Alex Massie

Tiger vs Roger?

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Ah, the great Tiger Woods vs Roger Federer debate continues. Muttblog suggests most scribblers taking part in this Slam-Fest plump for Woods as, comparatively speaking, the greater of the two. He highlights this Steve Sailor post which makes some salient points.

The fact that each sport contains four majors each year allows for superficial but misleading comparisons. Take this Michael Wilbon column for instance:

Excuse me, but Roger Federer's recent stretch of dominance, impressive by any historical standard for tennis, doesn't come close to Tiger's. Winning a tennis tournament requires beating six opponents, not the field. Tiger doesn't ever have the luxury of having another opponent take out, say, Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. It's up to Tiger alone.

This isn't bad, but it misses the point. It is, in fact, possible to measure Woods against Federer in as close to a like-for-like comparison as we are likely to find. In stroke play golf Woods must defeat 127 opponents cumulatively over the course of four days, he need not be the best golfer - ie, shooting the lowest round - on any one of those days. By contrast Federer, like any tennis player, must defeat his given opponent every day.

Equally, there's very little  - though the extent to which this is true is also a tribute to his mental strength - that Woods' opponents can do to make him play worse. However Woods also knows that if any of his rivals produce the round of their lives on the opening day, he still has three rounds left in which to overhaul them. Federer, by contrast, could be out of the tournament. And remember that in both sports it's entirely possible for the 100th best player in the world to defeat the planet's best player. Asking them to do so for four conseutive days however  - or, in tennis terms, asking them to win more games or sets than Federer over the course of four matches - is a very different proposition however. In that respect, then, Woods has a margin for error denied Federer.

(On the other side of the coin: Woods has won 13 of his 52 Grand Slam tournaments, as opposed to Federer's 12 wins from 35. But that highlights the differences between golf and tennis more than anything else. As a comparison, Rafael Nadal has won 3 of 14 Grand Slams.)

So to measure how Woods matches up against Federer it's best to abandon stroke play and the Majors and look to Matchplay golf. That's where the best comparison lies, especially since in matchplay golf a player competes against his opponent, not against the course. Now even this isn't a perfect comparison since, after all, there's only one major matchplay tournament each year - the WGC World Matchplay that Woods won again this week.

Still, it's a real tournament (though with a field of 64, rather than the 128 in tennis slams) and as good a comparison as we can find. Woods is the only player to have won the title in its ten year existence, lifting the trophy on three occasions. (He was also runner-up to Darren Clarke in 2000. Davis Love III. Geoff Ogilvy are the only players, bar Woods, to have reached the final more than once). That's impressive and good indicator of the distance between Woods and his competitors.

But... it's also imperfect. Woods' Ryder Cup record of 3-1-1 is also an indicator that, in matchplay, he's not likely to match Federer's career 80% winning mark. In 2005 and 2006 Federer did even better, winning 95% of his matches. (We're dealing with small samples in Woods' matchplay career of course: a useful, even necessary, caveat.)

Of course this also is due to the differences in the two sports. Though physique and power matter in golf, they're not as important as movement and athleticism are in tennis. Equally, even in matchplay golf there is less a golfer can do to force an error than is the case in tennis. Still, as I say, it's as close a comparison as we can realistically have. But even then it only really demonstrates that golf and tennis are different sports.

None of this is to say that Tiger isn't greater than Roger, merely that these sorts of parlour games, though entertaining, are pretty pointless. why isn't it enough to just acknowledge that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of the modern game and Roger Federer  is probably the finest tennis player of them all (or, at least the finest since Rod Laver)?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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