by Steve Flink
Back in the spring, not long after Roger Federer and Pete Sampras had agreed to meet in a three match exhibition series which begins tomorrow, I asked Sampras for his analysis of the challenge he envisions from his side of the net. “My goal,” he said, “is to get rid of the nerves and play the tennis that I can play. I am young enough where I can still be competitive and hold my own. I have always felt that my game would match up pretty well against his. Roger will be coming straight from Shanghai so he should be pretty sharp. I am going to have to find confidence as we go along and get rid of the cobwebs. We are at different places in our lives and careers but I know people are going to be curious from a tennis standpoint about what will happen. It will be fun for both Roger and I, but I don’t want people to read too much into it. The best thing about it is that our matches will get people interested and talking so it will be great for the sport.”
Clearly, Sampras will be hard pressed to stay with Federer in these best of three set skirmishes. They will play in Seoul, Korea on November 20, then clash in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on November 22 and finish up in Macao, China on November 24. Sampras is 36 now, and retired from ATP Tour after a storybook triumph over Andre Agassi in the final of the 2002 U.S. Open. He was away from the game for the next three years before he returned to play WorldTeamTennis in the summer of 2006. Thereafter, he worked his way back into much better shape, and began testing himself in exhibitions, elevating his game every step of the way. Among his many victims was Andy Roddick, who was outclassed by Sampras in a pair of sets only weeks after Roddick had reached the U.S. Open final in 2006.
This year, Sampras has won three events on the Outback Champions Series Tour for players 30-and-over, a circuit run by his old friend and former rival Jim Courier. Sampras has looked highly impressive in that setting and has displayed his old penchant for raising the stakes at propitious moments, including a triumph from triple match point down against Todd Martin in the final of the Boston event on the Courier tour. He has also continued to push himself by competing in more exhibitions during the year. But can the man who once ruled the world of tennis so majestically find a way to stop the esteemed Federer, the current ” King of the Hill” who is coming off a fourth consecutive year as the world’s best tennis player? Will Sampras somehow manage to topple Federer? Surely Federer will not want to lose any of these matches because he is every bit as prideful as his American adversary. Undoubtedly, Federer will like his chances every time he steps on the court with Sampras, and he will be entirely confident and relaxed after capturing the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai with a flourish at the end.
What is so intriguing about this series is that the atmosphere figures to be atypical of just about all exhibitions. There has been so much hype surrounding these contests and the situation is so unusual that both players will treat it all quite seriously and compete with unbridled enthusiasm and intensity. These two towering champions are well aware that nothing extraordinary is riding on the outcomes of their battles since the results will not be entered in the official record books, and yet they recognize that the level of public curiosity is so high that they can not afford to take their meetings lightly.
Here is Sampras, the owner of a record 14 Grand Slam championships, the man who resided at No. 1 in the world for a record six consecutive years from 1993-98, the fellow regarded by many in the know as the greatest ever to play the game of tennis. Here is Sampras, the guy who has always lived for monumental challenges, a champion through and through, an individual of rare stock and stature. And there is Federer, an eminent player who has won 12 majors across the last five years, including triumphs in 11 of the last 16 Grand Slam events. There is Federer, the world’s greatest with a racket in his hand for the past four years, a man in search of history whom many authorities believe is on his way to becoming the best ever, as dignified and determined as Sampras always has been.
Examine the achievements of these two icons, recognize their collective impact, and consider how gloriously each man has taken control of the sport in their respective times. That is why so many people are excited about the prospects for the Federer-Sampras battles coming up this week, and their showdown next March at New York’s fabled Madison Garden. Products of different generations, competitors of the highest order, shot makers with supreme gifts and large imaginations, Sampras and Federer do not want to disappoint their fans by playing less than their best brand of tennis against each other. There will be no animosity between this pair of icons but the fact remains that they will approach this series with much more than a passing interest.
They have had only one meeting as professionals, a memorable five set skirmish in the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2001. Sampras had won the world’s premier tournament seven of the previous eight years, and had collected 31 match victories in a row since his last defeat on the lawns at the All England Club against Richard Krajicek in 1996. He had moved just past his prime after breaking the record he shared with Roy Emerson for Grand Slam men’s singles championships on the famed Centre Court in 2000. Federer, meanwhile, was not yet in his prime. He was 19, seeded 15th, a brilliant yet still unseasoned player of vast potential.
In a high quality encounter, Federer held off Sampras 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5. So we got a glimpse of what might have been had they met frequently with both in their primes, had they not been separated by an age gap of 10 years. It undoubtedly would have been a blockbuster rivalry if it had ever taken place, but the game missed out on something substantial, and so did the players. If only Sampras had been born five years later or if Federer had started his life half a decade earlier, one of the great rivalries in all of sports would have taken place and elevated the game of tennis in the process.
Under those circumstances, with both players confronting each other while moving simultaneously through their primes, I have no doubt that Sampras would have more than held his own. His uncompromising serve-and-volley game would have taken Federer out of his comfort zone. The Swiss maestro has never faced an attacking player on the level of a Sampras. It is my firm conviction that Sampras would have bested Federer in a series of matches at every major except Roland Garros, where the Federer ground game would have been too much for the American. It is my view that Sampras is demonstrably superior to any rival Federer has faced in his career, and vice versa.
“Roger and I would have been a great match up and rivalry with both of us in our primes,” Sampras told me once. ” It would have added to our careers and maybe transcended the game. For us to have had two or three years playing in the finals of majors and people wondering who would win would have been fun. He would have had his share of wins and I would have had my share of wins. When I was in my prime and was playing great I felt unbeatable and I a sure now he feels unbeatable when he is at his best now. I can’t sit here and say I would have dominated Roger Federer with both of us in our primes, but I would say that when I hit my highest level I felt unbeatable against anybody that has played the game or is going to play the game.”
Clearly, Federer has a distinct advantage in his upcoming series with Sampras because he is still at his zenith, while Sampras is hoping he can find something resembling his old form, seeking to rediscover some of the old magic of his vintage years. The difficulty for the American will be finding a way to play the matches on his terms, as he once would have done automatically. Against his colleagues on the Champions Series tour, he has served beautifully but the old habit of coming in unrelentingly on both the first and second deliveries has been tough for him to reacquire, and he has not always needed to play serve-and-volley in that forum.
But I am convinced he will recognize that he needs to venture forward at all costs against Federer, to serve-and-volley persistently, to take Federer out of his customary rhythm with calculated risks during the rallies. He will try driving his backhand down the line at crucial moments, cracking his running flat forehand crosscourt as only he can, and chipping-and-charging whenever possible off Federer’s second serve. And he needs to pursue his old policy of going frequently for big second serves, risking a few double faults in the interests of keeping Federer at bay. His plan will be to keep applying pressure any chance he gets, and refuse to allow Federer to operate from the back court with customary serenity.
But even if Sampras employs all of those tactics, serves stupendously, and shapes his strategy almost impeccably, he will still be hard pressed to win any of the three contests at this stage of his life. He might be able to take a few sets off Federer and make it all sparkle when he finds his range and tests his limits. And yet, winning even one of those three matches would be an awfully tall order for Sampras. In any event, even if Sampras is well past his prime now, the tennis will still shine on both sides of the net. Sampras has not given up his Thanksgiving weekend at home with his family to go so far away and simply show up and play reasonably well. He will insist on performing at nothing less than his absolute best, and Federer will apply the same standards.
I can’t wait for it all to unfold.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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