On Sunday, Roger Federer tied Pete Sampras with 64 ATP tournament titles, the most by a player whose career began in the last 30 years. Though most tennis writers have all but ceded the crown of "greatest ever" to Federer, Busted Racquet decided to look in-depth at the 64 wins of Sampras and Federer to see whose resume was more impressive.
First, we broke down the victories for both players:
Federer wins in almost every metric, aside from wins on carpet and indoors. (The ATP doesn't have as many carpet events indoors as it used to.) Advantage: Federer.
Sampras was mediocre, at best, on clay. The only good tournament win he had on the surface was in Rome in 1994. He only made it past the quarterfinals at the French Open once. Federer, on the other hand, won at Roland Garros and has bested Rafael Nadal twice in clay-court finals. Both men were weakened by the slow pace of play on clay, but Federer was able to adapt better. That alone gives Federer the edge in the discussion of who's the greatest complete player of the Open era. (Nadal will certainly have something to say about that in the coming years though.)
But there are other things that go Pete's way. In his prime, Sampras had to play a much deeper top 10. In his first 30 victories, Sampras beat the likes of Jim Courier, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi in finals. Federer's toughest were Agassi, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin. Nadal was the toughest challenge of all, but don't forget that he didn't come into his own off the clay courts until 2008.
Sampras may have had to work harder for his 64, but Federer earned his with a better all-around game. So what would have happened if the two played in their primes on their favorite court? Let's say it'd be 1994 Pete Sampras vs. 2005 Roger Federer on Centre Court at Wimbledon?
I'd give the slightest of edges to Sampras. Andre Agassi once said the difference between Federer and Sampras is that Federer could dominate the best players for an entire match, while Pete would sit back and trade the first few service games of a set before unloading on a huge return point to swing things in his favor. He meant that as a compliment to both, but more so to Sampras. He knew when to turn it on and was the best big-point player I've ever seen. In this theoretical meeting, that would be the difference. Sampras would win his serve more easily and would be able to score one or two key breaks of Federer during the match.
Give me Federer's career, but Sampras for one match in his prime. Or give me Sampras' career, but Federer for one match in his prime. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. The only thing we know for sure is that Pete Sampras and Roger Federer are the two greatest players of our generation.
- Pete Sampras