Sampras versus Federer – A comparison …

Now that Rafael Nadal seems on the highway to becoming the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in a few years, it is appropriate time to confirm if Roger Federer is indeed the current GOAT. There are several former greats who are mentioned in the GOAT discussions regularly, Bjorn Borg (3 years of winning consecutive French Open and Wimbledon titles, something out of the World, until “Federal” started doing it 3 years in a row), Rod Laver (the great man having won 2 Grand Slams! and having lost a lot of years to the ban on professional players), apart from Sampras and Federer. Laver’s time was before the real mainstream popularity of the game and also the great man himself insists that though he is “one of the”, he is not “the”, Greatest Of All Time. Well, anyway, his time was so long ago, it is impossible to really comment on it. Also, he won predominantly on Grass. Bjorn Borg could never tame the Hard Court, though he came close multiple times.

Sampras and Federer.

Following are reasons why I feel that as of this moment, Roger Federer is the GOAT.

(01) Records/Statistics:

How can one talk of Federer and not mention the plethora of records he owns.

– Most Grand Slam Titles (16. Best in history)

– Most Grand Slam Finals (16 + 7 = 23. Best in history)

– Consecutive weeks as No:1 (237 weeks. Best in history. Next highest is 160 by Jimmy Connors!)

– Career Slam Winner (Won all 4 Grand Slams. Sampras has never been to a French Open Final, let alone win it. Federer has been to 4 French Finals, outside of his lone win)

– Consistency in Grand Slams (An amazing streak of 23 (!!) consecutive Grand Slam Semi-Final appearances across Grass, Clay, Rebound Ace and Cement. A still ongoing streak of 28 consecutive Quarter-Finals. Streaks of 10 and 8 consecutive Grand Slam Finals. All are best in the history of the game)

– Leads Sampras in total ATP titles (And ties him in Year-End Championships)

– Career Win Percentage (At this point, well leads Sampras)

– ATP Master Series Titles (Well leads Sampras)

– Match win % for the year (Federer owns 3 of the Top 10 % in history, with Sampras not in the Top 10 at all)

– Consecutive matches won (Federer had two streaks of 41 and 35, well ahead of Sampras.

– ATP total points in a year (When we compare Federer’s best year to Sampras’ best year, Federer has almost double the points, highlighting how much superior he was throughout the year)

In the Major categories, Sampras does lead Federer in two:

– Total weeks as No:1 (Sampras has 286 weeks, to Federer’s 285)

– Year-End No:1 (Sampras has 6, to Federer’s 5)

To summarize, Federer easily beats Sampras in terms of statistics.

(02) Closest since Rod Laver to a Grand Slam:

We have to keep in mind that Grass was the prevalent surface during Laver’s time. It was not like present where the Grand Slams are on Clay, Grass and two types of Hard Courts (one rubberized and one cement). It is definitely much tougher nowadays to achieve a Grand Slam. Even then, Federer missed a Grand Slam in 2006 and 2007 by a grand total of 1 match (losses to Best Clay Court Player in history, Rafael Nadal, at French Open Finals) and in 2009 by 2 matches (losses to Rafael Nadal at Australian Open Finals and Juan Martin Del Potro at US Open Finals).

(03) Impact on the game and off-court impact:

Roger Federer is a student of the game. He mingles well with players and has won the Stefan Edberg Sportmanship Award 5 consecutive years. Why is this a big deal? Because it is voted by the current players, I.e. Peers! He spends a lot of time promoting the game (E.g. Inaugurating the Shanghai Egg-Nest Tennis Stadium and other ATP promotions) and gives Press Interviews very liberally. He runs his own Charity and is actively involved in its operations and organized a Hit For Haiti Tennis Exhibition with other Tennis players. He is the most visible and recognizable Champion Tennis has ever seen.

(04) Aesthetics:

Only a blind man would claim to not love the grace and fluidity of the Federer game. As complete an All-Court game the sport has seen. Even Rod Laver claimed that watching Federer gives him the most pleasure as a Tennis fan. His one-handed backhand (Meant to be his “weakness”!) is a thing of beauty. He has all the shots in his arsenal and more (How about the famous “Tweener”, which he has successfully executed multiple times in Grand Slams). Many a magician has played the game, with Miloslav Mecir being an example, but none of them could win titles and create records as proficiently as this Champion. Imagine grace and beauty along with the killer-instinct, in one player. That is Roger Federer.

