Athlete of the Decade

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It's that time of year when we kick around the biggest sports accomplishments of the year. And given that we're closing out 2009, this year the discussion broadens out to the top athlete of the decade.

To my mind, there have been four athletes this first decade of the 21st century to have achieved such superlative careers that we could rightly describe each as one of those truly rare specimens who come along only once in a lifetime. Think of it by posing these questions: How often does boxing have a Muhammad Ali dance around the ring? How often does soccer have a Pelé as their worldwide star? How often is baseball led by a character such as Babe Ruth? How often does a Secretariat grace the tracks of thoroughbred racing?

The list of spectacular performers across the sports universe from the first moments of 2000 to today is long and impressive indeed.

Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, Tim Duncan, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning. Unique, long-term winners all of them. Tricky thing is, we just happen to have lived through a decade whereby there were four outrageously talented and driven athletes, the likes of which only come our way once in a lifetime.

Tennis aficionados old enough to have witnessed the greats over several eras now claim unequivocally that, as smooth and dominant as were Bill Tilden, Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg, nobody but nobody has ever taken command of a tennis court as has Switzerland's Roger Federer. In pure skill, sense of the sport as art, in uncannily coming up with the winning goods at precisely the necessary moments, Federer has been sublime with a racquet. Never another like him.

On a bicycle, in the hundred-plus years of the Tour de France, beyond the legendary Eddie Merckx and Bernard Hinault, Lance Armstrong rode the mountains of Europe as if he were born in the saddle. Seven Tour de France victories would have by themselves catapulted him onto the best-of-decade podium, but to survive cancers doctors said he just couldn't survive rendered Armstrong larger than sports….a once-in-a-lifetime heroic figure.

I was poolside in Munich in 1972 when the then incomparably fluid Mark Spitz won his incomparably magnificent seventh gold medal in one Olympic Games. It was declared far and wide that there would never be a swimmer of his superiority again. Then came this decade a huge wing-spanned manta ray named Michael Phelps who seemed to have been bionically engineered to stroke across the surface of a pool in utter hydrodynamic bliss.

Three of them. Phelps, Armstrong, Federer. Each once-in-a-lifetime geniuses at their respective art forms.

And yet another athlete beats them all out for Top Dog of this decade. Or I suppose I should say Top Cat because it's Tiger. "Ironic" is understating it, that after three weeks of free-falling from his lofty perch as most revered athlete of our time, due to revelations of his many sexual infidelities, he is now voted by the AP and most of us sports commentators Athlete of the Decade. When a 10% winning percentage is considered unlikely and rare in the elusive game of golf, Tiger Woods' 30% rate is unfathomable. He won one US Open on a broken leg and another by an astounding 15-stroke margin. His presence in a tournament doubles the television audience. He has quadrupled the tour's prize money since he started prowling the fairways.

We don't know what will become of Tiger over the next decade. But for the one coming to a close, it's a fait accompli. Tiger Woods is our Athlete of the Decade.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: Tiger Woods celebrates with the trophy after winning on the first sudden death playoff hole during the playoff round of the 108th US Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course (South Course) on June 16, 2008 in San Diego, California. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images



Diana Nyad