1) Ronnie O’Sullivan

Stephen Hendry is not renowned for his effusion – if he praises something for being mediocre, you know to pay it careful attention. So hearing his rhapsodic reverence for Ronnie O’Sullivan is a moving thrill almost as great as watching the man himself. “He makes the game look so easy,” the seven-times world champion said of the seven-times world champion. “When it’s not easy at all.”

Effortlessness is not an essential characteristic of genius – Hendry is one too, yet made playing snooker look harder than a diamond with a flick knife smoking an Embassy No 1 while spitting through its teeth. But it is one sign: the ability to differentiate from everyone else who’s ever done something, by making it seem the most natural thing in the world – Whitney singing, say, or Ronnie razzing out a five-minute, eight-second 147 – universal first-name terms being another indicator of unusual luminosity.

Nor is it just Hendry who speaks of Ronnie in such terms. In theory, “The Most Naturally Talented Player Ever To Pick Up A Cue” (TMNTPETPUAC) is too mealy-mouthed to become nickname or cliche, yet Ronnie made it so because his inspirational separateness needs noting over and over again. He happens to be a snooker player, but in a sense it barely matters while, of course, mattering absolutely, because that feeling of watching him – of import, of uniqueness, of transcendence, speaking to the world but also directly to us, personally – glorifies our species and caresses our soul.

In his younger days he was principally about the pyrotechnics, ripping out runs and blazing home long pots – consider his 128 in the 1996 Masters, or the above-mentioned maxi that came a year later – stamping about the genius/madness precipice and exuding dissatisfaction with himself, his game and the world. It was understandable too, the young Ronnie confronted by the awesome responsibility of his awesomeness while also processing some mind-bogglingly awful domestic disruption.

What sets him apart these days, though, is not his power and flair but the stratospheric bottom and modal levels facilitated by clear thought and precise touch – only he could ask the prize for a maximum after sinking the first black, then make one. His ability to assess a table, then calculate the correct order in which to eliminate the balls before easing them away via a variety of gentle cannons and subtle screws – consider this epochal 92 in the 2012 World Championship final – is like Christopher Wren first designing St Paul’s Cathedral, then building it himself.

This is possible only because he is kinder to himself now, finding an emotional equilibrium that has intensified his genius yet further. It took him a while to come to terms with it understandably so – who didn’t act up in their 20s, even without the aggravating factors of talent, fame and money? – and his quest for perfection continues through the illusory pursuit of the elusive cue-action. But at 47 he is resolved to enjoy his gifts, sharing the joy of himself for as long as possible.

Ronnie O’Sullivan acknowledges the crowd during the 2022 World Championship final, which he won to equal Stephen Hendry’s modern record of seven world titles.
Ronnie O’Sullivan acknowledges the crowd during the 2022 World Championship final, which he won to equal Stephen Hendry’s modern record of seven world titles. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

2) Shane Warne

If O’Sullivan’s genius is doing things perfectly, Shane Warne’s was appraising people perfectly. At the start of his career he was not unlike TMNTPETPUAC, his scorching skill distracting from the subtler aspects of his ludicrousness as, thanks to painter’s hands, crocodile-wrestler’s arms and an executioner’s nerve, he reinvented the art of leg-spin.

However, while he needed the physical tools to twizzle the ball hard – so hard it would make a fizzing sound on release – there was much more to him than that, most particularly his rare ability to see simplicity. Yes, ripping every delivery was a matter of principle and a lesson for life – take attacking options, always – but it was also the sensible course of action. Warne realised that he had to impart as much spin as possible while bowling as fast as possible without the latter encumbering the former, and if he kept doing that while hammering the right spot, “natural variation” would eventually help him. Sounds obvious now, but it wasn’t then.

What made Warne Warnie, though, was the charismatic, empathic intelligence that enabled him to detect artifice like a larrikin Hercule Poirot, reading people like he wrote them and taking immense pleasure in juxtaposing their weaknesses against his ingenuity. Part of this was technical – Warne’s keen cricketing eye meant no batter could hide their faults , which he then announced like the news headlines – but the really special aspect was his mentality. Whether undermining everything an opponent thought about himself with a throwaway line, convincing someone who had just whacked him that he’d played a bad shot, or coaxing umpires into raising the finger at his invitation, his overwhelming force of personality and preternatural grasp of theatre turned the ensemble drama of Test cricket into a one-man variety show.

