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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Tuesday December 22, 2009 12:23PM; Updated: Tuesday December 22, 2009 1:01PM
2000s: Top 20 Male Athletes
Summaries by John Rolfe, SI.com
 
Our top 20 lists of the best male and female athletes of the decade were a team effort. We asked a group of writers and editors at SI.com to consider on-the-field achievements and come up with the best of the best. Each voter's top choice was awarded 20 points, followed by 19 for their second pick, 18 for their third, etc. There were no restrictions on athletes who have admitted to using or have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, though many voters acknowledged that such considerations did influence their choices.
 
1 Tiger Woods
Those who scoff at choosing a golfer as the greatest athlete of the decade need only look at how Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open in a 91-hole marathon over Rocco Mediate while playing on a double-stress-fractured left leg and with a torn ligament in his knee that subsequently required surgery and eight months of recovery. "He's so hard to beat," Mediate said. "He's unreal." During the decade, golf's most towering presence continued to flood the record book while winning 74 events (56 on the PGA Tour) -- 45 more than rival Phil Mickelson and 41 more than Vijay Singh, who held the top ranking during Woods' 2004 slump. Woods, 33, has racked up 12 of his 14 majors since 2000, leaving him just four shy of Jack Nicklaus' career mark. And, according to Forbes, Woods is the first athlete to earn a cool billion in winnings and endorsements, although his public image has taken a huge hit with a flood of revelations about his infidelity.
2 Roger Federer
Since his first ATP win, in 2001, Federer has become arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, winning 15 Grand Slam singles titles and making 21 major finals appearances (both records) -- including 17 of the last 18. He was No. 1 in the world for a record 237 consecutive weeks before Rafael Nadal dethroned him in 2008. But even as he "struggled," Federer reclaimed the top ranking this year by reaching four Grand Slam finals and winning two, including his first French Open title and his sixth Wimbledon in an epic five-set victory over Andy Roddick that pushed the 28-year-old Federer past Pete Sampras as the sport's all-time Grand Slam king.
3 Michael Phelps
Like Secretariat, whose heart was physically larger than a normal thoroughbred's, Phelps' 79-inch wingspan and ferocious drive enabled him to top the Mount Olympus of feats: the seven Olympic gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the Munich Olympics in 1972. At the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps, 23, won eight in an exhausting 17 races, including three relays, setting seven world marks in nine days, often with scant time to rest in between and, in the case of the 200-meter butterfly, leaky goggles. Since his Olympic debut at age 15 in 2000, he has won 16 medals, including a record 14 gold, and ranks as the second-most decorated Olympian behind Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina (18).
4 Lance Armstrong
If the Tour de France is the world's most grueling sports event -- covering approximately 2,200 miles, including several tortuous mountain climbs, in 21 days -- then a record seven wins, including six in a row from 2000-05, stand as the decade's landmark achievement. Dogged by doping accusations that were never proven, the relentlessly driven Armstrong retired after his 2005 victory, but his thirst for competition lured him back. By Stage 7 of the '09 Tour, he was within 0.138 seconds of the yellow jersey before fading to a respectable third. Not bad for a 37-year-old cancer survivor.
5 Usain Bolt
With his sport on the brink of irrelevance due to a rash of performance-enhancing drug violations, the electrifying Jamaican sprinter with the apt nickname "Lightning Bolt" awed a skeptical world. At 6-foot-5 and blessed with a long but unusually quick stride, he set jaw-dropping world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 100 meters (9.69, while slowing in the final 15 meters for celebratory styling), 200 meters (19.30; considered unthinkable after Michael Johnson's 19.32 in 1996) and 4x100-meter relay. At the 2009 world championships, Bolt obliterated his own marks with a 9.58 in the 100 and a dazzling 19.19 in the 200.
6 Tom Brady
Brady began the 2009 season as the winningest quarterback of the Super Bowl Era (with a 101-27 career record, minimum 100 starts), his place secure among the greatest big-game players. A three-time Super Bowl champion and MVP of two, his 14 postseason wins stood second to Joe Montana (16). Brady's 2007 NFL MVP season was near perfection: 18-1 overall -- the lone loss coming in his fourth Super Bowl to an underdog that needed a miracle play -- while leading the highest-scoring offense in NFL history (589 points) with 4,806 yards passing and a record 50 TDs with the best TD-to-interception differential (plus-42) of all time.
7 Kobe Bryant
