Roger Federer uses a modified eastern grip for his forehand. Or as writer William Skidelsky puts it: "He locates his hand position on the border between traditionalism and modernity . . . it is the physical manifestation of some Platonic ideal of truth and beauty, it has a classic orderliness, a clean perfection . . . it is the most beautiful shot in the history of tennis".
This is no ordinary love. Fandom becomes fixation in Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, Skidelsky's sometimes bewildering account of his 10-year-plus all-consuming fascination/infatuation with the Swiss tennis player.
“I have spent an awful lot of time watching – and rewatching – Federer’s matches, rising frequently in the middle of the night to do so. Countless additional hours have been spent studying home-curated YouTube collections of eye-level videos of his practices or reading the things, both positive and negative, that people have written about him in obscure corners of the Internet” he writes.
This is extreme fandom. Skidelsky’s career and personal relationships are as nothing when compared to the thrill of hunting down front-row tickets for a Federer match.
Such is the potency of his prose that you go – within the same paragraph – from wondering if the author needs specialist professional help to concurring with him that the Federer inside-out forehand (where he runs around his backhand and hits cross court) is indeed one of the few truly beautiful things left in this oft-wretched world.
This goes deeper and darker than literary sports fandom has ever gone before. He carries you along at first with a relatively straightforward exposition of how “Federer made tennis beautiful again.” With advances in racket technology allowing anyone with a big first serve and a bulging bicep to bully their way into the top 10, Federer reconnects the game with its history – the sublime touch- tennis of the soft-handed Australians, led by the greatest ever, Rod Laver.
While others metronomically hit from the baseline as if it’s a game of attrition, the blessed Roger is finding near impossible angles on court and seemingly defying the laws of physics with the most aesthetically pleasing array of shots the game has seen since Maria Bueno last wielded a racquet.
But just as Roger is deified, all those who threaten him must be debased. The author freely admits to “loathing” Rafa Nadal, describing the Spaniard as “the one flaw in Federer’s otherwise perfect universe”. The vitriol which Skidelsky as good as spits in Nadal’s face is somewhat at odds with how gracious Federer himself is to his nemesis.
Then again, given this level of immersive fandom, it is entirely plausible that Rafa Nadal has caused more hurt, pain and anguish to the author than to Federer himself.
If you follow this thought, you come to realise that this book isn’t about Roger Federer. It’s about William Skidelsky, a 30-something Englishman from a privileged background (educated at Eton) who now works as a literary editor.
Skidelsky could hit a ball – he was good enough to play county tennis as a teenager. Desperately wanting to be either a tennis player or a cricketer, he feels he is letting down his academic father (a somewhat domineering presence here) by coveting a sporting career.
He talks about his depression, the medication he takes and the psychotherapists he sees. It is only when he returns to playing tennis in his 30s after a 15-year gap that the obsession with Federer begins. As jobs and relationships come and go, Roger remains the only constant in his fractured life. During the glory years (Federer from 2005 to 2008) he finds himself dancing with joy on the sofa whenever he is on the television.
Two years ago his girlfriend (now wife) had to terminate her pregnancy at 18 weeks due to severe medical complications. As only a male could note, this tragedy occurred during the week of the Tennis World Tour Finals in the 02 in London. “I ran away from my feelings – and, by extension, from her. As ever, I sought refuge in tennis,” he writes.
His wife is a criminal barrister who – we assume, although we’re not told – has no interest in tennis. When Roger gets through to the semi-finals Skidelsky suggests to his still-grieving partner that “watching tennis might be a useful way to take our minds off what had happened”.
The manner of Federer’s semi-final victory over Djokovic that night (6-1, 6-4, he duly notes) is written about in such lush prose that the Greek God Apollo, the romantic poets, Wordsworth, Kant and Mozart are all summoned forth as anachronistic character witnesses for Federer. So enraptured is Skidelsky by the match that he produces the most brilliant ever description of a stop volley. Not that there’s been that many previous literary descriptions of the stop volley.
Somewhere hidden in these passages of awe-struck wonder is the observation that “the beauty of Federer’s game enabled me to see the true relations of the world. Denial gave way to lucidity; what had been distorted became clear. I was returned to myself, to my life, to my girlfriend, and it now seemed possible to properly confront what had happened, and to move on, together, into the future” – a paragraph which manages to be both disturbing and poignant at the same time.
In a famous essay for the New York Times entitled "Roger Federer as Religious Experience", David Foster Wallace wrote that "a top athlete's beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke."
But Skidelsky has come close. Here Federer acts as an instrument of salvation for the author. Sporting excellence – whether embodied by a David Rudisha or a Sachin Tendulkar – remains one of the last unmediated forms of truth and beauty open to us and its redemptive qualities are clear.
Skidelsky has done the frequently ignored – if not openly scorned – world of obsessive sports fandom some service with this book. And if you'll excuse the temerity Mr Author, you of all people should know that the Federer forehand is not the most beautiful shot in the history of tennis. That honour belongs to the Justine Henin backhand.
Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession
by William Skidelsky is published tomorrow
by the Yellow Jersey imprint, at £14.99