The 2010s were a fascinating decade of sports. Then again, what decade isn’t? But advances in technology brought these athletes into our lives with even greater frequency and intimacy. We watched them not just on our TVs but also on our phones, tablets and whatever other devices you had at hand. As we watch the 2010s come to a close, we wanted to take a look at the 50 athletes whose excellence best exemplified the decade. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
When the Greek Freak was drafted, he was a total unknown. The Bucks took a big swing on a raw, talented player with a last name none of us could spell. We’ve all learned how to spell Antetokounmpo now. Two years after winning Most Improved Player, Giannis won MVP. He had only about half a decade to work with, but you try telling a guy who can dunk from the free-throw line that he’s not one of the top 50 athletes of the 2010s.
Even if you don’t follow gymnastics, you know all about Biles. She’s arguably the best gymnast who has ever lived. In addition to her four Olympic gold medals, she’s won a staggering 19 golds at the World Championships. She has more Worlds medals than any gymnast of all time, male or female. Gymnastics is a young person’s game, and Biles is only 22. Talk about achieving a ton at a young age.
Only one man has won multiple Vezina trophies for best NHL goalie in the 2010s. You can probably figure out that the person in question is the goalie called “Bob.” Playing in Columbus, the Russian netminder was often overlooked, but you can’t argue with hardware. Plus, in his last season with the Jackets, Bobrovsky posted a .925 save percentage in the playoffs to lead the franchise to their first-ever postseason series win.
Yes, Bolt first appeared on the scene in 2008, and he set the world records for the 100-meter and 200-meter dash in 2009. No matter. He won three golds at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics. Bolt has owned the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. The Jamaican is maybe the greatest sprinter ever. We have to acknowledge all he did after setting those records.
What’s left to say about Brady? Well into his 40s, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s set records and won Super Bowl rings. Brady has been the face of the Patriots, the NFL’s team of the decade, for the past 10 years. Also, the 10 years prior to that. Seriously, how is this guy still playing?
If not for Brady, we’d be heaping even more awe on Brees. He too has played into his 40s while racking up records. The Saints legend owns the record for the most passing yards and pass completions in a career. His Super Bowl ring may have been for the 2009 season, but we’re talking about a guy who has thrown for over 5,000 yards in five seasons in the 2010s. Brees hasn’t exactly been slacking off.
Cabrera has fallen off a cliff to end the decade, but let’s not give in to recency bias. The man known as Miggy won back-to-back MVPs in 2012 and 2013. In 2012 he became the first player to hit for the Triple Crown since 1967. When Cabrera was in his prime, he had one of the best bats in baseball. Let’s not forget about that as he heads toward retirement.
Surprised? Don’t be. Cano is fifth in career WAR among active players. While playing for the Yankees and Mariners, he made seven All-Star Games in the 2010s. Before everybody was hitting homers, Cano knocked 33 homers as a second baseman. When Robbie Cano retires, he will probably make the Hall of Fame, and he played the bulk of his career in the 2010s.
During this last decade, Sid the Kid became Sid the Man. Crosby racked up points as one of the two faces of the NHL, including winning an Art Ross and a Hart in the same year. If you love champs, Crosby has you covered. He led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups, the first time that had happened since the Red Wings of ’97 and ’98. Crosby also won the Conn Smythe those two seasons for playoff MVP.
We can honestly say Curry changed basketball. His long-range bombing of threes helped create a new era of the sport. He’s set three-point shooting records, though James Harden has taken some of those. Curry also won two MVP Awards and was part of a Warriors dynasty that was the team of the decade. Next time you see a guy throw one up from near half court, think of Curry.
Delle Donne put Delaware basketball on the map in college. The sharpshooter started her career with the Chicago Sky, where she won her first WNBA MVP. She ended the decade on a high note as well. Delle Donne just won her second MVP while putting up the first 50/40/90 season in WNBA history. This time, she was also able to win a WNBA title with her new team, the Washington Mystics.
Spoiler alert: You are going to see only three men’s tennis players on this list, and you know who they are already. The sport was dominated by the Big Three for the entire decade. Djokovic had arguably the best 10-year stretch of the trio. Fifteen of his 16 Grand Slam titles have come in this decade. Joker genuinely could end up with the most Grand Slams in men’s tennis history, something that would have been unfathomable when the decade began.
