Tiger Great Federer a Bit Better

By Mercer BaggsJanuary 29, 2007, 5:00 pm
Tiger Woods is without peer. Thats the popular notion. But there is one active player who might not only be Tigers equal, but perhaps his superior.
 
He just happens to play another sport.
 
Roger Federer is to tennis what Woods is to golf: a man so dominant that he is not only the best of his generation, but may one day be considered the greatest of all time.
 
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods watches Roger Federer win last year's U.S. Open. (WireImage)
Federer is as currently incomparable in his sport as Tiger is in his. But who between the two is better? Whose accomplishments are more impressive?
 
Obviously, both men can state a mighty strong case. The numbers for each man border on absurd.
 
Woods has 55 wins on his primary tour and 12 major championship victories. Federer, who turned pro two years after Woods, has 46 singles victories and 10 grand slam titles.
 
Both men are currently No. 1 in their respective sports by massive margins. Woods holds golfs record for most consecutive weeks on top; Federer is guaranteed to race past Jimmy Connors mark in just a few weeks.
 
Tiger won this past week's Buick Invitational to extend his PGA TOUR winning streak to a personal best seven. Roger won this past week's Australian Open to run his match winning streak to a personal best 36.
 
I could sit here and recite each mans accomplishments until I grew a ZZ Top beard. But I'll give way to time and brevity and say simply: Tiger and Roger are above and beyond everyone else ' except each other.
 
Woods first met Federer (theyre both IMG clients) last year when the latter won the U.S. Open. And, in the It Takes One to Know One department, the two sporting icons developed a friendship.
 
Its not a buddy-buddy, call-you-on-the-weekend kind of relationship. Its one based on mutual respect, and even a bit of awe.
 
So, whos better in his respective sport, the more dominant figure? Thats purely subjective, and you can't really go wrong either way. The humble Federer, who is almost six years younger, would probably say Woods. And when Tiger was voted 2006 AP Male Athlete of the Year he responded by saying: 'What (Federers) done in tennis, I think, is far greater than what I've done in golf. He's lost what ... five matches in three years? That's pretty good.'
 
My subjective viewpoint: Federer gets a slight nod.
 
I give the advantage to Federer primarily because tennis is a match-play sport. You have to beat an individual head-to-head in every match in order to win.
 
Many will argue that it is more difficult to beat a field of 156 to win a tournament instead of just beating seven or so players on your way to a title. But I disagree.
 
This would be the case if you were just talking about playing one round. But when you spread an event out over the course of 72 holes, you don't have to be the best every day, just the best over four days.
 
In tennis, however, you have to be the better man each day -- better than the man on the opposite side of the net.
 
Of course, Federer, like Woods, doesnt always have to be at his best in order to win. He has the talent to give a sub-par performance and still stomp -- or intimidate -- the jelly out of his opponent.
 
But what if golf was match play all the time? What if every tournament was like the WGC-Match Play Championship? Would Tiger win as much as he does in stroke-play events?
 
I dont think so.
 
Woods has won the WGC-Match Play twice. And if every event was contested under a match-play format, he would still win more than anyone else on the PGA TOUR. But I dont think he would be as dominant as he is in stroke play.
 
To make things a little more equivalent, since the men play a best 3-out-of-5 sets in grand slam events, golf majors could be 36 holes of match play each day. That would certainly benefit Tiger, in relation to fitness and the fact that the better player usually prevails over a longer contest.
 
But, all in all, I think its easier for Woods to win over the course of four medal-play rounds than it is for him to win by beating a single opponent head-to-head each day.
 
The underdog always has a greater chance of winning in the short run.
 
Most sports fans know who Roger Federer is, but not too many ' at least in the U.S. ' know how great he truly is. And if you're not overly familiar with him, take a look at his bio page on wikipedia.org. Raymond Babbitt couldn't calculate those numbers.
 
Roger Federer
Roger Federer is four behind Pete Sampras on the all-time grand slam wins list. (WireImage)
Federer isn't truly appreciated by many in the States for a few reasons. First of all, he's not American, and, as Englishman Luke Donald accurately pointed out a few years ago, Americans are 'quite insular.'
 
