JUAN CARLOS FERRERO
In his native Spain, where those blond locks make schoolgirls swoon and their mothers wish they were schoolgirls again, Juan Carlos Ferrero is rock-star hot. Everywhere else, the world's fifth-ranked tennis player is busy breaking new ground. Spaniards traditionally excel only on clay. Ferrero grew up in Villena, in the eastern coast province of Alicante, and learned to play on the only surface the tiny town had to offer-hard court. In 2001, the 21-year-old won an ATP season-high 16 straight matches, racking up records of 34-5 on clay and 18-12 on hard court. Though he's John McEnroe-thin at six feet, 160 pounds, Ferrero has a wallop for a forehand and a two-fisted backhand that's laser-beam accurate. In '02, he'll take aim at a major and, after that, Numero Uno.
- LINDSAY BERRA
LONG BEACH POLY
They're the Fab Five of high school football-and the five reasons recruiters from a gang of colleges with BCS hopes have visited SoCal's Long Beach Poly High. Clockwise from left: TB Hershel Dennis (with ball), OL Winston Justice, TE Marcedes Lewis, DT Manuel Wright and S Darnell Bing are all ranked among the nation's top 60 recruits. Those recruiters? "They just looked, smiled and wrote on their pads, and then smiled some more," says Lewis, who has verbaled to play football and basketball at UCLA. The lean TE (6'7", 230 pounds) is the lone Jackrabbit of this fivesome to commit, further heightening the buzz at the sprawling campus of 4,600 students. "All five could be impact players at any Top-10 school within two years," says one recruiter. Poly has produced a record 39 NFL players. Three years ago, the Jackrabbits had Chris Lewis (Stanford), Larry Croom (UNLV), Kareem Kelly (USC), Samie Parker (Oregon) and Darrell Rideaux (USC). And the past two years, they've gone 24-1. But this is more than a football factory. Poly's spawned-among others-Billie Jean King (then Moffitt), Cameron Diaz and Snoop Dogg. "Some tradition," says Lewis. "But that's why you come to Poly in the first place."
- BRUCE FELDMAN
JEN DAVIDSON & JEAN RACINE
She couldn't remember her own name. After her first bobsled ride, Jen Davidson's brain was too addled by 80-plus mph speeds, neck-wrenching G forces and an irrational fear that the brakes would gore her through her helmet. Four years later, Davidson laughs at that scary first run with driver Jean Racine. With World Cup titles in 2000 and 2001, J-Da and J-Ra are the team to beat when women's bobsled makes its Olympic debut. Racine, an ex-luger from Waterford, Mich., stuck by Davidson through back injuries that would have had other drivers combing Monster.com for brakewomen. Davidson, an ex-hurdler from Layton, Utah, has bolstered Racine since the death of her mother in May. Now their start times are nearly half a second faster than last season's. Factor in a sleek sled, courtesy of Geoff Bodine's NASCAR design team, and J-Da might soon see her name alongside J-Ra's on a Wheaties box.
- ANNE MARIE CRUZ
APOLO ANTON OHNO
He has the footwork of Michelle Kwan, the hammer-down dominance of Michael Johnson and the lofty name-okay, minus an L-of the sun god in Greek and Roman mythology. And the way he's going, his legacy may rival that of Eric Heiden. That's assuming, of course, that Ohno actually makes the Olympics. Ah, what the hell-go ahead and assume. Sure, he tanked at the U.S. short-track speedskating trials in 1997, finishing dead last despite being national champ. But he was only 14; all he's done since is burn up the ice. Last season, the Seattle teen was No.1 in the world at every Olympic distance: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters. If he repeats the feat in Salt Lake City and adds a fourth gold in the 5,000 relay, his opponents won't be the only ones screaming, "Oh, no!" Madison Avenue is banking on Ohno's success-he's already in Nike's stable-and his MTV-ready charm. All Apolo has to do is feed the fire.
