A few days into the new century, a Swiss teenager won his first Grand Slam match. A few months later, Tiger Woods, who had burst onto the scene three years before but had little to show for it since, started his reign atop the sport. Days after that, an unheralded, doughy quarterback from Michigan was selected as a draft afterthought, going to a faceless franchise that barely had a footprint in its own city. While he was in his first training camp, a 15-year-old swimmer from Baltimore stunned the sports world by qualifying for the Olympics. Meanwhile, two established stars of the '90s were making their mark on the 2000s, joining forces to win their first of three-straight NBA titles.
With Tom Brady grasping G.O.A.T. status with his fifth Super Bowl win on Sunday, FOX Sports looks back at the last 17 years in sports — the first 17 of a new era — and picks the 21 greatest athletes of the 21st century (so far).
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Is five full seasons enough to make a list defined by career achievement? For mere mortals, no. But Trout, a two-time MVP who should have four, doesn't fit in that category. Don't believe me? This link should convince you. (If you didn't click, it shows Trout's "similarity score" according to Baseball Reference, which based its model off Bill James' famous formula. His top match through age 24 is Mickey Mantle, followed by Ken Griffey, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott. Sure.) Yeah, keep him off your list. I dare you.
USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
The football superstar, the world's highest-paid athlete and generally considered its most famous, has dozens of Portuguese, UEFA, La Liga, Premier League and Champions League records to his credit, as well as massive club success with Manchester United and then Real Madrid, his current team. He's been named the world's top player four times. But in 2016 he experienced his greatest success — leading Portugal to a Euro Cup title. Well, second-greatest success behind those abs.
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He's tied for the eighth-most majors and fifth-most tournament wins in the modern era (Arnold and after). Lefty has three Masters titles and six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, the major keeping him from the career Slam. His failures in the tournament, including his famous 2006 collapse on the 18th hole at Winged Foot, are the stuff of legend, but Phil long ago outgrew the "best player to never ..." label that was practically stapled to his forehead for the first decade of his career.
The greatest skier in American history and one of the best the sport has ever seen. Vonn won four overall World Cup titles (tied for the most ever) and has records for most downhill season titles and most in all disciplines combined. Her Olympic haul is a major disappointment (one gold and one bronze in Vancouver) but she missed out on a chance at redemption when an injury kept her out of the Sochi Games in 2014.
The most unheralded superstar of all? Johnson is tied with larger-than-life personalities Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most NASCAR Cup season titles, winning seven, including a five-year win streak from 2006-10. The 41-year-old has two Daytona 500 trophies and is the active leader in wins — his 80 victories more than double the next-highest drivers on the list (Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are tied with 38). In the "modern era" of NASCAR, which began in 1972, those 80 wins are third, behind Jeff Gordon (93) and Darrell Waltrip (84).
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We could endlessly debate how PEDs affect Bonds' legacy, but a bunch of guys were doping and no one hit 73 home runs, posted Ruthian OPSs and got on base 60 percent of the time in their late 30s. Four of Bonds' seven MVPs came in the aughts during the PED era and three came before, despite playing 14 seasons in the '90s and eight in the '00s. Despite the pearl-clutching of the baseball media, Bonds deserves to be the in the Hall (though he's on the path to make it, and having him wait a few years was a good message) and on lists of the best ever. Disagree? Just be happy I didn't include Lance Armstrong.
AFP/Getty ImagesMONICA M. DAVEY
Not yet 30, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is nearing his 1,000th point. When he gets it, he'll have reached the milestone the fastest of anyone in the expansion era and the 12th fastest in history, especially impressive given those three straight seasons in which he never played in more than half of Pittsburgh's games. Crosby, like a few other athletes on this list, was a teenage phenom who lived up to the hype.
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When Katie Ledecky swims, Michael Phelps shows up to watch.
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On my first go-round, I didn't have Shaq, thinking that despite all the titles, his prime came in the '90s. Memory can be a tricky thing. All four of Shaq's titles came in the 2000s. His three Finals MVPs obviously did too. His lone NBA MVP was in the 1999-2000 season. Of his eight All-NBA first team honors, seven came in the aughts. One of his two scoring championships did too. Shaq is most certainly a sports icon of the 2000s despite having great success in the 90s and winning his first national honor (McDonald's All-American Game MVP) all the way back in 1989.
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A four-time NBA champion this century (to go along with one in the '90s), two-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA, seven-time All-NBA defense and countless other accolades, Duncan was overshadowed by the showier, louder players of his generation. But in the end, very few can match his numbers or his impact.
