We sports fans love our players, even our eras. We form loyalties based on personal preferences, collections of tangible and intangible factors that, once formed, make us staunch believers. Competition by its very definition is about rivalry, but rarely do we see two players with such surpassing ability appear in the same era. When this does happen it takes a sport beyond its highest pinnacle and redefines what is possible. In the last 20 years, tennis has been witness to two of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports, Sampras/Agassi, and Federer/Nadal.That these two rivalries have followed even overlapped to a certain extent, creates another sort of rivalry - which two players were indeed the greater rivals?
20 Years of Rivalry; Nadal, Sampras, Agassi, Federer
Of Sampras and Agassi’s 34 match ups, 16 were finals, 5 semis, 6 quarters, and 7 RR or the early stages of tournaments. Of the 16 finals, Pete took 9 and Andre 7. Yet that doesn’t really tell the story of Sampras’ overall dominance, because when it really counted, during the 9 majors they contested, 6 went to Sampras and 3 to Agassi. Even more telling, out of 5 Grand Slam finals they contested, 4 went to Pete and 1 to Andre.
The Sampras/Agassi rivalry is legendary. Pete’s first Grand Slam title and last were achieved at Agassi's expense, a fitting beginning and end to this enduring legacy. But much of the rivalry was based on the contrast of Agassi’s flamboyant style and Sampras’ staid personality. They were not exactly friends, which added some spice, but in reality Sampras ruled supreme for six years. Agassi and Sampras played foil to each other throughout their careers, pushing each others ability's,and though their battles are the thing of legend, Andre only challenged Pete’s supremacy sporadically. Yet, in many ways that isn’t important, both were brilliant, changed the way tennis was played and fueled each others games. But this is about a sport, defined by certain rules and structure, with a winner and a loser. Though we can always appreciate brilliance, we must judge it by the standards of the game.
Federer/Nadal have played 22 times, with an astounding 18 of those matches being finals, 3 have been semifinals, and only one, their first meeting, was a round of 32. Roger has 16 grand slam titles to Rafa’s 9. They have played each other 8 times in Majors, 7 being finals. Six going to Nadal and one to Federer. Kind of like stealing gonads off the GOAT.
Though Nadal and Federer have a much more amenable relationship, Rafa has taken it to Roger since their very first meeting. Federer is thought by many to be the greatest ever, but Nadal for all intents and purposes owns him, and there is no doubt Federer feels the pressure. Unlike Sampras/Agassi, there is no surpassing number one between these two.
Agassi and Sampras contrasted each other in virtually every way; personalities, off court styles and style of play. Sampras had one of the best serves of all time, and more importantly had the best second serve of all time. Early in his career he was an all court player that later he earned the moniker Pistol Pete because of his superlative serve and volley skills. It was the greatest one-two knock out punch in the history of tennis, quick, decisive, and well, a bit boring. Agassi on the other hand was arguably the best returner in the game, with powerful ground strokes, and laser like vision, he was the perfect foil to Pistol Pete and his might serve. 1995 saw the early peak of Agassi’s career and a year of magnificent see-saw battles. But then Andre kind of went away for a few years, he was fighting his personal demons for much of this rivalry and his focus was not always on the game as it possibly could have been. In 1999 Agassi returned with renewed commitment, but unfortunately Pete's best year were past, and thus 1999 saw the wane of Sampras. He lost his 6 year hold on number one due to injury and had a more refined focus towards winning Majors. The "all time" record was just on the horizon of his career and he fought desperately to reach it. Though no doubt the rivalry helped hone both players, it and Sampras career were measured and bookended by their first and last major final against each other. No better ending could anyone have asked and Sampras retired on that final victory against his enduring rival.
Sampras/Agassi played 34 times in their storied 13 year rivalry, Sampras winning 20 to Agassi’s 14, but never did Sampras lag behind Agassi in the total number of head to head meetings, and most were not finals. Yet for whatever reason they always brought out the best in each other, each others games, and any foreseen match up's between them were as heavily watched and discussed as any final.
There is no question Agassi is “one” of the greats, but he is rarely mentioned in discussions of the almighty GOAT. Where as it is impossible to have that discussion without Pete Sampras in the conversation.
Federer/Nadal have met 22 times, thus far, Nadal winning 14 to Roger’s 8. Yet only during the first two years was Federer indisputably the champion. Over the last four years ownership of the number one spot has changed hands four times. And though Federer has 16 grand slam titles to Nadal's 9, Rafa has always held a lead in the head to head match ups, and is the younger of the two- thus no clear dominance has been established.
Though Federer and Nadal are friendly and polite with each other, they're style of play is as divergent as was Sampras and Agassi. Federer is slimly built with a superb all court game, unparalleled shot making, movement, and an extremely precise serve, he is classic tennis personified. Nadal, often called The Bull, though that hardly seems a right description considering the beauty of his movement, personifies athleticism with his ferocious aggression, incredible speed, endurance and ability to bend the flight of a ball in ways seemingly contrary to the laws of physics. They are as different as the sun and the moon in terms of style of play.
Unlike the 90's when there were many contenders battling with Sampras for number one and indeed during much of their rivalry Agassi was not one of the top four players. The last 6 years have been a battle between Federer and Nadal, no other player has come close challenging them for supremacy. Oh there has been the rare slips in the rankings, but only to see them come roaring back, easily regaining dominance over the field.
When I began this research I did not think any rivalry could have been better than that of Sampras and Agassi. It was locked in my mind as the personification of the perfect rivalry. As well I am a great fan of Sampras and believe that he would have made this a three way battle if he were ten years younger, but that isn't how it works.
But in Roger and Rafa you have two athletes that well and truly are in the hunt for the best ever. Both with virtually no weaknesses, winners on all surfaces and winners of all Slams. Never have two more complete players ever played in the same era at the peaks of their abilities. That there is a gap between them and the rest of the field should be attributed to their sheer physical genius and not a weakness in the field.
This is, simply put, the era of Roger and Rafa. They have redefined what is possible with a ball and a racket and at the end of the day if they are friends it takes nothing away from the rivalry, and the best part is- there’s more to come. No question Mr. Federer wants his title back, and there is no question the man waiting across the net will be Mr. Nadal. ¡Olé!