December 22, 2009
2000s: Top 20 Female Athletes
Summaries by Andrew Lawrence,
Our top 20 lists of the best male and female athletes of the decade were a team effort. We asked a group of writers and editors at to consider on-the-field achievements and come up with the best of the best. Each voter's top choice was awarded 20 points, followed by 19 for their second pick, 18 for their third, etc. There were no restrictions on athletes who have admitted to using or have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, though many voters acknowledged that such considerations did influence their choices.
1 Serena Williams
Some might argue that Williams, 28, is the best story in sports (notwithstanding her temper tantrum at the 2009 U.S. Open). Consider her accomplishments this decade: She won nine of her 10 Grand Slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals in doubles (with her sister Venus), and she recently reclaimed the No. 1 ranking. She boasts the most powerful game in modern tennis, and she is best when the stakes are highest. Throw in the nearly $29 million in prize money -- most of it earned in the aughts -- and it's an improbable haul for a woman who was schooled in the game along with Venus by their father, the self-taught Richard, on pockmarked public courts in Compton, Calif.
2 Annika Sorenstam
Few things can derail an athlete's focus like divorce, but for Sorenstam, her split with her first husband, David Esch, had the opposite effect. They parted ways in 2005, during a stretch in which the 5-foot-6 Swede won 43 of the 104 events she entered for a staggering 42.7 winning percentage. (Golf World later referred to this torrid run as Sorenstam's "Koufax years.") Sorenstam, who retired in 2008, finished first on the money list five years in a row and won eight of her 10 majors this decade.
3 Yelena Isinbayeva
This 5-foot-8 Russian has taken pole vaulting to new heights -- or, as her American rival Chelsea Johnson told Sports Illustrated, "She made the sport." In addition to two Olympic gold medals (in 2004 and '08) and three IAAF Female Athlete of the Year awards ('04. '05 and '08), the 27-year-old Isinbayeva owns just about every record there is to be had in pole vaulting. After clearing the mythical 5-meter mark, in 2005, she set new outdoors (5.06 meters) and indoors (5.00) standards earlier this year.
4 Justine Henin
Tennis fans rejoiced when the former No. 1 announced in September that she was ending a 16-month retirement -- and with good reason. Pound for pound, there may not have been a better player in the aughts than the 5-foot-6 Belgian, who won all seven of her Slams from 2003-07. Wimbledon was the only major that eluded her, and she'll have plenty of time between the start of her comeback in January and the beginning of the fortnight in June to get her splendid one-handed backhand in championship form.
5 Lisa Leslie
Leslie is a pro basketball cornerstone. But her career didn't turn the corner until the 2000s, when she won three of her four Olympic gold medals, three WNBA MVP awards and two WNBA championships, and made seven of her eight All-Star appearances. When she retired at the end of the 2009 season, at age 37, to devote more time to her young daughter, Lauren Jolie, Leslie had more points (6,263) and rebounds (3,307) than any other WNBA player -- as well as the league's first dunk in a game.
6 Venus Williams
Few opened the decade with a bigger bang than Venus, who won four of her seven career Grand Slam singles titles in 2000 and '01 while racking up a 35-match winning streak that remains the longest of the decade. Though a spate of injuries has forced the 29-year-old to cede dominion of the WTA Tour to her younger sister, the world's sixth-ranked player always seems to be in fighting form for Wimbledon, where she has won three titles over the past five years.
7 Marta
When it comes to the beautiful game, there are few players lovelier than this 23-year-old Brazilian -- or as prodigious. The forward led her national team to silver medals in the Athens and Beijing Games and has been awarded FIFA's Women's World Player of the Year three times (2006, '07 and '08). At the 2007 Women's World Cup, where Brazil defeated the U.S. in the semifinals and finished second, she won the Golden Ball as best player and the Golden Boot as top scorer.
8 Lorena Ochoa
Few tabbed this 28-year-old Guadalajaran as the heiress apparent to Sorenstam when she joined the LPGA Tour in 2002. But in the time since, Ochoa has established herself as exactly that -- no year more emphatically than in 2007, when she overtook Sorenstam atop the rankings and obliterated her record for money earned in a single season, with more than $4 million. The following year, Ochoa added a spring major title to the one she had captured late the previous summer, making her the first player since Sorenstam in '05 to go back-to-back.
9 Diana Taurasi
She began the millennium dominating in college (leading UConn to three NCAA titles from 2002-04), graduated to ruling internationally (winning Olympic gold medals in '04 and '08) and then -- for good measure -- capped the decade by claiming her second WNBA title (two years after her first, in '07) and league MVP honors with the Phoenix Mercury. Suffice it to say that Taurasi has hoarded just about every major honor for herself.
10 Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh
When these Californians teamed up in 2001, expectations for the partnernship were modest. The yield, however, was anything but. Starting in August 2007, after winning 39 consecutive matches on the AVP tour in '03 and a gold medal at the Athens Games a year later, the pair launched a streak of 112 victories and 19 titles. The last, at the Beijing Games in '08, made them the first beach volleyball team to repeat as gold medalists.
