golf Tennis

Tiger and Fed: The Rivalry that Never Was

Back in 2006, Nike ran an ad campaign playfully setting Roger Federer against Tiger Woods in a race for major titles, but the rivalry never lived up to its billing.

By Rohit Sudarshan

Roger Federer won the Miami Open on April 2nd to earn his third career “Sunshine Double,” also known as winning Indian Wells and the Miami Open in the same year. It was Federer’s first “Double” since 2006. It was also his third big tournament win in three months. The 35-year-old tennis icon, who took five months off last year to rest a surgically repaired knee, has dominated the 2017 season so far with a 19-1 record.

So, naturally, as a Federer fan and tennis enthusiast, I spent the past week watching old footage of Fed from 2006 to mark the evolution of his game. And one particular highlight from the U.S. Open Final in 2006 caught my attention, less to do with Federer’s play, but for a famous attendee: Tiger Woods.

On that day in early September, Tiger sat in a front row spectator box with Federer’s wife and coaching team, the first time he’d attended the event. Commentator Mary Carillo jokingly remarked on air that she hoped Tiger wouldn’t assume tennis is as easy as Federer made it look as he nabbed his 9th major.

Federer and Woods, the two clear leaders of their respective sports at the time, met briefly in the locker room before the final. They shared champagne after Federer’s win. Woods, fresh off winning his 12th major, even had the playful audacity to tell Federer he needed to improve his backhand if he wanted to reach the highest level.

This reminded me of the ad above by Nike. A charming 1-minute spot narrated by Woods that played with the idea of whether Federer would ever catch Woods’ majors mark, as Woods himself chased Jack Nicklaus’ record 18. Tiger was the more seasoned veteran, 6 years older than the Swiss, with more majors and more weeks spent at number 1. That commercial continued a series of TV moments for Woods, all of which are fondly remembered by Gen Y folks such as myself.

His breakout commercial for the swoosh was one of my first memories as a grade schooler, as it became cool and expected for kids of all races and gender to say with pride “I am Tiger Woods.” By 2006, however, he was no longer a scrawny, baby-faced 21-year old. He was golf’s undisputed master, among the most iconic athletes of his time.

Perhaps the “relationship” between Tiger and Fed was a bit manufactured by Nike, but a majors race certainly sounded like fun. And now it feels impossibly long ago. Federer has since gone on to win eight more majors, putting him–instead of Tiger–on the precipice of breaking Nicklaus’ majors record. That supposedly weak backhand that Woods lightly critiqued has been reinvented, and has given Federer new life at the age of 35.

Woods, who looked well on his way to winning between 20-30 majors in the mid-2000s, has been stuck on 14 since 2008, when he won the U.S. Open in an iconic playoff, overcoming an ailing left knee that would end up requiring surgery. After an extended period away from the game, following revelations of extra-marital affairs, Tiger would fight hard to return to number 1, if only briefly. Back surgery and ensuing ailments sent Woods into a tailspin that has seen him fall outside the top 500, and miss the last 5 majors.

The nostalgia one might feel of Federer in his hey day is much different than what one might feel of Tiger now. This was particularly acute as the Masters at Augusta National played out this past week. What could have been a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Woods’ first major triumph, became the second straight year that Tiger missed the event.

An abundance now of young, talented golfers seems to indicate that the game itself will survive Tiger’s absence, if not necessarily the ratings. This influx of young golfers may actually be a direct result of Tiger’s influence, so his absence remains conspicuous in the game. When Nicklaus and Gary Player paid tribute to departed legend Arnold Palmer during the Masters’ commemorative opening tee shot, Tiger was not in attendance.

In 2006, Federer once said that Woods, “knew exactly how I felt out on the court, and that’s something that I haven’t encountered before.”

That is probably no longer true. The potential for another noteworthy Tiger-Federer meetup is probably impossible, especially given the pair’s more distant relationship since Tiger’s divorce from Elin Nordegren in 2010.

Could they even relate if they did? Both have shared left knee and back injuries, and both have had extended periods of time without winning a major, but while Federer went slamless from 2012-2016, he was generally healthy enough to compete.

Tiger’s poor luck with injuries has kept him from a proper return in recent years, but at this point, what is holding him back could just as well be mental. Woods is 41, which is hardly over-the-hill for golf. Nicklaus won his last major at 46.

Federer seemed to be over-the-hill going into 2017, but he’s blown up that notion so far this year. Being in your thirties is no longer retirement age for tennis players, but if Fed finishes the year at no. 1, he’ll be the oldest male player to ever do it.

On a career time-line, there still might be time for Tiger to catch Nicklaus, given a miraculous turnaround, but any rivalry with Federer, whether fabricated or otherwise, has long since derailed. So much so that it would seem cruel now for Fed to say to Woods, “keep up.”

Featured image originally from Getty Images.

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