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If you were lucky, you were there at the inception, when the first moments of brilliance blossomed. The teenage phenom from Switzerland sporting a bandanna, his long hair swept back in a ponytail, bit at his lower lip, serving, dancing along the baseline on Centre Court.
The young challenger waited, seeing the ball as if in slow motion––coiled, poised on the balls of his feet, ready to move forward if the grizzled champion on the other side of the net returned the ball short.
From time to time the champion’s serve cracked, blasting through the court, ricocheting off service lines, often beyond the teenager’s ability to lay a racket on it.
Roger Federer’s serve surprised Pete Sampras. Not its speed, but its placement and Federer’s ability to disguise its path, using the same service motion regardless of where the Swiss decided to send the ball. His angles, his depth and his movement all worried the defending champion.
Sampras, whose seemingly languid movements around the court belied his quickness, would turn 30 shortly. The seven-time Wimbledon champion met Federer, 19, on Centre Court at Wimbledon––marking the debut of the man from Switzerland on these esteemed grounds during the fourth round in 2001.
Coming into Wimbledon, Sampras had won 31 consecutive matches on the green lawns at the All England Club and he had lost only one match in his last 57.
Sampras symbolized Wimbledon––it was his home court, the place where he felt his most invincible and could deliver the best his game had to offer.
The knock on Federer coming into this match was his inability to do well in the big moments––at the four Slams.
Coming out of the juniors, Federer was touted to be the next best and greatest. So far, the Swiss failed to live up to his billing and that troubled him, making him try too hard and go for too much.
With Sampras serving at 5-6, for a chance to even the fifth set at 6-6, the American fell behind 15-40. Federer, continuing to see the ball well, rifled back a Sampras serve for a winner, taking the set and the match 7-6 (9-7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 7-5.
As Federer fell to his knees, allowing his emotions finally to surface, Sampras sagged at the full impact of his defeat at the place where he’d enjoyed his greatest victories.
The American would never win another championship at Wimbledon.
The upset was huge in 2001.