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Sports' most fascinating for 2011

In many ways, 2010 felt like one of those sitcoms with the "To Be Continued" tease at the end.

Oh, there were great moments. New Orleans won its first Super Bowl, San Francisco won its first World Series. Lindsey Vonn won the downhill at the Olympics. Manny Pacquiao won something like his 184th championship. Rafael Nadal grabbed his place as the best tennis player in the world -- and will now chase Roger Federer's legend as the best of all time. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers won again, and Sidney Crosby scored a goal for the ages. Two men threw perfect games -- one of them, Roy Halladay, also threw a postseason no-hitter -- but the most memorable game of the year was a one-hitter thrown by Detroit's Armando Galarraga. Landon Donovan scored the most famous goal in U.S. soccer history. Once again, no thoroughbred won the Triple Crown.

But it seems like much of the excitement is waiting for next year, when we should get answers to some of the most pressing questions in sports -- and, if not answers, at least hints. These are my 10 most fascinating people in sports for 2011.

Something absolutely remarkable happened with Woods in his final tournament of the year. To set the scene, this was the Chevron World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif. This is the tournament that Woods hosts. Only 18 golfers played in it. With that setup, it won't surprise you to know that Woods won the thing the two previous times he played and three of the previous four. He looked like an easy winner again. He led by four shots going into Sunday. Even though this thing was all but set up for him, and there were only a few other players, it was still kind of a big deal. Tiger had not won a tournament all year.

And then -- Woods lost anyway. The gritty Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland shot a 69 on the final day to chase down Woods, who closed with a 1-over 73. McDowell, the U.S. Open champion, made back-to-back clutch putts, the first to force a playoff, the second to beat Tiger on the first extra hole. Tiger, who had been the world's best big-moment putter for so long that it seemed like he had retired the trophy, missed his putt to extend the playoff.

The victory by McDowell was something -- but that's not the remarkable part. The remarkable part was how so many people afterward somehow used this as proof that Woods is "back." Hey, he had been in contention! Hey, he made some nice shots! Look out, world! Next year is Tiger's year!

This is how desperately we want Woods back on top of the golfing world. It's boring and plain without him. Woods turns 35 at the end of this month, which isn't the end for a pro golfer, but it usually means that he better start cherishing the good weekends. When Woods was asked what he learned after he blew the tournament to McDowell, he said something curious. You could be sure that the old Tiger would have simply said, "I lost." That was always what he learned from losses, nothing more, nothing less. But this time he said, "I tried hard." The crushing 2010 clearly took a lot out of the man -- the tabloids, the public divorce, the rough golf moments -- but he was still standing at the end. It will be fun to watch him in 2011. For once, his future doesn't look so clear.

In a year when a couple of the hottest animated movies -- Megamind and Despicable Me -- dealt with the conflicting feelings of being a good guy or a bad guy, James was dealing with that question in real life. His Decision (powered by ESPN) to take his talents to South Beach was widely viewed as a public relations disaster. He and Nike released an artsy and strange commercial in which LeBron was heard asking again and again, "What Should I Do?" And the Miami Heat -- the team that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh created, seemingly out of friendship -- started off the season playing disordered and uninspired basketball. James complained about too much playing time, there was the most-viewed player-coach bump in memory, and then an anonymous source (oh, whose camp could it be?) said that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was kind of mean to LeBron and didn't let him have his fun. It did not seem to be going well.

Then in early December, James went back to Cleveland -- the city he had left behind -- and unleashed some of the basketball talents that only he seems to have. And the crowd booed him and taunted him and he only played better and better. It was almost as if he finally embraced his role as the bad guy. After the Cleveland visit, the Heat reeled off nine straight wins and 12 of 13.

Are they good enough to win a championship? It will be fascinating to watch. The Heat still lack an inside game, James and Wade still seem to be more in competition than togetherness on the court, and when James is on the floor the team, even with Wade and Bosh, still seems to play a lot like the Cavaliers teams that crumbled in last year's playoffs. But when they are right, they are scary good. And LeBron James seems to like being scary.

The Jeter-Yankees negotiations were a bit testier than many people expected (the spectacularly undramatic Jeter even admitted to being "angry"), but it of course ended exactly where everyone knew it would end: Jeter signed a three-year deal for dramatically more money than any other team would have offered (three years, $51 million) and with less money than he would have liked.

But now is the real question: Just how much does Jeter have left in the tank? He showed signs of age in 2008, when he needed a hot last two months to raise his average to .300. As it was, 2008 was probably Jeter's worse offensive season since he was a rookie, and his defensive numbers suggested that he was well below average. He was also about to turn 35. It seemed like he had begun the downhill slide.

But then, he had a spectacular 2009 season -- he hit .334, had a .406 on-base percentage, stole 30 bases and dramatically improved his defensive numbers, and the Yankees won their first World Series in nine years. The year was capped off with Jeter's being named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Age, though, is relentless, and his decline picked up where it left off in 2010. He had by far his worst offensive season, hitting only .270 and slugging just .370 -- for the first time in his career he led the league in outs. Jeter believes that he has a lot of baseball left in him, and the Yankees obviously believe that must be true to give him a three-year deal. If Jeter can maintain even what he did in 2010, he can be an effective player (especially when you include his role as a team leader and spokesman). But if he keeps regressing at the plate and in the field, the Yankees could find the next three years uncomfortable. Jeter will be especially energized this year as he tries to prove people wrong and as he closes in on 3,000 hits.

