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Federer and Me:
A Story of Obsession
by William Skidelsky
Roger Federer is quite possibly the most elegant sportsman of the modern age. He plays tennis as if from a dream: effortlessly, fluently, like God designed him to swish his racquet at a moving ball. Again and again, he sends fans, me included, into paroxysms of ecstasy.
When he plays at Wimbledon, there’s a distinctive kind of hush and an equally distinctive kind of gasp. It is not just about his brilliance, but something about his style, the sense that he is bending the laws of physics to a particular aesthetic ideal.
William Skidelsky, a tennis fan and journalist, has tried to capture the Federer mystique in his book Federer and Me. Part memoir (Skidelsky played to county level and we learn about his years in therapy), part ode to his sporting hero, part philosophical essay, this is a literate discourse not just on Federer, but also on the nature of sport, and beauty, and fandom, and the crushing feeling you get when your hero loses.
It is also, inevitably, about Rafael Nadal. When the Spaniard arrived on the scene, Federer was at the pinnacle of his game, and very few of his competitors got close to challenging him. But over the course of their rivalry, Federer has been regularly defeated by Nadal, not just on clay (the Spaniard's favourite surface), but also on grass. The definitive Wimbledon final of 2008, when Nadal triumphed over five gripping sets, is described by Skidelsky as 'one of the worst days of my life'.
Skidelsky is excellent at deconstructing the appeal of Federer: he talks about the smoothness of his movement, the way he seems to glide across the surface at Wimbledon, how his forehand 'is the most beautiful shot in the history of tennis', even how he 'barely sweats, never grunts'. John McEnroe once compared him to the dancer Rudolf Nureyev, which strikes just the right note. Federer is also a player who varies the pace of the ball, changes the geometry of his play, and is capable of coming to the net. There is multi-dimensionality in his play.
But Skidelsky is also, for understandable reasons, rather ungracious in his characterisation of Nadal ('has there ever been an athlete more flagrantly OCD than Nadal, one more neurotically in thrall to his rituals and compulsions?' It even annoys Skidelsky that he always ingests his packet of energy gel in four squeezes). He regards the Spaniard as a soulless and dispiriting machine, which seems more than a little unfair for a man who has won 14 grand slams. Nadal may not have the timeless appeal of the Swiss, but he is also a magnificent player, with a beauty all of his own. The power of those ground shots, his keen tactical intelligence, his indomitable spirit: all these things are worthy of praise.
The final of 2008 between the two adversaries is, quite rightly, given a whole chapter. Over five impossibly tense sets, the two men battled with each other and, almost incidentally, redefined the limits of tennis. It had everything: changes in tempo, shifts in dominance, moments of needle, and of humanity. Federer trailed by two sets to love, but demonstrated his mettle and his keen competitive will to force it into a decider as the sun set over southwest London.
By the end, both men were stripped naked. All that was left was their respective wills, and the yearning of their respective fans. Skidelsky watched the match from a small room in his apartment, walking out during a rain delay to pick some rocket from the back garden and make a salad, anything to distract him from the tension of waiting, and hoping. Ultimately, of course, Federer lost: leaving Skidelsky close to tears.
'Although a few other things - being dumped, losing an unborn child — have been more painful, in tennis terms, certainly, no day has been more harrowing. That gutsy, rain-sodden Sunday, the agony got going just after two thirty and proceeded to unfurl across the afternoon, bleeding into twilight and dusk, gathering in intensity as it went. Finally, in the pixelated gloom . . . a netted forehand settled the matter,' he writes.
There are some nice interludes in the book about the nature of fandom: why do we get so caught up with certain athletes? What is the rational basis of our devotion? Skidelsky’s doesn't always offer up answers, but he always captures the complexity of the questions. And what of the beauty of Federer? The author rightly points out that beauty is not the point of sport. The Swiss does not play the game to obtain plaudits for artistic merit, but to win. Beauty, concludes Skidelsky, is a by-product of sport, rather as courage is a by-product of war.
Today, Federer stands on 17 grand slams, three more than any of his rivals. Nadal is currently on 14, although injuries mean he may never overhaul the Swiss. Novak Djokovic has added new spice to the rivalry in recent years, creating another dimension. Andy Murray has mixed it up with these fine athletes, too. Tennis is in the midst of a golden age, one that will continue over the coming months, in Paris, London and New York.
And this is why this book is so timely. Federer has provided supreme moments of pleasure for sports enthusiasts around the world, and has helped elevate tennis into an art form. Whether you are a fan of the Swiss or one of his rivals, he has unquestionably transcended the game. Today, he stands alongside the likes of Pele, Ali, Jordan, Nicklaus and Senna as among the finest of sporting champions.
This is the kind of book that sports fans will read over the course of the summer, sitting in their gardens or in the stands of the All England Club, with a bowl of strawberries near at hand. It is gentle and wise, discursive but pointed. Nadal fans will not warm to it, I suspect, but I doubt that will trouble the author. He is a Federer devotee, a partisan. And in that, he is far from alone.
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