Backhand compliment: Roger Federer in 2014. Photo: Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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How Roger Federer made tennis beautiful again

This very enjoyable biography-cum-autobiography illuminates not just Federer’s place in tennis history but also the way in which the author converted his psychological problems into sporting fandom.

Federer and Me: a Story of Obsession
William Skidelsky
Yellow Jersey Press, 280pp, £16.99

William Skidelsky was desperate to watch Roger Federer in the fourth round of last year’s Wimbledon, so he bought a tent and camped out overnight to get tickets. Happily, he went alone: “There’s only one thing worse than camping, and that’s camping with other people.” Still, he had to spend the night in a field with hundreds of other tennis obsessives, packed together so closely that: “We were all basically going to sleep with one another.”

Skidelsky has put his obsession to productive use. This very enjoyable biography-cum-autobiography illuminates not just Federer’s place in tennis history but also the way in which the author converted his psychological problems into sporting fandom.

As a child, Skidelsky was gifted at sports. Until he was about 11, tennis “was – by some distance – the most important thing in my life”. But his family didn’t particularly value sport. Skidelsky’s father is the historian Robert, a biographer of John Maynard Keynes. “It felt like there was a pressure, emanating from my father, to display copious brainpower – to be ‘intellectual’ – at all times,” writes the son. Within the family, William’s elder brother got defined as the “intellectual” and William as the “sporty one”. Sportiness felt to him like a “badge of inferiority” and in his early teens he abandoned tennis.

Eton plays a dastardly role here. Skidelsky had attended state school, until, like his brother, he won “a special scholarship, whose purpose was to admit, each year, a small number of state-educated 16-year-olds into [Eton’s] sixth form”. That this supposedly equalising award went to the sons of a history professor (now a peer) reveals a lot about British egalitarianism, even leaving aside Skidelsky’s brother’s “three years at a private London day school”.

The point is that Skidelsky arrived at Eton under the bizarre impression that it was a rarefied intellectual environment. He later took that attitude with him to Oxford, still aspiring to be an intellectual, rather than the “sporty one”.

Along this path, he became depressed. Eventually, he entered psychoanalysis – as Nick Hornby does in his seminal book on sporting fandom, Fever Pitch, which Federer and Me often echoes. Psychoanalysis isn’t very good at “curing” people. However, it’s an almost indispensable tool for memoir writing. It has given Skidelsky the insight into himself to explain his obsession with Federer.

What attracted him wasn’t Federer the person but Federer the aesthete. “Roger Federer,” he writes, “made tennis beautiful again.” In perhaps the most masterful section of the book, Skidelsky analyses why that is. In the new era of big, graphite rackets, tennis had morphed into a “power baseline game” – players blasted topspin rockets at each other from the baseline. Net play died out. Almost all players used the same strokes: a two-handed backhand and a crooked-armed slap on the forehand. Power and effort displaced brain and beauty. Every player became Ivan Lendl.

Grace seemed lost for ever – until Federer came along. He, too, usually hits topspin rockets from the baseline but he does so with a one-handed backhand and a forehand of almost infinite variety. He can change the angles of his torso, elbow and wrist to hit forehands “to pretty much any part of the court, with every conceivable variation of height, spin and power; and he can do this from almost any position”, writes Skidelsky.

Federer, to him, is “pre-modern” and “backward-facing” – and yet the Swiss “manages to seem contemporary, too”. Just how contemporary Skidelsky realises only when he watches him in one match, almost from court-side. Up close, the impression that Federer gives of silent, sweat-free, effortless, country-house elegance evaporates. Suddenly Skidelsky sees how fast, powerful, hard-working and “almost feral” he is. The author quotes the late American novelist David Foster Wallace, another excellent tennis critic: Federer is both “Mozart and Metallica”.

Skidelsky began to follow Federer obsessively only in 2006, just as his reign as uncontestably the best player on earth was ending. The Mallorcan muscleman Rafael Nadal – the exemplar of the power baseline game – had arrived.

Nadal is the comic villain of this book. Skidelsky calls him “a bunglesome messenger from a future-gone-wrong, an embodiment of every crudifying technological development of the previous four decades, a player who, with one 4,000rpm smote of his racket, could smash all Federer’s artistry, his subtlety, to pieces. Nadal, one could say, was the price tennis had to pay for Federer’s genius.”

To Skidelsky, Federer in the Nadal years has been a “failure”. That is a harsh verdict on a man who has won a record 17 Grand Slam singles tournaments. But, as the author points out, the point of Federer was never to amass trophies. It was to achieve undying greatness: “What was possible for Federer at one point seemed limitless.” To support him after the coming of Nadal is to experience a yearning for a lost idyll – a “golden era” summed up in the tennis commentators’ cliché “the old Federer”. The nostalgia currently feels overwhelming. The Swiss player is 33 and the coming Wimbledon might just be his last.

Among the achievements that Federer can look back on is reconciling Skidelsky the adult with Skidelsky the tennis-loving kid. “Thanks to him,” writes the author, “I have sometimes felt as if I’ve been able to live my life over, to make sense of all that went wrong, and, as a result, to be a happier, freer adult.” Perhaps it’s because Federer turned sport from a grubby, corporeal pursuit into something that belongs to the higher realm esteemed by Skidelsky’s dad, Robert. The book ends with Skidelsky cured of depression, now a loving father, husband and tennis player.

This feels too neat. Certainly Skidelsky doesn’t probe himself as honestly and painfully as Hornby did. There is also a contradiction between the helpless, obsessive fan depicted here and the clear-sighted writer who depicts him. Mostly the story of obsession rings true but sometimes there is the suspicion that it has been touched up for the sake of a good book.

And this is a good book. Skidelsky has a feel for words, for the length of sentences, and for tennis. The “sporty one” has finally proved himself in a field his father can respect: as a writer.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation