ON Thursday American magazine Sports Illustrated announced drought-breaking Cleveland Cavaliers NBA championship winner LeBron James as its Sportsperson of the Year.
There was some argument baseball’s Chicago Cubs — who had a similarly historic breakthrough — or an Olympian like Simone Biles or Michael Phelps deserved the nod, but it was hard to argue with James’s efforts in leading the Cavs back from a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit against the Golden State Warriors.
But 10 years ago SI’s choice was far more contentious — going so far as to cause “a lot of internal awkwardness” between staffers at the publication, according to editorial director Chris Stone.
The list of candidates in 2006 were reduced to a race between two — tennis stud Roger Federer and basketballer Dwyane Wade.
Federer had completed what many argued was the finest year in tennis history. He won 92 of his 97 matches and three of the four Grand Slams, only failing in the French Open to dominant claycourter Rafael Nadal.
This was Federer at the absolute peak of his powers and given his reputation as one of the finest athletes of all-time, many at Sports Illustrated felt he was deserving of being named sportsperson of the year for the first time.
But the decision isn’t a vote. It’s made by the head honcho at the magazine, who from 2002 to 2011 was group editor Terry McDonell. And McDonell went with Wade.
“It’s not that I wasn’t a tennis fan or was overwhelmingly in favour of basketball,” McDonell told SI.com this week. “I thought, you know, maybe Federer would get it the next year, although it’s always dangerous to plan ahead.”
The choice of Wade was certainly defensible, if not popular. He averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals while leading the Miami Heat back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
But that didn’t make anyone in the tennis community feel any better — or prevent Sports Illustrated from having to defend itself against criticism Wade was picked because Federer was going to be unavailable to receive the award in person or because basketball sold more magazines than tennis.
“I’ll tell you the answer nobody wants to hear: It’s that he’s not American. It’s an American publication,” Federer’s rival Andy Roddick said in a radio interview at the time. “I promise you, if I won three Grand Slams I’d be considered a lot more. I think it’s based on selling magazines.”
SI senior writer S.L. Price, who wrote the cover story accompanying the award, hardly denied the notion.
“Terry is going to be considered the villain in this and that’s wrong. He was trying to save jobs
and make money. He wanted to sell magazines and create buzz and tennis did neither,” he told SI.com.
“At the time there were people really p***ed off in tennis. Everybody in tennis is pretty polite, but there was certainly outrage that Federer hadn’t gotten it. The tennis community took it as a slap at their sport. But it’s a niche sport that’s been attempting to break out and be a major sport ever since the tennis boom (of the 1970s). That was an anomaly and it fooled many in the sport into thinking it could be as big as basketball or baseball.”
But if Federer — who has still never received the honour — objected he never said it. “This has been a source of ribbing with Federer and his camp, but for Federer — being the mensch that he is — it’s never been the basis for declining an interview or anything like that,” veteran SI tennis writer Jon Wertheim said. “Also, I should point this out: Not once did he denigrate Dwyane Wade or question his bona fides.”