Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor discuss a new book about Roger Federer, and what it tells us about his Swiss background, and his relationship to his home country.
Alas, compared to other sports, not many tennis books are published. As I’ve learned from dozens of sobering interactions with agents and publishers, there are lots of reasons for this—none worth exploring here.
So it’s fascinating to see what books about tennis do surface, which leads me to Dave Seminara’s new book, Footsteps of Federer. Disclosure: I read this book in an earlier form and authored a blurb for it. Having spent years picking apart my personal fascination with Jimmy Connors, I was naturally drawn to Seminara’s desire to explore his appreciation for a notable tennis player.
Perhaps one day there will be a college course titled, “Federer Studies.” Journalists Chris Bowers and Rene Stauffer authored biographies several years ago. Longstanding New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey has one coming out this summer titled The Master. Historian Randy Walker wrote The Days of Roger Federer. Mark Hodgkinson’s Fedegraphica is subtitled, “A Graphic Biography of the Genius of Roger Federer.” William Skidelsky penned Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession. And then there’s David Foster’s Wallace long piece, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” There we have the start of a syllabus—biography, history, analysis, memoir, theology. I await the rock opera, Federerphenia, not to be confused with the title most of his rivals can relate to, Federerphobia.
But Seminara’s book hardly fits any of those disciplines. Though he touches on aspects of his own life—significant health issues most of all—this book is more like the kind of ambling travel piece one reads on a leisurely Sunday afternoon or, in my case, a sleepless Sunday night.
Seminara traipses through Federer’s homeland, to various cities, neighborhoods, restaurants, the ATP tournament played in Federer’s hometown, a church and, of course, many tennis facilities that have played a role in the tennis icon’s journey to greatness.
But the biggest character in this book isn't Federer. It’s Switzerland—this subdued, disciplined nation of polite people and quiet train rides. Pointedly, as Seminara learns, Federer may be heroic to some, but is hardly revered in his native country the way, say, Michael Jordan is regarded in the United States. “We are a very democratic country,” a monk named Abbot Federer (a distant relation) tells Seminara, “so we don’t really know how to revere people. Basically, we are proud of Roger, but we leave him alone.”
Switzerland’s relative indifference to sports explains at least one aspect of Federer: his tranquility. Certainly he burned with ambition from a young age. But there has always been a sense with Federer that tennis is less of a job to be worked and more of a game to be played. Given the way Seminara describes Switzerland’s spirit of non-intrusion, it’s hard to believe young Roger’s progress was constantly dissected the way that can happen to prodigies in other countries.
Steve, how do you think this book fits into the “Federer Studies” curriculum?
As you say, it’s not easy to find a new angle on Federer at this point, or add something we don’t know to the public record. What praises are left to sing about the Maestro? But for those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with Federer’s homeland, Seminara manages to break new ground. Literally, by walking it.
Having never set foot in Switzerland myself, or even read much about it, I found Seminara’s observations on the country revealing; and not just for the fact that a hamburger can run you $48. Like you noted, Joel, it’s not a country of hero-worshippers, and many of the people Seminara meets almost seem proud of their disinterest in tennis and lack of knowledge about Federer (while maintaining their respect for him, of course). To me, Switzerland comes across as having two seemingly contradictory traits: it’s a wealthy and expensive country, but also one committed to egalitarianism. The combination can lead to friendliness, but also to a rule-loving prickliness. I think you can see those traits in Federer, as well. Over the years, he has transformed himself from metalhead to fashion icon, yet he has also treats everyone he meets with the same level of amiability. In his younger days, before he achieved living legend status, he could get a little prickly in defeat, too.
In the book, we travel to the exclusive, BMW-filled tennis clubs where Federer has trained, but we also meet a director at one of them who knows him as “Rog,” and says that Federer reserves his own courts and doesn’t ask for any special favors. We go to two towns where Federer has owned houses, Wollerau and Valbella, and find out that, because of local regulations, he wasn’t allowed to build a tennis court on one property, and he was successfully sued for trying to build a playground for his kids on the other. Federer is a special citizen of Switzerland, but still a citizen, and maybe that’s the way he likes to see himself in general.