Defensive tackles haven’t traditionally been known as pass rushers. Donald has changed that. Coming into the 2019 season, Donald had 59.5 career sacks, including a stunning 20.5 sacks in 2018. That was a record for an interior defensive lineman. There’s a reason why he won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
Durant was literally an All-Star every year of this past decade. When the 2010s began, he was with the Thunder, where he paired with Russell Westbrook for some great seasons, including one where he was MVP. Then he helped change the NBA landscape by joining up with the Warriors juggernaut. There, he was able to win some rings while ushering in a new era of player movement. Durant was the best player on those Warriors teams, but he was always in Curry’s shadow. Maybe that’s why he decided to move to the Nets. Wherever he is or was, he was one of the three best players in the NBA in the 2010s.
It’s a cliché to say an athlete, especially one with an aristocratic air like Federer, has aged like a fine wine. However, how else do you refer to a 38-year-old living legend who is still one of the three best tennis players in the world? That was true in the 2000s, and it’s true this decade too. The Swiss superstar added five more Grand Slam titles to his total in the 2010s.
The Cardinals have been good, and they’ve been bad, but through it all Fitzgerald has been there, catching seemingly every pass thrown his way. He’s now second all time in receiving yards and receptions, and he’s sixth in all-time touchdowns. Does that make Fitzgerald perhaps the second-best receiver of all time? Is he the silver medalist to Jerry Rice? You can make that argument. Fitz’s numbers certainly do.
Griner normalized women dunking when in college at Baylor before heading up to the WNBA where she was the first-overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury. While she’s a two-time scoring champ, Griner’s real claim to fame is changing the defensive landscape of the WNBA. In addition to being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, she’s led the league in blocks a whopping seven times. Her 3.2 blocks per game for her career is a league record.
To think, if not for injuries Gronkowski’s career could have been even better. When he was on the field, though, it was clear Gronkowski was the best tight end in the NFL and maybe the best tight end ever. Gronk’s entire career happened in the 2010s. He had 521 receptions for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns. Gronk also set several postseason records for a tight end.
Maybe you don’t like the way he plays. Maybe you think all the free throws are annoying. You can’t argue with his results. Harden has figured out the NBA. He won an MVP and scored 36.1 points per game in a season where he wasn’t named the Most Valuable Player. The Beard helped define the NBA for the 2010s, whether you like it or not.
Harper has been one of the faces of baseball since before he was even in MLB. That’s saying something, given that he made his debut as a 19-year-old. That season he won Rookie of the Year, and in 2015 he had one of the best seasons in MLB history, winning MVP with a stunning 198 OPS+. Sure, maybe he hasn’t lived up to the impossible hype. He’s still been great, and he’s still one of the names you think of when you think of sports in the 2010s.
Whether it was with the Heat or the Cavaliers, James spent the bulk of the 2010s as the NBA’s best player. He won three MVPs in this decade, and arguably he could have won it every season. LeBron was also named the NBA Finals MVP three times in this past decade, finally getting those rings he needed to silence the naysayers. James is the best player of his era, and that was on display for the past 10 years.
When the decade began, the Chicago Blackhawks had the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL. They ended that drought in 2010, and Kane was a big reason why. The slick-skating American forward combined with Jonathan Toews to make the Blackhawks one of the teams of the last decade. He won one Art Ross and one Hart and had two 100-point seasons. Kane also scored some absolutely amazing goals thanks to his slick stick-handling.
Karlsson spent most of the decade stuck in the relative obscurity of Ottawa, which is a shame. If he had played for a more prominent franchise, more people would have realized he is one of the best offensive defenseman of all time. The smooth-skating Swede won two Norris Trophies for best defenseman and could have easily won another couple. Karlsson had multiple 20-goals seasons, and in his best campaign he led the NHL in assists with 66. That’s a truly rare feat. Not since Bobby Orr has a defenseman made such an offensive impact.
Kerber doesn’t have as big of a name as other women’s tennis players of this decade. What she does have, though, is a track record few can match. Kerber won three Grand Slam titles in the 2010s. Only one woman won more than the German, who was the No. 1 ranked woman in the world for a period of time.
