Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Deep Tennis: The Gods at War
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Deep Tennis: The Gods at War 11/27/2007 - 3:25 PM

RocketHere's my latest Deep Tennis Q & A post from over at No Mas. I've got a Davis Cup preview post up at

"Steve, I was really into those Sampras/Fed matches, and just the concept of two dudes who have a... well not just a claim, pretty much a complete ownership right now of the Best Player Ever debate going head to head. Other than the Sampras/Fed Wimbledon match, are there any other matches historically where two guys with such a claim played each other competitively?”

The Roger and Pete show has been better, more competitive, and more buzz-generating than any fan had a right to think it would be. But that may have been part of the plan, as they have another match scheduled for Madison Square Garden next March. A win by Sampras this weekend just made that one a lot more enticing, wouldn’t you say?

Men’s tennis has a long history of aging legends going down valiantly to the big dogs of the day. In the Pre-Obscene-Money era, the best guys hung around as long as they could and often overlapped with the next generation. You can trace a line of descent from Bill Tilden, who dominated in the 1920s, to Federer in just five matches.

1941: Tilden, 48 and 10 years past his prime, plays 25-year-old Don Budge, who had won the Grand Slam two years earlier, in a 58-match tour. Tilden loses 51, but wins seven.

1957: Budge, 41, beats the No. 1 pro in the world, Pancho Gonzalez, 29, in straights in L.A.

1971: Gonzalez, 43, beats 19-year-old Jimmy Connors in three sets, also in L.A.

1989: Connors, 36, beats Sergi Bruguera, a future French Open champion, in Germany

2000: Bruguera, 29, rolls an 18-year-old Federer 6-1, 6-1

Tilden: five times as good as Federer!

As far as all-time greats going at each other face to face, that tends to happen as one is on the way up and the other on the way down. By definition, there’s room for only one alpha dog at a time—if Fed and Sampras had played over the same years, neither would own as many Slams as he does today. Perhaps that explains why the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon matches are so well remembered. At the time, Borg was beginning to be called the greatest player in history; three years later, many polls had McEnroe as the Goat (greatest of all time). Their rivalry is the only time I can think of where two guys at that very, very, very top level went head to head in their primes.

Here’s a list of a few of the other legend vs. legend face-offs from the relatively recent past.

Rod Laver d. Pancho Gonzalez, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, U.S. Pro Championships, 1964
Until the Open era, a top player would typically ascend to a position of dominance in the amateur ranks and then, to make a buck, he’d disappear into a pro tour that consisted of one-nighters held in gymnasiums across the world. It’s too bad these events weren’t better covered, because they featured big tournaments and hundreds of matches between all-time greats—one decade’s best player would have to dethrone the previous decade’s. The biggest annual event was the U.S. Pros, at Longwood, outside Boston. By ’64, Gonzalez, the reigning champion of the 1950s, had won eight U.S. Pros. He went for his ninth in a massive storm against Laver, who had won his first (amateur) Grand Slam two years earlier. They played through the rain and wind—men were men, etc.—and by the time it was over the world had a new best player. Laver would go on to win the event five times.

Laver vs. Bjorn Borg
I had no idea until I looked it up yesterday that these two had even played a real match. But by the ATP’s calculations, they faced each other seven times from 1974 to ’78 , as Laver was aging and Borg was rising. Borg got the better of him in five of those matches, including the last four. The first time they played, on carpet in Barcelona in ’74, the baseliner Borg sent the net-charger Laver home 6-1, 6-1. (I wonder how many times in his career the Rocket lost by those scores?) Their best match came in Dallas the following year, also on carpet. It was a long five-setter won by Borg.

I’ve seen a tape of a semi-exhibition tournament they played in Hilton Head in 1977—watch two minutes of it here (with Pancho commentating; talk about a Goat-fest). I remember Borg, so it was the 30-something Laver who was the revelation for me. I haven’t seen many clips of him, and I was awed by the consistency of his shot-making—he could do anything with the ball—and his high-energy, all-court attack. (Check out that low forehand volley from no-man's land.) You could see that John McEnroe learned a lot from watching his fellow lefty as a kid. On this day, neither Borg nor Laver seemed to have a distinct advantage over the other. Like Federer and Sampras, they were from slightly different eras, but they belonged on the same court.

