To Boldly Go Where Others Failed to Go
Roger Federer’s victory at the French Open is something that will be an integral part of how his career is judged. Roger is still a moving target so it is not entirely clear how to judge his place in history, but his win in Paris is a cornerstone if not a keystone for his career.
Federer’s French Open title is that important because he succeeded where others failed. Roger Federer is more baseline oriented than John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras were. Still, aspects of his game are descendants of these fore-bearers. McEnroe’s artistry, Edberg and Sampras’ movement and at times Becker’s emotions are encapsulated in Federer.
I want to quickly examine the best showings that these four champions had at Roland Garros. In 1984, McEnroe likely should have won the French Open before losing a two set lead to Ivan Lendl in the championship round. In 1985, McEnroe meekly bowed out to eventual champion Mats Wilander in the semifinal round. In 1989, Stefan Edberg should have won the French Open as he dropped a two set to one lead to seventeen year old Michael Chang in the final round. In 1991, Edberg entered the French Open as the #1 seed only to lose a four set quarterfinal match to eventual champion Jim Courier. Boris Becker reached the semifinal round on three occasions losing to Mats Wilander in 1987, Stefan Edberg in 1989 and Andre Agassi in 1991. Pete Sampras lost quarterfinal matches to Andre Agassi in 1992, Sergi Bruguera in 1993 and Jim Courier in 1994. In 1996, Sampras lost a straight set semifinal match against eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
With the exception of Becker’s 1989 loss to Edberg, all of those who failed before Roger lost to a patient player with more consistent ground strokes and better clay court stamina. Sound familiar? This was Roger Federer’s fate between 2005-2008. Rather than spreading his losses among the best defensive players of his day, he accumulated four losses to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros along with a slew of losses to Nadal at various clay court events. Repetition of opponent did not buck the overall trend. Roger Federer faced a French Open curse that had not been solved by previous greats.
Roger is more baseline oriented than his fore-bearers, but clearly more similarities exist between Federer and McEnroe than between Federer and Courier. Similarly, Nadal shares a grinding philosophy with Courier, Lendl and Wilander. Federer succeeding where his kindred players failed is a great measure of his career. He did so by being consistent enough to take advantage of an opportunity. McEnroe could perhaps have won in 1982 when Bjorn Borg was retired, Guillermo Vilas was old, and Mats Wilander was green. No one forced Mac to make his charges in 1984 and 1985 only. Becker was in serious contention three times and came up empty. Federer put himself in contention five times and eventually hit pay dirt. Clay rewards consistency; my guess is history will too.
Pete Sampras Changed the Horizons of Men’s Tennis
Pete Sampras won his twelfth major with a straight sets victory over Andre Agassi at Wimbledon 1999. Sampras and Roy Emerson were tied for the most Grand Slam singles titles. Sampras played excellent tennis during the 1999 Summer only to have a freak back injury force him out of the U.S. Open. At Wimbledon 2000, Sampras was hobbled by a foot injury but worked his way through the draw to reach the final. Patrick Rafter was points away from a two set lead, but Sampras managed to level the match in a strange second set tie breaker. Sampras then pounced and took the remaining two sets and sole possession of the all time singles Grand Slam title record with thirteen. Pete did not win another tournament for over two years.
September 2000 saw Marat Safin pummel Sampras in the U.S. Open final. In 2001, Roger Federer eliminated Sampras at Wimbledon in the round of 16, and Lleyton Hewitt made Sampras look slow and old at the U.S. Open. Whispers and doubts mounted as Pete headed into 2002. He lost to Marat Safin at the Australian Open and somehow crashed out of Wimbledon with a loss to a less notable Swiss player, George Bastl.
Sampras ended his career with a magical run to his fifth U.S. Open title and fourteenth major title. Along the way he silenced Greg Rusedski, avenged a Summer loss to Tommy Haas, took his only victory over Davis Cup buddy Andy Roddick and ended his career with a thrilling win over his peer Andre Agassi.
When Sampras decided to retire in 2003, he had to feel that his record number of major titles would stand unmatched for quite some time. Since the 2002 U.S. Open 26 majors have been held, Roger Federer won 14 of those events. Pete’s record being matched numerically and surpassed in terms of variety in under seven years has to be a bit of a shock. Yet, this is no reason to not appreciate what Pete did.
Becoming a legend in a sport is not a zero-sum accomplishment. Usain Bolt’s 2008 Olympics does not erase Carl Lewis’ sprinting career. Roger Federer’s career numbers are already gaudy, but that does not diminish the legend of Pete Sampras. This is true on two fronts: the raw numbers of what Pete accomplished still stand and the psychological horizons Sampras opened for younger players will continue to impact the game.
Here are some of Sampras’ accomplishments. Sampras is the youngest ever U.S. Open champion. He won seven Wimbledon titles in eight years. He finished a record six years at number one. He was ranked number one more weeks than any other player in the Open Era. Pete Sampras played with class, oozed respect for the history of the sport and won big while suffering from anemia.
Prior to Sampras, a young pro might have set an arbitrary ceiling for his career. Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors won eight majors. John McEnroe and Mats Wilander won seven. A young player might think to himself that is what excellence allows for in men’s tennis. Maybe an exceptional player would look at Bjorn Borg’s eleven major titles and think this is the ceiling. After all, Emerson’s twelve majors were won when the pro tour and amateur tour were separated. Pete Sampras sent the message that if a player were talented, self-disciplined and professional, he could exceed the seven or eight majors that seemed to be the best one could hope for in a career.
I think Federer winning fourteen majors on three surfaces in such a short period of time is an almost unreal accomplishment. Federer has achieved the sublime. I am not sure Federer ever would have done this without the knowledge that it could be done in a career. For that knowledge, Federer owes Sampras a thank you.
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