May 10, 2006
by Rahul Misra
Pete Sampras (1988-2002): 286 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings, 64 ATP titles, 14 Grand Slams
Roger Federer (1998 – present): 119 weeks at the top of ATP rankings, 37 ATP titles, 7 Grand Slams
Who's better? The answer is not easy. It is perhaps an unfair comparison; after all, how do you decide which of two sporting champions is the more deserving one? Playing conditions change, equipment gets better, opponents are different, styles vary…
Yet, and even though their career paths only minutely intersected, there are millions out there who saw them both play at their peaks and who would love to watch the Pete Sampras of the '99 Wimbledon Final ("Pete could have walked on water today," Agassi had said after a three-set whitewash) playing the Roger Federer of today on Centre Court at Wimbledon. That is the only way to get a sureshot answer, but it's one that we have been denied.
So how do we go about this? Sampras had the better serve and was a better volleyer, while Federer wins the groundstrokes category. A very superficial comparison, don't you think? For there's much more to a tennis champion than the way he handles his racquet.
Let's look at their matches then, the quality of their opponents, their career graphs. It is here that, for me, Sampras wins hands down. For the simple reason that we have the luxury of looking at Sampras' career in totality. We know that he began his career competing with Edberg and Becker, moved on to baseliners like Courier and Kafelnikov, heavy servers like Ivanisevic and Rafter and of course, let's not forget Agassi. We know that he did what he did over and over again, continuously, over a career span of 14 years. And that is what counts.
As for Federer, he has dominated men's tennis in a way rarely seen for the past couple of years. While it's a promising beginning, it's still too early to call the shots in his favour. There have been too many Jim Couriers in this world who have shone with potential only to slip into oblivion a couple of years later. That's the difference between the greats and the greatest. Federer still has to cross that line. As far as his attempts to overtake Sampras are concerned, Federer's challenge is still nascent.
Another aspect which is important here is that Federer hasn't been put to test enough. Perhaps that time will soon come – his Australian Open campaign this year was a little shaky. What puts the best of the best in another league is the ability to pull out that little extra something in face of extreme adversity. Whether it's Steve Waugh's double hundred when he was being asked to retire or Michael Jordan's 38 points while playing with flu in the 1997 NBA finals, the greatest of champions shine when it seems impossible.
Sampras showed us he had that ability – crying his heart out during the changeovers, he won the Aus Open '95 QF against Courier as his coach battled cancer… everyone remembers his marathon QF against Corretja in US Open '96 where he fought extreme exhaustion puking on court twice… and finally, the US Open final against Agassi in 2002, winning his final slam when critics had all but buried him. Federer hasn't found himself in this sort of a position yet. It's quite possible that he'll respond to such challenges the way a true champion is supposed to, but till he does, one can never be sure.
So we need to wait and watch. In my view, Sampras is still the king but Federer has definitely come closer to the high pedestal than most. Whether he succeeds in displacing Pete, only time will tell. For all we know, it might only be a four-month wait. After all, a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam.
And that's the one thing Pete doesn't have tucked under his belt.