A Tale of Two Number Ones

mimi simoneContributor IFebruary 11, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 27:  Tournament honoree Pete Sampras poses for a portrait with son Ryan and wife Bridgette Wilson during the LA Tennis Open Day 1 at Los Angeles Tennis Center - UCLA on July 27, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Pete Sampras and Roger Federer were both born under the same sign (Leo), ten days apart and they are exactly ten years apart; both men have owned Wimbledon with Pete winning 7 times and Federer holding at 6 (so far…); both men consider Wimbledon their favorite tournament; both men have been dominant number one players.  Ironically, it was Federer who ended Pete’s consecutive streak of titles at Wimbledon.  The two men appear to be tied together.

When Pete Sampras retired, he left a legacy of 14 Grand Slam titles and 286 weeks in the number one spot.  To all outward appearances, Sampras left some large shoes to fill for the next occupant of the number one spot.  Now the shoe appears to have been filled quite capably by Roger Federer, who some consider the Greatest of all Time.  As a fan of the game of tennis, it has been particularly gratifying for this fan to have experienced both the Sampras and the Federer era. 

Sampras enjoyed a quiet dominance at the top of men’s tennis.  He ruled the top spot so effortlessly it was easy to take him for granted.  Pete’s achievements at the top of the men’s game were taken for granted until Roger Federer made an assault on all of the records Pete set when he ruled men’s tennis.  Pete’s mantra to “let his racket do the talking” takes on a new meaning.  He set the bar so high, it took a player of Federer’s caliber to break some of his records. 

It is safe to say, however that many of the records set by Roger Federer will not soon be surpassed, if ever.  As Federer himself has said on numerous occasions, he does not play the game of tennis to shatter records.  He simply plays the game of tennis for the love of the game.  Federer also has said he’s not bigger than the game of tennis.  He has a wonderful sense of the past, present and future of tennis.  From past champions, he’s honored to be mentioned in the same breath with the legends of the game.  In the present, he’s happy and motivated to continue winning grand slam championships.  He has said for the future, he hopes to leave the game enriched by his accomplishments and he is a tireless promoter of the sport he loves so much. 

One aspect of tennis that I enjoy following is the multicultural complexion of the game.  There are few sports, except perhaps for the Olympics where one can find such a large cross section of countries represented.  I embrace the diversity of the sport.

 This is part of the appeal of Federer: with his cultural background (a Swiss father, South African mother) and his command of four languages, he’s one of the most unique sportsmen tennis has ever seen.  He’s a throw back to the Australian sportsmanship tradition, having been trained in his formative years by an Australian coach, so the Aussies always welcome him when he come down under; he’s fluent in French which enabled his acceptance by the French public who cheered him on through 4 French Open finals; his command of the English language, the British cadence one hears in his speech and his reverence for the traditions of the game best exemplified at Wimbledon have ensured his favor with the British public; and he fits right in with the craziness and the vibrancy of the New York crowd and the atmosphere of the US Open. 

For forty-six weeks, Rafael Nadal held the number one ranking during the Federer/Nadal era.  The two men enjoyed a “duopoly” at the top of the game and were taking turns dividing the major titles among themselves.  Federer had such a stranglehold on the top spot, a combination of factors contributed to Rafa reaching the top spot.  Federer’s bout with mono slowed him down and Rafa took full advantage.  He turned in yet another monumental clay court season and when Rafa was able to claim the Wimbledon title in 2008, the doorway was open for Rafa to claim the top spot.  This has been the only interruption in Federer’s occupancy of the top spot. 

One day Federer will no longer be the Number one player in the world.  This is a fact of tennis, sadly.  But the game will have been enriched by his leadership at the top.  This will be Federer’s legacy to the game; because of Federer and his accomplishments in the game both on and off the court, the sport of tennis has received worldwide recognition.  Long may Federer remain at the top of men’s tennis.  As for that Pete Sampras record of 286 weeks at the top, I say to Pete, watch out!  In a few more weeks, that record too will fall and Roger Federer will indeed be the undisputed Greatest of all Time.