If there was any doubt about his ability to lead and win without Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant buried it with his 2009 Finals MVP award, morphing from notorious ball-hog to bona fide team guy. The championship was his fourth by age 30 -- more than Michael Jordan had by that age -- and it capped a decade in which Bryant staked his claim as the NBA's premier player: 10-time All-Star, seven All-NBA and seven All-Defensive selections, 2007-08 MVP, two scoring titles. His 81 points against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006, rank second to Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100, and Bryant has passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to move into second place on the Lakers' all-time scoring list.
8 Peyton Manning
Durable (no missed starts), meticulously prepared, an improvisational genius, the decade's most prolific quarterback's records include six straight years (including 2000-04) of 4,000 or more yards passing; 4,000 career completions amassed in 183 games (10 fewer than Dan Marino); a 121.4 passer rating (2004); and seven fourth-quarter comeback wins (2009). One of only two three-time NFL MVPs (2003, '04 and'08), the Super Bowl XLI MVP has led the Colts to a seventh straight 12-win campaign, this time under a new coach and with a negligible running game. "If this year's not an indication of Peyton Manning's greatness, I don't know what ever would be," Chiefs GM Scott Pioli told SI recently.
9 Albert Pujols
His nine straight years of at least 32 home runs, 103 RBIs, .314 batting average and 99 runs scored constitute the greatest start in major league history. In 2003, Pujols, then 23, was the youngest National League batting champ (.359) since 1962. Now a three-time NL MVP (2005, '08 and a unanimous choice in '09), eight-time All-Star and Gold Glove fielder ('06), El Hombre has led the Cardinals to five NL Central titles, two NL pennants (he was the '04 NLCS MVP) and the '06 World Series championship. Those who maintain that he is untainted by performance-enhancers (he has never tested positive for a banned substance) say his character is reflected in the Roberto Clemente Award he won in 2008 for best exemplifying the game on and off the field.
10 Michael Schumacher
The Red Baron (nicknamed for his German heritage and the color of his Ferrari) won 56 of his record 91 Grand Prix from 2000 until his retirement after the 2006 season. His unprecedented five Formula One championships in a row (2000-04) made him arguably Europe's most famous athlete. (In '04, Schumacher hauled in about $80 million from endorsements, second only to Tiger.) In 2002, he won 11 of 17 races during a season in which he never finished lower than third, and in '04 set the F1 single-season mark of 13 wins, all while rules and technologies were changed for the sake of a little parity as well as safety.
11 Mariano Rivera
Nearly as automatic as the sunrise, Rivera ended the decade the way he closed the 2000 season: by getting the final out of the World Series (while battling a rib-cage injury, yet). In between, he outlasted or outperformed every other top-20 closer of 10 seasons ago (only three are still in the majors). Rivera is now the second pitcher to earn 500 career saves, and his postseason numbers have been stunning: 26 saves, 0.94 earned run average, 68 strikeouts, 12 walks, only 52 hits in 86 innings. Expectations of his decline due to age, injury or slump were consistently premature. In 2008, at 38, he had a career-best 0.665 WHIP and has blown only three saves in 86 chances the past two seasons.
12 Tim Duncan
The epitome of quiet excellence in a look-at-me league, Duncan was the NBA's MVP in 2002 and '03, and Finals MVP in '03 and '05. Behind Duncan, the Spurs last year became the third team in NBA history to have 10 consecutive 50-win seasons. "In my 20 years in the NBA, Duncan is the best big [man] to play the game," former coach Jeff Van Gundy told SI in 2007 as the Spurs were en route to their third title of the decade (Duncan's fourth overall). [Shaquille] O'Neal always had the benefit of a dominant perimeter player, from [Penny] Hardaway to [Kobe] Bryant to [Dwyane] Wade. Duncan has had very good players, but he's never had that dominant player, so that's why I give him the edge."
13 Zinedine Zidane
He stopped playing more than three years ago (in his last game, a World Cup final, he was ejected for head-butting an opponent), but the 2000 and '03 FIFA World Player of the Year still earned the most votes for a soccer player on our list. He finished just ahead of Ronaldinho, who also won the FIFA award twice during the decade, but didn't rival Zidane's reign atop the global game. The spectacularly gifted but temperamental midfielder led France to the 2000 Euro title and scored our goal of the decade, for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final. Coaxed out of international retirement for the '06 World Cup, he carried France through the knockout rounds against Spain, Brazil and Portugal before his team fell to Italy on penalty kicks.
14 Shaquille O'Neal
