The top 10 sports figures who helped define a year

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.

Lance Armstrong: Who could have ever imagined that third-place would so become Lance? At 37 and after three seasons of retirement, Armstrong made an extraordinary return to the Tour de France. He not only found his glide, but a charm to complement his competitive edge — something that had eluded him back when he won a record seven consecutive Tours. He easily upstaged his teammate and eventual champion, Alberto Contador, making the Spaniard look like an insecure and callow kid. And he has fans looking forward to 2010 when he will return as the team leader of a new Radio Shack entry. Most likely Armstrong imitator in 2010: Michael Schumacher, regarded as the greatest driver in Formula One history when he retired in 2006, will return to the circuit at age 41.

Caster Semenya: The whole Semenya affair left track and field longing for the days when the only worry was doping scandals. The South African teen emerged from obscurity to run away from the field at 800 meters in the world championships. But the uproar afterwards centered on how the 18-year-old looked and ran like a man. The revelation that the sport’s governing body had already asked her to take a gender test only stoked the controversy. The prevailing suspicion was not that Semenya cheated, rather that she might be a hermaphrodite — with characteristics of both genders. The “verification” test pitted the desire for fair competition against privacy rights. No results were made public and the matter ended — for now — with Semenya allowed to keep her gold medal and prize money. Unclear was whether she would ever compete as a woman again. And, more importantly, what defines a woman in sports.

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva: Barack Obama never had a chance in Copenhagen, where Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro. The International Olympic Committee bore too many grievances against the often-dysfunctional American Olympic movement. Still, Brazilian president da Silva showed that executive charm was hardly an American prerogative. And he demonstrated perfect pitch in how he framed the debate about the future of the Olympics: Why, he asked, should the Games be the preserve of rich countries only? The IOC loves making history. Soccer’s World Cup had already beaten it to Africa. A first for South America proved an appealing alternative.

Kim Clijsters: Once upon a time, feminists posited that women could have it all. Clijsters, the 26-year-old Belgian tennis star, provided a stirring example of that possibility. Returning after a two-year retirement/maternity leave, the former world number one whipped the reigning queen, Serena Williams, to win the U.S. Open. (Williams provided a less welcome lesson in gender equality, demonstrating — with a tantrum aimed at an official — that a woman’s capacity for vile, on-court behavior can rival a man’s.) Clijsters was the first unseeded woman ever to win the tournament and, more notably, the first mommy to claim any major tennis title in three decades.

Kobe Bryant: After his standout performance — both on and off the court — at the Beijing Olympics, Bryant, given the rollercoaster pattern of his career, appeared due for a slump. Instead, he delivered superstar play and, more surprisingly, exemplary leadership, as the Los Angeles Lakers won the team’s first NBA title since 2002; it was Bryant’s fourth ring with L.A, but his first without Shaquille O’Neal at center and center stage. The basketball world has been clamoring for the “next Michael” ever since Jordan’s Chicago heyday. Bryant was saddled with that label from the day he entered the league. He wasn’t ready and many suspected he never would be. They were wrong.

Manny Pacquiao: These days boxing is largely a dreary exercise, with the sport bearing no resemblance to the glory days of Joe Louis, the Sugar Rays and, of course, “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. But Pacquiao is rekindling ring excitement. When the 31-year-old Filipino won the WBC welterweight crown last month, he became the first boxer ever to win seven different titles. Next on his hit parade — assuming contractual differences will be settled — is Floyd Mayweather Jr. In a sport that lives by overhype, Pacquiao vs. Mayweather looms as the real deal. Mayweather, undefeated in 40 fights, has won six world titles himself and was Ring Magazine’s number one pound-for-pound fighter for three years, until Pacquiao usurped that ranking in 2008. Scheduled for March, the fight figures to deliver the biggest payday in boxing history: For starters, the two fighters have agreed to a $50 million split up front.