But how much longer can he be an everyday shortstop? How much longer can he stay at the top of the Yankees' lineup? These questions and many more will be worth asking in 2011.

Speaking of players who seem to be aging before our eyes -- Federer started 2010 by winning the Australian Open. But then it all changed for him. He was knocked out in the quarterfinals at the French Open -- the first time since 2004 that he had not reached the semifinals of a major. And then at Wimbledon -- his tournament -- he was knocked out in the quarterfinals again. He lost in the semifinals at the U.S. Open, and he ended the year No. 2, more than 3,000 points behind his young rival, Rafael Nadal.

Federer is widely viewed as the greatest player ever. His genius for angles, his great movement, his ability to transfer his greatness to each surface (he was only the second player, after Andre Agassi, to win all four major championships on three different surfaces; Nadal has since become the third) has made him probably the first individual athlete since Jack Nicklaus to be treated as the best ever while he was in his prime. But the prime seems over now, and it will be interesting to see what happens to Federer. Does he, like Pete Sampras, have another chapter left?

I'm fascinated to see if Tebow can take his college quarterback talents and make himself a star NFL quarterback. Tebow has started the last two games, including a 308-yard passing performance against the Texans' league-worst pass defense in Week 16. It seems likely that he will be the Broncos' starter next year as they try to right what has rather suddenly become one of the more disastrous football franchises.

Tebow probably is not an NFL-caliber passer. But he can really run, and he's obviously smart and determined. He is, at this point, a lot more like some of the old-fashioned quarterbacks, like Joe Kapp or Billy Kilmer (only a lot bigger). Can he use those talents to make the Broncos a winner? It will be fun to watch.

Speaking of fun to watch -- Roy Halladay is a two-time Cy Young winner, Cliff Lee is a one-time Cy Young winner, Roy Oswalt is one of the best pitchers of the last decade and Cole Hamels won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards just two years ago. All seem in their primes. There has never been a four-man rotation quite like it.

But what will it mean? Philadelphia's offense looked old in the postseason last year. The bullpen looks old and could be shaky. What will it mean to have a dominant starter out there four out of ever five games? Will the Phillies win 105-plus games and dominate the National League? Will they find some rough sledding the way the Miami Heat did in the early part of their season?

When Lee signed with the Phillies, I wrote that their rotation can now do only two things: win or disappoint.

With Brett Favre finally exiting the stage (one would hope), Manning will become everybody's favorite old quarterback. Manning turns 35 in March, and though he has often looked as good as ever in 2010 -- especially when you consider how many injuries have happened all around him -- there were a few signs of age. Manning threw late-game interceptions a couple of times and tossed 11 picks in a three-game span. He also took some of the hardest hits of his career.

Thing is, the Colts are not as good a team, and Manning has had to take on a much larger responsibility. He has, for the first time in his career, thrown the ball more than 600 times, and he has a shot at Drew Bledsoe's record of 691 attempts in a season (1994). Manning, at his best, can still throw it as well as ever, but how much longer can he put in the intense preparation and withstand the immense punishment of a quarterback -- especially if the Colts keep losing ground? He certainly sees himself doing this for a while yet, but I think 2011 is a key year for him.

Signs seem to indicate that Cowher is ready to get back into coaching. He was one of the most dazzling coaches of his time, not only because of his success (his Steelers won 62 percent of their games, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl) but also because of the way he achieved it. He coached like the old coaches, like Noll and Lombardi, with intensity and fury and precision. He fit perfectly in Pittsburgh -- that was his home, these were his people, the Steelers were his perfect image of a team.

Can he rebuild that same thing somewhere else -- say, New York? Can he find the same passion and intensity after spending a couple of years yukking it up with the fellas on an NFL pregame show? I think he can, but plenty of very good coaches could not.

She has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles, 16 more doubles titles, two Olympic gold medals in doubles ... and yet the talk with her always seems to be about how much better she could have been. You could call this the Wilt Chamberlain syndrome. No matter what Wilt did, it was never enough. Williams won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2010 -- she did not even drop a set at Wimbledon -- and yet the year was said to be something of a disappointment.

Williams will almost certainly not catch Margaret Court (24) or Steffi Graf (22) in Grand Slam singles championships. At age 29, she seems unlikely to even catch Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert, who have 18 apiece. But people around the game will tell you that she might just be the best who ever played anyway. No women's player ever combined Williams' combination of power, speed and will.

You never know when she will just walk away from the game. She has many other interests besides tennis. She writes. She's involved in fashion. And so, despite the gnawing sense that her career could have been even better, I plan to enjoy watching Serena Williams play tennis for as long as possible.

Johnson won his fifth consecutive NASCAR championship in 2010. It's unprecedented, of course. There is a sense around NASCAR that Johnson did show some vulnerability, though, and the feeling is that 2011 will be wide open and Johnson is about ready to fall.

Maybe. But it's fair to say that nobody ever made any money underestimating Johnson. He's a ferocious competitor and the guy who will do exactly what he needs to do to win, no more and no less. There are people who say that NASCAR has gotten boring because Johnson has dominated. Maybe they're right. But that's only if you think greatness is boring.