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Tiger Woods and Roger Federer
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Tiger Woods has always focused on breaking his idol Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. He currently has 13. By this age, Nicklaus had 9, so that would put Woods on pace for 26. To put that in perspective, consider Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755 (ignoring Barry Bonds for the moment). For Woods to win 26/18ths as many majors as Nicklaus would be roughly the equivalent of somebody coming along and hitting 1091 homers, which would require somebody to come up to the major leagues at age 19 and average 40 homers per year through age 45, then come back at 46 and hit 11 more.

Yet, Woods has a worthy contemporary competitor — not on the golf course, but on the tennis court. Swissman Roger Federer, who won’t turn 27 until August, has won 12 Grand Slam titles. If he stays hot, he could overtake Woods, at least for a few years.

There are four Grand Slam tournaments each year — Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US — so they are a fair comparison to golf’s four major championships.

The tennis record for most Grand Slam victories is 14 by American Pete Sampras, who is now retired. Federer (born 8/8/81) is almost exactly 10 years younger than Sampras (born 8/12/71), and by early 1998, Sampras had won 10 of his 14 Grand Slam victories. So, if Federer maintains the same pace as Sampras, he’ll win about 17 Grand Slam titles.

That Nicklaus holds the golf record with 18 while Sampras holds the tennis record with only 14 mostly shows how much better Nicklaus was than all other golfers before Tiger, whereas it’s not at all clear who was the best tennis player before Federer. The top ten tennis players in terms of major championship victories have won 102, while the top 10 golfers have won 96, so the two sports are directly comparable.

Tennis players get old much faster than golfers, but major titles are easier to win in tennis for superstars at their peaks than in golf. That’s probably due to four factors:

– Tennis tournaments are seeded with the best player playing the worst player in the opening round, so success begets success in tennis, whereas almost all professional golf tournaments are at stroke play, so everybody starts equally.

– Luck plays a greater role in golf than in tennis due to smaller sample sizes. A typical golf tournament consists of about 270 strokes over four days, whereas a single five set match in tennis might require about many points (five sets times nine games per set times six points per game equals 270), and, say, three times that many strokes.

– Luck also plays a greater role in golf than in tennis because you play against the course, not against the other player, so the superior man can’t directly beat down the inferior man.

– The age window at which tennis players are a distinct threat to win major championships starts closing rapidly after age 30 or so, compared to about 40 for golfers, so a smaller fraction of all the tennis players alive at any one point in time are serious contenders to win.

So, all this means that Woods vs. Federer is a very fair comparison, and should motivate both men.

After Woods passes Nicklaus and Federer gets too old, however, Woods can motivate himself by setting his sights on the athlete with perhaps the most dominant statistics in any sport, Australian cricketeer Don Bradman.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I played junior and club tennis for about 30 years starting in the mid-1960s. My mother is a tennis fanatic who even in her old age still attends professional tournaments most years, and I accompany her irregularly. As a result I’ve seen most of the major stars from Ken Rosewall to Federer. (That is, I’ve seen them live, not on television. In all sports the camera lies — it slows down the action and shrinks the players. In my experience tennis and hockey are where it lies the most.)

    FWIW, the strongest player I ever saw was Pete Sampras at his all-too-short peak. The development of larger, stronger-hitting rackets does tend to skew comparison, but the overall quality of the pro tour players improved from the 1970s to the early 1990s. When Sampras was winning, most players on the tour had strong serves, solid footwork, and fluid topspin forehands and backhands. Relatively successful pro players of earlier periods often had more uneven skill sets with weaknesses that you wouldn’t see in the better touring pros of the last 15-20 years. Federer is an outstanding player, clearly the best of the current bunch, but he doesn’t have to play anyone like Sampras. The latter’s excellent service and service return and enormous reach were all a notch up from anyone else I’ve ever seen.

  2. I am kinda surprised that you did not mention Wayne Gretzky. He played against very good competition (including the amazing Red Army) and dominated his sport like no other player in any team-sport.

    The statistics were absolutely mind-boggling.

