Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Updated: November 9, 12:00 PM ET
It's really Federer vs. Sampras
You know you've had an amazing season when your biggest stumbling block was a bed. We speak of The King -- Roger Federer. Blogging from Tokyo in October, Rog wrote about how he woke up in the middle of the night "screaming in a state of shock" and proceeded to bang his leg on the sharp wood frame. That didn't stop him from winning the tournament, of course. Or the one after that, in Madrid. Or the one after that, in Basel.
The guy is devouring tournaments like Pac Man with a serious case of the munchies.
As Federer heads into the season-ending Masters Cup next week, which pits the top eight players in round-robin competition, he won't be playing for the No. 1 ranking -- he locked that up months ago. And though Rafa and Roddick will be gunning for him, Federer's stiffest competition is against the player he's most compared to, one of his childhood heroes, Pete Sampras.
Forget Federer and Nadal. The most important rivalry in tennis is between Federer and Sampras. There certainly isn't another topic that stirs the hearts and minds of fans more than the question, Who's better?
The head-to-head record provides virtually no insight. The two played once, in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2001, which Federer won. And you can break down all of their strokes, one by one, but that's subjective (other than the fact, which has nothing to do with their greatness, that Federer is exciting to watch, while Pete induced yawns big enough to be named hurricanes).
Then there are the individual accomplishments. Although Sampras leads in virtually all departments, Federer is quickly closing in. At 25 years old, he already has 44 singles titles to Sampras' 64, and Fed cares more about proving himself week in, week out, than Sampras ever did. In other words: Kiss that record goodbye.
In 2006, Federer put together a masterpiece of a season that overshadows anything Sampras did in a calendar year. He became the first male player since Rod Laver in 1961-62 to reach six consecutive major finals and the first player ever to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open three straight times. Most impressively, Federer came up one match short of the game's most celebrated accomplishment, the Grand Slam, which hasn't been done since Laver in 1969.
But you can throw all of that out. It doesn't matter. There's just one stat that counts when you're talking about Roger and Pete: Who'll end up with the most Grand Slam titles. Sampras has the all-time record with 14; Federer has 9. But short of the Swiss star having another mishap with a bed, that record will fall. The debate will be over.
And Pete knows it.
After Federer won this year's U.S. Open, he received a text message, out of the blue. Sampras wrote to congratulate him. He called Federer three days later to see if he got the text. (Apparently, the world's No. 1 is quick to return tennis balls, not messages.) "Pete said that I dominate the sport more than he used to," Federer told TENNIS Magazine. "It showed me that Sampras is pretty relaxed now. Records are there to be broken."
Perhaps Pete is chill. Or perhaps he's trying to get into Federer's headspace. You know how it goes: If someone is schooling you on a tennis court, one well-known tactic is to gush praise over them in the hopes that he'll relax, lose focus, and ultimately lose the match. It might be reading too much into a man who spends most of his time playing golf and poker. But it's fun to think Sampras is trying to mess with The King to protect his record.
One thing is certain: Federer will continue his march to becoming the best player of all time, and his hero will be watching.