On July 2, 2001, the future Wimbledon king Roger Federer took down the seven-time champion Pete Sampras 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5 in three hours and 41 minutes! It was the first and only match between two of the greatest players of all time, with both making sure to produce a memorable one, with the full attacking grass court tennis that would hardly be seen on the sacred Wimbledon courts ever since.
At the age of 19 years and ten months, Federer was the upcoming star, heading to the All England Club after reaching the first Grand Slam quarter-final in Paris and winning the first ATP crown earlier that year in Milan. On the other hand, Sampras was not in great form that year although he was always dangerous at these courts, chasing the fifth consecutive title and the eighth overall and looking to add his name to the record books one more time.
It wasn't to be for him on that day, though, losing before the quarter-final for the first time since 1991 and playing only one more match at beloved courts before retiring in 2002. Pete had 31 straight wins at Wimbledon and 56 in the last 57 encounters before Roger ended that streak, never winning a match at Wimbledon before that year and becoming the first player with a five-setter triumph over Pete in the cathedral of tennis.
In the end, Federer won ten points more than Sampras, fending off nine out of 11 break points and delivering four breaks of serve from 14 opportunities to cross the finish line and dethrone one of the greatest players of all time.
They hit 174 service winners in 370 points overall (89 for Roger, 85 for Pete), with 47% of the points not seeing a rally at all! Also, 325 points ended in the shortest range up to four strokes and the Swiss had a 170-155 advantage in those, doing more damage with the initial forehand or volley to forge the crucial difference.
Pete had a 24-19 lead in the mid-range exchanges with five to eight shots, not enough to carry him over the finish line, with only two rallies with more than eight shots, an excellent indicator of how fast the encounter was.
Roger needed a good start in his first match on the Centre Court, blasting four service winners in the opening game, followed by a similar answer from Sampras who leveled the score with four booming serves of his own. After three mistakes, the American faced three break points in the fourth game and erased them in no time with five winners that kept him on the positive side of the scoreboard.
At 3-3, Federer faced his first break chance and stayed calm to oppose it and remain in touch until the tie break where he saved a set point at 5-6 with a service winner, taking it 9-7 after an unforced error from Sampras for a massive boost.
In set number two, Sampras fended off all six break points he played against, stealing Roger's serve once to take it 7-5 and restore the order ahead of the remaining sets. Two double faults could have cost Roger a lot in the fourth game, landing three service winners to get out of jail and create two break chances in the very next game.
Sampras remained composed, firing four winners to keep his serve unbroken and working hard at 3-3 as well to erase four break opportunities and gain a boost. Serving at 5-6, the young gun sprayed five mistakes that cost him dearly, handing the set to Pete and having to start all over if he wanted to cause an upset.
He did that in set number three, finding the formula to crack Pete's serve and breaking him twice for a 6-4. Roger placed a return winner in game three to create the lead, staying in front only for a couple of minutes as Sampras broke back a few minutes later with three winners.
The American survived a break chance at 3-3 with a service winner before wasting a 40-15 advantage in the ninth game, spraying four errors that sent Roger 5-4 up. In one of the most essential games of the match, Federer clocked four good serves to take the set 6-4 and move closer to the finish line and brilliant triumph.
With no room for errors, Sampras raised his game in set number four, facing no break points and creating two at 4-3 that Roger dismissed with winners, reaching a tie break that the more experienced player won 7-2, leveling the overall score at 2-2 and sending the clash into a decider.
There, Federer managed to leave the drama and excitement behind him, dropping only six points behind the initial shot, four of those at 4-4 when he fended off two break points to avoid an inevitable defeat. Pete lost six points in the first five service games but that all changed when the pressure reached its peak, suffering a break at 15 in the 12th game after two return winners from Federer that carried the young gun over the finish line and into the first Wimbledon quarter-final.
"It feels unbelievable to beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. I mean, I went out on the court today trying to beat him but I knew it was not going to be easy. I'm pleased with my performance today, from the first to the last point.
It's just a great feeling I've never had before. I would say the return was the key factor of my victory because I had the feeling I had more chances than he did. Especially in the first three sets, I always had chances to break him but he came up with some big serves.
Then, out of sudden, I didn't have any break chances in the fourth and fifth sets. He was serving too good; maybe I was a little bit passive on the returns in those moments but I'm still happy with my game. I felt excellent on the court from the start, since I won my first service game.
That one is never easy to grab, especially after playing on the Centre Court for the first time, against one of my former idols. I won it at love or at 15 and that gave me a little boost to go into the match; the whole court was packed; there's no way you're going to stop fighting.
Sometimes it was weird, looking on the other side of the net and seeing Pete, but that feeling went away at some point; you think about your serve, where you're going to go, then it's like playing against maybe some other player. But obviously, it was something special for me to play against Pete."