Tiger vs. Federer: By the Numbers

Genius can take many forms in our world. It might be classic and time-honored, like the masterpieces of Beethoven or Michelangelo. It might speak more to the vernacular, like the expertly-crafted writing of "The Office." Heck, it might even be Digger Phelps, a man who spent Saturday raving about Ohio State freshman Greg Odom, developing his coordinating-tie-and-highlighter shtick to distract from his criminally poor analysis.

But genius can tease any of us for a fleeting second. The true masters of any craft in this world are those who can channel genius at a whim, as if he or she were simply grabbing a few ice cubes out of the freezer.

Two such masters are dominating the sports world today in ways that, perhaps, no one has before. Roger Federer, fresh off an Australian Open in which he did not drop a set, and Tiger Woods, riding the crest of win number seven in his PGA Tour win-streak, stand at the summits of their sport's landscapes, having reached heights unimaginable to most. And without even a respectable David — be it Nalbandian or Toms — on the horizon to challenge either Goliath, it seems only fitting to pit them against each other.

Obviously, the toughest question is how do we cross the boundary between two very different sports? For starters, Federer faces a handful of competitors one at a time, while Woods simultaneously goes toe-to-toe with scores of the world's best players every weekend. However, the two seemingly distinct formats do maintain a common bottom line: winning.

Ultimately, sports are about one thing and one thing only. Triple doubles, strikeouts, and pancake blocks are all a means to an end. So to find a uniform measuring stick to assess these maestros, we needn't look any further than wins and losses (and ties). Sure, both Federer and Woods provide elements of style as they undress their foes. But at its heart, the substance of their greatness boils down to their abilities to win so frequently. And the purest stat for measuring the ability to win is — you guessed it — winning percentage.

Before delving into the numbers, a few considerations are worth noting. By all accounts, both men had superb years in 2006. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, we'll narrow the question to which man had a better 2006, Federer or Woods?

Secondly, we have to decide which wins count for each. Tennis players and golfers are, perhaps not unlike the rest of us, famously willing to work off the beaten path in the name of the U.S. dollar, the euro, or whatever the heck they use in Dubai (where, not surprisingly, both of our heroes of genius made trips in 2006). Therefore, to establish some standard of quality, we will only consider ATP sanctioned events for Federer (apologies to the Kooyong tournament) and PGA events (and the Masters) for Woods. This excludes Davis Cup and Ryder Cup matches from their records, perhaps unfairly, but our focus is what these guys do on a week-in-week-out basis on their tours.

With that in mind, Federer's 2006 is fairly accurately depicted by his gaudy won-loss record of 90-5, or a winning percentage of 94.7 percent. That is, Federer beat his head-to-head competition 94.7 percent of the time.

Capturing Woods' 2006 by the numbers takes a little more work. The core of what we want to know is, how did Woods do head-to-head against his competition through the year? While, other than a 2-1 showing in the WGC Match Play event, Woods did not literally take on individual opponents, he did play the same courses on the same days. With this in mind, we can work out a won-loss record based on each tournament.

For example, in the 2006 Masters, Woods finished tied for third out of a total of 86 players who finished the tournament (either by being cut after two rounds or completing four; this excludes those who withdrew, and it's worth noting none of Federer's wins came through a withdrawal). Therefore, in the Masters he earned two losses (two players had better scores), four ties (four players shot exactly the same score as he did), and 79 wins (79 players had worse scores), for a won-loss percentage of 97.5 percent. Using that same formula, in the 15 events that qualify, Woods posted a record of 1545-125-26, or a won-loss percentage of 92.5 percent.

So, by this admittedly simple measure of how both masters performed in 2006, Federer was a hair more dominant. Of course, of the 125 players who beat Woods in a tournament, 81 of those scores came at the U.S. Open, which was Woods' first tournament after the death of his father. If we give Woods a (groan) mulligan for that tournament, his won-loss percentage soars to 97.1 percent.

If nothing other than confirming the obvious — Woods and Federer have been great — hopefully this model establishes just how good Federer has been. His 2006 winning percentage was nearly 10 percent better than 2006's clear-cut No. 2 player, Rafael Nadal (85.1 percent). To put it in terms that non-tennis fans may appreciate better, the Phoenix Suns, on their current run of 33-2 in their last 35 games, are "only" winning at a 94.3 percent clip, or 0.4 shy of Federer's performance for all of 2006. Note that while Federer's winning percentage represents every sanctioned match from last year, that number for the Suns omits their 3-5 start to this season. In other words, as good as the Suns have been for the past 35 games, Federer was slightly better for every minute of 2006.

These sorts of analyses are, by nature, extremely unfair. As is the case when trying to sort through the best of the best in any genre, trying to decide which once-in-a-lifetime performer is better means searching for some microscopic flaw in a jewel of the sports world. Perhaps, as these numbers would indicate, Federer's 2006 was better than Woods'. But as a new year unfolds and each continues to plant his flag at higher and higher altitudes, it seems somewhat pointless to try to determine which artist paints the more genius portrait. No adjective adequately establishes how far apart each is from the rest of his sport. The greatest complement a master of his craft can receive is how easy he makes it look. If only genius were so easy for the rest of us mere mortals.

