Who were the Best Athletes of 2018?

James Simpson II
Dec 26, 2018 · 20 min read
Ronaldo, Modric, Mbappe and Messi had the soccer world’s full attention in 2018.

2018 is coming to a close, so there’s nothing left to do but to rank the athletes throughout the year that have soared and thrived like none other in the world of sports. What athletes defined the sports year the most and left an indelible imprint in the eyes of fanatics, media members and onlookers from every walk of fandom? Well, here’s my totally, fair-minded and unbiased view on the debate. While were here, I think it’s appropriate to mention that I have mad respect for Triple Crown winning horse, Justify, and his jockey, Mike Smith but no horses — much less animals in general — are cracking this list. Strictly humans everyone!

(Hint: All you hoops fans will be pretty disappointed when you see the list absent of basketball players, but hey, I gotta be straightforward presenting this to the public. As for soccer fans out there, they will be pleased to find plenty of footballers roaming the top 10. Let’s just say the most universal sport on the planet is represented very nicely.)

Honorable Mention: Breanna Stewart, Rafael Nadal, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Katie Ledecky, Simona Halep

The top two NFL MVP candidates in 2018, in my view.

10. Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees- The Young Guard and the Old Guard are coming in a tie. Maybe it’s a cope out or maybe it’s just necessary, as I think. Fine with me but I just can’t see that much separation from how the new, daring Midwest gunslinger from Kansas City has performed compared to the unyielding, systematic, hardening existing presence from New Orleans through four months of action.

In a football season, that has featured some of the gaudiest offensive numbers and statistics the league has ever seen, the two players that have front-lined this scoring spectacle have been 23-year-old, first-year full-time starter, Patrick Mahomes and 39-year-old, NFL all-time passing yard leader, Drew Brees.

For pete sake, just look at their numbers through 15 games and where they rank across the league…

Mahomes: 48 TD passes (1st), 4,816 passing yards (2nd), 66.4 completion percentage (16th), 114.0 passer rating (2nd), 81.5 QBR (1st), 321.1 passing yards per game (2nd), 8.6 yards per pass attempt (2nd)

Brees: 32 TD passes (6th), 3,992 passing yards (11th), 74.4 completion percentage (1st), 115.7 passer rating (1st), 81.2 QBR (2nd), 266.1 passing yards per game (15th), 8.1 yards per pass attempt (7th)

Both guys lead the two highest scoring offenses in the league through 15 games (Chiefs are averaging 35.3 points per game (1st); Saints are averaging 32.7 points per game (2nd)) and maybe two of the best ever. Both teams are serious Super Bowl threats (Chiefs stand at a tie for AFC-best 11–4; Saints are sitting with an NFC-best 13–2). Best of all, the 2018 NFL MVP is most likely to be one of these signal-callers. If I had to lean towards one, Mahomes would be my choice, but then again, Brees sits as the sentimental favorite to win his first career MVP.

From my view, Mahomes and Brees end in a tie.

(Just a reminder that a Chiefs-Saints Super Bowl matchup in Atlanta could determine all of this…just not until February, when this list is all but set in stone.)

Novak celebrating after winning the U.S. Open.

9. Novak Djokovic- Just two years ago, Novak Djokovic had men’s tennis pinned down with no way the rest of the field could get back up — much less recover — with his scintillating play that stymied his opponents. Then unexpectedly, it all came falling down like Kanye West once said. The second half of the 2016 season showed cracks in his armor. The entire 2017 season was a lost cause filled with coaching changes, poor inconsistent form, injury setbacks and reported struggles in his personal life that saw him only win two titles (his lowest amount in a season since 2010). He flamed out before the semifinals of the first three Grand Slams (second round at Australian Open; quarterfinals at French Open; quarterfinals at Wimbledon) — which he is so customarily used to making semifinals appearance at — and withdrew from the U.S. Open.

