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Between The Lines
March 30, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Sampras and Federer
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

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 connected.

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 with Sampras.)

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 forehand error.

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 serve--undoubtedly wisely.

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 needed.

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.

COMPARING ACHIEVEMENTS

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 Wimbledon champion.

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 future year.)

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.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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