It is the type of question which needs to be discussed over a pint or two in the pub – which is exactly how this feature came about. While surely cementing his place as the greatest tennis player of all time, does Roger Federer’s recent triumph at the Australian Open – his 20th Grand Slam title – qualify him as the greatest sportsperson of all time?
For this to be answered we have to consider the categories required to make the list. Of course, there are a few Aussies to bring to this party. The ‘Don’ certainly, and Shane Warne as well from the cricketing fraternity, and of course the ‘Rocket’ Rod Laver from tennis.
Let’s first set the selection criteria to make the list. The following would seem logical: achievement / legacy / durability / talent.
Tennis leads the way
To qualify as a contender, the legacy a sportsman or woman leaves behind is surely a key requirement. Tennis in this regard ranks very highly. Serena Williams has changed the face of women’s tennis with her power and athleticism. She has been a figurehead for issues that have stayed quiet for so long and has inspired many to pick up a tennis racket. Williams’s durability, like Roger Federer’s, is truly remarkable and it would be of no surprise to see her continuing to win majors when she goes back on tour. Federer, likewise. His global appeal is such that he has the likes of Bill Gates eating out of his pocket.
Let’s focus on Federer for just a moment. Such are the advancements in sports medicine and technology today; it is incredible to see how Federer has improved his game further (if that was indeed possible) as he heads towards 40. Physically, Federer has no right to win majors given the stress and strain a 20-year career at the top would and should have put on his body. Tennis is unique in many ways because the tour operates on four different surfaces; all of these require extreme flexibility and muscle exertion. Federer seems to be getting better with age and this is happening in an era where he has played against some of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time, namely Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The ‘Rocket’ Rod Laver is an interesting case for insertion because he transcended the amateur era into the sport becoming professional. For the love of the sport, Laver achieved greatness – 184 singles titles is testimony to that – and could he have achieved even more than Federer if professionalism had come around sooner? Remember, Federer, among many others, idolized the likes of Laver and Roy Emerson.
We should also consider Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova to join Serena Williams on this list. Three unbelievable competitors with hundreds of titles spread between them over two decades. King founded the WTA and she fought for equality on and off the court. Navratilova won 344 titles and was still going strong at the age of 50. Significantly, Navratilova’s record will surely never be surpassed.
From golf, Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus are the standouts. Jones won pretty much everything in the 1920s and 1930s including a Grand Slam in 1930. Golf was amateur then so legacy comes in again here because Jones, who was a lawyer by trade, co-founded the Masters tournament and introduced innovations to golf which every tournament around the world applies today. Jones retired at 28 with 13 majors to his name, only 5 behind the great Jack Nicklaus.
Muhammad Ali looms large in this list. For his sheer presence and pulling power alone, the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest’ was a superstar until his dying day. To say he broke down barriers is a massive understatement. He was a symbol of racial pride in the USA, converted to Islam, and overturned the US Supreme Court by not enlisting in the American army. He was also a phenomenal boxer, truly one of the best ever. The Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire against his great rival George Foreman remains one of the most iconic sporting moments of the 20th century.
So many sports and legends to consider
One of the challenges when pulling a list like this together is to try and bring in all the many sports out there. Cricket, for example, is only played in a handful of countries as is basketball (Michael Jordan is without peer on this one). Sir ‘Don’ Bradman must make this illustrious line-up. To have a batting average of 99.94 defies logic and will never be nearly beaten. Consider this, to be regarded as a cricketing batting immortal, the greats – including the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and most recently Steve Smith – average between 50 and 60. Bradman clocked in at 99.94 when he finished, spread over 20 years and intersected by World War II.
Being a successful leg spinner is arguably the hardest discipline to perfect in cricket. That’s why Shane Warne comes into play. His abilities and mind games bamboozled the very best in the game for years. Warney could get anyone out in any conditions and on any wicket. For sheer cricketing perfection, he would unquestionably sit beside the great ‘Don’.
Soccer had Pele, the great Brazilian maestro. His ability to play his best on the biggest stage in football, the World Cup, puts him above the modern day magicians, Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. Pele is still lauded today rather like Muhammad Ali. That said, soccer is a team sport and as good as Pele was, his teams weren’t bad either, so that has to be factored in.
Michael Phelps’s enduring achievements deserve a mention. His Olympic medal haul, like Navratilova’s record and the Don’s average, may never be surpassed and carries him across 16 years of unrelenting pressure against brilliant athletes. From an Olympian perspective, Phelps just shaves Usain Bolt, but the latter cannot go ignored given his immense sporting popularity. Bolt’s charisma and incredible ability went hand in hand. The 100 meters carries with it a mythical presence as an Olympic event. The pressure, the tension, and the controversy that brings together a very egotistical environment for a few seconds is difficult to beat. The bigger the occasion, the better Bolt went.
What about Sir Steven Redgrave? Redgrave won five gold medals in five successive Olympics (1984-2000). Remarkable, given that he battles diabetes and ulcerative colitis. Training to be an Olympian rower is brutal in the extreme and managing the dietary and nutrition requirements is vital, so this makes Redgrave’s achievements truly legendary.
Most of us will also remember ‘Flo Jo’, Florence Griffith–Joyner, who was one of the fastest women of all time and set world records in both the 100m and 200m, which still remain unsurpassed to this day.
More legends on the track
Ayrton Senna was a man who left an incredible legacy in Formula One racing and through his charity work in his native Brazil. Despite disliking the limelight, Senna was a hugely influential figure in motor racing. He forced his greatest rivals into striving for more speed and set the benchmark for wet weather driving. His tragic death in 1994 also significantly improved the sport’s safety measures.
Perhaps one of the greatest sportsmen who can get easily forgotten given that she died so young was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Babe won gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics, 10 major golf championships, not to mention her sporting prowess in baseball and basketball. What makes Babe a favorite was that she continued to win major golf tournaments as number one in the world whilst being treated for colon cancer, which would eventually take her life in 1956. It was said at the time that she was a pioneer in campaigning for cancer awareness and also an icon to many for her female physique in what was a very conservative America at the time.
So, who makes the grade for top ten sporting legends of all time? It’s a packed field, but here are my team picks:
Top 10 Greatest Sporting Legends of All Time
- Muhammad Ali
- Roger Federer
- Serena Williams
- Michael Phelps
- Ayrton Senna
- Sir Donald Bradman
- Martina Navratilova
- Bobby Jones
- Babe Didrikson Zaharias
- Usain Bolt
Who makes it into yours?
TOP IMAGE: Sir Donald Bradman. (By A.G. Moyes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)