Who is the greatest of all time here then? The Fed-Express at 35 Years of age with 18 Majors. Pistol Pete, now retired with 14.Rafa Nadal at 30 years of age and 14 Grand Slam titles, or Novak Djokovic at 29 Years and with 12 to his name? There’s the list of runners and riders.
Got to start with Pistol Pete, the earliest of memories from this exclusive list. At the time Sampras used to do my nut in. My parents refused to pay for Sky in the mid 90’s, so I was only seeing grass court coverage live at the time. Every Year without fail he would come along to SW19 and walk away with the title. Boring was the general consensus. He has no personality was another. I was naïve enough at the time to go along with it. 286 weeks as World Number One suggests “shit hot” to me in hindsight. From the Years of 1993-2000, it took an unbelievable display of serving and high quality returning from Richard Krajicek, that not only did he beat Sampras on his way to a fully deserved title in 1996, he pummelled him in straights. The Dutchman was on fire and nothing was to stop him, not even Pete. I remember Pete in the 99 Final against Agassi. He smashed him. Agassi actually played really well that day and got ripped a new one. It was how mentally tough Sampras was that really struck me. I have never seen anyone play the game that is as mentally strong. The serve was deadly and won him so many cheap points. The forehand used to blitz a few winners when needed. Calculated. Ice cool. GSM. A couple of victories over Goran and one over Courier proved this. A 7th title in 8 Years against Rafter late into the night in 2000, where he ended up going away from the Australian was a fitting way to win his last title on the grass. Away from Wimbledon Sampras won 5 US Open’s, where he became the youngest winner of the event at 19 years old in 1990, beating Agassi. He won his last US 12 years later when everyone has written him off. I remember him going into the event as a 25/1 shot and that seemed purely out of respect. He struggled his way past Rusedski in the last 32 and it just didn’t seem to be clicking. That was the kick up the ass that he needed, though. He beat Haas and gave Andy Roddick a lesson on his way to the Final. He was now in familiar territory. Agassi tried all he could in the Final but Pistol Pete wanted to go out with one last bang. In doing so once again proving his dominance over Agassi. Two routine victories at the Oz over Todd Martin and Carlos Moya added to his tally. However, the biggest problem in discussing Sampras in this conversation is his duck at the French. Sadly not even a runners-up spot here. One Semi-Final where he got outgunned by Kafelnikov in 1995 all to show for his efforts. This is something all of the other 3 have conquered.
Novak Djokovic.’Schmovak Schmokovic’. I have to be honest, having had the conversation with countless people it seemed difficult to see past Djokovic winning this heavyweight contest long term. His first seems a long time ago and is certainly detached from his other titles. A victory over Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the Final of the Oz Open in 2008 being his first. No disrespect to Tsonga but this was a good matchup for him to get number one on the board. No qualms there.2011 was the changing year. 3 Slams, the only blemish being when talk of ‘The Slam’ started to get to him in May. Federer took him out at the Semis of the French. It was a tight display from Djokovic that day. He bounced back by beating Nadal in both Finals after that and looked to be inside Rafa’s head. The points these two would play were unbelievable. Top Ranking Tennis on the Game Boy springs to mind. Two walls playing each other, with fitness, flexibility, speed and power not seen in unison previously. Two more mandatory Australian Open’s were added without response elsewhere. The French and Nadal’s grip on clay still eluded Nole though. A victory over Federer at Wimbledon in 2014, in what was now becoming another horrid match up for the Swiss added to the tally. Federer always seems to know he has to go for too much against him. It was after this that Nole really made a play in this contest. He started 2015 off by once again winning down under with victory over Andy Murray. He hit another blip by losing to Stan Wawrinka in the Final of the French, after beating an out of sorts Rafa and then Murray on the way. Talk of the Slam was once again clearly too much weight on his shoulders. Understandably. It showed in this Final. He then went on a run of 4 consecutive slams. Two victories over Federer, one at Wimbledon and one at Flushing Meadows. Nadal was struggling after a gruelling clay court season, Nole had confirmed his dominance as the outstanding player. Murray was then beat in the next Two Finals including the French. The hoodoo was over, now surely on to greater things? It would have been hard to see him not adding at least two to his tally after the French last year. What a difference 8 months can make.3 slams later and without a victory, personal problems, lack of form and confidence look to also be playing their part in stopping him getting near Federer’s now 18! He’s not really performed at the Olympics yet either. He’s had to settle for a bronze. At his peak, his level has to be seen as the highest but it’s not yet been sustained for long enough.
