- The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer, by Christopher Clarey. John Murray, $32.99.
At a time when much of Australia is unable to attend major sporting events, a vicarious dose of tennis may prove a welcome escape. In charting the rise (and decades-long career) of Federer, Clarey has produced an enjoyable book.
One of the major challenges Federer faced in his early days was controlling outbursts of bad behaviour on the court. He had to learn to change his actions, avoid tantrums, and develop that famous "poker face" (which has often dissolved into tears after the end of matches). Clarey outlines the way that coaches dealt with Federer's restless energy, and the way he sought the services of a psychologist.
It must be hard to balance the need to tell an overall story with picking particular matches to describe in detail when writing such a book. Clarey does not recount too many matches blow by blow, which could quickly become tedious, but has picked a handful which stand out in Federer's career. For example, Federer's 18th Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open, at the age of 35, complements the earlier description of his 2004 victory.
Clarey delves into Federer's various coaching changes, his business and management teams and decisions. His stable, middle-class family (Swiss father and South African mother) and his marriage to Mirka, herself a tennis player good enough to represent Switzerland at the Olympics, are important elements in Federer's success. But the highlight of the book is surely the descriptions of the various opponents the player has faced during his career.
These range from Lleyton Hewitt, to Rafael Nadal, to Novak Djokovic, described as "the most elastic man in tennis", and include their different styles, backgrounds and temperaments. Nadal's secure family life and early love for football, the decision of a football coach to not let him play because he missed a practice session in favour of tennis training, leading the young player to give up football, are eerily similar to Federer's early history. One difference is that Federer moved on his own to board in a French-speaking part of Switzerland in his mid-teens to access better training, whereas Nadal stayed at home for longer. (Federer was raised in a German-speaking area of Switzerland, and English was his first language at home.) By contrast to both, the Serbian Djokovic experienced air raids as a child, and moved country at 12 to improve his tennis, living alone "for three months in a place where he did not speak the language". His family sacrificed everything on the chance of his success.
Throughout the book there are interesting discussions on how much tennis success is based on innate ability, and how much on access to good coaching. The author favours "Martina Navratilova's hybrid formula: 'Champions are born, and then they have to have the right environment to be made'". Federer's seemingly effortless style of play, the elegance and comparative lack of sweat, have resulted in some peculiar double standards. Federer has said that when he loses, people say "Oh, this guy's not trying", whereas when he wins, everyone admires his "fluid game", as Clarey puts it.
Federer seems to have found a way to enjoy the peripatetic life of the tennis professional, the endless travel and constant change of city. The author records that the player takes a genuine interest in meeting people as he travels, and, of course, he no longer has the difficulties experiences by most people when he moves around; the endless queuing and frustration. He has "the means to reduce a great deal of friction", Clarey writes.
"In mid-2020, Forbes named [Federer] the world's highest-paid athlete, estimating his annual income at $106.3 million, only $6.3 million of which was official prize money." The books examines Federer's endorsements and business negotiations, and this section is surprisingly interesting - a credit to the author.
But tennis is the centre of the book, and for anyone who has ever watched Federer play, The Master will provide a great deal to engage and maintain interest through 400 pages. Reading how a young, promising player has reached the top of his sport and stayed there well into the years where most players have retired, and how the restless teenager became "the world's most recognisable Swiss" is an agreeable way to spend several hours.
For well over 20 years, at least one of Nadal, Federer or Serena Williams (that other great stayer of the game) has played in every Grand Slam. The US Open this year will see none of the trio, as they are all nursing injuries.
How much more will we be able to see of Federer on the court? While we don't know the answer to that, Clarey's book is an engaging reminder of the scope and depth of this player's achievements.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.