Pete Sampras pocketed 14 Grand Slam tournaments during his time at the top and was deemed to be one of the greatest of all times. Not too many thought his record would be broken any time soon but then came Roger Federer – and a couple of others – who zoomed past that tally. What happened, however, when Sampras and Federer played each other?
First things first, how many times have Pete Sampras and Roger Federer played each other?
Just once. It was towards the fag end of Sampras’ career and at the beginning of Federer’s. Federer was only in his third year of Grand Slam tennis while Sampras was playing in his penultimate year on the circuit.
However, Federer and Sampras did clash in a few exhibition matches in 2007, with Federer winning the first one in in Seoul, Korea and then again in Kuala Lumpur in two tiebreaks. The American got one back when he defeated Federer in the final match of that exhibition tour on a fast carpet court.
How did Sampras and Federer Get There?
It was the fourth round match at the 2001 Wimbledon, with Sampras, the top seed, gunning for his eighth title at the Championships.
19-year-old Federer was the 15th seed, entering the tournament as a former junior Wimbledon champion but won just one ATP competition till then – on the indoor courts of Milan earlier that very year.
That win included a quarterfinal victory over Goran Ivanisevic, a Croat who would go on to win the 2001 Wimbledon title – his only Grand Slam win following an emotional final.
When the two met in the fourth round, it was Federer’s first fourth round appearance at Wimbledon and the first time he was playing at the Centre Court. On the other hand, Sampras was on a 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon, having won four titles in a row between 1997-2000.
Sampras had shown vulnerabilities in getting to the fourth round. After being two sets to love up against British wildcard Barry Cowan in the fourth round, he lost the next two before wrapping up that second round encounter in five sets, winning the final set 6-3. Even his other straight-set wins over Plato Cavet and Sargis Sargsian weren’t quite convincing.
Federer had his own struggles but he was still a precocious 19-year-old finding his feet in just his third season of Grand Slam tennis. Coincidentally he met with a similar fate as Sampras in his own second round match against Xavier Malisse; up two sets, he lost the next two before winning in five.
The fifth set score? Also 6-3.
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The Sampras-Federer Match
The first set went into a tie-breaker where Sampras got a mini-break to serve out at the set at 5-4. Federer broke back with a passing winner but Sampras soon had a set-point at 6-5. Federer saved it and got one of his own at 7-6 and while Sampras saved the first, the Swiss got another chance at 8-7 and clinched it this time to lead the three-time champion by a set.
Sampras showed his class by levelling the match at one set apiece, clinching the second set in a hard-fought manner, 7-5. In the third, however, it looked like the American had lost his focus at a crucial juncture.
Serving at 4-4, Sampras looked headed towards an easy hold after running to a 40-15 lead but Federer retaliated well and earned himself a break-point. Getting a chance for an easy overhead smash, Sampras missed the opportunity to hand his opponent the break of serve and a chance to serve out the set. Federer did that easily to go two sets to one up.
The fourth went to another tie-breaker and this time, an easy early miss from Federer gave Sampras a mini-break to take him to a 4-1 lead. Another unforced error and break followed and soon Sampras had four set-points. Sampras converted the first of them to take the match to the decider.
At 4-4 in the final set, Sampras had a chance to break the inexperienced Federer when he played a solid backhand winner on return, but a solid point at the net brought parity at deuce.
A second break point followed, and this was down to a forehand winner on return but Federer held on and retained his serve to take a 5-4 lead. Two more holds of serve followed with Sampras needing to serve at 5-6 to stay in the Championships.
It was Federer’s turn now to dish out the excellence of his returning, winning the first point to a great forehand before Sampras made an unforced mistake to go down 0-30. Sampras won the next point but Federer had a match-point at 15-40 which he converted with another forehand winner.
Unable to believe what he had achieved, Federer fell on his knees, Bjorn Borg style. And once he retired back to his chair, absorbing in the Centre Court’s applause, Federer broke down, the magnitude of the result getting to him.
Watch the highlights of the solitary match between Sampras and Federer played at the 2001 Wimbledon:
What Happened Next?
An exhausted Federer went down to Britain’s Tim Henman in a four-setter in the quarterfinal, but it was Ivanisevic who went on to lift the title by beating Pat Rafter in the final.
Sampras would go on to make the US Open final that year before losing to Lleyton Hewitt but worse was to follow at the 2002 Wimbledon. After a straight-set win in the first round, Sampras lost to another Swiss player, little-known, lucky loser George Bastl in the second round.
A third round at Wimbledon would turn out to be Bastl’s best Grand Slam performance but more importantly an indicator about Sampras’ game. Sampras, who hadn’t won a single ATP title since the 2000 Wimbledon, featured in his final Grand Slam at the 2002 US Open and bowed out of the game soon after that like a true champion – by winning the title at Flushing Meadows to make it his 14th and final Grand Slam title.