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Across the Net: Who’s The Man? Sampras vs. Federer II
Posted by ikabod Crane on 10.30.2006

This Week in Tennis

Roger Federer won his hometown event in Basel Switzerland taking his 11th title of the year. Maria Sharapova on another title too. Mario Ancic won in St. Petersburg Russia and Richard Gasquet won in Lyons France. Fernando Gonzalez reached his third tournament final in three weeks and deserves mention even if he is 0-3 in those finals (2 of them were vs. Federer so give him a break).

Sampras vs. Federer II

There are a lot of young guys coming up but Roger is a bit extra-special - he has a great all-round game, like me doesn't get too emotional and is a great athlete.
- Pete Sampras

Sampras said this after losing his only encounter with Roger Federer at Wimbledon 2001. Federer won 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. I would not put a lot of weight into that match because both were a long way from their respective primes, but I would put some stock into the quote due to who issued it.

Last week's column looked at the historical accomplishments of these two great players. However, we all know that statistics can be deceiving so this week looks at their attributes and how they would match up at the four Grand Slams as well as on indoor courts. I do want to preface this by saying both players are great and excel/excelled in just about every facet of the game. So when I give one or the other an advantage on a specific technique it is not intended to tear down the other player. However, as Highlander taught me there can be only one ….

The Tale of the Tape

Height: Federer 6'1" Sampras 6'1"
Playing Weight: Federer 177 lbs. Sampras 170 lbs.
Current Age: Federer 25 Sampras 35

Physical Tools/Athleticism

Balance: Federer
Sampras had great balance, but Federer has the best balance I have seen. Sampras ranks 3rd behind Federer and Stefan Edberg.

Hand Eye Coordination: Federer

Leaping Ability: Sampras – Recall his Slam Dunk overhead

Sprinting Speed: Sampras – Sampras' athleticism should never be underestimated

Stamina: Federer – Sampras suffers from a form of anemia common to Greeks.

Strength: Federer – Federer's more powerful backhand is a testament to better upper body strength

Stroke Production

1st Serve: Sampras – The best right handed serve ever

2nd Serve: Sampras – Remarkably tough under pressure

Return of serve: Federer – Among the best ever

Forehand: Federer – Pete's running forehand was awesome, but Roger can do that and a lot more with his forehand.

Topspin Backhand: Federer – Major edge to Roger here. His backhand is harder to pick on than Pete's was and also serves as a legitimate weapon against all, but the elite baseliners.

Slice Backhand: Federer – Pete did chip and charge effectively, but Roger seems to be able to do that and draw a lot of errors when slicing during rallies.

Volleys/Overhead: Sampras – Both volley with grace, but occasionally dump(ed) easy volleys. However, Pete came in more often so I have to figure his net game was more battle tested.

Passing Shots: Federer – Both could hit great passes from the forehand wing, but Pete's backhand passing shots could be victimized by a forward thinking player.

Mental Attributes

Pete Sampras played tennis like a great pitcher in baseball. He knew it was difficult if
not impossible to break his serve. He would vary his placements and follow up his serve
with aggressive play. Sampras would often bide his time waiting for a game in which his
opponent would give him an opening to break serve. Pete was confident enough in his
serve to coast through some return games. He was very opportunistic when returning
serve. If his opponent played a loose point or two he would raise his game a notch and
try to take the break of serve. All the while his serve was often the equivalent of pitching
a shutout.

Roger Federer plays tennis with more of an artistic imagination than Sampras did.
However, one should not be fooled by his awesome creativity and friendly demeanor. Federer is often ruthless on the court. Once he gets on top of you by a little he pours it on. Consider that at the
Australian Open this year he split the first two sets 5-7, 7-5 and then won the next two
sets 6-0, 6-2. Federer took a 6-0 set off of Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final. Federer
jumped out to a 5-0 lead on Roddick at the U.S. Open final and won the fourth set 6-1.
Federer wins a lot of sets 6-0, 6-1, or 6-2. Once he gets an inch he takes a mile.

Each mental approach is very effective at putting pressure on the opponent. Sampras
plants the seed that one bad service game can cost you the set. Federer plants the seed
that if you don't play well all of the time you are going to lose quickly. Federer's logic
seems to be "If I win quickly I save energy for the next round." Sampras's mentality is
more that "I can save energy by only trying to break serve when the other guy is off."
Sampras was 14-4 and Federer is currently 9-1 in Grand Slam Finals. Obviously, both
mental approaches work very well (if you have the game to back it up).

