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.