Epic journeys to surpassing greatness

No man might have ever played tennis the way Roger Federer does. The Swiss master constantly stretches the limits of the possible, exploring new vistas in his own luminous soul. His great matches are not athletic contests; they are timeless compositions. This is why Federer is a greater athlete than Tiger Woods, the man who might end up as the greatest golfer of all time, writes Nirmal Shekar.

The very best of sport is not sport at all; for, it is only when sport breaks its often well-defined boundaries and ventures into alien territory and becomes a sort of super-sport that it is at its very best.

This is precisely why when you experience some of the greatest sporting moments, you don't often think of them as moments of mere athletic excellence but something way beyond that.

It first happened to me in July 1984. I was floating, although I couldn't have described the feeling in any clear terms at that time, a time when `I' and `Me' were lost, pushed back to the recesses of consciousness, a time when experience itself was dominated by a glorious new unity, magically encompassing everything — the experience and the experiencer, the performer and the performance, the stage and the setting, on a balmy summer afternoon at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon.

John McEnroe was playing Jimmy Connors in the final of the men's championship. That, of course, was the external reality. For, internal experience told you something else. Old Johnny Mac wasn't playing anybody; for this wasn't a match as much as it was an inspired composition with a tormented genius in communion with the truly life-enhancing creative depths of his soul.

Then, it happened to me again 15 years on, at the same place, also in early July. Pete Sampras was playing Andre Agassi in the final in 1999 and from midway in the first set to early in the third, the great man "walked on water'' as his opponent would concede.

The last time I experienced this almost indescribable feeling was quite recently, at the Australian Open last month, on a Thursday evening indoors at the Rod Laver Arena. It was an evening when Roger Federer, His Royal Lightness, danced a celestial dance on air while playing Andy Roddick in the semifinals.

"You feel like he is barely touching the ground. That's the sign of a great champion," said Rod Laver, a man who knows a thing or two about greatness, having swept the Slams in 1962 and 1969, a feat that may be beyond even the Swiss maestro.

All great athletic performers, when in flow, when they are in the zone, may come close to producing in the spectators/viewers such an exalted experience. But, few actually manage to elevate their act to a reality-altering experience as did McEnroe in 1984, Sampras in 1999 and Federer a few weeks ago.

Of course, such soul-lifting masterpieces are not limited to tennis. I remember a tournament in Sharjah in the late 1990s when Sachin Tendulkar turned a desert into a blooming paradise, so to say, playing innings after innings of such breathtaking beauty.

So, indeed, have a few other great sportspersons, not the least the enigmatic Diego Maradona in Mexico in 1986, Tiger Woods at the Augusta Masters and at the British Open, the gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the Montreal Olympics, Steffi Graf at the French Open in 1988... well, you could go on and on.

Yet, the question is this: has any athlete touched this almost otherworldly high as often as Federer does these days on the tennis circuit? Has anyone ever `walked on water' not so much as a once-in-a-lifetime, near superhuman effort but almost as a matter of habit, as does the Swiss master?

Over the last few months, there has been a lot of talk in the world of sport comparing Federer with Woods, sizing up two young men treading unique paths to surpassing greatness. Not surprisingly, both the Swiss and the American are keenly aware of where they are headed, possessed as they are of a rich sense of history. They have even met a few times, exchanged notes, patted each other on the back and remain good friends.

While Federer won his 10th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Woods stretched his unbeaten run on the PGA Tour to seven tournaments, something no man has done in 62 years. While Federer, aged 25, is well on his way to beating Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles, Woods, aged 31, is six short of Jack Nicklaus's 18.

Given their respective ages and the quality of opposition in their sports, both men can be backed to set a new benchmark.

Woods, perhaps, has a little more time than Federer, given that golf can be played and mastered at the highest levels a lot longer — Jack Nicklaus won the last of his majors, at Augusta, in 1986 when he was 46 years old — but Federer has fewer challengers pushing him than Woods.

"The only thing going for me is that I have longevity in my corner,'' Woods said recently.

But, then, Federer is so dominant in men's tennis that he may not take long to win another five Grand Slam titles, which is what he needs to leave Sampras behind.

Sampras himself has acknowledged this. "I don't see anyone pushing him, so I could see him winning 17, 18, 19 majors. He has 10 already and he is in the middle of his career. He just came along at the right time and is playing tremendous tennis and I don't see him stopping now,'' said the seven-time Wimbledon champion.

Federer is so far away from the rest that, as a competitive sport, men's tennis has become a bit of a joke except on clay where Rafael Nadal has so far dominated the Swiss great.

In ranking points, Federer (8120) is 3345 ahead of Nadal, ranked No. 2. If you took away that many points from what Nadal has (4775), you get as far down as No. 17! What is more, Federer's record against his Top Ten rivals is incredible. Nikolay Davydenko is ranked No. 3. Federer is 8-0 against him. Only Nadal has a superior record against Federer (6-3), although it is significant to note that the world champion has beaten the Spaniard the last two times they have met (Wimbledon, Shanghai Masters) and the trend may well have reversed already.

Against Andy Roddick, Federer is 13-1, against James Blake he is 6-0 and against Fernando Gonzalez, whom he beat in the Australian Open final, the world No. 1 is 10-0.

