The ultimate debate. An that argument will never come to an end. But what if you wanted to decide it once and for all? Do you really want to know who is better between these two champions? Let us break this down.
When Roger Federer claimed the French Open, people claimed that the debate had been put to rest. Sampras never made it past the semi-finals of the French Open and even that was a rare case. Federer on the other hand made it to five French finals and won one. He had the Career Slam and an Olympic gold. All these stats meant that the Swiss was greater than the American.
Or so we thought.
Comparing two tennis players who played at different periods of time is a cruel, cruel thing to do. Often, you end up believing statistics and ignoring the truth. Comparing Sampras and Federer is not an easy task but Federer’s numbers make it look easy. I’m a die hard Federer fan but I was a Sampras fan too, as are millions of other people. So it is in fact really hard for me to compare these two legends. Now, let us take a look at some numbers.
Federer won his first Grand Slam in 2003 and his 16th in 2010. 16 titles in seven years is a phenomenal feat, even for someone as gifted as Federer. On the other hand, it took Sampras 12 years to win his 14 titles. Between 2005 and 2009, Federer made it to the semifinals of all the Grand Slams. Even if someone breaks his total Grand Slam record, it will be hard to break that one. Sampras, by contrast, was eliminated regularly in the first and second rounds of the French Open and some other tournaments. Like I already said, the numbers make it look like a no-brainer.
But, is Tennis a number-based sport? Is Moneyball involved in it? No, absolutely not. No one could have predicted that Federer would win 16 titles in seven years. He was a good junior player but he was never great. But what happened is out there for everyone to see.
Now, ask yourself a question. Other than Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic of late, do you think that Federer really struggled against anyone else? Federer has made it to a Major final a staggering 23 times and won 16 of them. Out of the seven times he lost, Rafael Nadal captured the trophy six times. The only other man to defeat Federer in a Major final is Juan Martin del Potro. This gives Federer almost an 80% chance to win the title if his opponent in the final is not Rafael Nadal. So, you take one man out of the equation, Federer would have at least won 20 titles by now! Amazing, isn’t it?
Pete Sampras’ task was tougher. He played alongside people who were at their peak. People like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic and Gustavo Kuerten kept tormenting him. Sampras played loads and loads of five set thrillers that could go either way. Often, he was defeated by clay court specialists on the dirt, which is why he couldn’t make it big over there.
The Eras matter
Obviously, Federer and Sampras belong to different eras. But Federer had the advantage of playing in an era which had less competition. Federer’s age meant that he got to play in the era when Sampras’ and Agassi’s careers were ending and Nadal’s and Djokovic’s careers were just starting. This meant that Federer’s competition was a certain Andy Roddick who only has a serve to boast about and a Marat Safin who was way too temperamental.
This gave Federer the edge for about 3 years, and he won eight Grand Slam titles in those years.
Take nothing and absolutely nothing away from Roger Federer. You can only beat who is in front of you and Federer did just that. Federer’s consistency in form and fitness might well be the best in the world of sports. That is one of the main reasons why he has 16 titles now.
Sampras too was not injury-prone. He too was consistent but the competition meant that he always had to put in that extra bit as compared to Federer. So, the eras do matter. If Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were born in different eras, each of them would have won more than 15 majors, wouldn’t they have?
Don’t you have to beat the best to be the best?
Sampras defeated players who were in their prime. Federer didn’t. His first six Grand Slam victories came against five different players. By the time Nadal reached his best, Federer already had 10-11 titles in his bag.
It is unfair to predict that Sampras would have done better than Federer if he had played in this era but then again, who knows?
It wouldn’t be amiss to say that Sampras sprinted towards his titles, but the titles came towards Federer. Having said that, if both these players had to play against each other in their prime, I would predict Federer to take the game. Federer is the most complete tennis player in the history of the sport and he will win the match-up hands down.