Rivalry would be good for the game

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England -- Count Pete Sampras among those who figure that his records for most Wimbledon championships and Grand Slam titles will be eclipsed by Roger Federer.

"I think he will break every tennis record out there," Sampras said. "I don't believe in rooting against someone. Records are made to be broken. I am pretty confident he's well on his way to breaking the Grand Slam record. He has all the tools, the demeanor, the whole package."

And Sampras spoke those words before Federer defeated Rafael Nadal in four sets Sunday to win Wimbledon for the fourth year in a row.

Federer is, without a doubt, the best tennis player on grass at the moment. Possibly ever.

The exact same can be said of Nadal on clay.

Now they'll take their rivalry to hard courts, and no one should be surprised if they meet in a third consecutive Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open in September.

Tennis thrives with rivalries, and No. 1 Federer and No. 2 Nadal appear to be creating one for the ages.

"For the game, it's very important for these two to go out and carry the game," said Jimmy Connors, whose memorable meetings with John McEnroe helped fuel the sport's popularity in the early 1980s.

"If [Nadal's] going to take his place in history, he's going to have to compete against Roger, not only here at Wimbledon, but day in and day out, week in and week out, at every tournament around the world -- since we have a rivalry."

Federer vs. Nadal was rather one-sided this year until Sunday: Nadal won their first four matches of 2006, including in the French Open final last month. But Federer was too tough on the most famous lawn court in the world -- a place Nadal called "the cathedral of tennis" and Federer's coach, Tony Roche, called "Roger's backyard."

Still only 24 years old, Federer owns eight major titles, tying him with Connors, Andre Agassi and others for the sixth-most in history. Sampras won a record 14 Grand Slam events.

After joining Sampras and Bjorn Borg as the only men since World War I with four straight Wimbledon trophies, Federer was asked about the big picture.

Could he be the best to ever swing a racket?

"I am maybe heading down that road, but I'm still, I think, far off," Federer said. "By winning today, and making it four in a row, it's a very elite club. There's more to come maybe. I have the opportunity. I will hope to equal Bjorn Borg's record next year -- five in a row."

There also is the matter of total Wimbledon titles: Sampras and William Renshaw (who played in the 1800s) won the grass-court Grand Slam seven times.

Federer acknowledges he's "very well aware" of what the record books say, but he maintains that's not what motivates him these days.

"This is maybe a little extra motivation, but ... it's not the records that give me the drive," he said in an interview with The Associated Press about four hours after finishing off Nadal. "Maybe if in four years' time, I'm so close to so many records again, that's what's going to keep me going. But at the moment, it's not. ...

"I don't really feel like I'm playing for the records. I play this game because I love it."

When he began collecting major titles, there were those who quickly pegged Federer as a threat to surpass Sampras' career totals. And then there were others who cautioned that it's too tough to see what the future will bring, what pitfalls could present themselves, from injuries to up-and-coming players.

Well, Federer has avoided the former, for the most part, and he clearly distanced himself from contemporaries such as 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick and two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt. Ah, but along came Nadal, who turned 20 only last month, and whose record 60 consecutive victories on clay is every bit as impressive as Federer's 48 in a row on grass.

Here's the thing, though: Having Nadal around might very well be a good thing for Federer, rather than a hindrance.

"He's making Federer a better player," McEnroe said. "That's all you can ask for in a rival."

Sampras had Agassi to push him. Agassi announced before Wimbledon that he'll retire after the U.S. Open, and Sampras was asked last week to reflect on his chief rival's career.

The biggest thing that stuck out for Sampras was how he was forced to elevate his game with Agassi there.

"When he had his moments playing so well, in the finals at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, I played some of my best tennis," Sampras said. "We had a rivalry that hit mainstream sports, [attracting people] that may not have been tennis fans."

Federer and Nadal are on their way to doing the same.

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