Comments and Conversation

February 3, 2007


Slight error here: Federer’s 2006 record was 92-5, not 90-5. while there is little difference as far as percentage goes, it’s embarrassing to see such a mistake in an article with just the title “by the numbers”. By the way, Federer’s 2005 record was even above 95%. I leave it to you to find out how much above.

February 5, 2007


“Genius can take many forms in our world. It might be classic and time-honored, like the masterpieces of Beethoven or Michelangelo. It might speak more to the vernacular, like the expertly-crafted writing of “The Office.” “

Office and Michelangelo/Beethoven? Are you out of your mind? How can you put the two together in the same sentence and call them a genius?

February 5, 2007

Corrie Trouw:

In response to the above comments:

First, to respond to Tommy, my source (rogerfederer.com) explicitly states that Federer’s record in 2006 was 90-5, as I wrote. However, at sports-central.org, we won’t just take baseless claims from world-class athletes, such as these, at face value. So, again using the player’s own website, I counted every singles match Federer played in 2006 (and invite you to do so, too), and came up with a total of 94-6. As I allude to in the column, Federer played in the Kooyong exhibition before the Aussie, where he won twice before losing to Tommy Haas. (Perhaps our stat-tracking poster named Tommy is Mr. Haas, simply trying to get this fact mentioned.) Federer also lists his two Davis Cup singles wins, but like me, does not count them toward his singles record. So, despite the claims of Tommy’s post, I stand behind the numbers I have used in this column. Besides, Federer doesn’t exactly need people digging up extra wins for him.

As for the post from Anon, I intentionally invoked examples of genius that seem utterly at odds (though I’m highly disturbed you took umbrage with my reference to “The Office” while you didn’t take any offense to my use of Beethoven and Digger Phelps in the same breath). My point is simply that genius isn’t some brittle piece of archaic art. It can have many faces, and as an avid fan and weekend hacker in both tennis and golf, I think the consistent mastery that Woods and Federer demonstrate without fail is nothing short of genius. And more to your point, I think in an age of canned, boiler-plate entertainment, the risks and nuances “The Office” routinely pulls off are equally genius. Like most American males 18-35, I consume quite a bit of TV, but rarely do I feel like most shows do anything but follow tired, linear paths. I will now wait for NBC to contact this site’s webmaster for my mailing address so I can accept my fee. (We now return you to the wonderful sports-oriented content of this website… Bob Ekstrom’s column on the Celtics is definitely worth your time.)

February 6, 2007


I listened to this argument on the radio the other week. On Opie and Anthony, okay maybe not the best place for my information but what ever. The guy on the radio show was saying how a sport has to have defense for it to be considered a sport. Therefor making golf not a sport because there is no human defense in the game. This would make this argument not happening because Tiger Woods does not play a sport. Roger on the other hand has an opponent who is playing 100% against him. Making Fedder the better athlete. Not taking anything away from golf it is a extremely hard activity to play and become good in. Tiger is a great golfer, it takes much skill to become as good as he has and to be so dominant in what he does day in and day out. I understand that this is just one way to look at it but i have decided to agree with this, no human defense, no spot in my book.

February 26, 2007

jim bob:

You have to play defense in golf. Especially Majors.

March 6, 2007


“No Human Defense - Not a Sport”

If we were to abide by this defenition, we would then have to exclude a lot of activities from being a sport, such as:

Swimming, cycling, most, if not all track and field events, figure skating, weightlifting, skiing, diving, bowling, among others.

Might as well cancel the next Olympic Games (summer and winter).

“Tiger Woods does not play a sport. Roger on the other hand has an opponent who is playing 100% against him. Making Fedder the better athlete”

Arguing along the same lines, this would make Roger Federer a better athlete than Lance Armstrong, Mark Spitz, Bruce Jenner and Carl Lewis, to mention a few, simply because none of those mentioned were engaged in what is considered to be a “sport”

Doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

I can’t see how Bobby Fischer (chess player) would now be considered to a be a better athlete than Sergei Bubka (pole vaulter).

I however, do remain open to being enlightened.

July 7, 2007


“an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc. “

so golf is a sport even though it has no human defence in it

but in my opion Roger Federer is the better because he has to constently be fit to be top of his game whereas Tiger Woods could become fat and still win

September 9, 2007


Not only is Golf a sport, it is the hardest sport on the planet. No question. From mental toughness to athletic ability. With those two combined no other sport is close. Therefore Tiger has done what no one else may ever do in any sport ever again. And is by far the best athelete ever, with Michael Jordan and Roger Federer in a distant second.
Keith, golf not a sport. Grow up.

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