Strokes of Genius by L. Jon Wertheim

On July 6, 2008, two compelling athletes met on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in the men’s final and served up a seminal event in tennis. Roger Federer was on track to take his rightful place as the most dominant player in the history of the game. The Wimbledon champ for five years running, Federer needed only to sustain his trajectory. But in the fading daylight it was his rival, the swashbuckling Spaniard Rafael Nadal, who met the moment. Their captivating match was, according to the author, “essentially a four-hour forty-eight-minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis – a festival of skill, accuracy, grace, strength, speed, endurance, determination, and sportsmanship.” It was also the encapsulation of a fascinating and textured rivalry, hard fought and of historic proportions.

In the tradition of John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, Strokes of Genius deconstructs this defining event, using it as the backbone of provocative, entertaining look at the art, psychology, technology, strategy, and personality that go into a single tennis match. With vivid, intimate detail, Wertheim re-creates this epic battle in a book that is both a study of the mechanics and art of the game and a portrait of a rivalry as dramatic as that of Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus, and McEnroe-Borg.

First, let me say that although I enjoy playing tennis, I have no particular talent and have never taken lessons; what little I know about technique has been gleaned from watching professional matches. For the casual tennis fan like me, the post Agassi-Sampras years were rather bland, being consumed entirely by Federer’s perfection. He reigned as #1 for a staggering 237 weeks – nearly five 5 years – and for most of those weeks, there was little or no serious, sustained competition. Federer seemed to win majors effortlessly. Not until Rafael Nadal appeared on the scene, winning the French Open (the only Grand Slam not in Federer’s assortment of titles), taking over the European clay court season, and chasing Federer onto the grass courts of Wimbledon, did any significant competition appear on Federer’s radar.

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played is a thumbnail sketch of the current state of tennis, combined with a brief biography of Nadal and Federer, and a commentary on the 2008 Wimbledon final. The thumbnail history and biographies are both interesting and enlightening, especially to someone uneducated in the recent history of the game, the science of the sport, and the different structure of the tennis industry as compared to, say, baseball or American football. I especially liked the sections that discussed the situation of the non-Top 25 player, the journeymen who eke out a living playing professional tennis, who don’t win or even play in the biggest tournaments. And the section about Pascal Maria, the umpire, was intriguing as well. (Sports referees fascinate me; tennis, football and baseball particularly.) The commentary on the game itself, eh, it wasn’t as gripping. And I say that as someone who was riveted by the match. Perhaps because I enjoyed the match so much, any commentary was bound to be a bit of a let down? Maybe. But all in all, Strokes of Genius was still worth reading for the casual fan of tennis.

Would a more knowledgeable tennis fan enjoy the book? I don’t know, really. Probably a better-educated tennis fan would know a lot of the history and psychology of the sport, so maybe not. 

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