If we are lucky, we all have a few times in our lives when we witness a public event which is so pleasing or positive that it recalls a cherished memory from the (relatively or extremely) distant past.
This does not mean that private moments contain less value than public moments — no, that’s not a road I am traveling here. I am merely focusing on public moments because private moments are very personal and particular to each of us. Public moments reach across boundaries in unique ways — not BETTER ways, just unique ones — and provide that precious thing called a shared public memory.
Sports are one of the few realms of activity which knit together very large and disparate groups of people who — if not sitting together in a stadium or wearing the same jerseys or caps at the neighborhood pub, rooting for the home team or the native kid trying to become a tennis star — would not want to have anything to do with each other.
Sports can take the businessman in a gated community from the suburbs and a 35-year-old African-American father of a child in an inner-city school, and make them high-five after the home team scores in a big game. If church might be America’s most segregated hour on Sundays, football might be the nation’s most three integrated hours. We often — though not always — forget about our differences when sharing a sports event or watching something like the moon landing (whose 50th anniversary is this year). We remember our differences in other settings.
The power of a communally-shared experience is immense. When it connects to something in the past, this is even more true.
I give you the upcoming Australian Open fourth-round match between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Roger Federer.
It is a timeless, classic plot in all forms of storytelling: A young man conquers an opponent he admired and respected. He becomes the dominant force in his profession. Years later, he faces a new Boy Who Would Be King, the up-and-comer who aspires to be The Next Great One.
Role reversal. It is always delicious in literature and film and television.
It comes to Melbourne, Australia, this Sunday.
The icon now stands on the other side of the great stage of history. He is no longer the dreamer, the young man who wanted to be like the giants he played against. He is now the giant, watching a vibrant, wild thing trying to mold himself into The One Who Will Take The Baton and carry the sport into the next 15 years.
All of this exists in Federer-Tsitsipas… bound together by a distinctly Greek flavor.
Federer once was the young dreamer, several weeks short of turning 20 years old. The year was 2001. The place was Wimbledon. In the fourth round, Federer met Pete Sampras, the foremost player of his generation and a man who had already won a record seven Wimbledon titles (shared by old Willie Renshaw back in the 1880s).
Federer found magic that day. He had found magic in other matches preceding it, but never on a stage that big, in a match that important, against an opponent that towering in stature. That match — Federer d. Sampras in five sets — was Federer’s announcement of his potential to the world. That potential didn’t immediately come together — it needed two years to emerge — but when it did, it made Federer an even more accomplished Wimbledon champion than Sampras: 8 titles to 7, with three additional Wimbledon finals and participation in a match regarded by many as the best in tennis history, the 2008 final against Rafael Nadal.
Federer, at 19, began to realize his gifts and capacities against the man who ruled his sport for several years and swept past the immortal names of Borg, Laver, Emerson, Connors and Lendl on the list of all-time major title winners. Sampras’s 14 majors were absurd then. In truth, they still are.
Yet, little did anyone know just how great that innocent young man of 19 years and nearly 11 months would become in the fullness of time.
Now, on a January Sunday in 2019, Roger Federer will look across that vast 18-year ocean of time and see himself on the other side of the net. Tsitsipas will be there.
Tsitsipas is just 20 years old, but his talent and his flowing game are evident. He is a one-handed backhander, just like Federer. One can see the flair for the sexy shot, the feel for the artistic conclusion to a point, the shutdown serve upon which an empire can be built. Tsitsipas’s return game needs a ton of work, and much as Sampras was expected to clean up Federer in 2001, Fed will be expected to take care of Stefanos in 2019.
Yet, the kid is playing with house money, absolutely nothing to lose. He could reach back and find magic on a stage this big.
At Wimbledon in 2001, Federer was playing a man who represented the United States, but that same man was born Petros Sampras to two parents of Greek heritage. He attended a Greek Orthodox religious community in his youth. Sampras carried Greek roots into his tennis life, and though he is the stoic Tsitsipas obviously isn’t, the two have long arms and popping serves which carry the scent of something special.
Sampras was the emperor trying to fend off the invader from Switzerland in 2001. Now, in 2019, the Swiss is the ruler, guarding his castle against the Greek fireballer who will try to do at 20 what Sampras did at 19: Win a first major title by overturning the power structure.
Sampras, at the 1990 U.S. Open, beat Federer’s future coach, Peter Lundgren. He later beat Federer’s predecessor as a Swiss player of note, Jakob Hlasek. Sampras then defeated major champion Thomas Muster in the fourth round, the iconic Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals, and the similarly legendary John McEnroe in the semifinals. He ripped through future rival Andre Agassi in the final to lift a major trophy.
Who said the coronation had to wait? Sampras took a crown early. Tsitsipas might not be ready… but what if he is? He will create the excitement a Greek-American serving phenom generated almost 30 years ago.
In the middle of these two men with roots which run deep into Greek soil stands Federer. He once looked up to Sampras, trying to climb to Pistol Pete’s lofty height. Now he stands atop his kingdom, noticing Tsitsipas charging through the countryside and up the ridge toward the castle gate.
It all feels very familiar… and all very Greek.
This is the stuff dreams are made of. This is the kind of match which knits together generations of tennis players in a story everyone can recognize a mile away. The match could be ordinary… but what if Stefanos Tsitsipas does to Federer what Roger did to Petros Sampras in 2001?
The attraction of this match in Melbourne isn’t so much the likelihood of what will happen, but the possibility of what could begin.
Federer fans who recall Wimbledon in 2001 know the feeling.