BY CHRIS EVERT
I LIVE IN South Florida, so I am well aware of LeBron James. I am also in awe of Diana Nyad, who swam from Havana to Key West at age 64. I know there are football and baseball players who are larger than life. But for me, the Sportswoman of the Year is Serena Williams.
Serena won two majors in 2013, giving her 17 for her career. Doing a convincing impersonation of a clay-court specialist, she won the French Open for "only" the second time. She also took her fifth U.S. Open title, finished yet another season ranked No. 1 and won more matches (78) than she had in any other year.
December 23, 2013
But her most impressive performance—and what sealed her as my Sportsman—came at the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul. The tennis season is grueling. There are almost 10 months of matches in different countries, in different climates, on different surfaces. By the end of 2013, Serena, 32, was depleted. In those last matches she wasn't playing for much—she was already going to finish with the No. 1 ranking. But for her, pride is motivation enough. She persevered, playing through pain and exhaustion. This is the essence of Serena. She hits the ball harder than almost anyone else, but her best weapon is her competitive instinct.
We're used to all this by now. Serena won her first major in 1999. She's still going strong almost 15 years later. Fans might take a look at Serena's record in 2013 and think it was a typical year for her. But it wasn't. Like all champions, she worked to improve her few weaknesses. Early in the year she stated that her goal was to cut down on her errors. So she got into better shape, and because she trusted her fitness, she hit fewer risky shots when she was on the run. She used to win by hitting 60 winners yet making 50 errors; now in a typical match she has only 20 errors. Making such changes late in her career really speaks to her professionalism.
Fans might also think that Serena benefits from not having a true rival. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you have an equal you push yourself instinctively. Not having a rival makes it harder to bring out your best.
Finally, the way Serena conducted herself in 2013 also makes her worthy. In the past she's had her difficult moments. This year? She was calmer on the court and showed a real humility off it. More than ever she was gracious both in her victories and in her rare defeats. She felt grateful to be out there competing. She also felt a sense of history and of her place in it.
A few years ago I wrote Serena an open letter asking her to rethink her priorities and realize that she was shortchanging herself by letting her outside interests overshadow her tennis. I wrote, "Just remember that you have in front of you an opportunity of the rarest kind—to become the greatest ever at something."
It caused some controversy, but I stood by it. I'm the first to give constructive criticism when I think it's deserved, but I'm also the first to give praise. In 2013, Serena deserves more praise than any other athlete.
BY JACKIE STEWART
BEING NAMED Sportsman of the Year in 1973 remains one of the most satisfying honors of my career. That was my final season, and I took the award as recognition not only of my accomplishments on the track that year—five Grand Prix victories and a third Formula One championship—but also of my ongoing efforts to promote professionalism and safety in racing.
When considering candidates for this year's Sportsman, I found myself thinking globally. Certainly the latest F1 champion, Sebastian Vettel of Germany, is a worthy candidate. Competing in 19 races, across five continents, the 26-year-old took his fourth straight title, tying records with 13 victories in the season and nine in a row. Still modern-day Grand Prix racing is, more than ever, a matter of man and machine. In the end I selected an athlete whose performances were purely individual, purely human—and one who was pretty fast in his own right. The always-amazing Usain Bolt is my choice for 2013 Sportsman of the Year. The Bolt Is The Man.
By his own standards, Bolt he didn't have his best year. He actually lost a race and failed to break any of his world records. He did, though, at 27, continue to compete at a level few other sprinters have approached, winning the 100 and 200 meters and anchoring Jamaica's gold-medal 4...100 relay team at the world championships in Moscow. He's the most decorated athlete in the history of the worlds.
Every champion will tell you winning once is one thing, maintaining that excellence is another. The increasing pressure, the ongoing sacrifices—as well as the acclaim and other benefits—conspire to make it harder to stay on top. But Bolt keeps doing the things that made him great. For him, it's not just the feet and the legs; it's the head and the heart too. Bolt excites everyone who sees him, as Muhammad Ali did. He has been adopted by people of every nation and, to a great extent, is carrying track single-handedly, by winning and by giving fully of himself.
I expect Bolt to continue to excel—he has, if you will, long legs—and not just on the track. I will watch him run, as I did this year, with the sense I am watching an unmatched Sportsman in action.
BY SUGAR RAY LEONARD
ACHIEVEMENT IN boxing has always been built on a combination of hard work, self-belief, intestinal fortitude and that special something that's very hard to describe.
Few athletes are able to reach a level of sustained success. Excelling in any sport (competing in must-see events, breaking records, remaining undefeated) can sometimes promote a less enthusiastic approach to the day-to-day effort that such excellence demands. Athletes may rest on their laurels and lose that "eye of the tiger" drive. But there is one fighter, one champion, who has shown the world that he is something different. Who comes to mind when I ponder my choice for Sportsman of the Year? None other than Floyd Mayweather Jr.