A) Simone Biles was two when the calendar flipped to January 2000. As in years old. B) Biles is the only woman to win three all-around world championships in a row and then capped that with a four-gold, one-bronze performance in Rio, putting her on the short list for the best gymnastics showing at any Olympics. She's been called the greatest gymnast ever. For once, it doesn't seem like hyperbole.
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That shot against the Wizards on Monday night was the best thing we've seen this year and that includes the football game played the night before.
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Three-for-three-for-three. Usain Bolt burst onto the scene before Beijing with a world record — set in New York of all places — then shattered that in 2008 Olympics while slowing down in the final 20 meters to preen as he crossed the tape (and then shattered that shattering one year later at the world championships). In that same Beijing Olympics, Bolt bested the unbeatable 200-meter world record held by Michael Johnson by 0.02 seconds (which should give you some idea about how insane Johnson's time was back in 1996). Then Bolt lowered it again in 2009. Despite not running either of those times since, Bolt went six-for-six at the next two Games, including 4x100 relay gold. (And, yes, because of a doping violation Bolt was stripped of one of those relay golds last month. But no mistake: He still won nine golds. He just doesn't have nine golds. Jamaica won that stripped gold by almost a second. One of the Marley grandsons could have run that leg and Team Jamaica still would have won.) The few moments before Bolt hits the blocks at an Olympics or world championships is the most exciting in sports. He says we won't get to feel that again in Tokyo 2020. I say we do: Because the only person who loves that feeling more than fans is Usain Bolt himself.
The legacy of Peyton Manning has changed so much over the past 18 months. His comeback from a serious back injury was a rousing success, as he led the Denver Broncos to four-straight playoff appearances, two Super Bowls and one title, all while putting up numbers that made him look 27, not 37. But his last year was dreadful — outplayed by Brock Osweiler — and he won because of his defense, not in spite of it like he had to do all those years in Indianapolis. But now Tom Brady went from four to five and has become the dean of the elderly quarterback set. Where does that leave Peyton? Doing Papa John's commercials, I guess.
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A smattering of praise for the Argentinian footballer (all courtesy EuroSport):
"Messi is God" – Samuel Eto'o
"There are three or four important things in life: books, friends, women and Messi." –Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portuguese writer)
"Messi is the Mozart of football." – Radomir Antic
"For me, to watch Messi play is a pleasure – it’s like having an orgasm — it’s an incredible pleasure." – Luis Figo
"I have never seen anyone like Leo Messi. He is a miracle from God!" – Arda Turan
That's pretty good, I guess.
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About 30 years too late for the "me generation" and 10 years too early for the "me, me, me generation" (that's you, Lena Dunham and your millennial ilk), Kobe Bryant was unapologetically, unabashedly the biggest fan, supporter and believer in Kobe Bryant. Maybe he shot too much, maybe he didn't pass enough, but maybe he also won five rings (a three-peat with Shaq and then, for good measure, a repeat without him), was a top-five player in every season from 2000 to 2013 and was easily the most entertaining basketball player to watch since MJ.
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It'd been a great two weeks for GOATing. At the Australian Open, Serena Williams broke a tie with Steffi Graf atop the leaderboard for most Grand Slam victories of all time (23). It's a staggering achievement for a woman who was first whispered about as a future phenom before hitting her teenage years. Now 35, she's as dominant as ever, using the most potent weapon tennis has ever seen (her serve) and blasting opponents off the court. Earlier in the list we gave stats and listed facts to explain the inclusion of athletes. Now that we're near the top, we have to defend why athletes aren't higher. For Serena it's her lull in the late-aughts and the fact that she's playing in the weakest era the sport has ever seen. Her fault? No. Make her 23 Slams any less special? Not a chance. Room to keep moving up this list? Absolutely.
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There was a moment, just about two years ago, when Tom Brady was one yard from being 3-3 in Super Bowls with a current three-game losing streak and decade-long drought. Then, in a play that had nothing to do with him, a pass was intercepted, the Patriots became Super Bowl champions for a fourth time and then won their unprecedented fifth on Sunday, all with the same quarterback-coach tandem.
Does the closeness of everything devalue Brady at all? Do we look at his other narrow playoff wins and overrate him? Do we focus on the winning too much? Did Matt Ryan have a more successful season because he won the regular-season MVP, made the Super Bowl and lost a coin-flip game once there? No. No. No, no and no. Quarterbacks wins are often overrated and, yes, QBs get too much credit more often than they get too little. But you're playing for the ring and Brady's got a fistful. I was always on the anti-Brady bandwagon because I thought he'd ridden Bill Belichick's coattails or needed tuck rules and field goals to win championships or wasn't as coolly efficient as Rodgers, as dynamite as Montana or as precise and brilliant as Peyton. Steadily, he's worn me down. He's done it to all of us. The Super Bowl record, while an impressive 5-2, would be great at 4-3 and still pretty awesome at 3-4. Brady has incongruously had a career that started with the greatest highs of any quarterback (three titles in four seasons) but needed another decade of steady greatness for him to show just how amazing he truly was.