Borg vs. John McEnroe
As I said, we remember this rivalry well because it was that rare moment in sports when two of the best ever are at their peaks at the same time. No wonder Borg quit when McEnroe took his spot at No. 1—he may have realized that there was only room for one Goat at a time, and he couldn’t conceive of himself as anything else.

PeteAs far as how their games matched up, I think my fellow TENNIS editor Pete Bodo had the best take on it: Borg made himself virtually unbeatable because he was willing to play longer points and hit one more ball into the court than his opponent; McEnroe came along and negated that advantage by ending points as quickly as possible. Borg couldn’t counter it, and their 1981 U.S. Open final, which McEnroe won in four sets, sent the Swede into retirement at age 26 and spelled the end of the last golden era of men’s tennis. It would take McEnroe a couple of years to adjust to not having another Goat to play. He could never respect Ivan Lendl the way he did Borg.

Pete Sampras vs. Ivan Lendl and McEnroe, 1990 U.S. Open
The next era-shattering event occurred at the Open nine years later. I’ve written here before about Sampras’ mind-boggling quarterfinal win at 19 over Lendl, who had reached the previous eight Open finals. But Sampras followed it up by ending McEnroe’s last real chance at a Slam in four sets. McEnroe had been usurped by Lendl five years earlier, but the two played what could be called the same game—they were flip sides of the same 70s-80s coin. In this match, Mac was playing against a new type of player. Sampras brought the Big Heat, and all of McEnroe’s chips, spins, and angles couldn’t hold it back. He was done for good. Power tennis had just gotten a little more powerful.

Sampras vs. Federer, 2001 Wimbledon
Funny how these things go in decades, isn’t it? Eleven years after Sampras announced the future at the Open, he faced it himself at Wimbledon. This was the only time the two current Goats played each other for real. Federer won a long, winding, intermittently brilliant five-setter. He broke down afterward, and Sampras gave him what I’ve always thought was the most dignified handshake in the history of the sport—class of the titans, I guess you could call it. Here's Sampras post-match interview

Playing-wise, what sticks out now is how often Federer came to the net. The grass was a little quicker then, and it was still the consensus wisdom that you had to serve and volley to win at Wimbledon (Lleyton Hewitt would put that idea to rest the following year.) Plus, against Sampras you had little choice. Unlike today’s players, he could take the net from you if you didn’t take it from him first. The differences in their games are clear during this match: Sampras hit a heavier, more penetrating ball; Federer was smoother and more consistent all around. The new all-baseline era was about to begin.

Sampras vs. Federer, 2007
That brings us to last weekend’s exhibitions. There’s only so much you can take away from an exo. Not only are the players not giving their absolute best, they’re not even really allowed to; a lopsided win is the ultimate faux pas in these things. Still, I was struck by one thing: Sampras’ serve. I’d forgotten that it was the most effective single stroke in the history of tennis. Smooth, efficient, technically dead on, it was still good enough five years later to keep Sampras in these matches by itself. I know Federer wasn’t going out of his way to break Sampras, but I was surprised he didn't get a better read on his serve. I’m used to seeing Federer handle even the most lethal deliveries with nonchalance.

Fedpete1Over the past year, I’d gradually begun to believe that Federer in his prime was a better player than Sampras in his—Fed just has more ways to beat you. I’m not going to change back because of three exhibitions on fast courts, but seeing that Sampras serve again was enough to make me say, “Hmmm, not so fast…” It’s classic hedgehog-fox: Federer knows lots of ways to win, but Sampras knows one big way.