(05) The best Clay-Court player of his generation, if not for You-Know-Who:

History has seen a lot of Champions: Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors etc. who failed to tame the Clay Courts., but have won on all the other surfaces. Federer is definitely not one of them. In 2004, after his loss to Gustavo Kuerten, he retooled his Clay game and there after only 1 man (almost) has stopped him at French Open and other Clay Court Tournaments, Rafael Nadal. As Andre Agassi says regularly, even though a subjective argument, does anyone believe Federer would have only 1 French Open Title (still way better than the Champions mentioned above) had it not been for his Nemesis. 4 French Open Finals, 1 French Open Semi-Finals and 1 French Open Quarter-Finals. He has (almost) hardly put a foot wrong on Clay.

Clay is an unrelenting surface where a single big weapon will get you nowhere. A huge serve means nothing on it. You need to have the range of shots and the acumen to create openings, a great ground game and above all boat-loads of patience.

(06) Deeper ATP Tour:

A common argument being said is that Federer bullied a weak field of players. Tennis has expanded a lot and is expanding every year. More countries, players, coaching camps, technology, fitness regimen etc. I have never heard of a player (current or former) saying that the game is easier now than in the past. Nowdays the quality of the opponent in the 1st Round itself is such that you could lose to anybody if you are not on top of your game. With such a background, Federer’s consistency truly approaches the stratosphere. In my opinion, Federer should not be penalized for dominating the field in such a manner that he hardly ever lost to a player he had no business losing to (More on that later). His opponents appear weak because, other than Novak Djokovic and Del Potro, no one was able to break the strangle-hold of Federal on Grand Slams, 26 between them! It is more a testament to his/their dominance than to the below par quality of his opposition.

Consider two players, A and B, whose games are such that their matches are always close. So, A and B ends up sharing the available titles. It appears like a great rivalry.

Consider two other players, C and D, with C dominating D so much that C almost wins at will.

Is D worser than A and/or B? How can we know? One can never know for sure. A player can play only the opponent facing him. He/She has no control over who makes it to that round or the “quality of the talent pool” etc. It is very subjective to say “opponents were weaker etc.”. Also, it is not that easy to compare across eras. That is when we have to turn to experts and statistics. More on Experts later.

“Quality of rivals”. Two players playing each other, depends on their games and how well it matches, mental strength, court conditions etc. Players adapt to an opponent and conditions. It is very tough to say if A or A’s tough opponent, B, will beat D easily or not. Records are the most objective method to evaluate a player, barring all the other subjective notions, like opinions, impressions, taste, superstitions, grudge, hair-style, wardrobe etc. which will all vary a lot.

(07) The Nadal factor:

It sure looks bad when we try to claim Federer is GOAT when he is having a 8-17 record against Nadal. Whats up with this? Let us look at it more closely.

The 8-17 record is so skewed because Federer is a much better player on Clay than Nadal is on Hard-Courts/Grass. What do I mean by that? Federer is a very good shot (until recently) to reach all the Clay Finals…, where, guess who he plays? The best clay-courter in history. (A high % of Federer’s losses to Nadal are on Clay. The record is not so skewed if other courts are considered). Whereas when Federer reaches all those other Grass/Hard Finals (until recently), he plays a variety of players (including Nadal). The difference is the consistency. The Clay one is 12-2 (out of overall 17-8)!

For good or bad, taking nothing away from Nadal, Federer has a beautiful one-handed backhand which does not gel with the Nadal special (loopy and high spinning backand above shoulder-height) on clay (especially). Imagine having to hit one-handed backhands over the shoulder over and over, when the opponent is such a heavy hitter, with super spin on the balls.

