This the latest in an occasional series of collaborations looking in detail at the similarities and differences between two players. This half presents the similarities between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. For a view of their differences, please check out antiMatter’s parallel article.
The talent that a body brings to tennis is a complex package.
It embraces so much that relates to the purely physical: height and weight; length of limb and speed of foot; hand-eye co-ordination and split-second reactions; endurance and strength.
Yet it also demands a unique set of mental qualities: self-reliance and self-belief—there are no team-mates; concentration and focus—a match that is all but won can be lost on one final point; tactical intelligence—the ability to adapt to hundreds of opposing styles; and a calm inner strength.
When the full range of physical and mental qualities comes together, there is a kind of synergy that has two names—Roger Federer and Pete Sampras.
To some eyes, their style of play and their shot-making are contrasting. Certainly Sampras achieved fame and titles largely with a serve-and-volley game, while Federer’s success has come with an all-court game.
But the surfaces were faster when Sampras was at his peak, and the power baseline game has now come to dominate.
Federer, with an eye to the players he most admired in his formative years such as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Sampras himself, developed a game that would enable him to replicate their style. Yet he also perfected the back-court game demanded for 21st century success. This was necessary for making inroads on the clay. None of his role models managed to win at Roland Garros.
So what we have in Federer is the 21st century baseline game, but enhanced by the best qualities of the 20th century serve-and-volleyers.
So exactly which elements of the Sampras game have enabled this?
The Deceptive Serve
The primary “key to the kingdom” in tennis is the serve, and this is where Sampras and Federer match up most closely. Sampras is renowned for the potency and consistency of his serve, but statistics show that Federer’s serve is very similar. Neither has the fastest in the business, topping out at around 135 MPH—the 140 MPH plus bullets belong to the Roddicks and Rusedskis.
Both Sampras and Federer have an average first serve of between around 115 and 125 MPH On the second serve, too, there is little difference, with Sampras averaging an extra five to 10 MPH more through a slightly flatter action than Federer’s kick serve.
Where both score over their opponents is in their action, disguise, and variety.
Both men are able to deliver a combination of spin and speed that gives “weight” and also unpredictability to their serve.
Although their motion begins differently—Sampras with the weight on his back foot and front toe lifted, Federer with the weight on his front foot and the back toe pointed—as the ball is tossed, they both tilt back, with deep, even knee bend, feet one behind the other, planted at a diagonal to the baseline, and shoulders tilted away from the far side of the court. All their opponents see is their back.
As the toss is similar regardless of where they deliver the serve, they are almost impossible to read. Little surprise then, marrying this technique alongside their identical height, similar wingspan, and slim muscular builds, that the final result reaps the same rewards.
When Federer follows his serve to the net, that similar physique helps him to execute Sampras-like efficiency, sharp volleys at shoulder height, or half volleys that require deep knee bend and accurate touch.
Even overhead, both men have a lightness and spring to elevate them from the ground. The smash Federer fired at Davydenko in the Tour End Finals brought memories of the famous Sampras slam dunk flooding back (though the Swiss has a way to go to match the American in that domain).
The Killer Forehand
Sampras is also known for his outstanding running forehand. With his exceptional speed, he is able to reach attacks wide to his forehand and win many points outright from the extreme pace of his shot.
Federer, too, has a lethal forehand across the board (though, as antiMatter describes, it is of a different type). While his running forehand often has more top-spin whip, the mechanics—his foot speed, anticipation, and arm strength—make it equally devastating.
The Mixed Fortunes of the Backhand
The nearest that either Sampras or Federer comes to a weakness are their backhands. The overriding strength of their forehands, combined with their speed and mobility, means both have routinely run round any mid-court shot in favor of that forehand.
Opponents have learned, against both of them, to serve a high "kicker" out to the backhand, and as both play a single-handed shot, this is difficult to handle offensively. The same tactics are now adopted in rallies, too. Opponents play shot after shot to the backhand, hoping to wear that wing down. Nadal has had particular success with this tactic against Federer.
But where the single-hander can be a disadvantage against wide, high plays, it can be a vital weapon in defusing the powerful, top spin attack. Both Sampras and Federer are able to take a low bouncing, wide shot, while almost turned away from the net, slicing it cross court at an acute angle. This buys them time to regain position, puts their opponent on the defensive—particularly if they are a topspin counter-puncher—and changes the pace and tactics of the rally.
The same shot, kept short and low, is the foundation for the “chip-and-charge”, allowing defense to turn into attack. Sampras is the master of this technique, and Federer has started to use it to greater effect in 2009.
And this, in turn, gives a clue to the other major lesson Federer has learned from the serve-and-volley master.
The Tactical Brain
As Federer matures, he is adapting his tactics to preserve his physical resources. To help shorten rallies and matches—and keep opponents on their toes—he is beginning to follow the Sampras pattern of attacking the net on serve, is mixing up his shot selection during rallies, and frequently rushes the net against the server.
It is sometimes forgotten that this is very much how Sampras evolved, moving from an all-court game in his early years to a predominantly serve-volley game. He continued his winning ways into his 30s, and Federer aims to do the same.
These tactics are particularly effective on the faster surfaces favored by both men. It’s no accident that they have their best records at Wimbledon, and it’s interesting to remember that Federer watched and imitated his idol before they first met there in 2001. Rarely has Federer—until this year, perhaps—attacked the net so constantly as against Sampras that day: a deliberate tactic to keep his opponent away from the net.
More recently, Sampras asked Federer why he hadn’t continued with this same tactic, and got the reply that he didn’t need to. Now Federer may see a new reason to take the net—to break the metronomic rhythm of the dominant baseline game and to shorten rallies.
The Head and Heart
In emulating Sampras—and of course Edberg—Federer learned that controlling his temper helped him, in turn, to control many other mental facets. The distraction of poor line calls, unsporting opponents, biased crowds, inclement weather or, most important of all, a losing score-line, can then be taken out of a match’s equation. It is possible to stay focused on the job in hand, win each point, assess tactics, and work into a personal rhythm.
This mental strength has been the bedrock of the Sampras consistent record. He stays calm, rarely loses his temper, and observes the rules of the game.
Yet both players, beneath the cool exterior, are deeply passionate about tennis. Sampras has said, “It takes more passion than people think to play this game…If people only knew how much work it took to make it look that easy.” It is a platitude often applied to Federer’s game, too: he makes it look so easy.
But surely it is this calm rationalization when under pressure, and their huge desire to play and to win, combined with extraordinary physical skills, athleticism, and intelligent tactics, that has brought these two champions such success.