Backhand compliment: Roger Federer in 2014. Photo: Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.