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The Debate: Who is Britain's greatest ever sportsperson?

With the Australian Open underway and Ronnie O'Sullivan winning a record-extending 23rd Triple Crown title, we’ve asked the question: who is Britain’s greatest sportsperson?

We’re fortunate that Great Britain has produced a number of exceptional athletes over the years, boasting world champions in a variety of sports.

From Phil Taylor to Lewis Hamilton to Andy Murray, the debate is littered with stars whose achievements and accolades have etched their name into sporting stardom.

But who is the greatest sportsperson that Britain has ever produced?

Given the volume of contenders it’s a tough question to answer but the writers in the bet365 News Team have shared who they think is fitting of the prestigious label.

Andy Murray

If you were to poll the British public on the most glorious moment in the country’s sporting history in their lifetime, I’m positive Andy Murray ending the nation’s 77-year wait for a home male champion at Wimbledon in 2013 would come out on top.

Just 12 months prior to Murray’s crowning moment at the All England Club – a straight sets demolition of number one seed Novak Djokovic – the Scotsman had broken down in tears on Centre Court after losing his fourth consecutive Grand Slam final to Roger Federer.

“I’m going to try this and it’s not going to be easy,” the crestfallen Murray told Sue Barker in the aftermath of this crushing defeat, which left even his most ardent supporters fearing the Briton would never quite be able to get over the line in the sport’s major competitions.

Such fears would prove unfounded, however, with Murray finishing 2012 as an Olympic Gold medallist in London and US Open champion at Flushing Meadows.

Looking back on this moment of intense public vulnerability following his Wimbledon final defeat to Federer in the summer of 2012, it can be identified as the precursor of Murray’s greatest achievements in tennis, of which there are many.

Murray’s array of personal achievements speaks for itself: two-time Wimbledon champion, US Open champion, 11-time Grand Slam finalist, two-time Olympic Gold medallist, Davis Cup winner.

In essence, Dunblane’s most famous son was not far away from completing the sport of tennis.

Tennis Grass

In an era shared with arguably the three best tennis players of all time – Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal, Murray was also able to at the peak of his powers usurp all three in 2016 by ending the year as world number one following victory at the ATP World Tour Finals in London.

Renowned on the ATP Tour for his all-round technical skillset, with one of the best backhands and returns on the circuit and a trademark delicate lob, Murray also developed into a fully-fledged athletic monster in his prime, with a never-say die mentality which saw him exercise resilience amidst both defining losses and a cruel battle with a hip injury which brought his time at the top of the sport to a premature end.

Elite level talent, elite level athleticism, elite level mindset. What other British sportsperson can lay claim to have possessed the diversity of attributes as the great Andy Murray?
 

Ronnie O'Sullivan

What separates the great from the good is the ability not just to reach the top of a sport, but to stay there.

Andy Murray reached the top of tennis and absolutely has a fair claim to be Britain’s greatest ever sportsman. Unfortunately for him, he played in an era where his three main rivals went way past the traditional boundaries of tennis, almost creating their own sport.

Meanwhile, no one denies Lewis Hamilton is an excellent driver, but can anyone honestly say he’s competed in a fair playing field? No driver has ever won more than Hamilton’s seven world titles, but for six of those, he was racing for a team who also won the Constructors’ title, as is typically the case in Formula 1. 

And while there’s no doubt Phil Taylor was the best darts player of his era, ‘of his era’ is doing some heavy lifting there. Sixteen world titles is a magnificent achievement (even if five of those were while Raymond van Barneveld was competing in BDO world finals), and while Taylor is perhaps more responsible than anyone for making darts as competitive and popular as it is today, he wouldn’t have anywhere near his 16 titles in the modern era.

Enter: Ronnie O’Sullivan.

While the 1980s belonged to Steve Davis and the 1990s belonged to Stephen Hendry, the 2000s, 2010s and the first half of the 2020s are O’Sullivan’s.

Even including the 90s, O’Sullivan won seven ranking titles (including two UK Championships – the first of which came against Hendry as a 17-year-old) and the Masters.

Battling incredible demons off the table only adds to the stature of O’Sullivan’s accomplishments, but it was those demons that saw him experience a seven-year wait between that first UK Championship and the first of seven world titles.

Anyone who’s ever held a cue knows how challenging the sport is. If you’ve seen some capable of knocking in 30 or 40- breaks, you’d assume they’re good; 60- or 70-breaks and they’re really good; centuries and you’re wondering why they’re not professional. Then you realise O’Sullivan was making century breaks at the age of 10.