Watching UNC's junior DE may cause flashbacks, as in visions of LT. Except that Peppers, whose 15 sacks in 2000 was just one shy of LT's school record, is stronger than Lawrence Taylor (says Tar Heels coach John Bunting). And anyway, he's always wanted to be like Mike. Don't laugh. Peppers is a better athlete than Jordan (says his high school track coach, who coached prep hoops against MJ). Named Julius Frazier after Dr. J and Walt, Peppers moonlighted as UNC's power forward for two seasons. But after a double-double in a Sweet 16 loss to Penn State last March, the 6'6'', 285-pounder ditched his hoop dreams. Peppers has crazy stats (he led UNC in sacks and interceptions) and vitals that look like typos (4.55 40, 37-inch vert). He's turning pro in April, and NFL GMs can't wait to get his tag on the dotted line. By then, he might just be known as JP.
- ANDY LATACK
Respect your elders. As he was wrapping up the 2000 Busch Series season, his first in NASCAR's junior division, Jimmie Johnson learned the value of that old admonition. Before jumping to Winston Cup, the Californian sought advice from racing's king, Jeff Gordon. He got an earful. "Jeff got all worked up," laughs the 26-year-old Johnson, who cut his teeth racing off-road trucks. "He said, 'Don't do anything until I call you back!' " The four-time Winston Cup winner got back to Johnson with a driver's dream. Come February, Johnson will enter his first Daytona 500, in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy co-owned by…Jeff Gordon. After Daytona comes a run at Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, a trophy inscribed with the names of Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt, not to mention Jimmie's new boss. Johnson realizes he has a lot to prove: "I know people are like, 'Who is this guy?' " The answer to that one's easy. "This guy" is Jeff Gordon's handpicked driver.
- AL COVINGTON
By the time Javier Vazquez left Montreal and headed home to Puerto Rico last October, he'd had it. He was the first Expo pitcher since 1997 to win 16 games in a season, but no one cared. "Montreal's not a fun place to play," says Vazquez, 25. "It's not really a home." As a kid in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Vazquez spent days on the mound and nights studying Greg Maddux on TBS. He lived and breathed baseball, among friends and family-especially his father, Carlos-who did the same. In Montreal, a town so indifferent to baseball that contraction might not even be noticed, he was playing before throngs of hundreds. Is it any wonder that Vazquez won more games (9) on the road than at home (7)? Or that he had a lower ERA on the road as well? Or that he and wife Kamille bolted town a day after the season ended? Or that he now spends days polishing his trademark changeup and nights thinking what-if? "I'm not afraid of contraction," he says, "as long as I stay in the NL. I like to hit."
- SETH WICKERSHAM
Boxing's latest Great White Hope, Wladimir Klitschko, puts together lefts and rights faster than the consonants converge in his signature. Quick, big (6'6", 243 pounds) and smart, the Ukraine native lives in Hamburg, Germany, and speaks four languages. He also brings a Ph.D. in sports science to the sweet science. (His brother, fellow heavyweight Vitali, holds a doctorate in philosophy.) The 25-year-old WBO belt holder (37-1, 34 KOs) is letting an injured left shoulder heal before he goes after Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson. But Dr. Klitschko has already gone toe to toe with Lewis-on film in Ocean's Eleven. His task now is turning celluloid into reality-and 2002 figures to be the year he'll do it.
- JOHN GUSTAFSON
Maybe it's too early to start calling him the next Russian Rocket-he's only 18!-but Ilya Kovalchuk, taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the top pick in the 2001 draft, is already sparking comparisons to the legendary Maurice Richard. Born in Tver, Russia, Kovalchuk (pronounced Ko-vuhl-CHOOK) is one of the few teenagers on skates who truly belongs in the NHL. The Thrashers rookie scored seven goals in his first 10 games, displaying a rare combination of size (6'1", 220 pounds), speed and power. He's eagerly learning English (and reluctantly learning to play defense), and he's definitely not shy about strutting his stuff. During the 2001 World Junior Championship this year, he pumped his fist before icing a game with an empty-netter. And when a reporter asked him about his new life outside of Russia, the teenager smiled and said, "I like the girls here.''
