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Steve Flink: "Strokes of Genius" a must read

4/14/2009 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Recollecting how he felt after watching Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer performing majestically in the 2008 Wimbledon final that so many authorities believe is the greatest tennis match ever played, writer L. Jon Wertheim says, “I have never been so riveted by a sporting event. I felt obligated on a certain level--- after seeing that match live--- to try to do it justice. I believed that the match deserved the most special kind of treatment.”

In his forthcoming book entitled, “Strokes of Genius” (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, due out in book stores in the middle of May), Wertheim has not only given that glorious moment in tennis history the precise kind of literary treatment it merits, but he has done more than that. Writing with clarity and superb interpretive insight, conveying a depth of appreciation for both players that few of his peers could equal, building drama across chapter after chapter, Wertheim does a masterful job of allowing all of us to revisit an incomparable occasion. He helps readers to better understand the subtle shadings of the Federer-Nadal contest. He allows fans to remember why they were so emotionally immersed in a Centre Court epic. He reminds everyone why this clash mattered so much to both diehard aficionados as well as sports fans that rarely pay attention to tennis.

One of the primary reasons this book is so compelling and penetrating is the format. The Federer-Nadal match is thoroughly broken down, point by point, set by set, from beginning to end. But Wertheim takes readers down other avenues, presenting significant background material on the two players, pursuing significant issues relevant to the game at that time (including steroids and gambling), filling the pages of his manuscript informatively with details that enrich the coverage of the match itself. Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was in accord with his publisher on the notion of a multi-dimensional tennis book that resembles John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game”, in many ways.

McPhee’s masterpiece--- arguably the best tennis book ever written--- was about the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal between Americans Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. The renowned author powerfully described how the Ashe-Graebner match unfolded, and then brought in valuable biographical material on the two competitors, interviews with family members, and other essential material on the nature of their lives and their contrasting styles of play. McPhee conveyed Ashe as a product of his background, as an adventuresome player shaped by his outlook as a liberal Democrat. He saw Graebner as a young man with a different philosophy, as a confirmed percentage player who was guided by his conservative Republican beliefs.

As a writer moving through an entirely different era in the world of sports, McPhee had all the access he needed with the two subjects of his book. In fact, Ashe and Graebner separately spent a good deal of time sitting with McPhee reviewing the tape of their match, offering analysis about each other’s games, recalling their inner emotions at every stage of their memorable four set battle, which Ashe won on his way to the title.

Wertheim set up the framework for his book similarly to McPhee’s, but he did not have the luxury of sitting down with the players for hours in front of a tape to get their innermost thoughts on what transpired during their historical encounter. As Wertheim told me, “McPhee looked at the video of their match with Ashe and Graebner. The notion of me getting a DVD and sitting down with Roger Federer and going through the match point by point--- through probably the worst day of his life--- wasn’t going to happen. With a book like mine, I had so little time and so much to cover, but I talked to Roger the day after he won the U.S. Open in September and asked him some questions. By then a couple of months had elapsed so he had some distance and could reflect a bit. But understandably he was not ready to relive that day in great detail.”

Nonetheless, Wertheim sprinkled his pages with insights about and from Federer and Nadal that amply demonstrated his scope and productivity as a reporter. He even travelled to Federer’s hometown in Switzerland to provide a greater understanding of how this towering player evolved. Furthermore, he drew on a good many interviews he had conducted with both players over the years. Naturally, Nadal and his camp were more enthused about commenting on the match, although, as Wertheim points out, “With Nadal, there was a language barrier to some degree. But winning that match was a seminal victory for him, so whether it was talking to Nadal or his people or putting questions to Uncle Toni, they were a lot more forthcoming. Definitely, the winner writes history.”

I have read a number of interviews previously with Uncle Toni, and in most cases he seemed reluctant to reveal much of substance. But he may well be the star of Wertheim’s book. Here he is portrayed in a different light, and it is more apparent than ever that his influence with his famous nephew has been even more far reaching than we ever knew. Moreover, Wertheim’s savvy reporting takes us into the locker room during the two rain delays, and we are drawn into some fascinating dialogue between player and mentor. As Wertheim describes the conversation between Uncle Toni and Nadal during the rain delay at 2-2 in the fifth set, a remarkable role reversal takes place as Nadal reassures his uncle and urges him to stay calm.

Reflecting on the role of Uncle Toni in “Strokes of Genius”, Wertheim says, “A lot of the information from him came when I spoke to him at the U.S. Open. If you stuck a microphone in his face that Sunday night at Wimbledon after the match, you wouldn’t get the same stuff he would say in a more relaxed environment later on. Uncle Toni is a fascinating guy. I think Nadal’s tennis is terrific but as a subject I had a hard time [with him] because he is a tough nut to crack. That is part of what makes him so good. Even in press conferences, when he gets asked something that is personal and isn’t about forehands and backhands, he is very guarded and he usually gives an uncolorful response.”