The uphill battle for Djokovic to get his game up to speed and on par, only became more complicated in the first half of 2018, after going through elbow surgery, sloppy play and a stunning quarterfinal loss in the French Open to Marco Cecchinato, the 72nd-ranked player in the world in four sets. His game was in disarray, confidence shook to the core and his level of ambience was no longer something his opposition was uneased by. Then Djokovic reconfigured his mind, body and spirit, and turned the corners. In a five-month span (July to November), the proclaimed “Best Returner in Men’s Tennis History” went from being ranked 22nd in the world back to his rightful spot back at No.1.

What a comeback it was for the Djoker.

After refocusing following his French Open defeat, the Serbian would go onto win Wimbledon as the #12 seed (defeated his fiercest rival, Rafael Nadal in a five-set, nip-and-tuck affair in the semifinals — 10–8 in the fifth and final set — that lasted over five hours across two days) and won his third career U.S. Open title in September. Maybe even more impressive was that he became the first player to win all nine ATP Masters 1000 series tournaments (six on hard courts and three on clay) in their career with a victory at Cincinnati, where he knocked off his other nemesis, Roger Federer in the final. His year consisted of a 53–12 record, 4 titles, 2 majors, 7 finals appearances, a 22-match winning streak (that ended in November), finished the season ranked number 1 in the world for the fifth time and also took home ATP Player of the Year for a fifth occasion. He also went 13–3 against ATP top-10 players.

Not only did Novak inch himself closer on the G.O.A.T. list in 2018 (his 14 majors are tied with Pete Sampras for third all-time) but he reestablished himself as the smothering, clinical, well-rounded player that frustrated the rest of the ATP Tour once before. His ability to cover every nanometer of the tennis court with his fine tracking wherewithal, precise-like backhand down the line, control-pacing forehand, flawless returning and high percentage serving, only got better with each tournament.

The comeback is complete ya’ll. Nole is back and the man to beat in men’s tennis in 2019.

Hamilton upped the stakes even higher for himself in 2018.

8. Lewis Hamilton- Widely-known as the best Formula 1 driver of his generation, Lewis Hamilton was at it again in 2018 raising the bar on the track like only he can.

In a season where the main storyline was centered around the four-time Formula 1 World Champion Hamilton battling against another four-time World Champion in Sebastian Vettel for their fifth world title, Hamilton prevailed in the marathon to capture back-to-back championships, as well as place him in a tie for second all-time with Juan Manuel Fangio at five championships — two behind leader Michael Schumacher’s seven wins.

Hamilton continued his run as the most successful British driver in history in 2018 (his 73 career race wins are second all-time), as he bagged 11 wins in 21 races (the second-most in a single season for his career) along with 11 pole positions and equaling a record 17 podium finishes. Hamilton made more history as he set a record for the most points in a season (408 points), while also becoming the first driver to compile 3,000 career points.

Lewis Hamilton was so good in 2018 that fans of the more traditional sports had no choice but to recognize his superiority in the racing game. His next step: Establishing himself as the best Formula 1 driver to ever do it.

It’s definitely within reach.

Mbappe holds and kisses the World Cup trophy at only the age of 19.

7. Kylian Mbappe- If there was any athlete that was the epitomization of the title “A Star is Born” in 2018, then look no other than to the highly-advertised heir apparent to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in Kylian Mbappe.

In soccer corners, football pundits and close followers knew of the budding sensation during his 2017 breakout season with club Monaco, where he displayed just how special he could be. At 17, the emerging forward led the French club to a Ligue 1 title and an out-of-nowhere run to the Champions League semifinals, where they were defeated by a much stronger Juventus side. The kid finished with 26 goals and 14 assists in 44 matches played in all club competitions. Mbappe was soon a hot commodity on the transfer market in the summer of 2017 and made the move to another French club in PSG (Paris Saint Germain) for €180 million, the second highest transfer in history, behind his soon-to-be teammate, Neymar’s €222 million move.