Honorable Mention
Andre Agassi vs. Jimmy Connors, 1988 and ‘89 U.S. Opens; Andre Agassi vs. Roger Federer, 2004 and 2005 Opens
As an 18- an 19-year-old, Agassi beat an aging, angry Connors twice at the Open, the second time in five sets. As a 34- and 35-year-old, he lost two close matches to Federer, the first time in five sets. The standard line in tennis is that you can’t compare eras, that there’s no way that 5-foot-8 Rod Laver with his little wooden racquet could have stood on the same court with the 6-foot-2, midsize-wielding Federer. I’ve always agreed, but Agassi’s career—and, to a lesser extent, the Borg-Laver and Fed-Sampras exhibitions—makes me wonder whether that concept is as self-evident as we think. Agassi, who was never a candidate for greatest-ever, was there to finish the former No. 1 Connors off when he was a kid, and he was still there to challenge the next era's No. 1 two decades later. (In fact, he gave Fed his biggest challenges at the Open each of those years.) Who knows, maybe tennis’ eras aren’t as different as we think, and the very best would have found a way to compete on their own terms in any of them. Maybe all we can say about Laver, McEnroe, Sampras, Borg, and Federer is: Once a Goat, always a Goat.

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Posted by omar 12/01/2007 at 11:59 AM

Twist Serve;

Let me break this down for you since your powers of perception seem to be dim.

Borg is burned out in 81. Which means that mentally, he's 5% to 10% less focused than he normally would be. The reason he still beat everyone else but Mac is because even at 5% less, he still had too much game for any one else to deal with.

Only Mac had the talent and skills to take advantage of Borg and his 5% deficiency. Just like if Fed lost 5% interest in the game, you would probably only notice the difference when he played Rafa.

It's a testament to Mac that he did have the game to take advantage of Borg's weakness, but still, he beat the guy when he was less than 100%. And since Mac said virtually the same thing in his autobiography, why would you even want to argue this point?

Be a fan, not a homer.

Remain Anonymous,

Love that line about Federphile. That's classic

Posted by Twist Serve 12/01/2007 at 12:04 PM


Since you've decided to stoop to personal name-calling because I don't share your opinions, I will just stop responding to your comments. Good luck to you.

Posted by steve 12/01/2007 at 12:05 PM

the "one big way/several ways" things was just a nice phrase coming from a concept in philosophy—i didn't mean it to be taken absolutely literally. of course sampras has more than a serve. federer does have more variety, but i know pete could do a lot of things within his basic power scheme.

go easier here, omar and remain anonymous

Posted by remain anonymouus 12/01/2007 at 05:36 PM


Didn't call anyone ignorant specifically. I said certain comments, statements points etc. that have been presented came from a position of ignorance, or the statements were. As far as Agassi's opinion, it's funny how he's knowledgeable as he played both Pete and Roger, but opinions from the likes of Kuerten, Kafelnikov and Moya who also played the both are conspicuously disregareded. Interesting.


Agassi was Sampras' greatest rival, but was he Federer's? No.
Kafelnikov lacks credibility cuz his last win over Fed came when Roger was 19. Fair enough. But it's funy that it's never mentioned(except by me) that Fed NEVER beat Andre 'til after Dre's 33rd b-day??? How accurate is that???

How can you say the only thing that matters most is "is how well Federer and Sampras did against the field, not how well they did against a certain player." when Federer is competeing against an inferior field(at least the top 10... maybe 15)????

And which specific federphile line were you referring to, as in the one you liked???

You're one big way is taken from philosophy, fine, understood. But I come by from time to time and read things that are backhanded compliments about Sampras. My thing speak truth or man up, and say you don't like money. Like in this months mag you discussed the serves of Sampras and Goran.

You say "One who used to his serve to anchor the most potent game in the history of tennis up to that point;"

Potent - powerful, strong(Chambers English Dictionary Definition), so who since Sampras has been more potent(under the assumption) we're talking offensively??? Federer??? No.

