Tom Jones: A banner year so far for women's sports

Published July 13 2015
Updated July 14 2015

Each year, going all the way back to 1954, Sports Illustrated names a Sportsman of the Year.

While it's just the opinion of a magazine, that magazine is one of this country's great institutions and a pretty good arbiter when it comes to choosing the most outstanding sports figure of the year. Usually there is little debate about the selections, which have included some of sports' legendary names — Jordan, Gretzky, Ali and Tiger.

In the history of the unofficial yet esteemed honor, seven of the 68 winners have been women. (That doesn't count the 1987 award that went to a group of "Athletes Who Care.") The small list includes Olympians Mary Lou Retton and Bonnie Blair, tennis stars Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, track's Mary Decker, college basketball coach Pat Summitt and the 1999 U.S. women's soccer team. Of those seven, only Evert, Decker and the soccer team did not share the award with a man.

So why this talk now — in the middle of July — about an end-of-the-year award? Because halfway through 2015, we already have leading contenders, and all of them are women.

Consider 2015 to be the "Year of the Woman'' in sports. We have four female nominees who have accomplished more than any guy out there.

Let's start with what happened right here in Tampa last spring when the University of Connecticut further established itself as women's basketball's greatest dynasty. The Huskies beat Notre Dame at Amalie Arena to cap a 38-1 season and win their third consecutive national championship. It also was their 10th title — the most of any women's program.

The UConn women have become the gold standard for college dominance, and at some point they need to be recognized for that.

In a normal year, this would be the perfect chance to finally decorate UConn's accomplishments. But 2015 is not a normal year.

This month, we saw one of the most compelling sports stories in recent times when the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup. With many of the players inspired by that great '99 team that featured such icons as Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, the 2015 team captured the hearts of a nation and sliced through the world, winning soccer's ultimate trophy for the first time since that '99 group.

Nearly 27 million Americans tuned in to watch. Think about that. Nearly 27 million. To watch soccer. To watch women's soccer. That's more people than watched the clinching games of the World Series, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup final. In a matter of weeks, classy talents such as Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach — the greatest American soccer player, man or woman, of all time — became household names. They were such a big deal that New York City held a ticker-tape parade.

In most years, that would be it as far as Sportsman of the Year. You could almost hear the magazine shouting out, "No need to apply; we have a winner."

Then along comes Serena Williams.

She blasted her way through Wimbledon, winning tennis' biggest tournament Saturday. She is making history with, likely, more to come. The victory at Wimbledon gave her a second "Serena Slam," meaning she now is the defending champion in all four majors. A victory at the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 31, would give her an official calendar grand slam, the first since Steffi Graf in 1988. She has 21 majors, just one behind Graf for the most in the Open Era and only three behind Margaret Court.

Barring some sort of career-threatening injury, she will break the all-time record and have the numbers to back up the claim that she is the greatest female tennis player ever. I already believe she is the greatest female athlete the world has ever seen. Can you imagine, someday, looking at the complete list of SI's Sportsman of the Year and not seeing the name of Serena Williams?

I'll throw in one more intriguing name: Ronda Rousey. The mixed martial arts fighter has become a huge celebrity in a sport where most can't name even one other participant. Maybe that says something about the sport, but it most definitely says something about Rousey. She is 11-0 in her MMA career with nine submissions and two knockouts. Eight of her fights have ended in the first minute, and only one has gone past the first round.

Now, to be fair to the guys, there is a male contender for Sportsman of the Year.

Jordan Spieth is halfway to golf's Grand Slam, having won the Masters and U.S. Open. He is the favorite at this week's Open Championship, and if he wins there and at the PGA Championship Aug. 13-16, he will have captured golf's holy grail of the calendar grand slam. Only five golfers in the Modern Era have won career grand slams.

But he's only halfway there. Talk to me after this weekend.

Until then, the question isn't if a woman will be the Sportsman of the Year but which one. Heck, they are all so good, we might have to name more than one.

But the cool part? All of them will be women.

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