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Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played Hardcover – June 4, 2009

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Blake Bailey Reviews Strokes of Genius

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.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Like the singular match that inspired it, this account of the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is compelling from the get-go. Senior Sports Illustrated writer Wertheim begins with this observation: “Bracketed together as they are, most rivals have the good sense to know that, finally, they are better for the existence of their nemesis.” And so Federer and Nadal were each better in the grueling yet brilliant five-set match that Nadal won in twilight. Wertheim sets the stage well, putting the rivalry into context and discussing each man’s playing style (“Relentless genius Federer versus unbending will Nadal”), then launches into crisp and colorful play-by-play, freezing the action throughout with intriguing discourses on such issues as the preponderance of champion lefties, the (thankfully) slower Wimbledon grass in recent years, each of the two players’ development, and the mostly charming peculiarities of the Wimbledon tournament (no play on the middle Sunday, for instance). Hardcore tennis fans will revel in Wertheim’s expertise and his proximity to the players and their event; others can’t help but be attracted to a vision of two champions and a rivalry in their prime. --Alan Moores

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (June 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547232802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547232805
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,122,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By J. R. Taylor on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
It's amazing that years can go by without a great tennis book, and now in 2009 - only a month after "A Terrible Splendor" - we've got another one.
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.
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50 of 60 people found the following review helpful By H J on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The initial idea for Wertheim's book was to write about Federer but the concept changed after witnessing that historic Wimbledon final.

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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Marcela M. on June 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As a faithful reader of Wertheim's tennis mailbag on CNNSI for 10 years, I looked forward to reading this book. Sadly, I was a little disappointed. Wertheim's Fedophilia came across in every page and Nadal just seemed like an afterthought. Fed is graceful, brilliant, gifted, Nadal on the other hand is infantile, grips his racket like a caveman, and is a simple brute. Wertheim plays on the Swiss stereotypes v. the Spanish stereotypes too often: Calm, meticulous, organized, a multi-lingual diplomat, versus emotional, passionate, monolingual macho. Which is inaccurate as Nadal speaks Spanish, Catalan, the native language of Manacor, and English.

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.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Raja N. Krishnan on August 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Tennis is great. At the time of this writing, it is Middle Sunday, the traditional Sunday without action during Wimbledon. The non-appearance of Nadal at this tournament due to injury, combined with Federer's historic win at the French Open and the reading of a book (more on this in a few) has made me reflect on the significance of last year's Wimbledon Mens Final. In the last several years Roger Federer has become my favorite player to watch, due to his grace, fluidity and ease of play. Some of the other players I enjoyed watching before him include Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, and Mats Wilander. All these players had rivals, and that made them raise their games to the next level. For Andre Agassi, of course it was the greatness of Pete Sampras, for Edberg it was Becker and in the case of Wilander one of his main rivals was Ivan Lendl. Still many people talk about the rivalry between McEnroe and Borg as the greatest, which I was too young at the time to fully experience and enjoy. What led me to think about this on a Middle Sunday during Wimbledon 2009? The answer to that question is L. Jon Wertheim's book, Strokes of Genius. This book is about Federer, Nadal, the rivalry, Pascal Maria (the match umpire), the game of tennis and most importantly about the greatest game played, Wimbledon 2008 Mens Final. The author does a great job of weaving the story of the game together, from the pre-match ongoings, the sights and sounds of Wimbledon and the historical background of the game of tennis. The author delicately crafts historical information about the game of tennis at the right junctures as the match is being described, like flashbacks in a movie. This book has been an easy, fast, and an enjoyable read. It makes me want to pick up a racket again and play tennis.Read more ›
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