Five British sports stars who topped the world
London: Five athletes who became the first Briton to either be ranked first in their sport or win a blue riband title after Andy Murray became men’s tennis world number one on Saturday:
Mention his name and it drums up memories of hit movie ‘Chariots of Fire’. The 25-year-old Abrahams benefited when fellow Briton Eric Liddell refused to compete in the 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics as it was run on a Sunday and that clashed with his religious beliefs. Abrahams’ decision to employ a professional coach Sam Mussabini paid off handsomely as he took gold. He went on to cut a piece off the gold medal to use as his wedding ring in 1936.
Born in England but won Olympic gold for Canada in 1988 as his family moved there when he was 12. However, he switched back and became a British citizen once again, sceptics believing he was using it as a flag of convenience. Whatever he initially won, lost and then regained the WBC title in a bizarre bout with holder Oliver McCall, who started crying in the middle of the contest. Lewis then set his sights on the unified title and after controversially drawing with Evander Holyfield got a deserved rematch and beat him conclusively to become Britain’s first undisputed heavyweight world champion of the post-war era and indeed remains the last undisputed champion to this day.
Known to the French as ‘Papillon’ (‘butterfly’ for his penchant for wearing bow ties when he raced) he showed great resilience in carrying on competing after the tragic 1955 Le Mans 24 hour race in which 84 spectators and a driver were killed, partly sparked because of Hawthorn braking on entering the pits. He went on to win that race and three years later was crowned Formula One world champion despite winning just one race as he finished second in the season ending Moroccan race which was enough to seal victory ahead of Stirling Moss, who won four GPs that campaign. Announced his retirement immediately afterwards and was killed in a road accident in January 1959, aged just 29.
Never the most loved of British sportsmen even at home because of what was perceived as rather a humourless personality. He deservedly finally got the world number one slot in the rankings in 1990, taking it off Australian Greg Norman, whom he would memorably steam past to take the Masters in 1996 when the ‘Great White Shark’ suffered a spectacular meltdown. He would be number one on four occasions for a total of 97 weeks, the longest of his stays on top was for 81 weeks.
Britain hasn’t had a women’s number one since the WTA came into being in 1973. However, prior to that the country could lay claim to having the top player in the world in the partially-deaf Mortimer, who steadfastly refused to wear dresses and insisted on shorts. Having won the French Open in 1955 and the 1958 Australian title she reached her peak in 1961 and beat compatriot and favourite Cristine Janes in the Wimbledon final in three tight sets. She won four other titles that year and reached the US Open semi-finals which was enough for her to be credited as the number one women’s player in the world.