Federer and Me, by William Skidelsky

So I’ve just ordered the book “Federer and Me” by William Skidelsky. Here’s an extract from a Guardian article:

In the summer of 2006, at a family gathering of my girlfriend’s, I remember meeting an aspiring tennis pro, a young British player on the fringes of the tour. I asked him who, of today’s top players, he particularly admired. He told me he’d recently been on some practice courts near Federer and he couldn’t believe how good he was. As he spoke, awe entered his voice and his eyes acquired a faraway look. Increasingly, I realised, this was how Federer was being viewed. He was becoming a figure of legend, almost a god.

Not long after this, I happened to stumble across an essay on Federer by David Foster Wallace. I was already a fan of Wallace’s writing – his fiction in particular – and the piece made a big impression on me. Here was a palpably clever writer – something of a genius himself – talking in candidly reverential terms about the wonder, the beauty, of Federer’s tennis. I was struck not only by Wallace’s concept of the “Federer moment” – the instances when his play appears to defy the laws of physics – but also by the way he sought to locate his subject within the game’s overall trajectory. And his sense of the sport’s development very much chimed with my own.

Wallace’s basic contention was that men’s tennis had, for the previous few decades, been moving in a linear direction. Thanks to a combination of composite rackets, related changes in technique and advances in athleticism, a single style had come to dominate the sport. This style – the “power baseline” game – was, as its name suggested, based on hitting the ball with tremendous power (and copious topspin) from the back of the court. According to Wallace, it was Lendl who had pioneered the style in the 80s, in the 90s players like Agassi and Courier had raised it to new heights and, more recently, Rafa Nadal had taken it “just as far as it goes”. The problem with the power baseline style, Wallace suggested, wasn’t that it was inherently boring but it was “somewhat static and limited” and, if it were to prove the “evolutionary end-point of tennis”, that would be a problem for the game.

Federer, however, had shown another way forward. He had introduced – or rather, reintroduced – elements such as subtlety and variety, an “ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and surprise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision”. Yet the point about Federer – and here was Wallace’s kicker – was that he could do all those things while also being a “first-rate, kickass power-baseliner”. He had demonstrated a new way of playing tennis that was as attractive as it was effective, and had done so from within the modern game. “He is Mozart and Metallica and the combination is somehow wonderful.”

Wallace ended his essay on a note of optimism. At that year’s Wimbledon, which he’d attended, the junior event had been a “variegated ballet”, with players deploying “drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead – all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls”. The clear implication was that Federer’s approach was starting to influence tennis more widely, expanding the sport’s very possibilities.

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