Pete Sampras wipes his right eyebrow and bounces the ball three, four times. The record seven-time Wimbledon champion is gunning for a fifth straight crown but there is a sense of anticipation on Centre Court. “15-40” calls the umpire.
‘Pistol Pete’ sends in the serve, but his opponent is on to it in a flash. One emphatic forehand later, Roger Federer sinks to his knees, rolls onto his back and bursts into tears. He has just deposed the all-time King of Wimbledon. Little did anybody in SW19 realise it at the time, but we had just seen a changing of the guard. The actual tennis god was the one whose career was truly beginning that afternoon in the fourth round of 2001, not the one whose time at the top was ending.
Federer took what Sampras had achieved and absolutely decimated it. He won Wimbledon eight times, the Australian Open six, the US five and the French once. He was the first man ever to win 20 Grand Slams, and managed to be an extraordinary ambassador for the sport of tennis along the way.
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But more than the career achievements – the 20 Slams, the 237 consecutive weeks at number one and 310 in total, five year-end ranking titles, 82% all-time win percentage, 28 Masters crowns and 103 tournament victories – there is the standard he set.
His time in tennis came in an era when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic also reached new heights on the court. Without them, just imagine what Federer could have won. But one gets the feeling that if there were no Roger Federer, the other two might not have done what they were able to. Because it was the Swiss who set the bar.
He was the one who took what Sampras had achieved and doubled down. He made Wimbledon his own, lifting five successive titles, then went and did the same at Flushing Meadows. He was the one who made 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals between 2005 and 2007, winning eight of them, and making every other man on the planet realise what it would take to compete with him over the coming years.
Federer was more disciplined than any male tennis player had ever been before, he was more focused and more committed. His determination to be there battling for every single ball in every single round of every single tournament raised the bar.
If Federer had not made it clear to Nadal and Djokovic what was demanded of a champion in this era, they would not have done what they have done in matching his Grand Slam feats. They have a hell of a lot to thank Roger Federer for.
So as the all-time great announces that he will retire from the professional tour following the Laver Cup next week, this is a moment to thank him. Not just for what he did on the court, but for what he has done for the entire men’s game. The standard at the top end of tennis has never been greater than now, and that’s down to what Federer forced out of every single opponent who wanted to step on the court with him.
That moment when he beat Sampras and signalled a changing of the guard in 2001 is forgotten by many thanks to some of his more obvious exploits in the 21 years since. The repetitive brilliance at Wimbledon, the battles with Nadal, the contests with Djokovic. As good as they were, there was something monumental about that Sampras moment. This was when men’s tennis changed forever, and it’s hard to imagine exactly how the sport is going to be the same again now that Roger is stepping away from the court.
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