Obviously, it's Tiger Woods
WHEN TIGER Woods awoke on Sunday, he turned on highlights of Roger Federer's victory at the Australian Open. That afternoon at the Buick Invitational, Woods roared to his seventh straight PGA Tour win with a spectacular 66. In between, Woods sent a playful text message to Federer, whom he befriended last year when Federer was playing in his U.S. Open. The message was simple: 12 to 10. Even after the Australian Open, that is Woods's lead in the only measuring stick that he or Federer really cares about: career Grand Slam titles.
But there's more to Tiger's supremacy than that simple tally. Woods has won each of golf's four majors at least twice, conquering the wicked greens of the Masters, the brutal rough at the U.S. Open, the quirky linksland of the British Open and the heat and low scoring conditions of the PGA Championship. Federer's lack of a victory in the French Open is the gaping hole in his r�sum�. Until he prevails on the clay at Roland Garros, he is not as complete a champion as Woods.
While both Tiger and Roger have a habit of making other players look puny, Woods has forged his record against much stouter competition. Vijay Singh was enshrined in the Hall of Fame last year. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bel figure to be first-ballot inductees. And Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie and Davis Love are very strong Hall candidates. Woods has taken on all of them in their primes. As for Federer, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were old and gimpy by the time he made the scene, Rafael Nadal has had one six-month hot streak, Andy Roddick is more style than substance, Marat Safin a world-class head case. It is a measure of how weak the upper echelon of tennis is that James Blake sits just outside the top 5, and he's never even made it to a Grand Slam semi.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of Woods's greatness is his ability to close the deal. He is 12 for 12 finishing off a Sunday lead at the major championships, and 38 for 41 overall in his career. Federer lost the French Open final last year and is only 9--10 in his career in five-set matches.
The great Rod Laver said last week that Federer is on track to become the best tennis player of all time. That may be true. But the best athlete of his generation? That would be Tiger Woods.
No Way, It's Roger Federer
LOOK, WE all know this is a debate about apples and oranges, with one sport pitting man against man and the other pitting man against tree, bush and the various dangers one encounters on a well-groomed patch of real estate. We all know you can't compare the two. Tiger's Grand Slam events last four days, and if he skulls a few shots and shoots a 79 on Thursday, he still has plenty of time to come back and win. Federer must play seven matches, and if he has one bad day, he's out. Dominance? Tiger's dominance is once-removed; he plays the course, and all the losers can let themselves off the hook with the ultimate built-in golf excuse: It wasn't Tiger. I beat myself.
Federer is beating everybody, and part of the game's cruel charm is its reduction of some of the world's most willful egomaniacs into a humiliating submission. Lose, and you must say it, if only to yourself: Too good. He was too good for me. That is dominance in its most elemental form. That is Federer's place in tennis now. His flawless ride through the field in Melbourne was but the finest distillation of what he's been doing for three years. Federer has won six of the last seven Grand Slams and ten of the last 15. He has, in fact, reduced the men's tour to looking like a bunch of women, specifically the WTA Tour from 1992 to '96, when Steffi Graf won 11 of 18 Grand Slams in the sport's previous chapter of unrivaled greatness.
True: Like Graf then, Federer has been pushed by no great rival. But, then, the PGA Tour isn't exactly brimming with Arnies and Jacks these days, either. Just as Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have tested Tiger, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Rafael Nadal have had their runs against Federer, but his breezy genius has repelled all comers. His greatest, most underrated gift may well be a body seemingly impervious to the ravages of an 11-month season; physically as well as mentally, Federer never breaks down. And that's the other reason you can't compare the two: Once in a while, you'll actually hear people wonder if golf is a sport. Federer plays a game that's physically taxing, demanding of the full range of physical skill; he actually must run and jump. That he does so in a way no one has ever seen before is merely a bonus. But then you'd expect that from the preeminent athlete of his day.