Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by William Skidelsky now available at Liberty Books stores and online.
Web link: http://libertybooks.com/bookdetail.aspx?pid=33254
Imagine the scene on the last weekend of Wimbledon 2035. The mixed doubles final. The four players on court, knocking up, are all brothers and sisters. The umpire calls for quiet, then announces the match: “Federer and Miss Federer against Federer and Miss Federer. Federer to serve. Play!” This may have a fairly small statistical chance of happening: no champion at one of the game’s four major tournaments – apart from May Sutton Bundy, Věra Suková and Fred Stolle – has ever fathered or mothered another grand-slam winner. But it’s a consequence of Roger Federer’s exceptionalism – two pairs of twins! – that this pleasant fantasy can be floated.
Such exceptionalism is also manifest in the following items. His intricate, intensely mobile and deadly forehand: in John McEnroe’s opinion, the two great shots of the recent era are Federer’s forehand and Justine Henin’s backhand. His attitude on court: what a certain type of commentator might call “class”, meaning a lack of all that strutting male bullshit, and a preternatural calmness – grunt-free, seemingly sweat-free – in the heat of battle. His pioneering and perfecting of the inside-out crosscourt forehand. His apparent ability to find a little more time than other players in which to select his shot. His self-reliance: for long periods he has operated without a coach telling him what to do with and about his game. His position at the head of the list of male grand-slam winners with 17 titles. The fact that he comes from Switzerland, whose previous best-known male player, Heinz Günthardt, never got beyond the quarter-finals of a grand-slam singles (though he won doubles titles and coached Steffi Graf). The fact that Federer’s wife is not the primped manicuree most players seem to sexually aspire to; that his work and family life appear properly balanced; that he takes his small children on the circuit. And if all this doesn’t do it for you, how about the fact that when he won his first Wimbledon title in 2003, the Swiss gave him a cow? If they carried on giving him one for each subsequent grand-slam victory, he’ll have quite a herd by now.
He is, of course, “only” a tennis player. And in the way of top international sports stars, he is a brand as much as a person. He is careful what he advertises, and as far as I can remember, has never said anything either political or even remotely controversial. He has a philanthropic foundation and a terrible signature: but then, constantly signing those jumbo tennis balls is unlikely to improve anyone’s orthography. We can only guess what he is “really” like; access is guarded, information scarce. Though agreeable and intelligent of manner, and – in the way of many top stars (except for British ones) – fluent in several languages, he hardly litters his press conferences with bons mots. You can’t imagine him, like McEnroe, going on to become a commentator, because you can’t imagine him either being that interested, or that good at it. And while peerlessly well-behaved on court in his glory years (which came so soon after the domineeringly crude antics of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase and McEnroe), during his inevitable slow decline he gets crotchety, even ratty, when a shot deserts him. He says that he never looks back at defeats and disappointments, only forward – which is a routine world-attitude among major sportspersons. But perhaps, when the Mighty Fed eventually does retire, he will become just an ordinary, down-home multimillionaire, tending his children and his cows behind the 24-hour security fencing. Perhaps we shall even stop being interested in him. And perhaps – is this possible? – his ego is so uninvolved in his success that he will enjoy this.
Unsurprisingly, there are no answers to these particular questions and mysteries in William Skidelsky’s book. He didn’t gain access to Federer; nor did he apply for it. In June 2014, at the pre-Wimbledon grass-court tournament in Halle, Germany, he did blag his way into the press room, and managed to ask his hero two questions. The first, relatively well-informed, was received with a smile; the second, ill-informed, was greeted with a scowl. He watches the player from tournament walkways, uncomfortable seats high up in the stands, comfortable ones in front of the flatscreen telly, and on YouTube. He doesn’t talk to anyone who has actually played against Federer; indeed, he doesn’t talk to anyone on the professional circuit. He talks to, and quotes, other people who have written about Federer. This is not to diminish the book, rather to define it; but it does put a lot of pressure on the title’s last two words: “And Me”.
