Spoiled by superstars and super teams, fans must now wait for new ones to arrive

By Tim Dahlberg, AP
Saturday, July 3, 2010

As stars fade, waiting on new ones to arrive

Tiger Woods struggles anymore just to play the weekend. On this big weekend, Roger Federer isn’t playing at all.

Italy got an early ticket home from South Africa. So, too, did the Brazilians, who expected to romp to yet another World Cup title.

The heavyweight champions of the world are two brothers from Ukraine who are huge in Germany but virtually ignored almost everywhere else. Mike Tyson, meanwhile, makes his living these days shaking hands with people instead of hitting them.

And no one seems to be hitting at all in baseball, where pitchers are taking the mound like it’s 1968 all over again.

Everything is cyclical, of course, which is one reason — besides age — that Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras aren’t playing in the Wimbledon final. But the big names and the big teams we always used to count on to deliver don’t seem to be delivering as much anymore.

There’s a new world order in sports. The usual suspects are missing in action, and we’re waiting for new stars to take their place.

Unfortunately, the new stars have yet to arrive.

Take, for example, the Tour de France, which opened a three-week run Saturday not in France, but in the Netherlands. For the better part of the last decade it’s been worth investing a few hours in front of the TV for because Lance Armstrong was always crushing his rivals.

Armstrong is riding again in what he says will be his last Tour de France, but it’s just not the same anymore. There’s still a curiosity factor, but Armstrong is almost 39 and so clouded by accusations from a former teammate that he used performance-enhancing drugs that it’s hard to root for him anymore.

That probably makes the French happy, because they didn’t seem to have a lot of love for the American rider. Or maybe they just didn’t like the fact he won seven of their races.

What we’re left with is defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain and a group of riders no one outside of the insular world of cycling can name. Makes for more of a wide open race, but the only reason most will tune in now is for a glimpse of the scenery.

The World Cup is wide open, too, with the finalists from 2006 exiting quickly and Brazil getting upset in the quarterfinals in its bid for a sixth title. To show how much the pitch has been leveled in world soccer, Ghana came within one agonizingly missed penalty kick from becoming the first African nation ever to advance to the semifinals.

That’s not necessarily bad. Brazil isn’t entitled to be in the final as it has been in three out of the last four World Cups, and new blood can be exciting.

But sports fans love dynasties, as shown by the success on opposite sides of the pond of both Manchester United and the New York Yankees. They love superstars, too, which is why everyone seems to be talking about LeBron James when the NBA season is still months away.

Perhaps we’ve gotten spoiled by it all. Bloated by steroids or not, after all, it was the sluggers who hit one monster home run after another that brought us back to baseball after those in the game had done everything they could to kill our interest.

They’re all gone now, and baseball is better for it. But the sport is so desperate for superstars now that Stephen Strasburg was anointed as one after taking the mound for the first time for the Washington Nationals.

Woods was anointed early, too, and every tournament seemed just to add to his legend. We came to expect him to win every time he teed it up and, when he’s slumping like he is now, a lot of fun goes out of whatever tournament he’s playing in.

You would have had to get up awfully early Saturday morning to see Woods play in the tournament he created to make money for his charitable foundation. The mystique is gone, at least for now, and the cheers are merely a reflex by fans who remember times past.

Federer, whose record over the last eight years may be even more remarkable than that of Woods, seems equally vulnerable these days. When he was unceremoniously bounced from Wimbledon this week for second straight quarterfinal loss in a major, tennis fans seemed at a loss to deal with what was left.

Yes, Serena Williams did her part to keep up the family dynasty Saturday at Wimbledon by winning the women’s singles. She and sister Venus have won 9 of the last 11 titles, a feat that will probably never be matched.

At some point, too, they will go. New stars will emerge, as they will in every other sport.

At the moment, though, they seem to be in increasingly short supply.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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