With one of the more interesting tournaments in sports getting started this weekend - the French Open played on the red clay of Roland Garros - FOX Sports identified and ranked the 11 greatest tourneys in sports. We debated the inclusion of the playoffs of the big four American sports, as they're tournaments in technicality only. (When you hear "tournament" you think "French Open" or "NCAA," not "wild-card round of the NFL.") Ultimately, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB postseason tournaments have brackets (albeit mostly unseen) and teams advancing round-by-round for the ultimate goal of holding a trophy high in the air. They're included. But beware - while the NFL playoffs may be one of the greatest events in sports, as a tournament it doesn't rate very high.
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The NFL playoffs are far more random than anyone ever wants to give them credit for. There's no seven-game series to balance out the ebbs and flows - it's merely three (or four) 60-minute games from which one team emerges, gladiator style. It makes for the best sports viewing of the year, as every game, with the exception of ones involving Houston or Cincinnati, can be competitive and any result is feasible. But it speaks to how little the NFL playoffs are like a tournament when we regard the winning team as the best in football (even though they rarely are) instead of the winner of a tournament. Rafael Nadal may not win the French Open, but he's still the best clay-court player in the world. That doesn't matter in football. Go 16-0 and lose in the Super Bowl and you're considered a failure. All that being said, the NFL playoffs are wonderful and the timing - after the holidays in the dead of winter - makes for a great viewing situation. What else are you going to do on a freezing January weekend?
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Stanley Cup Playoffs
The only predictable thing about the NHL playoffs is that the Washington Capitals won't be in them very long. Beyond that, with apologies to Kevin Garnett, anything is possible. This year has a No. 8 seed (Nashville Predators) in the Stanley Cup Final a few years after a No. 8 seed won it all. Consider: Only twice since 2003 have top-three seeds met in the Stanley Cup Final. In the NBA, by comparison, top-three seeds have met in all but four Finals since 1982.
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The World Series captured the attention of generations before the rise of the NFL began to make it second-fiddle in October. Turns out there's room enough for both. Last year's Series was one of the greatest ever, with the Cubs breaking their century-long drought with a thrilling seven-game win over the similarly hungry Cleveland Indians. With young stars rising in the sport, good teams in big markets and a postseason that ratchets up the tension like no other, baseball is putting the classic back in fall.
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The best professional football teams in Europe meet in a cross-league tournament among the most prestigious in the sport. Champions (and runners-up) from the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1, among others, fill the brackets of the event, which is played out over the span of a few months at the start of a year.
Spain, England and Italy have produced the most champions - and, combined, have won almost 50% more titles than the rest of Europe - but 10 nations have beene home to a Champions League winner including Scotland, Romania and the former Yugoslavia.
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U.S. Open (tennis)
Tennis in the biggest city in the biggest stadium on the biggest stage (with night sessions to boot). What more do you want?
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America dominated the Cup when it just played the Brits - they had won 16 of 17 and were 18-3 overall - so at the urging of Jack Nicklaus and others, the competition was opened to all of Europe in 1979. It was a fine competitive move but not so much for American exceptionalism. Europe has gone 11-8 in its Ryder Cup history but has recently ruled the competition, winning six of seven prior to Team USA's victory at Hazeltine last fall.
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U.S. Open (golf)
One of the few, true "open" tournaments left. Anybody with a 1.4 handicap index or lower is eligible to compete in one of the dozens of local qualifying tournaments that feed into the bigger sectional qualifying events filled with golf pros who weren't exempted into the year's second major. In 2017, more than 9,400 people teed off for one of 156 spots, a true sports meritocracy.
The Open is known for its penal course setup, with high rough, undulating greens and narrow landing areas, all of which make even par a great, and sometimes victorious, score. As fun as it is to watch players fire for birdies and eagles on the back-nine at Augusta, it's a different sort of enjoyment seeing the best in the world scramble for pars on the back-nine at the rotation of the greatest courses in America.
The Open is also the last tournament with an 18-hole Monday playoff, a relic from the past and a fun quirk, if you're able to watch it at work. I've got a feeling about this year, by the way. From 1984-94 there were five playoffs at the Open. Since then there have just been two, with the last 18-hole playoff coming all the way back in 2008 when Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate on one of the most exciting days in golf history. We're due.
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World Cup (soccer)
Over one summer month every four years, 32 of the world's best national soccer teams play an epic tournament for world, nay, global supremacy.
The event has been rising in popularity in the States with every four-year cycle and it's now reached the point of being like a low-key Olympics. The soccer diehards, obviously, are living and dying by every game, just as they always have. But now, when the U.S. Men's National Team kicks off in the Cup, it's become a galvanizing event in the country, with people whose only knowledge of soccer comes from their time on the orange team in second grade getting down with the sport to cheer on the red, white and blue.
It doesn't matter if you like soccer or not. If you enjoy sports and spectacle then you can't turn away from the World Cup. The planned move to 48 teams for the 2026 edition waters down the competition but still shouldn't slow the roll of the biggest tournament in sports.
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NCAA tournament (men's basketball)
For all the advancements made to the NCAA tournament in the past 15 years, it's amazing that, at its core, that tourney structure itself has largely been unchanged since 1985. Yeah, the First Four is an abomination and unfair to the two losing No. 16 seeds who don't get a real tournament experience. But that's really the only downside of the sweeping changes to television, streaming and coverage in the past decade. We still get what we want, as we've always had it: four sets of four games on Thursday and Friday, a first weekend with 16 more games and then a four-round whittling down of the field from 16 to one.
If you'll notice, most of the tournaments on this list haven't changed very much in recent years, which is pretty amazing when you consider how the sports landscape is almost unrecognizable from that of, say, 20 years ago. With sky-high rights fees, adding another round of playoffs or another session at the Ryder Cup would bring in even more money. Mostly, that's been resisted and it's been to the benefit of fans. The playoffs for the Big Four professional sports teams are fine as is (maybe you could defend adding two teams to the NFL) and everything else has worked for decades upon decades and there's no need to change gears now.
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The oldest tournament in tennis is still the most revered. Though the Australian, French and U.S. Opens have their supporters, Wimbledon still reigns as the most important major in the sport. There are the strawberries and cream. The overuse of the word "fortnight." One of the great days in sport - Manic (or Magic) Monday, which takes place after the traditional Sunday break and features every fourth-round match on the men's and women's side. (It still needs a better name.) And then there's Centre Court, the most hallowed ground in tennis. For some, stepping onto it for a match will be the greatest sporting achievement of their lives, even if the result is losing to Serena Williams in 44 minnutes.
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Hokey? Yes. Cliched? 110%. Regardless, the famed "a tradition unlike any other" tagline is a pretty perfect five-word summation of The Masters.
At Augusta, every blade of glass looks set in place, the sand is raked like it's never been disturbed, the grounds are immaculate, the field is top-notch, the air is just haughty enough to be special but not so stuffy that it sucks the fun out of the event, and the best usually seem to find themselves near the top of the Sunday leaderboard.
It's a magical thing to watch on TV, with the flowers in full bloom and players taking on the same holes we'ev watched for decades. Every spot has a memory at the only major with a fixed site.
When players get to No. 12, you think of Fred Couples' ball holding up and defying gravity to stay out of Rae's Creek. Go to the approach on the 15th and Jordan Spieth's 2016 horror show pops to mind. On No. 16, it's Tiger's chip-in while on No. 17 it's Jack holding up his putter as his "yes sir" putt drops into the hole. Take your pick on No. 18, from Phil draining his birdie to the Adam Scott/Angel Cabrera "anything you can do" battle to all the ceremonies in which a man is presented with a jacket that changes his life forever.