Not so with Uncle Toni. As Wertheim pointed out to me, “Uncle Toni is very thoughtful. In tennis we are sort of prejudiced when we see a family member coaching a player. We assume the worst. But this guy Uncle Toni really knows his tennis and is very smart and a bit of an eccentric. He is not what we are used to in that role. You hear about a tennis player’s uncle coaching him and instinctively roll your eyes and assume it is only a matter of time until that player gets smart and finds a real coach. But Uncle Toni is really a great tennis mind, and I don’t think a lot of people knew that.”

That comes through clearly and unmistakably in “Strokes of Genius.” Uncle Toni knows the game ever so thoroughly, and has an innate understanding of Rafael Nadal that no one else could even approach. In turn, he has a sixth sense of what the current world champion might do at any given moment. As Wertheim uncovers in the book, just before Nadal prepared to hit a second serve at 5-2 in the fourth set tie-break against Federer at Wimbledon---- with a golden chance to reach quadruple match point--- Uncle Toni had a sinking feeling about what would occur a moment later. He turned to agent Carlos Costa and predicted his charge would double fault, which is exactly what happened.

Little gems like that are sprinkled throughout the book. Using his sources skillfully, Wertheim reveals what Federer and Nadal had for lunch before their appointment with history. Interestingly, Federer had a plate of pasta primavera and a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi, followed by one of his “beloved” Kit-Kat chocolate bars. That is the kind of detail every reader will find enticing. But Wertheim is not overly enamored of triviality. He has his share of excellent inside tennis analysis, including a good section on the contrasts in grip sizes and rackets between Federer and Nadal.

Wertheim found a way to cater to both casual sports fans who might want to learn more about one of the great modern sports rivalries, and those who follow tennis with religious fervor. How did he perceive his audience as he wrote the book? “That’s a good question, “Wertheim responds. “ There always needs to be a balance with these things because if you write a diehard tennis book, you have got a pretty limited audience. But if you have to explain that Roger Federer is a great Swiss champion pursuing Pete Sampras’s record for Grand Slams, then the tennis fan is insulted. Hopefully, the casual sports fan will want to pick this book up but I have tried also to make it a tennis book with enough insight for someone who follows the sport closely.”

How conscious was he of making his book distinct from McPhee’s “Levels of the Game”, and yet simultaneously adhering to that structure for “Strokes of Genius”? “That was something I thought about all the time, “he replies, “because I thought it was such an effective way to do a book. It works on so many levels to write it that way, but it would be arrogant to say you want to write the next John McPhee book. That is like saying you want to be the next Roger Federer. You don’t want to make it too derivative because you don’t have delusions of equaling John McPhee.”

That reverence served Wertheim well. He followed the McPhee template, but was his own kind of artist and craftsman. Above all else, he worked hard and furiously to produce a first rate book. Remarkably, it was as if this project was simply meant to happen. Originally, Wertheim and his publisher were considering a book solely on Federer. As he explains, “It had occurred to my publisher that, although a Swiss writer had done a fine book on Federer, there had been no real mainstream book on Roger. So I had a sort of vague agreement to do something on Roger Federer. It was going to be a journalistic look at the guy but I was still mulling over how to structure it. I went to Wimbledon with the Federer book in my head and then this incredible match happened. So by the time I got off the plane the day after the final, we all sort of agreed on how to go forward by encapsulating the Nadal-Federer match, which turned out to be a dream match.”

Not only did Wertheim watch it all live at Wimbledon, but once he knew his book would revolve around that match, he looked at tapes of four different broadcasts: the World Feed, ESPN Classic, BBC, and NBC. “It was interesting, “he says of the experience. “ I had those four versions and that was an interesting part of this. BBC is the host broadcaster and they had some nice bells and whistles. John McEnroe on NBC had a different take on some things than his brother Patrick on ESPN Classic, or Tim Henman on BBC. I would scribble notes and go back and forth and watch the different telecasts. BBC had some nice statistical graphics and helpful extras but I probably relied on NBC the most.”

In the end, Wertheim turned out an honorable piece of work, one that will appeal across the board to fans, and one that will enhance the landscape of tennis literature. I was there on that momentous day at Wimbledon as well, and I have had the great pleasure of watching the battle play out again several times on my ESPN, NBC and BBC tapes. But I thank Jon Wertheim for giving me the chance to reexamine the Federer-Nadal epic though the clear lens of an excellent journalist, and I urge you to add this book to your library.

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