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 after three hours and 41 minutes! It was the only encounter between our sport's legends, with both taking care to give us a memorable one.
From start to finish, it was a full attacking grass-court tennis that would hardly be seen on the Wimbledon courts in the next two decades. Federer was the upcoming star, heading to Wimbledon after reaching the first Grand Slam quarter-final in Paris, hoping for another great run at a Major where he won the junior title in 1998.
Despite not being in a great form that year, Sampras was always dangerous at Wimbledon, chasing the fifth consecutive and the eighth title in total. It wasn't to be for him on that day, losing before the quarter-final for the first time since 1991 and playing only one more match at beloved courts a year later.
Pete had 31 straight triumphs at Wimbledon and 56 in the last 57 encounters, with Federer ending that streak and becoming the first player with a five-setter victory over Pete in the cathedral of tennis. Federer won ten points more than Sampras, repelling nine out of 11 break chances and delivering four breaks from 14 opportunities to cross the finish line and advance into the quarters.
They hit 174 service winners in 370 points (89 for Roger, 85 for Pete), with 47% of the points not seeing a proper rally! Also, 325 exchanges ended in the shortest range up to four strokes, with the Swiss building a 170-155 lead, doing more damage with the initial forehand or volley to forge the crucial difference.
Pete had a 24-19 advantage in the mid-range exchanges with five to eight strokes, not enough to make a difference. Roger needed a good start against a more experienced opponent, blasting four service winners in the opening game before Sampras leveled the score with four booming serves of his own.
After three mistakes, the American faced three break points at 1-2, erasing them with five winners.
At 3-3, Federer experienced the first troubles behind the initial shot, staying calm to oppose a break chance and reach the tie break.
There, Roger dismissed 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, Pete fended off all six break points, stealing Roger's serve in the late stages to restore the order.
Two double faults could have cost Roger a lot in the fourth game, landing three service winners to get out of jail and creating two break chances in the next one. Sampras fired four winners to keep his serve unbroken, working hard at 3-3 to erase four break opportunities and gain a boost.
Serving at 5-6, the young gun cracked under pressure with five mistakes, 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 way to crack Pete's serve and taking the set 6-4 following two beaks.
Roger placed a return winner in game three to forge the lead, staying in front only for a couple of minutes as Sampras broke back with three winners. The American survived a break opportunity at 3-3 with a service winner, only to waste a 40-15 advantage in the ninth game and spray four mistakes that sent Roger 5-4 up.
In one of the pivotal games of the encounter, Federer clocked four good serves to take the set 6-4 and move closer to the finish line and a brilliant triumph. With no room for errors, Sampras raised his game in set number four, facing no break points and creating two chances at 4-3.
Roger dismissed those with winners to reach 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 left 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, looking determined to push the youngster until the end. That all changed when the pressure reached its peak in game 12, with the American suffering a break at 15 following two return winners from Federer that carried the young gun over the finish line and into the first Wimbledon quarter-final.
"My most successful career win came against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon 2001. He was the big favorite and it came as a surprise; it was also my first Centre Court match and a huge moment. I was thinking, if I can beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, I can beat anyone anywhere.
It was a reference and from that standpoint, this victory made me believe I could have a truly great career," Roger Federer said.