Ranking Athletes.

Federer's Puppeteer.

I watched the French Open Final on Sunday.  If you are a regular reader perhaps you remember that I am not a big Roger Federer guy.  Federer won too much, at times seemed falsely humble, and you know I was just a Sampras fan.  Simple as that.  I started paying more attention to tennis when Federer starting losing, and in the business of beating Federer, no one is as good as Rafael Nadal, who is pretty much the only blemish on Roger’s “best of all-time,” resume.  Of course, now Nadal is reaching a historic level himself, and rooting for him isn’t much different from rooting for Federer, but on Sunday morning, I was still squarely in Nadal’s camp.

This isn’t about Federer/Nadal, though.  It’s more about an impression I got watching the match.  These guys are freakishly athletic.  I think what discredits tennis players to a certain extent is that it is impossible to get perspective on how fast the ball is traveling when watching on television.  It’s like a great fastball.  To really get an idea of how hard the guy is throwing you’d need a stiff up there swinging about 2 seconds late.  Same thing with tennis.  Put a civilian out on the court and he’d be taking serves off his forehead.  But, with these guys ripping the balls back and forth without hardly ever missing they could be going 30 mph, they could be going 130, it’s hard to tell.

One move in particular really caught my attention.  A serve clipped the net, or something made the point or serve dead and Roger didn’t play the ball, he just dropped the racket quickly between his legs and sent a perfect one-hop volley to the ball kid up at the net.  Maybe it was lucky, but it was this display of casual hand-eye coordination that kind of blew my mind the more I thought about it.  These tennis players are powerful (at least in their dominant arm), they usually have elite speed and quickness, and off the charts hand-eye coordination.  That’s a pretty athletic combination.  But, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a tennis player brought up when people talk about the best athletes in the world.

The default argument, at least at the present time, seems to be the NBA guys are the best athletes.  The one man argument is LeBron James.  The defense rests.  And, that is one hell of a case.  I admit that.  Now, there are some stiffs in the NBA, some guys that are overweight, but your general population of swingmen are clearly among the best athletes.  Endurance, body control, explosiveness, they’d rank near the top in all those categories.  And, I still might rank the NBA guys at #1, but lets look at some other sports.

Some have no chance.  My beloved golf, for example.  I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this one.  Golf is very difficult to play, and the professional ranks are dotted with some great athletes, but it’s not really in the discussion.  The longevity thing is what kills golf the most, I think.  If Tom Watson can almost win a British Open at 60, well, that’s amazing, but not athletic in the sense we’re talking about.  If age doesn’t quickly thin the field of players, the sport is out.

Next to get the boot?  How about distance runners?  I feel like becoming a great endurance athlete is definitely a feat, but I don’t know if it speaks to overall athleticism.  Or maybe it just doesn’t fit in with our conditioned view of athleticism.  I think cyclists kind of fit into this profile as well.  Ok, you did an Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean I want you on my rec-league softball team.

Ok, this is going to take all day, so let me just get to my top-7 here.

7.  Soccer.  I’m probably biased against soccer.  Since I’m on record not really giving credit for endurance, we’ve got to take that part out.  They have a tremendous amount of skill, but it seems a bit too specialized for me.  Also, anecdotally, I’ve seen too many soccer players that are awful at other sports to put them any higher.

6.  Baseball.  Baseball is a very tough one, and really all these are hard to put into order.  I equate the Bartolo Colon and John Kruk arguments to being baseball’s version of offensive lineman.  Hitting is the crowning achievement of hand-eye coordination and baseball players have a great track record of being all-around athletes, but without a ton of contact and with the pace of the game, I can’t go higher.

5.  Boxing/Wrestling/MMA.  This is the toughest one for me to rank, because I’m absolutely clueless about what it really takes to do any of these things.  The conditioning aspect is unparalleled.  I’ve also got to give a little bonus for the whole putting yourself in harm’s way thing. There are contact sports, and then there are sports where you are actively trying to knock the other guy out.  I think the speed/power/explosiveness combo here is enough to make them top-5.

4.  Tennis.  Obviously, it is fresh in my mind, and the reason I am doing the whole post.  I actually contemplated a top-3 ranking.  One thing that works so much in favor of tennis is that it is unquestionably a young person’s game.  Short primes, it wrecks your body, which isn’t great for tennis players, but is reflective of the all-out effort and pounding these guys take in a non-contact sport.

3.  Football.  I think the elite guys in each sport would be a different discussion.  A running back, or a defensive back might be the most athletic guy on the planet at a given time, but football has too many specialists, too many guys that get by without a well-rounded set of skills.  Your giant nose tackles, even some quarterbacks, etc.  It’s all about the burst too. Everything is ten or fifteen second windows.  Top-3, but if there are multiple guys on the field that can’t run 100 yards without getting oxygen, I think that’s a little damning.

