Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nine Years Later

I don’t know if it’s a long time or a short time, but nine years later, someone has finally done to Roger Federer what he once did to Pete Sampras, and the parallels are notable, if not shocking (though I have yet to see any mainstream press comment on the similarities, so I may be the first!).

It’s the end of an era. The tennis world turns upside-down. The King is dethroned. The King is dead. Those are the kinds of headlines that try to capture the magnitude of Federer losing to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. I’d prefer to capture history as it repeats itself, so I’ll give it a shot: The dragonslayer is now the slain dragon. Not much of a ring to it, but it’ll do.

In 2001, I was on vacation in China, of all places, when the news came in, probably from some British announcer chaps named Alan and Vijay on television coverage of Wimbledon: Pete Sampras, grass-court king, 7-time and defending Wimbledon champ, had been beaten by a Swiss upstart – and a teenager at that – named Roger Federer.

I was stunned. It was one of the few constants in the universe, unbreakable like the laws of physics – Sampras always prevails at Wimbledon. How could he lose, and to a relative unknown (by which I mean someone who had never won a Slam, and was not projected to win one soon)? I guess I thought he would never grow old. I thought his body would never tire, his will would never break. And then it did.

What I took for granted at the time was that Sampras lost because he hadn’t played well, not because he was beaten by a great (or soon-to-be-great) player. But how could I have known?

No, I don’t think Tomas Berdych has the potential that Federer had nine years ago, nor do I expect him to accede to the throne as the next King of Wimbledon, but still, there are strong echoes between this match and the one from nine years ago:

  • Both Pete and Roger lost to a relative unknown who had never won a Slam.
  • Roger was seeded 15th when he beat Sampras. Berdych is seeded 12th.
  • Roger lost in the quarterfinals. Pete went home in the fourth round.
  • Pete was 29 when he lost to Federer. Roger is 28.
  • Both matches were played on Centre Court.
  • Both Sampras and Federer, at the time of their defeats, were considered by most to be the best player who had ever lived.

Even the comparison of the losers’ post-match walkoffs is strikingly similar. I quote from CNN Sports Illustrated in 2001:

With no trophy to collect, Sampras picked up three sweaty towels, stuffed them into his tennis bag and slung it over his shoulder. Then, head down [my italics], he slowly followed Roger Federer toward the exit, reluctantly departing Wimbledon.

And here, Yahoo’s take on Federer’s exit yesterday:

When it was over at Wimbledon on Wednesday afternoon, Federer slowly walked toward the net, shook Berdych’s hand, packed his bag and began the slow walk off Centre Court. The English crowd gave him a standing ovation. Federer kept his head down [my italics] for most of the walk to the locker room, blindly waving his hand in acknowledgment. When he was a few feet from the door he stopped and looked up at the crowd, a king surveying his subjects for the final time.

“Head down” – a king hardly knows how to leave his kingdom. History repeats itself.

Asked if there would be any more Wimbledon crowns in their future, what did you expect them to say?

Pete: “Let’s not get carried away. I plan on being back for many years. There’s no reason to panic and think that I can’t come back here and win here again. I feel like I can always win here.”

Roger: [Asked if he thinks he can return to dominance at Wimbledon] “Yeah, I do think that. That’s why I’m here.”

Pete never won another Wimbledon. I can’t say for sure that I think Roger will, but I think he stands higher up among his peers than Pete did in 2001.

If anything, this series of events has made me appreciate all the more Pete Sampras’s accomplishments, and by accomplishments, I mean, of course, the only ones that matter – the 14 Grand Slam titles. Consider how great Federer was from 2004 until 2007 – in every year except 2005, he won three out of four Slams, and in 2005, he won two. That’s 11 Slams in four years. Tack on his first Wimbledon crown in 2003 and his single Grand Slam victory from 2008, the US Open, and that’s 13 Slams. And yet after his loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open finals, there was widespread doubt about Federer’s chances of overtaking Sampras’s record. It boggles the mind to think that as dominant as Federer was, and for so seemingly long a stretch, he was still behind Sampras, and what had seemed a foregone conclusion back in the glory years of 2004 to 2007 was now a real debate once more.

Well, Federer did come back, and he did surpass Sampras, and if he never wins another tournament, not to mention a Grand Slam, he’s still the king, the greatest tennis player of all time. At least until Tomas Berdych stakes his claim.

1 comment:

Henry said...

“Let’s not get carried away. I plan on being back for many years. There’s no reason to panic and think that I can’t come back here and win here again. I feel like I can always win here.”

Not that anybody would ask him now, but do you suppose Lleyton Hewitt's answer is the same?

Seeing Rasheed Wallace flat on his aching back upon fouling out of probably his final NBA game, I could not help feeling melancholy. But I think it is more agonizing by far to witness a player's decline in an individual sport such as tennis, where an aging star cannot step back gracefully and assume a reserve role in support of the rising talent. And for superlative champions like Sampras and Federer, their accomplishments during their lengthy primes only make the agony worse. You'd think that, upon securing the "greatest ever" title with the Slams record, Federer could rest a little easier, relax a bit and not make what is inevitable so hard on himself and everyone watching. I understand these guys are used to winning, but at what point do you just admit to yourself that you're not the man you used to be?