SI Sportsperson of the Year: A history of female winners
After a historic year in which she won three Grand Slam singles titles, Serena Williams was named SI’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.
Williams’ distinction makes her SI’s 10th female recipient of the award since its inception in 1954, as well as the first female sole recipient since Mary Decker in ’83. Williams is also the first tennis player to win the award since Arthur Ashe in ’92.
As SI honors Serena Williams as its 2015 Sportperson of the Year, we take a look back at all the female winners in the award’s history.
Billie Jean King - 1972
After capturing three major titles in 1972 (French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open), a then-29-year-old King became the award's first female winner. She shared honors that year with UCLA coaching legend John Wooden.
The now-72-year-old penned a first-person account for SI in 2010 about her win.
“I always would read Sports Illustrated, but I never saw myself unless there was a woman’s article,” King said. “If you don’t get enough exposure, people don’t know who are. I was the first woman. I was thrilled that I finally could help make a difference in getting the door ajar.”
King, who did not compete in the Australian Open that year, lost just one major set en route to her trifecta of titles in ’72.
Chris Evert - 1976
Evert became the first female sole recipient of the award after defeating Evonne Goolagong in both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals in 1976.
The International Tennis Hall of Famer also captured the women’s doubles title with Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon that year.
Evert, who would go on to win 18 Gland Slam singles and three doubles titles, also became the first female tennis player in history to reach the $1 million mark in career prize money in ’76.
Mary Decker - 1983
Decker, or “Double Decker” as she was known after dramatically winning the 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters at the 1983 world championships in Helsinki, was SI’s second sole female recipient in the history of the award.
Along with her world championship golds, Decker set three American records and one world record in ’83, while also going undefeated in 20 finals on three different indoor and 16 outdoor tracks, as well as on one road surface.
“I always wanted to be accepted in running. I wanted to prove to people that I was noteworthy because of my performance, not for simply being young,” Decker, who began her professional career at age 14, said in the 1983 issue.
The then-25-year-old’s 1983 record of 3:57.12 in the 1,500 meters stood for 32 years, until Shannon Rowbury eclipsed it in July.
Mary Lou Retton - 1984
Retton shared SI’s distinction with track athlete Edwin Moses in 1984 after she took home a gold medal in the individual all-around competition in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Her Olympic victory marked the first time an American man or woman won the all-around title, as well as the first time a female gymnast outside eastern Europe captured the gold.
The then-16-year-old, who was nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” also garnered two silver and two bronze medals at the ’84 Games.
In 2008, SI caught up with Retton, now a mother of four.
Judi Brown King/Patty Sheehan - 1987
During a year in which eight individuals were lauded with SI’s award for being “Athletes Who Care,” track star Judi Brown King and golfer Patty Sheehan were honored for their respective community contributions.
Brown King, who won gold in the 400-meter at the ’87 Pan American Games, was honored for her work as a champion for abused children. Through her efforts at Lane County (Ore.) Relief Nursery, Brown King worked to help restore normalcy and healing in the lives of children with abusive home situations.
Sheehan, a member of the LPGA Tour who won six major titles and 35 LPGA events throughout her career, was granted the honor in ’87 for her work with troubled adolescent girls. The World Golf Hall of Famer was the benefactor of Tigh Sheehan, a group home in Soqul, Calif. Her work aided 13- to 18-year-old girls who were estranged from their parents.
Bonnie Blair - 1994
Blair shared SI’s honor with fellow speed skater Johann Olav Koss in 1994, following an Olympic performance that saw her win her fourth and fifth career gold medals.
At the Lillehammer Games, Blair dominated the 500- and 1,000-meter races, recording the largest margin of victory in the latter event’s history and becoming the first American woman to win five gold medals.
In ’94, Blair also became the only American to win six medals in a Winter Olympics career, which was a record that held until speed skater Apolo Ohno surpassed it at the 2010 Winter Games.
U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team - 1999
The U.S. Women’s National Team was lauded with SI’s annual award in 1999 after defeating China in a memorable 5–4 shootout to win America’s second World Cup.
As SI writer Michael Bamberger said in his Sportswomen of the Year cover story, “In the final summer of the 20th century, the era of the woman in sports finally arrived.”
A crowd of 90,185, the largest ever for a women’s sporting event, gathered at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., to watch Brandi Chastain and company make history against China. With 40 million Americans watching the ’99 final on television, it was also the most-viewed English language soccer broadcast in American history until the 2015 Final between the U.S. and Japan.
Comprising SI’s final award winners of the 20th century were Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry, Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Cindy Parlow, Shannon MacMillan, Danielle Fotopoulos, Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini, Tiffany Roberts, Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero, Sara Whalen, Lorrie Fair, Christie Pearce, Saskia Webber and Tracy Ducar.
Pat Summit - 2011
Summit, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball coaching legend, shared the award with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2011, in the midst of the final season of her 38-year career.
At the time she was granted the award, Summit had just come off a 2010–11 season in which she helped her team capture the SEC regular season and tournament titles for the 16th time. In 2011, Summit also received the SEC coach of the year award for the eighth time in her career.
Summit, who is the NCAA’s all-time winningest basketball coach, announced she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2011, just four months prior to earning SI’s honor.
She retired at the end of the 2011–12 season and finished her coaching career with a 1,098–208 record and eight national championships.
Serena Williams - 2015
Williams began her historic 2015 campaign with an Australian Open title after defeating then-world No. 2 Maria Sharapova in straight sets. The win gave her a sixth Australian Open title and broke a tie with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second-most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era.
In June, Williams vanquished No.13 Lucie Šafářová to capture her third French Open title and 20th major overall. With the win, Williams also became the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the Australian Open and French Open in the same year, as well as the third to win each Slam at least three times.
Williams defeated Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in July to win her sixth Wimbledon and 21st Grand Slam title, which currently ranks second in the Open Era behind Steffi Graf.
With just two wins separating her from achieving a calendar-year Grand Slam for the first time since Graf did so in 1988, Williams fell to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Despite her loss, she finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world, which was a distinction she held for the entire season for the second straight year.