The Associated Press recently named Tiger Woods the athlete of the decade, which got me thinking of who would make my Top-5 list. Here it goes. This is counting down to number one.
- Usain Bolt—The fastest man on the planet. He went into the 2008 Beijing Olympics holding the world record in the 100m dash at 9.72 seconds. At Beijing Bolt set world records in the 100m (9.69 s) and 200m (19.30 s) dashes and demoralized his competition, making it look easy. It is all the more impressive when one considers he had only been running 100m for a few months before the games. Then at the 2009 Berlin World Championships he destroyed his world records again, running the 100m in 9.58 s and the 200m in 19.11 s. Oh, and the Jamaican relay team on which he runs a leg of the 4×100 won the gold in Beijing and set another world record.
- Michael Phelps—Eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, besting Mark Spitz’s previous record of seven in one Olympiad. Add the six other gold and two bronze medals he won at the Athens games, and that brings his total to sixteen medals altogether. Easily the most dominant swimmer of the decade. At Beijing, he set or helped set world records in seven of the eight events he won. At Beijing he blew people away as well as won the 100m butterfly by his fingertips.
- Tiger Woods—The best golfer of his generation. His 2000 U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach is the most dominant golfing performance and ranks high on the most dominant sports performances I have seen. Woods was the only player to finish the tournament under par. U.S. Open championships are notoriously difficult, so it is not unheard of for the winner to be the only player under par—Payne Stewart won the previous U.S. Open as the only player under par when he finished -1. In 2000, the next closest person to Woods was three strokes over par. Woods finished the tournament -12, beating the field by fifteen strokes.
- Lance Armstrong—Six Tour de France victories in the decade. When we include his first victory in 1999, that brings him to seven in a row. The next best in the sport is Miguel Indurain who holds five Tour de France wins in a row. My favorite moment from Armstrong’s streak comes from the 2001 Tour during the Alpe D’Huez stage. Check out this video for Armstrong’s glare back at his main rival Jan Ullrich (at the 1:40 mark) and then his acceleration to finish the stage. For a race that takes a couple of weeks and leads are won and lost incrementally, “The Look”encapsulated Armstrong’s dominance over his competitors. Oh, yeah, and Armstrong is a cancer survivor.
- Roger Federer—Fifteen Grand Slam tennis championships, won on every surface. Three Australian Open titles, one French Open, six Wimbeldon (including five in a row), five US Open (all consecutively). He holds the record for most consecutive Grand Slam finals reached with ten—the next closest is Rod Laver with six. Perhaps even more amazing is that he has reached the semifinals in twenty-two consecutive Grand Slam tournaments—the next closest is Ivan Lendl with ten. Federer beat Pete Sampras’ previous record of fourteen Grand Slam titles and Sampras, as great as he was, never caught a whiff of winning the French Open. Federer spent a record 237 weeks ranked number one in the world. Even though Federer has only won the French Open once, he has made it to the finals every year since 2006. If it were not for Raphael Nadal’s brilliance, we might be talking about Federer as the greatest clay court player ever as well.
It seems that Federer does not receive as much attention as the other athletes on this list. I think that has to do more with his personal style and effortless play. Federer dominates without making it look like he is dominating. He plays smoothly and fluidly, but he tries and makes shots that baffle champions like Bjorn Borg and Sampras. His forehand is the best I’ve ever seen. His running forehand seems to be even better. Federer serves extremely well, but because he is so proficient at nearly every part of his game, he is not known as a great server. He is the best I have seen at both setting up shots three or four strokes ahead and at disguising his shots. Here are some highlights of Federer’s play.
Federer gets the top for a couple of reasons even though I think all these athletes have legitimate arguments. First, he holds the outright record for most major victories in his sport. Woods still does not have the most major victories for golf, though I think he will within the next few years. Second, Federer is truly an athlete of the 2000’s. Both Woods and Armstrong began winning major championships in the 1990’s, whereas Federer, Phelps, and Bolt have had all of their major success in this decade. Third, Federer has dominated for nearly the entire decade, once he began winning major tournaments in 2003. Bolt has come on late and Armstrong retired by the middle of the decade.
Honorable mentions go to Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Albert Pujols, Tom Brady, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho.