Good writing about sport is rare — and good writing about tennis is that much rarer — so it’s conspicuous that we’ve had so much of it about Roger Federer. The gold standard was set in 2006 with David Foster Wallace’s remarkable essay ‘Federer as Religious Experience’, in which the great novelist provided a dazzling analysis of the great player’s game. Then came Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius (2010), an elegant account of the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal. In a letter published in Here and Now (2013), the correspondence between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, the latter contributed an uncharacteristically lyrical bit of praise for the Swiss. Now William Skidelsky, former literary editor of the Observer and New Statesman, has produced Federer and Me, an enjoyable, quirky memoir of his life as an obsessive Fedhead.
It’s a surprising bias for so many writers to share (at least, it surprises me: I might as well declare my own bias towards Andy Murray at this point). As Skidelsky observes, ‘Tennis is an unusually — perhaps uniquely — psychological sport.’ Part of the fun of watching it, let alone reading or writing about it, lies in seeing how the players make out against themselves. So I can’t help feeling that Federer — with his ‘curiously expressionless demeanour’, his supremely untroubled psyche, and his nigh-on flawless game — is uniquely unexciting. Supporting him would seem to involve nothing more psychologically onerous than forgiving the odd sartorial absurdity (the monogrammed military uniform he wore to Wimbledon in 2009) or immodest comment (his description of winning Wimbledon in 2012 as ‘familiar’). It’s mainly just a case of basking in his radiant perfection.
Skidelsky more or less confirms this view. He describes the Swiss maestro’s game as ‘unearthly, stupendous, possessed of a magnificence I’d never before seen on a tennis court’. A decent player himself, the realisation that his talents are microscopic by comparison to Federer’s doesn’t leave him feeling crushed, but with ‘a sense of gratitude, of joyousness, merely to have witnessed such skill, to know that it was possible’. Even when Federer loses, Skidelsky doesn’t feel that flaws in his hero’s game or character have been revealed: he feels as though ‘some fundamental wrong, some injustice, has been perpetrated’.
Just as heartbreak is usually more interesting to read about than romantic bliss, Skidelsky’s idolatry would soon become cloying if that were all his book contained. But what sets Federer and Me apart from most other sports books is the attention it pays to the psychological roots of his obsession. He grew up in an intellectually imposing family (his father is the biographer and historian Robert Skidelsky; his brother is the philosopher Edward Skidelsky), and throughout his childhood he was patronisingly regarded as ‘the sporty one’. When he went to Eton, he started to feel ashamed of this identity: the school ‘was a territory indelibly associated in my mind with beings like my father and brother. It wasn’t a place for me.’ He shut sport — and tennis in particular — out of his life, and poured his energies into academic work instead.
This was enough to get him into Oxford, but in his second year he had a breakdown and, buoyed up on antidepressants, he took his finals a year late. After graduating, he began seeing a psychotherapist, which helped. It was during this period that his obsession with Federer started. ‘I was coming to understand myself, and my past, in a new way,’ he writes. ‘I was trying to reconcile the divisions within me that had led me to have no real idea who I was — sporty or intellectual, a thinking person or a feeling one.’ Federer appeared to reconcile these tensions: ‘There was a corollary, I felt, between what Federer had achieved in the context of tennis and what I needed to bring about within myself.’
Federer and Me is a brave book, both in terms of its form (cramming large passages of memoir into a book marketed at tennis nerds) and in content (revealing a multitude of highly personal details). It is also an engaging one, frequently funny —as when Skidelsky rails for several pages against Nadal’s obsession with his ‘gluteus maximus’ — and ultimately poignant. But it has left me with one nagging question: if an uncertain sense of personal identity can lead a man to revere Federer, what kind of buried masochism underwrites an infatuation with Andy Murray?
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