Backstory: Who's the more dominant sportsman: Woods or Federer?
This is the endless summer of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. They are the stars of a new Golden Age of Sports, where athletes are molded, packaged, and branded, where the sun never sets on a global stage.
But Federer and Woods are more than brands, and surely more than personalities. They are flesh-and-blood champions, known locally and globally for their work ethic and their dominance.
In an era where politicians, business tycoons, gosh, even actors, worry endlessly about such a thing as creating a legacy, Federer and Woods create something more enduring.
They just win, week after week, year after year. They don't talk about legacy, they talk about victory.
It's fashionable now to try and figure out who is more dominant, who means more on the sporting landscape.
You say Federer and I say Woods.
You say Federer has won 10 major tennis titles, including last month's Australian Open, where he flattened his rivals with a superb blend of shot-making and steel. He didn't drop a set. And now, at 25, he's poised to make a run at the Grand Slam, out to conquer that red clay at Roland Garros to claim the French Open, and then repeat as champion at Wimbledon and the US Open.
I say Woods has won 12 major golf titles and swept the big four – the Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. If any modern golfer can win the Grand Slam in a single season, it's Woods. He refashioned his swing for the long haul and physically and psychologically crushed all his near rivals. At 31, he may just be entering his prime.
The argument is circular, emotive, not easily resolved. After all, Federer wields a tennis racket while Woods swings a golf club.
They're fast friends, of course. Woods dropped in at last year's US Open to see Federer win the final in New York. Federer wandered the course at the Dubai Desert Classic this past weekend to watch Woods play.
They may be the only two active athletes who know what it's like to compete at such a rarefied level while yearning for more success. Federer is out to surpass Pete Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam titles before retiring. Woods is aiming at the 18 major golf titles won by Jack Nicklaus.
So, how do you separate these two? Does Federer dominate tennis more than Woods dominates golf? That's really a wash. If Federer enters a tennis tournament, he's the favorite. If Woods enters a golf tournament, he's the favorite.
I'll be honest. I've seen them both and even I have a hard time deciding who's really No. 1. Right now, it might be Federer. Next year, it might be Woods. In five years they'll likely be the greatest all-time performers in their chosen sports.
I saw Federer on the rise dump Sampras at Wimbledon, saw him grow as a player. The one thing television can't capture is Federer's speed and quickness, his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't ability to cover the court.
I saw Woods at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland. Not the greatest of conditions. The rough came up to your waist and the wind slammed car doors like a frustrated driver lost in the middle of nowhere. And there was Woods, on the tees, belting shots into the wind. Television doesn't do Woods justice, either. It doesn't adequately portray his full power and quickness.
David Wallechinsky, a historian of the global sporting village, including the Olympics, says judging how famous a person is doesn't matter in this argument – it's how they perform in their chosen sport.
"I feel that Federer is amazing," Wallechinsky says. "He doesn't, quote – have the personality – but his sport has been around for a long, long time, and I give him credit for being dominant in that sport."
"Tiger is up there, way up there," Wallechinsky adds. "He doesn't have the all-time record. But we have hardly seen the last of Tiger Woods."
In this discussion, Wallechinsky sides with Federer, just barely. He points out that tennis draws on a deeper talent pool.
"In the days of Bill Tilden, tennis was a rich man's sport," he says. "Now you have scholarships – guys are competing against a much greater pool. In golf, there is still a limited pool of people. Yes, we see people from all parts of the world, but golf is not a sport we'll see kids playing after school on the streets."
But just how good is men's tennis these days? Sampras and Andre Agassi are retired and the old days of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe are long gone.
Steve Flink, senior correspondent for "Tennis Week," has covered the circuit for 33 years and says he can't remember a period with so little depth at the top of the men's game.
Flink says Federer "is surprisingly talented, no doubt what a great all-around player he is, but we don't see Federer tested enough. I feel like Federer's competition is one of the weakest eras for guys in the top 10 that I've ever seen. I don't want to take anything away from him. It still takes dedication and talent and all the rest to stay on the job and keep piling up majors."
Federer's natural rivals fizzled. After a meteoric rise, Andy Roddick suffered a career slump while Rafael Nadal battled injuries. Flink also says Federer now ranks third best all-time, behind No. 1 Sampras and No. 2 Rod Laver.
"Sampras had a run of eight years straight [of dominance]," Flink says. "He had real longevity. In the short run, though, I don't think we have ever seen anything quite like Federer. He is picking up the Slams at a faster rate than we've seen before."
Flink says Federer deserves the edge. Unlike Woods, he can't have an off day and still win an event. "I know others disagree," he says. "Maybe it's tougher playing the field like Tiger does. But for Roger to win, he has to beat seven opponents over two weeks."
Art Spander, a sports columnist for the Oakland Tribune, has covered the Masters for 40 straight years, attended Wimbledon regularly since 1975, and, just for good measure, has a streak of attending 54 consecutive Rose Bowl games. Spander has seen a lot of sports. He loves this debate, the very flip-side of all that is so rotten with modern sports.
And the argument can't really be won.
But, if Spander is pushed to the wall, he'll give the decision to Woods, who has won consistently for a decade and who has simply steamrolled his would-be rivals in head-to-head play. "With Tiger, he plays 150 people every week in a golf tournament and the courses are all different," Spander says. "In Britain you have links courses and in America you have courses with very tall trees."
Spander has joked and written that there may be only one way to decide this argument.
"What if you give Federer a sand wedge," Spander says, "and what if you give Tiger a racket?"