While most of the country soaked themselves in football on opening Sunday of the ’07 NFL season, two perfectionists offered virtuoso performances in their respective sports to capture important championships. Roger Federer disposed of pesky Novak Djokovic in straight sets to win the U.S. Open title this afternoon, while Tiger Woods fired a final round 63 (-8) to win the BMW Championship and move into the lead in the PGA Tour’s “playoffs” – aka, the FedEx Cup.
These two men winning on Sunday isn’t anything new. Federer’s victory today was his 4th straight U.S. Open crown – a record in the modern Open era – and gives him 12 career major titles, just two shy of tying Pete Sampras’ all-time mark of 14. Federer will obliterate that mark as early as 2008 and if he can ever figure out how to get past Rafael Nadal at the French Open, he’s an odds-on favorite to produce at least one single-season grand slam in his career.
Woods, meanwhile, started the day one shot off the lead but produced some of the best shots of his career – if that’s even possible given all the magnificence we’ve seen from him since 1996 – and raced into the lead on the back nine and never looked back. Tiger has the best of both worlds – he knows just how to “play safe” when he has the lead and yet, he also has the uncanny knack for stepping on his opponent’s throats when he feels they might be gaining momentum. No human being – ever – has played better when ahead than Tiger Woods.
In a day and age when athletes in virtually every sport are tiptoeing their way through a legal hassle, whether it’s charges for guns, dope, dogs or domestic violence, Woods and Federer epitomize how sportsman at the top of their game SHOULD behave. Daniel Cabrera’s bush-league episode on Friday night is a perfect on-field example of why guys who lose their composure can’t be champions. Woods and Federer don’t lose their composure. And when they do display a rare sign of anger, it generally serves to motivate them to accomplish bigger and better things. Woods was very displeased with his putting last week when he lost to Phil Mickelson in Boston. So what did he do? He said he practiced 10-foot putts all day Tuesday – in the searing sun of Chicago – and at one point made 39 of them in a row. Any of you play golf? Go march off a 10-footer at your course tomorrow and see how many in a row you sink. And this week, almost on cue from the golf gods, Woods was 13 for 15 on putts from within 10 feet. Last week he couldn’t buy a 10-footer. This week, 13 of 15. No anger. No lack of composure. Just more practice. That’s why Woods is the greatest golfer ever.
As for Federer, he’s actually probably more dominating than Woods, if that’s humanly possible. Federer is the owner of every shot in tennis. And it’s one thing to OWN them – it’s another to use them, use them wisely and be able to hit the shot under the gun with 30,000 people watching in the stadium and another couple of million watching on TV. One point in the final game of the championship stands out on the Sunday Federer-highlight film. Up 15-0 (and down 5-4 in games), Djokovic hit a nifty little backhand drop shot (talk about hitting a shot under the gun – that was amazing), but Federer somehow got to it and snapped an apparent winner cross court. But Djokovic got to it and zipped what looked to be a winner to Federer’s backhand side, but the champ left his feet and hit a backhand over his head that grazed the line as it bounded in for a crucial point. If you saw the point on TV like I did, you know PRECISELY what I’m talking about when I say, “it’s one thing to OWN the shot, it’s another thing to HIT the shot when it matters.” That was a point that 90% of professional tennis players would have lost. Not Federer.
I don’t have the experience in tennis to know and feel what kind of joy Roger Federer must be feeling right now after winning his 4th straight U.S. Open. I’ve never hit a tennis shot that mattered in my life. I played tennis a lot in my early 20’s and I was decent enough to bat the ball around with some friends who were pretty good, but I never even considered playing in any kind of amateur tennis tournament. But I have played high-level tournament golf. And I have some sense of what Woods faces when he has a 183-yard shot to a front left pin – with the win blowing off of his left shoulder, making any shot taken at that flag extra difficult because you’re trying to bring a ball in from the right while the wind is taking it away from the pin. On 17 today, Woods faced that exact situation and calmly roped a 7-iron in there with a hard draw that actually BEAT the wind…and the ball finished up 7-feet from the flag. It’s one thing for Tiger (or even me) to hit that shot at Mountain Branch on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s another thing to hit that shot when Aaron Baddeley and Steve Stricker are breathing down your neck just aching for you to make one little mistake so they can get back in the golf tournament.
The best part about Woods and Federer? They’re ultra-professional. Highly driven? Absolutely. But when the sun sets on another Sunday afternoon, they win because they outwork, outthink and out “professional” everyone else. They’re exceptional role models for kids, because they win the right way. They have both climbed to the top of the sports world and they’ve done it by not sacrificing any of their personal beliefs.
On a weekend that featured stories about baseball players getting steroids shipped to their homes, a bush-league beaning attempt by one of our pitchers in Baltimore, and grandstanding and showboating in the NFL after a simple tackle or a 7-yard gain, it was a pleasure to watch two guys do it the right way.
It seems like athletes these days are losing their ability to win “the right way”.
Thankfully, for any of us who watch them, Woods and Federer are doing enough of it to make up for everyone else.