“Truly, tennis is the most gladiatorial sport going.”

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played                                                   Jon Wertheim

I would love to be good at tennis, much more than I would love to be good at any other sport. For me, tennis skill equals mastery of the body—and beyond. This mastery extends to a racket, ball, net, and court, just a few simple objects. Of course, the combination of these elements creates innumerable variables, but the tennis player imagines she can prepare for most of them. If the player can muster a sufficient amount of self-discipline (that is, more than her opponent) she’ll win. This also means that tennis is a chronicle of failure, of the ways an opponent can chip away at one’s zone of influence.*

I’m not a tennis fanatic, but I find it easy to get swept up in the majors, especially Wimbledon. During my long adolescent summers, my sister and I would watch every Wimbledon match NBC chose to broadcast. This was during the days when the men’s game was a mess, and the WTA had about a dozen charismatic stars elbowing each other in the rankings. Now the script’s been flipped, and the ATP boasts a robust top tier.

Wertheim’s book narrates the crowning jewel of this new order, the so-called “Greatest Match Ever Played,” the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Wertheim, a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, details the match game-by-game, and at times point-by-point. He also provides short biographies of the two protagonists, and extensive digressions into tennis culture, fandom, racket design, commercialism, and other subjects. These passages are the highlights of the slim volume, and worth the reading effort alone.** Wertheim’s passion for the sport surfaces when he’s defending Wimbledon against charges of elitism, or describing the seeding process of the court grass. As it turns out, these digressions aren’t anything of the sort—they form the cosmos of the sport, suffusing the match with significance.

In contrast, I’m a bit disappointed in the tennis writing itself. Rather than steer around the dense thicket of tennis clichés, Wertheim charges through them. Even as he dismisses them, he repeats well-worn metaphors, keeping them in circulation. (I’m guilty of this myself—see above). This fault comes out most strongly when he’s describing Nadal, the eventual champion. On one page Wertheim tells us that Nadal is not a bull, or a caveman, or a mere genetic freak; on the next, he describes Nadal charging the net like a bull and gripping his racket like a caveman. Wertheim’s praise of Federer feels more sincere. But hey, I like Fed better too.

My imagination struggles to re-create Raja and Rafa’s “unbelievable” shots over and over again. The book is a welcome complement to the match, but I wonder if another visual format would come in handy. I don’t want a documentary on the match—I enjoy the pleasure of reading too much. I don’t want a website either, because I hate scrolling or clicking through to the next page. Wouldn’t it be great if books could have video clips embedded on the pages?***

*I guess you could compare golf to tennis in this regard, if they just played the same hole over and over again.

** At 200-so pages, you could probably read this book in less time than it would take to actually watch the 5-set thriller.

***Hey, Kindle users: are there any good book/video hybrids available? What do you think of them?

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