- E.J. HRADEK
RYAN SHECKLER & TYLER BLEDSOE
It all began so innocently. Grandma gave Ryan a Woody Woodpecker skateboard. Mom gave Tyler a gripless, plastic Toys "R" Us banana board. The boys were cute, cuddly-and in kindergarten. Today, six years and hundreds of tricks later, the two 11-year-olds are topping older skaters on the amateur tour and pulling huge raves. Looking for the next Tony Hawk? Then look to the legend himself for clues: Tony's label (Hawk Clothing) sponsors Tyler, and Tony gave his old ramp to Ryan. At 4'3", 60 pounds, Tyler is Salem, Oregon's biggest little hope for stardom. He's laden with gear from seven elite sponsors-fitting for someone who's challenging the SoCal lockdown on skate celebrity. In August he rolled around NYC in an SUV limo and eventually stole fourth in the Winterfresh/Vans nationals. At 4'8", 74 pounds, Ryan is San Clemente, California's smallest prodigy. No stranger to the spotlight-as 13 prime sponsors attest-he plays a skater in the movie MVP2 and is a stunt double for a chimp named Jack. His benihana-a crazy midair move with a kick and a grab-is the most downloaded trick on skateboardingmotion.com. And his street cred grows with each retelling of his 18th-place finish in August at World War III , a pro contest in which he skated with a broken elbow. But if you think these kids have got it all going on, think again. They still can't swing PG-13.
- URSULA LIANG
There's an old saw about it being the name on the front of the shirt that matters, not the name on the back. Well, after completing a hat trick-right foot, left foot, head-against Kansas City in Giants Stadium last May, Mathis twisted his jersey around to give fans a better look at what really counts. "Goal celebrations are spur-of-the-moment," he says. "I don't know what I'm doing." Yeah, right. Great goal-scorers are self-absorbed SOBs, and the U.S. team will need plenty of ego in next May's World Cup matches in Japan and South Korea. What Mathis needs is a sound left knee. His torn ACL left the U.S. attack toothless in the final qualifying matches. "I've been dreaming of playing in a World Cup my whole life," says the 25-year-old from Conyers, Ga. "When I got hurt, my first thought was, 'Now I've got plenty of time to get better.'" And to plan some spontaneous goal celebrations.
- JEFF BRADLEY
A word of advice to any catcher standing in Adam Dunn's way: Move. In August, Padres back stop Wiki Gonzalez tried to block the Reds rookie from home plate. Dunn, a former Texas QB with tight end size (6'6", 250 pounds), leveled Gonzalez, dislodging both the ball and the catcher's senses-he later left with a concussion. Don't be fooled, though. Dunn's best hits come when he's standing at the plate. With Popeye forearms, sick bat speed and preternatural discipline, the 22-year-old outfielder reminds Reds manager Bob Boone of Mark McGwire. Not rookie McGwire, mind you, but in-his-prime McGwire. After being called up in July, Dunn (.371 OBP, .578 SLG) launched 19 HRs in 244 ABs. Over a full season, that pro-jects to 47 dings. The Houston native has decent range in the field and enough speed to take the extra base and swipe a few. But it's at the plate that he really rumbles.
- SCOTT BURTON
James "Bubba" Stewart heard about the high school junior who might go pro? The kid who has scouts touting "the next Kobe" and college coaches declaring him the best prep baler ever? Seems like everyone who watched LeBron James rip up the summer hoops circuit went racing to a thesaurus for new superlatives. The 6'7" guard out of Akron set a tourney scoring record (120 points in five games) and was MVP as the only soph ever invited to USA Basketball's Youth Development Festival. Then he made mincemeat of top-rated forward Lenny Cooke at the adidas ABCD camp. After that, Michael Jordan requested leBron's presence at his Chicago workouts. "Yeah," LJ says coolly, "he knew about me." James is so in demand that his St. Vincent-St. Mary's High squad (53-1 in his first two years) moved its home games to the University of Akron. But forget about seeing him in the NBA next season. The league doesn't draft prep players whose classes haven't graduated. "Besides," LeBron says,"you only go to high school once."
- CHRIS PALMER