It was early in the new millennium and it had a special feel: of worlds colliding, of a changing of the guard, of one era giving way to another.
Pete Sampras, the dominant player of the 1990s, was flexing his muscles and his reputation for one more assault on the record books.
Another Wimbledon title would make him the most prolific winner of singles titles at the most prestigious of tennis events. One more Wimbledon victory and he would step above William Renshaw, with whom he shared the record of seven.
But it was more than that. Sampras had taken the last decade of the 20th century by the throat from the moment he won his first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 1990 until his most recent victory at this very tournament in 2000.
He was the title holder. He had lost only one match on Wimbledon’s grass—his quarterfinal against Richard Krajicek in 1996—since reaching the semi-finals in 1992. That’s 53 wins in the last 54 matches.
He was the first since Rod Laver to have a legitimate claim to the “Greatest of all Time” accolade, and this could be one more nail in the coffin of that “GOAT” debate.
Stood on the opposite side of the court was a mere teenager, newly in the top 20, and the first time he’d been seeded in a Slam. Sure, he’d won the junior title in 1998, but he’d gone out in the first round in both years since.
But this had a special feel.
Roger Federer had been calmly and steadily climbing the rankings since he’d won the junior title: from 24 to 15 in the last five months alone. There was a growing buzz about his talent, his drive, his way of playing.
He had dreamt, watching Wimbledon on the television as a boy, that he would one day play here, on its Centre Court. And it had been his dream, one day, to play against Sampras.
With the teenager’s first step onto the hallowed turf, he fulfilled both dreams at a stroke. Little did he realise that this perfect alignment of the stars would happen only once.
Whether it was that perfect alignment, on that court, on that day, or whether it was simply the right time for one era to give way to another, Federer was about to wrench Sampras’ grip from tennis’ throat.
So much in common…
A love of tradition, and of Wimbledon above all other places.
A physical stillness, an air of self-containment, a confidence.
A pace and a rhythm: no need to wait and gather focus; no towelling down between points; no fussing over peripheral distractions.
Balls batted to the server’s end: briefly checked, bounced once or twice, tossed high; thwacked with the crack of bullet; an easy fluidity of motion and efficiency of action.
The match began with a Federer serve. It was an ace. The second was barely touched by the receiver, the third another ace, the fourth unreturnable. A love game, in the style of Sampras.
As if to prove the point, the first Sampras serve touched 133 mph. It was followed by a second ace, then a brief aberration of a double fault, and two more aces. One game all.
There was another chink in the Sampras serve in the fourth game, at 0-40, but it was a ruse. He served, attacked the net, produced reactive volleys, closed the door.
The pattern continued to five games apiece. The serving was fast and pin-point accurate, the net attacks bold and quick, the volleys crisp and deep, deft and short.
Rallies—when the serve allowed—averaged just four or five shots: not a wasted drive; rarely a loose ball.
Both men stepped inside the baseline to attack their returns. Both fired off winners to left and right, cross court and down the line, gone in the blink of the server’s eye.
Inevitably, the match headed to a tie-break. Inevitably, it was nip and tuck. Inevitably, both opened their account with an ace.
By the time the score reached 5-6, the intensity even had Sampras shouting “come on!” to himself and forgetting to change ends. He levelled the score to 7-7 with an ace, but Federer took on the attack, and serve-and-volleyed his way to the set, 9-7.
So much in common…
Birthdays just four days apart—the very centre of Leo’s influence—but 10 years apart.
Leonine traits: generous and committed to family and friends; faithful and honest; courageous and strong; proud both in victory and loss.
Alike in body language, too: a languid walk, eyes often lowered to the ground.
Same height, similar build, and in their only meeting, both wearing plain, loose, white polos to below the hips.
Small differences come only from the 10-year age gap.
Federer does not yet have the chiseled cheeks that Sampras’s face has developed. Federer’s will come, as will the bulk in the calves, and the dark, wiry drift of hair on arms and chest.
Federer still bears the marks of adolescence in his crude ponytail, a band of white beads around the neck, a hint of pimples on the temple. Sampras has outgrown such things.
The second set began differently—Sampras had to fight back in his service game, while Federer served to love. Order was restored with a Sampras love game.
The fourth game brought two backhand passes from Federer that left Sampras shaking his head in disbelief.
Mixed into the contest now were volley exchanges at the net, quick-fire reactions, a drop volley here, a smash there.
Serve-and-volley was countered by fierce returns from the baseline. Any danger of a break point—and Federer notched up three at 3-3—was extinguished: in that seventh game by two aces, a big volley winner, and an overhead smash.
The 19-year-old’s signature shots were already emerging. An accurate, line-clipping serve down the centre, with just enough side spin to take it away from the receiver.
The wide swinging serve across the outer service line.
The backhand top-spin whip across the acute diagonal of the court, or its devastating equivalent down the line.
A forehand that shone like a rapier, parrying the fastest serve and returning it with interest.
Already, he had perfected that backward dance to sweep a deadly inside-out return towards the opposite tramlines.
One of Sampras’s signature shots was also reaping rewards—his backhand chip return, short across the diagonal.
Federer began to waver, flexed a troubling thigh muscle, threw in a couple of double faults, and conceded the set 5-7.
