While the winds of change appear to be blowing hard at tennis’s summit – as evidenced by the Federer-less Australian Open final last month – over at Mt Golf, there is not even a zephyr in the offing. It is dead calm. If anything, Tiger Woods’ stranglehold on the game is stronger than ever – bad news indeed for the thousands of pro golfers hoping he might be ready to devote more of his time to fatherhood and less to the practice range.
Woods has been world No.1 for 481 consecutive weeks now – or almost 10 years for those without a calculator – and his form over the past few months suggests he is ready to strap himself in at the helm for another 481 weeks. In terms of the complicated points system used to rank the golfers, Woods is further ahead of world No.2 Phil Mickelson than Mickelson is ahead of the player ranked No.1000, Australia’s Marcus Cain.
Following his extraordinary victory in the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday, when he spotted Ernie Els four strokes after nine holes then shot a six-under-par 31 on the back nine to win, many people are now wondering who can beat him.
Certainly, the bookies are taking no chances. With their customary generosity, they have listed him at $15 (Centrebet) and $13 (Sportingbet) to win all four major championships this year, odds that appear ludicrously short until you look at his recent form.
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After a three-month layoff, Woods has won his opening two tournaments of 2008 to extend his streak to seven wins and a second place in his past eight tournaments, stretching back to August last year. In that time (including his unofficial post-season Target World Challenge) he is a collective 130 under par, with a scoring average of 66.94. At one stage he had 18 consecutive rounds in the 60s.
Meanwhile, over at tennis’s high ground, the remarkable and redoubtable Roger Federer – ranked world No.1 for a record 210 weeks since February 2, 2004 – looks vulnerable like never before. Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old Serb, not only won the Australian Open, he did so by dismantling Federer’s game in the semi-final in a way which made the Swiss look uncharacteristically frail. Against Djokovic’s powerful ground strokes, Federer’s shots were loopy and lacked penetration.
The defeat ended Federer’s record string of Grand Slam final appearances at ten, and his 37-match winning streak in best-of-five-set matches on hard courts. His last straight-sets loss at a hard court Grand Slam tournament was six years ago, when he lost in the fourth round of the 2002 US Open to Max Mirnyi.
As it stands, the scoreboard for these two champions reads: Woods, at 32, has 13 majors (five short of Jack Nicklaus’s record); Federer, at 26, has 12 Grand Slams (two shy of Pete Sampras’s mark).
Both men will probably go on to set new marks in their respective sports, create records that last down the ages, and undoubtedly add their names to the pantheon of sporting greats. But while Woods is older and has more ground to make up on his standard bearer, all the indications are he will doing his trademark fist-pump and winning majors long after Federer has shaken hands at the net with his last opponent.
CRIKEY: Read Slate‘s great article The Tiger Woods Effect, a statistical analysis of why his unbeatability makes everyone else play worse.