Setting the Scene/s.
Wimbledon, July 2nd 2001, Fourth Round
Pete Sampras vs. Roger Federer
Final Score: Roger Federer wins 79-67, 5-7, 6-4, 62-77, 7-5
Seven times Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras, then considered to be the greatest grass court player of all time, steps onto Centre Court to face 19-year-old Roger Federer for a place in the quarter finals. Sampras is the defending champion. Federer has never before played on Centre Court.
Wiltshire and Devon, March 29th 2020, during the Coronavirus lockdown.
It is a Sunday afternoon and there has been no live tennis since the end of February. Your writers miss it (we are aware there are bigger problems right now, but we miss it anyway!) and have decided to start this blog. We press play on the match at the same time. One of your writers watched this match live, aged fifteen, having walked through the front door after school sometime towards the end of the first set. Your other writer wasn’t conceived yet.
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Watching the Sampras Federer match in 2020 its almost impossible not to view it as a clash of the greats. This stems in part from the unavoidable lens of Federer’s achievements but it is made more difficult to remember because, at the age of 19, Federer played his match against Sampras appearing entirely unfazed by the challenge: cool, calm and collected the entire way through, as though he were already a champion.
The commentary during the match is surreal, Federer was considered a ‘talent’, but had yet to ‘prove himself’. The phrase that had your writer’s texting each other early on was: he ‘doesn’t have a b game.’ Roger Federer doesn’t have a b game?!? The vast different between Federer then and Federer now could not have been better summed up. It brings clarity to what we are watching: this isn’t the Federer performance we are used to. However it isn’t Federer alone who makes this match an important one, it is the fact that he played, and beat, Pete Sampras.
Looking back now this match seems like a changing of the guard: One player poised for greatness, the other in the twilight of his career, meeting for the first and only time in an ATP event, the youngster coming out victorious. Federer idolised Sampras, and the impact on his game is easy to see. The powerful and precise serving of Sampras is something Federer strove towards acquiring, and though he has never achieved the power he certainly nailed the precision. Sampras’ volleys were stunning, something else Federer has mirrored in his career.
This clash could not have been better written but was it really the passing of the baton? The old guard defeated by the coming of the next generation? It is easy to view this match as the rise of Roger Federer, but that’s not entirely true. It would be another two years before Federer lifted his maiden Wimbledon title. This match did not bring overnight success, nor was it the end of Sampras’ career. He won the US Open in 2002 (his last tournament). But it isn’t the reality that has lasted, it is the legend: Federer beats Sampras in 2001, ushering in the next generation of champions and starting his rise to greatness. The story certainly fits the overall narrative of tennis better: that the next generation appears, beating the last and taking their place. But what do we mean by the “next generation”? What defines a generation of tennis players?
Most simply it is the time in which they play. But there is more to it: that hard to pin down commonality between people who share the same dominant life experiences, are shaped by the same events, technological developments, cultural ideals and political landscapes. This is as true of tennis as it is in wider culture.
The late 60’s and 70’s was defined by the beginning of the Open Era, when tennis allowed professionals and amateurs to compete together. It was the time of Rod Laver and Ken Roswell, followed by the pioneering Arthur Ashe. From the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s a new generation made their mark: Borg and McEnroe; Connors, Becker and Lendl. They shared great personal rivalries and the sweeping developments in their sport: the rivalry between the ITF and Grand Prix, the switch from wooden rackets, the introduction of the Cyclops computer system. In the 90’s came the founding of the ATP Tour, the development of the power game, and the swan song for serve and volley tennis. Defining this generation was Becker and Edberg, Courier and Lendl, Sampras and Agassi.
And so we find ourselves back at the beginning, in the early 2000’s with Federer beating Sampras. Every player is part of a generation. What we are discussing are the things that define a generation, and the players who become emblematic of that generation. Like Laver, McEnroe, and Sampras Roger Federer is that emblem. But he has not defined his generation alone. Two other players, 5 years younger than Federer, joined him and helped define not only a generation but also tennis itself: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. From 2003 to 2020 these three players changed the game beyond recognition: they have smashed records; chased each other to new heights; and changed their own games to adapt not only to each other but to technological developments, changes to surface speeds, ball weight, racket head power and more. Between them they have won 267 titles and spent an astonishing 799 weeks at world number one, interrupted only by Andy Murray. Their shared experiences, and the fact that many of these experiences, good and bad, came at the hands (or rackets) of each other, ties them together indelibly as the great generation of all time. They have stamped their claim upon tennis and their stranglehold doesn’t appear to be weakening.
We’ve been asking ourselves recently whether this is a good or a bad thing. Something the ATP might perhaps have questioned as well, seeing a potential danger that comes with this level of sustained success. The power game of 90’s tennis lost viewers and fans. The rise of Federer, his rivalry with Nadal, and the coming of Djokovic brought them back in droves. Men’s tennis is more popular now than ever before. But time can only be held back for so long, no matter how exceptional the player. Eventually the big three will retire, leaving a vast empty chasm in their wake. Your writers are only speculating, but we think it is a fair to suggest that this inevitable eventuality spawned a simple but effective idea: #NextGen.
A hash tag for the group of players whom, culturally at least, belong to a generation defined by technology, the Internet, and social media. It makes perfect sense and has proved massively successful. With the launch of the Next Gen Finals in 2017 the ATP have found a way to nurture new talent both on court and off. The plan appears to be working. These young players are winning tournaments and starting to go deep in the slams. While so far none of them have been able to shake the grasp that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have on the majors, they are getting closer. In 2019 Federer lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas, then aged 20, at the Australian Open. It wasn’t the end of Federer’s career, nor truly the beginning of Tsitsipas’, but parallels to Sampras v. Federer can certainly be drawn. Maybe, like Federer, it will take Tsitsipas another two years to win a slam. Perhaps Dominic Thiem will get there first; after all he has played and lost three Grand Slam titles so far, two French Opens (losing to Nadal) and the Australian Open (losing to Djokovic). On route to those finals he has beaten both Nadal (at the Australian) and Djokovic (at the French).
Which of these players, tagged as #NextGen, will truly define their generation? We do not yet know, but before this pandemic brought tennis to a standstill they seem as poised and ready as Federer did in 2001. They are a generation in waiting. They are the players who will come after, if only by the force of time itself. Perhaps they will achieve greatness in the abundance we have become used to, defining their own generation through rivalries and epic matches. They certainly have the talent for it. Or perhaps they will forever be the generation that followed the golden era of men’s tennis.
Watching Federer v Sampras was a joy: the different style of play, the speed of the grass courts, how Federer has evolved as a player are all things to love. But it was being able to watch and simply appreciate the beauty of the game that brought your writers the most joy. We felt the same way watching Thiem v Tsitsipas at the tour finals last year. No questions of who’s going to retire with the most slams, no painful histories, no debate on who the GOAT is. Simply the beauty of the sport we love. So bring on the #NextGen, let them win their maiden grand slams and usher in a new generation, whatever that means. We cannot wait for their future.
(Though if it is Federer winning more trophies that holds that future at bay your writers certainly won’t be complaining.)