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Tiger's jump from "hot new star" to "golfer for the ages" happened right as the calendar flipped to 2000. In the '99 PGA, Woods won his second major, breaking a slump of 10 dating back to his stunning Masters win in 1997. It capped his resurgence from that year: After winning a single tournament in 1998, Woods won a staggering eight in 1999, signaling that he was about to make good on the hype, for real. He won four of the first five majors of the century, including earning his Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters. His victory at Pebble Beach at the 2000 U.S. Open was perhaps the greatest dominance golf has ever seen. In all, he won 12 of the first 34 majors of the 2000s, capping it off with his most dramatic of all — the 2008 U.S. Open win in a playoff with a broken leg. Then, Tiger faded in majors, those graphics showing how he was on pace to tie Nicklaus' 18 majors kept showing the pair split further and further apart. And then, just as the decade he ruled was ending, disaster. Yet even after his life and career temporarily fell apart, Woods regained his hold atop the golf world with a Player of the Year win in 2013 before the injury plague set in. Will he ever show his sustained brilliance again? (Even if he's hurt, he's still going to win another major. It'll happen out of nowhere like Jack in '86 but it'll happen.) And though it's highly unlikely, he still has time to jump a spot on this list too. But with "greatest golfer of his generation" already under his Nike belt buckle, he certainly won't be falling.
[Federer's] backhand [is] a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height.
It's the most beautiful stroke in sports and has, I believe, kept the one-hander alive in an era of two-handed indoctrination. (If you want to pattern yourself off Federer's game — and who wouldn't — the one-handed backhand is the place to start.)
Federer once won eight of 10 majors, losing twice to the greatest clay-court player ever (Nadal) at the French Open. His first 16 majors came in 27 tournaments, a staggering feat for which there's no equal in sports. But after passing Pete Sampras for most majors, Federer's record has looked vulnerable a half-dozen times, with seemingly unstoppable onslaughts put on by Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But remarkably, Federer has held.
The latest assault on the G.O.A.T. mark happened two weeks ago when The Fed played Rafa in a turn-back-the-clock Australian Open final that would either end with a Federer up just two majors (17-15) or a Federer win that would put him up four (18-14). He won and now that lead, over a 30-going-on-40 Nadal, seems safe. Whether Novak Djokovic (12 majors before turning 30) can defy the odds and win seven majors in his 30s will be the big story to watch as the post-Roger/Rafa era eventually unfolds. (Federer has won two Slams after 30, by the way, though he'd have a lot more if he hadn't had to face Djokovic.) It's doubtful, though. This is one torch Federer will never have to pass.
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"But there are so many more swimming events, of course he's going to have the most medals!" With every Summer Olympics of the past 13 years, some variation of that sentence has been used to knock Michael Phelps down a peg. "It's not like LeBron can win four golds at a Summer Games!" Very true. But it's also true that every swimmer who's ever lived has had that same swimming programme ahead of them and none has even gotten within top-of-your-lungs-screaming distance of Phelps.
His 23 gold medals (twenty-three!) give him 14 more golds than anyone else who ever lived, whether they competed in the pool, gym, snow or stadium. You could double the total of the next-highest gold medal hauls and they'd still be five away from tying Phelps. Only two Olympians in history (a pair of Soviet gymnasts) are within half of Phelps' overall medal count. Of all the swimmers who've ever dove into an Olympic pool, only three could have their gold-medal count tripled and be out in front of Phelps. He has a full 10 more medals than any other athlete. Only 32 countries have won more golds than Phelps. We could go on and on and on and on and on (and have).
As of July, Phelps probably would have been third on this list behind some combination of Federer and Woods. Then he went to Rio as a 31-year-old former retiree and won five golds and one silver, which stands as the fourth-best Olympic swimming performance in history, behind Phelps' 2004 Games (six gold, two bronze), his 2008 (eight golds, obviously the tops) and the seven-gold Mark Spitz performance in Munich that Phelps successfully set out to beat.
Other athletes on this list have set immortal records and made their case for being the greatest ever in their respective sport. But no one has ever left the competition so far in his rearview mirror as Michael Phelps. In 2099, when we'll be gone and others will be compiling lists of the greatest athletes of the 21st century, there will be entirely different names in perhaps entirely different sports dotting the list. But the name at the top? That's not changing. Michael Phelps is the greatest ever.
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