    During his prime, he led the league (and International competitions) every single year. Including one year where he had more assists than the next leading player had points. Actually, that year he had more assists than any other player had points in any season (up until that point).

  3. “athlete with perhaps the most dominant statistics in any sport”

    IMO that would be Lance Armstrong.

  4. cricketeer (sic)

    Steve, promise me you’ll never write anything about cricket. It would be more than flesh and blood could bear.

  5. Federer is an amazing case. For four or five years, he hasn’t seemed to beat opponents via the usual athletic gifts — quickness, strength, tactics, technique. He has ’em all, but there are other players who have ’em all too. Instead he seems to kick into hyperdrive — he just enters a different dimension than everyone else, and once there he seems to see what’s coming. It’s like Gretzky in the great days “knowing” where the puck is going to be in a second or two and just being there, or like Keanu in the first “Matrix” once his powers kick in. Space-time is a little different for him than it is for everyone else. It’s weird, freaky, and wonderful.

    The question for me is how he’s going to handle it once he’s challenged on a more regular basis than he has been.

    This is one of those key questions in tennis — how will a dominant player handle it when he/she starts to seem a little less invulnerable. You just never know ahead of time. Martina Hingis, for instance, had a couple of the best years ever … But as soon as the other girls started shaking her up (and the Williams sisters arrived), she folded up. Agassi, Steffi, and Sampras on the other hand showed long-term toughness and determination, each in their own way.

    So: will Federer crumple? He has had such a lot of elegance and poise, and such an ability to go into hyperdrive whenever necessary … It has almost been like magic — you can often see it in Federer’s face and manner, that “I don’t know where this shit comes from” look. It’s just some otherworldly gift he has always been able to surrender to.

    So there’s no real way of knowing how he’ll contend when he starts to slow down a bit, or get hurt, or simply when some other players begin to figure him out. We just haven’t seen that side of him yet. When he’s needed God, God has shown up, so to speak. Nadal and he make a great rivalry — that’s one thing. But when new guys start shooting your legs out from under you, that’s another. And who knows, maybe God will stop visiting Federer on such a regular basis.

    So maybe this Australian Open represents the beginning of a new phase in Fed’s career. Will he prove to be like Andre, and dig down and find a lot of grit and determination somewhere deep inside? Or will he check out like Martina H.?

  6. Yep, Bradman was the greatest stick-and-ball player of all time. By miles. Or kilometres as they say nowadays in Oz.

  7. Interesting post.

    One other factor I think you should consider is the size of the population from which we are drawing competitors. I’m guessing golf has the larger cohort, so Tiger’s accomplishment would be more meaningful.

    Put another way, if a golfer is 3.5 standard deviations from the ability mean, he still may have several competitors of equal ability. Meanwhile, a tennis player 3.5 sigma might be all alone. That is why we probably don’t get excited about a squash player who has won multiple championships, or a cricket player for that matter.

  8. few people play competitive golf, the talent pool is really small. the level of play is not that high, so a single good player like woods can dominate a minor sport like golf.

    these comparisons of golf to major sports never make sense to me. thanks to ESPN, i think few americans realize anymore that golf is far behind even track and swimming, let alone football and baseball.

  9. One thing that might explain tennis’s lack of a standout Grand Slam winner to the extent of golf is that tennis is more specialized. It is common to be a “grass specialist” or a “clay court specialist”. Indeed, many who don’t do well on grass avoid Wimbledon all together, thus decreasing their possible total by 1/4 right off the bat (or racquet). Fully half of Sampras’s victories came on the grass courts of Wimbledon. He was notoriously uncompetitive playing on clay (contrast his seven Wimbledon wins with zero French Open wins).
    I don’t think that there is a similar dynamic in golf, such that a top player would skip a major entirely, every year.

  10. I am kinda surprised that you did not mention Wayne Gretzky.

    Gretzky’s over-rated. Expansion deleted the talent pool, (the Euros didn’t really start coming until the earlier 90s) and goals per game averages were the the highest they had been since the mid 40s when Richard scored 50 in 50 when most Anglos were in Europe fighting Adolf’s boys.