Two, tennis has lost a lot of popularity over here, as there are no great U.S. champions at the moment. And, unless we're the best at something, then the sport doesn't really matter.
 
Thirdly, Federer just happens to be a decent person. Swiss-born, hes relatively quite and demur, not one to boast or throw tantrums. In America, all too often, we only seem to care about the sound and the fury of an athlete, not their significance.
 
Federer, on the other hand, is more interested in adding to his trophy case than increasing his Q rating. And, because of that, he only makes headlines when he wins ' particularly when he wins a grand slam event, because thats the only time many people ever pay attention to mens tennis.
 
And win he does ' a lot.
 
Federer was once quoted as saying: I can cope with losing much easier than I used to. I used to cry very much and be very disappointed.
 
Defeat is easy to handle when it's seldom experienced.
 
Since the start of 2004, Federers official record is 254-17. Thats a 94.4 percent winning percentage. Hes also won nine of 13 grand slam titles during this stretch. Last year, he went 92-5, with four of those losses coming to one opponent, Rafael Nadal.
 
One of those Nadal defeats came in the finals of the French Open. If there is one knock against Federer, its that he has never won the French, which is played on a clay surface (the other three grand slam events are played on either grass or hard court).
 
Woods, meanwhile, has won all four of his sports major events. Federers not winning the French is akin to Tiger never winning the Open Championship. Of course, Woods has done that three times.
 
You could say that Federer has to deal with clay-court specialists in trying to win the French, guys who were raised and excel on that one surface. You could say that makes it tougher for him to win the French than it does for Tiger to win the British.
 
I wouldnt say that. In golf, certain players play certain courses better than others. There are guys who perform better at Augusta National than they do anywhere else, or guys who are better suited for a U.S. Open layout, or even guys who just love links-style golf.
 
Tiger just happens to be able to win on all of these surfaces. He can adapt his game accordingly, win just about anywhere.
 
And while Federer gets to play the same four venues year in and year out for his major events, Woods doesnt have that opportunity. Each year, aside from the Masters Tournament, he has to compete on different courses than the year before.
 
Imagine if the majors were contested annually as follows: Masters, Augusta National; U.S. Open, Bethpage Black; Open Championship, St. Andrews; PGA Championship, Medinah.
 
Woods might never lose another major ' at least not in medal play.
 
But in match play ... that might be a different story.
 
Without question, if golf was nothing but mano e mano, Woods would still be The Man. But I dont think his record would be as good as it would be ' has been ' in stroke play.
 
This isnt to denigrate what Woods has accomplished and is accomplishing. Its to show that there is someone out there in the world of sports who is not only doing what Tiger is doing ' but someone who is doing it even a little bit better (in my opinion).
 
Overall, in judging these two greats, I give a slight advantage to Federer. Call it: 6-7, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 10-8. Or Federer in 38 holes.
 
I think it's tougher for Federer to win a tournament than it is for Woods. And, all things equal and golf being match play, I don't think Tiger would win as often as does Roger.
 
Tiger's record in the WGC-Match Play is 23-5 in seven appearances. That's really good. That's an 82-percent winning rate. But it's not 94 percent. Woods hasn't been nearly as dominant in the format as a professional as he was as an amateur.
 
And don't say that Tiger faces stiffer compeition than does Federer -- not when all we've been doing over the last decade is berating Woods' opponents.
 
In fact, these two are in a similar boat when it comes to comparing their respective levels of competition. Their excellence makes us feel as if they are competing against diluted fields. Theyre single malt scotch; everyone else is a splash of water.
 
Critics love to say that Tiger doesnt have to contend with an Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson, like Jack Nicklaus did. By the same token, they say that Federer doesnt have to deal with an in-his-prime Andre Agassi or Jim Courier or Boris Becker, like Pete Sampras did.
 
But whos to say that Woods wouldnt have beaten them all routinely, maybe even Nicklaus. And whos to say that Federer wouldnt have done the same, even to Sampras.
 
Well never know how Tiger would have fared against the legends of the past, just as we will never know the same about Federer.
 
But this we do know: they are far and away better than everyone against whom they are competing in the present. And, in modern individual sports, the only one comparable to one is the other.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
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