Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Strokes of Genius

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played
, by L. Jon Wertheim, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 2009), 208 Pages.

Today's traditional Wimbledon break-in-the-action provides the chance to reflect on last year's 2008 Men's Final between five-time champion Roger Federer, the craftsman whose game is as precise as that famous Swiss Watch, and challenger Rafael Nadal, the swashbuckling leftie muscle-man Spaniard with that brash power game. Many experts think that, for pure tennis, this match may have been the best ever played in the game.

This recently-published and well-written book by Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim is likely to become an instant classic on the topic. It's an easy read and offers a riveting blow-by-blow account of the epic five set, five hour, twice-rain delayed marathon culminating in the darkness with Nadal's first Wimbledon victory - 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.

Wertheim does a really nice job of capturing the essence of the Federer and Nadal personalities, their playing styles, histories and families. It offers interesting information about the behind-the-scenes happenings in the locker room. And it gives a revealing look at many of today's aspects of the modern world of pro tennis. 

 Among these aspects are: the globalization of tennis into a world sport, the heavy gambling behind tennis, the evolution of the racket from gut to polyester, people making up a top player's "entourage" such as among others the player's masseuse, and even details about the Hawkeye technology which is the basis for today's player challenge system. Wertheim doesn't spare anyone from his gaze - even writing at length about the umpire Pascal Maria and his role.

Since Nadal pulled out of this year's Wimbledon due to injury, we won't be treated to a re-match in 2009, but reading this engrossing book is a nice consolation. There's a lot to learn from this match.

May all your serves be Aces!


A few book excerpts which you may find interesting and helpful.

1. On Federer:
"Federer became the top-ranked -player in the ATP in 2004, ushering in the Federer Era, the most dominant regime in tennis history. ...from 2004 to 2007, his match record was 315-24."

"Federer won not with might-makes-right power, but with flourish and flair. His game relies on precision and nuance and opulent talent. ... The descriptions of Federer's game are often pulled from art and light: it's poetry, ballet, a renaissance painting, a symphony. He's an artist, a calligrapher, a maestro, a virtuoso on a stringed instrument."

"The grass underfoot [at Wimbledon] accentuated his fluid movements and ...multiple abilities...that graceful volleying, those brilliantly angles flicks, those imaginative pieces of shot-making."

2. On Nadal:
Tennis's Hercules. "Somewhere there is a Planet Nadal, where babies don't play with dolls but rackets, muscle grows before bone, courage is learned before speech and the heart beats faster. He is an adolescent who has transformed himself into a superman." Uncle Toni has an explanation to it all: Nadal's extreme Western grip - the massive spin you get from this grip. "Nadal's elaborate follow-through that enables him to finish his strokes with the racket nearly brushing his skull."

3. On the Contrast in Styles and Temperament:
"Feline light versus bovine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus an unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules. Relentless genius vs. unbending will."

"Federer is a delicate, brush-stroking impressionist, and Nadal is a dogged, free-wheeling abstract expressionist."

"While Federer is whisked to tournaments on private planes, as recently as last year, Nadal flew back from the Australian Open in coach class. While Federer is a gastronome prone to raving about Gordon Ramsey or the previous night's sushi blowout, Nadal is happy ordering a room service hamburger and sparking up his Playstation."

"While Federer is a citizen of the world, the king with the sprawling empire...Nadal [at every opportunity] would return to [hometown] Mayorca, where to this day he lives in the apartment building the family shares. He has the same girlfriend, fishing buddies and golf partners."

4. On the volley, in the words of Federer:
"Probably the most satisfying moment in tennis is when you can close a point at the net. You feel like the other guys was pressured because you were such a good athlete."

5. On the Federer forehand and finish:
"Federer's mix of stylish classicism and flash can be traced to his mechanics. He hits his trademark shot, his forehand, with an open stance and a fairly standard "semi-Eastern grip", essentially shaking hands with the racket, positioning his right hand parallel to the strings."

"In most cases, Federer assumes an open stance, rotates his hips, and extends his arm in front of his body, all the while betraying the peculiar habit of staring at the racket even after the ball's been struck, appearing to admire his handiwork."

"Where does Federer get this ability to leaven his power with spin? When he strikes the ball, he rotates his hand and finishes his stroke over his left breast, rather then his left shoulder. This classic "wiper finish", as teaching pros call it, helps generate the kick ... the Federer forehand is really the perfect tennis stroke. And it's instructive to recreational players... who use a conservative handshake grip that approximates Federer's. And the twisting of the hand to hit over the ball isn't a particularly difficult maneuver. As John Yandell puts it: "Federer's forehand is both a stroke of genius and a stroke for the masses."

6. On playing the script of a winner in a tennis match:
"Both Federer and Nadal display what sports shrinks call "excellent body language" on the court. Unlike most players, they seldom let their movements or their posture or their facial expressions indicate whether they are winning or behind. Tamping down their emotions, they neither sulk much when they are losing nor exult much when they're ahead."

7. On the "Zone" of tennis:
"Federer had entered the Zone, the blissful and fleeting interval during which an athlete feels infallible. The laws of space and physics are suspended. Time is elastic. The extraordinary becomes ordinary. Almost ruthless in their accuracy, Zoning tennis players feel that they can guide the ball wherever they please. Anything the brain devises the body can execute. Serves pop off the racket. The opponent's shots travel slowly and when the ball finally arrives, it appears to be the size of a melon."

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