Right now, Federer is still the GOAT. But as I say, Nadal is well on his way …

(08) Not losing to players you are not supposed to:

Federer won his 1st Grand Slam at Wimbledon 2003. Since then his GS losses have been:

– David Nalbandian (US Open 2003, 4th Round. A solid player who has won Year-End Championship and has a very good record against both Federer and Nadal)

– Gustavo Kuerten (French Open 2004, 3rd Round. 3-time French Open winner)

– Marat Safin (Australian Open 2005, Semi-Finals. 2-time Grand Slam winner)

– Rafael Nadal (French Open 2005, Semi-Finals)

– Rafael Nadal (French Open 2006, Finals)

– Rafael Nadal (French Open 2007, Finals)

– Novak Djokovic (Australian Open 2008, Semi-Finals. 2-time Grand Slam winner)

– Rafael Nadal (French Open 2008, Finals)

– Rafael Nadal (Wimbledon 2008, Finals)

– Rafael Nadal (Australian Open 2009, Finals)

– Juan Martin Del Potro (US Open 2009, Finals. If not for injury, a real threat to Federal, as per Experts)

– Robin Soderling (French Open 2010, Quarter-Finals. A loss that should have been avoided, even though Soderling is the only man to have beaten Nadal at French Open)

– Thomas Berdych (Wimbledon 2010, Quarter-Finals. A loss that should have been avoided)

– Novak Djokovic (US Open 2010, Semi-Finals. 2-time Grand Slam winner)

– Novak Djokovic (Australian Open 2011, Semi-Finals. 2-time Grand Slam winner)

– Rafael Nadal (French Open 2011, Finals)

So, the point is, Federer has only lost to Soderling and Berdych, as players he should not have lost to, in the period from 2003-11! That is just amazing. Now let us look at Sampras from 1990 (his 1st Grand Slam) till 2002 (his last). He has lost to players like:

– Theirry Champion (I dont recall much of this “Champion”)

– Tim Mayotte

– Jaime Yzaga (!)

– Gilbert Schaller (!)

– Magnus Norman

– Karol Kucera (?)

– Ramon Delgado (What?)

– Andrei Medvedev

– Todd Martin

– Galo Blanco (Wow!)

– George Bastl

Well, you get the point. It is not easy to stay injury-free and at the top of your game, for each and every Grand Slam. Hence my pure amazment at the 23 successive (!!) Semi-Final streak of Federer.

(09) Game has slowed down and a fast-court player like Federer does not have distinct surface advantage any more:

There has been a distinct shift in ATP Tour priorities. They moved to “more rallies” (against “ace wonders”) and slowed the courts a lot. Grass is more closely trimmed and balls are heavier. Also, with today’s racket technologies (wider racket with looser strings), it is suicidal for a player to be pure Serve and Volleyer. That explains why Federer was Serve & Volley player in 2003 Wimbledon and gave it up since 2004. ATP thinks (correctly) that spectators like to watch more entralling rallies than bang-bang-wham matches. This is also why the Indoor Carpet surface (where Federer would have been almost unbeatable) is no longer in prominence nowadays. Recall that this was a surface where fast-court greats like Sampras/Becker shined a lot in their time. Hence the trickling down of Kracjicek/Ivanisevic/Stich/Kafelnikov etc. Ace-Machines to just Isner/Querry/Karlovic nowadays, and these guys get out in the 1st rounds itself :-). You just need to look at the wear and tear on Wimbledon grass in 2nd week to see where players play from. In the 1980s (and prior), the W&T was mostly near the net. Nowadays it is near the Baseline. So, even Wimbledon nowadays is not meant for fast players and mimics a French Open in its slowness. My point is: Surfaces which would have given Federer a distinct advantage (based on his game) are no longer there whereas a player like Nadal has one Grand Slam and 3 Masters on his favorite surface (the surface which shows his game in the best light). Imagine Federer’s record if faster courts were around.

(10) What fellow greats say about Federer:

First up, Sports Illustrated’s article about GOATs.

Ken Rosewall: “If you gave Roger Federer the old wooden racquets we used, I think he would still be very, very good. I would say the level of his play at the moment is at the highest standard you could hope to get.”

Pete Sampras: “He is the greatest – I have to give it to him – some people say Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal but Roger has won all the majors and he’s going to win a few more. I am amazed at what this guy has been able to do. He is so consistent. I won a lot of majors, but was never this consistent. Roger is a stud”

Boris Becker: “I believe he is the greatest player of all time – he has won grand slams on all four surfaces. He is only 27 so he has a couple of good years left in him. His all-round game makes him so special and he really doesn’t have a weakness.”