In his 2017–2018 club season with PSG, the gamebreaking forward blossomed besides fellow front three compadres Neymar and Edinson Cavani to form a fearsome of a attacking trio as any in Europe, by winning the French domestic treble (Ligue 1, Coupe de la Ligue, Coupe de France), scored 21 goals and connected on 15 assists in all club competitions…all as a 19-year-old.

However, his true enveiling to the world came at the global stage of the World Cup in Russia this summer where the teen sensation starred for France and dazzled with his blistering speed and pace on both the right and left flanks that made fullbacks super nervous, capability to make effective wide and inside runs when on the receiving end of a pass, finishing ability, composure and quick dribbles. With his long arms and legs combined with athleticism you don’t see much from many footballers, he ensures to be a nightmare matchup for all company of foes. The wunderkind became an instant attraction in the eyes of millions as he scored four goals throughout the tournament and became the second teenager ever to score a goal in a World Cup final since Pele did in the 1958 final, that helped lead France to their second ever World Cup title (1998).

Mbappe received the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player award and later this year scooped up more hardware by becoming the first teenager to be named to the FIFA World XI team at the forward position (only three forwards get selected), finishing fourth in the Ballon d’Or voting and winning the very first Kopa Trophy (given to the best player under 21). At 20 (his birthday was on December 20), the Frenchman has already accomplished so much on the pitch but with his talent, charming smile, marketable appeal, humble nature, calm demeanor and a welcoming personality he possesses, the kid has a chance to transform into one of the biggest global superstars in the world of sports.

Yes, he’s got that much going for him, so look out. Don’t think so, check him out on the front cover of the illustrious TIME Magazine in October for being named one of the 25 most influential teenagers in the world in 2018.

The Future of Soccer.

For now, the youngster has Champions League titles, Ballon d’Or’s, European Golden Shoes, domestic titles and ways to improve his soccer skills to chase. 2018 was nearly the introduction and beginning of Kylian Mbappe’s destined ascendency to the top of the football world. The future holds much more than we can imagine.

Simone poses after winning a gold medal at the Women’s All-Around Championships in Doha, Qatar in November.

6. Simone Biles- If a gymnast is going to reach the sports mainstream and steal our attention in a non-Olympic year, it better be because some serious history-making is in the works. Well, Simone Biles heard us loud and clear, and delivered exactly that in 2018.

Entering this year after taking off the entire 2017, Biles was already dubbed by many as the greatest female gymnast ever, but if anybody had any reservations for hailing the 21-year-old Texan that title, then her showing at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar this fall made us all sit back and realize that label was completely justifiable.

Biles came into the World Championships with 16 career gold medals between the Olympics, World Championships and Pacific Rim Championships. When she left, the 4-foot-8 dynamo had 20.

In Doha, Biles won her fourth World All-Around title (the most world all-around titles won by a female gymnast) where she won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault, floor exercise), one silver (uneven bars) and one bronze (balance beam) that pushed her haul to six medals won at the Worlds. She became the 10th gymnast and first American gymnast to win a medal at every event (team final, all-around, vault, uneven bars, balance beam, floor exercise) at a single World Championships, the first to do it since Russian Elena Shushunova in 1987, which highlights her all-around proficiency in multiple events.

To add to the impressiveness of the feat, she did all that while dealing with a kidney stone after spending the night in the hospital before qualifying. Biles now sits with 25 total Olympic and World Championship medals that make her the most decorated American gymnast ever and the third most decorated female gymnast in history. When the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan come around, expect Biles to be there to collect more medals.

No female athlete was better than Simone Biles on 2018, and no athlete — period — matched her dominance at their craft.

Modric with Croatia at the 2018 World Cup.

5. Luka Modric- Not many football aficionados thought coming into the 2017–2018 European club season and heading into a World Cup year that a diminutive 5-foot-8 midfielder from little-known soccer country Croatia would put a halt to a 10-year run of absolute excellency and dominion on the soccer pitch from two of the five greatest players of all-time in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, by snatching the 2018 Ballon d’Or from his foe and former teammate.

Yes, Luka Modric did the unthinkable.

