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The top 10 sports figures who helped define a year

And one New Year's wish: that the glories of sport trump the inglorious in the coming year.

Caster Semenya, 18, of South Africa celebrates after winning the women's 800 meter final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin on Aug. 19, 2009. (Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters)

BOSTON — Once upon a time, the odd year — without an Olympics or a World Cup — tended to be relatively uneventful. But in today’s high-stakes sports universe, nobody can afford a season off. The year 2009 was unquestionably an “on” year, filled with glory and, as is now always the case, plenty of the inglorious too. Below are the 10 people who helped define the year in global sports.

And, here's a fan's fervent New Year's Day wish: with a Winter Olympics in Vancouver next month and a World Cup in South Africa ahead in June, may the glories of sport trump the all-too-frequent inglorious in the coming year.

Tiger Woods: Though he remained the number one golfer in the world, Tiger failed to win a major for the first time since 2004. And for the first time, he blew a lead down the stretch, losing the PGA to little-known Y.E. Yang, the first Korean to win a major golf title. But none of Tiger’s travails on the golf course prepared fans for his rapid fall from grace, after a fight with his wife spilled into the public and exposed a humiliating sex scandal. It was a stunning lesson in the fault lines that exist at the intersections of sports, celebrity and big business. The first billion-dollar-a-year athlete could only watch as his empire eroded. Golf, already stung by recessionary woes, will begin the year without Woods — on sabbatical and in hiding. It seems unlikely that Tiger, revered but never beloved by fans, will ever hold sway in quite the fashion he did.

Roger Federer: The year’s first tennis major, the Australian Open, ended with Federer in tears after another loss to the young Spaniard, Rafael Nadal. Implicit in the emotional overflow was the Swiss star’s fear that he might fall short of Pete Sampras’ career mark of 14 major titles. But with Nadal hampered and, later, sidelined by injury, Federer won his first French Open title followed by his sixth Wimbledon crown, bringing his total to a record 15 — and laid convincing claim to the mantle of “greatest ever.” While Federer, at 29, may never dominate men’s tennis again, his future seems less uncertain than that of Nadal, who, at just 23, has seen his warrior style exact a worrisome physical toll.

Usain Bolt: The aptly named Jamaican sprinter has given new meaning to the Caribbean siren song “How low can you go?” After shattering world records at 100 and 200 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt ran even faster this year at the world championships in Berlin. He won the 100 in an eye-popping 9.59 seconds, the largest drop in the record — a full one-tenth of a second — since the implementation of electronic timing. In the 200, he evoked fond memories — not of the greatest sprinters, but of the remarkable racehorse Secretariat leaving the field in his dust. Bolt won the 200 meters in a record 19.19 and by the greatest margin in the history of the event. With Bolt just 23 and prone to occasional flaws in technique, nobody believes we’ve yet seen how low he can go.

Lionel Messi: The beautiful game is extraordinarily elusive in the upper echelons of modern-day soccer. These days the sport is more given to thuggery and chicanery. But for at least one season, beauty reigned at Barcelona, where the magical feet of the 22-year-old Argentinean were the lynchpin of the team. In Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, E’too et al., Messi had a brilliant supporting cast. The result was a stirring triple: a La Liga title; the Spanish Cup championship; and, in a 2-0 masterpiece against favored Manchester United, the European Champions League crown. Messi won FIFA Player of the Year honors to boot. Ironically, his teammate, Thierry Henry, was at the center of some notable soccer ugliness too; it was Henry’s deliberate handball — somehow unseen by the referee — that sent France to the World Cup over Ireland. The refusal of the soccer establishment to incorporate technology or other officiating innovations casts an unwelcome shadow over the 2010 World Cup.