Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest college football coach of all time. It took until the final game to do it, but when the Crimson Tide defeated arch rival Auburn 28-17 it gave the Bear his cherished victory No. 315 and put him all alone atop the list. TRACK AND FIELD

The most momentous time of the year was that period of a week and a half in August when the world record for the mile changed hands three times between those not-too-friendly British rivals, Coe and Ovett. It began with Ovett owning the record at 3:48.8, but on Aug. 19 in Zurich, Coe lowered it to 3:48.53. One week later, however, in Koblenz, West Germany, Ovett reclaimed his place at the top with a 3:48.40 clocking. But he had only two days to savor his triumph before Coe, competing against many of the world's other top middle distance runners in the Golden Mile at Brussels, sprinted through the final 220 yards to a 3:47.33 clocking.

The biggest headlines otherwise occurred in the marathon. New Zealander Roe won both Boston and New York, breaking Grete Waitz's monopoly on the latter event and lowering her women's world record in the process to 2:25.29. In the same race, Alberto Salazar not only took men's honors for the second straight year but did it in the fastest time any marathon has ever been run - 2:08.13 - breaking Derek Clayton's record which had stood for 12 years. COLLEGE BASKETBALL

For the second straight year DePaul (27-2) was No. 1 in the regular season only to be upset in an early round of the NCAA tournament, this time losing to St. Joseph's in its first game of the regionals. Indiana, led by All-America Isiah Thomas, went on to capture the championship, defeating North Carolina 63- 50 in the finals. AUTO RACING

Bobby Unser finished first in the Indianapolis 500 and was initially thought to be the winner, but the following day was penalized a lap for passing under the yellow caution flag. This made Mario Andretti the winner, but Unser's team appealed, and four months later the decision was reversed, making Unser the winner and sending Andretti to the courts in an attempt to get the new ruling overturned once again. SOCCER

The Chicago Sting defeated the New York Cosmos to end a troubled North American Soccer League season in which poor overall attendance was reflected by the folding of seven of the league's 21 franchises.

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