From his front row seat in the Royal Box, Pete Sampras watched as Roger Federer broke his record for most Grand Slam singles titles in men's tennis history.
After Federer overcame Andy Roddick in a marathon, five-set serving duel Sunday for his sixth Wimbledon title and 15th Grand Slam championship, Sampras was left with no doubt about who is the greatest male player of all time.
"I have to give it to him," said Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon champion who never thought his record of 14 major titles would be surpassed so soon. "He's won all the majors. He's won 15 now. He's going to win a few more here. So in my book he is (the greatest)."
The issue will always generate debate and argument, especially in trying to compare players of different generations, such as Rod Laver and Bill Tilden. But there is no denying that Federer has firmly cemented himself as the finest player of the generation and, at age 27, the favorite for other major titles to come.
"It's not really one of those goals you set as a little boy, but, man, it's been quite a career and quite a month," said Federer, who completed a career Grand Slam by winning his first French Open a month ago. "It feels amazing, but this is not why I'm playing tennis to break all sort of different records. But it's definitely one of the greatest ones to have."
It took 4 hours, 16 minutes, five sets and 77 games for Federer to secure the record Sunday in another epic Wimbledon final. Federer served a career-high 50 aces and overcame the resilient Roddick 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 - the longest match and longest fifth set in Grand Slam final history in terms of games.
After going 0-6 on break points, Federer finally broke the American in the 30th game of the fifth set - with Roddick shanking a forehand on the first match point.
"It's staggering that I've been able to play so well for so many years now and stay injury-free," said Federer, who won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003. "I'm happy I broke the record here because this is always the tournament that meant the most to me. It definitely feels like coming full circle, starting it here and ending it here."
Sampras flew in from California on Sunday, making his first appearance at the All England Club since playing this tournament for the last time in 2002. He arrived in the Royal Box after the third game of the match. Accompanied by his wife, Bridgette Wilson, he sat next to Spanish great Manolo Santana and a few seats from Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. When Federer walked from his changeover chair to the service line, he gestured to Sampras in greeting.
"In a way, I still feel like we share (the record) because he was such a wonderful champion," Federer said. "He still has one up against me here at Wimbledon. It's nice that he shows appreciation for what I'm doing."
Federer is the third player to win six Wimbledon championships - Sampras and William Renshaw each won seven.
"He's a stud," Sampras said. "He's only 27. He'll contend here for many years, and the U.S. Open, and all the majors. If he just keeps it going and stays healthy, he could go to 18, 19, potentially.The guy, he's a legend. Now he's an icon."
It's been quite a turnaround for Federer from a year ago, when he lost his title and aura of invincibility to Rafael Nadal in a classic final that ended in near darkness at 9-7 in the fifth set.
With Sunday's triumph, Federer reclaimed the No. 1 ranking he surrendered last August to Nadal, who missed this year's tournament because of knee problems.
"Of course, I would have loved to play him again," Federer said. "You never know how he would have played. He had the injury. Tennis moves very quickly. I'm happy at least I became No. 1 in the world by winning the tournament, not just by him not playing at all. It's supposed to be that you win big matches, big tournaments. That's how you get back to (No. 1)."
Some people were writing off Federer after he lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final and broke down in tears during the trophy ceremony. Federer continued to struggle early in the season before winning the French Open. Now he's the third man in 40 years to win the French and Wimbledon in the same year, joining Borg and Nadal.
"This year is crazy," Federer said. "Things didn't look so good when I lost in the final of the Australian Open, which was still just an unbelievable result. But to come through and battle back and win Paris and now Wimbledon back-to-back, something Bjorn did a couple of times, it's amazing."
Playing in his record 20th Grand Slam final and sixth in a row, Federer beat Roddick for the third time in the Wimbledon championship match, adding to his victories in 2004 and '05. He extended his overall mastery over the American to 19-2, including 8-0 at Grand Slams.
"He's a true champion," said the 26-year-old Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open winner. "He deserves everything he gets."
Turning to Sampras, Roddick said, "Sorry, Pete. I tried to hold him off."
Roddick later withdrew from the U.S. Davis Cup team's quarterfinal at Croatia, citing a right hip flexor injury. The U.S. Tennis Association announced Monday that Roddick was hurt during his loss to Federer.
Roddick slipped and tumbled to the grass in the eighth game of the fourth set. He stayed down for a few moments, then rose, grimacing, and toweled off.
He is being replaced on the U.S. Davis Cup team by Mardy Fish. Croatia hosts the U.S. on clay at Porec, Croatia, starting Friday.
The statistics from Sunday's match were astounding: Federer's 50 aces were one short of the Wimbledon record held by Ivo Karlovic. Federer had a total of 107 winners, compared with 38 unforced errors. Roddick had 27 aces, 74 winners and 33 unforced mistakes.
The match started to turn Federer's way when he saved four break points in the second-set tiebreaker. Down 2-6, he ran off six straight points to avoid going down 2-0 in sets.
Roddick missed a relatively easy high backhand volley on the fourth break point. But even after dropping the third set, Roddick didn't let up. He broke once in the fourth set to even the match.
The fifth set went back-and-forth with the players slugging huge serves at each other, offering few chances to break. Finally, serving in the 30th game with Federer ahead 15-14, Roddick blinked. He misplayed a forehand to set up match point. After a contest featuring so many brilliant shots, Roddick missed badly on another forehand to end it.
"This match was different from last year's final with Nadal," Federer said. "I just said to myself, 'I'm exactly where I want to be at 13-13 in the fifth set. You're a few minutes from winning.' I saw it in a positive way. I believed right to the end."
This program aired on July 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.