Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Does 2008 Hold in Store for Federer and Woods?

Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are the two most dominant individual athletes in the world. Woods just reasserted that dominance with a command performance in the Buick Invitational, winning by eight strokes over Ryuji Imada, who candidly admitted afterward, "First place was out of reach, I figured. My goal was to finish second." Woods obliterated the tournament record for margin of victory (five strokes), which had been shared by Tom Watson (1977) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979).

Woods has won the Buick Invitational four straight years, the second time that he "four-peated" at a particular event; he also turned the trick at Bay Hill, now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational, from 2000-03. Speaking of Palmer, with this victory Woods tied Palmer for fourth place on the PGA Tour career wins list with 62. Ben Hogan ranks third with 64 wins, Jack Nicklaus won 73 events and Sam Snead set what once seemed to be an unreachable standard with 82 wins. Palmer spoke briefly with USA Today and said that he believes that Woods can win the modern Grand Slam, win more events than anyone in Tour history and be the greatest player of all-time. He recalled that Woods sought him out for advice when Woods was a collegiate player at Stanford; Woods told Palmer his goals and asked how he should deal with anything that might prevent him from achieving them. Palmer added that Woods betters his competition in three areas: natural ability, physical fitness and mental ability. Woods once held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously but he has yet to win each of them in a calendar year; on his website, Woods says that this year that accomplishment is "easily within reason." If Woods does beat the odds and sweep the Grand Slams at least part of the reason will be that he pursues perfection as relentlessly and tenaciously as the New England Patriots. Woods, sounding like golf's version of Bill Belichick, was perhaps the only person who was not impressed by his performance in the Buick Invitational: "I still have holes in my game that I need to fix."

Federer set records left and right the past few years but he showed a slight chink in his armor last week, losing in the Australian Open semifinals to eventual winner Novak Djokovic. That ended Federer's record run of 10 straight finals appearances in Grand Slams. He still maintained his number one ranking for a record 209th straight week but Djokovic may be the player who knocks him off of that perch. Djokovic is no flash in the pan and it is unlikely that this will be his last Grand Slam win. He is just 20 years old and he showed signs last year that he may be the next big thing in tennis. Djokovic defeated the first, second and third ranked players in the world at the time--Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick--on consecutive days in the 2007 Canada Masters, the first time player to do that since Boris Becker in 1994.

Federer is at a very interesting age now--26, the same age when Bjorn Borg retired at the height of his powers after a year in which he won the French Open and reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer is considered by some people to be the greatest tennis player ever but, as I pointed out last year, Borg's career accomplishments match up very well with Federer's and Borg actually bests Federer in several categories, including being the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25), Grand Slam winning percentage (.898, first all-time), winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year (Borg did this three straight years; no one else has done it even once) and winning three Grand Slam events without losing a single set (only three other players have won a Grand Slam without losing a set and none of them did it more than once). Borg won at least one Grand Slam title in a record eight straight years (Sampras matched this feat). One of my favorite Borg stats is that he did not lose to a younger player until 1977, when he was 21 years old and already arguably the best player in the world.

Federer is not going to retire soon but it is also not at all certain that he will keep winning titles and Grand Slams at his recent pace. Top level tennis is a game for the very young. Consider the career arcs of the career Grand Slam title leaders in the Open Era other than Federer (12) and Borg (11). Pete Sampras won 10 of his record 14 Grand Slam titles by the age of 26 and he held the year-end number one ranking from the age of 22-27. Sampras' rival Andre Agassi was one of the most productive "old" players, winning five of his eight Grand Slam titles after the age of 26. He reached a Grand Slam final at age 35, prompting Mats Wilander to comment, "...that tells me he wasted the first five years of his career, otherwise he couldn’t have lasted this long," a reference to Aggasi's indifferent early career performances. Jimmy Connors won three of his eight Grand Slam titles after the age of 26 and famously reached the U.S. Open semifinals as a 39 year old. Ivan Lendl won four of his eight Grand Slams after the age of 26. John McEnroe won all seven of his Grand Slam titles prior to the age of 26 and did not even make it to a Grand Slam final once after that age (he played until he was 33). Wilander won all seven of his Grand Slam titles by the age of 24 and did not appear in a Grand Slam final again even though he played until he was 32. Stefan Edberg won all six of his Grand Slam titles by age 26 and made it to only one Grand Slam final after that. Becker won five of his six Grand Slam titles by age 26.

Barring injury, Woods may have a decade or more of dominance ahead of him--but Federer is most likely already past his best days, though he could very well retain the number one ranking for another year or so and win several more Grand Slams before he retires. Borg did not pad his Grand Slam total with Australian Open titles (Federer has won three of them) but he set modern records for both Wimbledon (five) and French Open (six) titles. Sampras broke the Wimbledon record and Federer matched it last year but neither of them won the French Open. Unless Federer simply shatters Sampras' mark for career Grand Slams and/or displays the versatility necessary to conquer the French Open, Borg will still have a very valid claim to being the greatest tennis player of all-time.

No comments: