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Partners in greatness

Yahoo Sports

LA JOLLA, Calif. – January is not over yet, but for one half of the world's most famous sporting friendship, the dream of a Grand Slam in 2008 has already evaporated. Roger Federer's loss in the semifinals of the Australian Open a few days ago means it is left for his partner in greatness, Tiger Woods, to claim all four majors in one year.

Until Federer's loss to Novak Djokovic in Melbourne, the Swiss tennis star was shoulder-to-shoulder with his buddy on that rarefied plateau. Now it seems that, of the two, he is more likely to come back to the pack while Woods seems poised to establish more distance than ever between himself and his pursuers.

Woods operates on a different plane altogether from those alongside him on the golf course. Perhaps only Federer, with 12 Grand Slam titles, two short of Pete Sampras' all-time record, can begin to comprehend what makes him tick.

"It is so hard to maintain that kind of success for a long time," said Federer in Melbourne. "Tiger is the greatest player in the world but it is not enough. He keeps pushing for more."

If Woods maintains this sort of form, and more importantly, this mental state, then the chase for golf's Holy Grail could easily become the most fascinating story of the year. In contrast, Federer's defeat to Djokovic was a letdown, if only by his own extraordinary standards.

So what is the X-factor both men clearly possess?

"It is a very interesting question because it is something you have to find from within," Woods said. "You have to keep pushing yourself from within. It is not about what other people think or say. It is about what you want to accomplish. Do you want to go out there and be prepared to beat everyone you play or face? Then you've got to be prepared to put the work in.

"But if you really don't, if that really doesn't matter to you, then so be it. I think one of the great things about Roger is that he will pay the price. People don't realize how hard he trains away from a tournament leading up to an event.

"He runs down every ball and makes it look so easy because of how hard he trains away from it. That is what we do out here on the tour. I work hard away, then when I come here it is time to play."

In Federer's case, the challenge from youth is pressing. Having comfortably seen off his own generation, with the likes of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt no longer believing they can live with him, it is now the 20-year-old Djokovic and 21-year-old Rafael Nadal who have him in their sights.

Yet who is out there to challenge Woods? Phil Mickelson fully deserves his status as the world's number two but his position is as an increasingly distant second and it is doubtful whether Tiger feels any meaningful threat from Lefty.

The golf media has become so desperate for a meaningful contender that 20-year-old Australian Jason Day is being touted as someone who may be able to share some of the spotlight despite having won just one Nationwide Tour event and sitting 183rd in the world rankings.

The main similarity between professional golf and tennis is that, in having four major events, the possibility of a Grand Slam sounds attainable enough, while, in reality, it remains a monumental and highly improbable feat.

One man with a foothold in both sports is Ivan Lendl, an eight-time tennis Grand Slam champion and accomplished enough golfer to have, at one stage, harboured serious thoughts about a pro career.

Lendl is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and a legend of the game, but when he talks about Federer and Woods he becomes as excited as any fan.

"Most likely we are seeing the two players who will go down as the greatest in their respective sports," said Lendl, speaking to Yahoo! Sports by phone from his home in Florida. "I look at things that they both do and I think 'this is ridiculous.' It is just silly. They both hit shots that other guys don't even think of.

"When I'm watching Tiger it is more of a spectacle than a contest. Of course it is not a thrilling finish when he is eight shots ahead but you are just watching and appreciating his greatness."

Some past sportsmen are reluctant to acknowledge the achievements of a present generation but Lendl, born in communist Czechoslovakia and a U.S. citizen for the past 16 years, is quick to defend the two kings of the games he loves most.

"I don't buy the argument that Roger and Tiger are winning because the standard of opposition is not that good. Even if it was the case, there is nothing they can do about it apart from keep on winning. Now what I would love to see is for one of them to win a Grand Slam. Roger can't win the Slam this year but if Tiger plays like this, who knows?"

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