Paul Thomas

Yesterday’s Heroes

Oct 3, 2015 | Sports

As that unlikely alliance of our parents and the Rolling Stones often pointed out, you can’t always get what you want.

In my 2015 wish-list (Sport, January 31), I expressed the hope that no-one would die of heat exhaustion at the Australian Tennis Open (check), the Silver Ferns would start beating Australia again (check) and we’d see the back of odious FIFA boss Sepp Blatter (check). On the downside, Floyd Mayweather beat Manny Pacquaio, Chelsea won the Premier League and neither Roger Federer nor Tiger Woods won a major tournament.

Whether because of his back problems, remodelled swing or break-up with girlfriend and champion skier Lindsey Vonn, Woods never looked like doing so, finishing 17th at the Masters and failing to make the cut at the other majors. In contrast, Federer got to the final of Wimbledon and the US Open but lost both to Novak Djokovic.

The wish was prompted by the awareness that the clock is ticking for this pair, possibly the greatest-ever exponents of their respective sports. Federer is 34 while Woods will shortly turn 40, an ominous milestone even for an athlete engaged in a sport famously described as “a good walk spoiled.”

Woods is quick to point out that Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 majors has been in his sights since the word go, won his last major at 46 but the trend line suggests this is whistling in the dark. From 2007 to 2009, Woods won 17 – including four majors - of the 39 tournaments he entered and was runner-up in seven. In late 2009 he was exposed as a relentless and indiscriminate adulterer. In 2010/11 he played 21 tournaments winning precisely none.

2012/13 were stellar years by most standards, albeit without a major: 35 tournaments played for eight victories and two seconds. The last couple of years have been disastrous by any standards: his best finish in 18 tournaments was tenth; he missed the cut in six and withdrew from three.

Woods’s future can be reduced to contending clichés: while we should never write off a champion, for him to win another major would be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

Federer’s situation is more positive and more complicated. He is still second in the official world rankings (Woods is 283rd) and remains comfortably superior to nearly all the players who stand between him and another Grand Slam victory. The problem is that for some time now he hasn’t been quite as good as the two players he usually runs into at the business end of major tournaments: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

In 2007 Federer beat both in Grand Slam tournament finals. Since then he’s met one or the other in eight major finals and lost the lot. When he has played someone other than Djokovic or Nadal in a major final, which has happened five times, he has won the lot. Another indicator of decline is that, having made 18 out of 19 major finals in a stretch beginning in 2005, Federer has reached the final in just six of his last 24 Grand Slam events.

Two studies in decline: one athlete remains a giant but is having to settle for being second best; the other is in danger of becoming an object of pity. Federer’s position seems far preferable but you can’t help wondering whether, for someone who once dominated his sport, close but no cigar is much more palatable than not getting within a bull’s roar.

That said, I don’t imagine Woods consoles himself with the thought that a miss is as good as a mile.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.