Federer and Me: a Story of Obsession
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.