The Cerebral Vortex
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Most of the American sports-watching public was tuned into the action from Arizona and Pittsburgh, as home-field advantage finally held firm for a change in the NFL playoffs. One of college basketball's top teams dropped only its second game of the season as number eighteen Minnesota crumbled to Northwestern with a 16-0 run. Pittsburgh crushed the Rangers 3-0 in a clash of NHL studs to tighten the Atlantic Division standings even further. But the day sets on America as the action picks up on the other side of the Atlantic...

 

Magnetic Island... photo by Brittany Bigalke

 

Two events are currently transpiring in Australia which easily equal the current excitement to be found in American sport. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the 2009 tennis calendar, has begun. The sport is awash with questions as a new season begins, both on the men's and women's side of the draw...

 

For the men, last season saw a challenge to the top dog of the sport which by the end of the season had seen a shuffling of the deck. Will Roger Federer, the world number-two, return to his 2007 form and take over his top spot in the rankings? Will new rankings leader Rafael Nadal, after finally conquering the grass of Wimbledon last year, continue his progression as a total player to achieve his first hard-court Grand Slam title? Can Novak Djokovic, coming into the tournament on a subpar streak, play his way into form during the Open and defend last year's title? Touted by many as a pre-tournament favorite, can Andy Murray break up the sport's triumvirate at the top? Will another rising young star make his presence felt in Melbourne like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga managed last year -- or even better yet, will Tsonga himself make another run?

 

On the women's side, six players could easily lay claim to the number-one ranking. Unlike last year, when Justine Henin was an undisputed top seed, there is controversy in how the computer has spit out the ranks. And this year, further, the defending champion will not be defending her crown, as Maria Sharapova sits out of shape on the sidelines. Can Jelena Jankovic, the world number-one, follow through on the trademark consistency that fueled her coup of the top spot and finally claim her first Grand Slam? Will Serena (#2) or Venus (#6) Williams make another dominant run at a big tournament? Can either of the Russian contingent, Dinara Safina (#3) or Elena Dementieva (#4), work their way through the draw and sweep the entire thing? Or will it be Jankovic's compatriot, Ana Ivanovic, coming through the draw to make a repeat appearance in the final?

 

The excitement buzzing through Melbourne is paralleled by the events transpiring across the four-hundred mile divide in Adelaide, where cycling's prodigal son is returning to the sport after a three-plus-year retirement. The Tour Down Under kicked off its fourth edition -- and its first time hosting the event as part of the revamped top-tier UCI ProTour calendar -- with a 51-kilometer criterium through Adelaide. The Cancer Council Classic finished with Aussie sprint specialist Robbie McEwen taking his thirteenth career stage victory in the Tour Down Under by outsprinting Milram’s Wim Stroetinga and Graeme Brown of Rabobank. McEwen, racing for the first time in years for a new team after leaving Belgium-based Silence-Lotto for new Russian squad Katusha over the winter, did his own silencing of critics who argued that his advancing age (36) was slowing his legs...

 

But the prologue of sorts did not acquire its new sponsorship because of McEwen or any of the other slew of talented Australian riders. Lance Armstrong, returning to the sport for the first time since his record-extending seventh Tour de France victory in 2005, took sixty-fourth place in the criterium. Reunited with his longtime director Johan Bruyneel under new sponsorship at Astana, Armstrong knows the road ahead will be arduous. "There was a lot of anxiety today but it was good for a first day," Armstrong told the press after he came through the hectic pace of the race unscathed. While the terrain of this stage race is not particularly suited to the Texan's skill set, his new dual mission of expanding cancer awareness globally and returning to the bike is falling in line quite nicely...

 

It remains to be seen whether former champions -- Federer and crew in tennis, Armstrong in cycling -- can return to their former prominence. But regardless of the outcome, waves of fanaticism are emanating from the island continent. Enjoy the exhilaration of the lead-up to the Super Bowl, where Pittsburgh will attempt to become the first NFL team to win six Lombardi Trophies while the formerly sad-sack Cardinals try to claim their first in franchise history. Keep one eye glued to what is shaping up to be an exciting college basketball season. But be sure to allow the other eye to wander from time to time to events from across the globe -- there's a whole world of compelling athletic drama brewing all around...

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