As the 2012 tennis season comes to a close I thought it would be interesting to readdress the comparison between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras to see who is truly better. Of course, most tennis fans and commentators hail Roger Federer, with his 17 Grand Slam titles, as the greatest men’s player of all time. However, I believe there is some very important, overlooked data regarding the competition and the changes to the game that should be brought into this argument. Here are some examples:
- Pete Sampras defeated two current and two future Grand Slam winners on his way to his first title, the 1990 US Open. In all, these four consecutive opponents (Thomas Muster, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi) would amass 24 Grand Slam titles. On the other hand, Roger Federer only defeated one future Grand Slam champion on the way to his first Grand Slam, the 2003 Wimbledon title. That future champion, Andy Roddick, had not yet won his lone title, the 2003 US Open. This indisputable data shows that Sampras overcame much, much tougher competition on the way to his first title and that Federer was fortuitously positioned in his era to assert his dominance in a relative competitive vacuum.
- En route to his 14 Grand Slams, Sampras’s defeated opponents held a combined 80 Grand Slam titles at the time they played. Federer’s opponents held a combined 43. Again, the data shows Sampras overcame tougher competition, not only in his first title run, but throughout his career.
- Beyond the competition, changes to the men’s game of tennis have produced the unintended consequence of “protect[ing] the top guys,” and that’s according to Roger Federer. What are these changes? Slower courts and improved racket and string technologies, making it difficult to play serve-and-volley or other forms of attacking tennis. These changes have resulted in a one-dimensional game of long rallies that features dramatically fewer upsets, fewer semifinalists, and fewer winners (again, protecting the top guys). Pete Sampras had to win his Grand Slam titles in a much more volatile era where generally faster tennis courts and inferior equipment encouraged short-rally attacking tennis. In this quick-strike environment the best players were not “protected” but were much more likely to be upset than today’s top players.
Extensive data in support of these bullet points–too long and detailed to cite here–can be found in a short ebook, Why Pete is Better than Roger. While this book lays out the case for favoring Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam feats over those of Roger Federer, the reality is that the differences in their respective eras make it virtually impossible to definitively designate one of these two as the so-called “GOAT” (Greatest Of All Time) tennis player. Moreover, any GOAT discussion should include Rod Laver given his singular accomplishments–two calendar Grand Slams and 11 total Grand Slams titles (a total that undoubtedly would have been much higher had he not turned pro and missed 20 Grand Slam tournaments while in his prime). Hence, while tennis fans desire to promote their favorite guy, the above overlooked data and analysis give Sampras fans a little more ammo to make their case.