The third set followed a similar pattern, tempered by an early service break from Federer and repeated immediately by Sampras. Federer did not let the lost opportunity prey on his mind and, when Sampras made an uncharacteristic mistake on a slam dunk, Federer served out with aces: 6-4.
So much in common…
Perhaps two Sampras’s had taken to the court on that dull, humid afternoon, one 19, one 29.
Had the young pretender been left-handed, they could have been mirror images: Both play the classic serve-and-volley game, precise, fast, and attacking.
On serve, Federer has 25 aces to Sampras’s 26. Federer’s serve is a little slower but has a more deadly swing to the backhand court.
Their service actions both have a sleek, deceptive impact, deployed from the same knee bend, the same body angle.
The patterns of play are worthy of two chess masters: diagonal to opposite diagonal, cross-court drop retrieved by down-the-line whip.
They even have the same weakness: returning a high top-spin cross-court drive deep to their backhands. Sampras has not noticed the weakness in Federer—as today’s players have—but Federer does use it against Sampras.
It might be a master-class, except that this pupil has already mastered the game plan, the execution, the tactics.
The quality did not drop. By the mid-point of the fourth set, Federer had not lost a point on his serve. Two more games, and Sampras delivered his fastest ace of the match: 134 mph. At 4-5 and 0-30 down, Federer came back with three aces and an outright serve winner.
It required another tie-break. This time Federer tightened just a fraction, and the Sampras serve cranked up to 136 mph. He swept through, 7-2.
They were back to square one: two sets apiece.
Federer opened the final set with a love service game. Sampras responded to 15, and Federer did the same—symmetry.
Then, amongst the strings of winners, a few break points entered the proceedings, but were dispatched with another ace, another backhand winner.
Until...until...Sampras was broken. Serving at 5-6, he was forced into two errors by blistering cross-court returns to his feet as he rushed the net. But the coup de grace, appropriately, was a classic Federer forehand return-of-serve winner down the line. The set, the match, and their all-time head-to-head, was his: 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5.
The moment where there is less in common…
Federer falls to the ground, clasping face in hands. Recovering himself, he quickly runs to shake the hand of the most crest-fallen Sampras ever recorded.
Perhaps there are tears of anguish in his downcast eyes. There are certainly tears in Federer’s.
The flamboyance of uninhibited emotion at the end of a match has become a Federer trademark, and the Wimbledon crowd respond in kind to a new hero. They have done so ever since: a mutual affection that grows with every year.
For Sampras, it is the kind of adoration he has rarely enjoyed at Wimbledon. He has, instead, had to be satisfied with unparalleled respect.
From the vantage point of a new decade, this was indeed the moment when one champion’s mantle was handed to another. Two worlds had collided and, for five sets, a man from each world stood astride the eras. It would be the last time they did so.
Sampras left Wimbledon for ever in the second round in 2002. A few months later, he won an emotional 14th Slam at Flushing Meadows, then walked away for good, secure in the knowledge that his clutch of Slams would be unbeatable for quite some time.
For having seen Federer exit from the first round of the 2002 Wimbledon, Sampras could not have expected this young man to surpass his own record so quickly.
But in 2003, Federer took the second step in his campaign to emulate his idol. He won Wimbledon with the loss of only one set, and the next four Wimbledons as well.
Within six months, he was No. 1 in the world, and stayed there for a record-breaking four and half consecutive years.
The ponytail went, the calves grew, and a record that had taken 13 years for Sampras to set was beaten in seven.
One last thing in common…
Federer opened his “GOAT” campaign using the Sampras game. Federer is now approaching the very age that Sampras was in 2001, and is rediscovering the advantages of that game.
If Federer is to collide with the next world, and stay on his feet, he may want to tip his hat towards the man who sent him on his way.
The series “Pillars of Roger’s Career” will include the following (with links to those already published):
Federer/Hewitt vs Rafter/Bjorkman: Wimbledon 1999
Federer vs Hewitt: Davis Cup 2003
Federer vs Rafter: Halle 2001
Federer vs Sampras: Wimbledon 2001: The Day Two "GOATS" Locked Horns, And Sampras Saw The Future Was Federer
Federer vs Agassi: Miami 2002: Harbinger Of Things to Come
Federer vs Kuerten: Indian Wells 2003
Federer vs Kuerten: French Open 2004
Federer vs Agassi: U.S. Open 2004
Federer vs Roddick: WTF 2004
Federer vs Safin: Masters Cup 2004
Safin vs Federer: Australian Open 2005: A Balletic Master vs a Russian Bear
Federer vs Ferrero: Dubai 2005
Federer vs Nadal: Miami 2005
Federer vs Santoro: U.S. Open 2005
Federer vs Nadal: Rome 2006: So Close Yet So Far
Federer vs Nadal: Wimbledon 2007
Federer vs Roddick: U.S. Open 2007
Federer vs Tipsarevic: Australian Open 2008
Federer vs Murray: U.S. Open 2008: A Beacon Of Hope In A Year Of Troubles
Murray vs Federer: Masters Cup Shanghai 2008
Federer vs Del Potro: Australian Open 2009: In The Zone With Roger Federer
Federer vs Roddick: Wimbledon 2009