Notoriously difficult as snooker is, the top players don’t practise for hours and hours every single day to get any better; it’s to make sure those behind them don’t catch up. 

Of course, O’Sullivan was no different. O’Sullivan practised so much and was so naturally gifted that the game became effortless.

And let’s be clear, for Ronnie, it was effortless. In 1996, O'Sullivan played a frame at the World Championships left-handed - and won. The following year he made the fastest maximum break there has ever been and ever will be, potting 36 balls at an average of less than nine seconds per shot. 

The first of his seven world crowns came in 2001, and in 2012, O’Sullivan won a fourth world title, then taking a sabbatical from the game. He’d return 12 months later, winning a fifth world title.

This wasn’t just the greatest achievement in snooker, but one of the greatest achievements in British sporting history. To take an entire year out of the game, then returning to win another world title – all while not losing a single session – is ridiculous and will never be done again.

In 31 years as a professional, O’Sullivan has made a ranking final in 28 of them, winning eight Masters titles, eight UK Championships and seven World Championships.

Peerless.

Phil Taylor

Dominance, longevity, inevitability, record-breaking achievements and an aura.

Those are the boxes that need to be ticked if someone can be part of the greatest ever British sportsperson conversation.

There are sports stars who meet some of that criteria, but only a select few who emphatically cover all five.

At the top of that list is Phil Taylor.

‘The Power’ is a 16-time World Champion, winning his first in 1990 and his last in 2013.

He won the World Matchplay on 16 occasions, the World Grand Prix 11 times, six Premier Leagues, six Grand Slams and five UK Open titles.

214 tournament victories, 85 majors, 14 consecutive World Championship finals and world number one for a total of 13 years.

Total sporting domination.

Phil Taylor

In his first world final in 1990, Taylor was up against five-time champion Eric Bristow, who was widely considered as the game’s greatest player. Taylor beat him 6-1. 

Bristow had previously lost three world finals, but nobody did that to the Crafty Cockney.

Dennis Priestley shared the first major PDC rivalry with Taylor in the 1990s. The pair met in five world finals and Taylor won four of those. They were the top two in the sport and Taylor beat him 37 times in 44 meetings.

In winning eight World Championships in a row from 1995 to 2002, Taylor was simply imperious and he didn’t drop a set in the 2001 and 2002 finals against John Part and Peter Manley respectively.

Even after Raymond van Barneveld beat Taylor in the 2007 final, Taylor responded with a World Championship final record average of 110.94 as he got his revenge two years later. It’s a record that still stands. 

Michael van Gerwen is the closest we’ve seen to Taylor, but with three world titles compared to Taylor‘s 16, he has some distance to go. 

It was van Gerwen who Taylor beat to win his final world title. Taylor was 52 at the time.

Michael Phelps in the Olympics, Usain Bolt in a 100 metres final, Shane Warne on a turning wicket. It was inevitable, their opponents were already beaten before the event.

It was the same with Taylor. He would be in the mind of his opponents simply by being there.

He was ruthless, relentless and quite simply a genius.

Lewis Hamilton

He holds the Formula 1 records for most podiums (197), most pole positions (104), most wins (103) and is tied with the great Michael Schumacher for most Drivers’ Championships with a remarkable seven titles.

Were it not for the controversial conclusion of the 2021 season that ‘tarnished the image of the sport’, then we would be hailing Sir Lewis Hamilton as an eight-time world champion.

Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jenson Button, the United Kingdom has produced F1 champions in abundance and yet their accomplishments have been dwarfed by Hamilton’s extraordinary supremacy.

In fact, very few individuals can say they have dominated their respective sport in the same way that Hamilton has across his 16-year stint in motorsport’s premier competition. 

Fearless, bold, calculated and tenacious, Hamilton has all the qualities you would expect to see in Britain’s greatest sportsperson. He’s a ruthless winner, one who demands perfection from himself and from those around him. Some label Hamilton a “sore loser” but that’s because it’s such a rare sighting to not see him succeed.

The last two years have failed to match the dizzying heights he’d reached in previous years but it can be easy to forget that, at the age of 38, Hamilton’s nearing the twilight of his career. To see both him and Fernando Alonso competing at the top end of the grid on a consistent basis is quite frankly astonishing.

Those that refuse to acknowledge Formula 1 as a sport underappreciate the physical demands required, pushing both man and machine to the limit.

Those that attempt to diminish Hamilton’s achievements cite “it’s the car, not the driver”, yet such an observation is naïve.

Yes, you need a car capable of competing at the front but more often than not, the best drivers will end up in a better car (unless you’re Alonso, of course).

