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In the end, it is amazing sometimes how real life can get in the way of our fandom. I would, first and foremost, like to apologize to all of you that have started reading this column every Thursday... I am going to be heading to Seattle in a couple of hours, and I was embroiled in packing inanities last night. Work can get hectic on a university campus, and adding a stint helping out one's wife's place of business for a weekend can take its toll on the body and the mind...

 

But this is no sob story. We have too many sports to cover and too little time...

 

Augusta NationalBy popular demand, we will first be heading out to Augusta National, where golf's first major of 2008 is currently taking place in the form of the Masters. While Tiger Woods is inevitably the talk of the course, year after year, as he chases Jack Nicklaus and the major victory records, we have two South African-born players at the top of this years leaderboard as I type. Trevor Immelman, the 28-year-old former winner of the 1998 U.S. Amateur Public Links, and Justin Rose, a 27-year-old who tied for fifth at Augusta last year, each start today's rounds at a four-under-par 68.

 

It is indeed reassuring to hear some new names at the top of golf's leaderboard. These past years have been so Tiger-dominated -- with the media at times more focused on who could challenge Eldrick than the action on the course -- that it is always refreshing when we see some new blood at the top of the leaderboard. Zach Johnson was able to give golf fans an exciting finale at Augusta last year... could Trevor or Justin do it this year?

 

Because, in the end, for how good Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els can prove to be, the real challenge to Tiger is going to come from the next generation of professional golfers. Tiger's contemporaries and elders can only do so much to stave the onslaught of Eldrick's victory march. It is the gaggle of golfers who are younger than Woods who will determine the course of his future career success...

 

As I wrote last week, Roger Federer was down to Andy Roddick in Miami... it ended with Roddick felling Federer, the most recent to take their shots at the king of the mountain, before succumbing to Nikolai Davydenko in the semifinals. Davydenko went on to win the tournament over Rafael Nadal.

 

 Federer and Nadal -- Happier times behind them?Both Nadal and Federer must still be considered the preeminent athletes in their sport. But it is becoming increasingly apparent this season that the rest of the field is catching up to the two of them. Before, we would ask ourselves, "Who in the world could challenge these two?"

 

Now we ask ourselves, "Who will challenge these two NEXT?!"

 

To be fair, Federer started the season with mononucleosis. Playing his way back to health and fitness, it is understandable that this player would hit some snags on the way. Nadal, likewise, has been hamstrung by injury problems in the past; he still looks in solid form in advance of this year's French Open.

 

Nadal's game is best suited to the clay of Roland Garros. He still must be seen as the prohibitive favorite at the tournament as he looks to defend his French Open title for the fourth consecutive year. Federer, along with Davydenko and Djokovic and Tsonga and Roddick and every other professional tennis player on the Tour, will be gunning for the Spaniard to upset HIS streak... all the fire is on THESE TWO to perform...

 

Stijn Devolder takes FlandersSo my prognostications in regards to cycling's cobblestone classics have so far proven fruitless. Belgian national champion Stijn Devolder took the Ronde van Vlaanderen, winning with a finishing time of 6:24.02 (41.26kph/25.58mph). Devolder, a surprise winner to most all involved in cycling, won fifteen seconds clear of Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha. Pre-race favorite Tom Boonen, Devolder's Quick.Step teammate, had this to say about the victory:

 

"I had the legs to win the race, but the tactics in the race prevented me from showing that. He [Devolder] was supposed to serve as a launchpad for me, but the way things developed meant the whole scenario changed." All the favorites played a conservative race, afraid to let any of the others to escape clear. Some, such as last year's winner Alessandro Ballan, seemed to be nothing but sour grapes. ""When he was in our little breakaway group, Devolder sat at the back doing none of the work for 15 kilometers," said Ballan, who won the bunch sprint behind Flecha for fourth...

 

Gent-Wevelgem ended in a traditional sprinters' finish, as Oscar Friere emerged from the seventy-plus pack of riders at the end line to take the midweek classic. Now the riders turn their attention to Paris-Roubaix, where the cobbles will be as unforgiving as always. This is the race which few want to ride, but those who do all want to win in the Roubaix velodrome and hoist the chunk of pave (cobblestone) awarded to the victor.

 

Hincapie derailed by the cobbles in 2006...Roubaix destroys riders, bicycles and morale. A cyclist can come in with the best fitness in his life, already a podium finisher and with one of the top teams in the world -- as George Hincapie did in 2006 -- yet still be unceremoniously swallowed up by the cobblestones. If it isn't the frequent flat tires that get a rider, it is the fact that the foot-wide paving stones, worn down from centuries of use, are slippery whether dusty or rainy. A rider must have luck as well as his wits on his side merely to survive Paris-Roubaix; to win the quirky race, which starts in the northern Parisien suburb of Compiegne, travels through the cobble-lined roads famous from World War I, and finishes with a track-cycling 1.5 laps of the Roubaix velodrome, requires all these characteristics as well as a highly-attuned sense of WHEN to attack...

 

Cancellara (CSC) and Boonen (Quick.Step) must again be counted as five-star favorites to take another title. This is a race where experience is rewarded. Others who could win at Roubaix include Stuart O'Grady (Cancellara's teammate and the defending champion), George Hincapie (racing for the first time in his career for a team other than the now-defunct Tailwind Sports-organized U.S Postal/Discovery squad), and the ageless Peter van Petegem. But my surprise pick -- not really THAT surprising if you think about it and go back to past results -- to take it all in 2008 would have to be Juan Antonio Flecha. The lithe Spaniard finished on the podium here in 2005 behind Boonen and Hincapie; he has several top-five and top-ten finishes here, and finished on the podium at Flanders last week...

 

The Champions League is now looking at its semifinal matchups. The energetic Fenerbahce squad ultimately couldn't hold off Chelsea for another ninety minutes; the Londoners went through 3-2 on aggregate. The are joined by two other English sides -- Manchester United completed the rout of Roma with a 1-0 return victory, and Liverpool stunned many as they finished off Arsenal 4-2. Barcelona rounds out the quartet, advancing past Schalke 2-0 aggregate.

 

Now Liverpool have a shot at their third Champions League final in four years; we could see finalists from the same nation for only the second time in Champions League history (remember the fourth? 2000, when Real Madrid defeated Valencia 3-0); and the action is certain to be fierce. Manchester United will square off against Barcelona in one matchup; Chelsea and Liverpool will duke it out in the other. The winners get the right to face one another in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 21 May for the chance to hoise the European Cup...

 

Alfred E. Neuman for President 2008And remember... if there isn't enough sports fun out there for all you fanatics, you can always turn to politics. It has eroded into little more than a dog-and-pony show, pandering to the populace in an effort to accrue greater stats than one's opponent. Politics is perhaps the purest sport of all with the greatest spoils.

 

Whatever you do, though, get out there and enjoy ALL that the world has to offer in regards to its sporting endeavors! I've got to get out on the road for now, so leave your thoughts, comments, questions and/or suggestions below... and don't stop searching for that next great thrill!
 

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