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Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Drawing a different comparison

It's almost too easy. Tiger Woods shows up in Roger Federer's box at the U.S. Open. Roger shows up to watch Tiger in Shanghai. Roger and Tiger become friends. Tiger wins his seventh tournament in a row just as Roger wins the Australian Open.

Tiger = Roger.

Trouble is, it is too easy. If you want to draw parallels between contemporaries who dominated golf and tennis, the best comparison isn't Woods and Federer -- it's Woods and Pete Sampras.

Think about it. Woods and Sampras are closer in age (31 and 35, respectively) than Woods and Federer (31 and 25).

They project similar personalities -- detached, literal and focused. In fact, the first time I saw Tiger speak, he immediately reminded me of Sampras. Even for someone who didn't know golf, it was an inkling that he was going to be good.

They both took their sports' power to a new level, enough to prompt calls for serving restrictions in tennis and longer fairways in golf.

They won their first major almost right out of the gates, but took a couple of years to find their dominating mode. Then, with destiny-like conviction, they geared their careers toward a long-standing record that many had thought would never again be broken: total majors won. Blips in form after getting married led to speculation about loss of motivation, but both eventually contended for majors again.

Heck, even their wives look a little alike.

Federer, meanwhile, is a neoclassical player, blending old artistry with modern power. His personality is textured; his opinions nuanced and clearly expressed. It's a different vibe.

And if you want to look at social and pop culture impact, the Williams sisters might be the better equivalent.

Sampras vs. Federer
25½ Years Old
Grand Slams
Weeks, No. 1
Win pct.

Still, chronological convenience means it's Woods and Federer who've been the hot item in the last couple of weeks. In career terms, it doesn't make much difference -- the eerie symmetry between Sampras' and Federer's careers is well-known. They were born almost exactly 10 years apart, and their respective numbers at 25½ years old (Federer's current age) are remarkably similar (see chart).

But the two do diverge in one aspect of their careers. Sampras didn't want to be remembered as the nice guy, the funny guy or the colorful guy, he wanted to be the guy "with all the titles." What about Federer? "I hope I'm remembered as one of the good guys -- fair, kind of an idol to kids -- because that's what I needed to get started," he said at the Australian Open.

At this point, it looks like they'll both get their wishes. Sampras ended his career with 14 Slams, four more than Federer. Good luck figuring out how that compares to Woods' pursuit of six more majors to break golf's all-time mark of 18, set by Jack Nicklaus. It's like comparing archery and fencing.

But if it's going to be done, it might as well be done right. When it comes to what they've meant within their sport, it's Sampras that Woods should be compared with, not Federer. Don't let the recent Nike matchmaking tell you otherwise.