2. Hockey.  The thing about hockey is no one in the entire league is out of shape.  It’s impossible to play hockey and not be in good shape.  I guess you can say the same for soccer, but hockey has more elements.  The most obvious being…they’re on skates.  The hand-eye coordination, endurance, I think it is all there.  Also, hockey players are often pretty well-rounded athletes.  If you’ve ever seen one hit a golf ball for example…

1.  Basketball.  A long way to go to get to the cliched conclusion, but I’m not ready to discount the NBA guys.  And, it might be the argument I made earlier in the post: LeBron.  LeBron is a unique athlete, and it’s his combo of size and skill along with the other NBA guys that set them apart, I think.  Really the only thing working against the NBA is the stiff center, but I don’t think there are enough of those guys, or they play a big enough role to take them off the top spot.

I suppose Rugby should be somewhere on the list, maybe 2.5 between football and hockey, but not mainstream in these parts enough for me to rank it, possibly need an honorable mention for sprinters, but I think that’s about it.  List over.


12 thoughts on “Ranking Athletes.

  1. i agree on the point about distance runners. like golf, their are some great athletes scattered in there, but for the most part…not too impressive outside their discipline.

    i would throw decathletes in there somewhere. maybe that is too specific a category though.

  2. huh, but don’t you respect a man who doesn’t grunt? so give federer a few set? or at least games?

    i despise this lady who grunt non-stop when she lifts weights at the gym. inhale, exhale lady. it’s simple.

    i dunno. but maybe i’m a hypocrite


    i think dancing and gymnastics are also ridiculously athletic and under-rated. swimming, as well. i run everyday, but i tried to swim butterfly last week, after taking a 2.5 decade hiatus.

    i made it 1/2 a length of the pool. that guy, i forget his name, who smokes weed and gets a lot of medals…yeah, super under-rated athlete. but then again, you don’t have to process offense/defense stuff. which you do with basketball.

    rugby looks like another insane sport. if i could go back in time, to relive bryn mawr, i think i’d have played.


    • Swimmers are the most unathletic bunch of people around. I was always shocked when I’d play basketball with my swim teammates.

  3. i know swimmers are in ridiculously good shape, but i’d group that with something like cycling probably…

    if you tried a round of boxing, for example, I feel like you’d be similarly winded.

    gymnastics didn’t really cross my mind, I have to admit. I’d have to think about that one.

    decathletes didn’t either really, but I wonder a bit about them. Certainly they are well rounded, but they aren’t the best at anything they do, are they? I just wonder how many top athletes find their way to that. i know that’s like the unofficial title that comes with the territory, though.

    • i just have a hard time with boxing. amazing shape, but find it more sabotage than athletic.

      oh, but the Fighter was a good movie. regardless. just. um, case in point?


  4. speaking of rugby, did anyone watch the Rugby 7’s college championships or whatever it was called this weekend? I’ve never really watched before this weekend, but I seemed to pick up the basic rules fairly quickly and I must admit it was pretty entertaining.

    Where they would fit on the athleticism list? I’m not quite sure, they are all very strong and have soccer like endurance, but I’m not sure if there’s enough other skills involved that would put them in the top 10 of sports. But as I said I enjoyed watching it. Actually now that I think about it, they were talking about a couple of the Dartmouth players who didn’t make the hockey team and then somewhat randomly tried out for the rugby team – which they made and now start for. So I don’t know if that speaks to the fact that rugby is still new in the States or if it’s not that hard to pick up…probably some of both.

    • good point. it’s kind of like Ireland is to Europe…gritty outcasts?

      maybe that’s why i wanna play.

      match anyone?


  5. I saw some of the Rugby 7s. I’d seen a bit of it before too. It was kind of interesting.

    the guys are obviously in good condition, and can take and give hits.

    On the college level, I’m not sure it’s played enough in the states to really be a top-flight athletic pursuit at this point.

    In some games I’ve seen you occasionally find someone who probably would normally be playing football or something, and he’s totally running wild. So, I think like maybe with the case with the hockey players they are slightly below top-tier.

    But in other countries, where the sport is huge and they are fielding professionals I think the guys are way up on the list, I just ball parked it between 2 and 3, but I think in a lot of countries the best athletes are playing rugby.

  6. I think “athlete” implies that if you drop him into another sport (think Michael Jordan) the guy would be able to play at a high level/not embarrass himself. Distance runners, etc, i feel like it’s largely training and requires little “skill”. Not saying they aren’t inherently special and it’s strictly training, just that there’s not a high level skill to it.

    Also, I’m protesting and placing lacrosse over soccer. Similar to hockey w/out skating, often describe as a cross between hockey and basketball. And yes, I admit my bias here is very strong.

  7. well, yeah, the field hockey hat trick was the crowning achievement of my adult life.

    i agree with the drop someone into another sport criteria…

    Lacrosse slipped my mind as well, as you can see i did a lot of prep for this post…

    i think it takes a lot of athleticism, and it’s growing as a sport, but right now i don’t think enough people play it to say it gets the best athletes. i could be convinced to put it above soccer, though

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