- 02 Jul 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, July 2, 2001, in the fourth round of the Championships, Roger Federer, aged 19, defeated seven-time Wimbledon champion and former World No 1, Pete Sampras (7-6 5-7 6-4 6-7 7-5). At the time, many experts saw this match as a sign of an upcoming new era, with the young rising star edging the declining champion. They were right : later, this spectacular match would be considered as a clash of legends, as Federer would end up beating most of Sampras records, without ever denying his legacy.
Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon’s king
Pete Sampras, born in 1971, had dominated the game in 1990’s. 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. 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 conquered seven titles between 1993 and 2000 – which was also a record at the time – holding a 53-1 record (the only man to beat him was Richard Krajicek, in the 1996 quarter-finals, 7-5 7-6 6-4).
Sampras had triumphed four times at the US Open (1990, 1993, 1995, 1996) and twice at the Australian Open (1994, 1997), edging Roy Emerson’s record of 13 Grand Slam titles. On top of that, the American had won the Masters Cup five times (1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999), and had accumulated a total of 63 titles in his career. At the time, as he also held the record of the longest time spent as World No 1 (286 weeks), 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 had not reached the second week of the tournament since then. In July 2001, even if he was declining, having not won a tournament since Wimbledon 2000, Pistol Pete was still ranked no.6 in the world.
Roger Federer, the one anticipated as the future World No 1
Roger Federer was born in 1981. After he finished 1998 as World No 1 in juniors, Federer performed well in his first professional matches. In his five first main tour appearances, in 1998-1999, he reached the quarterfinals three times, in Toulouse, Marseille and Rotterdam. His mind-blowing game amazed the world tennis and soon, he was announced as the future World No 1. In 2000, he reached his first two finals on the Tour, in Marseille (defeated by fellow Swiss Marc Rosset, 2-6 6-3 7-6) and in his hometown of Basel (defeated by Thomas Enqvist, 6-2 4-6 7-6 1-6 6-1). In February 2001, he claimed his first ATP title in Milan, edging Julien Boutter in the final (6-4 6-7 6-4), and finished runner-up to Nicolas Escudé in Rotterdam (7-5 3-6 7-6). Thanks to these results, he was World no 15 in June, at the start of Wimbledon.
Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club since 1877, it moved into its current location in 1922, the same year when the Centre Court was built. Considered by many as the most intimidating court in the world, with its famous Rudyard Kipling quote above the entrance (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”), the Centre Court had seen the best players of all time competing for the title.
After the US Open switched to clay and then hard court in the 1970’s, and after the Australian Open switched to hard court in 1988, Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, a surface that is usually more suitable for serve and volley players. Not only did Wimbledon keep its surface, but it also maintained old-fashioned traditions such as the white dress code.
At the start of Wimbledon 2001, even if he was believed to be declining, former World No 1 Pete Sampras still held the 6th rank on the ATP ranking. Seven-time Wimbledon champion, he had won the four previous editions of the tournament and hadn’t been defeated at the All England Club since 1996. Although he had been unexpectedly challenged during the second round by World No 265 Barry Cowan who pushed him to a fifth set (6-3 6-2 6-7 4-6 6-3), he had displayed a better performance in his following match against Sargis Sargsian (6-4 6-4 7-5). Despite his recent performance at the French Open, where he had reached the quarter-finals, there was no way that young Roger Federer could be called favourite against the Master of Wimbledon.
On this Monday, July 2, 2001, the showdown between the declining champion and the rising star was the match of the day. With both players serving well and being comfortable at the net, the first logically ended with a tiebreak. Sampras obtained a set point, which Federer erased with a service winner and won the set a few points later. In the second set, Sampras was the first to break his opponent’s serve and sealed the set 7-5 to even the score. Federer played flawless tennis in the third set, which he won 6-4, forcing Pete Sampras to play at his best to stay in the match. Pistol Pete raised his level, sharpened his serve, and, displaying several of his famous half-volleys, pushed the young Swiss into a fifth set.
In this high-level last set, the American could not convert two break points at 4-4. Three games later, Sampras missed two volleys and now faced two match points. Roger Federer didn’t choke : a return winner sealed his victory against his childhood idol.
Sampras only had good things to say about his opponent:
“I’m very disappointed, obviously, but I lost to a really, really good player today. He played great. He’s a great shotmaker. He won the big points. He came up with some really good stuff at huge times. I give him a lot of credit. He really played very well.”
Roger Federer would be defeated in the next round by the crowd’s favourite Tim Henman (7-5 7-6 2-6 7-6). Nevertheless, his epic encounter with Pete Sampras would remain as one of the greatest matches in the tournament’s history, a unique shock between two generations and, as it would appear later, between two legends.
Sampras, whose decline would accelerate in the following months – he would leave the top 10 after Wimbledon and would not win a single tournament in 2001 – would still believe in his chances to triumph in a major tournament. In fact, he would triumph a last time at the US Open in 2002, edging Andre Agassi a last time (6-3 6-4 5-7 6-4). As this would remain his last match, he would become the only player in tennis history to end his career with a Grand Slam victory.
In his press conference after the 2001 fourth round, Sampras had accurately predicted the future :
“There are a lot of young guys coming up, and Roger is one of them, but I think he’s a little more extra special than the other guys.”
Indeed, Federer would beat almost every record previously held by Sampras : achieving a career Grand Slam, he would triumph eight times at Wimbledon, claim 20 major titles and hold the World No 1 spot for 310 weeks. Sampras’ only record to remain unbroken would be the most consecutive years (six) ended as World No 1.