The impression that one might get of Roger Federer is that winning in tennis comes naturally to him and that he is nice to everyone. Only one of those is completely true. Christopher Clarey’s biography, The Master: The Brilliant Career Of Roger Federer, does not bust many myths surrounding Federer, but it does humanise a player who has, at times, looked superhuman on the tennis court.
Federer does come across as a genuinely nice guy: someone who would take the time to help his rival and friend Rafael Nadal promote a new academy in Mallorca, Spain. Or run back into an office building, head downstairs and past security just because he forgot to thank a few Nike employees who helped him with his shoes. It’s these kinds of anecdotes that make The Master illuminating.
What is not entirely true is that tennis comes naturally to him. The fluid movement, the ease of stroke play and the ability to conjure shots from seemingly impossible positions are all due to his phenomenal talent. But supplementing it is hard work, smart training, and refining skills that connoisseurs of the sport would think were already perfect.
Clarey, a tennis correspondent for The New York Times, has been writing about Federer since his first Grand Slam match in 1999, interviewing him a number of times across the world over these years. Many of these interviews were exclusive, at Federer’s home town or travelling together on a private jet. He also spoke with over 80 people for the book, including Nadal and Novak Djokovic, as well as a host of current and retired players, coaches, trainers and agents.
Spotted early as a potential champion, Federer’s road to glory was made easier by a solid support group of coaches and family members. Like his timing with shot making, the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s career decisions also came across with Swiss-like precision. Unbelievable as it may seem now, as a teenager, Federer was notoriously temperamental: breaking racquets, throwing tantrums and often stoking his inner John McEnroe. But his metamorphosis into the poised player we all know was down to a gifted player being able to make the most of his abilities, learning from watching his own bad behaviour on television.
Clarey seamlessly blends Federer’s career with his life off court. Reliving past matches adds to The Master an extended dose of nostalgia.The author’s recounting of some of these classic matches will give the reader much pleasure. Some of Federer’s greatest matches were also ones he lost, like the 2008 Wimbledon final to Nadal or the 2003 Davis Cup semi-final to Lleyton Hewitt. With detailed descriptions of points won and lost, joy or disappointment felt after, the book allows us to experience those moments too.
How did Federer manage to be a force in the intensely competitive men’s tennis for over two decades? How did he remain this popular, genial guy who did not have any major brushes with controversies?
Part of the answer lies in that Federer, like a true Swiss, prefers consensus to conflict and dislikes friction. He is also able to compartmentalise, disconnect. For example, Andy Roddick, one of Federer’s early rivals, expresses shock over howhe would stay with his entire family in the same hotel room during a tournament. “That’s not a real thing to stay in a room with four kids and a wife and win a Masters Series event,” he says. A tennis agent, John Tobias,gives this amusing anecdote ofhow before a night match “everyone else is in their room, trying to get rest with every machine hooked up to them, making sure they’re ready, eating perfect, and Roger is out there in Central Park with the kids.”
Through The Master we find that Federer, unlike Pete Sampras, his predecessor to the GOAT sobriquet, is an extrovert. He genuinely enjoys meeting people, loves to travel, and is regenerated by social interactions. He likes to maintain amiable and strong connections with his peers.He wears his privilege lightly, Clarey writes, has an old-fashioned sense of discretion and is, in a way, a natural politician who can read a room quickly.
Barring occasional mentions of Federer’s jibe against Djokovic or his lack of political advocacy, Clarey is clearly an admirer who paints Federer in clean strokes.But this is not a fawning hagiography because it does portray the champion’s vulnerabilities. Nearly every member of Federer’s family participates in the narrative, father Roger, mother Lynette and wife Mirka, a major influence on Federer’s career. An inexplicable absence is sister Diana,who gets barely a few mentions in the book.
What does come across is Federer’s love for the sport, a fact that has perhaps fuelled his longevity. The 40-year-old has not played since Wimbledon in July, with injuries and surgeries making his return to top rung tennis increasingly difficult. But it would be too early to write off someone for who playing tennis is“an extension of his body and mind”, as photographer Ella Ling describes.
Besides, if all the Grand Slam matches he lost after being in the lead are taken into consideration, Federer remains an under achiever, as a top tennis coach tells Clarey.He may yet have more to accomplish, but the journey that The Master describes so far, is itself a joy ride for tennis and Federer fans.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.