Nor was it the case for Skidelsky as for most Federophiles that virtually the first glimpse of the player – of the grace and variety of his game – led to a continuous state of fandom. Skidelsky first watched Federer at Wimbledon in 2003, but wasn’t immediately smitten. So his attention was simply absent as the rest of us wallowed in those now-distant years of 2004-2006, when Federer could and did beat anyone, when he became world number one, a title he then held for 237 consecutive weeks. Skidelsky’s attachment to the player has been much more sporadic, intense and alarming than that of most other fans, like those hosts of cheerful red-capped and red-backpacked women who follow their hero from tournament to tournament.
Boris Becker, defeated at Wimbledon and asked afterwards what had happened, famously replied, “I lost a tennis match, not a war. Nobody got killed.” Some found this facetious or subtly arrogant; though it was mainly a statement of the truth. Writers attracted to sport, however, are often keen to make it more than it is: preferably, a presiding metaphor for the rest of life. At Wimbledon in 2010 John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played the longest match in tennis history; it stretched over two and a bit days, with the fifth set won by 70 games to 68. While the players themselves headed for an ice-bath and a beer, others headed for the match’s deeper significance. Skidelsky approvingly quotes Geoff Dyer, who called this two‑man marathon, in which the same moves were endlessly repeated – guess the adjective – Yes! – “Beckettian”. Dyer saw Isner versus Mahut as an existential drama, a battle to keep “non-existence at bay”. So, in a tennis match, as in life, “sudden death and perpetual extension are inextricably paired”. This kind of panting nonsense comes easily to a certain type of literary bloke. Sometimes – indeed, almost always – a very long tennis match is just a very long tennis match.
Skidelsky also knows that Federer’s tennis is more than just Federer’s tennis; but for him it is not a metaphor, rather something which has been absorbed into the texture and meaning of his own life. There are three overlapping elements to his book. First, an account of the technical aspects of the game, from racket technology to body-position, which he writes about with insight and fluency. Second, descriptions of those matches of Federer’s he has watched, which are efficiently done, even if slightly boring in the way that battle sequences in biographies of Napoleon are boring (we know the outcome in advance, also the general strategies and turning-points). Third, there is the “And Me”. Skidelsky is the younger son of the (tennis-playing) economic historian Robert Skidelsky, whose patriarchal dominance and priorities of value provoke in William a quasi-Oedipal response. Though he is a child of privilege and appears outwardly successful – Eton and Oxford, good social status, foreign travel, never without a girlfriend – Skidelsky also suffers from lassitude and has depression. He takes the pills; he sees a psychoanalyst three times a week for eight years. His main problem is classic, male and English: “denial of emotion”, a deficiency which “is stitched into one’s being”. What, you might ask, does this have to do with tennis? Everything, as it turns out. Federer acts in his life as a kind of sporting comfort blanket: when Roger wins, William is happy; when he loses, Roger’s public pain helps salve William’s private pain.
Skidelsky played tennis up to county level as a junior, then quit in adolescence because it was his father’s territory, and took up cricket instead. By late 2006, when he was 30, he had started playing tennis again, and when he now saw Federer it was with different and suddenly adoring eyes: “I knew that I wanted to follow this man, take what opportunities I could to luxuriate in the silky wondrousness of his play. My obsession had begun.” To some extent, it is an obsession like any other fan’s, involving much joy and despair, jumping on sofas, and hating those (like Nadal) who have found a way to beat the hero. In other ways, it is sui generis and pathological. This is emphasised by the way Skidelsky writes about it. When he discusses top‑spin, or Federer’s tennis grip, or the fast-food outlets at Halle, or life in the camping-ground for long-term queuers at Wimbledon, his prose is easy and his narrative rhythms normal. But when obliged to confront the human psyche, his prose becomes awkward and costive; it’s as if he’s deeply uneasy with his own presence in his own book. And though he is able to identify and refer to emotional states, his ability to evoke them, characterise or colourise them, let alone follow through on their consequences, feels remarkably limited. It is as if therapy has given him a language with which to recognise certain aspects of his nature, without this leading to more than a primitive form of insight.
