Federer Serena Book Covers Test v2

It’s hard to explain a tennis champion. There’s no formula for creating them, and no country has a monopoly on their production. Right now, the Top 10 players in the ATP and WTA rankings hail from 15 different countries. Some Hall of Famers have been helped by having money, others have been motivated by not having it. There’s too much that has to go right, mentally and physically, to know which prodigy, from which part of the world, has Grand Slam-winning stuff.

The mysteries of tennis excellence are at the heart of two new biographies, Gerald Marzorati’s Seeing Serena, which came out in June, and which looks at Serena Williams over the course of the 2019 season; and Christopher Clarey’s The Master, which is being released this week, and which covers the life and game of Roger Federer.

It makes a bittersweet kind of sense to take stock of Federer and Serena now. Born within six weeks of each other in 1981, they became the two best players of the Open era’s first 50 years, and together they changed our ideas about how long a modern champion can stay at the top of the game. As far back as 2008, I wrote a recap of the US Open for Tennis Magazine with the title, “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss,” after Federer and Serena bounced back from adversity, and fended off challenges from younger players, to win that year’s final major. Since then, they’ve defied predictions of their imminent declines half a dozen more times.

But as the 2021 Open approaches, and Federer and Williams come up on  their 40th birthdays, the end finally seems to be nigh. Both will miss the tournament; Federer needs to have knee surgery again, and today Serena announced that she hasn’t recovered from a hamstring injury suffered at Wimbledon. It has been nearly four years since either of them won a Slam, and it seems like a long shot that either will win another. In that sense, Clarey’s and Marzorati’s books serve as reminders of what these two accomplished, in case their playing days are at an end.

Advertising

WATCH: Roger Federer "Through The Ages"

They’re also a reminder of how unlikely their record-setting careers may have seemed when they started out. Federer and Serena are as inexplicable as any other tennis champions. Federer came from a country, Switzerland, that had never produced a men’s major winner; Serena came from a place, Compton, Calif., that had never been anywhere near the U.S. tennis map. Clarey sets out to understand what made Federer into the singular player and person he became; Marzorati sets out to understand what Serena has come to mean to her fans, and to her times.

Clarey, a longtime sports reporter, has been covering and interviewing Federer and his ATP peers for 20 years. When I talked to him about the book earlier this month, he said his impetus to write The Master “came partly from a desire to chronicle in depth a golden era in men’s tennis but also from a desire to understand more about Federer’s process.” It’s a good question: How did this amiable, upper-middle-class Swiss, who doesn’t have any other high-level athletes in his family, come to dominate the tennis world? Clarey talks to his coaches, friends, business partner and rivals, and tags along with Federer on his business trips. Short of an autobiography, this is probably as close as we’ll get to finding out what makes Federer tick.

The drama of Federer’s story is the drama of the prodigy: Can he make good on that talent? Can he match his natural skills with the drive necessary to make the most of them? Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer is no, and for a while Federer seemed to be heading for underachiever status. His attention span as a kid was so short that his coaches did anything they could to keep him interested at practice. That included hiring a circus performer to entertain the young Roger.

But Federer always had a deep well of competitiveness and emotion inside him. The crucial—tragically crucial—moment seems to have come when his most important early coach, and the person who believed in his talent the most, Peter Carter, was killed in 2002 in a car accident in South Africa, while on a trip that Federer’s family had suggested he take. The grief and guilt overwhelmed Federer—Clarey tells the story of how he ran through the streets of Toronto when he heard the news, and cried through the entirety of Carter’s funeral. At that point, it seems, Federer decided he would do what he could to become the player Carter believed he could be. The following summer, he won his first major title, at Wimbledon.

When Federer joined the major winner's club at Wimbledon in 2003, he stood alongside a master of the big stage. By that time, Serena had raced out a 6-1 record in Grand Slam singles finals.

When Federer joined the major winner's club at Wimbledon in 2003, he stood alongside a master of the big stage. By that time, Serena had raced out a 6-1 record in Grand Slam singles finals.

Advertising

Winning a Slam is one thing, but how do you go on to win 20, and still be ranked No. 1 in the world at age 35? Clarey attributes Federer’s longevity, and his continued love for his job, to his knowledge of himself. He has turned the short attention span he had as a teenager to his advantage as an adult. As Clarey writes,

Federer has been very intentional, understanding what he needed to remain mentally fresh: novelty, variety, genuine breaks, new cities, new projects like the Laver Cup, new influences like Bill Gates. It is as if he plans for being in the moment, which is something I think all of us can learn from him. We cannot copy his hand-eye coordination or grace on the move, but we can strive to give our full attention to whatever task we face and to find if not joy then at least satisfaction in it.

Where Clarey tells the story of Federer’s first 40 years, Marzorati concentrates on one year in the life of his subject. In Seeing Serena, he follows Williams through the 2019 season. Melbourne, Paris, London, New York: He travels to all of the majors, in anticipation of Serena winning her elusive 24th Slam and tying Margaret Court for the all-time record. On the surface, the year ends in frustration for the then-37-year-old; she goes deep at three of the majors, but can’t get over the finish line.

Yet by that point in her life, Serena was more than a tennis player, and her career about more than numbers. By 2019, as Marzorati says, she was a symbol as well as an athlete—a symbol of Black excellence, of modern motherhood, of female success without compromise. She was part of a group of African-American women celebrities, including Beyoncé, Rihanna and Oprah, who were at the center of the culture. It was a space Serena had spent 20 years carving out.

“On court and off it, Serena exuded strength and confidence, emotional exuberance,” Marzorati writes. “If she was going to attract attention, she should be a subject of it, not an object. She sought agency and would struggle to obtain it, not by making compromises, not by making nice, but making room—cultural space—for exactly who she was. She would make her presence felt and her otherness electrifying.”

Serena and Federer helped celebrate the Miami Open's move to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019.

Serena and Federer helped celebrate the Miami Open's move to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019.

Marzorati didn’t speak to Serena; he says his book would have become her book, if he had. Instead, he mixes cultural criticism, first-person observations, interviews with people around the game, and historical reviews of her most famous and infamous moments. You’re reminded that, from Indian Wells in 2001 to the Osaka-Ramos US Open final in 2018, Serena has been at the center of a lot of tennis storms. The fact that she has survived and moved on and maybe even gained strength from them is an even greater tribute to her indomitability than her 23 major titles. As Marzorati writes,

That she could and would navigate all this surely led others to think, If she could do it, I can do it—not that they could do it, not necessarily, but that wasn’t the contact one had with one’s cultural icon…Women of color, white women, too, girls of all ages, and enough men, for that matter, looked to Serena Williams for meaning, for direction, for affirmation, for reassurance, for inspiration.

Marzorati does a good job contextualizing Serena the cultural icon. By the time the story comes to the US Open, though, I’m equally impressed by Serena the tennis player again. No, she didn’t win her 24th major in 2019, but at 37 she was probably the most consistent big-tournament player in tennis. She made the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, and the quarterfinal at the Australian Open, and she demolished many highly-ranked opponents. Two decades after her debut, there still wasn’t a player she couldn’t beat on the right day. As an epitaph for her season, Marzorati quotes a poem by Jack Gilbert that seems fitting: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell/but just coming to the end of his triumph.

We might not see much more of Federer and Serena on a tennis court, and the sport may never see figures as iconic. Clarey and Marzorati succeed in telling us what we’ll be missing.

Advertising

The Master is available on Amazon here; Seeing Serena is available on Amazon here