The two greats have struggled recently, but they're both poised to return to form in 2012
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One of the many unfortunate qualities shared by the arenas of sports and politics is a rush to bury people before they're dead. I call it the Premature Obituary, where a candidate's chances are written off at the first debate stumble or press-conference slip of the tongue, and an aging, slumping athlete is over the hill after a month of below-average performance. Political pundits have been rolling out one premature obituary after the next this year, with a plethora of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination mistakenly dismissed before their time.
In the sports world, two of the most celebrated athletes, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, were pronounced finished by a majority of the media and public in 2011. And that is a serious mistake, because after their respective Novembers, Woods and Federer are poised for monster seasons in 2012.
In the public's defense, it has been hard to be optimistic about Tiger's long-term golf prospects since his precipitous fall from grace. He hasn't won a tournament since 2009, hasn't contended in a PGA Tour event since the Masters and has unbelievably fallen out of the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings. Even Woods' ex-caddie, Steve Williams, has been more successful than he has, winning a World Golf Championship event in August with new boss, Adam Scott.
As the months have dragged on, more and more people have jumped on the "Tiger Woods is finished" bandwagon. Literally—a Google search of that exact phrase brings up columns from the Washington Post's Tracee Hamilton and Deadspin contributor Drew Magary (in a guest piece for New York magazine) on the first page of results. Three years ago the consensus was that Tiger would blow past Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. Now experts openly wonder if Tiger will ever win No. 15.
What many people have forgotten is that in addition to his public adultery admissions and subsequent divorce, sex-rehab stint, ACL surgery, and "conversion" to Buddhism, Tiger's also been working on a top-to-bottom swing change, the third of his career (which is in and of itself remarkable). In September, he said he was finally done with the swing changes, and his recent play suggests it's starting to pay off. Tiger finished third at the Australian Open in early November, then provided the clinching win for the U.S. team in the President's Cup. A good performance at the Chevron World Challenge (which he also hosts) this weekend, and Tiger will be primed for a big 2012.
The vultures circling Federer's career are much harder to explain. Sure, he didn't win a major this year, his first 0-fer since 2002. But check out his finishes in the four majors: Australian Open semifinals, French Open finals (where he lost to Nadal), Wimbledon quarterfinals (where he blew a two-sets-to-none lead), U.S. Open semifinals (ditto, and add on two squandered match points for good measure). That looks like a guy on the cusp of dominating, not the last gasp of a weary legend.
The calls for Federer's graceful exit from the sport have disappeared in the past few weeks. Federer ended the season on a tear, winning his last 17 matches over three tournaments, including the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. Along the way, he thrashed Rafael Nadal in straight sets and appeared to be in fighting trim while his rivals complained of fatigue. With the Australian Open less than two months away, the 16-time Grand Slam winner has emerged as a co-favorite despite Novak Djokovic's dominant 2011 campaign.
Federer and Woods haven't rebounded yet, and age, injuries or rivals could still keep them from major victories next year. But don't count on it.