Federer talented yes, better defender probably, but he did employ it much than Sampras did, but more potent. Let's generalize, Pete better at net, Roger better from baseline. But Sampras better from baseline than Roger at net. Sampras serves better. So define "up to that point". What cuz federer incorporates tactics that these no skill baseline bashing clowns can't counter. The short backhand slice is msterful why??? Cuz baboons like Roddick, Davydenko, Robredo, Ferrer, Ljubicic, Gonzalez etc are so inadequate at net. How effective would it be vs rafter, Becker, Stich and Edberg???

Posted by remain anonymouus 12/01/2007 at 05:38 PM

In my previous post the part at Omar was meant for twist serve.

Posted by skip1515 12/01/2007 at 06:14 PM

remain anonymous:

You wrote, "Did you actually see Sampras play??? Nothing left for me to say except it is true... ignorance is bliss!!!!!!!"

You called Steve ignorant, You didn't call Steve ignorant, You called Steve ignorant, You didn't call Steve ignorant....

Okay, it's a tough call. I yield.

But you were rude.

That's uncalled for. On that I give no ground.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/02/2007 at 12:37 AM


My calling him(Steve) ignorant was based on what????
His "ignorance was bliss" regarding what????

Well if you think it was rude that's your opinion. Steve responded and gave his reasoning behind one of the statements I deemed ignorant, was there anything after????

Maybe you see it as uncalled for, I saw his statement about Sampras uncalled for...what's the difference??

Posted by Suresh 12/02/2007 at 09:17 AM

Anon, the way you express is your opinion is illogical to say the least - also at the other topic 'Goat War - Fed vs Dad' .

You say 'I saw his statement about Sampras uncalled for' - and what would about your statements?

Posted by Suresh 12/02/2007 at 11:09 AM

Steve..maybe a 'mod squad' will help the trolls out. What say? lol

Posted by Sam 12/02/2007 at 12:12 PM

Suresh: Are you volunteering? ;-)

Posted by Suresh 12/02/2007 at 02:55 PM

lol...hmmm, now that would be a dead give away.

Posted by omar 12/02/2007 at 07:29 PM

Remain Anonymous,

I think you're confusing me with someone else. I didn't make a comment about Fed and Sampras.

Twist Serve,

Don't be so sensitive. This is a blog, right? It's not like I insulted your first born. Don't take this so seriously, buddy. It's all in fun. It's just tennis.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/03/2007 at 12:36 AM

My comment was for teist serve, I corrected myself in the nest post

Did I say any statements were "uncalled for"???
I said certain statements illustrated ignorance(and other things) to me, do you know the difference between the two???

Instead of coming up with "responses to my post" you post nonsense to evade the issue. Suresh at his finest.

Posted by Suresh 12/03/2007 at 11:19 AM

Anonymous, lets just that they are present here for everyone to read.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/04/2007 at 12:27 AM


Yes they here for all!!!!!!!!


Ahh Suresh barking and grunting about the Sampras serve.....

"Yet he broke Rafter 3 times in 4 sets, and amassed 14 break point chances, while your boy Federer broke Nadal 3 times in 5 sets on "slower" grass, and one was last game of match.

Yes his serve helped him in Wimbledon 2000, so tell me how the rest of his game would've helped him in 99 Aus and US Opens, when he couldn't even show up????

Yes the slower rebound ace was more of a struggle for him 1999 when he couldn't even suit up!!!!

Or how his serve helped him vs Agassi, when his 37 ace performance on rebound ace was spoiled by a hip flexor injury???

Yep the slow rebound ace was a struggle for him, as it did not help his serve, but he somehow managed 37 aces(but never reached 30 once at SW19) hhhhhmmmmmmmm......

Suresh was it more of a struggle on deco turf ii in 1994 and 1998???

I anxiously wait your responses."

Like this that NEVER responded to...why???? Let us know Suresh...why no response???

Posted by Suresh 12/04/2007 at 05:57 AM

Anon, well the stats say it all.....btw, thats why Roger's win at Wimbledon was likedned to Pete's - as he served his way to win like Pete used to.

Pete did win 2 majors at the AO as the slower hard courts also blunted his game.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/04/2007 at 09:12 PM


Was the slow Rebound Ace the cause of Gullickson getting cancer at Pete being emotionally and mentally drained????

