Federer's challenges unlike Sampras'

Roger Federer's biggest on-court rival is Rafael Nadal, but his biggest rival in the history books has traditionally been Pete Sampras.

The comparisons have come easily, thanks to their August birthdays almost exactly 10 years apart, matching 6-foot-1 statures and, most of all, their record-breaking haul of Grand Slam titles. They both won the first of their seven Wimbledon titles at 22, in 1993 and 2003, respectively, and have played with the same racket. They even had the same coach, Paul Annacone.

The similarity of their career arcs means that parallels have frequently been drawn between them, and this summer has been no exception. Federer has stuttered and stumbled through the past couple of months in a manner reminiscent of the ugly run Sampras had in 2002 before he turned things around with an improbable and memorable US Open victory. The worse Federer's results have been, the more expectation there seems to be for him to follow Sampras' footsteps once again by capturing the title at Flushing Meadows.

Sampras himself says Federer could indeed replicate his feat.

"I think he can," Sampras told ESPN.com in Toronto, comparing their experiences. "I just think he needs to physically get good; I think he needs to get some confidence. Because as great as we all were and still [are], I think everyone -- you start to question a little bit. It's just a natural course of getting a little bit older.

"So he needs to just find a way to remember who he is. It's easy to get discouraged. It's easy to walk into every press conference and everyone says: 'What's wrong, Roger? When are you going to retire?' And then you start thinking about it and believing it.

"But he just has to get into his own space, his own world, focus on who he is and how great he is, and he'll be fine.

"It's not about forehands and backhands. I mean, he knows how to do that. It's just about getting some confidence, getting healthy and he'll be on his way."

But how likely is a "re-Pete"? The broad resemblances certainly are there. The summer before winning the 2002 US Open, Sampras lost to George Bastl in the second round of Wimbledon and went out to Wayne Arthurs and Paul-Henri Mathieu in his next two events, all players ranked below No. 50. This summer, Federer has lost in the second round to Sergiy Stakhovsky and went out to Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands in two last-minute clay-court events. Yes, they were all ranked below No. 50.

In other ways, however, Federer's situation is quite different from Sampras' that year, both for better and for worse.

For better in the sense that although Federer's chances at the upcoming US Open are not highly regarded, the Swiss is still seen as a bigger threat than Sampras was, particularly after taking Nadal to three sets in Cincinnati last week. His rank has fallen to seventh and he managed to win only a small event in Halle so far this year, but Sampras was No. 17 in 2002 after a two-year title drought.

For worse, Federer faces far bigger obstacles. First, there is the established trio of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- in their prime and with 20 Grand Slams among them -- as compared to the inconsistent mix of young and aging contenders like Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and Andre Agassi that Sampras found in his way during his last Grand Slam run.

Sampras' opponents that year included Greg Rusedski, who took him to five sets and famously declared he had lost a step, Tommy Haas and a 20-year-old Andy Roddick. In the final, Sampras faced Agassi, a legendary champion himself, but a year older than Sampras. And the 14-time Grand Slam champion ended up leading Agassi 20-14 in their head-to-head matches, including 4-1 in Grand Slam finals.

There may be fewer dangerous floaters in the early rounds these days, but at the top, things are far tougher. Federer, who will be seeded out of the top four at a major for the first time in more than a decade, could potentially need to defeat Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in successive rounds to win the title.

"He's up against some guys that a little bit younger and just as eager and move just as well -- and consistent," Sampras said. " All these young kids are eager now. You've got to remember that you have to match their eagerness. Not only are they great players, the energy is there."

Federer, who just turned 32, seems to have more appetite for the game than Sampras at the same age. What he does not have, however, is Sampras' huge serve to get him out of trouble. "It kept me in a lot of matches [when] I wasn't hitting the ball well, whereas Roger has to grind a little bit more," Sampras said.

A second challenge is that Federer's form has been disrupted by frequent back problems this year and the temporary racket change after Wimbledon.

"I fell behind a little bit with the injuries I've had," Federer said last week at the Masters event in Cincinnati. "Where I wanted to actually do a lot of exercises and training and all that stuff, I couldn't really do that. I had to do more waiting and rehabbing. I think that just adds up over time and has maybe a little dent in your confidence at times.

"And then I was playing hurt as well, which was not very smart at times. I got used to doing the wrong things because I'm protecting myself. When you're fine again, you're still playing like you're protecting something but actually you don't have to anymore. So it's difficult sometimes to let go."

But Federer reports being pain-free and able to train hard for the past few weeks and has also gone back to his old 90-inch frame until the US Open is finished, putting away the 98-square-inch racket he was testing. Why the switch back?

"I just felt like, you know what, right now I feel like I need to simplify everything and just play with what I know best," Federer said. "I have too many things on my plate right now."

His first couple of rounds in Cincinnati were scratchy, but a quarterfinal meeting with Nadal seemed to reignite his game before a slight fade in the second half of the match.

Going into the US Open, it was a perfect reminder of how near he remains to a Sampras-like revival -- but also how many obstacles stand in the way.