At The Comeback, we love sports and pop culture all year ’round, including December, so we don’t understand why so many best-of-the-year lists are announced before the year is actually over. This week, the last of 2015, we want to share with you some of our bests.
From the best male and female athletes, to the best new TV shows and movies, to the best coaches, the best superheroes, the most memorable moments and storylines, to who had the best year of anyone on the planet, we’re running down the best list of best lists of anyone in 2015.
Next up on the list of lists, the 15 Best Female Athletes in 2015. (Click here for our list of the top 15 male athletes of 2015.)
Rankings are, by their very nature, subjective. Attempting to compare, contrast, and then rank, an incredible group of women who play a variety of different sports? Yeah, it’s safe to say that opinions may vary. So let’s start with something that likely everyone can agree on. 2015 was an incredible year for female athletes. These 15 women, and countless others, accomplished amazing things on the field, the court, the octagon. But then, that’s not hardly new, or novel.
What made this year remarkable, and encouraging, were the strides made in the exposure, the coverage, the recognition that so many of these exceptional women received.
That’s not to be naive of course. Women’s sports still face obstacles, and a steep uphill climb, when compared to the attention, and economic rewards, bestowed on their male counterparts. But many of the women listed below helped this year to demonstrate not only that they could deliver incredible feats of athleticism, but that if given the proper platform, they could certainly attract an audience. So quibble with the specifics of these rankings, (and hey, feel free to send along your thoughts), but there’s really no arguing the impact of these women. Sometimes literally.
15. Flavia Pennetta
Have to give some love to the one non-Serena winner of a Grand Slam in 2015. And Pennetta’s story, winning her first Slam at the age of 33, and then announcing she would soon retire during her victory speech, is the stuff of legend.
14. Erica Enders
In addition to winning her second consecutive NHRA Pro Stock World Championship, 2015 also saw Enders break the record for most wins by a female driver in a single season.
13. Celia Sasic
The 2015 Women’s World Cup wasn’t just about the USWNT, so here’s to Germany’s Golden Boot winner, who scored six goals in six matches, and then announced her retirement, capping an incredible career at the age of just 27.
12. Katie Ledecky
In quantitative, timed sports like swimming, the numbers tend to speak for themselves. So here goes. Five gold medals—and three world records—at the 2015 World Championships, along with being named FINA’s Female Swimmer of the Meet.
11. Breanna Stewart
Connecticut Women’s Basketball has been so strong, so consistent, that we almost take it for granted. It is saying something, then, that the incredibly well-rounded Stewart will bid to become the first player in women’s hoops history to win four national titles in four years.
10. Sasha Banks
Yes, the outcomes in professional wrestling are predetermined. Sure, WWE is “sports entertainment” rather than pure competition. But if you’re going to deny the athleticism of Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, well, then you just haven’t seen her work. And we highly recommend you remedy that right away. Banks is at the forefront of a group of women whose physical abilities are changing what people think is possible for female talent in pro-wrestling. When you combine that with the electric, compelling, charismatic, “Boss” persona that she has created, you begin to understand why so many have her pegged as one of the foundational stars that WWE will build around in the future.
9. Abby Wambach
Admittedly, Wambach’s selection is something of a “lifetime achievement award”, given that she was undeniably past her prime by the time she took the pitch in Canada. That’s all fine, but Wambach deserves a place on this list, not only because of 255 appearances for the national team, or her 184 goals, an international record for women or men. The retiring captain of American soccer belongs here because 2015 was the year in which she finally achieved the only goal that had thus far eluded her, a World Cup victory, and she did it by virtue of her dedication, her longevity, and her leadership, allowing an incredible group of young teammates, players that she helped inspire, and grow, to carry her to soccer’s ultimate prize.
8. Crystal Dunn
Striker Crystal Dunn was one of the final cuts for the USWNT’s World Cup roster, a moment that would be undeniably crushing for any athlete. “I think as soon as I got that news, I went through my venting stage,” she told Laken Litman earlier this year. By her own admission, Dunn had seen very little adversity in her career to that point. She handled it about as well as anyone could, turning in a standout season for the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League, scoring 15 goals to lead the league, and take home the Most Valuable Player award. She joined the USWNT after the World Cup and doesn’t look likely to relinquish that spot anytime soon.
7. Lydia Ko
– New Zealand’s Lydia Ko wasted no time in letting the golf world know that, yes, the high expectations placed upon her were justified, and great things are in store. Back in September, Ko took home a six-stroke victory in the Evian Championship. It’s the first major win of her career, and it’s probably a pretty safe bet that it won’t be the last. Much has been made, and justifiably so, about the new wave of young guns on the PGA Tour, from Rory McIlroy, to Jordan Spieth, to Jason Day, to Rickie Fowler. But oh by the way, at just 18 years old, it’s Ko who is the youngest #1 ranked player, man or woman, in golf history.
6. Holly Holm
When Holly Holm delivered the leg kick that ended Ronda Rousey’s reign as the UFC’s women’s bantamweight champion, she did more than simply win a fight. She also pulled off one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history, made herself immediately into a household name, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrated the next evolution of women’s MMA. It remains to be seen if Holm can attain anything close to Rousey’s crossover stardom, or, for that matter, if she can even keep the belt from “Rowdy” in the inevitable rematch. But no matter what happens moving forward, Holly Holm is a sign that women’s MMA is getting stronger, and deeper.
