International competition at the Vancouver Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup in South Africa provided the 2010 sports world with a certain global flare. But that sheen could not cover over the predominant theme of the year: How the mighty have stumbled.
Tiger Woods failed to win a single golf tournament. The Super Bowl favorite Dallas Cowboys lost seven of their first eight games. Future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre piled up nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. The powerhouse French and Italian national soccer teams suffered embarrassing first-round exits from the World Cup. Usain Bolt lost a 100-meter sprint for the first time in two years. Michael Phelps was dethroned as the world's greatest swimmer by teammate Ryan Lochte. And Roger Federer failed to advance to the finals of either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, breaking a six-year run over which he had appeared in both finals and claimed victory in 10 of the 12 matches.
And so as 2011 begins, the world of sport lies wide open. Will past greats return to dominant form or will emerging athletes replace them with a whole new crop of superstars? Here are some of the names and stories to watch over the next 12 months:
• Andrew Luck: Scouts have dubbed the Stanford sophomore the most complete quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. Should he declare for the NFL draft, he is a near lock to be selected first overall. And many observers believe he could have an immediate impact at the professional level given that his mechanics and football intelligence already rate higher than many NFL passers.
• WNBA failing: The struggling, financially insolvent women's professional basketball league enters the year with no CEO after Donna Orender abruptly ended her six-year tenure at the helm. Game attendance dipped in 2010, another piece of bad news for a league that was forced to shut down its Houston Comets franchise in 2009 after no investors came forward to buy the team. The experiment to market women's basketball in the same manner as the NBA may be on its last legs.
• Rory McIlroy: The 21-year-old Irish golfer appears ready to assert himself among the most elite players in the world. After a 2010 campaign in which he bested runner-up Phil Mickelson to win at Quail Hollow, flashed brilliance with third-place finishes at the British Open and PGA Championship, and performed well in Europe's Ryder Cup victory over the United States, McIlroy has climbed to No. 11 in the World Golf Rankings. Though he has announced plans to play on the European Tour in 2011, the phenom will play several stateside events and is considered a serious contender to win a Major.
• Labor Days: The collective bargaining agreements for Major League Baseball and the NBA are set to expire in 2011, threatening to trigger labor disputes in both leagues. Baseball will consider expansion of its postseason, the wider use of instant replay, and policies for testing and penalizing use of performance-enhancing drugs. The stakes are much higher in basketball, where players are threatening to decertify their union, thereby opening up the possibility of litigation against owners for violations of anti-trust laws. Owners are presently calling for a 38 percent cut in players' salaries and a hard salary cap, proposals the players flatly reject.
• Derrick Rose: With all the attention on the superstar trio in Miami and Kobe Bryant in L.A., Chicago guard Derrick Rose is quietly emerging as a league MVP candidate. The third-year player is piling up points and assists at all-star levels while leading the resurgent Bulls to one of the best records in the league. With his penchant for late-game heroics and his team's defensive prowess, Rose could engineer a 2011 playoff run reminiscent of the last time Chicago boasted an MVP guard. Remember him?