John McEnroe: “Roger is just the greatest player of all time. He is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen and I don’t ever get tired of watching him. Rod Laver is my idol, Pete Sampras is the greatest grass court player ever, but Roger is just the greatest player of all.  I think we can all appreciate how incredible he is even more lately, because he’s shown a bit more emotion on court and he’s become a father so he seems a bit more human, more relatable. That makes what he’s doing seem even more amazing.”

Jimmy Connors: “It’s certainly a different style of game that they play now, more of a power game. But that’s the way the kids are taught now. They’re taught growing up with big racquets, and to play one way, which is to hit the ball hard. And if that doesn’t work, they try to hit the ball harder [smiles]. That’s why I kind of like watching Federer. He’s an old school player with a modern day game. And he’s able to mix his game up and change gears if need be, to try to offset his opponent when one thing doesn’t work. To do that and have the results he’s had the last four, five years is pretty strong.“

Stefan Edberg, in 2010: “He is not done yet. The best player ever. Yes. Federer and Nadal have taken the game to another level”.

Marat Safin: “The most complete player I have every played against.”

Mats Wilander: “ In terms of what he has done for the sport, he is definitely the most important tennis player of any time”.

Andre Agassi: “Roger is the best I’ve ever played against. There’s nowhere to go. Roger makes you play on the edge. You need to play the craziest tennis you’ve ever played. Pete Sampras was great. I mean, no question. But there was a place to get to with Pete, you knew what you had to do. If you did it, it could be on your terms. There’s no such place like that with Roger. ‘He’s changed the game … he’s raised the standard. To me he’s the best of all time – maybe Nadal has a chance in his career to prove differently, but right now I think Roger’s the all-time best, and to watch what he did against Djokovic was so special, so good for tennis, and I think, win or lose, he has so much to be proud of.”

Jim Courier: “He’s quite the most complete tennis player that I think has ever played in the men’s game. Roger in the locker room is I think pretty unique in terms of players of his stature. I have several friends who are still playing on tour full time. They talk about Roger minutes before he’s playing a grand slam semi final. They’ll still be there playing doubles, and he’ll be listening to their ipods and asking them what their favorite new songs are. And this is literally minutes before he’s going out to play a prime time semi final grand slam match. . .Roger just has this very light energy around him. He’s not a tortured artist by any means. He’s someone who loves being around the courts. Loves hanging around tennis, loves talking tennis, loves being in this world. And it’s this very special lightness of being that I think the other players marvel at because he doesn’t show any mercy when he plays. But he knows how to make people feel comfortable around him. And for many, many years there were champions whose M.O. was to make everybody else uncomfortable. So it’s a very different energy that he brings to the table.”

Rod Laver: “We can only completely comment once Roger retires. He is definitely right up there and is definitely the best of the Open Era. My greatest pleasure as a tennis fan has come from watching Roger play. He can play at the net, he can play at the baseline, he’s got moving, he’s quick. Yeah, the competition is just unbelievable now.”.

Well, Roger Federer, Thank you for the wonderful Tennis memories. The above is my hat tip to a wonderful career.

Adios …

3 thoughts on “Sampras versus Federer – A comparison …

  1. Steve Mallory

    I enjoyed reading your well written, well researched, and well reasoned piece. I think only one player can be equally well proposed as the greatest ever: Bjorn Borg. His three back to back French/Wimbledon wins rank as such an astounding feat — especially considering the depth of talent in his era. And the only possible knock against him is his lack of a US Open title. But other than that, he’s hard to argue against. But it’s so close between the two, for sure. So my dream fantasy match-up would be to see them play 3 times at Roland Garos — with a two day rest between the matches — and the same at Wimbledon: 3 times with a two day rest between matches. Wouldn’t that be great? Well, one can dream, right!

    1. True, Steve 🙂 That 6-match series would be something. And I wish in that case that Wimbledon be made a true “grass court”, not one which changes to a clay court after Week1.

  2. rich

    Federer had to defeat tiger tim. Sampras had to defeat agassi, edberg, hewitt, courier, ivanesevic. federer has met his match now in djokovic nadal and murray (on head-to-head). that ‘s why the grand slams are drying up. watch the tennis without beinv blinkered and watch some highlights of sampras’ all round game.

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