August 26, 2013
NEW YORK - In 2002, at the age of 31, Pete Sampras won the US Open for his 14th and final Grand Slam championship and in so doing, bid farewell to the sport he had dominated for a decade. It is arguably the greatest exit by any champion in any sport (perhaps tied with John Elway and his pair of Super Bowl titles in his last two seasons).
Of course, prior to winning that trophy Sampras’s ranking had taken a dive and few thought he had one more major title in him. His ensuing Open victory and vindication was both a glorious celebration of his unique talent and a not-so-quiet rebuke to the noisy critics in the press who all-too-often want to usher champions out the door lest their age and fading prowess take away their legendary stature.
And now here we are again at the US Open with the man who many claim to be the greatest of all time, Roger Federer – who himself worshipped Sampras while growing up - facing the same kind of relentless questions from the media: can Roger win another big title, when will Roger retire, what’s wrong with Federer, etc.
The comparison of Sampras with Federer is entirely fair as the similar trajectories and accomplishments of their career are striking: both dominated the sport for nearly a decade; they are considered practitioners of a classic, bygone version of the sport; both won their first Wimbledon at age 22; the two share the record with seven Wimbledon titles; Sampras came into the 2002 US Open after a second-round loss at Wimbledon – Federer arrived at this US Open after suffering a similar, second-round defeat at this year’s Wimbledon.
To his legions of fans worldwide, the answer is most certainty, yes, Federer can surely win another Slam. And, to his many admirers that anything short of being triumphant again on the sport’s biggest stages would be an off-script denouement to his brilliant career.
But the harsh reality that Federer is facing is that his chances of securing another Slam are slim – and getting slimmer by the day. And while the background similarities between Sampras and Federer are clearly apparent, the present circumstances for Federer are far more daunting than they were for Sampras 11 years ago.
In 2002 the men’s game was in a period of transition where the competition wasn’t one-tenth as intense as it is now. Consider the top four seeds for the 2002 US Open: Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Tommy Haas and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. These four garnered a total of six Slams in their superb careers (incredibly enough, Haas, who is 35, is still playing high-quality tennis and is seeded 12th at the Open this year).
Sampras knew that if he got on a roll in 2002 he would likely have to tackle only a couple of stellar players – including the seventh-seeded Andre Agassi, his great career-long rival, whom he ended up beating in the final. Agassi was also a veteran at the time, actually a year older than Sampras (32 to 31). Sampras felt that if he got hot that one last time over a two-week period he’d be able to pull it off.
Additionally, even in 2002, Sampras still possessed the greatest weapon in the sport- his timeless serve (it’s arguably the greatest stroke the sport has seen). Even when he lost a step and his lateral movement deteriorated and his backhand errors became more frequent, Sampras could always rely on that near-perfect serve. And sure enough Sampras served beautifully during that 2002 fortnight, especially in the final against Agassi. The stats bear out just how extraordinary Sampras served that day against one of the all-time great returners; 33 aces, a streak of 15 consecutive service points, 10 service games at love.
Now, compare the top seeds at the 2002 Open with those seeded highest for the 2013 Open and there’s just no debate – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray combine for a total of 20 Slams. And this doesn’t factor in the other dangerous players lurking, such as Juan Martin Del Potro, the sixth seed. There’s a reason why so many in the tennis writing community continually refer to this as a Golden Age in the sport.
It’d be one thing if Federer had to only, say, knock off one of the top three players to claim another Open championship. A glance at the draw shows just how tough it’ll be for Roger, as he has a potential matchup with Nadal in the quarters. Granted, if Federer got by Nadal he’d have a relatively easy semifinal before having to take on Djokovic or Murray in the final. But for Federer to beat Nadal, even on a hard court that he loves, is such a mighty proposition and likely out of reach.
This brings us to another key difference between Sampras and Federer. Sampras not only knew that if he played well he had a shot at glory that one last time - he also owned his rivalry with Agassi. Sampras didn’t have an inferiority complex against anyone during the duration of his career.
This is in stark contrast to Federer, who has famously struggled against Nadal, as his 10-21 won-loss record indicates, as well as Nadal’s owning a 8-2 advantage when the two met in the Slams.
If, somehow, Federer does go on to win the Open this year it would be an utterly remarkable achievement in the annals of the sport. It would far surpass Sampras’s accomplishment in 2002.
But it just won’t happen.