This is not a ranking, but very important to me as a huge tennis fan: On a very regular basis (preferredly after tough losses) Roger Federer`s tremendeous achievements are discussed in a very disrespectful manner. Again and again it is stated, how much harder Pete`s way to glory was compared to Roger`s, 2003-2007 is labelled the weak era of tennis. That`s why I decided to examine their competition, Sampras`and Federer`s opponents on their way to Grand Slam glory.
Beforehand I would like to point out that I am aware that such comparisons can only be valid to a certain extend due to the changes of surfaces and racket technology. But I`m going to put this under the microscope anyway. Let`s start with the argument nobody ever dominated Sampras like Nadal did it with Federer. Certainly true, but lets have a closer look at that: I`ll pick Andre Agassi as main rival for Pete, definitely an all time great; Sampras won the majority of their encounters. Federer`s rivals are often referred to as “not in their prime” when they lost to the Suisse. But was Agassi in top form the whole decade? I think not! Divorce, lack of motivation, drugs etc., if you ask me Andre concentrated on tennis in the new millenium more than ever before and I`m not so sure, Roger`s victories over him are less valuable than Pete`s.
An even more crucial factor about the theory of Sampras dominating his main rival unlike Federer are the surfaces. Sampras always preferred the fast courts, Agassi had the edge on slower courts. But the US guys almost exclusively met in New York and Wimbledon -superfast in the 90s- to fight for the big titles. Federer wasn`t so lucky and couldn`t show his advantages on fast courts against his main rival. Most of the duels with Nadal were on clay, Wimbledon in the second week seems more like green clay these days, Melbourne and Flushing Meadows have also been slowed down considerably. The bad matchup with the extreme lefthander topspin on a one-handed backhand plays it`s part, too. I certainly see a problem there and although I`m probably not entirely objective, these are valid reasons not to rate the lopsided H2H too high.
Anyway…now let`s have a look at their draws that led them to Grand Slam glory. In such discussions I often get the impression that Sampras was forced to wear down at least three all time greats at their best every single time whilst Federer only met amateurs. Let`s see…
We associate the 90s with many illustrious names like Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, Becker, Courier, Chang, Edberg, Ivanisevic and Stich. Many players with even more Grand Slam titles. But have they all really been that outstanding and did Pistol-Pete really have to beat all of them all the time?
Let`s compare with Federer`s opponents and ask ourselves why during his reign there are so few multiple slam winners to find? Was the field really that much worse than in the 90s? Or was it rather due to the fact that never before in the history of the tennis sport two players took away all the titles, because they were simply too damn good? Sampras left something for the others, in addition the oh so tough competition won most of their titles outside Sampras prime. But very logical that the names sound more illustrious that way.
So now it`s really about time to check if I`m talking nonsense here or not. I am going to pick the relevant, familiar names; the first rounds of both champions can be disregarded most of the times.
By James Phelps from USA (Pete Sampras) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- US Open 90: Sampras beats old Lendl, even older McEnroe and Agassi on fast hardcourt. Nice win, but two of them not in their prime and the surface advantage.
- Wimbledon 93: Agassi, Becker und Courier. Andre had slipped in the rankings, so not really focussed on tennis; Becker and Courier are multiple Grand Slam champions, but lets be honest here…Becker was a little weaker than Sampras in every aspect of the game and already declining. Courier was a good baseliner, but in Wimbledon on fast grass? Plus he was also a little over the hill already.
- US Open 93: Now it`s getting funny: Chang, Volkov und Pioline. Chang with a playing style maybe comparable to Hewitt, but how the one should be tough competition while the other one isn`t, is beyond me. And I`ll better not start commenting on Volkov and Pioline in the semis and final.
- Australian Open 94: Gustafsson (who is that???), Courier in the autumn of his career and Todd Martin. Also not that impressive. Or are we calling Todd Martin fierce competition now? I personally feel that the Söderling or Berdych type is a much less pleasant opposition.
- Wimbledon 94: Chang, Martin und Ivanisevic. About two of them I have said enough and good old Goran…well, he had a good serve. What else? Isner and Karlovic come to mind now, although they were never allowed to get that far in Wimbledon, or Roddick and Phillipoussis if I`m gracious. They had brutal services, too and were additionally able to strike the ball from the baseline much better than Ivanisevic. And while we`re at it let`s not forget about Richard Krajicek, he was simply nothing but a big serve, no good groundstrokes at all. Certainly nasty to play given the fast surface, but Federer`s canoneers actually could stand their ground from the baseline.
