Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are arguably the two greatest players in tennis history. Though their career touched briefly and most significantly at Wimbledon 2001, what would happen if we could watch them play each other at the peaks of their careers?
This is the first article that will feature four dream match-ups in tennis’s version of March Madness. The purpose is not to determine the greatest player of all time, but to have fun exploring each specific match with one set of conditions including court surface, racket technology and a given date.
The seeding will not matter with these eight legends, but will set up the best possible dream scenarios. It’s hypothetical, but the best we can do to thwart history’s frustrating refusal to allow time travel.
The reader is encouraged to vote for the winner in the poll question, and to provide any comments, perspectives or other angles that will add to the conversation.
Court: Centre Court, Wimbledon, featuring a faster and more unkempt grass surface than 2012.
Rackets: Both players will use the Donnay Allwood Borg Superlight Wood Racquet
Tale of the Tape: Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras, holder of seven Wimbledon titles from 1993-2000, and widely considered the greatest grass-court player ever, will be represented by his 1994 self.
He possesses a powerful serve and excellent net game. His second serve is nearly as good as his first, and he often produces aces in pressure points. He is very athletic around the net and has the best overhead smash in tennis history.
His formidable ground strokes include an efficient single backhand that hits topspin or slice, to help him better approach the net. If his opponent tries to pull him off the court, his running forehand is lethal. But can he hit running winners with a wooden racket?
Tale of the Tape: Roger Federer
Roger Federer, winner of five straight Wimbledon titles from 2003-2007 (and a sixth title in 2009), ended Sampras’ great Wimbledon streak in 2001 with a classic five-set victory in the fourth round. He will be represented by his 2006 self.
He possesses a serve and net game almost as efficient as Sampras', but is more reluctant to play this way. His serving game is underrated, given the variety of his other skills.
His ground strokes are superior to Sampras', and he wields perhaps the greatest forehand of all time. He doesn’t need to worry about playing on clay or having his backhand exploited with Rafael Nadal’s insane topspin. But can he use a wooden racket to hit passing shots by an attacking Sampras?
How Sampras Might Attack Federer
Sampras will look to serve and volley every time, on first and second serves. He will be tested like never before, and must use his athleticism to finish off cheap point at the net. He will not win a ground war against Federer.
He will be more patient on Federer’s serve, but will have to look for the right opportunities to come in on short shots. The fast grass and small sweet spot of the wooden racket will call for more patience in setting up shots and approaching the net.
His backhand must pick up shots early and guide the ball deep without allowing Federer to fully set his feet. He will need to study more tapes of his idol, Rod Laver, for more tips on playing each point aggressively.
How Federer Might Attack Sampras
Given these conditions, Federer will likely serve and volley every first serve, but may choose to stay back on second serves. He will be confident, but not completely comfortable from behind the baseline, knowing Sampras will look to gain the net.
He will also look to add more drop shots and lobs, and create new angles and shots never before seen with a wooden racket. He is great enough to break Sampras’ serve, and would love to rip some good topspin passing shots.
Federer’s greatest weakness in strategy may be the problem that plagued him against Nadal. He has so many weapons he sometimes gets caught between game plans. Will he stick with a single-minded approach against Sampras, or will he over-think if something is not working?
Both players are cool under pressure because they are almost always the best player given their conditions and matches. But how will they react facing another player considered his equal?
Sampras will remember some of the big matches he lost to Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier.
Federer knows what it was like to lose in the French Open two straight years to Nadal.
Sampras will be relieved he used a wooden racket as a kid. This old familiarity may give him the edge in adjusting his grips and game. Additionally, he has always used classic eastern grips, more suitable for the wooden racket.
Federer switches grips more often between a semi-western and eastern grip, but he is like DaVinci with his versatility, and he may be the only modern player who could possibly and seamlessly be thrown back to 1980 with minimal adjustments.
Federer will be relieved that there are no Shotspot replays to disrupt his rhythm, and take away some favorable calls he may get from line judges.
We will give the edge to Federer if fitness and conditioning send this deep into the fifth set. There will be a lot of quick points, but it will take a lot stamina to defeat a great opponent.
There will also be a lot of quick decision-making between and during points. Which player will be the better thinker?
Could wind or rain prove to thwart one player more than the other?
Obviously, both players are great champions, and either one is capable of winning this match. There are objective factors, but very subjective arguments.
Who would win? How many sets? What possible great moments could occur? Which player would you back in this match if your life depended upon the outcome?
Cast your vote and your comments.