When Pete Sampras won Wimbledon in 2000, he became arguably the greatest player the game seen. His final defeat of Patrick Rafter gave him a record-breaking seventh Wimbledon title – not counting William Renshaw’s seven crowns in the 1800s – as well as a record 13th Grand Slam singles title. Still at the top of his game and even returning to No.1 a few months later, further major triumphs seemed inevitable.
But the more time passed, this looked unlikely. Sampras’ Grand Slam results began to slump, as did his motivation to continue grinding his way through tour events. A demoralising second-round defeat in 2001 as the defending Wimbledon champion was a career low-point, and when he turned 30 a month later, tennis pundits had written his obituary.
Yet the American confounded critics a year later with an emotional run to the 2002 US Open title. announcing his retirement immediately after the final. The champion had gone out on the ultimate high.
A decade later, a remarkably similar scenario has played out for Roger Federer. Since winning the 2010 Australian Open, he endured a Grand Slam drought of his own. Overshadowed in the biggest matches and in the rankings by younger rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and having turned 30 almost a year ago, many observers had expressed their doubts about whether there was another major triumph left in the Swiss.
At Wimbledon, he proved there was. Federer claimed a four-set victory over Andy Murray before a patriotic yet fair and appreciative Centre Court crowd, and sent the tennis record-book author into overdrive. It was a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon singles title for Federer, one which allows him to return to No.1 and equal the record for the most weeks spent there.
“I understand everyone wanted to be the first to have mentioned it or said it first that, okay, this is the decline,” he said.
“I also said that I thought this is just a temporary thing. I knew how close I was to winning a major again for the last few years, and some people didn't quite see that maybe out of different reasons. But I knew and I think the belief got me to victory today.”
In both of those statistical categories it is Sampras that he joins. The parallels between the Swiss and the American are striking, running far deeper than the fact they can both name Paul Annacone as their coach. Both own games built around fearsome serves and forehands, and share a penchant for faster surfaces. Both had their greatest success on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club. And like Sampras, who went eight majors and more than two years between his 2000 Wimbledon title and final win at Flushing Meadows, Federer endured a similar wait between his 16th and now 17th major crown.
Yet one difference is that Federer shows no sign of stepping away from the game. “I think I'm playing some of the best tennis of my life right now, and since a long time now,” he declared.
And why should he stop? It’s been said the Swiss champion has won all there is to conceivably win, and that he could easily retire with his millions and enjoy the fruits of marriage and fatherhood. Yet Federer believes that combining family life with his tennis career – admittedly a challenge – actually helps his game.
Plus there’s the matter of the Olympic Games. A singles gold medal is the one jewel in the crown still to elude him, and with the Olympic tennis event to be contested on the very same lawns he conquered, his chances of success look extremely good. His latest Wimbledon triumph also puts him within striking distance of some stratospheric female major tallies – Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova each retired with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, while Steffi Graf and Margaret Court own 22 and 24 respectively.
Federer revealed he’s not content to rest on his already-extraordinary laurels. “I drew a lot of inspirations from other great athletes in other sports. I think like Pete [Sampras] and Edberg, Becker, [Michael] Jordan, Tiger Woods, Valentino Rossi. They inspire me to keep on pushing further. You know, not just being happy with world No.1 or being happy with a Grand Slam title, but maybe to reach for more,” he said.
“Then obviously I have to drive myself. But you sometimes do need to see someone else do it for a long time so that you feel it is actually possible.”
It certainly is possible. Federer’s smart scheduling and extraordinary ability to stay injury free means he could conceivably add to his tally of Wimbledon crowns – and cement almost untouchable records in the process – in future. And there’s still another of Sampras’ records to potentially equal and surpass, with the American reaching a major final in 11 consecutive years, one ahead of the Swiss. It’s another benchmark that will help keep Federer’s motivation levels high.
“I'm so happy I'm at the age I am right now, because I had such a great run and I know there's still more possible,” he said.
“You know, to enjoy it right now, it's very different than when I was 20 or 25. I'm at a much more stable place in my life. I wouldn't want anything to change. So this is very, very special right now.”