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Editor's note: Our weeklong series of "What If …" scenarios are only hypothetical. We understand that a matchup of players from different generations comes with its share of things to take into consideration, such as the advancement of technology and the slowing of court surfaces in today's game. Some of these head-to-heads have an actual, albeit brief, history, while one player was winding down his or her career; thus, we're not taking those matches into consideration. For the sake of this series, we're assuming both parties are playing each other at their peak. It's just for fun, so enjoy and let us know who you think would win.
Matchup: Pete Sampras versus Roger Federer
Case for Roger Federer: Ah, the good old greatest-of-all-time debate. Who among us doesn't love to bring some fire to the water cooler? And if there's one thing we'll never fully agree on, it's who the best really is -- and this goes for all sports. It's a sexy topic in tennis circles, especially when it comes to talking about the two most accomplished Grand Slam players the game has seen, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras.
These grass-court greats each have won a record seven titles at Wimbledon. For Sampras, this accounted for half his total majors. He was the Slam king for nearly a decade -- until Federer evicted him from that pedestal at the All England Club in 2009. As in stands now, Federer owns 17 Slams.
In Federer's prime, his game was elegant, much more well-rounded than Sampras'. Federer won with a combination of variety and superb anticipation. But he was offensive-minded, first and foremost. Against Andy Roddick, in that record-breaking '09 clash, Federer clobbered 50 aces in a match that ended 16-14 in the fifth set. And if you're doing the math, that's more than two sets worth of points.
Federer moved with grace. He was clever, powerful and intoxicating on the court. He had a unique ability to return mammoth serves, like we saw against Mark Philippoussis in his maiden Grand Slam victory -- at Wimbledon in 2003 -- in his wins against Roddick and, of course, in his famous triumph over Sampras in 2001.
And for you staunch Sampras defenders, let's remember that though he had fallen from his perch, he had won 31 straight matches and seven of the past eight titles at SW19 heading into that skirmish with Federer, so it's not like he was some kind of luminary just trying to drag out a few more respectable years. After all, a year later, Sampras would go on and win the US Open.
You have to imagine Federer would have continued to persevere against Sampras if they had played more. None of Sampras' rivals back then, as commanding as they were in their own right -- from Boris Becker and Jim Courier early on to Andre Agassi later -- had the genius stroke-making of Federer.
In the real world, there are about 300 species of goats. But in the tennis universe, there is only one GOAT, especially on grass. Federer's credentials can't be disputed.
Case for Pete Sampras: It was kind of ironic that someone with such calm comportment and boyish looks could hit a tennis ball the way Sampras did. Wimbledon was his kingdom. He didn't need miracles or happenstance to win. Just a racket.
How else can you accurately depict what Sampras did to his opponents at the All England Club except to say that he pulverized them. He had a thundering serve, backed by an equally devastating forehand. But he was also a classic serve-and-volleyer. Needless to say, Sampras didn't need to exert much extra effort to win points; it appeared to be merely exhibition.
Sampras was not invincible, but he was damn close. He won seven titles in eight years at Wimbledon. He had created such an unbeatable aura that it really seemed like something toxic was in the air when Richard Krajicek took him down in the 1996 quarterfinals. When Rafael Nadal beat Federer in 2008, ending the Swiss' remarkable run, the reaction was less shock and more along the lines of the better player winning.
Sampras also faced and beat stiffer competition. Aside from Nadal, Federer didn't have to compete against the likes of Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Rafa is the only multi-Slam winner Federer has beaten in his five victories at the Big W. And he rarely has had to play anyone with any kind of robust resume en route to the final. The draws have lined up quite nicely for him.
And let's also remember that some heavyweights have come along and outmuscled Federer. In 2010, Tomas Berdych beat Federer in a four-set quarterfinal; in 2011, it was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who quelled Federer in the same round. Those were surprising losses, for sure, but were they mind-numbing compared to Sampras' 1996 stumble? Not even close.
The GOAT can devolve into a gnarly debate. But if you close your eyes and think about the force Sampras hit with in his prime at Wimbledon, what was anyone, even the regal Roger Federer, going to do about it?
Brad Gilbert verdict: It's changed the most of all the surfaces. If you played on the grass in the early 90s, you couldn't play back [on the baseline] like you can now. Fifteen-20 years ago, on that court, you couldn't break Sampras' serve. There was no bounce.
If we're going, for the sake of this argument, with today's grass, I am going with the improv and variety of Federer. The ball bounces up. Federer would be able to break Pete's serve and hit his spots. The grass itself is 10 times better now than it was when Sampras played, but it's slower. Sampras would have had a slight edge back then, but today, if they were both at the peak of their careers, Fed would be the favorite.