Commentary

Federer, Woods enjoy friendly rivalry

Updated: September 24, 2009, 2:48 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

The familiar voice of Tiger Woods winds along smoothly underneath flashing images of a champion's evolution. But this slick 2007 Nike commercial is not about the world's greatest golfer.

It's the biography of Roger Federer, Woods' tennis counterpart.

"He's definitely the man to beat," Tiger intones, earnestly. "This man is Roger Federer. He's won 10 majors and counting."

Then Woods, looking up from a putt, says, "But my name is Tiger Woods. I have 12 majors and counting. So keep up, buddy."

As it turned out, Federer also reached the finals of the season's last three Grand Slam events and won two of them, the French Open and Wimbledon. He was within two points of beating 20-year-old Argentine Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open, but surprisingly fell in five sets.

Still, Federer now leads Woods 15-14 in majors after Woods went 0-for-4.

Asked earlier this year at Wimbledon what he had in common with Woods, Federer said, "Success, I guess. Our mindset, our approach. We're driven. We try to dominate."

They don't just try. They do it. Of all the world's great athletes, they might be the only ones who can call each other a true peer.

Federer took the career Slams record from Pete Sampras, whom he passed at Wimbledon this year and leads by that identical 15-14 mark. Woods needs to win five more majors to surpass Jack Nicklaus' total of 18.

On Sept. 13, Woods won the BMW Championship at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club by 8 strokes to take the lead in the FedEx Cup standings with one event to play. Afterward, he was asked about Federer.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesTiger Woods won the BMW Championship a day before Roger Federer missed his 16th Grand Slam title.

"Is he playing right now?" Woods asked, fully aware that Federer, like himself, does his most important work on Sundays.

Indeed, Federer was in the process of defeating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

Although their relationship is seen by some cynics as convenient, enabled by the Nike apparel behemoth and overstated, they are in fact friends. A major sporting publication recently questioned the depth of their relationship, but people who know them say the connection is genuine.

Woods actually calls Federer "Fed" to his face.

Given their ambitious global schedules, who they are and where they live, it's difficult to find common time and space. So they do what everyone under 35 does: They text -- almost every day, according to both -- connected by their BlackBerrys.

"Our text messages are pretty funny," Woods said after winning the BMW. "We do needle each other pretty good. But also, a lot of support. He's one of the first ones to always congratulate me and vice versa.

"Wherever I'm playing in the world, he's always following what I'm doing and I'm following what he's doing."

Woods and Federer are perhaps the best athletes ever to play their respective individual sports. Woods, at 33, is five years older and is a native Californian. Federer, from Switzerland, speaks a handful of languages.

Woods has been known to rearrange his practice schedule and tee times to watch Roger play. In late spring, he was preparing for what turned out to be his winning final round at the Memorial when Federer was attempting to complete his career Grand Slam in Paris.

"I was as nervous as can be for him," Woods said. "I was yelling at the TV, the whole deal."

Tony Godsick, of the International Management Group, is Federer's agent:

"What the friendship does," Godsick said, "is put two unbelievable superstars into the same conversation. I think that's great for both sports -- and something for fans to talk about."

A different challenge

Federer, as he was pursuing Sampras' record for Grand Slam singles titles, reached out to the former champion and, over time, they have grown friendly.

The catalyst for the relationship with Woods was not Nike but the golfer himself.

His agent, Mark Steinberg, contacted the Federer camp, saying he wanted to attend the 2006 U.S. Open, where Federer was trying to win his third straight title. Shortly before the final, they spoke for the first time in the locker room, and Federer acknowledged Woods in the stands during the match.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer & Tiger Woods
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesA burgeoning friendship has reached the point of daily text messages for Federer and Woods.

"It all started and stemmed from playing individual sport," Woods explained. "Granted, I have a great friendship with Michael [Jordan], but he played a team sport. It's so much different than an individual sport when you're out there by yourself all the time, the difficulty.

"It's a different difficulty and a different challenge, and that's something that Roger and I, we connected on."

When Federer won the 2007 Australian Open, Woods sent along a major update by text, "12 to 10."

In March 2007, Federer accompanied Woods on the back nine of a practice round at the World Golf Championships in Doral, Fla. The night before, they had dinner on Woods' 155-foot tri-deck motor yacht. Federer was playing a few days later at the tournament in Miami.

"I think it's pretty neat when you have probably the most dominant athlete on the planet out there in your gallery," Woods said.

