Mats Wilander recently stirred the pot when he inferred that, while on paper and in the record books, Roger Federer may be the best player of all time, the 16-time Slam champ hasn’t necessarily been challenged the way elite players of the past were. Said the Swede: “You have to say that the era when he played was the worst of all time. That’s why he was winning so much…His era had the worst Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 we’ve had‚ the Nalbandians, Roddicks, Hewitts. That’s one of the reasons why Roger dominated so much…That’s the only way I can see it. How can you be that dominant in this day and age? It’s impossible.”
Hall of Famer Pete Sampras, who’s prepping for a Feb. 7 exo match against Frenchman Gael Monfils at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., concurs. To a point, that is.
“What’s happening to the game is that there’s only a handful of great players,” Sampras told Inside Tennis. “There’s a lot of really good players, but there’s only a number of guys who have won majors. In Mats’ generation, in my generation, there were a lot more major winners — Becker, Edberg, Stich, Courier, Agassi, you can go down the list. With Rafa and Roger being so dominating over the years, there’s not anyone else who really believes they can win majors. If it’s a Soderling or a Robredo, they’re really good players, but I’m not sure they believe.”
“As to how dominant Roger has been, how great he’s been; the competition hasn’t necessarily been as great,” Sampras continued. “I’ve never seen two guys dominate as much as Roger and Rafa have. The competition is the competition — there’s nothing Roger can do about it. If he plays [fellow Swiss Stanislas] Wawrinka like he did the other night [in the Australian Open quarterfinals], 1, 3 and 3 in an hour and 20 minutes, it’s not his fault. He’s that much better. Guys are pretty content now just getting to the quarters and are not believing in themselves as far as being able to beat Roger and Rafa. They’re clearly the best players in the world, but they’ve mentally got a really big edge on these guys.”
Sampras’ mid-’90s run of six years as the world No. 1 remains an unparalleled streak. That he pulled it off against the likes of nemesis Agassi, Becker, Courier, Chang, Kafelnikov, Rafter, Safin, Ivanisevic, Krajicek, etc., only makes it more remarkable.
“As far as styles of play, I felt in my day there were some players who were dangerous, who had big serves, who could serve you off the court,” Sampras explained. “I’d play one of those guys one day and the next day play a great returner, versus Roger, who never feels scared out there. He doesn’t feel like he’s under that much pressure. Everyone sort of plays the same; it’s just that Roger and Rafa are just better at it. They just move better. They’re better from the backcourt. It’s very clear to me that no major threat comes through like a Krajicek, an Ivanisevic, guys who could potentially blow you off the court with their serve. You have to admire what these guys have been able to do. It’s incredible. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t look at it like, ‘Wow, they’re not playing anybody.’ They’re playing the competition of their generation and they’re dominating. That’s enough for me.”
And how would an in-his-prime Pete Sampras fare against Federer and Nadal today?
“When you get the top guys from your generation, if it’s me or Andre or Becker, I was going to win my fair share of big ones, they were going to win their fair share of big ones. It’s hard to compare the decades. That said, I think we all would have been pretty even depending on the surface. I don’t think one guy would have been 10-1 against someone. It would be pretty even. My game would certainly hold up I believe in any generation, with the serve-and-volley game. Everyone talks about that game being extinct, but I still think it’s an effective way to play. It would have been exciting, and we all want to compare generations, what I’d do against Borg or McEnroe or Laver, for that matter. It’s hard to compare. The game has changed, technology has changed, but in my prime I felt unbeatable, as does Roger, as did Lendl, as did Laver. That’s the way we look at our decades. To say that one is better than the other? It’s hard to compare, but I felt I came out of a generation that was very, very strong, and I feel proud about that.”
With Nadal on the verge of owning all four major titles at once, Sampras said that while it wouldn’t be a calendar year Slam al la Laver (the last man to sweep all four majors in a single year), there would be no taking away from the accomplishment.
“If he does it, it’s incredible,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest achievements in all of sports in this day and age when the competition is a lot more fierce than it was back when Laver was doing it. It’s hard to believe, honestly, that he’s so close to doing it. He very well could do it. It’s mind-boggling to be that consistent, to win on all those surfaces in a day when the competition is very tough. You’ve got to put him right up there with Laver. Like I said, technically, it’s not January through the [U.S.] Open, but in my eyes he’s going to hold all four of them at one time. No one’s done that.”
Of course, Federer may just be the last man standing between the Spaniard and that seemingly superhuman feat. What advice would Pistol Pete give his big-dollars exo counterpart should the Swiss meet Nadal in the final?
“I’ve always felt playing lefties, Nadal especially…you have to use the whole court, you can’t get it just to his backhand. You have to go wide to Rafa’s forehand, open it up, get it to the backhand. That’s something Roger might try. He isn’t going to do it every game, but second serve, run around and smack forehands and chip and charge a little bit. What Roger doesn’t want to get involved in is long, grinding rallies that are tough to recover from that will take its toll over a five-set match. And Rafa can keep doing that. He has to take his chances, serve and volley occasionally, even on the second serve, because Rafa stands so far back. Just giving different looks. And I know that’s a little uncomfortable for Roger just to get out of that. But against Rafa, he’s forced to do some things that he doesn’t have to against other players. Rafa is that tough for him.”
And Federer will need to avoid being pinned down on his weaker side, his oft vulnerable one-handed backhand, by Nadal’s unrelenting, more-than-formidable forehand.
Easier said than done.
“It’s very tough. It’s what makes Rafa as great as he is,” Sampras concluded. “It’s tough to get control at that point. And once Rafa gets that ball to his backhand, it’s hard. I can tell you from one-handers, it’s the hardest shot in the game for us. What can you do? You’ve just got to try to get it back deep and wait for your forehand, and you can try to chip it, but it’s got to be a good chip. He’s returning Rafa’s serve and being pretty aggressive with it. Once you get one short ball, you have your track shoes on and he’s going to get it to your backhand…It’s an uphill battle once those points happen.”