- Wimbledon 95: Riddicolous til the semis, then again Ivanisevic and Becker, the latter far from his prime.
- US Open 95: Courier in his career`s winter and Agassi. Strong against Andre but once again the surface suited him more and virtually no serious combatant til the final.
- US Open 96: Ivanisevic and Chang. Like I said, big names, but if you look a little closer, they`re both very limited.
- Australian Open 97: Probably the funniest draw: Costa, Muster and Moya, the three claysketeers on hardcourt. Can think of a similar draw for Federer.
- Wimbledon 97: Becker almost retired, Woodbridge (WTF!) and Pioline (WTF!).
- Wimbledon 98: Phillipoussis, Henman und Ivanisevic. Fedex had to deal with the first two either and they have been labeled as weak, very narrow win over the Croatian without groundstrokes.
- Wimbledon 99: Phillipoussis, Henman und Agassi: The Aussie won the first set and dominated Sampras, unfortunatley had to forfeit due to injury. Once again on his favourite surface against Agassi.
- Wimbledon 2000: Gambill, Voltchkov und Rafter. Come on now -I really liked the Australian- but it was never ever that easy for Federer to get to a Slam!
- US Open 2002: Roddick, Schalken und Agassi: Roddick not yet in his prime and just an amateur anyway, Schalken (Yeah, right!) and Agassi. Andre so old, of course doesn`t count. By the way again on a fast court. When did Sampras dominate his rival on a slower court?
So this was Sampras competition. Now look at Federers draws and compare:
By elyob (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- Wimbledon 03: Schalken (remember Sampras), Roddick und Phillipoussis.The latter as I said with brute services on fast grass and dangerous forehands. I personally think this is much harder than these pure servers Sampras had to deal with.
- Australian Open 04: Nalbandian, Ferrero und Safin. The Argentinian, blessed with pure talent and a feared opponent, weared down in a tight match. Ferrero was a solid baseliner, certainly not weaker than Ferrer currently and Safin was in brillant form that week. What he was able to do then, we all know…yet he didn`t stand a chance.
- Wimbledon 04: Karlovic, Hewitt, Grosjean und Roddick: Two tiebreaks against the big serving Croatian, very tough fourth round where a lapse in concentration can cost you dearly. Hewitt a former Wimbledon champion, Grosjean…well, not worse than Voltschkov. And I repeat, Roddick definitely not easier than Krajicek or Ivanisevic.
- US Open 04: Agassi, Henman und Hewitt: Age certainly catching up on Andre there but still very dangerous opponent and Sampras had many easier quarterfinals for sure. Sampras had to get by Henman, too and blowing Hewitt off the court like that didn`t happen too often. Lleyton was strong at that time and badmouthed only because Federer demolished him a few times. But that doesn`t do justice to him at all, Hewitt proofed his skills often enough.
- Wimbledon 05: Gonzales, Hewitt, Roddick. Gonzales not that good on grass, but Sampras had easier draws in Wimbledon.
- US Open 05: Nalbandian, Hewitt und Agassi: Andre almost retired, but three serious opponents. Admittedly this might have been the easiest draw for Federer to achieve grand slam glory,though.
- Australian Open 06: Mirnyi, Haas, Davydenko, Kiefer und Bagdathis. The Cypriote is often used as an example for the weak era, but look at this draw. Mirnyi in the third round, then five setter against an in-form Haas. And especially Davydenko…it must be a joke that the Russian hasn`t won a slam, insanely strong player, very clean ballstriking! And Federer had to defeat him quite a few times for a slam title. Kiefer was talented but I admit, that was a comfortable semi final. Bagdathis had a dreamlike week and wasn`t nervous at all in his first Grand Slam final, played the tournament of his lifetime and won the first set. So even though he wasn`t constantly on top for years, he was a tough opponent in this final.
