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Steve Flink: New book on Federer a missed opportunity

10/22/2013 11:00:00 AM

The man many consider the greatest player in the history of tennis has been covered comprehensively by the worldwide media all through his storied career. The definitive work on Federer thus far is Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer’s book entitled The Roger Federer Story, Quest for Perfection, a biography published in 2006. British writer Chris Bowers wrote another biography of the estimable man, Fantastic Federer, and that was also released in 2006. Many scribes are certain to produce their own accounts in the future about a sporting icon who has long been celebrated by fans in every corner of the globe for his elegance, multi-faceted game, majestic shotmaking prowess, and an almost mystical gift for creating tennis lifted from dreams and bordering on the impossibly sublime.

American writer Mark “Scoop” Malinowski has taken his turn with a new book, Facing Federer (“Symposium of a Champion”). Malinowski wrote a book a few years ago on the enigmatic Marcelo Rios, and plans another one on Lleyton Hewitt at some point in the not too distant future. In Facing Federer, Malinowski, an unabashed admirer of Federer, has noble intentions. He tries to explain the rationale for his book in the introduction, writing, “ In the embryonic stages, the project originally aspired to be not a normal, conventional book but an abstract portrait and symposium about the great champion Roger Federer, a collection of interviews, perspectives, memories, photos and art work. However, as we know, plans do often go awry and this creation unexpectedly evolved into a different direction. At the 2012 US. Open, as an experiment, I interviewed several ATP players about their matches against Roger Federer and was pleasantly thrilled by their engaging cooperation in sharing special accounts and details about their duels with the living legend.”

Continuing his account of how his book was shaped, he writes, “ After more interviews with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter, Jim Courier and John McEnroe at a senior exhibition at Madison Square Garden in New York City in late 2012, I decided to attend the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships in February, the Masters Series Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in March, and the Sarasota Open Challenger in Longboat Key, Florida in April to attempt to interview as many players as possible who have competed against or practiced with Federer. Over 50 players graciously discussed their experiences on court and off with Federer. So the project has metamorphosed into this new, final form with the “Facing Federer” aspect as the primary nucleus.”

Clearly, Malinowski was struggling to find the right identity for his book, and yet he worked earnestly on the project, finding a wide range of sources, producing some fresh and new material in the process. But, unfortunately, the book is fundamentally flawed. To be sure, there is some fascinating material scattered across the pages, but Malinowski hardly ever does any writing. This is an endless stream of quotes from beginning to end, some of it original and absorbing, some of it stale and recycled from old interview transcripts, and too much of it thrown together monotonously. The book cries out for some interpretive reporting from the author. Malinowski is a fine player and a good analyst of the game. He is a diehard enthusiast and a man who comprehends the nuances of the game. On top of that, he has followed Federer’s career devotedly, examining the peaks and valleys, witnessing the decline across the last year, looking at it all through the eyes of a seasoned observer.

But, inexplicably, he elects to tell his story entirely through the lense of quotes, one after another, without the benefit of his own wisdom. He needed to set up the quotes with some observations of his own, but did not do so. He gathered a considerable amount of intriguing material for the book. Had Malinowski produced chapters filled with his own insights on Federer and supplemented by the quotes, he could well have succeeded handsomely with his project. Yet he chose to go in another direction and let the quotes stand as the sole basis for the book. In my view, that was a misjudgment that mars the book irreparably. That’s a shame. All of the hard work he has put into interviewing not only well known tennis personalities, but also more obscure individuals who can shine much light on the subject, goes largely to waste. The format is the primary, inescapable problem.

Nevertheless, there are some fascinating and compelling comments about Federer gathered ably by Malinowski from his one-on-one interviews; the transcripts from media interviews at tournaments should not be included because they lack originality, fill up too much space, and don’t belong in a book. Be that as it may, let me share some of the best of Malinowski’s stuff.

For example, he got this from a source called “Tennis Blogger” that captures much of the essence of Federer in his prime: “Pure, rich, dripping and abundant talent. I have never seen that much of it ever since boxer Muhammad Ali and soccer player Pele. Although I have never seen videos of the latter two, witnessing it first hand from Federer is like an out-of-body experience. If you have not seen him in person you are not just depriving yourself of tennis genius, but also absolute beauty in its purest form. If you have not already done it, go out and buy a ticket to Federer’s next match. It doesn’t matter if you are a tennis fan or not. You are not going to watch a tennis match, you are watching a genius at work—a once in a lifetime kind of euphoria.”

