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Apparently, genius really does love company. The US Open men’s final last month was noteworthy not just for the superb quality of play but also for the presence, in Roger Federer’s box, of Tiger Woods.
The world’s best golfer and the planet’s finest tennis player had evidently been admiring one another for some time from afar. Phone calls were exchanged and a meeting arranged on the Sunday of the US Open final, before 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium and millions of television viewers.
It was a propitious moment for a first encounter between the pair. When the Swiss took to the court that afternoon against Andy Roddick, he stood just six majors away from equalling Pete Sampras’s all-time mark of 14 grand-slam titles. And Woods, by virtue of his victory in the PGA Championship three weeks earlier, was an identical number of majors away from tying his sport’s record of 18 grand-slam crowns, held by Jack Nicklaus.
But while the Federer-Woods get-together drew nearly as much interest as the tennis match itself – won by Federer in four sets – one question went unasked: How does Federer rate against Woods, and vice versa?
There are some impediments to a straightforward comparison. One wears shorts and sneakers and races around a court trying to hit a fuzzy yellow ball across a net; the other wears slacks and spikes and strides up and down fairways trying to put a small white ball in a hole.
Nonetheless, it is a discussion begging to be had, and not just because Federer and Woods are running neck-and-neck on parallel tracks. Both are peerless in their respective sports, and both are routinely spoken of as possibly the greatest champions their sports have known.
Yet, comparisons with past legends tend to yield more frustration than light. Money and technology have brought so many changes to golf and tennis that cross-generational assessments are generally fruitless. How would Federer have managed with a wooden racket? How would Rod Laver have fared with a composite frame? Who knows?
But with no such issues to fog the discussion, a comparison between Woods and Federer can be boiled down to the essential question: whose achievements are more impressive? With due respect to Federer, his new pal would appear to have him beaten on most counts.
Simply as a numerical fact, the grand-slam record that Woods is poised to surpass is more impressive than the one that Federer is pursuing; 18 is, after all, four more than 14. Nicklaus’s mark is also a longer-standing and far more imposing one. He won his 18th major in 1986, which put him an astonishing seven victories clear of the previous record, set by Walter Hagen in 1929 (reached by Nicklaus in 1972).
By contrast, the record Federer is pursuing is a recent one; Sampras won his 14th major just four years ago. And while Sampras’s feat was remarkable, it was not outlandishly so in the way Nicklaus’s was; Sampras ended his career with two more majors than Roy Emerson and three up on Laver and Björn Borg. He established a new mark; unlike Nicklaus, he did not obliterate the old one.
Both Federer and Woods have put themselves in reach of the records in a stunningly short period of time. Woods has won 12 majors in just 10 seasons and 40 grand-slam starts as a professional; it took Nicklaus 12 years and 48 starts to tally a dozen.
At his current pace, Woods will equal Nicklaus’s mark some time in 2012, achieving in 16 seasons what took Nicklaus 25 years to accomplish. And given Woods’s recent play – with his runaway victory at last weekend’s American Express Championship, he has won six consecutive PGA tournaments – it would not be surprising to see the record matched sooner than that.
Federer’s pace has been even more spectacular: he only notched his first grand-slam victory in 2003. In collecting nine majors over four seasons, he has reached a milestone that took Sampras seven years to attain. On his present trajectory, Federer will catch up with Sampras sometime between 2008 and 2009, accomplishing in six or seven seasons what the American needed 13 years to do.
All of which raises the question: are these guys that transcendentally good, or are they also blessed with weak opposition?
In Woods’s case, he is unquestionably that good. In golf, the main opponent is the course; with four Masters, three British Opens, a trio of PGAs and a pair of US Opens, Woods has proved he can win anywhere, anytime.
As to the quality of the human obstacles lying in his path, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are two prodigiously talented golfers who, in a Tiger-less era, would have been expected to dominate the game and enjoy careers of historic dimensions. That they presently own just six majors between them and have both been beset with performance issues over the years speaks to how few scraps Woods has left on the table and how thoroughly he has intimidated even his most gifted challengers.
Unlike Woods, Federer has yet to conquer all courses – a victory on the clay at the French Open continues to elude him. He has also come of age at a time when men’s tennis has a dearth of heavyweight talent. During his career, Sampras had to contend with the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Pat Rafter, Jim Courier, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Goran Ivanisevic and, of course, Andre Agassi – a murderer’s row of rivals.
Federer, by contrast, has faced one of the weakest top 10s of the Open era. Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick are players with serious limitations. Rafael Nadal has twice thwarted Federer at the French and gave him a scare this year at Wimbledon but the Spaniard has done nothing at the US Open or the Australian and is sufficiently injury-prone as to raise doubts about how much of a long-term danger he may pose.
The player who has always loomed as the biggest potential threat is Marat Safin, but knee problems and lack of inspiration have just about turned the 26-year-old into an also-ran.
If Federer does match or overtake Sampras in the next two or three seasons, it will not be surprising if some conclude that it all came a little too quickly and easily.
Woods gets the better of Federer in other important respects. He has single-handedly changed the way his game is played and the way it is perceived – the same cannot be said of Federer.
And not only is Woods arguably the toughest competitor that golf has ever produced, he may well be the toughest competitor any sport has produced. It is perhaps unfair to hold anyone up to Woods, so otherworldly is his talent and tenacity.
But with Federer having also slipped the bonds of mere mortality, a head-to-head comparison does help put their achievements in some perspective. Besides, what’s a little competition between friends?