There was a long period during which any talk about boxing focused on the heavyweight champions, legendary big men like Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. In time, though, the baton was passed to Sugar Ray Robinson, then to yours truly, to Oscar De La Hoya and now to Floyd (Money) Mayweather Jr. When I think of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED I always think of the wow factor. That's precisely what Mayweather has.
He is the rare fighter who makes nonboxing fans watch boxing. I've heard people say of Mayweather, "He doesn't like to get hit." But I take issue with that. The sweet science is all about using the most effective and economical means to defeat your opponent both physically and mentally. Boxing is one of the most, if not the most, challenging sports because at your bleakest moment you ask yourself, Can I go on? Can I go any further? Ask yourself that when one of your eyes is swollen, your hand is throbbing and you've just been knocked down. Boxing is also one of the most primal sports, calling upon not only physical strength but also mental fortitude. People are amazed by boxers' ability to go beyond what's seen as possible for the body, mind and spirit. That's what sets boxing apart and what, in turn, sets Mayweather apart.
I first met Mayweather in 1995, when he was not yet ranked in the Top 10, but even then I saw and heard something rare in someone so young: that x-factor that separates good fighters from great fighters. The way he expressed himself was totally confident, even borderline arrogant, but it takes that level of self-assuredness—and the ability to back up those words—to be a champion.
His 45--0 record speaks loud and proud. You can love him or hate him (and by the way, he truly doesn't care which you choose) but he is hands down a phenomenal boxer. I have observed his uncanny ability to slip bombs thrown by De La Hoya and seen him find a way to continue despite being rocked by Sugar Shane Mosley. In 2013, he came off a 12-month layoff to score two easy victories and reaffirm his place as today's best, pound-for-pound. Mayweather has shown that rare ability to reach down to that hidden reservoir of strength. Just having that ability, period, makes Mayweather a deserving candidate for Sportsman of the Year.
Mayweather is one of those special people who has tremendous influence on millions of kids—they all just want to be like Money. He may not realize that their inspiration is his responsibility, but it is. Mayweather, who has shown that he is maturing as a man, can have a huge impact outside the ring—if he can do the same impeccable work he's done inside those ropes for so many years.
BY MARY LOU RETTON
WHEN I won Sportswoman of the Year in 1984 (alongside Sportsman of the Year Edwin Moses), it was such a surprising and unexpected honor. Edwin had been on top of his sport for so many years. When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED decided I'd be a corecipient, it was incredibly humbling, because there were so many outstanding gold medalists who came out of those 1984 Olympic Games.
As I consider which athletes best embody the ideals of this award for 2013, two stand out. Serena Williams has just killed it on the tennis court and stands at the top of her game. As for the male recipient, my choice is LeBron James, who led the Heat to a second straight NBA title. And with his extensive charity work, LeBron has established a standard of achievement that extends far beyond the court. A year after he was named Sportsman, he would be a worthy repeat honoree.
Consistency and the ability to remain on top of a sport for a long period are what really set an athlete apart from his or her peers. And that's what both Serena and LeBron continue to do year after year.
Though we come from vastly different sports backgrounds, I see one notable similarity between Serena and myself: our physical strength. I wasn't a typical gymnast and I broke a lot of barriers in the sport. The same is true for Serena in tennis: Her strength and ability has forever changed the women's game. When I look back at my career, the pinnacle was the 1984 Games and winning the all-around title. Americans had never had much success in Olympic gymnastics. But I fought and fought and I knew that I wasn't going to give up. I see the same sort of fighting spirit and drive in Serena and LeBron. That's what makes these two athletes deserving of being named SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year.
BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
WHEN I was named Sportsman of the Year in 1985, I was absolutely thrilled. The award symbolizes more than excellence on the court or field; it represents the effect an athlete has on the society around him or her. It was truly a special moment to be honored in the same fashion as some of my sports heroes. While I certainly felt that I worked hard and excelled enough in my career to deserve consideration for Sportsman, it was still surprising to receive the award with so many other fine athletes of my day in contention.
So when I was asked who best embodies the characteristics of a Sportsman this year, a person who has had a distinct impact on sports, I thought of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. He is a fine example of what the award represents. He is a great teacher of the game and has been a phenomenal competitor. In his 18 years in San Antonio he has won four NBA championships, and he nearly won another last June, when the Spurs were beaten by the Heat in the Finals (page 114). I think that the leadership Popovich has shown is a great example of consistency over a long period of time. And the fact that the Spurs are one of the best-coached teams in the NBA is a testament to Popovich's skill. There are numerous coaches who would deserve to be recognized for their prowess on the sideline, but Popovich stands out because he has been able to get the most from his players on a consistent basis. That's why he gets my vote for Sportsman of the Year.