Most divine of heirs

Published : Sep 25, 2004 00:00 IST

Roger Federer... going great guns. -- Pic. AP-
Roger Federer... going great guns. -- Pic. AP-

Roger Federer... going great guns. -- Pic. AP-

Roger Federer, at quick glance, bears a passing resemblance to Pete Sampras. Both men are from an older school of behaviour, their manner becoming, their emotions restrained, revealing little of the furnace that glows within them. At best in victory we see difference: Federer collapses to the court, Sampras it appears would never deign to sink to his knees before any man at any time, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Sure, if you take Roddick's serve and Agassi's returns and my volleys and Hewitt's speed and tenacity, then you've probably got a good chance against Federer.

— A possibly only half-joking Tim Henman at the U.S. Open.

WHAT Pete must think? Barely has he gone, his legend still not dry in the record books, the cement not yet set on his pedestal, and already his majestic legacy is being challenged.

What players must think? Barely has it been considered safe to go out on court without fear of humiliation, just when the bruises embedded in their self-esteem by Sampras had begun to fade, and their dreams are in tatters again.

Tennis merely thinks it is lucky, for as coincidences go, Federer immediately following Sampras is somewhat unnatural. After all, it took 25 years or thereabouts for Sampras to arrive to challenge Rod Laver's place in history.

It appeared God did not want to spoil us, and thus his gifts to us (and Sampras and Laver were truly gifts) were measured; it seemed He wanted us to digest slowly the compelling feats of these extraordinary men before he produced another.

And so, when Sampras broke Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles in 2000, aware of how arduous, how disciplined his journey had been, he hinted that his record, while hardly unbreakable, would not be quickly bested. "The next person (who does it) might be eight years old hitting at a park somewhere around the world," he said. "You never know."

What we didn't know, what was beyond coincidence, was that the "next person" was perhaps that nonchalant fellow sharing the same locker room with Pete. Maybe God couldn't help Himself, maybe even He could not wait to see this triumph of his own construction, to see what havoc this Swiss fellow with the girlish clips in his hair could wreak.

Maybe the toughest player I ever play is Pete because he is guy that gives you only one or two chances per match and if you don't take those chance, you finish. But I still think Federer is the biggest talent from all the players I play. I don't know if he's going to win so many Grand Slams like Pete, but definitely he's the most talented player I play.

— Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon 2004.

WE are too quick these days to award greatness. Wayne Rooney plays a few matches and talk of another Pele begins. Sehwag swishes a few strokes and he is labelled the next Tendulkar. But Federer, even on reflection, has put forward a persuasive initial argument that if not one day the statistical equal of Sampras, then at least he is the most divine of heirs.

More tellingly, the very responses of Federer's peers have given legitimacy to the comparison. The Swiss has won four of the last six Grand Slam titles, and they admit, at present at least, he is beyond their reach, and that between Pete and Roger there is little to choose. These men must be listened to, simply because many have played both champions.

Federer, at quick glance, bears a passing resemblance to Sampras. Both men suffer from immobile faces in battle, their eccentricities limited to Sampras' lolling tongue and Federer's constant hair-dressing. Both men are from an older school of behaviour, their manner becoming, their emotions restrained, revealing little of the furnace that glows within them. At best in victory we see difference: Federer collapses to the court, Sampras it appears would never deign to sink to his knees before any man at any time.

But once the first shot is struck the disparities are obvious. In simple terms, the Swiss uses his racquet like a sculptor's chisel, the American like a grave-digger's spade; Sampras limited his caresses to the trophy, Federer's every shot seems to stroke the senses; the American's tennis sounded like martial music, the Swiss' like a hymn.

Sampras' preference was for efficiency, like a carpenter who nails coffins for a living. His game was built on an easy symmetry and clean grace, a man elegantly designed for destruction. As opposed to Federer who appears to tease and torture opponents, death by Sampras was clinical.