If you’re looking for the best pitcher of the 2010s, you probably don’t have to look any further. Kershaw is definitely one of the first names you have to include. During the decade, he led the National League in ERA five times and strikeouts three times. The lefty won an MVP once, not to mention three Cy Youngs. Kershaw managed to post a sub-2.00 ERA three different times. That’s incredible.
When the decade began, Kluber was struggling to make Cleveland’s rotation and was figuring it out. Oh, how he figured it out. In addition to racking up wins, not a great stat for measuring a pitcher’s skill, Kluber suddenly found himself leading the majors in ERA while notching a ton of strikeouts. A guy who had a 5.14 ERA in his first taste of MLB action ended up winning two Cy Youngs in the decade and became one of the best pitchers in baseball.
The hole left by Tigers Woods’ struggles opened up the golf world for some other names to step up as the top golfers on the planet. Koepka is going to end the decade as the top-ranked golfer in the world, which he has been for over a year. He’s won the last two PGA Championships, and also won two U.S. Opens in this decade. His four major titles are second most of the 2010s.
Kawhi began his career as a defensive specialist…but a really great one. He’s one of the rare wing players to ever be named Defensive Player of the Year, which he did twice. Then he suddenly picked up his offensive play and turned into one of the five best players in the NBA. Leonard left San Antonio and went to Toronto to lead the Raptors to their first title. Not too shabby.
Peyton’s decade began with one last good season with the Colts, before he lost a whole year due to injury. Would he ever be the same? Well two years later he threw for 55 touchdowns in a season, a new record, while winning one last MVP. Two years later, while admittedly not the player he used to be, Manning won one final Super Bowl before retiring.
Admittedly, McGregor lost his last MMA fight to Khabib Nurmagomedov, who could have made this list as well. However, when you think of MMA fighters, McGregor is one of the first names you think of. He also happened to win both the featherweight and lightweight titles in UFC. There was also that boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, which is maybe best forgotten.
McIlroy ended up the heir to the throne of Tiger Woods. Admittedly, he hasn’t won a major since 2014. However, when he won the PGA and The Open that year, it was his third and fourth major titles of the decade. Rory has won every single major title in men’s golf except the Masters, and all 17 of his PGA wins have come in this decade.
Messi is nothing less than the best soccer player of his generation. He’s one of the five or so best soccer players ever. If we may be so bold, he may even be better than Diego Maradona. While he hasn’t been able to get Argentina a World Cup title, he’s found a ton of glory with Barcelona. Messi won the Ballon d’Or for top men’s soccer player in the world four times this decade, and was named the player of the tournament at the 2014 World Cup, where he dragged Argentina to the finals.
Two men split 10 straight Ballon d’Ors. Who is the one who broke that hegemony? That would be Modric. In addition to leading Croatia to its first-ever World Cup final, Modric crushed it at Real Madrid. Many consider Modric one of the best midfielders to ever play the game. If you can win the Ballon d’Or, that’s pretty much got to be true.
Here’s how good of a striker Morgan is. In 2013, she was named to the U.S. Women’s National Team’s All-Time Starting XI. That was notable, given that she didn’t make her national team debut until 2010. Since then, she’s played in 168 games for her country and scored 109 goals. She’s already tied for fifth in goals in U.S. women’s history. By the times she’s done, she could be up there with the likes of Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.
And now, we complete the golden triumvirate of men’s tennis for the last decade. All we can really say is long live the King of Clay. Nadal won the French Open a whopping eight times in the 2010s. Nobody has ever been better on clay than Nadal, but he added five more Grand Slam titles away from Roland Garros as well.
This may be a little early to say, but we’re already high on Osaka. After all, the 22-year-old has two Grand Slam titles and five titles overall. As a Japanese-born player, Osaka has also helped to expand the game of women’s tennis. Sure, we could have gone with somebody like, say, Maria Sharapova, who also won two Grand Slams in the 2010s. Of course, she also got suspended for doping.
Ovechkin is the preeminent goal scorer of his generation. In a time when scoring was not as prolific, Ovi was still able to tally 50-goal seasons repeatedly. The Russian already owns the NHL record for seasons leading the league in goals with eight, six of which came in this last decade. Also, he finally got the Capitals a Cup.
