Changing Of The Guard: Federer Dethrones Childhood Idol Sampras
It always appeared to be a question of when, and not if, Roger Federer would dominate headlines with his results. But not even the Swiss could have anticipated that he would announce his arrival by defeating childhood idol Pete Sampras.
Their fourth-round clash at 2001 Wimbledon is now viewed as a passing of the torch. The 19-year-old Federer played the best match of his career to stun the seven-time Wimbledon champion 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5, marking his first victory on Centre Court. Federer took the boys’ singles title at Wimbledon three years earlier, but hadn’t won a professional singles match at the tournament prior to the start of the fortnight.
"This match will give me as much confidence as I can get," Federer said. "This is the biggest win of my life.”
The match was a logical result in some ways. Federer had produced a stronger start to the 2001 season than Sampras, winning his maiden ATP Tour title in Milan and scoring three wins over players inside the Top 10 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. Meanwhile, the American struggled to a 15-10 record and hadn’t won a tour-level crown since prevailing nearly 12 months earlier at the All England Club, but his track record at this event still made him a heavy favourite for the title.
When Sampras charged back to take the fourth set against Federer and held two break points at 4-4 in the final set, the Swiss teenager showed mental toughness he'd previously lacked in Grand Slams. Federer erased both chances with a volley winner and forehand winner before holding serve. It was Sampras who blinked first in the next game by hitting two unforced errors to trail 15/40.
When Federer cracked a down-the-line forehand return winner to end the match, the crowd leapt to their feet as Federer dropped to his knees. After shaking hands with Sampras, the look of disbelief on his face was accompanied by tears rolling down his cheeks.
"A lot of friends had told me, 'I think you can beat him this year,’” Federer said. “I'd played a great year - better than him. I knew I had a chance. But it was not 100 per cent. I mean, he's the man on grass.”
Sampras sat in stunned silence after suffering his earliest defeat at Wimbledon in 10 years. But while he gave Federer full credit for the victory, he refused to view the match as anything more significant than a single loss.
"It was his moment. It’s grass-court tennis. One minute you feel like you have it, the next minute you're walking off the court,” Sampras said. "Federer played a great game. But there's no reason to panic and think I can't come back here and win.”
It took Federer more time to consistently show the level of tennis he displayed that day. He fell in the quarter-finals to Tim Henman and wouldn’t reach that stage of a Grand Slam for another two years before capturing his first major championship at 2003 Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, Sampras’ most shocking Wimbledon loss came the following year as he exited in the second round to Swiss lucky loser George Bastl. The American regrouped to win the US Open three months later in the final event of his career.