Playing a sport that is a lot different from tennis, Woods may not have run up such impressive statistics. But the gifted American is almost as dominant as Federer is, although he did miss the cut at the U.S. Open last year — the equivalent of Federer losing before the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, something that has not happened since May 2004.

This apart, Woods has had to do business in vastly different conditions from week to week. Given that golf courses can be very different from one another, and given the influence that weather conditions can have on play, Woods certainly has a harder job, although tennis too is played on different surfaces and the wind and the heat can be more than minor influences during matches.

Where Woods is ahead of Federer is in his sweep of the four majors — the Tiger Slam — a feat he accomplished in 2000-01. While the American has won every one of the four majors in golf — the Augusta Masters, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the PGA championship — at least twice, Federer is yet to win the French Open, where he was beaten in the final by Nadal last year.

But, after watching Federer's progress over the last six or seven months — a period during which he has lost just one match, to Britain's up-and-coming Andrew Murray — I believe that Federer has turned a corner. He has a better chance of winning the French Open — and beating Nadal on clay — this season than he did ever before in the past. His confidence has, predictably, reached stratospheric levels, and Nadal has not come close to beating him since the French final.

"I think he can (win the French Open) because he grew up playing on clay and he's come close the last two years,'' said Sampras during a recent teleconference to announce his return to the game, playing a few events on a tour for over-30 players. "I really believe he can win there.''

If Federer does win the French, it would be a major step towards the pinnacle after being celebrated by Laver himself as the greatest to ever wield a tennis racquet.

"That (winning the French) would be a dream come true,'' said Federer, a day after taking his 10th Grand Slam title in Melbourne.

But, to me, these — the French title, the number of Slams, weeks at No. 1 — are minor details when it comes to Federer. What matters to me is not how many titles he wins, or how often he wins, but merely how he wins matches. I spent a whole match at Melbourne recently watching his feet alone, not his racquet, not his opponent. It turned out to be a marvellous lesson. The man does dance on air, or at least he gives you the impression that he does, so light of foot he is.

If it is rather pointless and plainly illogical to compare athletes across eras, then it is even more absurd to compare athletes from different sports based on their records alone. After all, Woods hits a stationary ball and Federer one that moves, a distinction that is hugely significant. Yet, the temptation is irresistible, and even professional athletes cannot seem to resist it.

This, of course, is a case that has a lot of merit. For, no man might have ever played tennis the way Federer does. The Swiss master constantly stretches the limits of the possible, exploring new vistas in his own luminous soul. His great matches are not athletic contests; they are timeless compositions.

"You know what?'' an old friend and long-time tennis fan said — on telephone from Mumbai — the morning after the Federer masterclass that ended in a humiliating defeat for Roddick in Melbourne. "Roger is not sport, watching him is a spiritual experience.''

Although I am a well grounded naturalist and materialist, I told him he was right. I could understand why my friend should have felt the way he did. That is precisely why we human beings experience the best of music and art quite often as a sort of spiritual experience. It's a myth. But it doesn't hurt, does it?

Few will say this of Woods. We are often in awe of the great golfer, like an earlier generation of sports fans were in awe of Don Bradman. But Mozart and Van Gogh don't come to mind readily while watching Woods on the fairways and greens.

They do when Roger Federer dances his celestial dance on air.

* * * On Roger Federer

Oh, I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger. He is such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything. Roger could be the greatest tennis player of all time. It's hardly fair that one person can do all this — his backhands, his forehands, volleys, serving, his court position ... the way he moves around the court. I think the art of Roger is probably the best I've ever seen.

— Rod Laver

He's the most gifted player that I've ever seen in my life. I've seen a lot of people play. I've seen the (Rod) Lavers, I played against some of the great players — the Samprases, Beckers, Connors, Borgs, you name it. This guy could be the greatest of all time. That, to me, says it all.

— John McEnroe

We have a guy from Switzerland who is just playing the game in a way I haven't seen anyone — and I mean anyone — play before. How fortunate we are to be able to see that. If he stays healthy and motivated — and the wonderful feel he has stays with him — he is the kind of guy who can overtake the greatest.

— Boris Becker On Tiger Woods

There isn't a flaw in his golf or his makeup. He will win more majors than Arnold Palmer and me combined. Somebody is going to dust my records. It might as well be Tiger, because he's such a great kid. He has the finest, fundamentally sound golf swing I've ever seen.

— Jack Nicklaus

At the end of the day, is Tiger better than Jack, or is Jack better than Tiger? We won't know until it's all over and done with. But with the numbers he's putting up now, you have to give him (Woods) the edge.

— Greg Norman

The most impressive player that I have seen to this date, at this stage of his game, and without question with the most potential that I have ever seen — his mannerisms, his maturity, his basic fundamentals and approach to the game is Tiger Woods. He is the soundest young player that I have ever seen. The only guy I can think about that would have been close to that in youth and ability was Nicklaus. We played the other day and even Jack agreed that he didn't have the poise and the stature that Woods has right now.

— Arnold Palmer * * * Tiger Woods

Augusta Masters: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005 British Open: 2000, 2005, 2006 U.S. Open: 2000, 2002 PGA championship: 1999, 2000, 2006

* * * Roger Federer

Australian Open: 2004, 2006, 2007 Wimbledon: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 U.S. Open: 2004, 2005, 2006