Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

Roger Federer & Tiger Woods

The World's Most Elite Athletic Club
A couple of weeks before the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Roger Federer phoned Tiger Woods and invited him to be his guest at the final. "I said, 'Great, but don't you have to win six matches to get to the final?'" Woods told TIME. Woods didn't know Federer that well, yet.

The Swiss star would leave opponents smeared over Flushing Meadows's courts like so many ball marks, winning his third Open. "I was really excited before the semis, because I called Tiger and he said he was coming," says Federer. The two talked for about 15 minutes before the final. Then Federer went out and rolled poor Andy Roddick. "[Tiger] was pumped up during the match," said Federer, known for his cool elegance on the court. "It was a really nice gesture." After the match, the pair spent another hour yakking in the locker room. "The press almost knocked down the door," Federer told TIME from Dubai, where he's training.

Welcome to the world's most élite athletic club, open to anyone who dominates his sport by a ludicrous margin. Want in? Simple. Be the world's No. 1 golfer for eight years. Win eight events in 2006, including the PGA Championship and the British Open. Make other pros look like they're using croquet mallets. Or, be the world's No. 1 tennis player since 2004. Win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year for the past three years. Win 92 of 97 matches in 2006, along with 12 titles.

The Terrific Twosome got its start after a reporter asked Woods what sports he liked to watch. He mentioned tennis. "I love watching tennis," he says. "I love watching Roger play." Federer kept hearing himself called the Tiger Woods of Tennis. So he decided to meet the Roger Federer of Golf. Their paths crossed recently in Shanghai, where Tiger played the HSBC Champions tourney and Roger the Tennis Masters Cup. This time, Federer, 25, took a seat. "In Shanghai he came out and watched me play," says Woods, 30 (who finished second; Federer won his tourney). "And we had dinner and chitchatted the night away."

The chitchat of champions? "It's really hard to explain," Woods told TIME from a Los Angeles airport, where he was launching balls from a runway to promote a new Nike driver. "It's more the mind-set: what it takes to do what we do, how do you manage all that, the balancing act. We pick each other's brain." They exchange tips on training and preparing for big events. Woods was wowed by Federer's media load; he does press conferences in three languages. Tiger also got some help with his backhand. "He plays much more tennis than I play golf," says Federer, "but that is going to change when I retire." He'll know who to call for a game. "It's been a really neat relationship," says Woods. "Roger and I are going to be friends for a very long time."