Roger Federer is widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players, if not the greatest, of all time. He has won 16 Grand Slam titles — six at Wimbledon, five at the U.S. Open, four at the Australian Open and one at the French Open — and is one of only four men in the Open Era to complete the career Grand Slam.
With arguably the greatest player in history winning the greatest number of his titles at the All England Club, it would seemingly not be out of the question to anoint Federer the greatest Wimbledon champion in history.
However, you would be ignoring the seven titles that Pete Sampras won.
Sampras, as you may recall, was Federer before Federer. He did not complete the career Grand Slam — never making it past the semifinals at the French Open, which somewhat mirrored Federer’s struggles to break through at Roland Garros as well — but still held the record for most Grand Slam titles won (14) for nine years. Federer broke it with title number 15 in 2009.
Sampras’ aggressive serve-and-volleying style translated almost too perfectly to grass, and for the better part of the 1990s, he simply could not lose at Wimbledon.
For every incredible stat of Federer’s that tennis fans have witnessed over the past decade, Sampras had one-upped him 10 years earlier.
Federer’s career record at Wimbledon is an absurd 59-7, for a winning percentage of .894. Sampras’ career record at Wimbledon is a somehow-even more absurd 63-7, for a winning percentage of .900. Federer has appeared in seven Wimbledon finals, and so has Sampras. Federer’s record in those seven finals is 6-1, his one loss coming to Rafael Nadal in 2008. Sampras’ record in his seven finals was a clean 7-0.
Federer reached those seven finals in consecutive years, from 2003 to 2009 — but lost the sixth one, as mentioned above. The year before he started his streak, he was dumped in the first round, while he lost in the quarterfinals the year after.
Sampras, meanwhile, did not reach his seven finals consecutively. He won three straight from 1993 to 1995, and then four more from 1997 to 2000. His only loss came in 1996 in the quarterfinals to eventual winner Richard Krajicek. If not for Krajicek, Sampras might well have won 80 percent of the Wimbledon titles that decade, and all consecutively.
Not only that, but in 1992 — the year before he started his streak — Sampras fell in the semifinals, compared to Federer’s first-round defeat. What in hindsight is quite the coincidence, Sampras’ 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon was halted in the quarterfinals in 2001 by Federer. The future Swiss superstar, only 19 at the time, took the champ down in five sets.
So what it comes down to, really, is whether you find Sampras’ clean record in finals to be more impressive than Federer’s run of seven straight finals appearances. Most people would say it is.
Of course, all this is not to diminish Federer’s accomplishments at Wimbledon. He is the second-greatest champion Wimbledon has ever seen, a nose ahead of Bjorn Borg.
Borg has his own impressive list of Wimbledon achievements — five consecutive titles (a record shared with Federer) from 1976-1980 followed up by a loss in the 1981 final, 41 consecutive matches won (a record he holds himself) and a mind-boggling career record of 51-4 for a winning percentage of .927 (also a record) — but Federer edges him out based on the sixth title and his career accomplishments in total.
In addition, Federer could conceivably pull even with, and possibly ahead of, Sampras if he wins one more title and defeats the right person. If Federer, who is seeded third this year behind Novak Djokovic and Nadal, manages to beat either one of them in the final, he could conceivably lay claim to the title of greatest Wimbledon champion of all time.
But for now, he’ll just have to continue to cede that moniker to Sampras.