Michael Mewshaw has covered pro tennis since 1978. A collection of his articles about the tour will be released this spring as an e-book.
Professional tennis might best be compared to a butterfly. Viewed from a flattering angle, the game boasts gossamer wings, balletic movement and the complex geometry of a Mondrian painting. Seen from the other side, it reveals an ugly, squirming bug beneath its surface beauty. Recent allegations of betting and match-fixing involving players, umpires and organized crime, along with charges of doping against Maria Sharapova, suggest that the sport isn’t always what fans like to believe, and the stars often stand at a dramatic parallax to the images purveyed by PR agents. The difficulty for anybody writing about tennis is to strike a balance between admiration for the athleticism on display and acknowledgement of realities that are kept carefully concealed from the public.
William Skidelsky follows in the tradition of the sport’s lyric poets, and sticking to that perspective, his book, “Federer and Me,” is a passionate valentine in praise of the Swiss winner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles. Skidelsky makes no pretense of even-handedness and proclaims his loathing for Roger Federer’s nemesis, Rafael Nadal, whose victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final left the author “close to meltdown; I remember at one point writhing around on the floor.”
In his unalloyed affection for Federer, Skidelsky finds himself in lofty literary company. David Foster Wallace first plowed this ground with his frequently anthologized essay “Federer as Religious Experience.” Like Wallace, who dismissed Nadal as “a mesomorphic and totally martial” robot, Skidelsky rationalizes Federer’s losing record against Nadal while revering his fetishized favorite as a figure “of legend, almost a god.” According to the bible of Skidelsky, this deity consists of a trinity of “contradictory archetypes: Federer the saint, the modern husband, and the artistic genius.” If this sounds slightly over the top, it’s nevertheless of a piece with what Skidelsky admits: There is “something unfathomable about the whole business of being a fan . . . in its self-evident irrationality.”
On paper — where Skidelsky appears to spend the bulk of his life outside tennis — he seems to be an improbable candidate for membership in the “Fed-heads” who follow their man with a blind fervor more often associated with religious or political ecstasy. Yet while Skidelsky’s résumé shows him to be a former literary editor at the Observer and the New Statesman, a graduate of Eton and Oxford, and a good club-level player, he confesses that he has suffered from depression, “a protracted identity crisis” and the stress of living up to family expectations. (His father and brother are renowned British academics who have co-authored a treatise on economics.) With the help of medication and psychotherapy, Skidelsky regained much of his equilibrium, but he suggests that the recovery wasn’t complete until he became a late convert to Federer and found in him “a point of constancy, of stability.”
This has not only led him to spend long hours watching the Swiss ace’s televised matches. He has traveled to tournaments as distant as Germany, spent thousands of dollars buying tickets from scalpers and camped out overnight to buy a ticket to a Wimbledon final. This faith in his hero’s healing powers reached its apotheosis when Skidelsky’s wife, then his girlfriend, had a therapeutic abortion for an unviable fetus, and several days later he invited her to a Federer match to ease the tension. As he concedes, “I think by this point she despairingly felt that if she couldn’t beat me, she might as well join me.”
This raises questions about whether the author’s devotion to Federer has actually made him “a happy, freer adult.” Is it evidence, instead, of an obsessive-compulsive disorder — not unlike Nadal’s picking at the seat of his pants, which, along with his other OCD behavior, Skidelsky finds neurotic? Belatedly, the author acknowledges that he’s a recidivist. He had earlier long-distance attachments to athletes — one to a soccer player, another to a snooker star. No word on what his analyst made of this.
To be fair, Skidelsky does a better job of analyzing Federer’s game than explaining his own psyche. He situates the Swiss in historical context, describing him as simultaneously a throwback to traditional tennis and an avatar of modern technology and training. Skidelsky is especially informative on the switch from wooden to composite rackets and the advent of synthetic strings, which permit a player to hit with more topspin and thus more power and control. He’ll certainly get no argument from the Fed-heads when he observes that the contemporary game of relentless baseline retrieving is boring compared with their man’s graceful, instinctive construction of points. But personally, this reviewer draws the line when Skidelsky quotes Elizabeth Wilson in her history of tennis, “Love Game,” as saying that “tennis is a uniquely erotic game . . . with its guarantee of regular ‘climaxes and anti-climaxes.’ ” The same might be said of stock-car racing.
By William Skidelsky
Atria. 264 pp. $24