In a chapter called “First Memories”, Andre Agassi tells the author, “I first played him in Basel [in 1998]. I just never would have guessed he was in for the career he’s had. He looked like he was trying to imitate Sampras when I first played him, but he just didn’t look as good. He couldn’t serve quite as big, he looked like he was not decisive enough about if he wanted to play coming in or if he wanted to play at the baseline. You never know if someone is going to evolve. So I didn’t give him much of a chance to be at the top. But he proved me wrong.”

Later, Malinowski focusses on memories of players who competed against Federer, and in that chapter the American Vince Spadea speaks with remarkable clarity about what it was like to stand across a net from the Swiss Maestro on the competitive battlefield. Spadea explains, “He has this devastating four shot combination. He hits a great serve, then a short angle backhand, an inside-out forehand and he comes to the net…. Federer’s got a lot of different shot varieties, a lot of different paces and depth he hits to. He almost never hits the ball to the same spot on the court in a rally. He hits every part of the inside of the court. There’s not a real pattern of where he’s going to hit the ball. Sometimes on his inside-out forehand he angles it inside the box with heavy spin. Sometimes he loops a blooper. And sometimes he hits it more left of center… It’s unparalleled shotmaking with confidence.”

Malinowski tracks down Roman Borvanov, a former practice partner of Federer who hit with the Swiss at Indian Wells. Borvanov, a 31-year-old who turned professional in 2004 and is currently ranked No. 549 in the world, says, “For me, it was very interesting just to see how he [Federer] hits balls. To feel his ball was a very unique experience because the ball was rotating in so many different ways. He is able to hit balls like no other. He could spin the ball with topspin, sideways, underspin, so many different ways he could hit the ball. I thought it was unbelievable. Now I realize how he’s able to hit the forehand inside-out and it tails away. Not many guys can hit the ball like that or have such a good sensation of the ball.”

That view is echoed to some degree by Mischa Zverev, who lost to Federer 6-0, 6-0 this year in Halle. As Zverev points out, “His ball when it travels through the air has so much stuff on it… It moves like a shank but it’s not a shank. You think it’s going long but it’s like two feet inside the baseline. His ball is just phenomenal.”

Devoting a chapter to the view of various coaches on the way Federer plays the game, Malinowski goes to the likes of Bob Brett for reflections on the man’s effortless grace and timing. But Nick Bollettieri makes his case compellingly about why Federer might have been better off trading in his spectacular, versatile yet often vulnerable one-handed backhand for a two-hander. According to Bollettieri, if Federer had gone to the two-hander, “He would have been unbeatable…..I think he could, perhaps, have done better with a two-handed backhand. He’s got one of the most beautiful slices in the history of the game. But overall, I wonder sometimes [what might have happened] if the guy had a two-handed backhand.”

On top of the way everyone analyzes Federer’ game and lauds him for his immense flair, flexibility and talent, the book does present one unmistakable theme from the players who are included: to a man, they salute this icon for his decency as a human being, for his refusal to be condescending, for treating all of his peers with respect across the board. The portrait that emerges of this all-time great is of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, mindful of not taking himself too seriously, and sensitive to the concerns of those who share his trade.

As Alex Bogomolov, Jr. recalls, he was the recipient of the 2011 ATP World Tour Most Improved Player Award. Bogomolov informs Malinowski that he received that honor at the season ending Barclays ATP World Tour Championships in London. Recollects Bogomolov, “They actually presented me with the award right after his [Federer’s] first round robin match. And he came off court and said, ‘Bogie, congrats. It was an amazing year.’ That was pretty cool. That was probably even better than the award itself.”

Indian player Somdev Devvarman remembers his first meeting with Federer, and adds, “Ever since the guy’s always been nice to me and he’s always helped support anything I asked him for, signatures for a charity event and everything else. The guy’s been nothing short of really, really nice and really caring for some of the guys. And he is a class act all the way through.”

James Blake recalls when he broke his neck in Rome one year. When the tournament doctor arrived to see him, he brought along a note from only one player, who urged the American to get better soon. That competitor was none other than Roger Federer.

Malinowski has done a signature interview series with many of the game’s luminaries for a long while called Biofile, and he includes one in the book that he had with Federer back in 1999. When he asked what people qualities that Federer most admired, the response was, “That they smile a lot. Friendly. Helpful. And I don’t like it when somebody lies because I never lie.”

Facing Federer contains a number of nuggets like that one. If only Scoop Malinowski—a man with an agile mind, a keen intellect, and an insatiable curiosity about the game of tennis—had given us the benefit of his wisdom through his own words as well as those of others. What if he had blended his personal thoughts to compliment the views of the guests who reside under the roof of his book? Why did he not allow us to live briefly inside the chambers of his mind as he examines Federer? Had he done that, Malinowski would surely have written a book more worthy of his talent, knowledge, and unbridled enthusiasm.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.