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Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played Hardcover – June 4, 2009
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Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life, which the New York Times called "a definitive, Dickensian rendering of a complete and complicated life, addictively readable and long overdue." His last book, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of Strokes of Genius:
If, like me, you regard Roger Federer as one of the three or four most glorious athletes in human history, and an awfully nice guy to boot, then the years 2004 to 2007 were golden years for you. This was the "Federer era" in tennis, when he won 11 of 16 Grand Slam tournaments and amassed an astonishing match record of 315-24. Nor was there much of the nasty tension entailed by hard-fought five-set matches; as a fan of Federer, one had only to sit back and sigh at the artistry--the elegant angles, the impossible retrievals, the bazooka forehands--while Federer rose to the occasion (good-naturedly) again and again, usually in straight sets.
This belle époque might have continued, if not for the rise of the musclebound Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, indisputably the greatest clay-court player of all time. For a while it seemed, at worst, that neither Federer nor anyone else would win the French Open as long as Nadal was healthy; but then Nadal began to dominate on faster surfaces, too. Transcending himself in the fifth set, Federer managed to defeat Nadal in the 2007 Wimbledon final (perhaps the third or fourth greatest match ever played) and thus equal Borg's Open-era record of five straight Wimbledon titles. Borg himself, however, predicted that Nadal would not only win the next Wimbledon, but goad the demoralized Federer out of tennis entirely--reminiscent, that is, of McEnroe's effect on Borg, who retired at age 26 after losing his edge in the rivalry.
As L. Jon Wertheim points out in Strokes of Genius--his riveting analysis of the 2008 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, and an instant classic of tennis literature--the "clashing styles" of the two greats have made theirs the gold standard of sports rivalries: "Feline light versus bovine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus an unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules." A senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Wertheim describes the match itself with expertise and élan ("an oil painting of a forehand volley"), while widening and tightening his lens to examine almost every aspect of the modern game: the curious obsolescence of the serve-and-volley approach; the evolution of the racket (natural gut versus polyester, etc.); the vagaries of various players, most notably Nadal and Federer. (Fun fact: Nadal--whose "awkward" left-hand game has given Federer such fits--is actually right-handed.)
These digressions, so nicely deployed, helped distract this reader from a very unhappy ending: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7, which one fan aptly likened to "watching an angel fall." This much we know (and never mind the woe that, Federer-wise, would follow), but did you know that in England, at 9:20 P.M., there was a 1400-megawatt power surge when millions rose as one from their couches to switch the lights on, released at last from the intolerable tension of the greatest match in history? For that detail, and many like it, you need Wertheim's engrossing book.
Read the first chapter from L. Jon Wertheim's Strokes of Genius [PDF].
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Top Customer Reviews
Wertheim is one of the best tennis writers around, and one of the fairest, and he brings the 2008 Wimbledon final to life with a highly readable portrait of both Federer and Nadal, and how their games combined to create a clash for the ages.
An interesting and informed analysis of the tennis itself is complemented by the author's take on the two players that lets the reader understand why each has such passionate fans, and on the tennis scene, whose absurdities inspire a number of humorous asides.
If the book has one relative weakness, it's that it doesn't have a broader context in the way that "A Terrible Splendor" does. But in terms of getting to the heart of why tennis (and sports in general) can be so enthralling, the book definitely scores. Since finishing it, I'm eager to re-watch the DVD of the final with Wertheim's writing in mind.
Instead, the author tells the tale of a fantastic match between two champions during which time briefly stopped for every tennis fan lucky enough to see it. Not only does he go through the match, set by set, but he also paints the background of not only Federer and Nadal (which didn't have any information that isn't already available on the internet) but it also has an interesting insight into the career of the umpire Pascal Maria.
The author does not seem to have been able to get close to both players or to their environment to get a real insight, you don't get direct reactions from them or their coaches, no interviews. You read the tale based on old press articles and interviews. Other than a few nice but brief glimpses in the locker rooms, there's nothing extra. Only information that a keen tennis fan already knew from the daily press.
Furthermore, you get the feeling that, in his mind, the author never really stepped away from his idea to write about Federer. Describing the players, he gets stuck in stereotypes and tired old clichés of both. Some of those have an element of truth but other descriptions are off base and dated. You expect more from an experienced tennis journalist.
It's a missed opportunity. My advice would be to get a copy of this match on DVD to (re)live the experience with your own eyes.
What I enjoyed the most were the sections on how the sport has evolved, the background info on Wimbledon, the umpire's bio, and the side stories of the fans. However, I feel this book suffered from lack of any unique insight into the players themselves.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Sometimes, you just know.
In the summer of 2008, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met for the men's championship at Wimbledon. Read more
If you love a good tennis book, this (along with Open by Agassi) will fill your need. If you did not watch this 2008 match between Rafa and Roger at Wimbledon, this read is the... Read morePublished 4 months ago by Jerry Smith
Fantastic read. Recommend for anyone interested in these two and the game of tennis, whether you're a casual fan or a diehard follower.Published 5 months ago by Jason Bastida
Outstanding read. It treated the greatest match ever played with due reverence and transported me back to that day in 2008.Published 9 months ago by Tiffany S Burbidge
I liked Jon's easy writing style. Lots of interesting factoids come out about pro circuit tennis during description of the 2009 Wimbledon final. Read morePublished 16 months ago by xhighbar
The author did a credible job of interweaving relevant and interesting parts of the player's lives with the actual on court action of this classic Wimbledon final. Read morePublished 18 months ago by Crystal C. Alexander