x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Time for Roger Federer to channel his inner Pete Sampras

Imagine if the Swiss great won this Wimbledon at almost 31, and picture all the tear ducts. Federer himself might blubber.

Roger Federer is 31, the same age Pete Sampras was when he won his final grand slam. And, not to take anything way from those players he did beat or his accomplishment, Sampras didn't have to go through Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
Roger Federer is 31, the same age Pete Sampras was when he won his final grand slam. And, not to take anything way from those players he did beat or his accomplishment, Sampras didn't have to go through Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

Imagine if Roger Federer won this Wimbledon at almost 31, and picture all the tear ducts.

Federer himself might blubber. The long-term fans who love Federer as much as anyone ever loved any athlete, well, they would have a good weep.

The cranky aesthetes who barely followed tennis but then sometime last decade spotted something beautiful (his game) and grew fussily smitten, well, they might sob for days.

You might have to coax them out of the house just to free them from the replays.

Here we go again with Wimbledon, and here's the thing about the vision of global tears two Sundays off: it's plausible.

In fact, compare it to its historic precedent, and it's somewhat more than plausible.

From Wimbledon 2000 to the US Open 2002, the great Pete Sampras went eight title-less grand slam tournaments, a span with the following winners: Marat Safin, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, Goran Ivanisevic, Lleyton Hewitt, Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa and Hewitt again.

That seven-man list calls to mind the egalitarian era, and the No 16 seed Johansson's remarkable win in the 2002 Australian Open.

From the Australian Open 2010 to now, the great Federer has gone nine title-less grand slam tournaments, a span with the following winners: Rafael Nadal, Nadal, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Djokovic, Djokovic, Djokovic and Nadal.

That two-man "list" calls to mind this Darwinian era and its ruthlessness toward anyone with a career even vaguely resembling that of Thomas Johansson.

From the time Federer's ranking dipped to No 3 in 2011, making him occasionally cranky, tennis intellectuals have pinpointed Sampras's win at the 2002 US Open as a road map for Federer, as evidence that older great players can rediscover greatness in bursts.

As did Sampras, so can Federer, unquestionably.

When Sampras began the 2002 US Open one month past age 31, he ranked a doddering No 17.

As Federer begins Wimbledon one month from age 31, he ranks a sturdy No 3 with a shot at No 1. Sampras faced no Nadal, no Djokovic but a 32-year-old Andre Agassi. Federer has played much closer to prime than did Sampras.

In fact, try not to forget the bleakness of the Sampras approach to New York. In the 2002 Australian Open he lost to Safin in the fourth round. At the French Open he lost to Andrea Gaudenzi (a one-time Dubai finalist) in the first round.

In the last Wimbledon match he would play - one of the most unfitting details in all sport - he lost a fifth set in the second round on Court No 2 to the No 145-ranked George Bastl, a Swiss who had made the tournament as a lucky loser after losing in straight sets in qualifying in Roehampton against Alexander Waske.

Pitifully, Sampras said the assignment to the non-show court had made him unhappy, and that he wanted a more comfortable show court, as if organisers should favour the advantaged.

Then again, he said: "You're going to have a match like this once every 10 years."

Through that summer, he won three matches in three tournaments, losing to Paul-Henri Mathieu, Wayne Arthurs and Tommy Haas before New York.

Sampras did tear through his first two US Open matches, but after he squeezed through a five-set third against Greg Rusedski, Rusedski gave everyone the rare gift of candour.

"I mean, he's not playing that great," Rusedski said. "I mean, I'd be surprised if he wins his next match against Haas. To be honest with you, I'd be very surprised."

Elaborating helpfully, Rusedski said: "I just think the movement is not the same and the fitness is not the same. He's a step-and-a-half slow coming to the net. You can get the ball down. He's not the same player. I mean, he's a great player from the past. You're used to seeing Pete Sampras, 13-grand slam champion.

"It's not the same player."

True.

Four more matches, and he would be Pete Sampras, 14-grand slam champion, dipping once more into his reservoir of know-how. Even in dotage, Sampras beat Haas in four sets the very next day and quipped of Rusedski: "Against him, I don't really need to be a step-and-a-half quicker."

He lost only one more set in annihilating the rising Andy Roddick, besting the game Sjeng Schalken and outperforming Agassi in a sentimental final.

The forecast for the coming two weeks at Wimbledon calls for nobody calling Federer a step-and-a-half slower, not given his 2012 of four titles and two grand slam semi-finals.

It may well call for rain and tears.

And if Federer and his enduring know-how can access the final four again, the only thing that might clip him will be the inconvenience of a tip-top 25-year-old Djokovic or then a tip-top 26-year-old Nadal.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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