Tennis superstar Roger Federer and golf great Tiger Woods still have more time in their careers to add to their legacies. They have both recently re-surged to the top of their respective sports, competing for Majors and the No. 1 ranking.
Though the final answer in comparing their greatness might not come for another decade, it’s clear that their most dominating and prime years have already been spent. We have enough hindsight to measure this time when their stars shone brightest and eclipsed the entire planet of their nearest competitors.
Tennis and golf are cousins, which may encourage bar conversations from fans in Melbourne to St. Andrews who argue about titans in their favored sport. From London to Augusta—and wherever else people gather to watch worldwide sports broadcasts—there will always be a special fascination to discuss who is the greatest of all.
Fine Swiss Chocolate or Rich American Ice Cream?
Most people love desserts, but one’s preferences and tastes likewise cloud objectivity in comparing greatness. A tennis fan will defend the greatest players in tennis and a golf fan will tout the superiority of golfers, but the contrasts allow for the most separation.
Woods revolutionized a sport of skills with his athleticism. Federer brought more skills to an athletic sport.
Federer is the epitome of coolness and class. Woods can be fiery and classless.
Woods intimidated the field with his mental toughness. Federer overwhelmed the field with his presence.
Federer once remarked how much he loves winning. Woods once remarked how much he hates losing. (Both remarks noted on page 361 in Chris Bowers’s book, Roger Federer: The Greatest, and attributed to observations by Paul Kimmage of the Sunday Times in November 2009.)
Tennis and golf fans can frame specific evidence to support their judgments in evaluating greatness, but it may be no more valid than proving that Lindt chocolate truffles are superior to Ben & Jerry’s "Phish Food."
Bill Tilden or Bobby Jones?
Tennis and golf have evolved beyond their legendary histories. Their flirtations with professionalism ultimately untied their matrimonies of amateurism. Both sports are changed forever, and they continue to promote astonishing advances in technology, all while paradoxically touting their antiquated traditions.
The greatness of Federer and Woods is illustrated in how they changed their sports. They shattered old methods and expanded new techniques. They raised their sports to new global popularity, and forced their competitors to rise up en masse.
But who is greater?
Consider Roger Federer’s special degree of difficulties in tennis. He must compete with great speed and quickness against other athletes who also possess astonishing hand-eye coordination and a variety of skills. He plays a sport with a small window of opportunity, where most of the great players in history are often past their peak in their mid-20s. It’s a dash around the track with the pressure of collecting as many Majors as possible before breaking the finish line tape.
For Tiger Woods, his athleticism usually dwarfs his competitors, but it is his variety of skill and mental toughness that have trumped the field. He plays a sport where one’s career can span a few decades, where players have won titles well into their 30s and 40s. It’s a marathon that requires patience in accumulating Majors when the hot fortunes of others often top the elite in their sport.
Federer’s special run of dominance has required an astonishing degree of fitness and few injuries. The grind of the ATP tour including a majority of matches on hard courts is a grueling trial that eventually saps the strength and resolve of even its mightiest warriors.
Woods’s legendary years demanded psychological resilience to continually bounce back from defeat. Golfers are more immersed in failures and setbacks rather than triumph, so cannot as easily ride their dominance. They will rarely hit perfect shots, so must often escape and win with consistency.
Federer must win a Major over the course of seven matches and 20-something hours on court. It requires him to eliminate the very best champions in his sport. One bad day will end a Major run, and a great performance by other historically great champions including Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on a variety of surfaces means that nobody backs into a Slam title.
Woods has to win a title over four days and about 16 hours, but it must be won over an entire field. Golf’s degree of difficulty picks off its top ten players with routine ease. Far more competitors can win a Slam as evidenced by 15 different players winning the past 16 Majors. Woods has rarely had to overcome legendary players on the final holes for his Slams.
Advantage In or Below Par?
Federer’s greatest years produced 16 titles in 27 chances from Wimbledon 2003 through Australia 2010. Nobody in tennis history even approaches this run of exceptional domination and longevity. Bjorn Borg won eight titles in 12 chances by not participating at the Australian Open, and Pete Sampras won nine titles in 17 chances with his best streak from 1993-1997. Nadal won six of 11 chances from his peak years of 2008-2010.
Woods had two dominant streaks separated by his Major-less slump of 2003-2004. The first streak netted seven titles in 11 opportunities and the second streak accumulated six titles in 14 chances. All told, including 2003-2004, Woods won 13 titles in 35 chances. It pales next to Federer’s numbers but is a runaway first in modern golf.
Woods also won four Majors in a row for his famed “Tiger Slam.” Although Federer never accomplished this feat, he did win three Majors in three different years, something Woods only did in 2000.
Federer has been the No. 1 ranked player for a record 297 weeks and counting. He recently passed Pete Sampras (286) and has outdistanced Ivan Lendl (270) and Jimmy Connors (268). There are fewer weeks in a tennis player’s career to obtain these numbers.
Woods was the No. 1-ranked golfer for an astonishing 623 weeks, and has perhaps another decade to try and add to this record. Though golf rankings have been compiled since the 1980s, Woods’ nearest competitor, Greg Norman, had only 331 weeks on top. No other player reached 100 weeks. Woods has rewritten the record books on this.
Major Success or Major Disappointment?
Four years ago, most sports fans probably thought Woods would win more Majors than Federer. Rafael Nadal had mounted the first of two great charges at the top of the ATP, and Woods was still hunting to win more titles in his 30s than in his 20s.
Federer has added extra luster to his illustrious career and still may have another chapter to write. He has fulfilled and exceeded all expectations and promise to his talent. His tennis career is acclaimed by most to be the greatest of all time with 17 Majors.
Woods’s great career has at times been hampered by bad knees and infamous personal problems. His comeback has been difficult and he is closing in on his 37th birthday stalled at 14 Majors, a much greater chasm than had been assumed in his chase to catch Jack Nicklaus’s record 18.
Woods has time to win more Slams, but the clock is ticking. Perhaps he has another decade, and will win several more Majors. But a new generation of golfers and the evolution of golf may put the screws on Woods’s career. His story will either continue or face a fading anticlimax.
They were once parallel champions and brothers of dominance, but now have been separated by time and circumstances.
Federer rides off into the sunset, but Woods is facing the heat of an uncomfortable afternoon, hoping to make up time and Majors.
Will Woods rejoin Federer as an equal on the sports pantheon of legends?
We will be watching.
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