11 Candace Parker
This 6-foot-5 guard/forward/center's greatness was proved late in the decade: After winning consecutive NCAA titles at Tennessee in 2007 and '08, a gold medal in Beijing in '08 and the WNBA MVP as a rookie that same year, the 23-year-old from Naperville, Ill., took 10 months off to have her first child. She returned to the WNBA near midseason in '09 and was back among the league leaders in scoring (18.0 points), rebounding (10.7) and blocks (1.8) by the postseason.
12 Paula Radcliffe
Radcliffe has been so dominant at the New York City Marathon over the past five years that she makes news when she doesn't reach the podium. She had the presses all but grinding to a halt last month when knee problems limited her to a fourth-place finish. Nonetheless, it's been quite a run for the 36-year-old Brit, who, in addition to her three wins in New York, took gold at the 2005 world championships and set the women's marathon record of 2:15:25 in '03.
13 Janica Kostelic
Nicknamed the "Snow Queen of Croatia," the 27-year-old Zagreb native may well be one of the greatest skiers of all time. Four years after winning three alpine skiing gold medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics-- she has four golds overall -- she became the third woman in World Cup history to win races in all of the sport's five disciplines. Kostelic, who is now retired, also holds the record for the highest number of points in one season.
14 Carolina Kluft
Given Kluft's mixed sports breeding -- her father played pro soccer and her mother was an international long jumper -- it's only natural that the 26-year-old Swede would excel in such a wide array of disciplines on the track. Since March 2002, she is unbeaten in 22 heptathlon and pentathlon events and has won nine consecutive gold medals in major championships. What's more, the record 7,032 points she scored in the heptathlon at the European Indoor Championships trails only Jackie Joyner-Kersee's 7,291 for most ever.
15 Sheryl Swoopes
This native Texan has been called "the female Michael Jordan," and justifiably so. After opening the decade by leading the Houston Comets to the last of a record four straight WNBA titles, Swoopes added to her personal trophy case. She was named the league's MVP three times (2000, '02 and '05) and Defensive Player of the Year an unprecedented three times in a row (2000 through '03). The dynamic 6-foot guard also picked up two more Olympic gold medals (in 2000 and '04), raising her total to three.
16 Hayley Wickenheiser
When the 31-year-old forward wasn't carrying Team Canada on the international stage -- she led it to two gold medals in the past two Winter Olympics and three golds and two silvers in five of the past nine world championships -- she was crashing the boys' club in professional hockey. In 2003, she became the first woman to score a goal in a men's league, in Europe. She's been in and out of men's hockey since then, most recently signing with a club in Sweden. If that career path doesn't work out, she can always fall back on her softball skills. She captained Team Canada in the 2000 Summer Games.
17 Cat Osterman
Few were as dominant on the softball mound as the 26-year-old southpaw. During her four-year career at Texas, she set the Division I record for strikeouts (2,265) -- some of which she sprinkled across 20 no-hitters and 10 perfect games. (Her success is partially explained by her massive hands, which enable her to grip an entire softball with her fingers rather than just cradle it in her palm.) She brought even more magic to the international stage, leading the U.S. to a gold and silver at the Athens and Beijing Games, respectively.
18 Cathy Freeman
Sidelined for the 1998 season with an injury, the trailblazing Aussie sprinter was a woman rejuvenated when she came back to the sport the following year. She really hit her stride in 2000, when she raced to Olympic gold in the 400 meters with a time of 49.11 seconds. More poignant than the fact that she accomplished this feat in Sydney was that it made her Australia's second Aboriginal Olympic champion. Two years later, she anchored Australia's victorious 4x400-meter relay team in the Commonwealth Games.
19 Dara Torres
This 42-year-old Floridian's anti-aging secret may lie in the pool, where she continues to defy her age. In 2000, she came back from retirement at age 33 and reached the podium five times at the Sydney Games (including twice for gold). Then she retired and came back again -- at age 40 and 15 months removed from childbirth -- to win gold in the 100-meter freestyle at U.S. Nationals on the way to three silver medals in Beijing.
20 Tirunesh Dibaba
You could say that running is in the 24-year-old Ethiopian's blood. Her cousin Derartu Tulu is a two-time Olympic and one-time world 10,000-meter champion, and a multiple world cross-country medalist. Didaba's personal medal haul -- which includes Olympic golds in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters (2008) as well as a bronze ('04) and four world championship golds -- has set a standard that will be tough for future generations within the family and outside to surpass.
Next Group: Georgeta Andrunache, Kim Clijsters, Natalie Coughlin, Birgit Fischer, Guo Jingjing, Michelle Kwan, Nastia Liukin, Dawn Staley, Lindsey Vonn, Karrie Webb.

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