Federer the Great

Michael BellCorrespondent IApril 27, 2006

IconThe debate over the greatest golfer ever continues unabated, while another is just beginning: is Roger Federer the best to ever play men's tennis?  Pete Sampras was the greatest tennis talent that I ever witnessed; with all due respect to Rod Laver, I never had the opportunity to watch him play.  But could Federer already be better than Sampras?

Through their first eight years as professionals, Sampras has the more impressive overall resume.  Both began professional play at the age of 17, and by the age of 24, Sampras had totaled six majors to Federer's five.  Sampras also had 34 career titles to Federer's 31.  At age 24, Sampras was still riding the crest of his career wave.  From age 22-29, he won at least one major every year, and won two majors in a year four times.  As outstanding as those accomplishments may have been, Sampras never had a stretch like Federer's last two years. 

On his way to winning four out of the last seven majors, Federer has compiled a 138-9 record.  He also grabbed 11 titles last year and will reach double-digits again before this calendar year is over.  Compare this to Sampras's best year in 1994, when he amassed a 77-12 record with 10 titles.  Federer's dominance is even more apparent when one considers that two of his three losses this year have been on clay—10-8 in a third set tiebreak to Richard Gasquet and a four-set thriller to Rafael Nadal in Roland Garros.  His lone hard court loss was a five-set classic to Marat Safin (9-7 in the fifth) in Melbourne.  Compared to Sampras, Federer has taken longer to reach the top of the men's game.  However, since he's been there, he has been the most dominant force the game has ever seen.

To really dominate in tennis, you have to own your closest foes.  Sampras pounded the likes of Jim Courier (16 wins against 4 losses), Patrick Rafter (12-4), Boris Becker (12-7) and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (11-2).  He also compiled a 20-14 career record against chief rival Andre Agassi, which is impressive in its own right.  Agassi was a far superior player to any of Federer's opponents, and the only one who posed a real threat to Sampras's reign. 

Quality of competition aside, Federer has been just as effective against his closest challengers.  We all know that Federer has held a vice grip on Andy Roddick's balls—just listen to the guy's press conference after one of the ten poundings Federer has given him.  But Federer also holds a 7-2 career mark against former world No. 1 Marat Safin.  His career record of 10-7 against Lleyton Hewitt doesn't look all that impressive, until you consider that Federer has won each of their last eight matches.  The jury is still out on whether Federer's supremacy will persevere against clay court specialist Rafael Nadal, who has become the only possible threat to Federer's reign.

What makes Federer and Sampras such dominant players?  Sampras had the greatest serve in the game.  His powerful first serve was miles above the competition when he burst onto the scene in 1990, and his second serve, his greatest weapon, was the best ever.  Federer's serve is perhaps the most overlooked facet of his game.  It's not as powerful as Roddick's, but his ability to mix up speeds and angles keeps opponents off balance as well as anyone in the game.

Sampras's groundstrokes are best described as above average.  He had a fantastic running forehand, but his one-handed backhand was probably his greatest weakness.  Sampras chose not to sit behind the baseline and rally for hours with the baseliners of his day.  He preferred instead to get to the net and end points quickly.  He did this as well as anyone, and made a living out of it on grass and hard surfaces.  In his day, his net game was unsurpassed, while his serve and volley attack set him apart.

On the other hand, Federer's groundstrokes border on flawless.  His forehand is his most powerful shot and his one-handed backhand is sound.  If he needs to, he can beat almost anyone in the game from the baseline.  Like Sampras, though, Federer prefers coming to the net, especially on grass.  His perfect volleys and deft touch at the net are unrivaled in today's game. 

But what really separates Federer from Sampras is his versatility.  His movement and ability to anticipate an opponent's shots make him appear quicker than he already is, and you never see Federer off balance after a shot.  He has demonstrated immense intelligence by adapting his play to better suit that of his opponent.  Sampras had these skills, but not to the extent that Federer does.  Federer's versatile play has allowed him to excel on all surfaces (Sampras never figured out clay).  Simply put, Federer has zero weaknesses.  This makes it nearly impossible for opponents to develop an effective game plan and should allow him to dominate the opposition for years to come.
Roger Federer is playing the best tennis of his life, more dominant now than even Sampras was at his best.  What's more, he doesn't show any signs of slowing down.  At his current rate, I expect him to continue his dominance and eclipse Sampras's Grand Slam record of 14 in fewer than 4 years.  There is no obvious limit to what this guy can do—he's just that good.