I’ve done this before, mind you. Athletes who dominate a sport must eventually, inevitably come back from the zenith of their flight through the record books and back to the earth that is the provenance of the everyman. But picking that date of expiration is such a volatile and finicky pseudo-science that every attempt carries the potential of immolation.
This week put things into stark perspective. Black Thursday began with Roger Federer bombing out of the Italian Open in the third round. After taking the first set 6-4 from journeyman Frenchman (and former Wimbledon semifinalist) Richard Gasquet, it appeared that this was just another day at the office for the Swiss superstar. But then Gasquet stayed in the match, forcing a tiebreak in the second set and forcing a decisive third. Forcing another tiebreak, Gasquet prevailed 4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(4) and knocked Federer down another rung in points behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who will square off for the final in Rome after playing last week against one another for the championship in Madrid.
Later in the day, Tiger Woods had a mockery of a front nine at the Players Championship, finishing six-over at the turn and pulling out with pain in his lower leg. Just his second tournament of the year after the Masters, Woods’ lack of match fitness and even training sharpness was all too apparent as he — and who ever thought they’d use this word with Woods?! — hacked his way around TPC Sawgrass.
Tiger is experiencing something familiar to what Roger Federer has this season. The field is simply catching up, and even the most dominant player in a generation cannot be expected to emerge victorious EVERY time. But because both Woods and Federer dominated their respective sports so thouroughly for several years, the casual media tries to view their presence at a tournament as a sign of inevitable victory. As the media perceives a team’s or a player’s superiority, that player or collection of players begin to allow the thought to creep into their mind. Complacency sets in, and the field gains an advantage it previously lacked…
So it might have been a little premature when I tapped out those words three years ago, but the sunset is drawing on the careers of these two titans of the country-club sports after they dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century in golf and tennis. Even then they were inextricably linked, destined to be interlinked in the history books of sport. Even back then, though, Woods was starting to face his myriad injury problems that have been far more detrimental to his golf game than the dissolution of his private life; he had just had his third reconstructive surgery on his left knee when I wrote that early edition of the column. Since that point he has won just one more major, the legendary 2008 U.S. Open that he gutted out on one leg, shutting down afterward for a fourth surgery on that very same knee.
We’ve seen those same problems manifest themselves yet again this season, as inactivity has compounded the injuries that have weakened his knee and left his game in shambles. Marital infidelity has made spending time with his children a higher priority in his life, but practice — that drive to be doing anything with a golf club that separated him from so many of the other players — has become a tertiary concern. He’s a 35-year-old man with knees that have accumulated far more miles than men twice his age. The family story spices up the human interest in the literature, but the cold reality is that his body simply cannot sustain the continued abuse of the way he plays the game.
He proved this week that whatever he is doing, it is not working. At the Players Championship it was readily apparent that the sand in the hourglass is heavier on the bottom half of the glass, as he struggled through a front nine only to abandon the tournament with more leg problems. (Though it is also telling that witnesses tell of him hopping stairs two at a time soon afterward.) Unless he finds a way to strike a healthy balance between his personal and professional lives and alter his game to protect his body he cannot prosper. Unless he rediscovers a waning love of the game, of training, and of regular competition he is going to remain stalled in his quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ majors record.
But what about Federer? He has a happy marriage and an idyllic balance in his life, so that surely can’t be responsible for the decline in production he’s felt over the past year. He’s still the third-best player in the game… but for a guy who has held the top spot in the world rankings for 285 weeks in a dominant career, just one fewer than Pete Sampras, being third-best is alien territory. Like Woods time is simply beginning to leave him in the rearview mirror, and while there are no outward physical signs of deterioration as there are with his golfing counterpart Federer is no longer the only player who can outmuscle and outthink his opponents.
The only goal left to Federer is that chase for two more weeks, just two, in the #1 spot in the world rankings. He’s already amassed enough Grand Slam titles to pass Sampras, and now the only record left for the Swissman to surpass has proven that vexing ATP mark. It is the one all-time credential lacking from his accolades. And as time passes it becomes that much more difficult to take out the youngsters that have already surpassed him and the ones hot on his tail.
By no means is the end in sight for either man, not in terms of their actual retirement. Both will continue to surge onward, battling for tournament victories and their ever-elusive goals. Woods still has the potential to win another major or two, though as the years advance it looks less likely that he will reach that golden mark that the Golden Bear set. Federer is still dangerous in any tournament he plays, the vagaries of tennis draws making it almost inevitable that he will extend his record Grand Slam titles mark at least one or two higher. But on a consistent basis they are closer to the nadir than the zenith of their career arcs, as the next generation takes up the mantle in the onward surge of history.
In golf you don’t see an opponent on the opposite side of the net; for Tiger it is not so much a matter of battling the other players that are overtaking him so much as finding his own comfort zone. For Federer the view of the Visigoths on his doorstep is much clearer, though semifinal appearances against Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic are now occasions to play the underdog role instead of the favorite.
History has already chiseled out a place for these two titans in its annals, their contributions to and achievements within their sports cemented for time immortal. But I’ve said I intend to risk foolishness, and I intend to follow through. It is time to face the sad but true realities.
The ATP record for weeks at the top is always going to be just out of reach for Federer. With two players either into (Nadal) or just hitting (Djokovic) their primes, it is nigh impossible that both will fall off the radar long enough to cede the ground necessary for Federer to rise back to the top of his game. And more players are rising up through the ranks, more hard-hitting and technically sound landmines waiting in every labyrinthine path through the brackets set up around the globe.
Woods has simply broken down his body too much, and seen a generation of emulators take away the advantages that once made him such a threat in the biggest situations, to consider him a legitimate contender for majors at this point. Sure, if he plays and plays well as long as Nicklaus did, he might manage to poach Augusta and the other three majors one last time. Jack did manage such a feat from the point in his career when he was Woods’ current age. But Tiger can’t count on a magical back nine at Augusta like Nicklaus pulled off in 1986 at age 46, and merely tying the record beard tenuous odds.
Mediocrity at sideshow stops have illuminated the mortality of these athletes. History is theirs already, but it is no longer on their side…