Book Club: Blood in the Page

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 /by

Strokes of Genius The Book Club returns as Kamakshi Tandon and I discuss Jon Wertheim's
Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played.

Hi Steve,

It's always tricky to do one of these when you know the author, so I'm happy to report it was fun to read Strokes of Genius and relive the match now we've got some emotional distance from it.

I want to start at the end of the book -- a comment from the acknowledgments at the back: "As always, thanks to Allegra, Ben and Ellie, who provided support and love and relative quiet while I spent three crazy months engrossed in tennis."

Let me get this straight: he wrote the book in three months? In that case, it's not just good; it's great done in that length of time.

This has to mean that he pretty much sat down, watched three different broadcasts of the match, did various research and interviews, and then tapped out 60,000 words without much hair-pulling or writer's block.

I hate Jon, don't you? :)

Maybe I'm completely wrong, but it reinforces the general impression that writing comes pretty easily to him, and a need for speed doesn't affect content or the trademark turns of phrase. How about this description of the Wimbledon crowd: "For every Brahmin, there's a bloke." And later: "Federer's face looked as if it was caving in on itself."

Have I mentioned that I hate Jon?

The only downside is that sometimes you can't taste the blood in the pages: the sense that the writer has tortured himself and wrung out deep, personal ideas that were rattling his bones; this being the sadism we readers feel entitled to have indulged for our $24.95 (or free advance reading copy, in this case). Here I remember Joel Drucker in Jimmy Connors Saved My Life -- "I've left my DNA in here."

Strokes of Genius is engaging while you're reading it, but the impact after you put it down might be stronger if there was a more obvious overarching concept driving the narrative. A couple of big ideas are mentioned at various stages, like the nature of a classic rivalry, but there isn't that's explicitly developed over the course of the book. And while I like the title, it doesn't really relate to the story being told.  

Nevertheless, there is a proxy theme. In Levels of the Game, the book on which Strokes of Genius was patterned (as was our previous book club title A Terrible Splendor), the overarching concept is that a player's whole self and personal history is woven into the fabric of a tennis match.

Here, over the course of the "Greatest Match Ever Played," we again see how rich the tapestry can be. There are the childhood histories of Federer and Nadal, and their latest business dealings. The story of how Federer's parents met. The philosophy of Uncle Toni (new when the book was written). And also, a surprising number of vantage points of the match -- not just the players and the player box, but the BBC radio booth, Betfair, vamosbrigade.com and so on.

The original idea was to do a book on Federer, but after the 2008 Wimbledon final, the plan became to examine the Federer-Nadal rivalry though the lens of that epic encounter. I'd estimate the match itself gets about 20% of the text, which is probably about right for a mainstream audience -- you get a good sense of the contest but it's the backdrop to the stories of the two players.

One of the best qualities of Jon's work is that there's no ego whatsoever. You never get the sense that it's all about him, but about the reader and the subject. It's a rarer thing in this situation than one might expect.

Jon's previous tennis book, Venus Envy, seemed to play better to reporters/industry types and casual fans than it did to the group in the middle, hardcore fans. Do you think that'll be the case with Strokes of Genius?

The reason for the different reactions is that each party has different expectations. I read a ton about tennis day to day, for example, and on a topic like this, I don't expect to encounter much that I don't know or have my existing views substantially altered. If 10% of it is new to me and if it has the correct elements in a conceptually pleasing way, I'll be impressed. For casual fans, most of what they read will be new to them, so the work is judged on its absolute rather than relative content.

Hardcore fans, standing on the edge but trying to burrow ever deeper, want whole new levels of insight and information in addition to everything they've prviously absorbed (which already is a lot). It's a tough ask in this day and age.

Firstly, it's only been a year after the match, and neither player has yet had the time or inclination to recount it in great detail. Secondly, given modern media, about 80% of it has already been excavated in Strokes and elsewhere. The other 20% is harder to get, and it's also the sphere of the highly subjective, esoteric and sometimes sensitive: feelings, beliefs, ideas. We'd be talking three years rather than three months, and a lot more blood.

Still, it follows that the most enjoyable part of reading the book was finding little nuggets that I hadn't previously known. I'll finish with a sampling:

...[After the semifinal, Agent Carlos] Costa noticed that Nadal had finally performed some groundskeeping on his face, taking a razor to his stubble for the first time the entire tournament. Costa was thrilled that Nadal would now look presentable when he taped that message for the Spanish back. Oh no, said, his decision to shave wasn't based on that. Flatly and without boasting, he explained, "When you win Wimbledon, you want to look your best."
 
...[Federer] once told me that he sometimes gives different answers to the same questions, depending on the language. Just to mess us up? "No, not at all," he replied. "I think differently in different languages. I think differently in different languages. It's strange. The way you express yourself -- even something like putting [verbs] at the end of a sentence -- it affects how you think."
 
...[Vic] Braden decided to apply similar [facial expression] techniques to tennis. After watching DVDs of Federer's matches frame by frame, Braden noticed something unusual. Against all other opponents, Federer played with his eyes wide open, focused straight ahead, and his mouth turned upward. But when he faced Nadal -- and only Nadal -- Federer tended to frown and look downward. Never mind the well-lubricated sports cliché that Nadal was "in Federer's head." He was in his face, too.
 
...In Nadal's row of the players' box, Uncle Toni dropped his head and chewed on his lip, looking like one of those crestfallen Kentucky Derby trainers whose horse got nipped at the finish line. His thoughts ricocheted. He recalled the Euro '96 soccer tournament held at Wembley stadium not terribly far from the All England Club. His brother, Miguel Angel, has missed a kick on the penalty shootout that had enabled England to beat Spain. Maybe the Nadals are cursed in this country, he thought.
 
...Afflicted with a kind of survivor's guilt -- just as he had been four Sundays ago in Paris -- Nadal let Federer have the locker room to himself... well-wishers attempting to deliver celebratory champagne were turned away. Even at this moment, the apex of his career, Nadal was mindful that bringing his giddy entourage into the locker room would have added to Federer's despair.
 
I've also been flipping through trying to find the part describing the spike in British electricity use the minute the match ended -- people finally got up to switch on their lights, turn on the kettle, etc. It's a wonderful detail, a tangible measure of what a community experience the match was -- all of us, sitting in the dark, transfixed in front of the same images on each glowing television screen.

Kamakshi



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