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Kobe. Tiger. Federer. Their Greatest Pursuit Is the Pursuit of Greatness

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By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

LOS ANGELES

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Roger Federer's real opponent wasn't with him on the red clay of Roland Garros on Sunday. Tiger Woods's primary opponent wasn't anywhere on the Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. And while Kobe Bryant could never afford to say such a thing publicly, he's playing something a lot larger than the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

In fact, they all are. They're involved in the greatest chases of all.

They're chasing history, either in the form of numbers or ghosts. When Bryant says, as he did last week, "I want to win so badly" he's talking about this season's NBA championship, yes. But there's also the matter of tying Shaquille O'Neal with a fourth title, of maybe getting to five to tie Magic Johnson, and setting his sights on Michael Jordan -- all of whom for now still rank ahead of Bryant in the all-time basketball pecking order. Kobe has even taken on, consciously I presume, this completely unnecessary but clearly symbolic scowl this postseason that speaks to the degree of his rage in this pursuit.

Federer has fewer people ahead of him than Kobe does. Sunday's French Open title, Federer's first, gives him 14 Grand Slam singles titles, tying him with Pete Sampras. Officially, Sampras and Federer share first place, just the two of them. But the record book lies. Rod Laver is ahead of both.

Laver, the Aussie who twice won all four Grand Slam titles (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) in one season, has 11 Slam titles overall. But he also lost four years in the prime of his career to the time before the Open era began, in 1968. Laver, unquestionably, was the best tennis player ever and would have won, in those lost seasons, eight or nine more Slams. A grand total of 20 is what folks who watched him believe he'd have won. So the question of "Is Federer the best ever?" ignores, as usual these days, anything and everything that happened before the "SportsCenter" era, as if those careers simply didn't happen or weren't good enough because we can't see them in a continuous loop at 11 p.m.

So, Federer has indeed caught Sampras and has earned the tiebreaker by winning the French, which Sampras never did. And while there's no number attached to Laver, Federer needs to keep on going. Most 28-year-old sports fans have never heard of Laver, but Federer has, and he surely knows he's got some work to catch Rocket Rod. The best news of all, after he seemed to be eclipsed by Rafael Nadal this time last spring, is that Federer is young enough, motivated enough and great enough to win a couple of more Slam titles this summer, starting with Wimbledon, which Nadal might miss with a knee injury.

The person whose quest is easiest to define, without question, is Woods's. There's one objective criterion out there, Jack Nicklaus's 18 major professional championships. And when Tiger passes Jack, Woods is going to, simply put, be the best golf has ever seen. Sports radio will surely try to come up with a way to debate this endlessly, but it won't be debatable. The fun is right now, in watching Tiger tear up golf courses the way he did Muirfield on Sunday at the Memorial, is watching him cause his peers to suffer complete meltdowns, which happened again Sunday.

One of the coolest things about Tiger's year is that he's won two tournaments: Jack Nicklaus's at Muirfield on Sunday and Arnold Palmer's a few weeks ago down at Bay Hill. People who think Tiger is only interested in the majors are wrong. Like any kid who grew up with posters of his favorite athletes on his bedroom wall, Tiger wants to impress his heroes, even now, even as he has surpassed one (Palmer) and stalks the other (Nicklaus).

Tiger must love showing Arnie and Jack just how much he reveres the game and their respect, as much as Kobe does Jordan's or Federer does Laver's.

It's the truest measure of greatness, to honor the sport at this level even when you've already won more trophies than your peers, made more money, earned more endorsements, been praised beyond all reason. Tiger Woods, reasonably good health presumed, is going to end up as the greatest golfer ever before he's 40 years old. Federer and Kobe, with a couple of more Slams and NBA titles, respectively, will be in the conversation about greatest ever in their sports.

Even as someone who argues about sports endlessly, I have little stomach for the "whose task is more difficult?" discussion. I think Tiger's is, if I'm forced to answer, because beating 156 players, as is the case in the U.S. Open, or 96 in the Masters, seems definitively more difficult to me than beating seven people in a Grand Slam or four teams in a postseason. I don't know that Tiger's 14 major championships and Federer's 14 Slams are equal, for me.

But very quickly I'll tell you it doesn't matter, because all that is fair to measure is what a competitor does in his or her arena, in the time that he or she plays. Kobe has been almost certainly the best player in the world since 2000, so nearly 10 years. And if he isn't the best today, he flip-flops with LeBron James on a nightly basis. Federer has surpassed Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Sampras and everybody except Laver. Federer has probably been the best tennis player since 2001, when he beat Sampras at Wimbledon to stop his 31-match winning streak that dated from the mid-1990s. So Federer has been, probably, the best tennis player in the world since then, except for last summer.

And Tiger, especially if he wins the U.S. Open at Bethpage (again) in two weeks, will continue to be the greatest global superstar in athletic competition today, any sport. Someone once wrote of Michael Jordan that he played basketball better than anybody did anything. Tiger plays golf at that level now. He, Federer and Kobe have raised performance in their sports to art, to the degree that when all three are on stage in one weekend, chasing history, and the ghosts of the greatest competitors ever, the only thing to do is watch and be thankful we were around to see them pass this way.


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