    Arguably even more amazing than Jack’s 18 majors are his 19 second place finishes. Astounding.

    One wonders how many majors Rod Laver, he of the immense forearm, might have won if he had not turned pro.

  11. golf also involves more luck in tee time. 7am tee time is quite diff from 11:30 depending on weather (rain start/stop)

  12. Right, there was nothing fluky about Nicklaus’s 18 majors — he was right there in the hunt an enormous number of times and won his fair share, but no more than his fair share.

    On the other hand, when Woods is close, he almost always wins. Perhaps this is just luck and will even out in the long run, but it’s also true of his non-major championship record. He’s won a colossal number of tour events and will likely catch Nicklaus in total championships before he catches him in major championships. So, this strikes me as suggesting that Woods has even more force of character than Nicklaus — and that’s saying a lot!

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The comment about the relative populations of tennis vs. golf players is a good one. Across the world, the number of golf courses and people with access to them is small fraction of the tennis courts and those who have access to them. But one point hasn’t been mentioned: In tennis, unlike golf, there’s someone across the net with a deep desire to do anything they can to keep one from winning and in a perfect position to do just that. No one in golf is actively blocking Tiger’s shots or hitting them back. And for my money, sorry Sampras fans, but it’s no comparison between him and Federer. Put Sampras on clay and he wasn’t even in the top 15 in the world, at his best. Federer is still the second best clay courter out there in a period when perhaps one of the all time best (Nadal) is at his peak. And, for all around virtuosity, is there anyone who can top what he did to Roddick in returning an overhead with an overhead down the line for a winner?!

  14. Right, the difference between clay at the French Open and grass at Wimbledon is perhaps a little bigger than the difference between Augusta National, site of the Masters, where a high shot arc is best, and the British Open, where the windy seaside links need a low shot arc. The differences were bigger in the past: Lee Trevino, a low ball player who won two British Opens, never contended at Augusta, and would sometimes skip the tournament. Nicklaus, who hit the ball immensely high, won Six Masters versus three British Opens. These days, however, shot arcs are generally more in the middle range than in the 1970s and players growing up get more experience on both kinds of courses than in the past.

  15. Re: Rod Laver — right, he won the Grand Slam (all four Grand Slam titles in one year) as an amateur in 1962 and as a pro in 1969 after pros were finally allowed in, but was ineligible for many of the years in between.

    Why was tennis so much more persnickety about amateurism than golf, which had the British Open championship that was “open” to professionals since 1860, more than a century before Wimbledon and Forest Hills went pro? Was it a cultural difference between Scotland (golf) and England (tennis)?

  16. Fair share? Maybe, maybe not.

    Of Nicklaus’s 19 second-place finishes, one was in a playoff (a one-stroke loss to Lee Trevino at the 1971 United States Open at Merion). Four others were by one stroke – to Trevino in the 1972 British Open at Muirfield, to Watson in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, to Trevino in the 1974 P.G.A. at Tanglewood in Winston-Salem, N.C., and to Hal Sutton in the 1983 P.G.A. at Riviera.

    Two strokes better over 72 holes in four tournaments and Nicklaus would have 22 majors. One stroke better at Merion and he would have 23.

  17. Nicklaus lost the 1972 British and 1982 U.S. Opens on miracle chip-ins on the 71st hole by Trevino and Watson, respectively.

    I suspect that Nicklaus might have won more if he had had Woods’s example. Jack was famously smart but he tended to outsmart himself by fashioning an overly conservative strategy. He won at Muirfield in 1967 by not hitting driver, but that kind of went to his head and he overused conservatism too often after that, so that he’d wake up Sunday morning and find himself six strokes behind, like at Muirfield in 1972. Then he’d go out and bomb away desperately with his driver and make a huge charge. Sometimes he’d win, sometimes he’d come up a stroke or two short. Other times, he’d get in the lead on Sunday, then start hitting one-irons rather than drivers. The announcers would talk about how smart a move it was, but my recollection is that Jack missed a whole bunch of fairways with his one-iron. (Woods doesn’t carry a one-iron. As Trevino said, the thing to do during lightning is to stand in the middle of the fairway and point a one-iron toward the heavens: “Because not even God can hit a one-iron.”)