Likely Tactics – I asked a former pro who has coached the U.S. Davis Cup Team and
various elite players over the years about how Sampras and Federer would play one
another. This answer is not his answer, but he certainly raised some interesting tactical
options that I would not have considered otherwise. His two pieces of advice that I
would not have considered were for Sampras to volley behind Federer at times so he
could not anticipate the cross court volley and for Federer to save a lob for a big point
because Sampras got too close to the net at times. Both excellent pieces of advice.

Sampras: Get to the net as often as possible and make Federer hit a lot of backhand
passing shots. Chip and charge or go for out right winners off of Federer's second serve.
Avoid Federer's forehand during rallies. Try to shorten points and make Federer play
defense at all times.

Federer: Hit to Sampras' backhand as often as possible. Try to take the net (and
Sampras' main strategy) away from Sampras and make him hit backhand passing shots.
Get every return possible back into play in order to limit cheap points. Make stamina a

Australian Open – Slow Hard Court

The slow surface would likely tip things solidly in Federer's favor. Federer is very hard
to ace on any surface let alone one that takes the bite out of Sampras' serve. Pete was 0-2
vs. Agassi, and his returns, down under. Also, the Australian heat along with the
pounding a hard court gives ones joints might make stamina a factor. Federer would
likely win 8 out of 10 encounters in Melbourne.

French Open – Slow Clay Court

This is the most lopsided of the potential match ups. Sampras' main tactic of
dominating with his serve would be impossible to use against Federer on clay. Federer
would dominate the longer rallies with his superior ground strokes and stamina. Federer
would likely win 10 out of 10 encounters on clay.

Wimbledon – Fast Grass Court

Sampras would gladly choose this surface over the first two. His serve and volley game
would put a different sort of pressure on Roger than he could muster on the slower
surfaces. Having said that Roger could turn the tables on Pete and take the net away from
Sampras and force Sampras to his great returns and passing shots. Federer's serve would
be harder to break on grass than it is normally and this would put added pressure on Pete.
Also, Federer is very hard to ace even on grass. At the 2005 Wimbledon final, Federer
out aced the biggest server in this era – Andy Roddick. One could surmise that Federer's
serve is underrated, but he also got a lot of returns in play vs. Roddick. One could expect
the same thing vs. Sampras. If Pete did not win the point on his first volley, Federer
would likely have a great chance of hitting a passing shot. At Wimbledon 2006, Federer
played huge serving Thomas Berdych and serve and volley players Mario Ancic and Tim
Henman. Federer won all three matches in straight sets. Federer would likely win 7 out
of 10 encounters on grass.

U.S. Open – Fast Hard Court

This would likely play out in a similar fashion to Wimbledon. Sampras would in some
ways benefit from the more sure footing a hard court affords. Also, Sampras was
undefeated in night matches at the U.S. Open. Cool night air is a lot less taxing than
playing during the heat of the day. Still Federer's return would likely put constant
pressure on Pete who is accustomed to coasting through a lot of his service games. The
pressure of winning three sets off of Federer when every game is being contested would
also weigh on Sampras. Having said that this surface would allow Pete to attack Roger's
serve more than he did on grass. I see Federer winning 6 out of 10 encounters on a fast
hard court.

Fast Indoor Court

The controlled climate and fast surface give Sampras his best chance of winning vs.
Federer. Sampras could keep points short which would take away a lot of Roger's
Imaginative shots. Also, Sampras' serve on an indoor court would likely be unbreakable
during most service games. The indoor court would also reward Sampras' sprinting
speed and leaping ability while minimizing Federer's stamina advantage. Sampras also
played indoor events more frequently than Federer has. Under these circumstances I
could see Sampras winning 6 encounters out of 10 on indoor courts.

Final Talley

Federer 35 Wins
Sampras 15 Wins

Sampras would likely be frustrated by his inability to ace Federer as often as he does
other players. If any point went beyond three shots, Federer would hold the advantage.
Thus, Federer's ability to limit Sampras' cheap/short points would ultimately do Sampras
in more often than not. Still if one eliminated the clay court encounters, Sampras would
win 15 compared to Federer's 25 wins which is a lot better than most have done.


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