- Wimbledon 06: Ancic, Björkmann, Nadal. Ancic was good back then with a big serve and solid allround game, Björkmann see Volkov / Voltschkov, and Nadal. Yeah I know, he had to develope his game (always looks the same to me…roll eyes). But he reached the final and is always hard to beat. Sampras hardly ever played against players in their prime, thats just the way it is, it all evens out.
- US Open 06: Blake, Davydenko, Roddick: So this is what weak competition looks like, whew! Blake defeated Nadal in New York, Davydenko ultra-strong and Roddick on home soil. Not at all amatter of course to get through this!!!
- Australian Open 07: I am going to concentrate on runner up Gonzales here. The chilean was not a permanent rival of Federer`s, but Fernando`s level at this tournament was simply unbelievable. He defeated Del Potro, Hewitt, Blake, Nadal and Haas consecutively in brillant fashion, kind of destroyed them (especially Nadal!). That wasn`t a whit worse than what Djokovic or Murray are able to play, probably even better. He was strong in that fnale, too, yet again he didn`t stand a chance and lost in straight games. While haters use the Australian Open 2007 to proof a weak era I personally think this is a perfect example for the deep field and strong competition Federer had to deal with and shows what a beast he was in his prime.
- Wimbledon 07: Ok, Ferrero and Gasquet not that hard, but winning the title over main rival Nadal, nothing to complain about.
- US Open 07: Isner, Lopez, Roddick, Davydenko, Djokovic. Two big serving challenges in early rounds. Roddick in the quarters sounds hard to me, nuff said about Davydenko already. And shooting star Djokovic in the final. Why he shouldn`t count as tough opposition there, although he became Australian Open champion just a couple of months later, is beyond me. Now come on, such draws with five big obstacles can`t be found for Sampras.
- US Open 08: Djokovic und Murray. Both absolutely settled as worldclass players, yet Federercomes out on top again.
- French Open 09: Haas, Del Potro und Söderling. Nadal with an early exit, but two five setters and a convincing victory over in-form Söderling under the highest possible pressure (THE one chance to complete career grand slam). Who knows what would have happened if Nadal had gotten through to the final, but I may as well ask what would have happened in Wimbledon 2008 without the affect of mononucleosis on the Suisse`s season preperation.
- Wimbledon 09: Söderling, Karlovic, Haas und Roddick. Three canoneers and highly skilled Haas. Here again I do not see where Sampras had better competition. Additionally way out of prime Roddick defeats the oh so much better tennis player Murray. How is that possible?
- Australian Open 10: Davydenko, Tsonga und Murray. I distinctly remember this one, the Russian was in brillant form and was considered as the favourite. But the Maestro overcame him again. Must have been the toughest quarterfinal ever! Tsonga currently counts as top notch competition, was probably even stronger in 2010, yet he didn`t have a chance. Murray worldclass for years gets schooled in straight sets.
- Wimbledon 12: Aging Federer -also known as Olderer- beats “the strong era guys” in their primes and becomes No. 1 again. No need to say much more…what a performance by the greatest male player of all times. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it!
The bottom line is that clearly Roger Federer did not profit from a so called weak era and Sampras did not have better opponents at all. Players like Gonzales, Philipoussis, Davydenko or Roddick are evaluated unfairly. If you look behind the numbers of their titles, they were all very skillful and suffered a lot from the Maestro, who constantly delivered as it had never been done before.
Look at Davydenko who troubled Nadal a lot, unfortunately they never met at Grand Slams. Philipoussis beat Sampras 96 in Melbourne and Roddick defeated Djokovic pretty often despite declining already.
Additional reading: Top 10 Best Tennis Rackets in the World
It also became obvious that Sampras did actually not beat three all time greats consecutively in their primes all the time. No, there were countless no names in his draws, and thats just normal. It was and will always be that players meet each other in different stages of there careers and everyone sometimes profits and sometimes suffers from this. It should not be taken as an excuse, one just has to cope with it. I think the fact that Federer won Wimbledon 2003 on fast grass against a big server/hitter and almost a decade later on a slow grass court against a member of “the strong era” -who additionally favors slower surfaces- is more than a hint that Roger did not take advantage of a weak era. You can of course discuss about the GOAT, but he did set up like four dozen tennis recors for a reason. So please stop blaming Federers competition, if there is something like a weak era, its currently going on, where physical shape is more important than attacking and the field behind the top five players is in a disastrous state.