Joel, you wrote a great book about your own tennis hero, called Jimmy Connors Saved My Life. I can’t say that I’ve had a single player who has functioned the way Jimbo does for you and Federer does for Seminara. I started out loving Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert, but I had no trouble moving on to John McEnroe and Steffi Graf, and then Andre Agassi, when each of them rose to prominence—basically, if you were No. 1. As for Federer, I’ve liked his personality since I first interviewed him 20 years ago, but—to the disbelief of pretty much everyone I know—I wasn’t transfixed by his game. How would you compare what Connors gave to you, to what Roger seems to give his many millions of fans?
How great that you’ve juxtaposed what Federer means for those who love him compared to a player like Connors. This might be one of the more vivid contrasts in the history of the entire sport.
Whenever I talk to Federer fans, these concepts surface: beauty, elegance, smoothness, artistry—a utopian notion of tennis and life, embodied in the form of a citizen of a country renowned for not going to war.
Then there was Connors, who often said about tennis, “People don’t understand that it’s a goddamn war out there.” Federer’s sleek Wilson racquet: a paintbrush. Jimbo’s steel Wilson: a bayonet. Federer shows what life could well be—effortless. Connors showed what it is—struggle. For me, as the poem goes, and that has made all the difference.
I’ll admit I was very lucky with my tennis avatar. Seminara flew thousands of miles and nibbled around the landscape of Roger. Connors was living in Los Angeles all through my adolescence, a local folk hero of sorts, spotted on tennis courts, at restaurants, in parking lots. My high school team had its racquets strung at the same store where Connors went. Once I played a challenge match on the same court at UCLA where he’d practiced a few days earlier. So there he was, tangible, visible—and, in my case, a form of rocket fuel, propelling me forward in a way different than the pensive, observational manner with which I often conduct myself.
All this deep affinity—be it Seminara for Federer, me for Connors, you for a wide range of players—is one of tennis’ greatest lures. There is an elemental connection between fan and player that is so vivid, downright visceral in its intimacy and power. No question, a certain kind of personal projection is going on, of attributes, values, manners, and behaviors that can be applied not just to how one plays tennis, but to life overall. Hero worship? Pretty much. But not entirely. Dig deep enough, and there’s also a chance for genuine self-knowledge far beyond the ability to get the return in play on a big point.
That said, by the time I was 13—well before I really came to admire Connors—I knew there was no way I could play tennis proficiently by using Jimbo’s Wilson T-2000.
Steve, what were some ways you’ve come to understand your appreciation for various tennis players?
Tennis and the concept of the “hero” have never been a natural fit in my mind. The sport is so individualistic and inner-directed, and the way the pro game is set up, it doesn’t lend itself to nationalism, either. Tennis players play for themselves, in part because that’s pressure enough for most brains to bear.
On one level, that was certainly true of Connors, who began his career as a maverick on tour and mostly avoided Davis Cup (Federer, interestingly, has also kept his distance from the team competition at various times over the years). But there was a part of Jimbo that did want to be a hero to people, wasn’t there? He had a connection to the mass audience, and a knack for getting a stadium full of people on his side, that’s rare for a tennis player; Juan Martin Del Potro may be the only other player I’ve seen with a comparable skill (Delpo’s stagecraft is subtler than Jimmy’s was, obviously). Connors was a renegade, but it was John McEnroe who more clearly played the anti-hero. During his tour days, Mac never tried to please or entertain anyone.
In the time I’ve been watching tennis, the two most popular male players have been Bjorn Borg and Federer, which makes me think that tennis fans like their players to have some reserve, some cool, so rarefied air to them—guys who don’t try too hard to be heroes. Federer has grown into the role of ambassador and role model smoothly, but sometimes I wonder if the global fan love is something of a burden for him, at least when he’s playing big matches.
You and I have sat in Centre Court and Ashe Stadium for his finals against Novak Djokovic and heard the overwhelming, almost deafening support he gets. And yet when these matches have ended, and Djokovic has won, I’ve wondered whether the audience didn’t end up helping and motivating the Serb more than it did the Swiss. Federer has never been the type to flap his arms to rev up a crowd, or a guy who played on emotion. He’s one of the few players left who doesn’t even look for support from his player box.
Dave Seminara’s book is valuable because it points to why Federer, despite his status, wouldn’t feel comfortable asking to be loved. As Abbot Federer says, the Swiss don’t go in for hero worship, and Roger Federer shows they don’t go in for playing the role of the hero, either. And tennis fans love him all the more for it.