WIMBLEDON The god of grass is gone.
Switzerland’s Roger Federer rocked the tennis establishment yesterday, ending the four-year reign of Wimbledon wizard Pete Sampras with a brilliant five-set upset of the favorite in the fourth round.
“I’m almost speechless,” the 19-year-old Federer said after snapping Sampras’ 31-match winning streak 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 in his first appearance on Centre Court. “I felt good, actually, from the start, as I won my first service game. I think the first service game is never easy, especially for me the first time coming out on Centre Court, playing Pete Sampras, one of my former idols… . I mean, he’s the man on grass.”
The 29-year-old Sampras, bidding for a record-tying fifth-straight title, struggled mightily with his return and at the net in the early going. He dropped
the first and third sets before rebounding to square the match with a dominating performance in the fourth-set tiebreaker (7-2).
“My game had been sort of spotty up until then, but I played what I thought was an exceptional tiebreaker, and I felt pretty good heading into the fifth set.”
As well he should have. Sampras had never lost a five-setter at Wimbledon. He had not dropped a match at Wimbledon since a straight-sets loss to eventual winner Richard Krajicek in the 1996 quarterfinals.
Those facts, combined with his mastery of the fourth-set tiebreaker and 62-5 record on the turf at the All England Club, left the capacity crowd at Centre Court expecting closing heroics from the seven-time Wimbledon champion. Or perhaps a nasty case of final-set nerves from the Swiss upstart.
What they got was 43 minutes of near-flawless tennis from both men: Amazingly, neither player committed an unforced error in the deciding set.
Sampras had his chance at 4-4, failing on two break points against the Federer serve. The first came at 30-40, with Sampras creeping inside the baseline to attack the relatively slow pace of Federer’s serve, which averaged only 109 mph for the match. But Federer picked the well-placed Sampras return off the top of his Nikes for an unlikely backhand volley winner to dispatch the first break opportunity. After a Sampras forehand winner, Federer wiped out the second break opportunity with a forehand winner of his own before serving out the game.
“He came up with some good stuff when he had to there, won the big point,” said Sampras, who was more matter-of-fact than disconsolate after the loss. “I had a chance there, and I didn’t convert. I give him a lot of the credit for that because of the way he played… . He’s got a great grass-court game. He’s got all the tools.”
Federer used his most formidable tool, a wicked, pinpoint return, to end the match three games later. Earning double-match point with some perfectly placed returns, Federer guessed correctly on Sampras’ wide serve and lasered a forehand winner down the line past the master, falling to his knees and weeping openly at his accomplishment.
“It’s the biggest match I’ve ever won,” said Federer, who will meet either Todd Martin or Tim Henman (who had their match suspended by darkness) in one of tomorrow’s quarterfinals. “At the end, it was just a great feeling that I’ve never had before.”
Though the Federer victory was unexpected, it was far from unthinkable.
Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, came to the All England Club in the midst of his worst season. Entering the event, Sampras had no victories of any sort on his resume this season and a pedestrian 15-10 singles record on tour. He floundered through his second-round victory over unknown Brit Barry Cowan last week, needing five sets to dispatch the world’s 165th-ranked player. And despite his relative anonymity, Federer is no Barry Cowan.
The 19-year-old from Munchenstein was the world’s top-ranked junior player in 1998, winning the Wimbledon junior titles that year in both singles and doubles. And just more than four months ago, Federer almost single-handedly wiped out the U.S. Davis Cup team, besting Jan Michael Gambill and Martin to earn two points for the Swiss team in its 3-2 victory over the Yanks.
“There are a lot of young guys coming up, and Roger is one of them,” Sampras said. “But I think he’s a little extra special… . He’s got a great backhand, serves well. He’s definitely got a good all-around court game. He doesn’t have any holes in his game. He’s a great athlete… . He definitely has a great future.
“He’s already proven that he’s a great player. He’s got a good chance to maybe go all the way.”
With Sampras out of the draw, most would tab Andre Agassi as the new favorite. The game’s top baseliner dropped Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 yesterday to advance to a quarterfinal matchup tomorrow against Nicolas Escude. Third seed Patrick Rafter, who lost to Sampras in the final last year, also advanced, beating Mikhail Youzhny of Russia 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
But even Agassi, who has yet to lose a set during the fortnight, felt compelled to defer to Federer yesterday.
“Pete has obviously been the toughest one to beat here in the history of this tournament,” Agassi said. “Seems to me like Federer is the one to worry about now.”