As we near the end of 2009 and thus the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Sports Then and Now is looking at some of the athletes and moments that shaped the decade.
When you look at the list of great individual sport athletes over the last decade it is quickly apparent that we are living in an age of unparalleled individual greatness. Almost every one of the athletes we have chosen as the top 10 individual athletes of the decade has a case to be ranked number one. They are all champions who performed at the top of their sport for a prolonged period of time.
Who is the Best Individual Sport Athlete of the Decade?
- Tiger Woods (22%, 11 Votes)
- Roger Federer (22%, 11 Votes)
- Michael Phelps (16%, 8 Votes)
- Usain Bolt (14%, 7 Votes)
- Lance Armstrong (12%, 6 Votes)
- Jimmie Johnson (4%, 2 Votes)
- Serena Williams (4%, 2 Votes)
- Phil Mickelson (4%, 2 Votes)
- Rafael Nadal (2%, 1 Votes)
- Annika Sorenstam (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 50
10. Phil Mickelson – When the decade began, Phil Mickelson was known as the best golfer yet to win a Major Championship. He finally broke free of that label by winning the 2004 Masters and went on to win the PGA Championship in 2005 and the Masters again in 2006. He has endured a series of near misses and collapses at other Major Championships, most notably at the U.S. Open where he has finished second (or tied for second) five times, including four times this decade. Overall, Mickelson won 24 tournaments in the decade and finished in the top 10 at a Major Championship on 20 occasions.
9. Rafael Nadal – Had Rafael Nadal been competing throughout the entire decade, he would likely have moved higher on this list. Since establishing himself as one of the premier men’s tennis players in the world, Nadal has claimed six Grand Slam titles and unseated Roger Federer as the number one player in the world for nearly a year. Overall, Nadal has claimed victory in 81% of his matches and won 36 tournament titles. He has won the French Open four times and in 2008 defeated Federer in a classic Wimbledon final to establish his ability to win on multiple surfaces. He went on to claim the Australian Open title in 2009. He also claimed the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
8. Serena Williams – In a decade where women’s tennis champions have come and gone, Serena Williams has been the one constant title contender. After winning her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open, she watched over the next two years as her sister, Venus, won four Grand Slam titles. It wasn’t until the 2002 French Open that Serena claimed another major title with a victory over her sister. Serena went on to win 10 Grand Slam titles in the decade including at least one victory at each of the four majors. She also teamed with Venus to win eight Grand Slam doubles titles in the decade and the duo won the gold medal at the 2000 and 2008 Olympics.
7. Annika Sorenstam – Annika Sorenstam was not only the best known player on the LPGA Tour during the decade, she was also unquestionably the most dominant. She finished the year ranked as the top player on the tour five times and won 54 LPGA titles, including eight major titles, in the decade. She also won 12 European tournaments in the decade. In 2003, Sorenstam became the first female golfer since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play in a PGA Tour event. Though she did not make the cut, Sorenstam illustrated her ability by shooting a one-over-par 71 in the opening round. Since her retirement in 2008, the LPGA has struggled to maintain the interest of the sports world.
6. Usain Bolt – You could say that Usain Bolt was the most electrifying performer of the decade. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing he stole the show by winning both the 100 and 200-meter sprints in world record fashion. He also helped Jamaica win the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay. Bolt has since lowered his world record time in the 100 meters to 9.59 and in the 200 meters to 19.19. He is the first male sprinter to hold both the Olympic and world titles in both the 100 and 200-meter sprints at the same time.
5. Jimmie Johnson – NASCAR went through a transition in the decade as the sport enjoyed unprecedented popularity and then took a small step back as the recession has taken a toll on attendance and merchandising. Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are the best known NASCAR drivers, Jimmie Johnson has established himself as the most dominant driver. In 2009, Johnson claimed the NASCAR points championship for the fourth straight year. Since making his debut during the 2001 season, Johnson has claimed 47 victories and finished in the top 10 180 times.
4. Lance Armstrong – Given the physical demands, winning the Tour de France six times in a single decade (and seven straight times overall) is an amazing accomplishment. Having done so after a life-threatening battle with cancer is even more impressive. Lance Armstrong has been an inspiration to millions of people for his courage and ability to rebound from a devastating illness. The biggest negative that has dogged Armstrong throughout his run of success has been a series of allegations that his unprecedented success at the Tour de France was achieved in part due to performance enhancing drugs. He has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, but in this era when just about every athlete that has dominated a physically demanding sport in similar fashion to Armstrong has eventually been proven to have used PEDS, the questions regarding the legitimacy of Armstrong’s performance continue to persist.
3. Michael Phelps – Even in this era of 24-hour sports channels and instant access to news and information, the Olympics still possess the ability to captivate the world and center the focus of the sports world on sports that are important to most of us for only two weeks every four years. No Olympian has been more successful than American swimmer Michael Phelps. During the last two Olympic Games, Phelps claimed a record 14 gold medals and his 16 overall medals ranks second. In 2008, Phelps set a record by winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics. He has broken 37 swimming world records during his career.
2. Roger Federer – Since winning his first Grand Slam title at the age of 21 in 2003, Roger Federer has become the most dominant player in men’s tennis history. He has reached the finals in 17 of the last 18 Grand Slam Tournaments and has reached at least the semifinals in 22 straight majors. At the 2009 French Open, Federer became the sixth men’s tennis player to complete the career Grand Slam. Overall, he has won a record 15 Grand Slam singles titles including Wimbledon six times and the US Open on five occasions. He held the number one ranking in the world for a record 237 consecutive weeks between 2004 and 2008.
1. Tiger Woods – While events of the last month have gone a long way toward tarnishing the public image of one of the world’s best known athletes, the performance of Tiger Woods on the golf course during the decade is still worthy of being recognized as the best among any individual sport athlete. In a sport where just one or two mistakes in a four-day tournament can be enough to keep a player from achieving victory, Woods has won 12 major championships in the decade and 14 overall. Since 2000, he has won 56 PGA tournaments and finished tops on the money list seven times. In recent weeks Woods has been linked to a doctor rumored to have provided performance enhancing drugs to athletes. There has so far been no proof to these allegations, but if they do become substantiated, it will undoubtedly alter Woods’ place in history.