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Year in Sports Full of Surprise, Controversy - 2003-12-30


2003 started with the Ohio State Buckeyes finishing their perfect college football season with a 31-24 double overtime victory over the Miami Hurricanes last January in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said at the time that his team's consistency led to the undefeated season and the national championship. "That's how you win championships, you make plays," he said. "You keep playing and you make plays. And our guys kept playing and they made plays and so did Miami. They kept playing. They [Miami] have nothing to hang their heads about; they are a great football team."

Ohio State not repeat their success in the 2003 season. The national championship will go to either Oklahoma or Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl.

The tennis season began in January with a couple of Americans surviving the heat of Melbourne. Andre Agassi of the United States won the men's title for the fourth time while Serena Williams beat sister Venus to hold all four major tournament titles at once - a so-called Serena Slam.

"I think in the beginning of the tournament I put a little bit of pressure on myself, but once I was able to calm myself and relax, I realized it wasn't much after that," Serena Williams said.

Serena would also beat Venus to take the Wimbledon title, but injuries and a Belgian juggernaut - Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne - would prevent any more titles going to either Williams sister.

The National Football League's Super Bowl in 2003 featured two teams with similar insignia - pirates. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored a 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in San Diego, California. The victory marked the first Super Bowl win for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.

"I learned a long time ago that defense wins championships. And if you have a great defense, your offense is going to get numerous opportunities to score," he said. "And whether they get turnovers or not. And our defense clearly illustrated that last night."

February's highlights included Chinese center Yao Ming's debut in the National Basketball Association's All-Star Game. Yao scored two points and grabbed two rebounds as the West squad defeated the East, 155-145, in double overtime.

American stock car driver Michael Waltrip overcame bad weather and a tough field to win February's Daytona 500 NASCAR race. In a race of a very different sort, the Swiss syndicate Alinghi took the America's Cup 5-0 over Team New Zealand in Auckland harbor, winning the final race March 2.

March saw the beginning of Michael Schumacher's quest for an unprecedented sixth Formula One auto racing championship. The German would not win his first race of the 2003 season until the San Marino Grand Prix in April.

Schumacher survived a spirited challenge from Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams-BMW and Kimi Raikkonen of Finland to take the drivers' title. Ferrari also took the manufacturer's title. The German driver will be 35 in 2004 but says he has no plans to retire.

March brought the so-called madness of the men's U.S. college basketball tournament. The final in New Orleans on April 7 featured the Syracuse Orangemen taking on the Kansas Jayhawks with Syracuse giving its coach Jim Boeheim his first national championship, 81-78.

"I'm tremendously happy. I wanted to win this thing," he said. "I really am more happy for the players and for our fans. Our fans have been unbelieveable every place we have been. We had the building in Boston, we had the building in Albany and we had a lot of people here today. There were a lot of people here from Syracuse. To me that's what it is all about."

One of Boeheim's top players, freshman guard Carmelo Anthony, would leave the Orangemen to enter the NBA draft. He was drafted third behind Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James and Serbia-Montenegro's Darko Milicic of Detroit. In women's basketball, the University of Connecticut won its second straight championship by beating Tennessee in the final, 73-68.

Inside the boxing ring, Roy Jones Jr. made history in March by becoming the first light-heavyweight fighter to earn a piece of the heavyweight championship. Jones took the WBA title with a 12-round decision over John Ruiz in March.

In late March the Major League Baseball Season got under way and before it ended, some of the most dramatic playoff games ever would take place, including the collapse of the Chicago Cubs, and the New York Yankees' comeback win over archrivals Boston.

Before the October surprises, three of the game's sluggers - Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi - would make headlines for the wrong reasons. Sosa was cited for using a corked bat in a game, while Bonds and Giambi were subpoenaed to testify about their involvement with a newly discovered designer steroid THG.

Philadelphia pitcher Kevin Millwood threw a no-hitter against Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in April, striking out 10 batters in a row to preserve a 1-0 win.

In golf, protests by women's groups had little effect on the Masters' tournament, with Augusta National Country Club maintaining its men-only membership policy. The protesters were sequestered in an area where few of the thousands who crowded Augusta could even see them, but the debate is sure to continue. Even world number one Tiger Woods weighed in, saying that - in theory - women should be able to join Augusta. However, club members did not change their policy and have pledged not to change it any time soon.

On the golf course, Canadian Mike Weir won The Masters in a playoff with Len Mattiace of the United States. His total of seven-under-par (281) made Weir the first Canadian to win at Augusta, gave him his first major title, and denied world number one Tiger Woods a third-straight Masters win. He was also the first left-handed golfer to win a major tournament in 40 years.

