The greatest individual sports stars of all time?

Serena Williams preparing to serve
Serena Williams is widely regarded as the best female tennis player of all time | Image: Jimmie48 Photography / Shutterstock.com

This is a list of some of the greatest sporting individuals of all time. It is by no means definitive so please don’t be offended (and definitely don’t write in) if your favourite isn’t included!

Each star has excelled in their chosen field and won pretty much everything there is to be won throughout their glittering careers.

Ronnie O’Sullivan

Nicknamed ‘The Rocket’ for his entertainingly fast and attacking style of play, Ronnie O’Sullivan has become a name synonymous with snooker. He holds the record for the most UK Championships (seven), and jointly holds the record for the most World Championships (also seven) with Stephen Hendry – who himself regards Ronnie as the greatest.

Now, we’d be here for a while if we were to list all his records, so here’s just a few more – he’s won the most Triple Crowns, has the fastest maximum break (5min 20 secs), the most competitive centuries, and the most titles. Actually, that was quite the mouthful anyway!

Serena Williams

Serena Williams had a racquet in hand from the age of three and aspired to be a future tennis great. It's safe to say she achieved that goal…and then some…and then some more!

Her powerful strikes earned her many points on her journey to 23 Grand Slam titles – the most won by a tennis player (male or female) in the Open Era. And when you add doubles into the mix, this jumps to 37! Williams also holds the joint record with Steffi Graf for the most consecutive weeks ranked number one in the world (186). She is widely regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time, and rightfully so!

Roger Federer

Onto the men’s game now, and of course, GQ 2016’s Most Stylish Man had to make the list. But it’s his style on the court that will cement Roger Federer as a legend. His fluid movement and versatile game have taken the ‘King of Grass’ to a record eight Wimbledon titles and 20 Grand Slams in total.

He has also won 103 Singles titles, second in the Open Era only to the great Jimmy Connors. Federer’s record of 302 weeks ranked number one is nearly six years for all the mathematicians out there!

Lewis Hamilton

From his first F1 race, Lewis Hamilton showed he was there to make a mark. Donning McLaren gear, he finished third in the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, kicking off an incredible rookie season where he missed out on the championship by just a single point. Bouncing back the following season, a dramatic Brazilian Grand Prix Season finale saw Hamilton win his first World Championship.

However, it wasn’t until his 2013 move to Mercedes that he dominated the sport, claiming six more championships to hold the joint-record with the legendary Michael Schumacher. Hamilton also has the most wins (103), pole positions (103), and podium finishes (183). One of the all-time great drivers!

Tiger Woods

If you were ever in need of a tale of resurgence, look no further than the most recognisable man in golf. Turning professional in 1996 at the age of 20, Tiger Woods claimed his first Major just a year later. What followed was a period of supremacy, winning 13 Majors between 1999 and 2008, and becoming the number one golfer for two five-year stretches. However, a multitude of injuries and off-course controversies saw Woods enter a quieter period in the sport. Many questioned if he could ever return to the same levels. He did.

In September 2018 he won The Tour Championship – his first tournament win in five years. He then went on to win the 2019 US Masters – his first Major in 11 years. His sheer determination was more recently displayed when he made it into the 2022 Masters…just a year after nearly losing his life in a car accident.

Muhammad Ali

It wouldn’t have made sense to list the greatest sports stars without ‘The Greatest’ himself. Hailed by many as the best boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali’s cultural and political influence were unmatched. Despite spending over three years out of the ring (after refusing to fight in The Vietnam War), his lightning combos, powerful jabs, and swift feet saw him to a 56-5 record, with countless iconic fights.

He was also the first fighter to capture the Heavyweight Title three times, defending it 19 times. What’s more? He also has an Olympic gold medal to his name.

Lindsey Vonn

We’re shifting to the cold now and it’s time to hit the ski slopes. Like many of the individuals on this list, Lindsey Vonn started from an early age. Fast-tracked onto programmes, she made her World Cup debut at just 16, and Winter Olympics debut at 17.

She went on to have a prolific career winning four World Cup Championships and holding the record for women’s World Cup race victories (82). This included wins in all five disciplines of alpine skiing – downhill, super-G, slalom, giant slalom, and super combined; only an elite group of six can say they’ve done this. Across both the men’s and women’s sports Vonn also holds the record for the most Crystal Globe titles at 20!

Fact Sheet

  • Ronnie O’Sullivan has written three crime novels – Framed (2016), Double Kiss (2017), and The Break (2018).
  • Serena Williams has made cameo appearances in multiple movies (Ocean 8, Pixels, 7 Days In Hell) and television shows (ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).
  • Roger Federer can speak Swiss-German, German, French, and English fluently.
  • Lewis Hamilton was also talented in remote-controlled racing. When he was just six he won two trophies in championships that included adult contestants.
  • Tiger Wood’s father nicknamed him Tiger after a south Vietnamese soldier with whom he fought during the Vietnam War.
  • During his 43-month exile, Muhammad Ali had a brief stage career, playing the title role of a militant black lecturer in the Broadway musical, Buck White.
  • Lindsey Vonn skied on men’s skis as she was taller and heavier than some of the women she competed against.

Written by:

Yadavan Moorthy

Yadavan Moorthy is a freelance writer from London specialising in history, and is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY.