When you think of the greatest male players to have ever played the game of tennis, it’s hard not to come up with two names almost instantly; Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. The two men who pretty much dominated tennis throughout the 90’s and the 2000’s respectively, have understandably been compared endlessly as fans seek to establish which one was greater, and if either of them is the greatest player of all time. With the two pretty much level on career stats, the thought immediately turns to which one was more dominant. Who dominated their opponents more, who had more rivals during their peak years, in other words an analysis of the level of competition each player faced during their peak years which I will seek to do through this piece.
There is always that one player who is a rival, an underdog to a great player during his ‘reign’. The two men in this case who provided the stiffest competition to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer were Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal. However, the fact that they were rivals to a dominating player is perhaps where the similarities end. Agassi was a year older than Sampras and started his career at around the same time, thus providing fans with a number of classic encounters throughout the 90s. Nadal, on the other hand is a whole five years younger than Federer, bursting onto the scene when Federer had already won a few Grand Slams and thus assuming the role of a ‘young upstart’ who was out to upstage the great man. The most striking statistic is however, that while Sampras won 20 out of 34 encounters against Agassi, Federer has lost 18 out of his 28 matches against Nadal. While it can be argued that 14 of those matches have been played on clay which is Nadal’s favourite surface, the Spaniard has also got the better of Federer in a Wimbledon final and twice at the Australian Open, thus underlying his dominance in head-to-head encounters over the Swiss legend.
Players who won 3+ Slams
While these were the main rivals of the legends, there were also a number of players during the Sampras era who, while not having won the same number of Grand Slams as Agassi, were stars in their own right. The names of Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker come to mind, along with another contemporary of Sampras and Agassi, Jim Courier. However, while Sampras enjoyed winning records against all three, Edberg and Becker were on the decline when Sampras started dominating post Wimbledon 1993, though his impressive record against Jim Courier is worth noting, having won 16 of 20 matches against the now popular commentator. Federer did not have much competition from such players during his era of dominance, with only Novak Djokovic recently coming to the fore, having won 4 of the last 5 Grand Slams. Federer did have to contend with Agassi for a brief period but this was when the American was well into his 30s and a shadow of the player he once was. Also, while Sampras had to deal with stars on their way out, Federer had to wait for long for Djokovic to emerge, the Serb only posing a serious threat from 2008 onwards when Federer had already won 12 of his 16 Grand Slam titles.
The others (players who have won at least one Slam)
This is perhaps where there is the biggest difference in the level of competition between the two eras. While the 90’s had players who won a slam or two, those were players who perhaps didn’t have the ability to win more slams. Sampras enjoyed a winning record over players like Goran Ivanisevic (beating him in two Wimbledon finals), Patrick Rafter and Michael Chang, though he did have a 4-6 win-loss record against the big Dutchman, Richard Krajicek. Krajicek beat Sampras in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon 1996 enroute to his only Grand Slam title. However, as mentioned before, these players were players who did not always make it at the big stage and probably had the capability to win only those many slams. Federer, though, started off in an era where there were as many as four players with him – Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero – who were all tipped to battle for tennis’ major trophies after Sampras and Agassi had faded away. As 2004 dawned, tennis fans expected an almighty battle among the five, but they were to be left sorely disappointed as Federer dominated his rivals, allowing only Marat Safin to win the 2005 Australian Open as he and Nadal then started to share Grand Slam wins. Roddick was the unluckiest of the lot, having been defeated in four Grand Slam finals by the great man, while Hewitt fell in the final of the 2004 US Open.
Conclusion: It has long been argued that Federer benefited from weak opposition earlier on in his career and only faced some serious competition once Nadal started making a mark. However, nothing can be further from the truth as Federer perhaps faced the most competition at the start of his career when he was still unestablished, and he eliminated the competition before him, denying a lot of players Slams that they probably deserved. There is no way players like Hewitt and Safin deserved to end their careers with just two slams to their name, but it is a testament to Federer’s consistency that he denied them any more titles. If that was not enough, Federer then found himself put under the pump by Nadal and later, by Djokovic. While the debate as to who is greater will probably never be settled, in terms of level of competition faced, Federer edges it for me.