At age 33, Modric became the oldest player ever to win the most prized individual award in all of soccer and in a way, won it for midfielders all across Europe, especially tremendous past mids like Barcelona’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta — who came close to winning it in the past decade — and signified that a world-class midfielder has a chance of winning over an exceptional, more-profiled forward/striker, which are usually the favorites to win the Ballon d’Or. His numbers didn’t come close to matching Ronaldo’s or Messi’s (2 goals and 8 assists during the 2017–2018 season in all club competitions) during play in Europe (Champions League) and in Spain (domestic play) or at this summer’s World Cup (2 goals and 1 assist in seven matches) but the stats with him don’t show his tireless work rate on the pitch (none more fittingly than at the World Cup where Croatia played three straight exhausting extra time matches), his persistence and drive to cover as much of the field as he can, nonstop effort in tracking down opposing players and winning the ball back, and his aptitude to control the tempo of games in the midfield while also being a fine set-up man for his wingers and strikers.

While assessing the talking point of who the best midfielders in the world were in 2018, no mid was better defensively and being disruptive in the central area of the field than Chelsea and France’s N’Golo Kante, while no mid was a better precise, dead accurate, deep and mid-range passer with unreal placement than Manchester City and Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, yet no mid directed the game with the ball at their feet better than Luka Modric.

He displayed that by being the heart of Real Madrid’s third straight Champions League title and leading underdog Croatia (country has a population of four million people) to an unforeseen World Cup final, where they fell to the more complete France club. For that effort, Modric grabbed Golden Ball honors, as the Best Player at the World Cup. That led to a slew of awards that he added to his Ballon d’Or victory, including the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, “The Best” FIFA Men’s Player Award and fourth time being named to the FIFA World XI team, which made 2018 by far the finest year of his career.

While it is (and will be) highly debated whether Modric should have won the Ballon d’Or over Messi and Ronaldo (I believe both were more worthy of the award), one thing you can’t deny is that the Croatian was certainly deserving. This year proved that.

Ovechkin finally got his hands on the Stanley Cup in 2018.

4. Alexander Ovechkin- Throughout the history of team sports (preferably geared towards the four major professional sport leagues: NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB) there are a number of great players who ended up on that infamous “Never Captured that Championship Glory in my Career” group (Ted Williams, Dan Marino, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Barry Bonds, Charles Barkley, etc, and current stars like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw), and many (including myself) believed Alexander Ovechkin would remain on that list until he walked away from the ice.

Fittingly, 2018 served as the year the prolific wing forward got his elusive ring in his 13th season in the NHL. The sports world couldn’t have been happier for the 6-foot-3 Russian, largely because of the many times the Washington Capitals went into the playoffs in this decade as one of the Cup favorites and later crumbled in the weight of expectations (the Capitals carried the league’s best record into the playoffs three times — 2010, 2016, 2017 — and fell short each time, as well as never advancing past the second round of the playoffs during Ovechkin’s tenure).

This time around, Washington didn’t fold and even trailed at some point in every series they played in but the Caps were able to win the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup, by becoming the first team to overcome four series deficits and clinch each series on the road. Even more sweeter was that the Capitals beat the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the last two years in the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ovechkin’s chief rival and the other “Best Player of the Generation” Sidney Crosby.

It was a season that Ovechkin would never forget, also because of his terrific individual performance (15 goals, 12 assists and 27 points in 24 games in the playoffs) that led to him winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP), leading the league in goals scored (2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018) for a record seventh time tied with Bobby Hull, and became the 4th-fastest player and 20th player in NHL history to score 600 career goals — which he did on March 12, 2018.

If you didn’t know how much a Stanley Cup title meant to a guy that might have a chance to finish as the all-time goal-scoring leader, just watch after the Game 5 championship clincher over the expansion Las Vegas Knights when he was handed that giant silver Cup and skated around the ice with it high above his shoulders.

