Sachin Tendulkar is perhaps the greatest player in the history of his sport. Though standing at only a diminutive 5-foot-5, Tendulkar is a master batsman and shattered nearly every important record in the cricket record books.
Beginning Thursday, the 40-year-old Tendulkar will play in his 200th and final international test match. He will retire as the first (and only) player to score 100 international centuries, the first player to score a double century in a one-day international, and to-date the only one to complete 34,000 runs in international cricket.
Tendulkar is basically Babe Ruth, Jack Nicklaus and Wayne Gretzky all rolled into one.
But outside of Asia and the cricket fandom, many probably have never heard of the Indian great. Cricket is not typically noticed outside of British Commonwealth countries, and Asian athletes generally receive less attention than their North American and European counterparts.
That’s not to say there aren’t wildly popular Asian athletes – in their home countries and beyond. Taking only currently active players and from sports with a large following in Asia (that’s why American football isn’t included, see previous post), we have come up with the Top 10 Most Popular Asian Athletes:
1. Manny Pacquiao (boxing, Philippines) – At age 34, the Pacman is on the downward arc of his career, and it’s much lamented that the hoped-for super fight against Floyd Mayweather never came to pass. Still, Pacquiao remains a global icon and beloved in his native Philippines. His upcoming Nov. 23 fight against Brandon Rios in Macau may still be a game-changer for the sport in Asia.
2. Jeremy Lin (basketball, Taiwan) – The only non-Asia born athlete on this list, Lin is nevertheless a superstar in Asia, more so than he is in America. With parents who immigrated from Taiwan and ancestral ties to China, his popularity was confirmed in recent trips to Asia. After Yao Ming’s retirement, the Harvard-educated Houston Rockets guard is indisputably the NBA’s new ambassador across the Pacific.
3. Ichiro Suzuki (baseball, Japan) – Though he’s not the first, nor the most recent Japanese import to Major League Baseball, Ichiro’s popularity has proved to be the most enduring. A 10-time MLB All-Star, MVP and rookie of the year, Suzuki at the age of 40 is in the twilight of his career with the New York Yankees, but his next stop without question is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
4. Li Na (tennis, China) – Asia’s first, and so far, only, grand slam winner when she won the French Open in 2011, Li continues to be the continent’s most high profile tennis player – male or female. Currently ranked No. 3 in the world, Li hopes to claim another major title at next January’s Australian Open, where she was the runner-up in two of the last three tournaments.
5. Park Ji-Sung (soccer, South Korea) – The South Korean team captain until his retirement from international competition, Park is the most decorated Asian soccer player in history and the first Asian to have won the UEFA Champions League trophy. Playing for the world-renowned Manchester United from 2005-12, the tireless midfielder scored 19 goals in 134 appearances. At age 32, he’s now winding down his career at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
6. Sachin Tendulkar (cricket, India) – The Mumbai native of course is beyond wildly popular in India, where his fans often claim “cricket is my religion and Sachin is my God,” but he’s adored and respected worldwide, including in the cricket hotbed of Australia. He holds nearly 100 of the sport’s records and is considered something of a national treasure on the Subcontinent. After retirement, he’s expected by some to enter politics.
7. Yani Tseng (golf, Taiwan) – Until her recent slump, Tseng was the best female golfer in the world, after becoming the youngest player – male or female – to win five major titles. She was the top-ranked player in the LPGA for 109 consecutive weeks from 2011-13. A swing change has halted her championship momentum, so at the ripe young age of 24 she now will have to rediscover her form to contend with current World No. 1 Inbee Park of South Korea.
8. Sun Yang (swimming, China) – Sun burst onto the scene with a double-gold performance in the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first Chinese male swimmer to win the gold medal when he nabbed it in both the 400-meter and 1,500-meter races, shattering the record in the latter in the process. He’s replaced hurdler Liu Xiang as China’s most popular Olympic athlete, though he was recently jailed for driving a relative’s Porsche without a license.
9. Kim Yuna (figure skating, South Korea) – Kim became a national heroine in South Korea when she won the figure skating gold medal in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, the first female Korean skater to win an Olympic gold. Her popularity exploded thanks to her combination of elegance and beauty. Though she’s been plagued by a foot injury recently, Kim is expected to defend her title at the Sochi Games in February.
10. Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics, Japan) – A five-time Olympic medalist and the gold medal winner in the all-around at the London Games, Uchimura is considered by many in the sport to be the best male gymnast of all time. He’s won four consecutive world titles in the all-around (2009-2013) and is expected to continue his reign through the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.