When I read in Christopher Jackson’s thoughtful new book that Roger Federer was “aging exceptionally slowly by tennis standards”, I was reminded of Bilbo Baggins. The magic ring gave Tolkien’s hobbit unnatural longevity, and while he looked young, he felt weirdly old, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. I wondered if Federer ever feels in any way like butter, but quickly chastised myself. Be still! That’s not the sort of metaphor you can use with the Prince of Tennis, the Gentleman God in our midst. Dairy products – or hairy-footed, greedy halflings – make for blasphemous comparisons.
Federer is an intimidating opponent for a writer, especially if the writer has been bewitched by him. The mix of his huge talent and the relentlessness of his “brand” can quickly lead to hyperbole. Jackson’s opening declaration made me worry: “It has been my instinct to circle him.” In the early chapters, he offers faithful prayers to the champion in much of the standard language of the Federer cult. We’re told that he has the “air of a modern king”, that he is like a “Greek athlete” and, more fantastic still, that he has “the look of a Greek statue permitted motion”. Jackson traces tennis’s royal lineage as an aristocratic pastime, preparing the palace for Fed’s arrival.
Jackson’s goal is twofold: to use Federer as a justification for the cultural importance of sport, and to explain the delirium of his devotees by studying his aesthetic value. A contentious premise underpins each of these aims. He inflates George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens’s derision of sport into a generalised condition. Do we really suffer a “modern angst about whether we are wasting time when cheering on an Olympics or immersed in a tennis match”? Likewise, Jackson’s necessarily sweeping history of art since antiquity left me questioning whether Federer’s popularity was due to his being “an example of beauty in an age that lacks it”. With these two assumptions, Jackson evokes a cultural desert of snobbery and vulgarity that can then be redeemed by Federer’s irrigating grace, his “great liquid whip” of a forehand.
This last metaphor belongs to the novelist David Foster Wallace, whose 2006 essay on Federer “as a Religious Experience” has itself become a sacred monument. Repetition of the whipping image has made it, as Jackson admits, “almost a cliché”, and his book astutely addresses the linguistic challenges of describing a tennis match. Post-match speeches rarely equal the conversations of the match itself: the aggressive propositions and sly rebuttals, the witty topspin lob and the drop shot’s quiet sarcasm.
Similarly, when commentators discuss Federer, their diction often becomes ornate but unimaginative. In the past decade, he has been portrayed with a narrowing range of metaphors, moving constrictedly between the regal and the divine. Poor Rafael Nadal, as a main rival, is typically yoked to the vehicles of these metaphors as a tireless, styleless ox. For his part, Jackson doesn’t pause to poeticise Nadal’s “inherent advantage on clay”, putting it down, as others have before him, to his left-hander’s ability to “whip forehands high to the Federer backhand”. No liquid whip for Nadal, just a prosaic quirk of the genes.
To write about the Federer phenomenon creates a problem of comparison. Jackson points out that, just as Shakespeare’s gift has been linked to his having a larger vocabulary than his peers, the marvel of Federer’s forehand is its technical versatility, the sheer variety of its execution. Such comparisons are not always revealing. Portrait of an Artist is packed with quotations from Shakespeare, Pindar, and other literary greats that, while pleasing in themselves, further underpin these overly familiar Federer tropes. One of Jackson’s best metaphors is visual, when he brilliantly notes that the statue of Mercury resembles someone hitting an overhead smash. But was Federer “Lear-ish” during his loss to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final? Has his reluctance to retire, outlasting his top peers and contesting titles with a younger tennis generation, given him, in Thomas Carlyle’s words, “royal solitude”?
And yet, once the requisite laurels have been placed at Federer’s golden Nikes, Jackson’s book comes alive. The statue starts moving. His welcome heresies include the acknowledgement that classy Fed has been capable of moments of petulance and David Brent levels of tactlessness. I’ve always balked at the gaucheness of his gilded monogram-mania. Happily, Jackson devotes a section of the book to the incident of Federer’s “15” Nike jacket, which he wore after winning the 2009 Wimbledon, his 15th major championship. In the face of Andy Roddick’s disappointment, this presumptuous piece of needlework hit a bum note. By tracing the pattern in the mosaic of Federer’s sponsors – Rolex, Lindt, Credit Suisse, Gillette, Moët & Chandon – Jackson unveils the corporate interest in and contribution to Federer’s gentlemanliness. He suggests that the champion, in the post-2008 context of widening economic disparities, could be “an emblem of an unjust society”.
Susan Sontag once said that writing was her way of “paying attention to the world”. Jackson argues that sport can cultivate a similar eye for the nuances of athletic form and the moments of real drama between mere mortals. He writes persuasively about the humanity of a late, minor exchange between Federer and Nadal in that famously protracted 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal held up the new balls with which he was about to serve, forcing Federer to look directly at him. For Jackson, this “wordless acknowledgement of a shared experience”, beyond all the metaphoric noise of men challenging a god, created an instant of secular transcendence.
“To look closely at the world,” Jackson writes of sport’s power, “is to go beyond beauty into something tougher and stranger, to bump up against the actual structures of life.” This Sontag-like sentiment made me think of the epiphany that led to Tracey Emin’s My Bed, one of Jackson’s examples of the squalid world from which Federer, “purveyor of beauty… immune to ugliness”, has come to save us. After an alcohol binge, Emin staggered to the kitchen for water, and when she returned to her bedroom she was initially disgusted by the mess. But, she recalls, she “looked again and then the next thing I saw was my bed and I thought that’s not disgusting… this bed has kept me up and kept me buoyant… and I thought, that’s really beautiful”. Jackson’s argument about the moral purpose of sport ultimately advocates for this more uplifting kind of “immunity” to ugliness.
A keen insight of Portrait of an Artist is the idea that sport’s relationship to reality and artifice is often lopsided. While the joy of victory is undoubtedly real, the despair of defeat is (or should be) metaphorical. As Boris Becker said after an early Wimbledon exit: “Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match.” This book has a similar lop-sidedness, see-sawing between artifice and reality, between idolatry and sober, astute critique. To read Jackson on Federer is to see someone, in the language of cults, “deprogramming” themselves, while also lapsing into well-worn, pious imagery. By the book’s end, the statue is not quite toppled but certainly askew, and Jackson invites us to look beyond it to the truer delights of a Swiss man’s astoundingly beautiful hand-eye coordination.
Laurence Scott is the author of “The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World” (Windmill)
Roger Federer: Portrait of an Artist
Squint Books, 150pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions