"I think this guy (Federer) might win 20 Slam titles. He's the greatest player I've ever seen." - John McEnroe 2005
"It was looking for a while that Federer would blow through the (all-time) record of 14 (Grand Slam titles when the Swiss hit his 12th last year at the US Open), but now it's up in the air and Pete (Sampras) is breathing easier." - John McEnroe 2008
In September of 2002, at the age of 31, Pete Sampras claimed his 14th and final major championship when he defeated his longtime rival Andre Agassi in the final of the US Open, forming perfect bookends to his extraordinary career -- Sampras defeated Agassi in the 1990 US Open final for his first Grand Slam victory.
For Sampras, the victory was vindication and a satisfying rebuke to his many critics who had called on him to retire, having gone more than two years without a tournament victory. It is perhaps the greatest exit from any sporting stage that a champion has ever orchestrated. That 14th Grand Slam title took a while but it’s the benchmark for all future generations of tennis players.
And now Roger Federer, whom many declared the greatest ever to wield a racquet unusually early and whose career has paralleled that of Sampras’, is currently ensnared in a slump of his own and taking aim at that magic number of 14. Federer's quest for an Olympic gold medal ended Thursday when he lost to James Blake in the quarterfinals.
In his groundbreaking 1988 book "On Bended Knee", Mark Hertsgaard examined the role of the press during the Reagan Administration - more specifically how the press became a public relations extension of the White House rather than a necessary check on its powers. Something similar happened in the tennis world in recent years, during the - now declining - Reign of Roger Federer.
Many prescient and astute observers of the sport - media and players alike - prematurely and unnecessarily anointed Federer as the "greatest of all time" after Federer had collected only a few Slam titles. As early as 2005 John McEnroe, Tony Roche and Jack Kramer were saying indeed, Roger is the best ever.
Additionally, competing players seemed to bow down before a ball was struck. It was amazing to witness in press conferences after matches with Federer, the praise from his opponents - a player would say "it was an honor playing Federer," or "to come so close against the best of all time is no shame," and the worst - "I can't believe I won today, that I beat the best player of all time." (Can one imagine players from earlier eras - Connors or McEnroe for that matter - granting their opposition any advantage? I doubt it.)
As Federer collected major titles at an extraordinary pace - capturing at least two per year for four consecutive seasons (2004-2007) - most followers of the sport were predicting upwards of 20 Grand Slam titles for the Swiss maestro as a foregone conclusion. It was very hard to find any seasoned tennis observer, including Sampras himself, who didn't think Federer would easily surpass Sampras' record.
Granted, Federer has played some of the most beautiful and dominating tennis ever witnessed, but why was there such a rush to pin the label best-ever on Federer? How can one declare Federer the greatest, most dominating player ever when his chief rival owns a dominating career record against him?
We inhabit an age in which superlatives are ascribed loosely to even the most mediocre of accomplishments - so in that sense Federer deserved the praise. But consider the case when Rod Laver won his unprecedented second season Grand Slam (all four major titles in one calendar year) in 1969.
The president of the USLTA (now the USTA - United States Tennis Association) Alistair Martin declared Laver the "greatest ever" during the awards ceremony. Yet he did so with great hesitation, saying "... comparing Laver with the stars of other eras may be tremulous with tennis' sacrosanct society." Quite a difference from the lack of perspective exhibited in today's media.
But now everything has changed. Rafael Nadal is about to assume the No. 1 ranking – ending Federer's streak of 237 consecutive weeks at the top. After Nadal's fourth consecutive French Open victory in addition to that once-in-a-generation triumph at Wimbledon last month over Federer, there are rumblings that at the age of 27 The Roger will likely struggle the rest of his career to collect those last few Slam titles. And it will be interesting to see how many reverse their opinions on "Greatest of All Time" if Federer indeed does fail to surpass Sampras' total of Slam titles.
There are several significant similarities between Sampras and Federer. Both won their first major title, Wimbledon, at the age of 22. The two never were able to win the French Open. They both last had a two-Slam title year at the age of 26. They each possess a lethal all-court game and for this reason are beloved by the elder statesmen of the sport. And the two are exemplary exhibitors of sportsmanship on the court. Finally, and most importantly, the pair is now inextricably linked as the consensus two greatest players of the Open Era, if not of all time - which begs for further comparison between the two.
Roger Federer is the most gifted all-around player of the last 40 years - of that there is little debate. The man has no weakness to exploit - save for Nadal's ability to pin Federer to the backhand corner with his high lefty topspin. In addition to being able to win points with his remarkably powerful and accurate forehand, deft volleys and powerful serves, Federer is also a player of rare beauty and is truly ethereal - seemingly competing above everyone else with such ease. It is no wonder that so many have been seduced by this combination of skill and grace and on that basis alone have declared Roger the best of all time.
Pete Sampras, though, was in possession of the greatest single weapon during the Open Era - his serve. Even if Pete's forehand was not up to par or his volleys weren't penetrating deep into the court, he could always rely on his serve. And it wasn't just the speed or location of the delivery. Sampras would routinely back up the serve with unerring volleys or a powerful groundstroke.
Many through the years have wielded awesome serves at high speeds (Roscoe Tanner, Goran Ivanisevic, etc) but never had anyone so dominated service games in as many clutch situations as Pistol Pete. The serve alone carried Sampras to his last few Slam titles, especially at Wimbledon. Boris Becker once commented that it was simply "impossible to break Sampras" at Wimbledon.
So herein lies the difference between these two great champions and the debate: which is more intimidating and dominating - a mighty all-court games which leaves a foe little room to attack or an omnipotent serve causing a sense of utter futility in the returner's mind?
For me, it is Sampras' serve which is clearly the more impressive of the two. Never could a returner rest easy - the player on the other side of the net became more obsessed with holding his own serve, self-imposing mental pressure that was often too much to handle.
Another way to gauge Sampras and Federer's domination during their respective careers is the quality of the competition. It is not Federer's fault that for several years, except for Nadal, nobody pushed Roger. He obviously has no control of whom he plays and Federer's record of 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals and how rarely he was pushed in his victories is solid evidence of his eminence. But one must grant that Sampras faced stiffer competition from a variety of players than has Federer.
Consider - in addition to Agassi, his most celebrated rival, Sampras had to defeat Hall of Famers Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter on his way to Grand Slam titles. Additionally he took on, and defeated, the second-most impressive server of his era, Ivanisevic in two Wimbledon finals. And a quick glance of these players renders the variety that Sampras was up against. Courier and Chang were fantastic baseline battlers. Becker was obviously one of the great grass court players of all time. Rafter, the last of the serve-and-volleyers. Additionally, these were all consistent players. And all of them, except Ivanisevic, were Grand Slam title holders when Sampras defeated them.
Perhaps none of the afore-mentioned Sampras rivals were of the caliber of the sensational Nadal. The rivalry that Federer has built up with Nadal supersedes that of Sampras-Agassi and even Borg-McEnroe. Yet, except for the Spaniard, and a 35-year-old Agassi, Federer's Grand Slam title conquests have been less impressive than those of Sampras’.
Again, no fault of Federer, just the timing of such matters. Granted, Novak Djokovic may one day be an obvious Hall of Fame choice but that is still a year or two away. And what of the others? Andy Roddick never lived up to his potential as a consistent threat and Lleyton Hewitt's counter-punching game never proved to be a source of any danger during the first part of Federer's brilliant career. Federer has also beaten two mercurial and painfully inconsistent players, Marat Safin and Marcos Bahgdatis in Grand Slam finals.
There has been a complete shift in dynamics for Federer now. Players who have been talked about for years are now finally showing promise of emerging as consistent threats in the big tournaments. Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Richard Gasquet, Ernest Gulbis are just a few of the players who are now capable of making extended forays in Grand Slam fortnights - with Murray being the clear leader of the group.
This is good for the sport and will be highly beneficial to Federer's legacy if he is able to sustain a high level of play and engage a new wave of talent. In fact Federer needs more competition if he is to rightfully lay claim to be the title of the greatest of all time.
Roger Federer deserves an Act III of his career. It is evident to all that his days of domination or even expecting him to reach the finals of Grand Slam tournaments have vanished. But if he is able to withstand an extended slump and pull out another one or two Slam victories, especially being well past his prime, Federer should feel contented.
It'd be truly poetic if, in a year or two, Federer would triumph one last time at Wimbledon or New York against his nemesis Nadal and cap an extraordinary career, just as Pistol Pete did against Agassi at that US Open six years ago. But until that time arrives, a measure of perspective is greatly in need when discussing the all-time greats.