• Top Tens: Young sporting superstars

Young guns who quickly became top gun

Alex Dimond
July 1, 2011
Boris Becker's first grand slam victory was a Wimbledon fairytale © Getty Images
Enlarge

It seems sporting superstars are only getting younger these days. If it isn't 24-year-old Lionel Messi dribbling around all before him on football's biggest stages, then it's 22-year-old Rory McIlroy leaving the rest of the golfing world in his wake on the way to his first major title.

With 18-year-old Bernard Tomic striking another blow for the next generation on his way to becoming the youngest player since Boris Becker to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this week, we decided to look at ten sportsmen throughout history who proved beyond any question that old adage: 'If they're good enough, they're old enough.'

Boris Becker
Becker's rise to glory at Wimbledon in 1985 was something of a fairytale, as the unseeded 17-year-old rode the wave of momentum from his victory at Queen's Club prior to the tournament to go on and become the youngest grand slam champion in history (Michael Chang has since claimed that particular crown) by beating Kevin Curren in a four-set final. It was no fluke, however, as Becker would win at the All England Club again the very next year - establishing himself as a real force in the game for the next decade. Eventually claiming six grand slam titles during his career - perhaps not as successful as some - his first success at SW19 is nevertheless a victory that no player has since managed to repeat.

Yani Tseng
Quite simply a revelation in women's golf, Tseng is just 22 but already has four major titles to her name - a record of success no player in the modern game (not even Tiger Woods, who was 21 when he won his first) can hope to match. The Taiwanese (she once rejected a lucrative contract offer because it would have required her to change nationality to Chinese) managed to take her first major title as a 19-year-old in the 2008 LPGA Championship, beating the much more experienced Maria Hjorth in a playoff to seal a victory that was also her first in the United States. The Kraft-Nabisco and British Open followed in 2010, with the LPGA once again in her possession already this year. Only the Women's US Open stands between her and a grand slam at the grand old age of 22. And yet, despite all that, she enjoys nothing like the profile Annika Sorenstam (whose old house she now owns) once did. But, if she continues on her current path, that certainly won't be the case for long.

Sebastian Vettel
He's already won one driver's World Championship and is running away with another in 2011, yet Vettel is still not yet 24. The German is not the youngest Formula One driver to ever take the grid (that honour goes to Toro Rosso's Jaime Algersuari) but he is the youngest to claim a world championship point (when he was 19) - and also the youngest to grab a win. Comparisons with compatriot Michael Schumacher come thick and fast, but Vettel is one of the few drivers who has both the talent and the time on his side to challenge the illustrious driver's seven titles.

Ronaldo in full flight was a fearsome prospect © Getty Images
Enlarge

Ronaldo
It's not for nothing that the Brazilian is still often referred to as the 'real Ronaldo', despite the impressive antics of his Portuguese namesake. Ronaldo is still 'O Fenomeno' ('The Phenomenon') now and he certainly was as a teenager, bursting on the European scene at PSV Eindhoven before going on to score 47 goals in 49 games at Barcelona. He was the youngest winner of the FIFA Player of the Year award (1996) and then the Ballon d'Or (1997). Oh, and before all that he was already a World Cup winner - filling out Brazil's 23-man squad at the 1994 tournament in South Africa. Injuries, and a perhaps over-energetic agent, unfortunately disrupted his career as he left behind his teenage years. But, for a time, he was a very real and very terrifying successor to that greatest of all footballing prodigies, Pele.

Sachin Tendulkar
The third youngest man ever to make a Test match hundred he might be (Bangladesh's Mohammad Ashraful holds that particular honour), but Tendulkar earns his place on this list by going on to be arguably the greatest batsman of all time - and he isn't finished yet. The Indian idol burst onto the scene as an unfairly talented 16-year-old, and wasn't even 18 by the time he reached triple figures for his country against England in Manchester. By 19 he had three such hauls to his credit, and had wowed observers with both a technique and maturity that belied his years. The teenager also had the time to become the first overseas player in the history of Yorkshire Cricket Club, proving a popular presence during four months at Headingley that seemed to prove the catalyst for an upturn in the county's fortunes. Needless to say, his subsequent exploits in the international game have not left anyone disappointed after witnessing that early promise.

LeBron James
The 26-year-old is experiencing a real dearth of popularity now, after the unsavoury manner of his defection to the Miami Heat from his home-town (well, near enough) Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, which must be hard to deal with after being vaunted everywhere for a decade now. A star from childhood, James' St Vincent-St Mary High School regularly played to 20,000 capacity crowds (and occasionally national television audiences) as word about the next great star of basketball grew. Upon graduation he leaped straight to the NBA (he unsuccessfully applied to be allowed to make the move a year earlier, and a subsequent rule now means players must spend at least one year at college before turning professional), where he was selected as the first overall pick of the 2003 draft, by the Cavs. Rookie of the year honours followed, with selection to the All-Star team coming the next year. Now he just needs an NBA title to make his nickname 'King James' ring that little bit truer.

Nadia Comaneci
The Romanian gymnast was just 14 when she won not one, but three gold medals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. That would have been amazing enough, but ultimately it was the display she put on during her country's ultimately unsuccessful team pursuit that really made her name. On the uneven bars her routine was deemed perfect enough to earn a never-before-seen 10.0 score - an achievement that had to be displayed as a 1.00 on the arena scoreboard as it was simply not equipped to go into double digits to the left of the decimal point. Comaneci would pick up six more perfect scores over the remainder of the Games on the way to those golds - and etch her name into the history of the Olympics before she even came close to reaching drinking age.

Mike Tyson
Something to reflect on ahead of this weekend's heavyweight unification fight between 30-year-old David Haye and 35-year-old Wladimir Klitschko - Mike Tyson was barely 20 when he first became a heavyweight champion of the world. The feat is perhaps all the more remarkable considering that, at 5'11", Tyson was undersized for the division, but he needed just two rounds to get a technical knockout against Trevor Berbick to take the WBC title back in 1986. A unification of all the belts followed, but his career eventually faltered through a mixture of legal troubles and fading skills. Unlike his modern counterparts, then, Tyson was at his best during his early years in the ring.

Jonah Lomu would run around, over or even through opponents in his way © Getty Images
Enlarge

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu entered the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a relatively unheralded New Zealand winger with two caps to his name ... and he left it a titan of the game. The All Blacks famously didn't win the tournament, but that was hardly the 20-year-old Lomu's fault - as he ran all over any opponent he faced up until the final, famously including four sumptuous tries in the semi-final against England. The game had never seen his combination of size (20st) and speed (100metres in 10.8 seconds) on a winger before, with England captain Will Carling left to mutter that Lomu was a "freak". Unfortunately, Lomu's career was blighted by health issues - most notably with his kidneys - that shortened it considerably. He was never able to help his country win the World Cup, and was not really a serious force on the pitch beyond the turn of the millennium, but that didn't stop him being regarded as the first true superstar of international rugby union.

Stephen Hendry
The man who has won the most World Championships titles is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the youngest ever winner at the Crucible. The Scot - always blessed with those distinctive blond locks - was a fresh-faced 21-year-old when he made the breakthrough to win his first world title, a triumph that would see him top the world rankings by the end of that same year. It would be the start of a prolific run in Sheffield for Hendry, as he won five of the next six championship events to cement his status as one of the all-time greats of the game long before he reached his thirties.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Close