Roger Federer and Pete Sampras: The Most Prolific—Not Greatest—of All Time

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Roger Federer and Pete Sampras: The Most Prolific—Not Greatest—of All Time
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Well, he's the best, the greatest, the champion of all time, the legend. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let the babbling commence.

NBC couldn't stress the fact that Federer is the greatest of all time any more than I'm stressing the word “fact.”

“You certainly are the greatest,” NBC commentator John McEnroe said to Federer, long after the rest of the crew had made the same conclusion in complete unanimity.

Federer, now the holder of 14 Grand Slam titles, had not just equaled Pete Sampras's mark, but had also completed the career Grand Slam. His win over Robin Soderling in straight sets completed the quest once thought a foregone conclusion.

Sampras never won at Roland Garros, losing in the semifinals in his best performance on the red clay of Paris. Yevgeny Kafelnikov destroyed the overmatched Sampras in straight sets.

Federer? He's been to the finals of every slam at least four times.

But it's wrong to measure historic greatness by Grand Slam titles, as wrong as it was to call Sampras the greatest champion until today.

Sampras was a one-dimensional player who dominated an era without any strong and consistent all-around players.

Other than Andre Agassi, who was a great player when he was not being a nutcase, Sampras's slam victories came over the likes of Cedric Pioline twice, Todd Martin, an old Boris Becker, Carlos Moya, Goran Ivanisevic twice, Patrick Rafter, Jim Courier on the Wimbledon lawn, and Michael Chang.

While these were all good players, who other than Boris Becker and Jim Courier was ever part of the “Who's Who?” of tennis? Sure, Moya and Rafter both made it to the top of the rankings, but so did Marcelo Rios.

Just in the open era alone, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, and Mats Wilander, who battled each other for the better part of a decade, have more of a claim.

Lendl made eight consecutive U.S. Open finals during the 1980s, a sign of consistency heretofore unmatched.

And during that streak, he played the likes of Becker, Wilander, Edberg, McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors in the finals alone, beating McEnroe and Wilander.

He also reached a Grand Slam final every year from 1981 to 1991 and the year-end championship finals every year from 1980 to 1988, winning it five times.

Lendl's running forehand has long been considered one of the greatest of all-time, strong and controlled, nothing ever too difficult for him to hit a winner. Yet because he played in the toughest decade of the open era, we discount him because he could not win 14 Slams?

Do you really think Federer or Sampras would have won 14 Grand Slam titles playing during the 1980s?

Doubt it.

I'd guess Sampras would have won less than five and Federer's total would be more in line with Lendl's eight.

Speculation, I know, but let's just keep this in perspective.

Moreover, how about all the professional players before 1968?

Pancho Gonzalez won two U.S. Championship titles in the 1940s before turning professional. He then spent eight consecutive years as the top-ranked player, remaining one of the greatest players into his 40s.

When the open era returned, he was already 40. Nonetheless, he made the semifinals at Roland Garros, defeating the defending champion in the process.

At the age of 41, he played the longest match in the history of Wimbledon, winning in five sets over Arthur Ashe's college roommate, Charlie Pasarell.

He dropped the first set 22-24 and took the final set 11-9.

That match is widely recognized for spawning tiebreak games to keep sets from going on indefinitely.

But Gonzalez cannot be the greatest of all time. He only has two Grand Slam titles.

And there's no way I can hold this article to 1000 words and describe the greatness of Max Decugis, Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Frank Sedgman, or Ken Rosewall.

And we must not forget Rod Laver, who won the calendar year Grand Slam both as an amateur in 1962 and a professional in 1969.

He won 11 Grand Slams despite missing the five best years of his career from 1963 to 1967 while dominating the professional ranks.

With the dearth of top-level players on the amateur circuit and no comparable newcomers in the middle of the decade, Laver would have easily won another 10 Grand Slam titles, if not more, had he been able to play those years.

Easily.

Judge greatness on something as asinine as total Grand Slam titles, and you hand that honor to Pete Sampras. No offense to Sampras, but he just does not rank up. He lacks the all-around game to even contend with people like Federer or Rafael Nadal.

Sure, Federer and Sampras are the most prolific champions of the open era, but the greatest of all time? That is debatable.

It's definitely not a certainty, no matter what John McEnroe wants to say. At best, it's a possibility.

Punishing the champions before the 1960s for trying to make a living just isn't the way to do it.

Suzanne Lenglen, still widely regarded as the greatest woman to ever play the game now more than 70 years after she died, put it best.

“I have worked as hard at my career as any man or woman has worked at any career,” the great champion said after turning professional. “And in my whole lifetime I have not earned $5,000 - not one cent of that by my specialty, my life study - tennis.”

So she turned professional, like so many men before and after her, so that she could continue to perform and bring enjoyment to the thousands of men and women who watched her in the stands.

As a result, she could not compete in what are now the Grand Slam tournaments.

To discount a player based on a statistic as arbitrary as Grand Slam titles is bogus; it is dumb.

Sure, you can call Federer or Sampras the most prolific. But greatest?

Not in a heart beat.

“Today we've seen Roger Federer become the greatest of all time,” an NBC commentator said today right before they went to re-air the final set of the 2008 Wimbledon Gentlemen's Singles final between Federer and Nadal.

He then called that match the greatest match ever played.

Funny, I'd say Pancho Gonzalez holds claim to both of those. But I can at least understand the latter.

Last year's match was a great struggle between two of the greatest who ever played; Pancho beat a mediocre journeyman.

Beat a mediocre journeyman, just like Federer did today against Robin Soderling.

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