Back in 2003, Roger Federer was winning his first Wimbledon title, beating Mark Philippoussis. From 2004-2007 Federer was streets ahead of anyone in the game…apart from when Rafa came along on the clay. In 04,06 and 07 the Australian, Wimbledon, and the US were all his. Safin, Roddick, Hewitt, Agassi and a young Djokovic were all casualties. But Federer bought more than this. That elegance and swagger we have become used to. A true shot maker with a touch of class. He plays the game in an attacking style, but also has an all court game. Despite beating Nadal on the grass at Wimbledon, he failed to knock him off his perch on clay. In 2009 with Nadal getting ousted by Robin Soderling in the last 16, Federer had his chance to add the French to his list and complete the set. It was a spot kick at the time. He beat Del Potro in 5 and comfortably dealt with Soderling in the Final. He finished off a wonderful summer by beating Roddick 16/14 in the Fifth at Wimbledon. Since then he has only added 3 mores slams.The Australian recently, especially under the circumstances was particularly impressive. He looked shot in all honesty from where I’d been standing. Losses to the likes of Stakhovsky, Seppi, Gulbis and Robredo suggested that he was on a downward spiral. His career was winding down. A 6 month lay off meant you couldn’t expect much. With Murray and Djokovic losing Federer kicked into automatic, though. He just knew how to win from here. Beating Nadal from a break down in the Final showed bottle and that’s something I have certainly questioned at times. Against his nemesis this was impressive. Like Djokovic, a lack of a singles gold medal at the Olympics still haunts him though you feel.
I don’t think anyone could imagine what Nadal would bring to the game when he first came along. His physical attributes were a total joke. ‘Shredded’ I believe is the term. His speed was phenomenal, constantly making his opponent play about 3 extra shots in a point. From 2005-2014 he utterly dominated the Clay. The one loss To Soderling being the only loss at the French in this period. Making him the undisputed King of Clay. I wasn’t entirely convinced elsewhere, though. He hadn’t won a major anywhere else going into 2008. He had reached two Wimbledon Finals but hadn’t really beaten anyone to get there in my opinion. That changed in 2008. After beating Murray in the Quarter-Finals he defeated Federer in a match that changed Tennis. The standard was incredible. Right from the first point. Federer fought back from 2 sets down in a rain-delayed Final but Rafa wasn’t to be denied. He won a thriller 9/7 in the fifth. You could barely see the BBC coverage at times as spectators were on their feet applauding every point, standing up in front of the cameras. I had to admit he won me over that day, Rafa. The unthinkable had happened. The King Of Clay was now also the King Of Grass. He had hammered Federer for the loss of just 4 games in the Final of the French a month earlier. Crucially he added an Olympic Gold to his collection in Beijing capping off a fine season. He continued his dominance over Federer by outlasting him in 5 again at the Australian, claiming his first title down under.2010 was also his Year. The Australian Open being the only one to elude him. Victories over Soderling, Berdych, and Djokovic in the others. He added a Second US Open title in 2013, again beating Djokovic. The knees have been his biggest problem but you have to say that is no doubt the price he plays for his all-action style.
You could obviously argue Federer’s case very strongly. You may be right. Winning the Australian this year could tilt it in his favour for you. As it currently lies its a two-runner race in my eyes. Federer v Nadal. Just depends on which side you butter your bread. This could all change of course, as 3 of these guys are still out there on tour. Right now I’ll go with Rafa though. People may argue that Nadal maybe hasn’t won as many outside of the French as he should have to be ahead of Federer. That may be true. But Winning Wimbledon (supposedly his weakest surface) twice and adding that Olympic Gold makes up for just the one Australian title for me. It proves that he has adapted to all surfaces. More importantly, he’s beaten the best players in doing it. Namely Federer and Djokovic. He also has a 23-12 head to head against the Fed-Express. With a winning record on hard court. Vamos Rafa!!
Andy Del Potro