"It's an unbelievable feeling. Something I have dreamt of for a long time," he said. "I have worked very hard for it. It's a thrill. I mean, I have a tough time putting it into words cause I probably won't do it justice."

Annika Sorenstam of Sweden made headlines in May, when she became the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour. Her appearance at the Colonial tournament in Texas by a sponsor's exemption set off a debate about whether she could play with the men.

Vijay Singh of Fiji ignited a fire of his own by saying that he did not think Sorenstam should be playing on the men's tour. Singh was quoted as saying that if he missed the cut he hoped Sorenstam did as well, so a woman would not outdo him. In the end, the Swedish golfer failed to make the cut, firing a 71 and a 74, but an enthusiastic crowd cheered her. After the second round, Sorenstam said she was grateful for the opportunity.

"I just feel very fortunate to do what I do. And you know for me to come here and get the opportunity to really push myself and live my dream," she said. "And I hope that other women and girls feel the same way. They've just got to follow their heart. I mean the people that cheered me on ... and it's been so wonderful and I hope that they had a good time as well, nd I think they all made this week so special."

Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne and Juan Carlos Fererro of Spain captured the French Open tennis titles in May. Henin Hardenne beat countrywoman and friend Kim Clijsters in the final, 6-0, 6-4. Ferrero took the clay-court title with a straight-set win over Dutchman Martin Verkerk (6-1, 6-3, 6-2). For Henin-Hardenne it was the first of two major titles she would win in the year - she also took the U.S. Open title by again beating Clijsters in straight sets.

"It was a dream when I was young. And it has become reality now, but it is not everything, you know," she said. "Today I won the French Open, it's great for my career but it is not everything in my life. It's just a big step, it's just a great moment and I'll try to enjoy it."

The Belgians also helped their nation reach the Fed Cup semifinals in Moscow, but Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters did not make the trip to the Russian capital. In their absence, Belgium lost 4-1 to the U.S. team in the semifinals. The Americans lost 4-1 to France in the championship match series.

A little-known gelding owned by a group of New York friends ignited the world of U.S. Triple Crown horse racing. "Funny Cide" took the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but was not able to capture the Triple Crown when "Empire Maker" won the Belmont Stakes by three-quarters of a length in early June.

Also in early June, the New Jersey Devils beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in seven games to take the National Ice Hockey League's Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history. The title was New Jersey coach Pat Burns' first, even though he was a three-time Coach of the Year.

June would be the month for first titles in tennis and golf as well, with Roger Federer of Switzerland capturing his first major title at Wimbledon and Jim Furyk taking his first U.S. Open title. Federer beat a resurgent Mark Philippoussis of Australia in three sets while Furyk took the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields by three strokes over Australian Stephen Leaney.

"From a professional standpoint that's the most special thing about it," Furyk said. "My name will be on that trophy forever with some unbelievable names in golf. So they can't take that away from me now. And that's a special feeling."

The San Antonio Spurs won their second National Basketball Association title in June defeating the New Jersey Nets in six games. The series was the last for NBA veteran and Olympic champion David Robinson of San Antonio, who retired from the game after the victory. His teammate and protegé Tin Duncan won the Most Valuable Player award.

Injuries hindered Robinson most of the year, but he played in 64 games. However, the man known as "The Admiral" scored 13 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in San Antonio's 88-77 title-winning game.

"My last game, streamers flying, world champions," he said. "This is, I mean how could you write a better script than this. It's unbelievable. I mean you know I have had some ups and downs in my career but I am going to end on the highest of highs. And I just praise God this has been unbelievable."

The NBA also bid goodbye to arguably the greatest player in the game - Michael Jordan retired for a final time in 2003. He said after his final game in April that he wanted to move back into management. "For me, ideally, it is to keep this thing rolling, keep this team moving in the right direction," he said. "That is what I truly want to happen. Chicago is a second option, a second thought as well as any other opportunity."

Jordan's dream did not work out in Washington. In a less-than-friendly parting from the Washington Wizards, Jordan drove off after team owner Abe Polin decided not to hire him in the front office.

The next six months would see the drama of the Major League Baseball playoffs, the addition of the initials THG to the sports lexicon, and the arrest of a National Basketball Association star on rape charges. A tennis great bid farewell to the game while a women's sports league folded just before an electrifying World Cup tournament. Those stories and more are coming in part two of the 2003 year in sports.

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

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