Commentary

Unlikely union of Federer-Sampras

Originally Published: June 29, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- On his way to victory last month in Paris, Roger Federer regularly received best wishes from one of his biggest fans back in California.

"He was writing me, always [texting] during the French and congratulating me," Federer said. "He is a class act."

Those texts, oddly enough, were from Pete Sampras, whose Grand Slam record Federer was in the process of equaling. Yes, from Sampras, the former player whose sparkling résumé is missing only one thing -- a title at Roland Garros.

Sampras and Federer. It is an unlikely union, for they couldn't be more different in terms of style, temperament and personality.

In 1971, Sampras was born in Washington, D.C., to Greek immigrant parents. A decade later, almost to the day, Federer came into the world outside of Basel, Switzerland, the product of two pharmaceutical workers. Sampras moved to California at the age of 7 so he could play tennis all the time. Federer, who lived in a town near both the French and German borders, once aspired to be a professional soccer player.

Sampras is a gym rat, a jock, who likes nothing better than to chill out and watch his Los Angeles Lakers. Federer is a suave citizen of the world. He speaks four languages -- Swiss German, German, French and English -- fluently in his postmatch news conferences. Sampras, a man of few words, always disdained his meetings with the media. Federer is friendly with most players in the locker room; Sampras was isolated and, quite often, lonely.

But with a racket in their hand, Sampras and Federer share so much. They both stand 6-foot-1 and weigh about 185 pounds. In the context of their narrow generations, it can be argued, they possessed the best serve and forehand. The subtle difference? Sampras played more aggressively, working his way ever forward; Federer plays along the baseline with the cool detachment of a surgeon slicing skin with a scalpel.

And, at least for today, they are bound by history. Federer and Sampras have each won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, the record. On Sunday, that delicate equilibrium could shift forever.

On Friday, Federer became the first man to reach seven consecutive finals at Wimbledon. He sent 31-year-old Tommy Haas home with a typically clean 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-3 victory and will play Andy Roddick.

"I really felt when I was done, that [the record] was going to stand for quite a while," Sampras said Monday in an interview with ESPN at his Southern California home. "Little did I know that Roger Federer was going to come around eight years later and is probably going to break me. If not in the next few days, probably in the next few months or year or so.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Steve Bardens/Offside Sports/US PresswireRoger Federer and Pete Sampras have a good deal of respect for each other.

"Roger is taking the torch and is going to pass me. Great player, great guy. I've said this the last couple of years, if someone is going to break this record, it's going to be Roger. He is a friend."

Sampras, who retired after winning the U.S. Open in 2002, is married to the actress Bridgette Wilson and has two boys, Christian, 6, and Ryan, 3. Federer married Miroslava "Mirka" Vavrinec in April, and their first child is due in August.

The two great champions met only once in an ATP World Tour match, an epic collision that changed the temperature of tennis. Sampras was trying to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. But Federer, only 19 years old, ended Sampras' 31-match winning streak at the All England Club, winning the fourth-round match by the barest of margins, 7-5 in the fifth set.

"We only played that one time, when he was coming up and I was on my way out," Sampras said. "Well, I think the competitive guy that I am, I would have loved to play Roger in our primes. I think it would have been a great matchup. Him staying back, I'm more of the aggressive guy. It didn't happen, and that's sort of the way sports can go.

"I would have cherished it."

The Clash of Times

Over the years, as he has become part of tennis history, Federer has developed a greater appreciation for the men who made that history. One of the delightful byproducts of his success is the access it affords to champions of the past.

He and Sampras began talking regularly in 2006, after Federer won his third straight U.S. Open, something Sampras never managed to do. In the winter of 2007, when Federer was making his plans for Indian Wells, he reached out to Sampras.

"I knew I was coming to L.A.," Federer said later, "so I'm kind of thinking, 'Who's around in L.A.?' So, I rang up Pete and said, 'Any chance?'

"He was like, 'Yeah, sure.'

"I'm totally excited. He was one of my favorite players when I was growing up, and beating him in his backyard in Wimbledon was so special to me. I wanted to try to -- I wanted to beat him in his house."

They hit for two days at Sampras' house -- games, sets, tiebreakers, the whole deal. Sampras, in his fifth year of retirement, played better than Federer imagined.

"Very good, surprisingly," Federer said at Indian Wells. "He was playing very well."

Who won?

"Can't tell you," Federer said coyly. "But it was good fun."

In an aside, Federer mentioned that it might be fun to play Sampras in an exhibition match. He asked his agent, Tony Godsick, to look into it.

"I don't really know Pete," Federer told Godsick, "but I'd love to go and do three days."

According to Godsick, who is a senior vice president of IMG Tennis, "He wanted to spend time with Pete. It's the only reason he did it. I mean, he doesn't do it for the money -- not that he wasn't well compensated for it."

Since the 2007 year-end ATP World Tour championships were in Shanghai, Godsick approached Sampras and put together a series of three exhibitions in five days: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Seoul, South Korea; and Macau, China. Federer and Sampras would spend about a week together in late November, playing to large, sellout crowds; traveling by jet; and, not insignificantly, banking some serious cash.