And the Stevenage-born racer has had to work his way from the bottom to reach the very pinnacle of the sport.

He exhibited his immense talent during his sole GP2 season, winning the title at a canter and earning a seat at McLaren. To finish above his teammate and two-time world champion Alonso in his rookie campaign is testament to the phenomenal speed and consistency that's been showcased throughout his career.

There is the valid argument that dominance in F1 can be boring but Hamilton’s excellence has been a major pillar in broadening the profile of the sport. Using his platform, Hamilton’s work off the track – which includes the promotion of diversity in motorsport – makes him a hugely influential figure and that only heightens his credentials as Britain's greatest sportsperson.

Joe Calzaghe

Of all the names on this list only one traded leather, blood, sweat and tears in exchange for glory and never once tasted defeat.

The Italian Dragon: Joe Calzaghe.

Calzaghe struts onto this list with the charismatic swagger he displayed so often in the ring, that of a stylish and devastating southpaw who took on the world’s best, won and then retired at the pinnacle of the sport with an untainted perfect record.

The first-born son of an Italian street busking father and a Welsh office working mother, Calzaghe hails from a working-class council estate in the Welsh valleys. 

His is a true Rocky story, a boy from the streets, bullied as a child and derided amongst the boxing community for his bohemian Italian musician father operating as his cornerman and trainer, Calzaghe rose from the valleys to the very top of the boxing world against all the odds.

46 fights, 46 wins. Unified super-middleweight champion of the world.

Joe Calzaghe

He still holds the record of the longest reign of any champion in the history of the division, ‘The Pride of Wales’ dominated at 168 for 10 straight years and defended his world title a record 20 times, beating every challenger to his crown.

Calzaghe recorded 32 stoppage wins from his 46 fights with the Welshman becoming known for his ferocious combination punches and stopping experienced operators early in fights. The Italian Dragon didn’t like to hang around.

His CV reads like a who’s-who of the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions of the era. Calzaghe took multiple unbeaten records and beat some of the biggest names of his generation.

Chris Eubank, Jeff Lacy, Mikkel Kessler, Bernard Hopkins & Roy Jones Jr to name just a few, all fell before the great Calzaghe.

The Welshman is one of just four European’s in boxing history to retire as an undefeated world champion and was the first man in history to unify three of the four major world titles.

An iconic, and sometimes criminally overlooked name in British boxing, Calzaghe is truly deserving of being involved in the discussion of Britain’s greatest ever sportsperson. 

Ben Ainslie

As a winner of medals at five consecutive Olympic games, Sir Charles Benjamin Ainslie proudly possesses the title of the most decorated Olympic sailor.

Sir Ben was a remarkable single-hander sailor at age 19 when he came away with a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games, in which he competed in the first ever Laser Class races. 

This early success inspired him to win gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, which took place in one of his favourite sailing venues to date, the Olympic Sailing Shore Base in the world famous Sydney Harbour. 

In the years following, Ainslie once again took gold three times at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics, where he was honoured as the first Olympic torch bearer.

When competing, Ainslie was cheered on by a passion-fuelled home crowd who lined the shore and cliffs of Weymouth to see Ainslie achieve his fourth consecutive Gold and fifth consecutive Olympic medal in the Finn Class, securing his title as the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time. 

Ainslie is also a big name in the America's Cup having signed with Team New Zealand in 2005, a two-year stop followed until Sir Ben grew an ambition to bring the America’s Cup back to Britain which saw him earn the role of Skipper for Team Origin, the British America’s Cup Challenge. 

Amongst races on the water, Ben also has won the Rolex World Sailor of the year a remarkable four times during his career (1998, 2002, 2008 and 2012). 

Following his retirement from the Olympics, Ainslie had his sights set on winning the America’s Cup once again and having joined Oracle Team USA, the dream very soon became a reality in 2013 when Oracle overcame the odds to win the 34th America’s Cup 9-8. 

However, this would not be the only America’s Cup title Ainslie would win, going back to reclaim his trophy with his newcomer British team, Land Rover BAR IN 2015. 

He competed again in 2017 with Land Rover BAR, however the team faced an early knockout which led to Ainslie curating an almost fully British team comprising of many of the world’s best sailors under the name INEOS Team UK. 

INEOS went on to achieve an impressive performance at the Sydney SailGP Circuit, claiming the team’s first event title where Ainslie had won his first Olympic medal. More recently, Ainslie took Team INEOS to the 36th America’s Cup in 2021 at which they placed 5th overall.

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