5. Megan Rapinoe
It’s hard to imagine a more indispensable piece of the USWNT than Megan Rapinoe. From her midfield position, Rapinoe was, quite literally, the center of everything for the American women in Canada. When the team looked somewhat listless in early matches, much of the conversation centered on how she could better facilitate the attack. But after missing the team’s quarterfinal match thanks to a second yellow card, the U.S. finally ignited in Rapinoe’s return, posting overwhelming wins over Germany and Japan, two of the team’s biggest international rivals.
Those wins ensured that Rapinoe would become one of the biggest breakout stars of the World Cup, with casual fans getting to know her guitar stylings, her boisterous personality, and her obvious comfort in her own skin. (Let’s be honest, she probably deserves a place in the Top-5 for this Vine alone.)
Sadly, Rapinoe’s most recent headlines came as a result of a torn ACL suffered in training. But it undoubtedly won’t be long before the U.S. star is back in form, anchoring one of the most impressive teams in all of sports. And in the meantime, because, well, nothing can contain Rapinoe’s positive vibes, she decided to find some new training partners.
4. Elena Delle Donne
The story of Elena Delle Donne’s journey away from basketball, and back again, is well chronicled. A highly touted recruit who was expected to become UConn’s next generational star, Delle Donne instead stepped away from the game, enrolling at Delaware to remain closer to home, and taking a break from hoops to play volleyball. On a human level, one couldn’t help but applaud her decision to do what was best for her, personally, despite outside pressures and expectations. But as a fan of basketball? One can’t help but be grateful she found her way back again.
Delle Donne elevated her game to a whole new level in 2015, posting a PER of 32.7. (Psssst…. that’s higher than LeBron has ever managed in the NBA.) She took the Chicago Sky to the playoffs for the third straight season, won her first WNBA MVP, and basically asserted herself as the best women’s basketball player in the world, in an era that also features Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Brittney Griner, and Candace Parker. In short, she commands her sport as well as any athlete in the world, and the only question that remains is if she has an even higher level still to achieve.
3. Ronda Rousey
Yes, she was defeated. And yes, the woman who ended her title reign sits below her in these rankings, which, admittedly, is a little counterintuitive. But Holly Holm has a lot of work to do, not simply to equal the length of Ronda Rousey’s reign, but also to equal her cultural impact. Because let’s be honest, calling Rousey an exceptional athlete, while true, almost shortchanges what she was able to accomplish in 2015.
In addition to becoming one of the most bankable stars in the UFC’s history, Ronda Rousey appeared in major film franchises, became a regular on the talk show circuit, stole the show at Wrestlemania, and basically became a pop-culture icon. In the wake of her stunning loss to Holm, plenty are wondering what happens now, if Rousey will be able to retain the same cultural cache and star power without that same air of invincibility. It’s a fair question, but in this space, we’re taking a moment to acknowledge and honor just how incredible it is that “Rowdy” grew to this stature in the first place. Just a few years ago, Dana White claimed we’d “never” see women in the UFC. Today, there are two divisions, as compelling as any in the sport. All hail the power of Ronda Rousey.
2. Carli Lloyd
When you hold the world at rapt attention, you deserve a place near the top of any list. And on July 5th, all eyes were on Carli Lloyd, as she authored one of the great championship performances in history. A hat trick, in the early stages of the World Cup final, turned what many had expected to be a tense, dramatic, tightly contested affair, into essentially a coronation for the USWNT. American women’s soccer had gone 16 years since their last World Cup win, and it only took 16 glorious minutes for Carli Lloyd to ensure that the waiting was over.
Our nation’s national team has never been more stocked with talent. Hope Solo. Becky Sauerbrunn. Alex Morgan. Tobin Heath. Ali Krieger. Christen Press. Julie Johnston. Morgan Brian. Head Coach Jill Ellis had arguably the easiest and hardest job in the world, trying to figure out how to effectively employ such an embarrassment of riches. And it’s a testament to Carli Lloyd that even alongside such phenomenal teammates, she left no doubt of her status as the best of the best, something recently reinforced, as she was named U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year and was put on the short list for Fifa Women’s Player of the Year.
1. Serena Williams
In the end, there was a controversy. Of course there was a controversy. When Serena Williams was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, her decision to pose for the magazine’s cover seated on a throne came in for criticism, in at least one writer’s mind, because, well, because it was too powerful? Because she was too sexy? Because it wasn’t tennis-ey enough? (To be perfectly honest, we’re still not entirely sure.)
But it still somehow seemed fitting, because let’s be honest, Serena Williams is quite used to this sort of thing. She’s heard literally every form and fashion of criticism in her illustrious career, from her fashion choices, to her priorities in life, to her fitness level, to her choice of celebrations. Serena Williams has been through it all, and in fact, 2015 saw her, in one of the most powerful moments of the year, forgive some of the most ludicrous and painful treatment she ever received, returning to Indian Wells for the first time since the brutal treatment she and her family received back in 2001.
This time, even as she was forced to withdraw with an injury, Serena was hailed by the crowd as a conquering hero. And why not? Serena has been under scrutiny, much of it wholly unfair, for her entire career. But she has always manage to overwhelm it, overpower it, through her performance, and 2015 was no exception.
Her 19th, 20th, and 21st career Grand Slam titles.
A record of 53-3.
A wire to wire #1 ranking, for the second year in a row.
It’s accomplishments like these that allow Serena Williams to tune out all the noise, to live her life, and chart her career, on her own terms. Chances are there will be some new Serena Williams “controversy” in 2016. And chances are, she’ll run right through it, like she’s been doing for almost two decades now, as one of the most iconic athletes in history.