After a fortnight of British trailblazing, we ask who sits where in the list of all-time British sporting greats?
At exactly 5pm two Sundays ago as Andy Murray tossed his trusty Head Radical to the lush grass of Centre Court in celebrating his 2nd Wimbledon title, regular opinion-spouter Gary Linekar came out with something quite radical of his own on Twitter (where else?):
I immediately dismissed this as typical Linekar hyperbole (few have embraced the opportunity impose and influence on social media as much as England’s 3rd highest goal scorer), but attempting to define a more deserving recipient proved a more complex task than originally expected.
So how to define “the greatest”?
I’d start by suggesting that the nominee would have to have spent a sizeable period of time at the very top of their sport. Despite winning 38 career titles, including three Grand Slams (US Open 2012, Wimbledon 2013 & 2016), as well as the London 2012 Olympic gold (men’s singles) and silver (mixed doubles) medals, 2015 Davis Cup with Team GB and amassing the 4th-highest prize money of all time, the shouty Scot has never achieved the pinnacle of become world No.1 in the ATP rankings.
That his career earnings of $49,471,297 puts him behind only sweaty Spaniard Rafael Nadal, smooth Swiss Roger Federer and superhuman Serb Novak Djokovic tells the story here. There’s every chance Murray could be considered the 4th best tennis player in history, he’s simply unfortunate to share an era with the three players who rank above him. He broke into the ATP top 10 in 2007 and first achieved No.2 spot just two years later, but he has never made it the very top of the ladder. His two BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards (2013 & 2015) will be scant consolation.
That said, Murray is the first British tennis player to win a grand slam tournament since Virginia Wade in 1977, and the first man since Bunny Austin in 1938. Murray is head and shoulders above the competition in the world’s premier racquet sport.
Who from within British sport can be considered to have at one time been at the very top of their game? Let’s start with the hopefuls from individuals sports…
The 145th Open Championship has just concluded at Royal Troon with Henrik Stenson becoming the first Swede to take the claret jug. Americans dominated the the top 20, but there were impressive placings for Brits too, with 5 finishing with the top 12. One of these was 27-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, a man who is already a four-time major champion, looking for his 2nd win at The Open. The man from Holywood, County Down has amassed 95 weeks at World No.1 in the Official World Golf Rankings and is one of three players to win three majors by the age of 25 (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus being the others – impressive company). However, is Rory even considered Britain’s best-ever golfer, let alone best-ever sportsman?
“He is a leading contender to be Britain’s finest ever sportsman in an individual sport. He is the gold standard from which the rest of modern British golf has to be judged.”
– Former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy on Sir Nick Faldo
For much of the early 1990s Nick Faldo was considered the best golfer in the world. He may only have topped the world rankings for 2 weeks longer than McIlroy at 97 weeks (his rivalry with Greg Norman is well documented), but Faldo won 6 major championships (3 x The Open, 3 x Masters) between 1987-1996 and recorded 41 career titles to McIlroy’s current haul of 20. Faldo is the most successful Ryder Cup player ever, having won the most points of any player on either team (25) and having represented the European Team a record 11 times. McIlroy has pulled on the blue jumper 3 times, coming out victorious on each occasion and has been named PGA Player of the Year twice. His Mentor – who was knighted in 2009 – received this honour only once.
There’s not a lot to separate the two most decorated British golfers of the modern era. McIlroy’s age would suggest he will go on to surpass Faldo’s achievements (his first major title at The Open in 1987 came a day after his 30th birthday), but a budding rivalry with American Jordan Spieth and Australian Jason Day could mean his early domination of the sport is behind him.
Cycling is sport that has gripped the soul of the UK in recent years, from the streets (more on that later) to the track where Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins have led an impressive British medal collection. Sprinter Hoy is the most decorated track cyclist of all time with 19 golds (plus 9 silver & 9 bronze) across all major competitions. At the London 2012 Olympics he became the first British athlete to win three gold medals in a single Games since 1908. This haul crowned the likeable Scot as the most successful British Olympian ever with six golds, soon being dubbed “His Royal Hoyness” by the British tabloids. He had become an 11-time World Champion by the time he retired in 2013, before embarking on a career behind the wheel where he helped his team Algarve Pro Racing to a 17th-place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016.
