Tennis and a Man Named Tiger

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photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

“Tennis is like a wonderful, long-lasting relationship with a husband. Golf is a tempestuous, lousy lover. It is totally unpredictable, a constant surprise.”  – Dinah Shore

For three green days you sensed it. Amidst the azaleas, despite the rains and as birds chirped, the plot was set – a Tiger lurked. After more than a decade and many a setback, Tiger Woods was again in serious contention at a major – well, not just a major, the major of majors – the Augusta Masters.

The 43-year-old, who once dominated golf with what seemed to be a nonchalant, almost unfair ease, suffered a devastating moment of public humiliation in 2009. He crashed his SUV on a helter-skelter Thanksgiving that had gone completely awry, and he soon endured a dispiriting free-fall complete with an unhappy divorce, spinal fusion surgery and a bothersome knee. His once unshakable greatness careened off the rails. His considerable fame was put on pause.

Now his hair was receding – we were stunned when he took off his hat. Still his passion burned – the master wasn’t done. For four April days he blasted his way out of daunting trouble. He dodged pines and avoided waters that sank others, while finding hole after hole, with long meandering putts that clearly had their own inner gyroscopes – #destiny.

Today in the final round, when he was just a stroke behind, everything changed for Tiger. There, on the fabled 12th hole, at Amen Corner, his foes faltered. He pounced, scoring birdies on the 13th, 15th and 16th holes. On the 18th, his long-awaited moment of triumph arrived. Five younger golfers had all been at least tied for the lead. The crowd’s deafening delight rolled across Augusta’s fabled knolls. A nondescript tap-in putt gave golf’s most celebrated and controversial figure a one-stroke victory. The often somber, career-weary man in his Sunday red unleashed a tiger’s roar. Here was an eerie déjà vu moment. The still-steely-after-all-these-years elder prevailed. After 11 seasons in the wilderness, the master again mastered the Masters, 22 years after he first won.

His fifth Green Jacket and 15th major was nothing less than a requiem for a heavyweight. Here was Muhammed Ali returning from exile en route to reclaiming his crown. Here was old Ted Williams hitting a homer on his last at bat. Here was New York Knick Willis Reed hobbling onto the Madison Square Garden floor. Tiger embraced his son, daughter, mom, girlfriend and spokesperson, radiating love, joy and relief.

Was this golf’s finest moment? Maybe – who knows? Let the debate begin. But there’s no doubt that Tiger startled the world. “I am literally in tears watching Tiger Woods,” tweeted Serena Williams. “This is Greatness like no other. Knowing all you have been through physically to come back and do what you just did today? Wow Congrats a million times! I am so inspired thank you buddy.”

There’s a compelling connection between Tiger and Serena. It’s not just that IT once wrote, “There’s nothing quite like a Serena counterattack…as she roars back from a deficit. Explosive and fierce, you just don’t want to cage that tiger.”

It’s not just that Lindsay Davenport once asked, “Can you imagine Tiger and his brother walking down the 18th fairway battling it out for the victory?”

It’s not just that both Tiger and Serena had ferocious, imposing and deeply loving dads who pushed them mightily. Are the late Earl Woods and the now infrequently seen Richard Williams the two most important fathers in the history of sports? It’s not only that Tiger was in Serena’s Friends Box for the 2018 Wimbledon final and that both endured career-threatening surgeries. Serena twice underwent fearsome surgeries and Tiger had a spinal fusion. And it’s not just that golf and tennis are benign rivals.

Once when Jack Nicklaus was asked what his choice would be if he had to give up either golf or tennis, the 18-major winner replied, “I’d give up golf in a minute.” Tennis fans gloated until they heard the words of another legendary Jack. Tennis pioneer Jack Kramer told the LA Times, “After all this time, I now realize that golf is the ultimate sport.” Jon Wertheim muttered, “That one hurts. It’s like hearing Che Guevara trumpeting the virtues of investment banking.”

It’s curious that America’s two country club sports, which remain quite white, have for decades featured such prominent African-Americans – Tiger, Serena and Venus. In tennis the major impact of African-Americans goes back to Althea Gibson (who also was a pro golfer) and Arthur Ashe. And the US Open’s prime stadium is named for Ashe. Plus, numerous other African-Americans – from Katrina Adams and Zina Garrison to Mal Washington, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Whitney Osuigwe and Coco Gauff – have impacted the game. In contrast, when it comes to sustained elite achievement, Tiger has long been a bit of an African-American island.

Long ago Bleacher Report’s Merlisa Lawrence Corbett reflected on Tiger and Serena. “Woods seems more eager to assimilate,” she wrote. “His approach: Excel. Get yourself invited to the club. Then, prove to them you belong at the club. Serena, however, knew…she wasn’t welcomed at the club. Her attitude: Excel. If they invite me, fine; if not, I’ll start my own damn club. That in-your-face, ‘straight-out-of Compton’ attitude is the hallmark of anti-establishment…[and it’s] cost some endorsement opportunities. But among young athletes, those who admire swagger, it connects. They find Serena believable. And believe is the spark needed to overcome the odds. Young male golfers, black and white, want to play like Tiger. Young black female tennis players, want to be Serena.”

Tiger has long had a curious connection with tennis’ two prevailing male icons – Roger and Rafa. Tiger and Roger were once pals who shared common sponsors, Nike and Gillette, and much more. Tiger would watch the US Open from Federer’s Friends Box. Roger would walk courses with Tiger during tournaments. Tiger gushed, “Roger makes it look so effortless, and it’s not. The shots and angles he can create, no one has ever been able to do.”

In a Gillette ad, Woods teased Roger, who then had just 10 Slams: “I have 12 Majors, keep it up buddy.” Roger told IT that he and Tiger bonded because only they “understood how greatness isolates them atop their lonely individual sports.” The two once texted on a near daily basis. “Our texts,” noted Tiger, “have always been jabby − but also extremely supportive. That’s what friends do.” Roger once joked, “Tiger’s got it easier. He’s playing on grass all the time, whereas I have to go to different surfaces.” But Woods’ 2009 infidelity incident curtailed his relationship with Federer. Roger noted, “When he had problems he changed his number and disappeared.”

Now Tiger and Rafa are tight. Woods was in Nadal’s box for the 2018 US Open semis. Rafa, who loves golf and hits 350-yard drives, has also walked courses with Tiger during tourneys. Just after a 2018 Canadian Open match Nadal said, “I’ve got to check on Tiger’s score.” Arguably Tiger and Rafa are the two toughest battlers in their sports. Nadal told IT why Woods is the athlete he admires most. “I like a lot his mentality. I like a lot his eyes when he’s going to have the important shot…He has unbelievable concentration, unbelievable determination, and big confidence.”

You think? At crunch time today, the well-named Tiger mauled America’s most pristine course. Two years ago Woods told Nick Faldo, “I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lay down. I really couldn’t do much of anything.”

But today he did something. Never mind that so many had written him off. There before our disbelieving eyes, he clawed his way to a win for the ages which some claim is the most improbable comeback in sports history. But you know what? What else would you expect from a man named Tiger?

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