Tuesday, 23 June 2015

William Skidelsky’s “Federer and Me” is the most fascinating book about tennis I’ve ever read

Sunday provided a feast for tennis-watchers. First, Andy Murray polished off the Serb Victor Troicki in the semi-finals at Queen’s; then Roger Federer defeated the Italian Andreas Seppi to win the Gerry Weber Open in Halle; and then Murray won Queen’s in a scintillating display against the big-serving Springbok beanpole, Kevin Anderson. Hours of grass-court tennis (such a relief to the eyes after all that nasty, dusty, rust-coloured clay), culminating in victories for the most naturally-gifted British player of the modern era and the most talented player ever to pick up a racket. What a treat. And I watched it all with a new-found understanding of what I was seeing.

Federer and Me arrived in an Amazon parcel on Friday - much to my surprise, as I’d never heard of it. It was a gift from my brother, who is only too aware of my Federer obsession. By the time the tennis started on Sunday, I was two-thirds of the way through the book (having had to stop myself polishing it all off on the day it arrived). Not only could I see clearly how the game had changed since I started watching in the mid-‘60s – I now understood why it had changed so dramatically.

Tennis used to be gentler, more elegant, less sweaty. Most of it was played on fast grass courts (much faster than they are now), and most rallies would last no longer than five shots, including the serve: numerous points consisted of a serve, a return and a winning volley. (As a result, many of the matches were indescribably dull - albeit mercifully short.) Clay courts in those days were much slower than they are now, and many of the matches were equally dull for the opposite reason – because it was so hard to pass an opponent, rallies mainly consisting of high, looping “moon” balls tended to last forever (for instance, this interminable exchange between Vilas and Borg in 1978 involved 86 shots).

Nowadays, the evening out of the speeds of different surfaces – grass, hard and clay – means that, overall, rallies on hard and grass courts last longer than they did back then, and clay court rallies are, on average, much shorter. But the main reason for longer rallies on fast courts wasn’t the homogenisation of court speeds: rather, it was the introduction of carbon-fibre racket frames. Wooden rackets couldn’t be broader than 9”, otherwise they’d warp. Now, frames are between ten and twelve inches across. This means the “sweet spot” – i.e. the area which allows the player to control the ball's subsequent trajectory – is now much bigger. That, and the extra breadth of the racket head, and the speed with which they’re able to swing the much lighter racket, allows players to impart loads of extra topspin to the ball. This means they can strike the ball much harder without it sailing beyond the baseline or into the crowd – topspin creates a fast downward arc, and therefore gives the hitter greater control. It wasn’t that great players of the past like Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez and Lew Hoad were wimps who couldn’t hit the ball as hard as their modern counterparts – it’s just that they couldn’t hit it as hard and control it at the same time. Apparently, modern rackets allow players to load four or five times as much topspin onto the ball as their predecessors – which is why old-style tennis looks a bit dinky when viewed now.

(All this information gave me an even keener appreciation of my first sporting hero, the great Rod Laver, who regularly hit seemingly impossible running topspin passing shots with a racket that, it transpires, was utterly unsuitable for the job – his feel and accuracy must have been truly miraculous; God knows what he’d have achieved with a modern racket.)

Skidelsky points us to a 2006 article by Rod Cross in Tennis Industry Magazine, entitled “The inch that changed tennis forever”, which explains the phenomenon brilliantly, and which can be read here.

The introduction of the bigger sweet spot means that less talented players can get more balls back. That and the ability to deliver masses of topspin is the key to Nadal’s success against a much more talented player like Federer, whose one-handed backhand simply can’t cope with the Spaniard’s vicious, high-bouncing topspin forehand. Nadal generates more topspin than any other player in the game, and only players with two-fisted backhands can even begin to cope with his bread-and-butter shot. One-handed righties might as well not turn up, as the left-handed Nadal is able to hit at their backhand side cross-court till the cows come home (or until they simply collapse in tears of frustration). Skidelsky provides statistics showing Nadal’s success against one-handed righties, and they make for depressing reading – none of them has come up with an answer, and even Federer only has a winning record against the pestilential Spaniard on grass and indoor courts: his record on clay is pitiful.

One other result of the change in rackets is to make tennis strokes – especially the one-handed forehand – much, much uglier than they used to be. The grip which helps generate topspin (the western) means that the player’s elbow is always crooked at the point of impact. Federer’s forehand (which Skidelsky describes – accurately -  as the most beautiful stroke in the history of tennis), is delivered with a straight arm, thanks, apparently, to his use of a modified eastern grip: he also watches the ball all the way onto the strings, turning his head to do so, which is what players used to do, while most modern players keep their eyes fixed on a point some way in front of the racket. The aesthetic difference is startling:

William Skidelsky (son of the eminent economic historian, Robert) is a freelance journalist, an amateur tennis player, and, like me, an absolute Federerast:
Roger Federer made tennis beautiful again. And he did this while playing a version of the power baseline game. It's as if he bottled the gracefulness that belonged to the sport's earlier eras and decanted it into the modern style. There is, for this reason, a quality of the unreal about him. He defied the logic of four decades' worth of change. Everything pointed to a future in which he (or someone like him) would be impossible. And yet not only did he exist; he managed to excel. 
And he's refreshingly forthright about his attitude to Nadal:
Like most diehard Federer fans, I loathe Rafael Nadal. I cannot stand the man or his tennis. In my more reflective moments, I am capable of admitting that this attitude falls short of perfect objectivity. Nadal, I am prepared to concede, may not be a wholly despicable human being. But no amount of ordinary decency can make up for the grave offence he has committed, and continues to commit, simply by existing. This alone is enough to make him loathsome, unforgivable. 
Seconded. (The whole of the chapter entitled "The Curse of Nadal" is very funny.)

Federer and Me is much more than just a work of hagiography or a semi-deranged fan's hymn of love to their idol: it mixes personal revelation, an overview of the changing nature of the game, easily comprehensible technical explanations and profound insights into why the arrival in human form of a sort of Platonic ideal of sporting excellence means so much to those of us who glory in the man's sublime brilliance.

I suspect that Federer will finally retire next year after the Olympics. Armed with the insights afforded by Skidelsky's book - and thanks to the BBC and Sky Sports - I'll be doing my best not to miss a single one of his matches between now and then. No matter how many of them he loses, it will be worth it. To quote the witer J. M. Coetzee (as Skidelsky does): "One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being - a being like oneself - can do."

Federer and Me is available here. If you're a tennis fan, you will not be disappointed.

Thanks, bruv.

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