I heard an interesting discussion on the radio this morning, and now I can't help but dive into it -- because I disagree, can you believe that?, with both of the show's hosts' opinions.
The debate: Who is the athlete of the decade?
When thinking about this question, I must lay out just a few criteria:
1. It can't be an athlete who's only been around for, say, six years. I want someone who has performed at an extremely high level since Y2K.
2. The athlete must have won multiple championships. One of the hosts threw out Peyton Manning only to get bludgeoned by the other. Manning's been great, he's graced the cover of SI several times ... but he has just one championship.
And that's it.
My pick? Roger Federer.
Didn't have to think twice. Let me hit you with the numbers.
2000: In his second professional season, Federer reached the third round at the Australian and U.S. opens.
2001: Federer won his first ATP tournament and won three matches for Switzerland in the Davis Cup in the same month. Then he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, beating four-time champ Pete Sampras to get there. Not bad for a kid who wasn't even 20 yet.
2002: Federer won his first Masters Series final and beat two former world No. 1s in the Davis Cup against Russia.
And then he really began his ascension to the best in the world.
2003: Won Wimbledon, his first major.
2004: Took the tennis world by storm, winning the Australian and U.S. Opens and repeating at Wimbledon (4 career grand slams).
2005: Wimbledon, U.S. Open (6).
2006: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (9). Runner-up at French Open to Rafael Nadal.
2007: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (12). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.
2008: U.S. Open (13). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.
2009: Won the French Open, finally, and Wimbledon to claim the all-time grand slams record with 15. Was the runner-up at the other two majors -- and could have easily won either of them.
I mean, name me a year in which Federer wasn't great? Critics said he was losing it in 2008 -- and he still managed to win a major and lose to Nadal in what was the most epic major-championship final ever at Wimbledon.
I guess the first three years have to be looked at as his down years, because he hadn't won a major yet. But he was still a top-10 player. He wasn't a no-name. People knew he was going to become good.
If not this great, if not the-best-of-all-time great.
Here's the mind-boggling statistic that points to Federer's consistent greatness, to his never having an off day: When he made the semifinals of the '09 U.S. Open, it marked his 22nd consecutive berth in a grand-slam semifinal. Yes, if my math skills are correct, he hasn't been eliminated in the first five rounds of a major since the 2004 French Open.
That's consistency at about its highest level.
So why is Federer more deserving than Tiger Woods, than Albert Pujols, than Kobe Bryant?
Well, let's dismiss Pujols first. And believe me, this isn't easy -- he's been nothing short of amazing. Including his 2001 rookie season, he has hit at least .314 every year with more than 30 home runs. And he might, actually, have avoided the performance-enhancing-drugs phenomenom (although we can never know for sure).
But then there's this: He's only won a single championship -- and it was in a World Series (2006) that the Detroit Tigers lost as much as the St. Louis Cardinals won.
OK, let's move on to Tiger -- and this is easy.
Woods, like Federer, has dominated an individual sport. But he hasn't quite, simply, been as dominant as Federer. And that's despite the fact that he was already experienced and a two-time major winner entering the decade.
Woods had his greatest year in 2000, winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. And he followed that up by completing the Tiger Slam with a win at the '01 Masters. After two more majors in 2002, however, he then had two down years with no majors, including the '04 season that featured just one win. In fact, he was only fourth on the PGA Tour money list in '04 as he battled swing changes.
Woods had very good 2005 and '06 seasons, winning two majors apiece, and then added one each in 2007 and '08 -- with the second victory his amazing, one-legged, comeback thriller at the U.S. Open. But he again went dry in 2009 despite pronouncing his health better than before his leg surgery.
So that leaves him with 12 majors for the decade and six runner-up finishes to Federer's 15 and four.
And Woods had a handful of majors in which he was never a factor.
I'll take Federer.
Finally, there's Bryant. He's won all four of his NBA titles during the decade. He's been among the league leaders in scoring and MVP votes most of the decade. And, well, he's been one of the top three players in the league for basically the entire decade -- and competed against studs such as LeBron, D-Wade and 'Melo.
But here's the knock on Bryant: He won those first three titles with Shaquille O'Neal, who was named the MVP of the NBA Finals each time. Then, when Shaq ditched L.A., Bryant struggled to do anything with his team for three straight seasons.
Obviously, in team sports other contributors are needed to help a star win championships. But during those down years, Bryant was often seen as selfish and disliked by teammates. He didn't do much to assuage such opinions and created all kinds of controversy around the team by saying he wanted to be traded, then refuting his statement, then reiterating it.
No doubt, Bryant has been amazing. But not on Federer's level.
The other "athlete" mentioned was Jimmie Johnson, who has won four consecutive NASCAR Spring Cup championships. I'll admit it -- I hardly follow NASCAR beyond knowing who wins the Cup each year. And maybe Johnson's greatness is as good as it gets. But he didn't reach the pinnacle of his sport until 2006.
So Johnson gets my vote for the best athlete of the last half of this decade.
There are arguments for others, no doubt, but when you look at the numbers and remember the moments, nobody has been better, nobody more clutch, and nobody more consistent than Roger Federer.
My top 7
6. Tom Brady