Book Club: Facing Federer
Searching for a Christmas gift for the Roger Federer fanatic in your life? You might try a new book on the man, Facing Federer: Symposium of a Champion, by Mark "Scoop" Malinowski. It's an oral history of the Maestro, as told by his fellow players. You can order it here. Today I talk to the author about what inspired him to put the book together.
It seems like you interviewed pretty much everyone remotely related to the sport of tennis for this. But they seemed happy to talk about their experiences with Federer, no matter how brief they might have been. And despite the fact that these players almost inevitably lost to him, most of their recollections were positive.
The entire book was a positive experience. Everyone associated with the sport respects Federer, which really is a credit to him. I loved how everybody, from ball kid, to supermodel, to low-ranked journeyman, to world heavyweight champion, all had something interesting and revealing to say about Roger Federer. The process of making this book from day one to the completion was a barrel of fun and excitement, except of course for the suffering of the final editing stages, but that's part of our job as writers.
What gave you the idea to do a book like this, an oral history of a person by those around him in his industry? I know you're a boxing guy; is there a similar book about a fighter? I imagine one reason to do it about Federer is that it would be easy to get people to recount their 15 minutes with him. I know you asked me about him, and I mentioned that I had first met him in Key Biscayne in 1999, when he was 18. He had lost in the first round at that tournament, and he was still saying things like, "If I make it on tour..." It's interesting to think about how much can change for a person.
I remember the line you gave me. Roger told you, "If I even have a career..." That loss in Miami was to Kenneth Carlsen. Federer was still struggling that summer. He lost in the second round of qualies at the U.S. Open in '99 to Ivo Heuberger in straight sets.
The idea to do this book first hatched from a cover story about Federer that I did for Moves Magazine five years ago. It was a collection of memories, anecdotes, and quotes by Roger and about Roger from all kinds of perspectives. The article was a different style, but it was well received because the content was interesting. You know how some paintings are photo realistic and some are the total opposite, like Picasso or Van Gogh? I had the idea in my head to dabble with a different kind of writing style, like how an abstract painting is different...unpredictable, strange, odd. My first tennis book was published two years ago, about Marcelo Rios. Not many read it, but some of the few who did loved it. Nick Bollettieri was one who told me he enjoyed the Rios book, he said it was, "Magnificent, excellent."
Encouraged by the small success of the Rios book, I decided to expand the original Federer magazine feature into a book using this style. Last summer I got a new urge to try a new direction, asking players to please describe the feeling of stepping on the court to play Roger Federer. Rick Leach was the first player I approached, at the U.S. Open during a rain delay. It was kind of a thrill for him to share memories of his two doubles matches against Federer.
Inspired by that, I kept going and asked as many players as possible about their experience of playing Federer. Another high point during this early stage was interviewing Attila Savolt at a Starbucks in Sarasota, FL last winter. His segment really pumped me up; it's one of my favorite parts of the book. The more players I talked with, even arch rivals of Federer, they all enjoyed talking about him and shared so many fascinating insights. I was thrilled with how the project was growing, so I decided to change the book to focus mostly on the 'Facing Federer' aspect because I felt it was the strong point of the book.
Also, boxing did influence this book, as there is an excellent book called Facing Ali by Steven Brunt, which I read about 10 years ago. This book certainly deserves some inspirational credit also. Boxing and tennis are the same thing; like Tracy Austin once said, "Tennis is a fistfight with out the fists."
I like your comparisons to different kinds of painting. At first I wasn't sure what to make of Facing Federer, where to start with it. But then I realized that you can start pretty much anywhere and jump around from entry to entry. I have to say it's pretty addictive—you get a lot of looks at Federer, but you also get a little look at the personalities of all kinds of players, from Hall-of-Famers to journeymen, and you see how different their perspectives are, not just on playing Federer but on tennis in general.
I also found it interesting how the perspective on Federer changes from one generation to the next. You have Pat Rafter, who was 3-0 against Federer and says that Roger was pretty intimidated by him at the start of his career, as well as "soft in the head." Rafter also has some fun saying he and the Aussies tried to get Federer "on the beer," but it never really took.
Then you have younger guys like Steve Johnson, who find it nerve-wracking just to walk on court to practice with Federer, because "you don't want to be the guy he doesn't ask again."
I thought one of the more intriguing takes came from Dmitry Tursunov, who is roughly Federer's age, and is pretty level-headed in his assessment. He says, surprisingly, that Federer "is not the most talented person in the world." Tursunov says that at all levels of tennis, the intimidation factor in having to play a higher-ranked player automatically gives that player an advantage. To Tursunov, Federer isn't as "scary" as his fans and the media make him out to be. He says it's more like, "Going on out on a date with a hot girl. You're probably going to try to make stupid jokes and you're going to feel like an idiot after that."
Tursunov doesn't mean that Federer isn't a great player, or that he hasn't earned his intimidation factor. But what he says is interesting because I think it helps explain why some of the top players can be so dominant, even though there's really not that much separating them from 20 or 30 other guys on tour on any given day. We know the mental element is huge, but it's still amazing how much it matters even among the game's professionals. Tursunov points to Nadal as the one player who is disciplined enough to stick with his own game in the face of Federer's aura. As Tursunov says of Rafa, "If Jesus comes down and starts floating on the court, he still plays the way he's playing."
But that's just one of a lot of interesting views on Federer and the psychology of tennis here. And you're right, Attila Savolt, who says that his girlfriend told him Federer kept staring at her, has one of the best entries.
Ha, yeah, Tursunov is hilarious and intelligent, an excellent source for a reporter. He came up with that material spontaneously. I asked him out of the blue to talk about Federer while he was picking up balls at the Sony Open this year.
That was one of the big surprises doing this book, I had no idea what any player was going to say. The fear was they might go vanilla. Usually in post-match press conferences, players are mostly guarded about what they say about a match or opponent, as if they know other players and coaches will read what they say and they don't want to make the mistake to give any kind of edge. With Federer, the players went above and beyond what I was expecting. I felt like they confided private information.
Like you say, Pat Rafter was fantastic. Talking about how the young Roger was closing the gap on him each match, and also taking him out for beers to soften him up. Rafter just said recently on Twitter he looks forward to playing Roger on the senior tour to give him a chance to avenge that 0-3 head to head.
Steven Johnson was interesting in how he admitted feeling stress, but he obviously overcame it since he got to hit with Roger 11 more times. I thought it was cool how Johnson said that he actually felt a sense that Federer was there for him, "he's always there to help you if you need it." Somdev Devvarman also said something similar. Those are amazing quotes.
Federer personifies the essence of a champion maybe better than any other champion in the history of sport. It was a thrill to do this project, it was so inspiring on many levels, both professional and personal. Thanks for taking the time to read it and discuss it with me Steve. Much appreciated.