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Sports: A defining year ahead

Sports: A defining year ahead
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First Published: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 10 04 PM IST

Yesterday once more: (clockwise from right) Rafael Nadal aims to hold back Roger Federer. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters; Tiger Woods eyes another run at golf majors. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images / WSJ; and
Yesterday once more: (clockwise from right) Rafael Nadal aims to hold back Roger Federer. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters; Tiger Woods eyes another run at golf majors. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images / WSJ; and
Updated: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 10 04 PM IST
Rarely in recent years have so many had so many opportunities to do something extraordinary. First among them are two men who need to prove nothing and yet will be trying to do so. Later this month, Lance Armstrong will end his three-and-a-half-year retirement by racing in the Tour Down Under. In May, he will ride the Giro d’Italia for the first time. This race’s course is highlighted by a long time trial from Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore that will give Armstrong, whose great strength is in the time trial, every chance to show his best. In July, he will attempt to win the Tour de France for the eighth time and become, at 37, the oldest man to win. That few people will be surprised if he actually does is probably the greatest testament to what he’s achieved on a bicycle.
Yesterday once more: (clockwise from right) Rafael Nadal aims to hold back Roger Federer. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters; Tiger Woods eyes another run at golf majors. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images / WSJ; and Lance Armstrong (in black) prepares to return to cycling. Jaime Reina / AFP / Getty Images / WSJ
Joining Armstrong on the comeback trail will be Tiger Woods. He was last seen winning the US Open with a shredded knee, a performance on which there could be no improvement. He will, if all goes well, be back in time for the Masters, beginning 9 April. As with Armstrong, however his return works out, it will be something about which it will be hard to be too cynical.
Much the same is true of the rivalry between Rafael Nadal, now the world’s top-ranked tennis player, and Roger Federer, who is two victories away from breaking Pete Sampras’ record for Grand Slam wins. At 27, Federer is regarded as likely the best player of all time, but the astonishing thing here is that Nadal, at 22, may be surpassing him. If Federer wants to break Sampras’ record this year, he will almost certainly have to solve the problem posed by Nadal, who has beaten him four of six times in Grand Slam finals. His first chance may come in two days’ time, at the Australian Open. That event will also mark Jelena Jankovic’s first attempt on the year to win a major. That the top-rated player has yet to do so is a telling sign about the current instability in women’s tennis.
The man who may be to the next decade what Messrs Federer and Woods were to the aughts (2000-2009) will be defending his title. British driver Lewis Hamilton, the youngest ever Formula One champion at 23, will have 17 races this year in which to show what he’s capable of doing with real experience.
The NBA, which has verged on being unwatchable in recent years, is on a real upswing, not least because of two great teams who have revived the traditionally moribund Eastern Conference. On one end are the defending champion Boston Celtics, who win less because of dominant players—forward Kevin Garnett is great, but several years past his absolute prime—than because they have depth and, unusually for the NBA, they play every game as if it matters. On the other end are the Cleveland Cavaliers, the sole domain of LeBron James, who in a happy accident has proved to be even better than the hype would have him. The seemingly inevitable conference-finals match between these two teams, both of which have a chance at the record for wins in a season, should be spectacular.
Soccer offers no such rivalry at the moment, but it does offer another team of surpassing brilliance. While this year will see the World Cup qualifiers, the story to watch may be Champions League favourites, FC Barcelona. The team hasn’t lost in the Primera Division since its first match of the year and has routinely made very fine clubs look like amateurs (their goal differential is higher than that of the Spanish league’s next three best teams put together). Its standout may be Argentine striker Lionel Messi, against whom the only viable strategy seems to be extremely violent defence. Diego Maradona, who has compared Messi to himself, will become his coach this year as Argentina’s national team opens its campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The question that looms behind all others at the moment is, of course, the global recession. In most cases, it should be of little concern to fans. The issue, at least for now, is seemingly less whether teams will be able to afford good players than how much profit the owners, leagues, federations, associations, committees and conferences will be able to make.
There are, though, some worrying signs. The ownership dramas surrounding flagship franchises such as the Chicago Cubs are the sort of thing one would prefer to see less of, and some team owners are making a lot of noise about ratcheting down spending. If that trend continues and begins to spread, it could be, along with the World Cup, the story of 2010. For now, we can just enjoy the games.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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First Published: Fri, Jan 16 2009. 10 04 PM IST