If Sampras' racquet spoke in monosyllables, Federer is more a conversationalist on the court. His languid style is easier on the eye, the points seem longer, he seems a fellow more taken by his craft, not so much playing the percentage shot but the shot he feels like (which usually turns out to be the right shot). But his touch disguises his efficiency and he is far more powerful than our memory after a match might suggest.

But there is more than a stylistic difference to these men. Federer can serve (rivals will tell you of his variations and placement) and volley (his repertoire is vast) and move in the forecourt (his balance is beautiful), though arguably not as finely as Sampras.

Everything else possibly Federer does better; no shot seems beyond his imagination, no stroke or angle or change of pace beyond his artful design. He can roll or slice his backhand, hook his forehand short, or hit it with a mix of pace and top spin that is formidable.

And it is this completeness of Federer in technique and variety and invention, his improbable marriage of finesse and muscle, that separates him somewhat from Sampras, that suffocates players into believing he has too many options for them. As Lleyton Hewitt said last week: "He's really great on all surfaces, (with) no real weakness."

This year, Federer won successive tournaments on grass, clay and hardcourt, a streak of stunning versatility. Now even Laver is inclined to believe he could be the first man after him to win the Grand Slam, all four in a year. "He has the potential to pull it off," said Laver. "I would think he can (win the French). Winning on clay is a mind game and he has the anticipation and knowledge when he plays the ball. He reminds you of the old guard."

Q: Do you feel like anyone today, with Federer like that, could have done much better than you in the U.S. Open final?

Hewitt: Well, I don't think anyone in the actual tournament. Maybe Pete Sampras.

BUT if Federer moves us with his all-round grace, then Sampras stirred us with his single-minded pursuit of history. We might be convinced he owned lesser gifts than the Swiss, but he expressed them completely. With him, over time, little was lost in translation; after all, they took him to 14 Grand Slam titles.

Marat Safin said this year: "Pete was mentally the strongest player on tour." Indeed, no one in modern times has grasped the idea of "winning" more completely than him. Whether cramping or vomiting or injured or faced with a big point, Sampras mostly found a way. His pressure was unrelenting, and as Andre Agassi put it: "Pete could always let one ball go from the baseline and it would get you in trouble right away, or he could come forward and make you hit a pressure shot in a crucial situation over and over again."

Federer has won four of four Grand Slam finals he's contested; in Sampras' prime, between 1993-1997, he won nine of 10 Grand Slam finals he had contested. He was the champion of the long haul, and as Jim Courier once said: "Staying No. 1 for six consecutive years is an incredibly demanding thing. Pete was able to stay healthy and hungry and continue to win in a very competitive time." And it is only here we are unsure of the Swiss. He has had the perfect year almost, winning nine tournaments so far (Sampras won eight twice, and 10 once), among them three Grand Slam events (Pete won two in a year four times). But can Federer stay the distance?

To over-reach Sampras, Federer may not require 14 Grand Slam titles. Twelve would do, if at least one is at the French. Still, he is so damningly good that his peers admit 14 is a possibility. Said Henman: "I wouldn't bet against it." Said Hewitt: "He's a got a chance."

But desire dries. The body rebels. Form hiccups. Riches spoil. Complacency comes visiting. Rivals bristle. Fame confuses. Great players have strode the stage and then fallen for so many reasons; in modern times only Sampras of Becker and Edberg and Lendl and McEnroe and Connors and Wilander has won over 10 Slams. It is a feat that is beyond overestimation but in Federer's presence we get so giddy we sometimes underestimate it.

We give thanks to Federer, for he has transported us on a tennis journey that is unique, for the times told us such a player was not possible. He is the most beautiful, the most complete, of practitioners with a racquet I have seen, but Sampras in the Open era is still the greatest to ever wield one. The Swiss has stolen our affection, but the ghost of the patrician American still strides the courts of the world. Pete Sampras will not be easily budged from his place at the head of the class.

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