    Similarly, Nicklaus had the most magnificent ball trajectory — starting out ankle high for the first 30 yards, then rising to an immense height, then dropping straight down with almost no roll — but it was too conservative and it cost him distance. (Because Nicklaus hit the ball so much farther than his competitors anyway, he didn’t mind, but he should have.) Woods, in contrast, launches the ball at a moderate angle and gets lots of roll.

    It made Nicklaus an exciting player, but it showed his famous conservatism was sub-optimal.

    Woods, in contrast, seems to pick out the perfect strategy ahead of time. It can be very conservative, like at Royal Liverpool, or not, but most of his victories have come from burying the field over the first three days then cruising in a victory lap on Sunday.

  18. Gretzky over-rated?

    So, was Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, Dionne, LaFleur, Lemieux, Stastny, Savard, Hawerchuk, Messier, Bourque and TEAM RUSSIA also over-rated?

    During his prime, that was his competition…and he dominated like no other player.

  19. I wouldn’t include team sports like hockey or soccer as so much of a great player’s success is dependent on the quality of his teammates and player stats aren’t that useful for many of the positions in those sports. Baseball and cricket may be the exceptions as the batter/batsman, pitcher/bowler gives more of an individual performance than in other team sports but even in those the great players usually only specialise at one aspect of the sport. They can’t win on their own.

    For dominance in an individual sport you have to include Phil “the Power” Taylor the great darts player. OK, it’s darts…but unless you consider “sports” played in a pub no Brit has a chance of achieving sports greatness ever again.

  20. Phil Taylor? How about Marion Tinsley, whose dominance at checkers was unearthly.

    “Over the period 1950-1995, Tinsley finished in undivided first place in every tournament that he played in. He contested 9 World Championship matches, winning each usually by an embarrassingly large margin. Over the last 45 years of his life, comprising thousands of tournament, World Championship, match, exhibition and casual games, Tinsley lost the unbelievable number of seven games.”

  21. The Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan went for over five years without losing a single match. Not quite in Tinsley’s league but for an athletic sport it is pretty extraordinary.

  22. It can be very conservative, like at Royal Liverpool, or not, but most of his victories have come from burying the field over the first three days then cruising in a victory lap on Sunday.

    Only earlier on though, Steve. A 9 shot lead n the ’97 Masters, 10 shot lead in the 2000 US Open and a 6 shot lead in the 2000 Open after 54 holes.

    Jack’s largest deficit, after 54, was 4 strokes in the ’86 Masters.

    Also in ’05 Masters, if memory serves, Tiger’s fairway percentage was dreadful, however, he was still able to hit greens. Maybe it’s him, maybe it was the course. He led by three but beat DiMarco in a playoff.

  23. So, was Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, Dionne, LaFleur, Lemieux, Stastny, Savard, Hawerchuk, Messier, Bourque and TEAM RUSSIA also over-rated?

    All the numbers in the 80s were way high because expansion really depleted the talent pool and the Soviets proved it. In Gretzky’s best year, the Oilers averaged over 20 minutes a game in penalties.

    The Soviets beat Canada 8-1 in the ’81 final and were the first team in a Canada Cup series to go 5-0 in ’84, 22 and 7 goals for and against and were beaten in a ‘miracle on ice’ overtime victory by the Canucks who just made the playoffs. The Soviet win percentage thru ’87 was higher than Canada’s. All this being accomplished on the small ice surface and away from home.

    You cannot compare the competitive level of play in the 50s/60s NHL to the ‘shinny’ played in the 80’s. Was it Dennis Johnson that called Clyde Drexler, Rexler as in no ‘D’? That about sums it up for the NHL in the 80s.

  24. How about Sir Garfield Sobers Test century?

    Sobers played his first Test Match in 1953 at the tender age of 17. Just under five years later, in 1958 he set a Test cricket record by scoring 365 runs in 614 minutes in a single innings that included 38 fours and, interestingly, not one six against Pakistan. It was his first Test century, and a record which stood for over 36 years, until it was surpassed by Brian Lara. However, Sobers’ innings still remains the highest maiden Test century ever.