Woods returned the favor at the March 2008 exhibition between Federer and Sampras at Madison Square Garden. Woods sat in the front row, next to his wife, Elin, along with Federer's soon-to-be wife, Mirka, and Federer's parents. At one point, Sampras gave Wood his racket.

"Mirka and myself and Roger and Elin, we've all become pretty close," Woods said. "If we do talk about our sports, it's more in the sense, how we prepare, what he does, all of his training that he does off the court and what I do off the course to get ready," Woods explained. "Just a number of wind sprints and miles we both log and our lifting schedules, how long and what type of lifting do we do.

"It's obviously very sport-driven, but also very similar at the same time."

Does Federer play golf?

"Yeah," Woods said. "He played for a number of years and then got a rib injury for a while and he thought it was caused by golf, so he quit playing golf for a little bit and that's when his tennis took off. But he's playing a little more now, really enjoying it."

When Federer passed Sampras and Woods with his 15th major title, prevailing over Andy Roddick in an astonishing 16-14 fifth set at the All England Club, Woods texted: "Great job. Now it's my turn."

Woods was in position at Hazeltine National in mid-August but was beaten on the last hole by unknown Y.E. Yang.

"Roger, when Tiger wins, doesn't get angry," Godsick said. "Same with Tiger. It's a competition, but they're happy for each other."

Peer support

Federer and Woods are ranked No. 1 in their respective sports, but last year they were visited by injury and uncharacteristic bouts of frustration.

Woods was limping when he won the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff over Rocco Mediate and was forced to take the rest of the year off after surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

The combination of a debilitating bout of mononucleosis and a back injury reduced Federer's effectiveness. In Miami, when he smashed his racket in a loss to Djokovic, it was a window to his deep frustration and, perhaps, doubt.

According to people around them, Federer and Woods helped each other through their down times.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesRoger Federer and Tiger Woods can relate to each other's successes -- and frustrations.

"Absolutely," said an observer who knows them both. "Tiger really helped Roger when he was going through a little slump. If you went up to Roger and said, 'Hey, you can do this. Work your tail off,' it's not going to do anything. But if it's someone of Tiger's stature, and he knows what it's like to struggle, who does it, well, it's different."

Inevitably, the question arises: Who is greater within his sport? Since breaking through at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has won 15 of the 26 majors played -- an incredible .577 winning percentage. Tiger, beginning with his 12-stroke victory in the 1997 Masters, is 14-for-52 (.269).

Although Federer has been more dominant in a narrower time frame, his demanding sport leaves him little choice. When he leaves in, say, three or four years, Woods still will have a number of productive years ahead.

"When you talk about tennis," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said, "the window is so much smaller to achieve than golf that it makes it impossible to compare the two."

Tennis presents a living, breathing opponent whose goal is to work you into a position of submission. Golf pits athletes against nature, all its atmospheric conditions -- and themselves.

Said Woods, "Tennis is in the sense that if you're physically dominant, you can dominate somebody. In our sport, you can't physically dictate what somebody else is going to do. You can't all of a sudden hit a drive out there past him and say, 'OK, I win the hole.' That doesn't happen.

"So a person who actually is more physically gifted and physically dominant can actually just overpower somebody [in tennis], and that just does not happen in our sport. So it's a little bit more difficult in that sense, golfwise. But what he's done, you know, over the last three years, no one's ever done."

In one sense, though, tennis and golf are a similar intellectual enterprise. Both Federer and Woods are artists when it comes to carving shots with their weapons of choice. On Sunday, within hours of each other, two shots underlined this with breathtaking clarity:

Behind a tree after he blocked his tee shot on the 585-yard ninth hole at Cog Hill, Woods hooked a 3-iron from 116 yards away and sent a running chip to within 14 feet of the hole. He made birdie when most humans would have bogeyed.

Meanwhile, at the National Tennis Center, Federer hit what he called the best shot of his life. It was a between-the-legs answer to a lob from Djokovic, who watched it sail past him for a winner. It was spectacular -- maybe unprecedented -- in its pace, accuracy and degree of difficulty.

After they had both won their contests, Woods was asked whether theirs was a friendly, but bantering rivalry.

"Of course, of course," Woods said. "That's the fun part. He gives me a lot of grief and I give him a lot of grief, but also, we have an understanding and a great friendship that's built upon -- first of all, it was understanding what it took to get to that point."

Given that Federer has taken the lead from Woods this year, there is undoubtedly some more smack talk coming from the Swiss champion.

Probably something along the lines of: So keep up, buddy.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.