Even though Kobe Bryant isn't in the Gillette ads with Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter like Roger Federer is, the comparisons between the two couldn't be clearer today. Federer captured his first ever French Open title, cementing his legacy by finally winning the Slam that has eluded him for so long. Before Sunday, he had lost to Rafael Nadal three straight years in the French final, while only managing to win a total of two sets. Federer brushed off the Roland Garros demons cursed unto him by the Matador of Spain by handling Robin Soderling convincingly in straight sets in the championship match.
Roger Federer has now won 14 Grand Slams, and at least 1 at every major Grand Slam event. He has tied Pete Sampras at 14, but has something that Sampras never achieved: a Career Grand Slam (winning all four major championships at least once). Most in the tennis world consider him the best of his era, if not the best of all-time. A younger, flashier, rising star in Rafael Nadal is clipping at its heels, having taken chunks out of Federer in the last few years. Federer has lost 8 times in the relevant years of his career after he matured into a dominant professional. 5 of those losses have come at the hands of Nadal in Grand Slam Finals. Their 2008 Wimbledon Final has been lauded as the greatest match ever played (which Nadal won).
You might ask why Kobe Bryant is even in the title of this article with so much about Roger Federer?
Because it's actually about both of them.
Federer had lost 3 straight French Open Finals, Kobe? 2 straight NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant is looking to exorcise his demons from Finals past, by redeeming the Lakers of their loss to last years Celtics on the NBA's biggest stage. We can't forget 2004 either where his Lakers lost 4-1 embarrasingly at the hands of the up-and-coming Detroit Pistons in the Finals. Roger needed to win the French to cement his legacy and it seemed to be slipping away from him the last few years as Nadal became more and more dominant on clay. But Federer finally did it in 2009. Kobe needs to win this championship in 2009, without Shaquille O'Neal, no matter what he or the media will say, to finally cement his championships and legacy as legitimate. He won't be mentioned in the conversation as the greatest ever if he can't win one being the best player on his team. Federer needed the French to make the "greatest-ever" debate between him and Sampras a little easier.
Federer is unwillingly passing the torch to Nadal. Kobe? To LeBron James.
The younger, flashier nemesis? Watch any sports channel for about 5 minutes and you'll see his face about 13 times. He goes by simply "The King", or LeBron James. He's flashier, he's more outgoing, and he's right there. Most consider LeBron the best player in the game today, a title he snatched from Kobe who held it for about the same time as Federer held the No. 1 ATP Ranking. LeBron's rise is validated by the fact that he won the Most Valuable Player award this season. Most tennis pundits consider Nadal the best in the game today, validated by his No. 1 Ranking which he took away from Federer after a record 237 consecutive weeks for the Swiss.
Both need to silence the critics, but...
Sadly, because Federer didn't beat Nadal (who lost to the guy Federer beat in the Final), some don't consider this championship legitimate, contending that he must go through Nadal, the King of Clay, to truly cement his reputation. Kobe and the Lakers can't fully redeem themselves either as they never got a chance to go through the Celtics that thrashed them last year and brought Kobe to tears at the conclusion of last years' Finals. The Celtics suffered a knee injury to arguably their best player and never had a chance to make it to the Finals to face the Lakers. Ironically enough, Nadal was suffering from a knee injury as well.
But Kobe doesn't care, and neither did Federer.
Both have time catching up with them as they age, and can't rely on youth to get them by. Both have younger challengers to the throne of their respective sports. Both need to validate something this year. Both need to lay claim to their respective sports' title of the best-right-now. Both have legacies to build, cement, and protect. Federer did his part on Sunday, June 7th, 2009. Can Kobe do the same?
We'll know before the month is over.