The glitterati were well represented among the 19,000 watchers filling
Madison Square Garden, March 10. Also prominent courtside was the magnificent Davis
Cup trophy, recently recaptured by the Americans for the first time since Pete
Sampras's greatest performance, in 1995.
The occasion was the U.S. rendition of the current Sampras-Federer series--the
fourth meeting after three played in Asia late last year, all on indoor hard
courts. Federer had won the first two meetings, but then Pete won in Macau
behind wonderfully aggressive play. Equaling the marvelous setting at the Garden
was the evening's tennis, which featured a quality and style of tennis unusual
nowadays, good-natured behavior by the two principals, and an inescapable
undercurrent of drama bearing on the places of the two men in tennis history.
FEDERER d. SAMPRAS, 63 67 76
It was evident that neither player intended to lose, especially Federer,
whose credentials seemed most at stake. Still, there were a few hints that the
competition was less than deathlike. Each conceded a point when a linesman's call
seemed mistaken, for example. And there were occasional instances where it
seemed that a player unnecessarily allowed a point to lengthen, thereby
improving its entertainment value.
Sampras's tactics were well suited to the fast and sometimes erratic bounce
produced by the Premier Court surface. Pete served aggressively, collecting
many aces and unreturned serves, meanwhile coming to net behind every first and
second serve. Pete's overhead game seemed as potent as ever, his volleying and
half-volleying strong if slightly less skilled than at his prime. In games
where Roger served, Pete came to net whenever possible, opening the way with
sizzling forehands or backhands. When backcourt rallies developed, Sampras
typically took the initiative early with extreme-velocity rockets that usually
For his part Federer was mainly content to stay in back court, showing his
own agility in running down Pete's volleys and scoring often with passing shots.
Federer's serving was nearly as potent as Pete's, and Roger used his serve
to set up his own aggressive ground stroking. Unlike Pete, Roger seldom forced
his way to net, but he willingly advanced if opportunity beckoned. In
preparing to receive serve, both men stood in rather closely--Roger in order to cut
down Pete's time in serve-and-volleying, Pete to facilitate forays forward behind
his own serve-return.
Sampras at first seemed slowish and below par, and Pete lost the opening game
behind his own serve after leading 40-15. Federer preserved that advantage
for the rest of the set, holding his own serve strongly (except in game six when
he twice lost points in coming to net). Concentrating well, Roger closed out
the first set with a second service break. Of the eighteen points during the
set where Roger managed to return Pete's serve, Roger had won thirteen.
During the interval between sets, tv talker Justin Gimelstob tried to
interview both players sitting courtside. The interruption revealed the intensity of
Federer's match concentration, as Roger was at first confused by what was
happening and then became annoyed. (After the second set, Gimelstob talked only
There were no breaks of serve in the second set but plenty of heavy hitting
and extreme spin from both men. Points were longer as both players gained in
familiarity with the difficult bounce. In the set-ending tiebreak game, the
serving player won every point except one--the first point, lost by Roger on a
Federer won the first two games of the deciding third set, breaking Pete's
serve with two serve-return winners and two passing-shot winners. It looked as
if the match was Roger's. But in game four Roger contributed four quick errors,
and abruptly the match was again even. Pete held serve at love in game five,
and in the first point of game six Pete claimed net behind his serve-return to
volley away a winner. Under the severe pressure Roger's nerves seemed to fade
and, with them, the Federer forehand. Roger sailed three forehands outside
the lines to give Pete the service-break advantage. Pete next held serve to
reach score 5-2, Pete having won 18 of the preceding 22 points.
But Roger now overcame the tenseness born of his desperation, managing to
save himself with some fine serve-returning in game nine and four consecutive
aces to win game ten at love and deadlock the third set at five games all. Pete
threatened Roger's serve in game twelve but, looking winded, watched as Federer
volleyed away the game-winner. Then in the deciding tiebreaker, Sampras
gained an early minibreak by blasting successfully in a baseline rally. Federer
soon equalized with a fine serve-return winner off the backhand. Finally at
six-points-all with Sampras at net, Pete gave Federer an extra, fatal opportunity
to pass, and one point later, now with Federer at net, Pete missed a
passing-shot try. The verdict could not have been closer.
Summing up the play, it seemed to me that in several important court
situations, the two were surprisingly evenly matched. When both men were in back
court, Pete's aggressive use of power essentially balanced Roger's superior
mobility, agility, and avoidance of error. Meanwhile the many points with Pete at
net and Roger in back court were split between the two men roughly evenly. Both
excelled in the short points when serving, where both profited heavily over
the other by scoring many aces and unreturned serves.
Plainly it had been far more than an exhibition. Sampras, despite his
tiredness and occasional light manner (which had seemed to bother Federer in their
meeting at Macau), showed some dazzling tennis--at an overall level certainly
stronger than in many of his performances late in his active career. Roger
meanwhile seemed at about the level usually seen in early and middle rounds of
tournaments. The difference at the finish was probably Pete's ten additional years
in age. The suspicion remained that in best-of-five-set play, especially in
hot weather outdoors, Roger's small edge would enlarge.
INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI
Federer seemed his usual self in winning his first three matches at Indian
Wells the next week. Benefiting next from a withdrawal by his quarter-final
opponent, Roger was well rested for his semi-final meeting with the tall American
Mardy Fish. Roger's stunning defeat by Fish came as a shock, especially in the
completeness of Mardy's domination.
