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Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played Paperback – June 1, 2010
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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.--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
*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 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
4 1/2 of 5 stars (excellent)
Mention the word "Wimbledon" and even non-tennis fans immediately know that you are talking about one of the most prestigious sporting events of the year. So when the finals pit the top two players at the time playing in a match that some consider the greatest tennis match ever played, it will take on a life of its own. L. Jon Wertheim writes about the match and that life it takes in "Strokes of Genius", a riveting account of the 2008 Wimbledon finals between top ranked Roger Federer and second ranked Rafael Nadal.
Just a recap of the play on the court would make a terrific book. It was as even as a match could be, no matter which advanced tennis statistic one wants to use when evaluating the epic battle. While Wertheim's recap was not a shot-by-shot account, there is plenty of description of the action on the court. He writes it in such a detailed and descriptive manner that just like when I was watching the match on TV in 2008, I was getting goose bumps reading about it even though I knew what the outcome would be. I had to take a breath and exhale after reading the passage describing Federer's backhand shot to avoid losing in the fourth set tie-breaker. That describes how good both the match and the writing about the match were.
Wertheim mixes in plenty of information and stories on the two tennis legends as well. These stories are well researched and the knowledge he has gained as a writer of tennis at Sports Illustrated is evident. Topics such as the players trying out new rackets, how they handle media requests and their middle-to-upper class upbringing are described in equal parts humor, detail and precision, with a dash of melancholy when appropriate. Some other nuances about the game in general are also included. One of the better passages on tennis came early in the book when he writes that only in tennis do the opponents warm up with each other. Nadal and Federer warmed up for this match by hitting balls to each other. Can you imagine Mariano Rivera throwing batting practice to David Ortiz? Or Tony Romo throwing warm-up passes to Victor Cruz?
These stories are mixed into the play by play of the match at various points and this is the only downfall of the book. At times, these seemed to hamper the flow of reading the book. The best analogy to describe them is that they felt like excellent commercials you enjoy during breaks in the telecast of the match. I liked reading them, but would have preferred that they come at the beginning or end of chapters, not in the middle after reading about a fantastic Nadal serve or Federer return.
Overall, this is an excellent book that any sports fan will enjoy. This was a match that does become one of those "Where were you when" questions. Reading it will help one relive those great memories.
Did I skim?
Pace of the book:
Good, despite the switching back and forth between topics.
Many, but the best is the rich prose and style of writing. Wertheim paints a picture on each topic, from the game itself to Nadal's lifestyle (relatively simple for a sports superstar). This was the first book I read by him, although I have read many of his articles in Sports Illustrated and he is an excellent author.
Only the placement of stories and information on the players and the game. That was covered in the review. Otherwise, there were no negatives in this book.
Do I recommend?
Yes, especially for tennis fans. I do think, however, that just like the match, this book would attract non-tennis fans for the excellent storytelling and recap of a historic event.
Wimbledon has always been a place of fascination for me. I have watched the championships whenever possible for years. After reading this book, I believe that I will be better able to understand some of the nuances of what it takes to be a Wimbledon champion. I also know much more now about Federer and Nadal than I did before, and I admire both men for their amazing tennis skills.
We happened to be in Paris this past June when the final of the French Open was played. We did not attend the matches the last weekend, but we noticed that there was definitely a buzz around town about the tournament and about Roger and Rafa in particular. Of course, it turned out that Nadal couldn't play, so Federer swept through the tournament for his first French Open title. We watched the championship match in a sports bar in Montmartre, and the French people in the bar seemed to have a real appreciation for Federer. I wish now that Strokes of Genius had been published a little earlier. If I had read the book before watching the French Open final, I would have been even more absorbed by the tennis.
I highly recommend Strokes of Genius to any tennis players and to those of you who are simply fans of the game.
Roger Federer lost this game, but everyone who witnessed it knew that his defeat was a minor glitch in his resume, for he fought hard until The end to pull almost The impossible comeback, with his trademark genius and artistry, wich by The way, his rival sorely lacked.
Tremendous tale by mr. Wertheim!!
Instead, Wertheim wrote one of the best sports books I've read in the past few years. The book is not just the story of the one match, but also the story of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon, and tennis itself. Wertheim looks at the match from what seems like every possible angle, even telling the story of the chair umpire. I was amazed at Wertheim's ability to sustain interest over a full book on a single tennis match. No matter how great the match was, and it was one of the best ever, an account of any tennis match can only remain interesting for a thousand words or so. Because Wertheim uses the match as a springboard to tell many related stories, the narrative remains compelling throughout.
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In the summer of 2008, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met for the men's championship at Wimbledon.Read more