Since the calendar has flipped to 2009, it’s time to look ahead to the year to come in sports.
What will be Japan’s top sports stories this year, a year in which the sporting calendar doesn’t include the Summer Olympics or soccer’s World Cup finals but plenty of other events to command our attention?
Here are 13 intriguing story lines (in no particular order) that should provide plenty of drama over the next 12 months:
• Can “Samurai Japan,” led by new skipper Tatsunori Hara, defend its World Baseball Classic title?
Will Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and company produce the same results without Sadaharu Oh’s steady leadership at the top?
It’s going to be an interesting spring.
• Does 38-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm, coming off a first-round exit in the ASB Classic on Monday, have the energy, desire and reflexes to once again become a formidable force on the WTA Tour?
After ending her lengthy retirement in 2008, she demonstrated she can still be a capable player in Japan.
Now, her longtime fans and the press are curious to know this: Can she elevate her game on the international scene?
If so, she would certainly spice up the women’s game from a Japanese standpoint and give the nation’s young generation of females a much-needed inspirational role model.
• Having belatedly picked up an Olympic bronze medal in the men’s hammer throw (another doping scandal), how will Koji Murofushi, 34, respond to the challenge of getting his body and mind prepared for the return to high-stakes competition just months after the Beijing Games?
Murofushi’s father, Shigenobu, a national legend, will continue to guide his career and try to keep him on track to be a legitimate medal contender at the 2012 London Games. This, of course, includes the 2009 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
• Will Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara be smiling on Oct. 2?
That’s the day the IOC will make a monumental decision in Copenhagen, choosing whether Tokyo, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro or Madrid will be awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics.
• After a superb season in 2008, one in which Akira Nishino’s squad played 61 matches, what type of momentum will Gamba Osaka take into the next season?
And how much valuable experience did Ryuji Bando and his mates gain on the pitch to help them understand how to compete — and excel — against the world’s elite clubs in the future?
• Can national team manager Takeshi Okada guide Japan to a second World Cup finals appearance under his leadership?
In addition, will Year 2 of his second stint at the helm produce positive results? Will his steady leadership give a jolt to the team’s collective psyche, especially in leading his players to score more goals?
• Can Asashoryu stay healthy enough to be a legitimate competitor in ’09?
If not, will this truly be his final season as a yokozuna? Is retirement just around the corner for the Mongolian giant?
• Will golfer Ryo Ishikawa suffer from a sophomore jinx this year?
After a slew of top-10 finishes and a historic ¥100 million season, will the youngster stay hungry and cash out on more than one winner’s check in ’09? It would certainly be a big — and sustained — boost for the sport in Japan.
• On the women’s side, can Momoko Ueda give Japan its first-ever LPGA major trophy since 1977?
Is she poised to become a top-flight contender in the United States? There’ll be plenty of time for her to provide clues to that question in ’09.
• Speaking of youngsters . . . it’s the notion here that it would be great for Japanese baseball if Tohoku Rakuten ace Hisashi Iwakuma can carry his team into the playoffs this season.
Blessed with enormous talent, poise and a winner’s mind-set the 2008 Sawamura Award winner is a bona fide star. He could challenge Yu Darvish of the Fighters for Japan’s top pitcher accolades for the next decade to come.
This year will give them both a chance to prove to the masses that they are worthy of being considered Nippon Professional Baseball’s undisputed No. 1 starting pitcher.
• Jockey Kosei Miura attracted legions of new fans in 2008, and shattered super-successful Yutaka Take’s mark of 69 wins as a JRA rookie.
If Miura gets off to a fast start this year, countless horse racing aficionados will be pulling for him to surpass that victory total in ’09.
• Can Kensaku Tennichi lead the Osaka Evessa to a fourth straight title?
The no-nonsense head coach of the bj-league’s first, and only, dynasty has seen a big part of his team’s nucleus leave Kansai. Mikey Marshall is playing in Kuwait. Matt Lottich is in Germany. Jeff Newton has helped the Ryukyu Golden Kings emerge as the league’s top team in the season’s first half, and point guard Haruhito Shishito has added veteran poise to his new club, the Toyama Grouses.
Yet 22 games into the season, this much remains certain: Tennichi can count on two-time MVP Lynn Washington to produce championship-caliber results in any game and motivate his teammates to do the same.
• After Shizuka Arakawa’s gold medal-winning performance at the 2006 Turin Winter Games, back-to-back world champions Miki Ando and Mao Asada have helped raise the standard of excellence in women’s figure skating.
Now the spotlight is clearly on Mao-chan. The elegant, graceful performer is favored to repeat as the world champion in March, when millions will follow coverage of the event. Call it must-see TV.