I admit I picked up my copy of Jon Wertheim’s new book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played after Sunday’s Roland Garros final. Watching Federer celebrate his historic victory gave me the courage to face one of his most brutal losses: the 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal.
I read half the book in one sitting. The match is as suspenseful and thrilling in print as it was live on TV. It’s the details that rekindle the shivers, like the odd observations of chair umpire Pascal Maria or the players’ uncanny shot selections at key points. Wertheim relieves the Centre Court tension by periodically delving into the players’ personal histories and quirks. The book’s crammed with telling minutiae and inside tennis factoids that you’ll want to share at every opportunity. (Topics for your next church potluck: Uncle Toni’s atheism and John Isner’s Facebook group called ‘If tennis were a religion then Federer would be God.”)
Jon Wertheim chatted with me before Roland Garros (via email) about what makes the story of the 2008 Wimbledon final and the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry such a page-turner.
GOTOTENNIS: You watched the Wimbledon final live and also multiple times on tape. You’re the expert! Tell us something we don’t know about this match.
WERTHEIM: One thing I tried to do in the book was discuss the entire tableau, what was going on everywhere from in the “players box” to the tv compound to the locker room. As far as little details, Federer chugged a Pepsi and ate a Kit-Kat before the match. For some reason that stuck with me. During the first rain delay, Nadal tried to confer with his uncle Toni in the locker room, only to look over and see his uncle taking a siesta. But I think one of the real themes of the book is that this epic match didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was informed by so much context and backstory.
GTT: You described the Wimbledon final as “probably the worst day of (Federer’s) life.” It was a tough loss for Federer’s fans, too. What will die hard Fed fans gain from reading your book?
WERTHEIM: Federer’s critics nail him for this, but I consider it such an endearing trait: Federer is, at heart, a realist. He doesn’t exist in the jock cocoon, impregnable against “negative thoughts,” divorced from reality. He knew as well as anyone what the result meant. He hadn’t just lost; he’d been dethroned. To me there was something incredibly poignant about his reaction afterwards. There was none of the classic athlete fallbacks when defeated: “Win some, lose some; we’ll get ‘em next time.” Everything about his reactions indicated that he was really shattered. People ask me “What is Federer like?” and my standard response is: “He’s one of us. Only he has an unbelievable ability to hit a tennis ball.” This was one example. He couldn’t trick himself into “shaking it off” and banishing the loss from his thoughts a few hours later.
GTT: Obviously it’s hard to predict the future – but how do you think this match will fit into the narrative of the great Federer vs. Nadal rivalry?
Wertheim: As of today, that match seems to represent a real turning point in the rivalry. Nadal beat Federer on grass; he upended the King of Wimbledon; he inherited the number one ranking; he embedded himself further in Federer’s head. True, Federer won the U.S. Open (without having to face Nadal) But Federer has obviously not been the same player—or, you could argue, person— since. (See: trophy presentation, Australian Open.)
But, you know, the plots change quickly in tennis. Pete Sampras is mulling retirement and getting mocked by Boris Becker in the summer of 2002; two months later he’s winning the U.S. Open. Serena Williams is barely in the top 100; wait, she’s winning Majors again, playing as well as ever. A few breaks and few untimely injuries to the opposition and Federer could easily win another few Majors. Obviously Nadal, catalyzed by Wimbledon 2008, is The King right now. But who knows if that analysis will still hold a year from now.
GTT: Bonus question: I suspect that Rafa is one of the biggest Federer fans ever, did you get any hint of latent Fedophilia in your encounters with the Spaniard?
Wertheim: Absolutely. Nadal is almost pathologically modest and humble to begin with. But you get the feeling there is genuine affinity for Federer. This goes beyond respect and bleeds into admiration. Part of this is Federer’s disposition: Nadal saw the way Federer conducted himself while No.1. (For all their differences, I think Federer and Nadal’s values are quite common.) I also think Nadal appreciates just how gifted a tennis player Federer is. Toni Nadal once told me that Rafa might be mentally superior, but Federer is the one player capably of beating his nephew on talent alone.
With Roger’s win in Paris and Nadal’s knee problems threatening his Wimbledon defense, the plot’s thickened from milkshake to concrete consistency. Let’s hope this year’s Wimbledon final merits a Strokes of Genius II.
Pick up your copy of Strokes of Genius at Amazon