Kieran Shannon: Who will follow LeBron and Messi to be Twenties’ titans of sport?

While on this island we were debating whether Rory, Katie or maybe Paul O’Donovan was our outstanding sportsperson of the decade, the Associated Press gave itself the rather grander task of identifying the finest athlete in the whole world over the same timespan.

Kieran Shannon: Who will follow LeBron and Messi to be Twenties’ titans of sport?

While on this island we were debating whether Rory, Katie or maybe Paul O’Donovan was our outstanding sportsperson of the decade, the Associated Press gave itself the rather grander task of identifying the finest athlete in the whole world over the same timespan.

In the female category there was no contest.

Serena Williams, by virtue of winning 12 grand slam singles events over that period of time (and contesting a further six slam finals over the past four seasons) was out on her own, though the 2019 female athlete of the year, Simone Biles, had the distinction of finishing second.

The male category wasn’t as straightforward an affair, being loaded with one-name titans of the stature of a Serena. Messi. Ronaldo. LeBron. Phelps. Bolt. Brady. Tennis’s big three.

In the end, James shaded it, possibly because US judges still default to either basketball, baseball or gridiron when they think of ‘the best in all sports’, but that Messi even made it onto their 2010s Mount Rushmore is testament to how he has helped popularise his sport as well as master it.

With the day that’s in it though, we now ought to be looking forward rather than back, or at least wondering who, if anyone, might adorn or even dominate the next decade like all of the aforementioned did the past one.

It doesn’t take a genius or prophet to forecast that men’s tennis will hardly again see virtually all its major honours hoovered up by a handful of players as it has in what we might term the Roger And Friends era. Of the 40 grand slam events going in the 2010s, all but four were won by the Big Four of Djokovic (15), Nadal (13), Federer (5) and Murray (3, to go with his two Olympic golds) — and of those four, three were claimed by Stanislas Wawrinka.

And such dominance stretched well into the previous decade: prior to Juan Martin del Petro capturing the last slam event of the noughties at Flushing Meadows, the preceding 18 slams — from the 2005 French right up to Wimbledon 2009 — were all won by either Federer (11), Nadal (6) or Djokovic (1).

Indeed outside of Marin Cilic’s 2014 US Open win, and del Petro’s 2009 triumph at the same venue, the last 59 grand slam titles have been gobbled up by just five men: Wawrinka and the Big Four.

To appreciate just how astonishing that is, before Federer’s maiden grand slam triumph at Wimbledon 2003, six different players had won the previous six majors. In other words, tennis had a greater variety of winners in those 18 months than it has had over the last 15 years.

Now that the Federer era is surely, eventually, winding down, we’re bound to see a more democratic share of honours, probably similar to what the women’s game has witnessed with nine different players winning the past 11 slams since Serena’s last title in Melbourne three years ago.

And so the fourth-ranked player in the world, Dominic Thiem, already aged 26, may finally win a grand slam event. Daniel Medvedev, currently the world’s No.5, the same. At just 21, Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece has hinted that someday he could be world number one, but he or everyone could be waiting a while yet. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer might not be winning majors in five years’ timebut would you bet on them or the rest of the field to win in Australia later this month?Or against Nadal winning an astonishing 13th French Open and going level with Federer on 20 slam events each?Or Djokovic, currently on 16, passing both of them out?

A similar trend is at play in soccer. Never in the proud and long history of the game have two players stood out so much and for so long as Ronaldo and Messi. Since coming second and third respectively to Kaka in the 2007 Ballon D’Or poll, only once has neither of them walked away with that prize.

Indeed in nine of the past 12 years, the top two in voting has been either Messi-Ronaldo or Ronaldo-Messi. Over the last 65 years, only eight times has anyone scored 58 goals or more in a club season. Gerard Muller managed it once with Bayern in 1973. A Marc Lloyd-Williams caught fire for Bangor City one year in the Welsh league. Luis Suarez banged in 59 goals in all competitions in 2015-2016. Ronaldo has managed it twice, Messi three times. Where once we thought we’d never again see anyone rattling them in at the rate Dixie Dean used to back in the 1920s, Ronaldo and Messi were doing it for fun in the 2010s.

We won’t see anything like that — or at least them — again. For sure, the game will and does have other stars, just as it had in the 1990s and throughout the noughties when the Brazilian Ronaldo was the only player to bag the Ballon D’Or more than once. But the Mbappes, Salahs and De Bruynes can only ever be more Baggios, Shevchenkos and Nedveds, hardly constant titans like Ronaldo and Messi.

In the world’s most other popular sport, the upcoming decade will see LeBron James seal his standing as statistically the greatest player in NBA history by passing out Kobe Bryant and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in scoring as well as minutes played.

Win a couple of championships with his revamped LA Lakers and he might even make a case as eclipsing Michael Jordan as simply the greatest player in basketball history. But as for being the best player of the upcoming decade like he unarguably was of the last (and probably was of the second half of the noughties), not even his powers of longevity will be able to pull that off.

Instead the future face of the league is likely to be European. The past decade was a significant one for the continent. In 2010, the second-best player on a NBA champion team was a Spaniard: Pau Gasol, with the Lakers. In 2011, the best player on a NBA champion team was a German: Dirk Nowitzki, with the Dallas Mavericks.

Yet as stellar as they were, neither was ever the greatest player in all of basketball. Giannis Antetokounmpo is positioned to be just that, The Greek Freak having won last season’s MVP and on course again to win this year’s while still just 25. With his remarkable power, athleticism andfinesse, all he needs now is the championships, the first of which could be forthcoming as soon as this June.

And then there’s a certain Slovenian. His name is Luka Doncic. He lives on the second floor of NBA talents right now, just in that tier below LeBron, Giannis, James Harden and other 2010s giants Durant and Curry, but at 20, he’s better than any of them were at the same age. A playmaker and showman extraordinaire, no one in sport on a nightly basis will be more fun to watch and track this decade than this guy.

Well, David Clifford might push him close. While soccer the last couple of years hasn’t signposted its future stars the way it did in the late noughties with Ronaldo and Messi each winning a Ballon D’Or and Champions League in 2008 and 2009, Gaelic football has with what Clifford and Con O’Callaghan have been at in 2018 and 2019. And to think they’re just 20 and 23.

They won’t annex every All-Ireland between them this decade: while Kerry will probably win the first All-Ireland that Dublin don’t, Cork are positioning themselves to win the next one that either Dublin or Kerry don’t. But bar injury we’d be surprised in 10 years’ time if at least one of them hasn’t equalled Gooch on eight All Stars.

As for elsewhere in Irish sport, we can see Rory finallywinning another couple of majors without being the greatest Irish golfer of the decade.

Now that she has turned pro, Leona Maguire has everything in her locker to make the kind of impact Rory did in the men’s game the past 10 years.

With the Institute of Sport now embedded for more than a decade, the structure and culture is there for Irish athletes to win more regularly in minority Olympic events.

But as for the biggest sport of them all? The past decade was the most barren in talent terms that Irish football has had since the second world war. In the ’60s, we had Cantwell, in the ’70s, Giles, in the ’80s, Brady, in the ’90s, Roy, in the noughties, Robbie and Duffer. We didn’t appreciate it at the time but it seems like a wonder and an age ago now that an Irishman was one of the leading creative forces on a Premiership-title winning team and scoring goals either side of a brace from Ronaldinho in a Champions League knockout game against Barcelona.

Maybe the young guns Stephen Kenny has been cultivating will bloom like some of Brian Kerr’s crop did and a Troy Parrott might play on the same level and stage that a Duff did.

That is, if he has a national team to play on.

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