Did the slow Rebound Ace blunt Pete's game in 1999 when he didn't win the title that yr.

How did the slow Rebound Ace affect Sampras in 2000 when he played almost 5 sets of SF in Melbourne with a torn hip flexor(which kept him out for over a month after match)????

Posted by Suresh 12/05/2007 at 01:51 PM

Anon, it is true that Sampras had the injuries that you listed earlier. But what about his inuuries ( was it the 2000 Wim ) when he played through pain and won? The grass and the serve helped him on grass.

As far as the AO was concerned, yes he had the injuries you stated, but what is also true is that he struggled more on the slower hard courts and at the FO.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/06/2007 at 12:36 AM


Naturally Pete was better on grass than rebound ace. My point was to show you using his "only" 2 Aus Opens was again twisting the facts.

Now what if things(outside of tennis) were different in 1995,1999 and 2000. No coach getting cancer no injuries, there's a very strong possibilty of 3-5 Aus Opens for Sampras. Ten what would be the purpose of your post.

Posted by Suresh 12/10/2007 at 01:48 PM

Anon, no Pete's performances at the AO and FO justifiably reflects that he struggled more on slower surfaces.

It is true that Pete suffered injuries at the other majors , but that is not the point.Also wasn't Pete able to win the Wimbledon at 2000 inspite of struggling with injuries/health ?

Posted by SwissMaestro 12/10/2007 at 02:51 PM

important fact: H2H

Federer 1-0 Sampras on a grass court fast enough to "play on Sampras's favor", he was the 4-time defending champion at the time right???

OK, Pete was a lil (just a lil) past his prime but Federer was very far from reaching his and still got the better of Pete. Roger is the better player overall (stroke by stroke). Pete serves and volleys better but Federer has the better groundstrokes and enormous variety, big servers don't do good against him as he handles the most lethal deliveries without trouble.

And please, pleeeeeeease... Sampras was not better at the baseline than Federer at the net, I don't know how long you have been watching tennis but experts (true experts) and not fans like the ones is this forum have said Federer is the best they have ever seen, I can recall some of their quotes:

"He is the best combination of offense and denfense I have ever seen" ~Patrick McEnroe

"He is the best I have ever played and I have played quite a few" ~Andre Agassi

"With Pete you always had a comfort zone, somewhere you could go to whereas as with Roger you really don't have anywhere to go because anything you can come up with he potentially has an answer for" ~Andre Agassi

"I have got to give the edge to Roger since his game is much more complete than Pete's" ~Tim Henman

"Roger is well on his way to become the best tennis player that have ever lived" ~Bjorn Borg

"Federer plays tennis from another dimension, the best I have ever seen, he is in a league of his own" ~Lleyton Hewitt

"Did he just say the ball is too flat? What kind of touch and fell you've got to have in order to make such as statement? simply unheard of!!" ~John McEnroe

Eveb Peter Bodo (eventhough he hates it because he is a Nadalite) has recognized it...

enough said...

Posted by remain anonymous 12/11/2007 at 01:00 AM


You post garbage and run....

"Anon, no Pete's performances at the AO and FO justifiably reflects that he struggled more on slower surfaces.

It is true that Pete suffered injuries at the other majors , but that is not the point.Also wasn't Pete able to win the Wimbledon at 2000 inspite of struggling with injuries/health ?"

Did the fast Deco Turf II help Sampras when he was injured in both 1994 and 1998 US Open's????

Was the slower rebound ace the sole factor why he couldn't overcome his injuries???

What about 1999 when didn't play both Aus or US Opens???

Typical Suresh talk about 2000 Wim, but run from 1994 & 1998 US Opens. You prove the more things change the more they stay the same.

You were an ass clown then, and you're an ass clown now!!!!!

