Fed­head’s en­gag­ing jour­ney of dis­cov­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed­mund Gor­don

Fed­erer and Me: A Story of Ob­ses­sion By Wil­liam Skidel­sky Yel­low Jersey, 288pp, $59.99 (HB) Good writ­ing about sport is rare — and good writ­ing about ten­nis is that much rarer — so it’s con­spic­u­ous that we’ve had so much of it about Roger Fed­erer.

The gold stan­dard was set in 2006 with David Foster Wal­lace’s re­mark­able es­say ‘‘Fed­erer as Re­li­gious Ex­pe­ri­ence’’, in which the great nov­el­ist pro­vided a daz­zling anal­y­sis of the great player’s game. Then came Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Ge­nius (2010), an el­e­gant ac­count of the 2008 Wim­ble­don fi­nal be­tween Fed­erer and Rafael Nadal. In a let­ter pub­lished in Here and Now (2013), the cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Paul Auster and JM Coet­zee, the lat­ter con­trib­uted an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally lyri­cal bit of praise for the Swiss.

Now Wil­liam Skidel­sky, for­mer literary editor of the Ob­server and New States­man, has pro­duced Fed­erer and Me, an en­joy­able, quirky memoir of his life as an ob­ses­sive Fed­head.

It’s a sur­pris­ing bias for so many writ­ers to share (at least it sur­prises me: I might as well de­clare my own bias to­wards Andy Mur­ray at this point). As Skidel­sky ob­serves, ‘‘Ten­nis is an un­usu­ally — per­haps uniquely — psy­cho­log­i­cal sport.’’ Part of the fun of watch­ing it, let alone

June 27-28, 2015 read­ing or writ­ing about it, lies in see­ing how the play­ers make out against them­selves.

So I can’t help feel­ing that Fed­erer — with his ‘‘cu­ri­ously ex­pres­sion­less de­meanour’’, his supremely un­trou­bled psy­che, and his nigh-on flaw­less game — is uniquely un­ex­cit­ing. Sup­port­ing him would seem to in­volve noth­ing more psy­cho­log­i­cally oner­ous than for­giv­ing the odd sar­to­rial ab­sur­dity (the mono­grammed mil­i­tary uni­form he wore to Wim­ble­don in 2009) or im­mod­est com­ment (his de­scrip­tion of win­ning Wim­ble­don in 2012 as ‘‘fa­mil­iar’’). It’s mainly just a case of bask­ing in his ra­di­ant per­fec­tion.

Skidel­sky more or less con­firms this view. He de­scribes the Swiss mae­stro’s game as ‘‘un­earthly, stu­pen­dous, pos­sessed of a mag­nif­i­cence I’d never be­fore seen on a ten­nis court’’. A de­cent player him­self, the re­al­i­sa­tion that his tal­ents are mi­cro­scopic by com­par­i­son to Fed­erer’s doesn’t leave him feel­ing crushed but with ‘‘a sense of grat­i­tude, of joy­ous­ness, merely to have wit­nessed such skill, to know that it was pos­si­ble’’. Even when Fed­erer loses, Skidel­sky doesn’t feel that flaws in his hero’s game or char­ac­ter have been re­vealed: he feels as though ‘‘some fun­da­men­tal wrong, some in­jus­tice, has been per­pe­trated’’.

Just as heart­break is usu­ally more in­ter­est­ing to read about than ro­man­tic bliss, Skidel­sky’s idol­a­try would soon be­come cloy­ing if that were all his book con­tained. But what sets Fed­erer and Me apart from most other sports books is the at­ten­tion it pays to the psy­cho­log­i­cal roots of his ob­ses­sion. He grew up in an in­tel­lec­tu­ally im­pos­ing fam­ily (his fa­ther is the bi­og­ra­pher and his­to­rian Robert Skidel­sky; his brother is the philoso­pher Ed­ward Skidel­sky) and through­out his child­hood he was pa­tro­n­is­ingly re­garded as ‘‘the sporty one’’.

When he went to Eton, he started to feel ashamed of this iden­tity: the school ‘‘was a ter­ri­tory in­deli­bly as­so­ci­ated in my mind with be- ings like my fa­ther and brother. It wasn’t a place for me.’’ He shut sport — and ten­nis in par­tic­u­lar — out of his life, and poured his en­er­gies into aca­demic work in­stead.

This was enough to get him into Ox­ford, but in his sec­ond year he had a break­down and, buoyed up on an­tide­pres­sants, he took his fi­nals a year late. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he be­gan see­ing a psy­chother­a­pist, which helped. It was dur­ing this pe­riod that his ob­ses­sion with Fed­erer started. ‘‘I was com­ing to un­der­stand my­self, and my past, in a new way,’’ he writes. ‘‘I was try­ing to rec­on­cile the di­vi­sions within me that had led me to have no real idea who I was — sporty or in­tel­lec­tual, a think­ing per­son or a feel­ing one.’’

Fed­erer ap­peared to rec­on­cile these ten­sions: ‘‘There was a corol­lary, I felt, be­tween what Fed­erer had achieved … and what I needed to bring about within my­self.’’

Fed­erer and Me is a brave book, both in terms of its form (cram­ming large pas­sages of memoir into a book mar­keted to ten­nis nerds) and in con­tent (re­veal­ing a mul­ti­tude of highly per­sonal de­tails). It is also an en­gag­ing one, fre­quently funny — as when Skidel­sky rails for sev­eral pages against Nadal’s ob­ses­sion with his ‘‘glu­teus max­imus’’ — and ul­ti­mately poignant.

But it has left me with one nag­ging ques­tion: if an un­cer­tain sense of per­sonal iden­tity can lead a man to re­vere Fed­erer, what kind of buried masochism un­der­writes an in­fat­u­a­tion with Andy Mur­ray?

Roger Fed­erer wins Wim­ble­don in 2009

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