In July of 2000, I counted down the points as Pete Sampras served out the fourth set of the Wimbledon Championship. Going into that event, he had 12 major titles to his name, tied with Roy Emerson’s record of 33 years.
When Patrick Rafter’s final forehand return landed wide of the right doubles alley, Sampras became, in the words of Dick Enberg, tennis’ “grandest champion.”
At that point I’d been a tennis player and fan for a little more than 10 years, and for me Sampras defined what a player was supposed to be. Though Californian, the Pistol’s professionalism, stoicism, and determination appealed greatly to the Midwestern sense of work ethic I’d been taught as a youth.
He added one more major title before his career ended and was a deserving record-holder. I felt good about how his achievements, not to mention his game, would hold up against players of any generation.
That said, nine years later, I’m certain that Sampras can no longer be called the greatest player of the Open Era. Roger Federer has topped Sampras’ mark of 14 through his Wimbledon victory, but in my eyes he sealed the top spot in June by winning Roland Garros, a place where the Pistol never triumphed.
I’m still partial to Sampras because he dominated during my formative years, and he still deserves a greater measure of respect than he has gotten. All too often, supporters of one player believe that defending the merits of their man means attacking the qualities of the other.
The Fed’s on-court accomplishments are greater than Sampras, but it’s not because the Pistol’s era was weak—the competition always does look thin when one guy won’t let the others have a piece of the pie.
It’s also not because Sampras’ game was one-dimensional—critics tend only to remember the great American’s power because he had more of it than most opponents could handle.
Federer is greater than Sampras simply because he’s greater. The qualities that made the Pistol great are also present in the Great Swiss, only more so.
Both men were dominant at the US Open and Wimbledon, but Sampras never won five in a row at either event. Both men were comparatively weaker on clay, but Sampras never won on French clay, much less reached four consecutive finals.
Furthermore, from a shot-for-shot perspective, the Pistol’s only real advantages over the Swiss are the second serve and the running forehand (note the “running” designation). From most other positions, Federer’s forehand is more effective, as are his backhand, his movement, and especially his return of serve.
Any difference in quality between the volleys and first serves of the two is negligible. In fact, it was fitting that, in the match where Federer broke Sampras’ record, he hit 50 aces, a far greater single match total than the Pistol ever hit (of course, Sampras never played a 16-14 fifth set on grass).
Nine years ago I considered it likely that we’d see tennis played at a higher level that what even Sampras had produced. This would have been natural, as technology is constantly improving and technique consistently evolving.
What we didn’t expect was to see a player of equal dominance in a game that was constantly becoming deeper and more competitive.
In fact, Federer has been more dominant than any player of the Open Era, reaching 20 major finals—including every one between the 2005 Roland Garros and 2008 Australian Open—and 21 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals.
Until this spring, the only advantages Sampras had might have been in tight matches and in his ability to keep winning despite not playing his best. Federer erased both of those doubts in Paris, rallying from both a two-set deficit and a two-sets-to-one hole to win the only major missing from his collection. Those matches, coupled with his epic Wimbledon final win, showed him to be a warrior—albeit an elegant one.
All respect to Sampras—and to Bjorn Borg, who might have a more compelling case had he not given up so young—but Federer’s only true competition lies with the pre-Open Era greats, before Grand Slams became the measuring stick.
In terms of domination and influence, there will never be another Bill Tilden, to whom we owe the very existence of the professional tennis player, and who at one point in his career won 56 consecutive games against the top competition of the day. That’s the equivalent of three triple-bagels in a row.
When is comes to dominance and competitive fire, tennis will never have another Pancho Gonzales, who was the game’s best for eight uninterrupted years, and who more than one expert—Bud Collins and Jimmy Connors included—have said is the one man they’d want playing for them if their lives were on the line.
And in terms of the gaudiness of his achievements, Rod Laver stands alone, having won the complete Grand Slam twice and captured 198 singles titles overall.
It isn’t fair that we compare their standards of play, as Roger Federer has decades’ worth of technology and technical knowledge to his advantage. It also isn’t fair that we ask Federer to equal the achievements of those greats—their schedules weren’t nearly as intense as his, and the idea that a top player should be vulnerable in the early rounds of an event is a relatively new one.
Someday, and maybe sooner than we think, young tennis fans around the world will be counting down the points as another amazing athlete besieges Federer’s record. It will be then be time to judge that player’s accomplishments in their proper context and properly recalibrating our assessments.
But for now, in the eyes of this Sampras fan, Roger Federer is the greatest of the Open Era.
Many thanks to Maryam for the graphic.