2002. The US Open.
Two years after being displaced as the world number one in men's tennis, a 31-year-old Pete Sampras was seeded 17th. In the past two editions of his home Grand Slam, he had lost to younger contenders Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt in the finals – defeats that had triggered talk of him never winning a slam again.
In 2001, Sampras had defeated Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Safin in the round of 16, quarters and semis – the three past champions – before going down to Hewitt in straight sets. Yet, many felt he was past his prime.
In the 2002 third-round match, Sampras beat Greg Rusedski in a tough five-set encounter. Famously, Rusedski, despite losing, said his American victor was a step-and-a-half slower and would lose the next round.
Sampras proved him wrong, and how!
|Two champions - Pete Sampras (left) and Roger Federer. (Reuters photo)|
He not only beat two young players, Tommy Haas and fellow American Andy Roddick, but reached his third consecutive US Open final, where he beat long-time rival Andre Agassi to claim his then record 14th Major title. Sampras had met Agassi in his very first Grand Slam final 12 years ago. He won the 2002 final in four sets for his record fifth US Open title.
Sampras didn't play on the tour at all for the next one year before officially announcing his retirement just before the next US Open, giving him the opportunity to give a farewell speech. He didn't defend his title.
Cut to the 2017 Australian Open.
Another great champion arrived in Melbourne with question-marks hovering over his game. Roger Federer, seeded 17th this year (just like Sampras in 2002!), hadn't won a Major title in five years and beat three top-10 players, two of them in five-setters, to meet his nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final. In a battle of awe-inspiring class, fitness, mental strength and sheer will to win, he came back from 1-3 down in the fifth set to claim his record 18th Grand Slam title.
Just like Sampras vs Agassi was a long-cherished rivalry on the tour, Federer vs Nadal was a dream throw back final for the fans.
What are the chances Federer won't be back to defend his Australian Open title either? In his victory speech, the Swiss urged Rafa to continue playing because "the tour needs him", but didn't say anything about returning to Melbourne himself.
The only difference between Sampras and Federer is that while the former's iconic win came at the end of the season in the last Grand Slam of the year, for Federer it is just the beginning of 2017. After six months on the sidelines, the Swiss champion looks physically fresh, mentally stronger, and most importantly, hungrier than what we’ve seen in a long time.
A win at the Australian Open will no doubt boost his confidence and improve his chances of a win at Wimbledon, where he has won seven titles so far – same as Sampras. He will, perhaps, like to go one up over his idol at SW19. Give it one final shot. Add to his legend. Pick up that golden trophy that made him who he is one more time.
How soon it happens is anyone's guess. They say athletes like to quit while on top. But enjoy 2017 even more. Every match of Federer's. It could well be his last.