Tennis is known for its so-called popcorn matches: Fabio Fognini vs. Gael Monfils, for example, is a tasty treat we simply can't resist. Then there are matches so good that they're worth revisiting 10 years later, canonized in film for posterity. Only a movie—and the requisite buttery, salty snack—will do.
Such is the case for tennis' ultimate popcorn match, the 2008 men's Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Even a book wasn't enough to put this turf war into proper perspective. And so, nine years after the release of Strokes of Genius—Jon Wertheim's inside account of the iconic match—Strokes has been made into a feature-length documentary. With a run time around 90 minutes, the film expands upon themes Wertheim explored in the original Strokes of Genius: the compelling contrasts between Federer and Nadal; their near-universal appeal despite those differences; their rivalry, which has only become more layered since; and, of course, the tennis masterclass they put on.
The documentary's revealing interviews—Federer and Nadal included—and artful composition demanded an interview with Wertheim, who is to tennis what Ken Burns is to baseball. After viewing Strokes of Genius, which will debut worldwide on Sunday, July 1 at 8 p.m. EST on Tennis Channel, I had a chance to turn the tables on its creator.
Strokes of Genius trailer, presented by Humana:
MCGROGAN: I’ll start with my biggest takeaway from the film: the brutal honesty of the interviews, particularly from Roger and Rafa. They come off as player-philosophers, with introspection on their individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as on each other. It's not something you typically hear from athletes in interviews.
WERTHEIM: It was very gracious and generous that they participated, not only while still in the throes of their careers but while in the throes of this rivalry. They reflected not just on this match—that for Nadal was this crowning achievement, and for Federer was one of the more bitter days of his tennis career—but also on their rivalry. The director's decision to interview Nadal in Spanish was really savvy. There was a level of depth, insight and comfort that you get from him in this film that you don’t always get in his English press conferences.
But to your question, I think their candor says a lot about them, and a lot about how they have come to respect this rivalry. It’s easier when athletes have retired and are sitting on the couch, looking back with a laugh; these guys are reflecting on their rivalry when it’s still very much vital and vibrant. We weren’t entirely sure how deep they were going to go, but we were thrilled.
You wrote about the match in exacting detail shortly after it occurred, for the book, and then revisited it nearly a decade later for this film. Was there something about the match or the players that took on a new perspective this time around?
Part of what made this project interesting to me is what’s happened since the match. At the time, everyone thought it was a fatal blow, a sea change where Nadal had dethroned Federer. Was Roger going to be OK after this? He did OK. He won the very next major, and Nadal too grew from this. It was a seminal match for both of them, but it didn’t really stop either of their trajectories.
We have this cliché that tennis is a game of small margins. If Nadal—who at one point says to himself, while winding up for a forehand, ‘if I make this shot, I win Wimbledon’ (Federer then whistles a match-point saving backhand past him)—had not won that match, what would have happened? It's something no one really contemplated at the time.
This match occurred right before the Twitter boom. Nowadays, recency bias declares every great match a “classic,” every five-setter an “epic,” every achievement of excellence “GOAT-worthy”—Twitter is a sports fan's doubles partner in 2018. Would modern-day social media habits change the perception of this match in any way?
That’s interesting, but I'm not sure it would. What makes this match so special was the expectation before the tournament: everyone wanted to see it. Would this finally be the time Nadal executed this great takedown of Federer? So there was a ton of anticipation—and even so, it managed to eclipse that. There was all sorts of buildup and hype, and this was that rare sporting event that not only came to fruition, but then exceeded the hype.
Let’s pay homage to Rafa and dig into some of the grunt work behind the scenes. There are a lot of big names in this film—who was the hardest interview to get?
Oh, man. It was a bit of strategy, like a tennis match, in structuring these interviews. It was almost like a tournament draw, in that once Player X was on board, Players Y and Z would follow. Some of it was just logistics; these are busy people with busy schedules.
Again, I thought it was exceedingly gracious of Federer to talk openly about this match that, not only did he not win, but was a stinging defeat for him.
With Tennis Channel, you’ve become much more involved with video, but this project is on an entirely different scale. How long did this film take to create, from start to finish?
At last year's US Open, we were saying that it’s going to be the 10th anniversary of this terrific match; what are we going to do? So we did it all in about nine months, which for a 90-minute documentary is like a speed round.
What do you need in a tennis match to deem it worthy of a documentary?
Context is obviously important. Had this been on a Thursday night in Tallahassee, it could have been just as good a match with the same swings in momentum. But this was the Wimbledon final, Roger and Rafa, No. 1 vs. No. 2, lefty vs. righty, the rain delays. The very next year there was a roof over Centre Court, so this was the very last match played on it without lights. Wimbledon got the max out of their uncovered, unlit court.
This was just one of these sporting events that had all of the elements—the sway of the match, from two sets down to a decisive set, with the highest stakes in tennis. It was a Sunday on a fourth of July weekend, so the television audience was bigger than it otherwise might have been. To traffic in cliché, it was just the perfect storm.
As significant as the result was, this film is more about the Roger-Rafa rivalry than anything else. Which makes sense, because this rivalry is still a living thing.
It's remarkable that they're still playing at this level. Bjorn Borg was history by 25; John McEnroe didn’t win another major after he turned 25, and here’s Federer, four kids and almost 37 years old—and he’s the odds-on favorite to win Wimbledon. And Nadal is 32 and plays such as brutal, heavy physical style; nobody thought he’d be playing this long. At the French Open two weeks ago, he played as well as he ever has.
When this match happened, I don’t think too many people thought, "ten years from now, these guys will still be the top two in the world and split the last six major titles." It's extraordinary.
A LANDMARK DOCUMENTARY DURING THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS EVENT IN SPORTS, CELEBRATING THE UNPARALLELED FEDERER-NADAL RIVALRY AND 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREATEST MATCH EVER PLAYED.
In association with All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and Amblin Television. Directed by Andrew Douglas.