March 10, 2008: The day Federer beat his idol Sampras in an exhibition
Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On March 10, 2008, Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden.
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, March 10, 2008, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras played an exhibition match in front of 19,000 spectators at the Madison Square Garden, in New York, an arena known for having hosted the Masters Cup from 1977 until 1989. The current No 1 defeated the 36-year-old American, who still held many records that Federer was about to beat, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6.
Roger Federer, the Swiss genius, aged 26, had been world No 1 without a break since February 2, 2004. Since 2003, he had won 12 Grand Slams: the Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) and the US Open (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007). In 2006, his best year, he claimed 12 titles including three Grand Slams, the Masters Cup and four Masters Series. He had a record of 92 wins and only five losses, four of these against his only serious rival at the time, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard was the main reason Federer hadn’t won the French Open yet; he lost against him in the semi-finals in 2005 (6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3) and in the final in 2006 (1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6) and 2007 (6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4). He had started 2007 by winning the Australian Open without dropping a set, beating Fernando Gonzalez in the final (7-6, 6-4, 6-4). He then had a peculiar Indian Wells and Miami, where he lost twice against the same player, Guillermo Canas from Argentina, who was coming back on the tour after being suspended for using a banned substance. Back in shape in spring, Federer triumphed in Hamburg, defeating his Spanish nemesis on clay for the first time in the final (2-6, 6-2, 6-0), but at the French Open, Nadal beat him again in the final. The Swiss took his revenge upon the lefty at Wimbledon, where prevailed in the final after a five-set epic (7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2), and he secured his No 1 spot by triumphing at Flushing Meadows, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final (7-6, 7-6, 6-4). At the start of 2008, he was defeated by the Serbian in the semi-finals of the Australian Open (7-5, 6-3, 7-6), and he was diagnosed with mononucleosis.
Pete Sampras, born in 1971, had dominated the game in 1990s. After a first Grand Slam conquered at the 1990 US Open (where he became the youngest champion of all-time, edging his forever rival Andre Agassi in the final, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2), he became world No 1 in April 1993. After having been criticised for reaching world No 1 without having claimed a major title in more than two years, he made himself worthy by consecutively winning three Grand Slam titles: Wimbledon and the US Open in 1993, followed by the Australian Open in 1994. He then ended the next six seasons (1993-1998) as world No 1, setting a record that would remain unbeaten. His serve-and-volley game was particularly lethal on the All England Club grass, where he collected seven titles between 1993 and 2000, only defeated in the 1996 quarter-finals by Richard Krajicek. Sampras also triumphed five times at the US Open (1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2002) and twice at the Australian Open (1994, 1997), setting a record of 14 Grand Slam titles. On top of that, the American won the Masters Cup five times (1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999), accumulating a total of 63 titles in his career. At the time, he also held the record of the longest time spent as world No 1 (286 weeks), and Sampras would have been easily called the greatest of all-time without his obvious weakness on clay: his best performance at Roland-Garros was a semi-final reached in 1996 (lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-6, 6-0, 6-2), and he never reached the second week of the tournament again.
Among many unforgettable moments in his great career, tennis fans would always remember his tears during the 1995 Australian Open quarterfinals against Jim Courier, when Sampras was shocked after he found out his coach, Tim Gullikson, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sampras also managed to end his career with one last unexpected triumph, at the 2002 US Open, his final won against Agassi (6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4), being the last match that he ever played.
From a technical point of view, Sampras was famous for his deadly serve, his amazing running forehand, his impressive slam dunk overheads and his extraordinary half-volleys.
The Madison Square Garden, in New York, was the “World’s Most Famous Arena”. From 1977, and until 1989, it was the home of the Masters, and there, the year-end showdown became not just a tennis tournament, but a spectacle. Since its first edition, tickets were sold out well in advance, with more than 18,500 spectators packing the stands, and the tournament was won by all the biggest stars of the time: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker…While the men’s tournament moved to Frankfurt in 1990, the women’s Masters, played at the MSG as well since 1979, remained in New York until 2000.
In early 2008, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras were considered by most of the experts as the two greatest players of all time. At the time, the American still held many impressive records, soon to be beaten by the Swiss: he was the player with the most Grand Slam titles (14, while Federer already held 12), the most weeks spent as world No 1 (286), and the most consecutive years finished at the top of the ATP rankings (6). He retired from professional tennis after his last triumph at the US Open, in 2002.
Before Sampras retired, he crossed Federer’s path once, in a memorable fourth-round encounter, at Wimbledon, in 2001. The seven-time Wimbledon champion, who had suffered only one loss at the All England Club since 1992, was defeated in five sets by the promising Swiss (7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5). At the time, many experts considered this match as a sign of an upcoming new era, with the young rising star edging the declining champion.
Six years later, in 2007, the two men faced each other again, in a three-leg exhibition tour in Asia. After Federer had logically won their first two matches, Sampras managed to take the last one, in Macao (7-6, 6-4), although the very fast surface clearly favoured his aggressive game. The American also knew the difference between an exhibition match and an official encounter. “Let’s not get carried away,” he said at a news conference.
In March 2008, the two legends had scheduled a new showdown, this time, in the legendary Madison Square Garden, in New York, former home of the Masters Cup. “I am extremely excited to compete against Roger in the United States,” said Sampras before the event. “And to have it take place in New York at The Garden will make it an extra special night.”
In fact, among the 19,000 spectators, there were celebrities like Tiger Woods, who didn’t want to miss such a show. Despite his age and his five years of retirement, Sampras, after the loss of the first set, managed to hold on to his serve with authority to level the game and take a 5-2 lead in the deciding set. However, Federer came back and in the end, the Swiss prevailed (6-3, 6-7, 7-6).
“It was like a dream come true for me,” said Federer. “Playing my childhood hero here at the Garden. I had never played here. It was great. We had lots of fun.”
Once again, in the press conference, Sampras reminded the journalists that in the end, it remained just an exhibition match, and that he didn’t consider coming back on the Tour.
“That’s not for me anymore,” the American said. “I have no intention of coming back, not today, tomorrow, or ever.”
The Madison Square Garden showdown would be the last exhibition match in singles between Federer and Sampras. In the following years, the Swiss would beat almost every record previously held by the American, and he would achieve the career Grand Slam on top of that. The only record still owned by Sampras in 2021 would be the most consecutive years finished as world No 1 (six).