The unseeded American, who at 26 was the same age as Roger, had reached the
semis by defeating five players including Davydenko, Hewitt, and Nalbandian.
Against Federer, he unleashed an aggressive game built on power serving and
stroking, consistently taking the initiative away from the world's #1. Mardy's
first serves were strong and effective, though his in-court percentage was low.
More important was Mardy's second-serving, where the deceptiveness and weight
of his deliveries regularly kept Roger on the defensive. Meanwhile in his
ground-stroking, Mardy's forehands and backhands almost unfailingly carried severe
pace and excellent placement to the sides. Like Sampras at the Garden, Mardy
came forward with little abandon behind his own strong ground shots and also
sometimes behind his own returns of second serve. By both Sampras and Fish, it
had been first-strike tennis, extremely well performed. An important
difference was that, unlike Pete, Fish only occasionally came to net directly behind
But Fish's tactics and execution only partly explained the debacle. Equally
telling was the dismal number of unforced errors by Roger, both backhand and
forehand. Often these errors occurred early in points, especially in returning
serve, often under only moderate pressure from Mardy. Amid his own errors and
often shortish offerings, there could be little effective attacking by Roger. I
cannot recall ever watching a less effective performance by Federer. Fish d.
Federer 63 62.
What has happened to Federer? Since his triumph at Masters Cup last November,
Roger has barely held off the challenge of Sampras, and he has lost at
Melbourne Park, at Dubai, and now at Indian Wells. Is Roger still weak from the
illness that sidelined him prior to Melbourne? His impotence against Fish strongly
suggested that this is the case. If so, a period of extended rest would seem
But a few days later it was a different Roger in his first match at Key
Biscayne, Miami. His opponent, Gael Monfils, brought his customary superior court
speed and capacity for extreme power. But Monfils could not deliver the
sustained and accurate weight of shot shown by Fish, and Roger was able to move
comfortably into his shots and unleash his penetrating forehand as of old. Indeed,
after achieving a safe lead Federer began regularly coming to net, as if
preparing for greater challenges ahead.
It seems possible that we are seeing signs that the career of this great
champion has crossed its zenith--that newer players are now capable of threatening
Roger more than occasionally. But it is also likely that many great moments
lie yet ahead for Roger. In comparing his career accomplishments with those of
Pete Sampras, next, we (1) examine where both men may ultimately stand in
tennis history and (2) suggest a likely pattern in Roger's late-career years.
Federer and Sampras were born almost exactly ten years apart, so that their
active careers overlapped only briefly, when Roger at age 19 won their only
meeting--a five-setter at Wimbledon in 2001 which ended Roger's four-year run as
The two are closely similar in their career achievements to date. The almost
universal--and probably the best--yardstick for such comparisons is in the
winning of Slams and other prime tournaments. Pete is the all-time leader in Slam
crowns but Federer shows an edge in comparing consecutive-five-year periods.
Here is their career tally of Slam and other prime triumphs. (Note that the
financially rich Grand Slam Cup, which is no longer held, can here be deemed
roughly equivalent to a Masters Series event.)
Slam crowns: Sampras 14, Federer 12
Year-ending event (Masters Cup) crowns: Sampras 5, Federer 4
Super Nine (Masters Series) crowns: Sampras 11, Federer 14
Grand Slam Cup crowns: Sampras 2
Olympics crowns: none
Davis Cup MVP: Sampras 1 (1995)
#1 ranking for year: Sampras 6 times, Federer 4
The best five-year periods of both men fall at identical places in their
respective careers. During 2003-2007 Roger won 12 Slams and 4 Masters Cups,
finishing #1 in the annual standings four times. Pete, in comparison, during
1993-1997 won 7 Slams and 3 Masters Cups, finishing #1 in all five years.
If Roger stopped competing today, the greatness of both men as champions in
tennis history would be roughly equal. Both would probably be seen among the
several other megastars who are usually placed just behind Rod Laver. Federer of
course has the chance to add to his career achievements, potentially
surpassing Pete and possibly even Laver in the minds of most viewers. Note that
subsequent to his reaching Roger's present age of 26, Sampras won four more Slams
including his last at age 31. If Roger can equal or exceed Pete's late-career
record, everyone would surely place his full record higher than Pete's.
Future achievements in two important areas would especially help lift Roger
ahead of Pete. Neither star can presently claim a championship at Roland
Garros, but Roger was a strong runner-up there in the last two years and should be
among this year's favorites. (Laver won Garros twice, in his Grand Slam years
of 1962 and 1969.) Also significant would be Roger's leading Switzerland to a
Davis Cup triumph, matching Pete's heroic role in 1995. (The recent success of
Switzerland's #2 player, Wawrinka, age 22, in reaching the quarters at Indian
Wells and extending Soderling at Miami, raises hopes for Switzerland in some
Comparisons of the greatness of Sampras and Federer remain open. The close
results in the current head-to-head series have probably weakened Roger's
credentials slightly. To Roger's credit is his current willingness to face Sampras
repeatedly on Pete's best surface. A Sampras return as wild-card entrant at
Queens and Wimbledon 2008 would be fascinating.