Both an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the 7-foot-1, 325-pound Diesel stood as the dominant center of his generation. Shaq was the regular-season and Finals MVP in each of the Lakers' three consecutive titles from 2000-02 (Michael Jordan is the only other player to accomplish a Finals three-peat). O'Neal left Los Angeles for Miami in 2004, promised a championship, and delivered in '06 alongside Dwyane Wade. At 37, Shaq remains an All-Star who last season passed Wilt Chamberlain by leading the NBA in field-goal percentage for a record 10th time (seven this decade).
15 Jimmie Johnson
It's remarkable to think that all of Johnson's success -- he's won more races than any other Sprint Cup driver this decade (47), and this year he became the first to win four consecutive championships -- has happened since he entered the series full time in 2002. Along with his 47 wins, he has 117 top-five finishes and 180 top 10s, and he's been fifth or better in the standings every year. At 34, he has a fantastic chance to tie or pass Richard Petty's and Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s record of seven championships. "Jimmie and his team might be the best there's ever been," Petty told SI recently. "It's hard to compare drivers from different eras, but I do know this: I wouldn't want to be racing against him right now."
16 LeBron James
He has justified his hype by evoking comparisons to Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson while lifting the Cavaliers to title-contender status. His size (6-foot-8, 260-plus pounds), strength, finishing ability, passing and smarts made him the youngest NBA Rookie of the Year (at age 19), a five-time All-Star, a scoring champion (2007-08), the '09 NBA MVP, a triple-double machine and the second player, after Robertson, with five straight seasons of averaging at least 27 points, six rebounds and six assists. His work ethic has made him a lockdown defender and his leadership and expanding potential inspired Hall of Famer Jerry West to say James could become the greatest player in the history of the game.
17 Manny Pacquiao
Pacquiao won six division championships in the 2000s (he owns a record seven overall), a body of work that gave him a slight edge in the voting over Floyd Mayweather Jr., who also staked his claim as the world's finest pound-for-pound boxer. Pacquiao's record for the decade (23-1-2 with 20 KOs) includes wins over Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto. After Pacquiao's convincing victory against Cotto in November, his promoter, Bob Arum, told SI: "I've been around Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard. "Manny Pacquiao is the best fighter I've ever seen."
18 Derek Jeter
The classy, clutch eye of the Yankees' perpetual pressure hurricane passed Lou Gehrig as the storied franchise's all-time hits leader and became the all-time leader among shortstops. He's also the first to reach 200 home runs and 200 steals. Statheads declared him baseball's worst fielder at his position, but in 2009, he won his fourth Gold Glove since 2000. A consummate gamer (see his flip play in Game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series), Jeter's postseason slate for the decade included a .307 batting average, .378 OBP, 64 runs, 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 93 games that yielded four pennants, two World Series titles and the 2000 Series MVP award.
19 Nicklas Lidstrom
The NHL's most accomplished player, his excellence as a passer, power-play quarterback and defender (he averaged less than 40 penalty minutes per season while logging major ice time against top lines) precedes and survives the 2004-05 lockout that led to rules promoting offense. Lidstrom's six Norris Trophies (three pre-lockout; three after) place him behind only iconic Hall of Famers Doug Harvey (seven) and Bobby Orr (eight). His silverware haul this decade also includes two Stanley Cups -- the last, in 2008, made him the first European captain of an NHL champion -- and an Olympic gold medal with Sweden in 2006.
20 Alex Rodriguez
Had his steroid admission not clouded his résumé, the game's reputed best all-around player, who reached 500 homers in 2007 at a record pace (32 years, eight days), would rank higher. The eight-time All-Star won three AL MVP Awards (in 2003, '05 and '07), though his playoff struggles and gossip-page celebrity made him a sideshow. This year, A-Rod finally validated his paper in the postseason: .365 average, six homers, a Yankees-record 18 RB1s, .808 slugging percentage in 52 at-bats. Eight of his RBIs tied games or provided the lead, and the Angels made him only the second player (Barry Bonds, '03) to receive a postseason intentional walk in the ninth inning with no one on base.
 
Next Group: Kenenisa Bekele, Barry Bonds, Martin Brodeur, Sidney Crosby, Ichiro, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Rafael Nadal, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Roman Sebrle.
 

2000s: The Decade Across Sports
ARTICLES/GALLERIES GALLERIES
Best: Male athletes | Female athletes
Biggest: Deals | 1-hit wonders | Stories
Greatest: Teams | Coaches | Executives
Notable: Milestones | Innovations
Hottest: Rivalries | New stadiums
Notorious: Scandals in sports | Flops
Sneaky good: Overlooked performances
Praiseworthy: Acts of sportsmanship
 

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