It’s for that reason Warne was able, aged 35 and with his flipper and googly pilfered by injury, to return 40 wickets in the 2005 Ashes – his best-ever series figures in the greatest-ever series. Facing a confident, cohesive batting lineup, armed with just leggie, slider and occasional toppie, he mined the full extent of his unique, unparalleled genius to turn every delivery into an occasion and every over into an epic which is to say that, while there are 11 modes of dismissal in cricket, every one of his 708 Test victims fell in the same way: out-warned, bowled Warne.

What is it like to face an over from Shane Warne? – video

If politics, as Cavour famously said, is the art of the possible, then sport is the art of the impossible – gymnastics in particular. It’s easy to see it as the simple expression of athletic prowess – you can either do this stuff or you can’t – just as it’s easy to look at a Picasso and conclude that the only difference between him and us is his brushwork. Simone Biles is not only the best gymnast ever but possibly the best anything ever, and the mind-boggling scope of her oeuvre may start with her natural gifts, but it does not end there. It’s true that to do what she does requires the fast-twitch muscle fibres that facilitate her running, leaping and tumbling. But without her bravery, creativity and sensitivity – the love, hope and fibre with which Biles perfects then animates her skills – they are prosaic gifts. With them though, she is able to imbue gymnastics with the full force of herself, inventing elements beyond the conception of others – those named after her have their own Wikipedia page – then perform them with flair, imagination and personality. Or, put another way, Biles is an artist, the human body is her muse, and the things she says with it, about it, and about our world, are works of the purest genius.

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4) Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff was brilliant at association football, a sinewy, graceful mover, with feather-duster feet and a poet’s imagination. Yet his ability with the ball is only a fraction of the reason for his presence in this selection, because it represents only a fraction of his contribution to the game. Inspired by his manager, Rinus Michels, he became the symbol of Total Football, a way of playing that was simultaneously systematic and improvisational with roots in Austria and Hungary, which now inspires the best of what we see worldwide. And unusually for a player that good, Cruyff was also an excellent manager – natural talents often struggle because how can you teach people to do things only you can do, to see things only you can see? His prowess, though, was underpinned by a savage all-purpose intellect that allowed him to communicate celestial visions that he grounded in reality, a prophet interpreting the divine word – his own – in order to enlighten the masses. The Gregorian calendar uses BC to mark a key change in perspective, and the same is so in football: there is Before Cruyff and there is After Cruyff.

The Netherland’s Johan Cruyff side steps a challenge from West Germany’s Berti Vogts during the 1974 World Cup final.
The Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff sidesteps a challenge from West Germany’s Berti Vogts during the 1974 World Cup final. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

5) Claressa Shields

It would be easy to simply list Shields’ achievements and say no more: double Olympic gold then perfect as a pro, in the process of becoming a three-weight world champion and the only boxer ever to hold two belts under all four governing bodies simultaneously. But there’s more to it than that, because the self-styled GWOAT – greatest woman of all time, a moniker she can give herself and seem honest, not cringe – has only two stoppages to her name and none since 2017. On the face of things, that is to her discredit, kayos rightly accorded major import when assessing the relative merits of fighters. But to compile a 13-0 record without the knockout power to end fights quickly or from behind, and for each decision victory to be uncontroversially unanimous, requires a staggering appreciation of space, timing and angles. And if we add to that the outstanding trash-talk that so antagonises her opponents, we have the complete package. The only thing more annoying than someone who talks is someone who can back it up, and Shields knows she can say whatever she likes to whoever she likes, secure in the knowledge that her genius has her chin.

Claressa Shields (right) punches Savannah Marshall during their IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO World middleweight title fight at the O2 Arena.
Claressa Shields (right) punches Savannah Marshall during their IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO World middleweight title fight at the O2 Arena. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In the original golden age of darts, John Lowe was famed not just for being a great player but for the classical beauty of his throw, a long, flowing, arcing masterpiece. So when Phil Taylor decided to take the sport seriously – perhaps more seriously than anyone has ever taken anything – he based his action on Lowe’s, practising until he was perfect. Michael van Gerwen is the opposite of that, experiencing none of the artist’s pride in process and instead tossing tungsten like a god of war hurling flaming javelins. “I don’t aim,” he once told a befuddled Joy of Six. “I throw on instinct.” Though he has cooled in recent years, the standard he produced from 2015 to 2017 – and against a murderer’s row of rivals – is not only the best that darts has been played but the best darts it’s possible to play; he broke numerous scoring records and at one point held all seven major ranking titles simultaneously. Best of all, though, is that he defies analysis. With the others in this column, we can analyse what makes them special, but Van Gerwen rises above all that and just is. He doesn’t know why he’s so brilliant any more than we do, a genius of such genius that even the genius isn’t genius enough to understand it.