  25. Tiger certainly has worked wonders for golf’s popularity. Consider this, from the always-interesting Sports Curmudgeon blog:

    And speaking of Tiger Woods, he remains the only reason that the sport of golf continues to command any meaningful attention in the US sporting firmament. The numbers from last year have been crunched and here they are:

    On CBS, the ratings for tournaments where Tiger Woods finished in the top five averaged 4.6. When he was not in the field or out of the running for the championship, the ratings averaged 1.7. Almost two-thirds of the TVs were turned off or were tuned in elsewhere when Tiger Woods was not a factor.

    On NBC, the effect was less dramatic. With Tiger Woods in the top five, the ratings were 3.5; with him “out of it”, the ratings were 2.2.

    Ratings on The Golf Channel are not available because ratings on The Golf Channel are about as meaningless as wondering if a homeless person has Wednesday afternoon clear on his calendar.

  26. like i said, the idea that golf is not a minor sport is a recent american idea.

    there are about 20 NCAA sports in the US, and golf is behind about 9 of them in terms of the size and quality of the competitive talent pool, the money and time invested in exercise science, and the size and scope of the national program.

    internationally, golf is just plain nowhere. most of the world does not even play competitive golf. then you add in major international sports that the US does not play, like rugby and cricket, and golf gets pushed even further down the list. boxing also pushes golf down the list.

    what phelps does in swimming is harder to do than what woods does in golf. winning the NBA MVP or MLB MVP is dramatically more difficult. at least 100 times harder than anything woods has ever done or will ever do in his golf career.

  27. Federer will likely be considered the greatest ever if he can win the French Open on clay. Unfortunately for him, Nadal’s extreme topspin type of play is almost perfectly suited for clay. Nadal may be the strongest clay player of all time.

    I think it is difficult to compare tennis and golf because tennis requires more raw athleticism and golf requires extreme precision and concentration.

    Something that might interest Steve is that at the moment Asians seem to love tennis. Attend a tennis match in Southern California and see you’ll see many Asians competing. The Japanese also have a popular tennis cartoon called “The Prince of Tennis” which from the snippets I’ve seen looks like tennis on acid.

  28. Golf has been a famous sport in the English-speaking countries for a century, in Japan for quite a few decades, in Germany, Spain, and Sweden for several decades, and in South Korea, Thailand, and China for a decade or so.

    The issue, however, is that it’s more attractive to males of age 25 up than to guys under 25. Thus, a huge fraction of retired professional athletes from the Big Four team sports spend several days per week on the golf course. So, there’s a big market for golf — that’s why golfers rank near the top of the world in endorsements. Heck, 77-year-old Arnold Palmer still makes more off endorsements than all football players other than maybe Tom Brady and Peyton Manning!

    On the other hand, because golf doesn’t attract that many young boys and because it’s so hard to get good at it, that means that the talent pool is smaller than for other sports. There are likely lots of famous athletes in other sports who could have been tour pros if they had specialized in golf from age 10 on — baseball pitchers Rick Rhoden and Greg Maddux come immediately to mind.

  29. “All the numbers in the 80s were way high because expansion really depleted the talent pool and the Soviets proved it.”

    The major expansion of the NHL started in the late 60’s, and yes, you saw a big increase in Goals scored and Point production. Esposito would be just one example of this.

    However, the goals scored per year and points attained remained pretty stable from the mid-70’s all the way until the mid-90’s.

    Yet, no player dominated like Gretzky.

    And we have so many players that remained in their prime in the late 70’s and early 80’s that would give us a good pool from which to compare. And the numbers are astounding.

    And, yes, the Soviets were amazing. And Gretzky competed against them many times.

    Each time (during his prime) he was the leading scorer. Often by an impressive amount.

    So his numbers might be inflated compared to the kind of numbers you saw in, say, the 50’s; but when compared to the competition he did see (including all those players mentioned in an earlier post, plus the Soviets) his numbers are truly mind-boggling.

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