In Hoy’s slipstream is individual and team pursuit specialist Wiggins, whose four Olympic golds, 1 silver and 2 bronzes put him 2nd on the all-time list, despite deciding to miss the track events at London 2012 to concentrate on the road. Dominance on the track was followed up with a first-ever General Classification win on the Tour de France by a British rider as Wiggo held on to win by 3 minutes and 21 seconds in 2012. Just a month later he followed up with a gold in the Olympic time trial and was widely expected to retain his TDF title in 2013, but asserted that his focus for the season would be to ride in support of Team Sky team-mate and compatriot Chris Froome, who duly won. The Lancastrian – who was knighted in 2013 – returned to the track to set a new hour record with a distance of 54.526 km in 2015 and is part of Team GB as he aims to win an unprecedented eighth career medal when he heads to Rio later in the summer.
Joining him in Brazil is Kenya-born Brit Froome, who will be looking for his first Olympic Gold and enters the time trial and road race after winning his third Tour de France in four years (he was forced to retire from the race in 2014 but returned to place second in the Vuelta a España later in the year). Claiming the 2016 maillot jaune makes him the first rider since Miguel Indurain in the early 90s to win three or more renditions of La Grande Boucle and with gifts Team Sky their 4th win in 5 years, an astonishing achievement given the 109-year wait for victory in sport’s toughest test.
Also making headlines in France last month was Froome’s former Team Sky teammate Mark Cavendish. The Manxman registered his 30th win en Tour to put him second on the all-time list behind Belgian legend Eddy Merckx to cement his place as the best sprint-finisher in cycling history, before leaving Le Tour to prepare for the Olympics. Cav has also registered 15 individual stages on the Giro d’Italia and a further 3 on the Vuelta. He has topped the overall points classification on each of the Grand Tours and added a 4th World Championship gold in 2015 despite quitting the track in 2008 after a medal-free Beijing Games. He chases two golds with Team GB back in velodrome in Rio. With a record like that, who’d bet against him?
It’s pretty well accepted that Britain has owned three world-class fighters of the modern era: heavyweight Lennox Lewis, featherweight Naseem Hamed and super-middleweight Joe Calzaghe. It can be no surprise that these three fighters are the lone British entries to the International Boxing Hall of Fame since lightweight Scot John Buchanen in the 1970s. Historically it was notoriously difficult to compare boxers from different weight classes, but since The Ring magazine introduced the definitive pound-for-pound rankings in 1989 only Lewis, Hamed, Calzaghe and light-welterweight Ricky Hatton have appeared in the top 10 from amongst the British ranks.
“The Italian Dragon” Calzaghe was rated as a top ten pound-for-pound boxer in three consecutive years between 2006-2008 with a 3rd place finish in 2008 the best on record from a British puncher. “The Hitman” Hatton reached No.4 in 2005 and “Prince” Naseem and Lennox “The Lion” made their best showings in 2000, placing 6th and 8th respectively. Welshman Calzaghe retired in February 2009 with an undefeated record of 46-0 (32 KO) as a reigning world champion and as the longest-reigning super-middleweight world champion in history. His case for being Britain’s greatest sportsman certainly packs a punch.
Credit too must go to Lewis – who won Olympic gold for Canada in 1988 – for knocking out pound-for-pound great Mike Tyson in 2002 and being the last man to unify the glamorous heavyweight division as undisputed champion.
“He [Lewis] is, no doubt, the best heavyweight of all time. What he’s done clearly puts him on top of the heap.”
– Two-time world heavyweight champion and grill entrepreneur George Foreman
More on this topic or subscribe for updates:
Individual Sports – Part 2
Team Sports [coming soon]
Olympians [coming soon]