There come those moments when historic greats briefly cross paths. Elvis and the Beatles. John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. In tennis, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Over a 20-year period, from 1993 to 2012, these two would between them win 14 Wimbledon singles titles.
But only once did they play each other. It came at Wimbledon, in the round of 16 of the 2001 edition of The Championships. Sampras was the holder, at 29 closer to the end than the start of his brilliant career. Federer was still a teenager, a 19-year-old then seeded 15th.
It was a crackling match. A year later, the grass at Wimbledon would be altered, slowed considerably. But in 2001, Sampras and Federer were each on the attack. Point after point flew by in staccato-like fashion. Each would serve 25 aces.
Though certainly awed to some degree by Sampras, Federer also recognized that the king was not at his best. In the previous round, Sampras had been extended to five sets by 265th-ranked Barry Cowan.
Federer won a first tiebreaker, 9-7. Sampras leveled it, 7-5. Then, Federer 6-4, followed by Sampras 7-5.
Then came the pivotal moment. At 4-all in the fifth, Sampras twice reached break point. Surely the king would kill the intruder and, as he had so many times before, close it out. But as Sampras struck a pass from close range, Federer replied with a reflex volley winner. The second break point, repelled by a forehand winner.
Three games later, Sampras served at 5-6, 15-40, struck a wide serve – and watched a Federer forehand fly past him.
“You know, something great isn’t going to last forever,” said a subdued Sampras. “Today, I came up a little short.”
It would take a bit of time, though, for the new king to take the throne. Federer would lose his next match to Tim Henman. He’d also go out in the first round in 2002. But beginning in 2003, he would win five straight Wimbledon titles.
One moment, two titans.