The most extreme example of this comes towards the end of the book. Skidelsky’s then girlfriend (now wife), a criminal barrister, falls pregnant, but there is something so seriously wrong with the child that a termination becomes necessary at 18 weeks:
My girlfriend, understandably grief-stricken, wanted closeness, intimacy. But I ran away from my feelings – and, by extension, from her. As ever, I sought refuge in tennis. This was the week of the World Tour Finals.
And so he rushes off to the O2 in Greenwich, day after day. When Federer reaches the semi-finals Skidelsky makes a suggestion to his girlfriend:
Watching tennis, I said, might be a useful way to take our minds off what had happened. Rather remarkably, she agreed: I think by this point she despairingly felt that if she couldn’t beat me, she might as well join me.
They go to Greenwich, and there follows an intense, two-page description of watching Federer live. His victory gives Skidelsky “a sense of gratitude, of joyousness”. All of which leads to this:
Before our trip to the O2, things with my girlfriend had not been good. The events of the previous few weeks had driven us apart. I’d coped with it all in the worst possible way. But now a reconnection took place. I’d been using tennis as a means of escape – but that night it effected a kind of return. The beauty of Federer’s game shook me from the confines of my ego and enabled me, once more, to see the true relations of the world. Denial gave way to lucidity; what had been distorted became clear. I was returned to myself, to my life, to my girlfriend, and it now seemed possible to properly confront what had happened, and to move on, together, into the future.
Repeated rereadings haven’t make this passage any less weird. Little did Federer know, while beating Novak Djokovic 6-1, 6-4, what his real function in the world was: to mend William Skidelsky’s psyche. One wishes him well, of course, but though psychoanalysis and Federer have equipped him with a certain level of self-knowledge, he seems still to be lacking any notion of what life feels like on the racket-head. Nor does he evince much curiosity about what it must be like to be his girlfriend. She gets not a word, not an opinion, not a direct expression of feeling. Does he consider what it must be like for her that their relationship was mended and that they were able to “move on” because Federer’s forehand happened to be sizzle-hot in Greenwich that day? This lowering absence also makes you realise that, for all the analysis of his conflict with his father, there is barely a word in the whole book about his mother.
So “Me and Federer”, as it ought to be called, is one of the strangest sports‑books I’ve ever read. And, just as strangely, it ends with the preposterous notion of Federer as an “under-achiever”. Skidelsky compares him to two other noted – indeed, flagrant – under-achievers: the cricketer Graeme Hick (a punitive batsman at county level who flopped repeatedly for England) and the snooker player Jimmy White (who has never won the world championship). It’s true that the Mighty Fed didn’t win every single match he ever played in straight sets. But with those 17 grand slams (three more than anyone else), he has underachieved only in the sense that Tiger Woods, Donald Bradman and Pelé underachieved. Shakespeare did too, for that matter – some of his plays really aren’t quite as good as some of his other plays. Perhaps Skidelsky’s need to see Federer as an underachiever is less to do with objective, or even fannish, analysis, and more to do with his own psychological needs. Such a belief might make easier the letting-go he will have to endure when Federer finally retires.
Oh, and I checked about the cows; but my notion of a companionable herd was much exaggerated. The first cow Federer was given – for winning Wimbledon in 2003– was called Juliette. She was subsequently sent to a farm in Austria, and slaughtered in 2007 for not producing enough milk. He received a second one, Desiree, in 2013, as a reward for returning to compete, after a decade’s absence, in the Swiss Open. As far as we know, Desiree is still in a good state of health.
This book review is published in The Guardian written by Julian Barnes.
Web link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/15/the-mighty-fed-julian-barnes-reviews-federer-and-me-story-obsession-william-skidelsky