The Goat War
There are greatest-ever matches, and then there are the rare matches when two of the greatest players of all time face each other. They’re rare because the only way to be remembered as a Goat—“greatest of all time”—is to build up a double-digit Slam résumé, which means there can be only one of these players per decade or so. If Pete Sampras and Roger Federer had been the same age, they likely would have kept each other from amassing 13 and 14 major titles apiece.
As it is, Sampras and Federer played exactly once, at Wimbledon in 2001. As might have been expected, the match went all the way to 7-5 in the fifth. The two were at almost polar opposite points in their careers—Sampras at 30 was about as far down the hill as the 20-year-old Federer was on the way up the other side. The only unpoetic aspect of this match is that it happened in the fourth round on Centre Court, rather than in the final. Otherwise, it was a singular, symmetrical gift from the tennis gods, right down to the handshake afterward. Click above to see the fifth-set highlights.
—Right off the bat we get John McEnroe and Ted Robinson speculating that Sampras having 14 majors would be a “Hank Aaron record”—in other words, one that would last for decades. It sure seemed like it at the time. No one could have predicted that the guy Sampras was playing, who had never even reached a Slam semifinal, would be on the verge of tying it eight years later.
—This was Federer before the fashionistas got to him, as you can see from the party-boy necklace.
—Sampras’ serve is as superior to Federer’s as Federer’s return is to Sampras'. Pete has the heavier serve; Federer takes his returns off both sides earlier.
—Volleys: Sampras shows surprising touch with two drop volleys. He’s still as athletic as ever up there—he volleys with his legs as much as his hands. Federer’s form and hands are as good if not better. Sampras built his game more on the serve and volley, so he relies on it more.
—Federer sounds much younger when he grunts in frustration after hitting a forehand into the back curtain.
—Whether Centre Court was playing faster then I don’t know. I know they began to improve the turf around this time, which would make baseline play easier. Neither of these guys has adjusted their game to that, but Federer of course would in years to come.
—You can’t just say, well it’s a different game because the grass is “slower.” The sport is always a co-evolution between the players’ technique and their equipment. Borg played a heavy-topspin baseline game with a small racquet, but the ensuing bigger head sizes made that game easier, which then inspired the power baseline tennis of, say, Andre Agassi. The players were heading to the baseline at the beginning of this decade; the sport followed suit with slower and truer-bouncing courts, which has only inspired more baseline play.
—I didn’t realize Sampras was so close to winning, with two break points at 4-4 in the fifth. You can hear that McEnroe thinks he’s about to do it. And why wouldn’t he?
—On the first break point, Federer hits the shot of his life, reflexing a backhand volley away from in front of his body. I wonder if tennis history would have gone any differently if he’d netted that shot. On the second break point, Sampras gets a look at a second serve, but hits his return too short. He may have thought Federer was going to come in behind it. Federer didn’t, and he got a good swing at a forehand because of it.
—Federer grunts on his serve more than he does today.
—I’ve finally figured out the word to describe Ted Robinson: Unctuous (did I spell that right?)
—The Sampras era ends because of Federer’s returns in the final game. At 6-5, 15-30, he gets out in front of a backhand return and puts the ball low; Sampras nets the volley. On match point, Federer catches his forehand return early for a clean winner. Today the return is as important to the game as the serve; you can date that change to this moment.
—We may also be able to date the end of American dominance in men’s tennis to this moment. Does it go along with the end of American dominance in the world at large? Just a thought.
—Federer covers his face in surprise and joy afterward and starts to shed a tear. Sampras gives him one of my favorite handshakes—quick, dignified, respectful, eye to eye. It was the right way to end it; maybe Sampras saw the future in that look.
I’ve got one more YouTube post to go, which I may put up Friday. Trust me, it will be great. Maybe the Greatest Ever.