It wasn’t hard to see the combination of gleeful joy and relief clearly across his face as he held the sport’s most prized possession. Alexander Ovechkin won’t be forgetting 2018 anytime in the near future.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were pulling at each other’s cape once again in 2018.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

2. Lionel Messi

Just when you thought you heard all the debates between these two soccer gods, another one comes up. It’s a legit one too. At least, I feel that way.

Who had the better 2018 sports year: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?

In a year where the World Cup took place, one can’t dismiss the importance of how magnifying and mammoth of a worldwide spectacle it was for the legacies of the two best players in the world — if their countries would have won. However, both formulated the majority of their most indelible moments of the year with their respective clubs.

Ronaldo, along with Real Madrid, early in the 2017–2018 club season, were both a shell of themselves and in a bad funk, more so in La Liga play. In the second half of the Spanish season, Ronaldo’s level went up as Los Blancos continued to play unsettling and uninspiring football that led to only a third place finish (by their standards) in La Liga. Yet all season, winning a domestic title seemed to be second priority compared to winning Champions League for Madrid…and it showed.

The two-time defending European champion Real Madrid operated like a team that could care less about their regular season performance and only strapped up for the postseason, knowing they full-well had the capability to flip a switch. Madrid did indeed do that by going through some serious competition in PSG (French champions in the Round of 16), Juventus (Italian champions in the quarterfinals), Bayern Munich (German champions in the semifinals) and Liverpool (one of the two best attacking clubs in Europe in the final) on their way to their third straight European Cup. No player was more responsible than Ronaldo, as he tallied 15 goals and 3 assists in 13 matches to lead the Champions League in goals scored for the sixth season in a row (seventh time overall). With a third straight crown (fourth title in five years), Real Madrid established themselves as a true sports dynasty with Ronaldo staking claim as the club’s leading man. That feat alone holds major weight for No.7.

As for his longtime rival, Lionel Messi was once more stellar and submitted maybe the most admirable season of his career. Because of the departure of Neymar and new manager Ernesto Valverde’s more conservative, slower pace of play and defensive approach (Barca were locked into a 4–4–2 formation the majority of the season instead of the club’s traditionally-used 4–3–3 lineup), Messi’s duty expanded into playing in the “False 9” role more, free to roam all over the field in attempt to cause problems for opposing defences.

Messi led La Liga in goals (34) and tied for the lead in assists (12). It was his fifth career Pichichi Trophy (leading goal scorer in a La Liga season) and also his fifth career European Golden Shoe (leading goal scorer across all five big leagues in Europe). He led Barca to a domestic double (La Liga and Copa del Rey), where they won the league by a lengthy 14 points, put together a 43-match unbeaten streak — the longest in La Liga history — and had a convincing league record of 28 wins- 9 draws- 1 loss. From the 2009–2010 season (first season when both forwards played in the Spanish league at the same time) to the 2017–2018 season (there last together in the Spanish league), Messi collected six La Liga titles with Barcelona to Ronaldo’s two titles with Real Madrid.

Ronaldo is doing fine work with his new club, Juventus early in the season, as Messi continues his joyful level of play with Barcelona.

Basically, when you’re evaluating who came out better in 2018, the headline should be: Leo ruled Spain (domestic play) and Cristiano conquered Europe (Champions League). They simply balance each other out in terms of what they achieved with their clubs (most believe winning the Champions League is more significant than winning a league title these days) but the separation really comes when you look at their sheer numbers and consistent play.

Just in La Liga play…

Messi: 34 goals (1st), 12 assists (tied for 1st), combined for 46 goals and assists

Ronaldo: 26 goals (3rd), 5 assists (8th), combined for 31 goals and assists

Edge to Messi.

Now if we include their numbers in all club competitions, it comes out like this…

Messi: 45 goals (1st), 18 assists in 54 appearances, combined 62 goals and assists

Ronaldo: 44 goals (tied for 2nd), 8 assists in 44 appearances, combined 52 goals and assists

Messi’s all-around brilliance outweighs Ronaldo’s utter prowess of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Neither walked away with the Ballon d’Or this year but what pushed Ronaldo past Messi in the voting (Ronaldo finished in second; Messi in fifth) was most likely the Champions League title and his World Cup performance with Portugal, where he delivered the best individual single-match performance of the tournament with a hat trick in the very first match against Spain, one of the main favorites.

