The fifth-richest person in the world seems to be Spain’s Amancio Ortega. According to Forbes, he is worth more than $37 billion, owns a 43-story skyscraper in Madrid, a 54-story hotel in Miami and a horse-jumping circuit. A WHOLE horse-jumping circuit. Then again, other sources say Ortega has moved up the charts and the fifth-richest person in the world is Larry Ellison, who founded Oracle, owns two fighter jets (or “at least two fighter jets,” as the stories inevitably say), and just sold off the second-largest private yacht in the world. I guess the general point is, either way, it’s not bad being the fifth-richest person on earth.
The fifth-biggest star in Hollywood? Vanity Fair last year said Leonardo DiCaprio was the fifth-biggest earner, which sounds right, though if you measured it another way it could be Angelina Jolie or Will Smith or Adam Sandler or Tom Hanks. In any case, it would be someone quite rich, and quite famous, and quite successful. Same goes with the fifth-biggest TV star, however you want to judge such a thing (Kelly Ripa? Matt Lauer? Jon Stewart? Ashton Kutcher? Judge Judy?), or the fifth-biggest musical act in the world (Adele? Springsteen? Foo Fighters? One Direction?).
To be fifth-best in the world at something, anything, is beyond most of our imaginations. The fifth-best plumber in the world … the fifth-best juggler in the world … the fifth-best typist in the world … the fifth-best pastry chef in the world … the fifth-best card magician … the fifth-best defense attorney -- any of these people would blow our minds with their talents. And the truth is that in most parts of life, it would be all but impossible to separate the fifth-best from the fourth-best, the fourth-best from the third, all the way up to the top. The fifth-best chess player in the world right now, according to the rankings, is someone I’ve actually talked with a bit, American Hikaru Nakamura, who is not only the U.S. champion, but who has told me he will soon be the world champion. The jump from No. 5 to No. 1 may be a tough one, but it’s possible, or at least it feels possible.
That is, except in men’s tennis.
We’re going to keep going with this -- offer up fair guesses at who the No. 5 players are in baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, soccer and so on -- but the idea emerges from what it’s like to be No. 5 in men’s tennis, where there are clearly four players who matter on the world stage. As you will see, no other sport has such disdain for No. 5.
See, the No. 5 tennis player in the world -- who is, um, wait a minute, hold on, let me check the Internet, ah yes David Ferrer, yes, David Ferrer has to deal with pretty much the worst deal in sports history.
We all understand what happened in men’s tennis the last decade or so. It has been overwhelmed by three men. Well, first, it was dominated by only one man, Roger Federer. From Wimbledon 2003 through the U.S. Open 2007, Federer won 12 of the 18 Grand Slam events, and if you take away Paris, he won all but two Australian Opens, Wimbledons and U.S. Opens. That was four and a half years of sheer and utter domination, and if you want to rank tennis players at their peak, that version of Federer is probably the best who ever lived.
During that stretch, though, the second of the trinity -- Rafael Nadal -- emerged, first as a pure clay-court specialist who kept frustrating Federer at the French Open, and then as the kryptonite to Federer’s Superman on pretty much any surface. It was Nadal who broke Federer’s Wimbledon streak at five, and he did this a year before Federer finally broke through at the French Open (with the untidy task of taking out Nadal left to Robin Soderling). Nadal was so much that Federer was not -- he was physical and intimidating and fierce, to Federer’s detached grace and brilliant touch -- and the matches between them were sweeping and epic and amazing television.
Then, Novak Djokovic came along. He had seemed like the classic slacker, a player with astounding talent who seemed to let his emotions always get the better of him. He was funny and angry and self-defeating. He won the Australian Open when he was 20, but then he drifted in and out, and he seemed destined to be a minor character in the drama, the guy who occasionally broke through but mostly just did hilarious impressions of other tennis players and bounced the ball 20 times before finally serving. But then he locked in, he improved his serve, he developed an all-around game for the ages, and he almost won the Grand Slam last year. In some ways, he has lifted his game even higher than the other two.
The three of them have won 29 of the last 30 Grand Slams and dominated tennis in a way that really is unprecedented. And No. 4 in the world, Andy Murray, is known for being the unlucky one, the great player whose wonderful return of serve and talent for setting up points keeps him competitive with Federer and Djokovic (he actually has a winning record against Federer) except in the Grand Slams, where he is 0-5 against them.
