The honors continued to roll in for Serena Williams last week, the latest one bestowed upon her by the Associated Press news service. The AP named Williams its Female Athlete of the Year for 2013. Her male counterpart was LeBron James of the NBA’s Miami Heat.
OK, I’m a tennis journalist, so I’m prejudiced. But it seems to me that you can make a better case for Rafael Nadal than James this year, even though the latter is also a stupendous athlete. Here it is:
• James is a team player who most likely would not have earned this honor if the San Antonio Spurs had beaten the Heat in that tense, classic seven-game NBA Finals. Perhaps it’s significant that the only other NBA stars who won the AP award in the past, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan (a three-time winner), also did it in years when their teams won the NBA championship. By contrast, Nadal is an individual who dominated tennis for significant periods without help from anyone.
• Nadal simply had better numbers, to the extent that they can be compared. Take a look at the NBA year-end statistics and you’ll see that while James was the league MVP, he finished in the top five in only two of the six major offensive/defensive categories (points per game and field goal percentage) -- and not higher in No. 4 in either. Nadal, by contrast, led the ATP in Grand Slam winning percentage; he won more matches than any other man (he was 75-7, with two Grand Slam titles in three tries) and three more titles than his closet rival, Novak Djokovic (10-7).
• Coming into the year, James and the Heat were coming off a great season in which they also won the championship. Nadal, by contrast, was coming off a forced seven-month layoff, and he wasn’t even able to compete for the entire month of January. His comeback from damaged knees was extraordinarily successful -- and one of the most remarkable comeback stories in all of sports.
• The AP voters, a panel of sports editors from around the nation, have yet to come to grips with the fact that this wasn’t meant to be the “American Male (or Female) Athlete of the Year” -- at least not by those who conceived it. In fact, Steffi Graf has won the award, and so have Swedish prizefighter Ingemar Johansson, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci and others. But winners from foreign shores are rare.
Men from only two and a half foreign nations (Sweden, Australia and Canada) have earned the AP’s seal of excellence. As much as I love the USA, I find it hard to believe we’ve had such a stranglehold on sports since 1931. I mean, there hasn’t been a single soccer (futbol, if you prefer) star who deserved this accolade? I’m no soccer fan, but that’s actually comical.
And it isn’t like the AP voters have a history of shunning tennis. In fact, Chris Evert is one of only two women who have claimed the award more than three-time winner Serena (the other was 1940s golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias). And in 1981, John McEnroe and Tracy Austin were the two winners -- one of the very few times both winners were from the same sport.
The best defense of the AP’s vote might be that the bar has always been set absurdly high for male tennis players. The only one to win it besides McEnroe was the first man to record a Grand Slam, Don Budge (who played in the 1930s). Rod Laver never received the AP’s blessing, nor did Pete Sampras or Roger Federer.
In that sense, at least, Rafael Nadal is in good company.