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Thursday, July 12, 2007
Updated: July 13, 10:28 AM ET
Sampras defined greatness

Pete Sampras will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend, and with Wimbledon -- the tournament he won 7 times -- just concluded, it's as good a time as any to compare him to Roger Federer. After all, they seem to be engaged in a three-way faceoff for the GOAT (Greatest Player of All Time) title along with that iconic Aussie, Rod Laver.

Federer and Sampras are players from different molds -- more different than you might think, given the friendship they began to cultivate when Federer stopped by Pete's Beverly Hills digs a few months ago to whack a few balls and compare notes. As it turned out, there was more note comparing than ball whacking over the days they practiced. "We would hit some, " Pete told me a few weeks ago, while we were laying down tape for the forthcoming autobiography I am helping him write. "Then we'd stop and talk, asking each other how we handled different challenges and aspects of our careers."

Sampras and Federer stand with Laver in that line of men who embody good sportsmanship, reserve, and utmost fidelity to the game, rather than The Game (meaning celebrity, endorsements, the fast-lane lifestyle). And all three men were masters of restraint and self-control on a tennis court (if that strikes you as a coincidence, consider that another frequently mentioned contender for the GOAT title is Bjorn Borg, who was also like that, only moreso). But there the similarity ends.

Although Pistol Pete was as smooth as Federer and played a comparably elegant game, his brand of tennis was more economical (in every sense) and purpose-driven. Sampras has a clear idea of what he wanted to do on the court: dominate an opponent with his serve and use his approach and volleying skills to put pressure on his opponents. As his late coach Tim Gullickson often said, "It's like the Green Bay Packers power sweep. You know it's coming, but you can't do anything to stop it."

Federer, by contrast, seems more content to engage opponents on their own stylistic and technical turf, and beats them at their own games with his versatility and superb shotmaking. Where Sampras preferred to bore in and force the action (although he had other ways to get the job done), Federer prefers to hang back and let the action develop, as if each point is a moving, real-time quiz to which he always has the answers.

Sampras was essentially a power player with a great reservoir of skill; Federer is a skill player with a surprisingly deep fund of power. In that regard, Federer has more in common with Laver than his pal Pete, for The Rocket mastered more powerful players with guile and skill, not brute force. But at the end of the day, I think the power game executed at a high level trumps the skill game, although if Federer surpasses Sampras's Grand Slam title count I may have to re-think my position.