Finally, there’s Ferrer, 30 years old, from Spain, a grinder who gets everything back, who wears down his opponents, whose tenacious style makes even the best players in the world wince when they see his name on the bracket. But what does it mean to be the No. 5 player in the world in tennis in this time? Ferrer has never won a Grand Slam. He has never reached the final of a Grand Slam. The closest he has come to winning each them:
Australian Open: semifinals in 2011 (lost to Murray in four sets after winning the first).
French Open: semifinals this year (lost to Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-1).
Wimbledon: quarterfinals this year (lost to Murray in four sets after winning the first)
U.S. Open: semifinals in 2007 (lost to a 20-year-old Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-3).
So, Ferrer’s never really come especially close to winning a major. But there’s more: He has not won an ATP World Masters tournament. He has played Federer 13 times and lost all 13; played his countryman Nadal 20 times and lost 16 and won five of 13 against Djokovic. He’s the fifth-best on Planet Earth at something a lot of people care about, and while he has made a lot of money (more than $14 million in prize money) and no doubt earned fans, he has never been able to break through and, even for a weekend, be the best. And it might never happen. At this U.S. Open, he keeps grinding on through, but sooner or later Djokovic waits in his bracket. And even if somehow breaks through there and reaches his first final, it’s likely the unbeatable (for him) Federer would be waiting.
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The hopelessness of being No. 5 is unique to today’s men’s tennis, I think. Women’s tennis is much more open. Here are the top five right now:
1. Victoria Azarenka
2. Agnieszka Radwanska
3. Maria Sharapova
4. Serena Williams
5. Petra Kvitova
These rankings are absurd because of how much better Serena Williams is than ANY of these players when she’s attentive and focused. But, she’s not always either -- and she’s not always healthy -- and Kvitova has won Wimbledon and other big tournaments, and is a threat to win any tournament where Williams, for whatever reason, has not locked in.
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But the real way to understand just how great you have to become to be the No. 5 player in the world is to look at other sports besides tennis. Who is the fifth-best baseball player in the world? You can throw together any kind of list you like. I would say the five best at this moment might be:
1. Mike Trout
2. Justin Verlander
3. Robinson Cano
4. Miguel Cabrera
5. Ryan Braun
Of course, those rankings are just for this year, just for the moment -- I’m leaving out Albert Pujols, who has been the best player in baseball for a decade, and Matt Kemp, who has been injured, and Andrew McCutchen, who is brilliant and underrated, and David Wright, who is both those things, too, and Felix Hernandez and a healthy Roy Halladay and, well, you can go on and on like this for a while.
But let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that No. 5 is Braun. Well, what does that mean to him? He’s won an MVP and he’s a contender again this year. He’s an impossibly great hitter, a guy who hits baseballs just about AS HARD as anyone we’ve ever seen before. He’s a good runner and -- surprising to many based on his early troubles as a third baseman -- a fine fielder. He is signed until 2020 and will pull in $135 million or so. He is beloved and cherished, king of Milwaukee, and people will argue that he’s not the fifth-best player in the world, no, that he’s THE BEST.
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How about football? This is even tougher than baseball because, as we know, there are 11 guys on offense, 11 on defense, and all 22 are doing something entirely different. In a way it’s like judging who is the best doctor in the world, and throwing cardiologists and family practitioners and brain surgeons and psychiatrists and plastic surgeons all under the same grading scale.
Fantasy football drafts seem to have Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy or Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson or New England’s Top Brady as the fifth overall pick in most mock drafts, but those drafts don’t include defense.
How about this for a top five:
1. Aaron Rodgers
2. Tom Brady
3. Calvin Johnson
4. Drew Brees
5. Darrelle Revis
Maybe that’s too quarterback-heavy. Maybe we should find a place in there for a running back (Adrian Peterson? Maurice Jones-Drew? Ray Rice? Arian Foster?). Maybe we should find a place for a defensive lineman (DeMarcus Ware? Haloti Ngata? Jared Allen?) or a linebacker (Terrell Suggs? Patrick Wills?).
But again, let’s just go with it and ask: What if Revis is the fifth-best player in football? It would mean he’s probably the best defensive football player in the world, and he’s definitely the king of Revis Island, a focus of New York football. He’s rich and famous and building up legendary status. And once again, there would be those -- especially if the Jets happen to win -- who would argue that nobody on earth is better at playing football than Darrelle Revis.
