August 31, 2013 by Parveer Mann
After enduring his worst year on tour since 2002, Roger Federer came to New York with a weird ranking (seven, his lowest since 2002) and a lot more questions than answers. Many had floated the idea (mentioned in this Jon Wertheim article) that Federer was coming to this Open much like Pete Sampras did in 2002 before his historic run.
I understand that it’s an easy comparison to make, two former champions supposedly on the outs hoping for an improbable run. However, let’s take a closer look at the tennis surroundings in 2002 and 2013 and see if there is merit to the comparison.
Comparing their year’s before the Open
Despite Federer’s struggles, he has vastly outperformed Sampras’s results in 2002. Federer has not only won one title in Halle but was a runner-up in Rome (losing to Nadal). He was relevant deep into the Australian Open and is still a feared threat on any surface. On the other hand, Sampras had largely fallen out of the title picture in 2002. His last great year was probably 2000 and his best result in 2002 before the US Open was a finals loss to Andy Roddick in Houston.
In terms of performance and current form, the edge goes to Roger.
Scoping the competition
While Pete was ranked 17th at the 2002 US Open, he was still one of the four or five most talked about coming into New York. The names that carried the most attention were the newly crowned world number one Lleyton Hewitt, Russian Marat Safin and longtime rival Andre Agassi. But looking back, the top contenders in 2002 were a largely inexperienced group (13 combined majors, most belonging to Andre) and that would be advantageous for the veteran Sampras.
Contrast that to 2013, where the top 10 players have accumulated 21 majors (excluding Roger’s 17) and every slam since Roger’s 2012 Wimbledon triumph. I’d confidently state that the top 10 of 2013 is stronger and deeper than 2002 and full of more top-heavy talent.
In terms of overall competition, Pete had the easier time.
Path to the Championship
This is a little harder to do with Federer as he is in the midst of his draw. Hypothetically, he would have to go through Nadal, Ferrer/Gasquet/Raonic and Murray or Djokovic in the final. Remember all of this can change fast, case in point this year’s Wimbledon.
For example, I’m sure Pete didn’t expect to face 24th ranked Sjeng Schalken in the semis and face his longtime rival and a player who he beat regularly in their historic careers, Agassi in the final. If the draw held to form, he most likely would have had to encounter Safin or Hewitt, two players who had Pete’s number at the point.
So is it a fair comparison?
Tennis can be fickle. There is no question that the 32-year-old Roger Federer is a better player than Pete Sampras was in 2002. His form and results in the last 18 months indicate a player who has won titles and competed in Grand Slams. But, the opposition that Roger faces is much tougher and more proven than Sampras faced in 2002. Sure, we thought the likes of Hewitt, Safin and Haas would be talented stars but they pale in comparison to Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. Ultimately, I think Roger’s 2013 does not set up as ideally as Pete’s run did in 2002.
All Roger can do is play the draw in front of him and he will do so on Saturday when he hopes to reach another second week in a Grand Slam and a possible shot at making his own historic last run.