As the final round of the British Open began last weekend, a familiar storyline emerged: one golfer, seemingly playing a different game than his competitors, was lapping the rest of the field and threatening to break the Open's all-time scoring record.
Had to be Tiger Woods, 14-time major winner, two-time Open champion at St. Andrews, and general golf god, right? Wrong. The dominant golfer was a virtual unknown from South Africa, Louie Oosthuizen (trying saying that three times fast), who won by eight shots while Tiger plodded his way to a T-23 finish.
Two weeks earlier and 400 miles to the south, the No. 1 player in men's tennis cruised to victory in the Wimbledon final, thrashing his opponent in three perfunctory sets and further cementing his place atop the tennis world. Had to be 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, right? Wrong again. It was Fed's longtime nemesis, Rafael Nadal, who claimed the Wimbledon title on the heels of his equally dominant French Open victory.
If you went 0-for-2 in this "guess the winner" game, don't worry--you're not alone. Federer and Woods have stood atop their respective sports like a two-headed Colossus for most of the past decade, dominating the standings, the major championships, and the headlines. They became larger than their sports and boosted golf and tennis' worldwide mainstream appeal. But as Woods struggles to overcome his sordid personal crisis and Federer faces his impending tennis mortality, fans of both sports are coming to grips with the void they will leave behind.
To be fair, both athletes are far from finished. Woods, in particular, remains the No. 1 golfer in the world, and at 34 he could have 10 years of top-flight golf left in him. But since Tiger crashed his SUV last Thanksgiving night, he has appeared more mortal every day. Adultery, thousands of tabloid headlines, sex rehab, drama, divorce (probably)... and no victories in 2010. Not even at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, sites of this year's U.S. and British Opens, where he won by a combined 23 shots in 2000.
Whether Tiger is done or not, the sharks have finally started circling. "Frankly, by all the available evidence, we SHOULD be writing off Tiger Woods," argues Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski. "Tiger Woods is a balding, 34-year-old man fighting his swing, his putter, his confidence, his past and his history."
Federer's fall from grace has not been quite so precipitous, but unlike Tiger, he's no longer ranked first in the world. He's not even second, having slipped behind Novak Djokovic as well as Nadal. Losing in the quarterfinals of the French Open and Wimbledon would be a neutral result for all but a handful of the ATP Tour's top players. But for Federer, who had reached at least the semifinals of the previous 23 Grand Slams, the two losses sparked murmurs that at 28, his skills are on the wane.
Because they had become such popular figures, Federer and Woods created TV ratings and massive fan interest simply by their success. As they've continued to fall short of victory, fans who tuned in just to root for them have begun to lose interest. The British Open received a measly overnight rating of 2.6, its lowest ever, and ratings for the Wimbledon final were down 55 percent from last year, when Federer won in dramatic fashion over Andy Roddick.
And that's a shame. Yes, Woods and Federer at their best are a marvel to watch because they've come closer to perfection in their craft than any of their peers. But golf and tennis are bigger than a single athlete, and storylines abound in both sports. Nadal has a chance to become Federer 2.0, and young stars like Robin Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro have added new blood to the game. As for golf, who didn't like rooting for Oosthuizen, the affable South African with the unpronounceable last name (it's pronounced WEST-hi-zen) who commonly goes by "Shrek"?
So if you're a casual fan of either sport, even if you only tuned in to see how Tiger or Roger would win this time, don't stop watching. Because as fans of Jack Nicklaus and John McEnroe can surely tell you, there will be life after Woods and Federer.