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Golf has its world rankings, which have been much maligned. But as of right now, they look like this:
1. Rory McIlroy
2. Luke Donald
3. Tiger Woods
4. Lee Westwood
5. Webb Simpson
Pro golf is often compared to tennis, but it’s really very different. In any given golf tournament, there are 25 to 30 guys who can win, if they have a hot week. Tiger Woods has played in 17 tournaments this year, and though he’s had a very good year, he has also lost 14 of them. That’s what a very good year looks like in golf.
Meanwhile, in a tennis tournament that has Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, well, it would take something resembling a miracle for anyone else to break through -- a magical run like Juan Martin del Potro had in 2009 (when he beat Nadal and Federer in back-to-back matches, the tennis equivalent of Buster Douglas upsetting Mike Tyson).
In any event, Webb Simpson is ranked fifth. He just won the U.S. Open. He won twice last year, he’s just 27 years old, he’s one of the great iron players in the world. He’s a threat to win any tournament, especially one on a tough course like the U.S. Open every year. It’s good be Webb Simpson.
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Basketball? It seems like most people would rank LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant as the top three players in the world, with some disagreement perhaps about who is second and third. I suppose there’s a question about whether Bryant, at age 34, is still in that stratosphere, but let’s keep him there for now. I think Chris Paul when healthy, probably pushes his way into the top four.
So who is fifth? Dwyane Wade? Blake Griffin? Kevin Love? Tony Parker? Dwight Howard? Rajon Rondo? Tyson Chandler?
Let’s go with this:
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Chris Paul
5. Derrick Rose
I’ll just say I think the fifth-best basketball player is a healthy Derrick Rose. And when Rose is healthy, there are times when you watch him play and think that NOBODY could possibly be better than him. He’s out there controlling the game, roaring by any defender, finding the open man, attacking the basket -- he’s truly unstoppable, and you just know that when he’s playing like that, nobody, not LeBron, not Durant, not anybody could stand up to him.
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What about hockey? Obviously this is not a strong suit for me, but Ryan Wagman at Hockey Prospectus makes the glove save. He uses a statistic Tom Awad invented called Goals Versus Threshold, which is sort of the hockey version of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement Player. The idea is to measure everything a hockey player does -- offense, defense, goaltending and so on. Based on Ryan’s usage of GVT, he determined the four best hockey players are:
1. Sidney Crosby
2. Evgeni Malkin
3. Steven Samkos
4. Claude Giroux
And fifth? It’s pretty close -- you have Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, the slightly better of the Sedin twins, and you have Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, who I have actually seen as high as No. 2 on some lists. But Ryan picks Jonathan Toews, captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, who is only 24 and has already lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup title and has already won a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
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Soccer? There are a million lists out there of the top 10 or top 25 or top 100 soccer players in the world. The vast majority have Argentina’s Lionel Messi at No. 1 and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo at No. 2. I was just told by a soccer expert in England (well, he SOUNDED like a soccer expert, though that accent might have helped) that it might be time for Ronaldo to move into the top spot, but that’s an argument for another day. After them, you have goal machine Robin van Persie, Swedish striker Zlatan deluxe Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Spain’s incomparable midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Spain’s impossibly versatile offensive force David Silva, Serbian star and Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic …
So, how about this for a top five:
1. Lionel Messi
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
5. Wayne Rooney
Well, why not? Whoever you choose at No. 5 -- but especially Wayne Rooney -- would be rich and famous and an international superstar and perhaps the greatest sports hero of his country.
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The dominance of the big three in men’s tennis -- with Murray’s nose pressed against the glass window as he tries to break through (was the Olympics the breakthrough?) -- has been a golden age for tennis. And maybe it’s the ultimate sign of their brilliance that they are SO MUCH BETTER than the fifth or sixth best players on Planet Earth. Amazing players like Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and many others have been lost in the storm, and perhaps they have cursed their timing (though they have cashed huge checks).
Ferrer is the ultimate victim of the time. He has no great tennis weapon other than his endurance and his speed and his pure stubbornness, which means to get to No. 5 he has had to outrun and outlast opponent after opponent after opponent. He has had to push the limits of his talents by never missing easy shots, never giving up on points, never giving in and pushing himself to hit one more shot than his opponent. It’s a tough way to go in this world of 140-mph serves and ferocious forehands and savage backhands and impossible angles and brilliant net-play.
Ferrer, though sheer perseverance has pushed through to No. 5 in the world -- the same height of Wayne Rooney and Derrick Rose and Ryan Braun and Webb Simpson. It’s amazing. But it’s different, too. There are days, weeks, months, when those guys can believe they are the best in the world. Men’s tennis these days doesn’t really let many players believe.