In retrospect, Federer, 26, was at the peak of his power. He had just won three of the four majors for the second year in a row; he lost to Rafael Nadal in the final at Roland Garros in the two Grand Slams that eluded him. Federer had a total of 12 major titles and was coming off a win at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, and he was fatigued. Sampras, 36, trained hard going in. He didn't want to embarrass himself every night in front of 15,000 people.

The tennis was loose and friendly. Federer won the first exhibition 6-4, 6-3, but Sampras pushed him hard in the second, losing two tiebreakers. The Macau exhibition, billed as "The Clash of Times," was the highlight. Sampras won 7-6 (6), 6-4. Off the court, they shared meals and chatted in the locker rooms.

Godsick said Sampras was surprised by how relaxed Federer was. Federer found Sampras to be terrific company.

"There are people who said that these exhibitions were [too] energy-consuming, but it was more of an inspiration to me," Federer said. "We had great times. The exhibitions in Asia did wonders [for our friendship]. It was very good for both of us, hanging out together, understanding how one ticks and the other ticks. And how similar we are in sport -- and success."

Said Godsick: "It served the purpose. Was it a good decision strictly for the tennis? Probably not.

"Roger is a student of the game. He respects the history of the game. He learned more in the locker room than on the court."

Sampras came away impressed; Federer was much more like him than he had imagined.

"I feel like he and I are cut from the same cloth," Sampras has said. "Both pretty humble and let our rackets do most of the talking."

Speaking the same language

After suffering a disappointing loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open and a first-round defeat to Andy Murray in Dubai, doctors told Federer he was feeling the aftereffects of mononucleosis.

[+] EnlargePete Sampras
Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty ImagesPete Sampras claims he's happy to have a guy like Roger Federer break his record.

The news broke before Federer and Sampras took their act to Madison Square Garden the following March. And although the 2008 season would be the most trying of his career -- Federer lost his No. 1 ranking and back-to-back Grand Slam finals to Nadal -- that night in New York remains a fond memory for both men.

They played to the crowd, they tweaked the linesmen. They hit some gorgeous shots. It went to a third set, and Sampras held a 5-2 lead before Federer put the hammer down and won in -- surprise, surprise -- a tiebreaker.

"I was happy to make it interesting in the third set," Federer said, actually sounding happy. "Having turned out the way it did, it was a fairy tale in a way."

Federer may not have been extended to the outer edges of his limits, but Sampras clearly made a genuine effort.

"I pushed as hard as I could tonight," Sampras said. "I am a little disappointed; I had the match on my racket."

Sampras, as those texts to Federer in Paris suggest, keeps in touch with him. He watched the Australian Open final and felt bad for Federer when he broke down and cried after his loss to Nadal.

"It was a little awkward to see the ceremony and the emotion," Sampras said in an ESPN interview in March. "It just tells you that this guy cared. He's won 13 majors, and he wants to break my record. He can taste it. He was disappointed, so he just sort of felt sad, more than a loss and disappointment. He just felt sad."

Godsick said Sampras views Federer as he would a younger brother.

"They're two different guys, but they're brought together by the same sport," Godsick said. "They speak the same language.

"I believe Pete when he says, 'I'm glad it's a guy like Roger who's breaking my record.'"

The only time he misses tennis, Sampras says, is during the fortnight at Wimbledon. He has been following along from home as Federer has progressed, inexorably, through the draw, and he has fielded the obvious questions.

Will Sampras award Federer the trophy if he breaks his record?

"I've been going back and forth," Sampras said earlier this week. "I don't know if you have kids. But having two kids on a 12-hour flight going to London isn't my activity of having a lot of fun. We'll see."

As a seven-time Wimbledon champion, Sampras is a member of the All England Club, with all of the rights and privileges that go with it. Just a month ago, Andre Agassi flew to Paris from his home in Las Vegas for the trophy presentation at the French Open. The arrangements had been made long before Federer was the surprise winner, but it was a fortuitous choice. Ten years after Agassi completed his personal Grand Slam, he handed Federer the hardware that completed his set of four majors.

Will Agassi's great rival, Sampras, will do the right thing?

With Federer in the final, will he will cast aside the trepidations of traveling a great distance with small children? Will he get on a plane and fly to London and join Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver and John McEnroe and Boris Becker and Mats Wilander and Ilie Nastase and John Newcombe to celebrate the success of his historic rival?

"It's a long trip," Sampras said, "but it's a great moment in sports. Roger's a friend, and it would be great to be there."

And on the very last stroke of his match with Haas, Federer took a few steps toward the net and had a sudden inspiration. He elevated off his left foot and, fully two feet clear of the grass, picked off Haas' looping ball. In a marvelous, hanging forehand slam so reminiscent of Sampras -- a truly grand slam -- Federer won match point.

It wasn't a text, but Federer was sending his own message to Sampras.

"He might come, he might not," Federer said of Sampras. "I hope he does. He's a good friend."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.