Sampras versus Federer

Sampras versus Federer

Now that Pete Sampras has taken his place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the time seems right to measure his championship qualities up against those of Roger Federer. It is too bad that their paths crossed only for a brief stretch on the ATP Tour. The two great champions met only once in head-to-head competition, in the penultimate year of the American’s career. Sampras was then just shy of 30 and he was in the midst of a long slump. He had not won a tournament since Wimbledon the previous year, and he would not win another event until the U.S. Open the following year.

Federer was only 19, two years away from winning his first major at Wimbledon, a bright young prospect who was just beginning to figure out how good he could be. So here was Sampras, hoping to win a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and an eighth overall, but unmistakably past his prime. And there was Federer, a rapidly evolving player with striking shot making capabilities, but not yet in the summertime of his talent. Nevertheless, they put on a sparkling display that afternoon against each other. The match was first class, the tennis was often dazzling, and both competitors acquitted themselves well.

In the end, Federer narrowly held back Sampras 7-6 (6), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 in a gripping and exhilarating round of 16 showdown. Both men had their share of chances in this contest. Sampras had a set point with Federer serving at 5-6 in the first set tie-break but the Swiss was calm under pressure. Sampras thought Federer’s first serve was long on that set point but there was no call, and Federer calmly moved out in front. Sampras took the second set, and then they went to 4-4 in the third. Break point down, Sampras served-and-volleyed, and Federer’s return hung tantalizingly in the air. Sampras could not resist going for one of his trademark leaping overheads, but he misplayed it. The set was soon gone.

The fourth set was settled in another tie-break which Sampras took comfortably, and then the two players traveled to 4-4 in the fifth set. In that critical game, Federer fought off two break points, depriving Sampras of the opportunity to serve for the match. With Sampras serving at 5-6 in the fifth, Federer broke through to seal the triumph, finishing the task with one of his patented forehand down the line return winners. The most intriguing thing about that match was Federer’s style of play. He serve-and-volleyed frequently on the first serve and mixed it up on his second serve. He was much more willing and eager to attack at that stage of his career. Perhaps that can partially be attributed to the faster grass courts of that era, but to some degree it was simply a case that Federer was more comfortable going in behind his serve in those days— no matter what the conditions.

That battle was a glimpse of what might have been if these two magnificent players had competed against each other with both in their primes. Now let’s examine an imaginary series between them at the two biggest tournaments in the game. Let’s pretend that both men are 25, right smack in their primes, fully fit and competing with confidence. Here is how I would see that series playing out.

At Wimbledon, in a seven match series, Sampras would be victorious five times. He would have won three times in four set matches and twice in five set clashes, while Federer would have recorded one five set triumph and one in four sets. Why? Federer would have been hard pressed to keep Sampras from constantly bearing down on him. In my view, Sampras had the best first and second serves in the history of the game. At his best, he was virtually unbreakable, and Federer, despite his superb service returns, would not have had much success against that supreme delivery. Sampras would have relentlessly served-and-volleyed while Federer, who plays no one in today’s game with that brand of attack, would have found himself in a bind as he tried to keep his returns low enough to thwart the hard charging American.

Federer–with his deceptive and well-placed first serve backed up with a typical barrage of penetrating forehands would have done a good job holding his own serve against Sampras. On the Wimbledon grass, even with the slower courts used in today’s game, Sampras would have come at Federer forcefully and made him hit the kind of passing shots Federer is rarely asked to play by his current rivals.

A series at the U.S. Open would have ended up— in my view—with Sampras taking four of the seven contests. Sampras would have come through with three five set wins and one more in four sets. Federer would win twice in four sets, and once in five. On the hard courts, Federer would have had more of a say in the shaping of the battles. His ground game would have rewarded him more and he would have made it more difficult for Sampras to press forward and take command at the net. But the tennis would have been almost out of this world. Sampras would have shown off his incomparable running forehand, and he would have demonstrated his versatility up at the net, exploiting the conventional punch volley as well as his underrated drop volley with regularity.

Federer would have operated largely from the back of the court, taking advantage of his brilliant inside-out forehand to get to the weaker side of Sampras, taking control of points from that side. Overall, Federer would have been the better man from the baseline but Sampras would have been superior at the net. Sampras would have the edge on first and second serves, and his volley off both sides would have been better than the Swiss maestro’s.

Just for the fun of it, let’s imagine Federer and Sampras confronting each other at the French and Australian Opens. On the clay in Paris, Federer would have a distinct advantage. He would be very comfortable from the baseline and would have more opportunties to break serve. He would win five of seven clashes. At the Australian Open on hard courts, Sampras would prevail in four of seven contests.

So, in the four major events, Sampras wins fifteen times with Federer victorious on thirteen occasions. This dream match up would have been a delight for fans all across the globe. The two players would have pushed each other to the hilt. Sampras is clearly a greater player than anyone Federer faces today, and Federer would have tested Sampras in ways none of the American’s other rivals were capable of doing. Sampras and Federer competing against each other with both at their best, would have been breathtaking stuff.

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    What nonsense..u are quite clearly an illiterate american braying your pathetic biased views across this page…its a REAL SURPRISE nobody has ever posted a comment probably because noone has read this rubbish b4!!!Not surprising!! For all ur laurels sir, u forget the fact that agassi who played both in their prime clearly gave the vote to federer inspite of having a very close friendship wid sampras and he just won a fourth straight u.s open to boot so shut ur trap!!!

  2. Jordan

    Even though Sampras is obviously past his prime, now, how do you think the three exhibition matches they have coming up at the end of the month will pan out? Can Sampras even take one?

    For anyone who doesn’t get the tennis channel, they will be playing the matches online at

    Anonymous, for calling some one illiterate, you sure do have a lot of typos and misspellings. Your reasoning as to why Federer would be better than Sampras in his prime is based on the OPINION of Agassi, just as Mr. Flink’s OPINION is in favor of Sampras. Maybe you should try forming your own opinion instead of just following what Agassi says.