What Will it Take for a Tennis Star to Win SI's Sportsman of the Year?

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2013

Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams participate in a moment of silence in memory of the ATP Executive Chairman and President, Brad Drewett. They have 55 Grand Slam titles between them. But none has ever been named SI Sportsmen of the Year.
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams participate in a moment of silence in memory of the ATP Executive Chairman and President, Brad Drewett. They have 55 Grand Slam titles between them. But none has ever been named SI Sportsmen of the Year.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Soon after Sports Illustrated named Peyton Manning the 2013 Sportsman of the Year, debate began about worthy alternatives.

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera were among the names batted around, according to SI's Peter King (via Boston.com's Matt Pepin).

Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden even suggested Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon whose clients include Adrian Peterson and Drew Brees. 

But what about Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams? Both had better years than Manning. 

As amazing as Manning's year has been, it's still in progress. He wasn't named league MVP for the 2012 season. In fact Manning is not even a slam dunk for NFL MVP this season.  

The Sportsman of the Year designation is starting to look more like the Heisman Trophy; an honor losing its luster. The Heisman is supposed to go to the best college football player. Instead it's awarded to the best offensive player from a major college football program. Similarly, the Sportsman of the Year appears to be reserved for the best athlete from a major professional sports team.

Forget the bogus humanitarian and social-impact criteria SI includes in its reason for selecting Manning. The criteria shifts to suit the selection every year. Last year LeBron James won. The prior year, college basketball coaches Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski shared the honor. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire won in 1998. 

Manning is a future Hall of Famer. He has one of the most engaging personalities in sports. But this is not a lifetime achievement award. It's not supposed to be a popularity contest. It's supposed to honor an athlete for accomplishments within a given year.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10:  2013 US Open Champion Rafael Nadal of Spain poses with the US Open Championship trophy, following his victory in the men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia, in Central Park on September 10, 2013 in New Yor
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

If Nadal and Williams can't win the award after the type of seasons they had, you have to wonder, what does a tennis star have to do to win Sportsman of the Year?

Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Nadal and Williams have a combined 55 Grand Slam titles. None of them have won Sportsman of the Year.

The shortsighted lens in which SI views candidates for Sportsman of the Year has a blind spot when it comes to tennis players and women. 

Only three tennis players have ever won the award: Arthur Ashe (1992), Chris Evert (1976) and Billy Jean King (1972). Think about all the tennis greats who never won the award. This includes Federer, Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf. 

Each of those players had incredible years within his or her career. Williams had arguably her best year in 2013.

She became the oldest woman in the history of her sport to reach No. 1. She eclipsed $54 million in prize money, making her the highest-earning American tennis player, male or female, of all time. She set a new record for most prize money earned (more than $12 million) by a woman in a single season. She finished the season 78-4 and won two Grand Slams. Her 78-4 record earned her the tour's highest single-season winning percentage since 1989. She went undefeated on clay. 

If SI needed a social-impact angle to add to Williams' stats, how about the seven African American women who played singles in the U.S. Open this year?

Nadal's year was just as remarkable. He returned from seven months away from the game and dominated the ATP Tour. He won a record eighth French Open. He reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and captured the U.S. Open, his 13th Grand Slam title. Most importantly, this year Nadal changed the conversation about the "Greatest of All Time." 

Serena Williams hugs the U.S. Open trophy after winning the tournament in New York.
Serena Williams hugs the U.S. Open trophy after winning the tournament in New York.Al Bello/Getty Images

Williams and Nadal also vanquished their demons. Manning did not. Williams won her second French Open title, a feat that had eluded her for 11 years. Nadal went 36-4 on hard courts. 

Manning continued to come up short in big games. He began the year by losing a playoff game at home against the underdog Baltimore Ravens. He returned to Indianapolis and performed poorly in a loss to the Colts this season.

He also lost to the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots—again. Last week, with a chance to strengthen the Broncos' bid for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Manning failed to lead his team to a win over the San Diego Chargers. Manning hasn't won a playoff game since 2009.

Meanwhile, Nadal went 24-5 against Top 10 players and 14-1 in decisive third or fifth sets. Williams steamrolled Top 10 opponents.

How much better does a tennis player have to perform to win Sportsman of the Year?

In 1988 Steffi Graf, who has more Grand Slams (22) than any woman in the Open era, completed a Golden Slam. She won all four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal. However, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser received the honor that year. Ironically it was Sports Illustrated that coined the phrase "Golden Slam," based on Graf's achievement that year. 

Graf had three strikes against her. She was a tennis player, a woman and not an American. 

The last tennis player to win was Arthur Ashe, who was well beyond his playing days and dying of AIDS. He was selected for his humanitarian contributions. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04:  (FREE FOR EDITORIAL USE) Steffi Graf of Germany at the adidas Olympic Media Lounge at Westfield Stratford City on August 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images for adidas)
Alex Grimm/Getty Images

It's pretty difficult for a woman to win the award. Since the magazine named its first Sportsman of the Year in 1954, only six women have received the honor for individual accomplishments. The U.S. Women's soccer team won in 1999, and a few women were part of the bizarre "Athletes Who Care" Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year in 1987. Did athletes care more in 1987 than any other year?

However, of those six women, four had to share the cover with a male honoree. Only Chris Evert and Mary Decker got the honor and cover all to themselves.

Canadian-born Wayne Gretzky is among the nine non-Americans to receive the honor. The others included Roger Bannister (1954), Ingemar Johansson (1959), Bobby Orr (1970), Johann Olav Koss (1994), Sammy Sosa (1998) and Bob Bourne and Kip Keino (part of the 1987 Athletes Who Care). 

Sports Illustrated clearly focuses on basketball, football and baseball stars. They occasionally pick a non-traditional sports star in an Olympic year.

Although the magazine favors team sports, a golfer has won it seven times. Tiger Woods won it twice. So why never Federer, Sampras or Navratilova? Certainly they were worthy.

Apparently even the greatest tennis stars failed to shine bright enough to meet the requirements of SI's myopic meaning of Sportsman of the Year.