The World’s Greatest Athletes

Barry Rothbard

There has not been a true sports “dynasty” team since the Yankees of the late ’90s and the Bulls before that. The days of dominant teams led by a plethora of stars such as the Celtics and Lakers of the past are gone in team sports. With salary caps in every sport (and the luxury tax in baseball) it is virtually impossible for a team to dominate. And, while the Patriots certainly had quite the streak, each team was significantly different from the last, and they really were not dominant teams. They simply were well coached and had two of the most clutch performers of all time. So given the dearth of an overwhelming force in team sports, two men have arisen from these ashes and claimed dominance over their respective sports: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

While Tiger Woods was winning his seventh straight PGA Tournament this weekend, Federer was winning another major (his third straight) in Australia-without losing a set. The question is: who is the most dominant athlete of our generation, Tiger or Federer? The answer: Woods. While Federer is undeniably a tremendous athlete, he has been less successful over a shorter period of time, and his competition is far inferior to Tiger’s. While Woods has had to deal with legitimate challengers from Ernie Els to Vijay Singh to Phil Mickelson, Federer’s stiffest challenges have been offered from the disappointing Andy Roddick and the still youthful Rafael Nadal. By the time Federer reached his zenith, Sampras wasn’t really around anymore and Agassi was a mere shell of his former self. Currently, there is simply no one around who is even close to as good as Federer. But this is more a reflection of the overall decline of his sport than of his skill. No, I’m not saying Federer isn’t a great athlete; he is a tremendous athlete whose inferior competition makes him look even better. Simply put, stick Federer on the court with Agassi or Sampras in their primes, and I doubt he wins, nevermind in straight sets. On the other hand, Woods has been forced to change his game to maintain his stronghold on the world of golf. With all of the new technology in golf, it is truly amazing that he has been able to accomplish what he has so far-while taking significant time off to jump off of cliffs and marry a supermodel-quality former nanny (and keep her happy). Furthermore, flashback 20 years and put Woods in a tournament with the likes of Nicklaus, Lehman and Norman, and I firmly believe that he would dominate. Woods is arguably the best athlete of all time, let alone of our generation; the same just can’t be said for Federer.

Furthermore, Woods competes against over 100 of the world’s best golfers at the same time, while Federer faces only the opponents that are in his bracket (and don’t fall victim to upsets). Now while that might be an unfair comparison, as that is out of Federer’s control, there is something more impressive about being chased by 100 of your peers than taking down one at a time. Every golfer on the PGA Tour has a bull’s-eye painted on Tiger and tries to surpass him at the exact same time, while Federer methodically takes down his opponents one at a time. Personally, I would feel a lot more pressure looking at a leader board filled with names of the world’s best before hitting a putt on the 18th hole than facing a largely unknown player in the finals of the Australian Open. Golf is a far more nerve-wracking experience (if you play, you know what I mean), and a golfer can slip from prominence at any point (see David Duval) and fade into oblivion, while tennis is generally a top-heavy sport. Tiger is the only athlete I have ever seen who can rebound from disappointment (like missing the cut in last year’s British Open after his father’s death) and topple unbelievable competition time after time while taking weeks off from tournament play during the season. Maybe a worthy opponent will challenge Federer, and he will prove he isn’t just a product of his environment, but until then or until Tiger develops the yips, I firmly believe that no athlete on this planet is as clutch, talented, fearless, and relentless as Tiger Woods.