There were some down years and injuries to be sure for Peterson. However, we have to include him as a representative of running backs in a league that was diminishing their role over the last few seasons. Harken back to 2012, when Peterson rushed for a staggering 2,097 yards, second most ever in an NFL season. It’s one of two years that he led the NFL in rushing in the decade, and he even had a 1,000-yard season in his 30s.
Phelps would have made a list like this in the 2000s as well. He racked up so many gold medals and world records in that time. However, he remained the best swimmer, and perhaps the most dominant Olympian, in this decade as well. In 2012 he won four golds and two silvers. In 2016 he added five more golds and one more silver. Those wins helped him to become the most decorated single Olympian ever and also to have more gold medals than anybody else.
Replacing a legend is hard. Rodgers was able to step in for Brett Favre without missing a beat. He has as many Super Bowl wins as Favre, and he was also the MVP of a Super Bowl. Rodgers also has two MVPs from these 2010s. There was another season where he threw for 40 touchdowns but didn’t win the MVP. Few quarterbacks have been more efficient.
Soccer in the 2010s was defined by Messi vs. Ronaldo. When one guy wasn’t winning the Ballon d’Or, the other was. When Messi’s Barcelona wasn’t winning La Liga or the Champions League, it was often Ronaldo’s Real Madrid emerging victorious. Ronaldo also powered Portugal to a win at the Euros, the biggest victory in that country’s history.
Yes, she lost her last two fights, but before that Rousey was the face of MMA, male or female. She won 12 fights in a row and dominated as the bantamweight champion. Rousey was a star; one of the biggest athletes in the world. While it doesn’t count as true sports, after leaving MMA Rousey moved to the WWE, where she won a title as well. That was scripted, of course, but a win is a win.
While Scherzer didn’t win an MVP like two other pitchers on this list, he has three Cy Youngs, which is still incredibly impressive. He also did it in both the American and National Leagues, winning his first with the Tigers and his last two with the Nationals. Speaking of the Nats, Scherzer played a huge part in getting the team to its first World Series. He also had a 300-strikeout season thrown into the mix.
Golf is a sport that doesn’t always favor youth. Don’t tell that to Spieth. He won his first major in 2015 when he was only 21. He added a U.S. Open title later that year and a couple of years later added his third major. Spieth is only 26, so there could easily be several more majors in his future.
There is no question Trout is the best player of his generation. He’s the best player in the majors currently. You could argue that he should have five or six MVPs already. Trout has led MLB in WAR five times, and he’s been an All-Star every year of his career. The only question left about Trout is where he ends up in the all-time pantheon. Trout could retire today and make the Hall of Fame. He just turned 28.
Verlander surprisingly has only one Cy Young, but he also has an MVP from 2011, the same year he won his Cy Young in a unanimous vote. Verlander has finished second in Cy Young voting three times, however. The hurler led the American League in strikeouts four times and struck out 300 in 2019. He also helped lead the Astros to their first World Series in 2017.
Despite time lost to injury, Watt still easily deserved to make this list. He’s the only player in NFL history to have over 20 sacks in a season twice. The Texan also won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in the 2010s. He’s been an All-Pro five times and finished as the runner up for the 2014 MVP. To do that as a defensive player is incredible.
When the decade began, nobody in the NBA had averaged a double-double since 1962. Then Westbrook did it. Then he did it three seasons in a row. Yes, he can steal rebounds. Sure, he sometimes forces passes to try and boost his assist totals. He’s polarizing, but Westbrook is still one of the NBA’s best players. When you make history over and over, you earn respect.
To think Serena won her first Grand Slam in 1999. Had she slowed down, or retired, this decade it would have been understandable. That hasn’t happened. Williams won 12 more Grand Slams in the 2010s. That gives her 23 such titles in her career. Serena is 38 now, but like Federer she’s still got it.
Wilson was too short for the NFL, they said. That’s why he fell to the third round in the NFL Draft. That turned out to be a mistake. He’s thrown for over 27,000 yards in his career while rushing for almost 4,000 yards. Wilson is the best quarterback in Seahawks history — perhaps the best player in Seahawks history. He also led them to their first Super Bowl win. Now, in 2019, he’s one of the MVP favorites. That could be one last feather in his cap.
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