In 2008, at the age of 27, Roger Federer had finished his fourth consecutive year as the number-one ranked tennis player in the world, already won 13 Grand Slam tournaments, and made most of his opponents look as if they had come to play against him with a cricket bat instead of a tennis racquet. That year the Onion published a photograph of Federer, on which was listed his strengths and weaknesses. Among his weaknesses was cited “speaks fluent German,” “has weakened knees by falling to them in victory 750 times a year,” and “incapable of hitting a 120+ mph serve with his left foot.” The joke, of course, was that Federer had no weaknesses. He was, clearly, among the favorites of the gods.
Seven years have passed, leaving Roger Federer, at 34, no mere veteran but in that ambiguous category of athletes known as Older Player. People, recalling his past glory, have begun referring to “the old Federer.” Still very much a contender—he made it to this year’s Wimbledon finals—he is now far from invincible. If he gets knocked off in a tournament in the round of 16 or in the quarter-finals, it is no longer shocking news. Yet Federer retains a large number of fans—fanatics, really—who look upon him as the last remaining connection with tennis as a sport of elegance played by men and women of good character.
William Skidelsky, the son of the biographer of John Maynard Keynes, is among these fanatics, a man for whom Roger Federer has been more than a splendid athlete, merely, but a symbol, an idol, an image made flesh of a world of perfection he has longed for in his own life yet realized he could never attain. His book is an account of his one-sided romance with Federer (the two personally encountered only twice, at press conferences) which along the way is filled out with a good deal of useful information about how the game of tennis has altered over the years and is played today.
Owing to the change in tennis equipment—chiefly the advent of graphite racquets, allowing the controlled use of topspin, and of co-poly strings that allow still more spin—tennis has gone from a game of strategy and stylishness to one dominated by raw power. Topspin, as Skidelsky notes, has become “the bedrock of the game.” The players have grown larger, with most female professionals 5’10” or taller, many male players over 6’5”. Serves are clocked at a blistering 130 mph and more. Players now stand at the baseline slugging away with killer topspin forehands and two-handed backhands in what is known as “the power-baseline game.” The velocity of serves and strokes is noted by speed guns; cameras record and arbitrate close calls.
Watching television film of the tennis matches during wooden racquet days, one sometimes feels one is viewing the sport played in slow motion. The notion of amateur spirit—playing, that is, for pure love of the game—has also departed. Everything in tennis has become professionalized, with players now having what they call “teams,” by which they mean coaches, trainers, and sometimes sports psychologists, on their payroll. A single goal reigns: Win the match, take the money, get back to the weight room and practice court, bring on the next opponent.
William Skidelsky is excellent at showing how tennis has changed over the decades. He is informative in showing how technology has been the chief factor of change. He is quite marvelous in setting out the strange drama inherent in tennis owing to its system of scoring. Tennis is, after all, the only athletic contest in which one can win a match without winning a majority of points, or even games in the match. In tennis, not all points carry the same significance. The rhythm of a match can be radically altered by a decisive winner or unforced error, for tennis is more mental than most sports, its players more given to mood, shifts in momentum, drifting concentration, and leaking confidence. A clearly superior player will defeat an inferior player, but one superior player can lose to another for tenebrous, even mysterious, reasons.
The traditional spirit of tennis was irreparably altered with the appearance of two American players in the 1970s, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Connors was the first self-congratulatory tennis player: fist-pumping, touchdown dancing when he scored an important or otherwise impressive point, revving up the crowd at every chance. McEnroe stopped matches to scream at umpires and linesmen when close calls did not go his way, all this in the name of an unashamedly ugly competitiveness. Both men, each unattractive in his own way, violated every tenet of sportsmanship once integral to the game of tennis, and left it changed for the worse.