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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.