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Posted on: July 21st, 2009

Sampras Says Nadal Challenges Federer's GOAT Claim

- petepage

July 14, 2009

From his prominent perch in the Royal Box behind a pair of stylish shades, Pete Sampras joined Hall of Famers Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Manolo Santana in watching Roger Federer break the Grand Slam record they shared.

The second-seeded Federer withstood an inspired Andy Roddick rally in the fourth set, then scored his sole service break in the last game to earn a dramatic 5-7, 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 3-6, 16-14 triumph to regain the Wimbledon championship, recapture the World No. 1 ranking and re-write tennis history in stirring style. After the match, Sampras and John McEnroe were among the former champions who dubbed Federer with the mythical Greatest of All Time title.

"I have to give it to him," Sampras said after the record-breaking 77-game final. "The critics say Laver. And (Rafael) Nadal has beaten him a few times at majors. He's won all the majors, he's won 15 now, he's going to win a few more here. So in my book he is (the GOAT)."

Yet, Sampras concedes there is one player who threatens the Federer's status as GOAT Rafael Nadal. The World No. 2 owns a 13-7 career record vs. Federer, including three consecutive wins in major finals.

In a conference call with the media today to promote his exhibition match against Marat Safin on July 27 at UCLA on opening night of the L.A. Tennis Open, Sampras conceded the quandary Federer faces is that while many champions have named the Swiss stylist the Greatest Of All Time, you can make a clear the case he is not even the best of this time.

Skeptics point to Nadal's mastery of Federer in their head-to-head series and the fact Nadal has won six of their eight meetings in major finals including victories on three different surfaces in the Australian Open final, Roland Garros final and Wimbledon final as a sign the strong-willed Spaniard has the World No. 1's number.

While Sampras himself has bestowed the GOAT on Federer, he suggested today Federer must find a way to beat Nadal consistently in order to truly be called the GOAT.

"Tough question to answer. I do understand the argument as being the best ever you have to be the best of your generation and he has come up short against Nadal," Sampras said. "I can see the point and it's hard to answer it. It's not done yet. Roger's careeer isn't done yet and he has to beat (Nadal) and he's got to beat him in the final of majors. In my book he is (the greatest of all time), but he has to figure this kid out. He has to beat him. You've gotta be the man of your generation. Roger certainly is the man of his generation, but he's got to figure out how to beat Nadal."

Federer can play shots that only a tennis genius can produce. While Federer's brilliance is undeniable, his losing streak to Nadal makes me wonder: was his genius magnified by the fact he was playing people like Hewitt and Roddick in major finals who could not take advantage of his vulnerabilities the way Rafael Nadal can?

That's one of the challenges of rating players beyond their generation as I did in statistically examining the greatest players of all time: Federer is unquestionably a great champion, but was his dominance due in part to the fact that there was no one to push him except Nadal?

Sampras, for example, had Andre Agassi at his best (at least most years), Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Gustavo Kuerten, Richard Krajicek, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Chang, Marcelo Rios, Ivan Lendl, Petr Korda and Thomas Muster.

It seems to me that the competition was a lot stronger than the competition Federer has played over the years. Now I think it's changing with Nadal pursuing his own career Grand Slam and Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roddick all improving. Federer's foes in the top four are all quick and Nadal, Murray and Djokovic all have better backhands.

Sampras and Andre Agassi are two of the greatest Grand Slam champions of all time and over the years their riveting rivalry has produced some timeless tennis and tireless debate among fans over which will own the more prominent place in history.

The archrivals began the 2002 U.S. Open as the two oldest seeded players in the draw and concluded it with a climactic clash that saw Sampras capture his 14th and final career Grand Slam crown with a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 victory over archrival Agassi. It was the 34th and final professional meeting between the old rivals with Sampras holding a 20-14 career edge.

Recalling his rivalry with Agassi, Sampras said if Agassi had led their head-to-head series, it would have caused the 14-time Grand Slam champion to question his own status as his generation's top player.

"It would bother me if I had a losing record against Andre in majors," Sampras said. "Does it mean I was the greatest or not the greatest? The greatest of all time is (a label) we want to pin it on someone. With the numbers you have to give it to Roger; with (Federer's) record against Nadal you might not give it to him. If I was 7-13 against Andre it would be hard to say I was the best of my generation. It's hard to give a definitive answer when he's not done yet. Roger knows he has to figure out this kid, but it's a tough match up. Nadal is one of the few guys who believes he is better than him."

Sampras said he believes Federer's most formidable foe on Wimbledon's Centre Court could be himself a big server who could bring the heat, attack net and pressure the multi-talented Swiss into hitting shots from defensive positions on court. Laver himself said he would give Sampras the edge on grass over Federer because of Sampras' searing serve and his ability to attack.

"A true serve and volleyer that's willing to come in and put the pressure on him (would be a threat)," Sampras said. "As big as Andy serves I don't think anyone really scares him. I think my game would make him a little bit more uncomfortable. I would obviously come in on both serves and put the pressure on his backhand. Would I beat him? I felt at my best on grass I was unbeatable there. It's a flattering comment (Laver made). Do I think I could have beaten Roger in my prime? Sure, I don't think anyone could beat me in my prime on grass. Roger probably feels unbeatable now. He'd be a tough guy to break, especially if he was hitting 50 aces. It would be a great match up."

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