Messi finishing fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting and first time being outside the top 3 since 2006 when he was teenager, was preposterous, and proves he’s a victim of his own success. Messi was weighed down because of Barcelona’s ugly and unexpected quarterfinal loss to Roma in the Champions League and Argentina’s Round of 16 exit at the World Cup. Yet, Ronaldo’s Portugal team went out in the same round and same day as Messi’s Argentina team did, plus there wasn’t much difference in their numbers (Ronaldo: 4 goals-0 assists; Messi: 1 goal-2 assists).

To me, their World Cup performance washed out as a tie and when you add in that Messi was the best player in the same league that his counterpart played in (won La Liga Player of the Year) and won three club trophies (he added a Spanish Super Cup title in August) to Ronaldo’s one, I gotta give the Blaugranes finest the advantage in 2018.

Even with his massive move to Juventus, I still think Leo the Great outpaced CR7 just enough to grab the No.2 spot. And yes, I believe both had a stronger and more impactful 2018 than the man who ended their decade-long Ballon d’Or stranglehold.

Mookie was all smiles in 2018.

1. Mookie Betts- There’s no question Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Mike Trout has been major league baseball’s best player and finest all-around performer since he entered the big leagues full-time in 2012. However, Boston Red Sox rightfielder Mookie Betts is making a mega push to challenge Trout for both labels.

He put the baseball world on notice in 2018.

The 5-foot-9 180-pound multi-talented household star is as complete of a ballplayer as there is in baseball. His recovery speed, anticipation and tracking skills allow him to play right field better than anyone in a long time. He can get on base frequently with the best of them. His base running is among the major’s elite. At the plate, knocking long balls out of the stadium is one of his specialties, as well as driving in runs (usually up the middle) at a premium and hitting for a high average. There’s no position player in baseball I enjoy watching more than Mookie Betts and it’s constantly every night he’s making some kind of “WOW” play. The 2018 campaign was a dream season for the 26-year-old, and one where he won literally every conceivable individual award.

The five-tool threat Betts led the American League and majors in batting average (.346), slugging percentage (.640) and tied for runs scored (129). He had a career high in doubles (47), homeruns (32), on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.078), stolen bases (30), while also producing 80 RBI, 180 hits and 333 total bases. He became the second player in Red Sox history to have a 30–30 (homers-steals) season (Jacoby Ellsbury was the first in 2011), formed the most devastating hitting 1–2 punch in the majors with J.D. Martinez (Boston’s most important player in ’18), and served as the best player on an historically great team that went a major-league best 108–54 and won the World Series (knocked off three powerhouse teams — Yankees, Astros and Dodgers — enroute to an imposing 11–3 postseason record).

After the season, Betts collected a slew of hardware being named American League MVP (his first MVP), won his third straight Gold Glove, second career Silver Slugger award, and made history by becoming the first and only player in American League history to win the World Series, MVP, batting title, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in the same season. On top of that, Betts led the majors in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) — the most valuable baseball metric — at 10.9, the highest since Barry Bonds in 2002.

Mookie truly established himself as the second-best player in baseball behind the two-time MVP Trout after that season and is inching closer to his throne. No team sport athlete had more success both individually and team-wise than Betts in 2018, and with his affectionate smile, laid-back personality and a cool factor we haven’t seen from an outfielder since Ken Griffey, Jr. during his Seattle Mariners prime years in the late 1990s, there’s a chance he could become the Face for African-American Baseball Players — especially in today’s climate where there is an ongoing effort to persuade more black youths to play baseball.

Mookie Betts has all the momentum right now and one of the many reasons why he’s my choice as the Best Athlete of 2018!

James Simpson II

Written by

Sports Journalist, Columnist and Author. Totally dig sports, pop culture and history. https://twitter.com/JamesSimpsonII

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