Posted by remain anonymous 12/11/2007 at 01:04 AM

Swiss maestro

Pete was lil past his prime.
Yeah that's why he started the year #3 and finished #13. And won ZERO titles. In 2001 he was putting up his 1989 #'s/

Sampras 01-02.... 55-33 ZERO titles(exc. '02 US Open)
Federer 01-02.... 107-43 FOUR titles(1 master)

So stastically Fed was playing better, due you want the list of players Fed lost to during that time??? Cuz if Sampras was lil past his prime the stats show Fed was certainly a lot closer to his.

Posted by SwissMaestro 12/11/2007 at 10:13 AM

hey anonimous,

I'm not only talking titles and stats. When Federer beat Sampras in Wimbledon Sampras' last slam came the year before at the big W precisely and Federer would not win his first slam until 2 years later, that is why I am saying Federer has the edge. Take into account the fact that Sampras put at Wimbledon the kind of tennis he could not put up anywhere else and Roger still got him. Is it really so hard to admit? Even Sampras said so: "To me the best 2 ever are Federer and Laver"

Posted by Suresh 12/11/2007 at 11:46 PM

Thats right Swiss Maestro.

Anon 'Did the fast Deco Turf II help Sampras when he was injured in both 1994 and 1998 US Open's'

Precisely my point. The grass is a more specialized surface. Sampras himself said so when he was inducted at the Hall of Fame ceremony.

The U.S. Open on the other hand is a fast surface but not as fast as Wimbledon. The bounce is higher. On grass, the serve is more of a weapon. Hence the U.S. Open did not help Pete as much as Wimbledon in 2000.

Sorry anon, you can keep repeating your stuff - makes no difference.

Posted by Suresh 12/11/2007 at 11:51 PM

' Is it really so hard to admit? ' lolol..sounds like it .

Posted by remain anonymous 12/11/2007 at 11:53 PM

No Suresh you said....

"As far as the AO was concerned, yes he had the injuries you stated, but what is also true is that he struggled more on the slower hard courts and at the FO."

Where did you mention the US Open???
Is the US Open a "slower" hardcourt????

So again....
Did the fast Deco Turf II help Sampras when he was injured in both 1994 and 1998 US Open's???

Either it did or it didn't. Which one Suresh????

Swiss Maestro.....

Sampras 2001...
-began the yr #3 and finished #13
-won ZERO titles(1st time since '89....when he was 18!!!!!!!)
-match record was 35-16
-didn't qualify for YEC(1st time since '89....when he was 18!!!!!!!)
-up to Dec 31, 2000 was 17-2 vs Todd Martin, 1-2 after(inc. 5-0 in slams, lost their '01 Aus Open match)

So was this Sampras at his peak??? Hurts Federphiles to their heart, but Pete was fading, and fast.

Posted by Suresh 12/12/2007 at 11:38 AM

'Did the fast Deco Turf II help Sampras when he was injured in both 1994 and 1998 US Open's'

Thanks for posting this , this in fact reflects that the U.S. Open favors the Sampras serve/game a little less than the Wimbledon.

Wimbledon favors serve more that the courts at the U.S. obviously it was more of a struggle at the U.S. Open.

Added to that, there is a potentially bigger field of players who can pose problems at the U.S. Open than when compared to Wimbledon. The bounce is a factor as also the movement on hard courts.

This is reflected over his entire career as well...wonder who it hurts.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/12/2007 at 03:18 PM



"As far as the AO was concerned, yes he had the injuries you stated, but what is also true is that he struggled more on the slower hard courts and at the FO."

NO US OPEN!!!!!!!!!!

Where did you mention the US Open???
Is the US Open a "slower" hardcourt????

Yes grass favours him more than deco turf II, but STOP avoiding the issue and answer the question!!!!

So again....
Did the fast Deco Turf II help Sampras when he was injured in both 1994 and 1998 US Open's???

Either it did or it didn't. Which one Suresh????

Posted by remain anonymous 12/12/2007 at 03:19 PM

And Suresh

You say...
"Added to that, there is a potentially bigger field of players who can pose problems at the U.S. Open than when compared to Wimbledon. The bounce is a factor as also the movement on hard courts."

So who the hell are the threats t Roger on grass????
And who on clay??? Nadal and....????

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