Frank Deford on Greatness: Feder, Brady, and Tiger

I don’t point very often to sports pieces, but Frank Deford’s latest SI column touches on one of my favorite debates: Who’s better, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods? It got me thinking about the spread of excellence in some sports, with the overall level of play in tennis, golf, football, etc. markedly higher than decades ago, and yet there still emerging an outlier, like Tiger, Roger, etc.

The greatest writers and composers and painters are all long dead — they don’t make ’em like they used to — but inasmuch as the cliché tells us that records are made to be broken, then it follows for many that the record-breakers are bound to be better than all the erstwhile record holders of the past, ergo, the greatest in sports must always be right before our eyes.

Only right now the empirical evidence suggests that maybe that sophistry really is so, that the New England Patriots are the best team ever put on God’s green grass, and Tom Brady is better than even Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, and Roger Federer and Tiger Woods have surely come down from Mount Olympus to toy with the poor mortals who would dare take them on.

…Sometimes, I guess, they don’t make ’em like they used to because, in fact, they make ’em even better.

I’m interested in the idea that some disciplines continue to produce change and individual greatness, while others don’t. Why not? Is the same true about investing (and please don’t point yet again to Warren Buffett)? Or is it just in the eye of beholder, with composers and writers today better than those of the past, but just needed to be looked at differently?


More here on Roger Federer’s latest magical stuff, this time coming in a match late yesterday (U.S. time) during the Australian Open’s quarterfinals.


  1. “The greatest writers… are all long dead.”
    Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Ford…
    Mind you, I guess when I’m old and they’re dead I’ll tell my daughter that the greatest writers are all long dead.

  2. Thanks for the kind words on Roger Federer! As a tennis coach for the Women’s team at the U of Southern California, I can fully appreciate his greatness. Just like Tiger, Roger has truly separated himself from the field in a sport where thousands of kids from every single country around the world compete internationally. It seems to amaze me that in such an international sport and with lots of potential dedicating their lives to tennis that one can find a new gear. The records of great tennis players are truly impressive, but what people forget is the depth in the men’s game today. It used to be said that you could grab a beer or two after your early rounds in Grand Slam play- but not anymore. Roger Federer could easily lose to someone top 300 in the world on a bad day. Imagine that!

  3. Yeah, but Pynchon is unreadable, Delillo is only marginally less so, and I met Ford once and he made me depressed. So there :-)

  4. Relating to the first comment, I think a key difference between an athlete and an artist is that for most sports, the modern game is not radically different from what the game was like twenty-to-fifty years ago, or even at its infancy. Sure, there are purists who think tennis players should never have stopped serve-and-volleying, but for the most part what Federer does well are the same things most former tennis players were trying to do well. Whereas Pynchon’s aesthetics, i.e. what Pynchon is trying to do, are completely different from what Flaubert was trying to do, or Hemingway, or Salinger. And therefore, many are unwilling to consider him as great as those former writers, but it is hard for anybody to argue that Federer isn’t the best tennis player since at least Laver.

  5. A person’s greatness depends, in part, on the level and type of competition they face. Art is different, because artists aren’t competing “against” one another, so there can be multiple winners. In sport, nobody ever claimed that “winning is in the eye of the beholder.” And even with golf, it’s a one-sided sport (“offense” only, no need or way to defend against your opponent’s attacks), so someone like Federerererer is far more impressive to me since he both destroys and prevents himself from being destroyed by his opponents. All Tiger has to battle is himself, not his opponents.

  6. @4: I highly recommend reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side to see just how radically a sport can change, and shift the skills and physical attributes it values in its athletes.
    In any case, I’m reactionary enough to think that no-one touches the elegance of McEnroe’s game.