By John Cheeran
How did Roger become Federer?
This is the central question that New York Times’s sportswriter Christopher Clarey explores in his outstanding book, The Master, the Brilliant Career of Roger Federer (Published by Hachette India, Pages 421, Price Rs 799). This is a must-read for sports lovers and, also, for those who want to understand greatness.
The book is no religious experience, but a supreme journalistic effort where the writer paints the picture of the great tennis player in all shades, in all varied colour and glory. Clarey has succeeded in his effort because he had enough access to Federer, an unusual achievement in an era when sporting gods revel and reveal themselves only on Instagram and Twitter. Clarey admits that his frequent access to Federer was deeply connected to his desire to broaden his reach in the US.
Clarey conducted more than 80 interviews—coaches, fitness trainers, rivals, friends and contemporaries, including the greats Rafal Nadal and Novak Dojokovic. Clarey succeeded in getting Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi to open up on the theme. So too were Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Jim Courier, Brad Gilbert and Ken Rosewall the star of a bygone era.
The only person who remained unapproachable for Clarey, however, was one of the most influential persons, Mirka Vavrinec, tennis player, the girlfriend and the life partner.
In a narrative that extends over 400 pages, Clarey keeps the reader interested in Federer’s life not by giving his judgments or taking you from one tournament to another but focuses on each phase of the player’s sporting life and examines what shaped his decisions by getting the people familiar with those situations to speak. And the approach works.
At 40, and out of action now after three knee surgeries, Federer might not return to centre court. And this is a fitting time to consider the brilliant career of Federer.
The strength of Clarey’s journalism is that he brings in perspective. For example, he gets
Paul Dorochenko, Federer’s long-ago fitness trainer, to say: “The Federer we see on court today is a manufactured product, a manufactured product of Nike’s marketing that represents the values we want to give tennis: the gentleman and all that. But deep inside, Federer was never a gentleman. He’s a fighter. When he extends the hand with a smile to Nadal, I’m not at all convinced. ” It is a minority view, but a provocative one, Clarey notes. But that makes The Master a reading experience.
Clarey writes that Federer has transcended tennis, not by using it as a platform for higher or edgier causes but by remaining largely within the confines of the game. That is no small achievement for a sport with a dwindling and aging fan base in Europe and North America. It is an old-school approach: low on controversy and on glimpses into his personal life, long on bonhomie and Corinthian spirit, adds Clarey.
Federer was lucky in many aspects.
But in life and certainly in pro tennis it is really about what you do with your good fortune, what you make of your opportunities, and Federer built on many of them rather than squander them, says Clarey.
In trying to explain the Federer story, Clarey recalls what tennis legend Martina Navratilova told him–champions are born, and then they have to have the right environment to be made.
Dorochenko offers a valuable insight into how Federer was made a champion. “Nobody made Federer fit into a mold. A mold was made to fit Federer,” says Dorochenko.
If not for the Australian coach Peter Carter in Basel, Federer would have chosen soccer over tennis when he was 12. Federer showed promise as a junior. In 1998, he won junior Wimbledon singles and doubles titles. Federer is the only Wimbledon boys champion to win a major in the last 35 years. By 1998, Federer had an assortment of coaches.
Like Borg, Federer too was a hothead when he was young. Then they were total control freaks of their emotions the rest of their careers. At 17, he consulted a sports psychologist, Christian Marcolli, and benefited from it.
Clarey has collected a telling comment from Guillermo Coria, Argentine player. “The work that people close to him did, above all the one who worked on Federer’s head, deserve the Nobel Prize,” said Coria.
Despite his solid family and empathetic nature, Federer could have turned out quite differently if he had been enabled more often in his youth, coddled in light of his potential. Clary writes that the influence of three countries with an eagalitarian streak – Swiss (Pierre Paganini), Swede (Peter Lundgren) and Australian (Peter Carter) styles–helped Federer.
Federer is widely perceived as a natural, and yet he is a meticulous planner who has learned to embrace routine and self-discipline, plotting out his schedule well in advance and in considerable detail.
Marc Rosset, the Switzerland player and former Davis Cup team captain, has watched Federer blossom into a great player. Clarey gets him to explain the amazing consistency that Federer has had. “He has a great ability to take things as they come. He lives a moment, experiences it fully, takes pleasure in it and finishes it and then moves on to the next. It’s for that reason you have the feeling that things happen very naturally with him. It is a talent, and, to be honest, it’s a talent that even today fascinates me more than his tennis,” says Rosset.
In the beginning, Federer struggled. He lost in his Grand slam debut in 1999 French Open against Patrick Rafter. In fact, Federer lost his first 11 tour level matches.
Federer learnt the game on clay in Basel but he struggled at French Open and especially against Nadal, but the skills he acquired on clay courts played a crucial role in his success in Wimbledon.
The rivalry that quickly developed with Nadal — and not in Federer’s favour — humanized him in a manner that, contributed to his enduring popularity, writes Clarey. The parts where Clarey talks about Nadal makes the Federer picture complete and vivid.
It helped Nadal that Wimbledon no longer rewarded only the big server and net rusher. The bounce was truer and slightly higher now, which allowed baseliners to put more returns in play and do more damage with passing shots. The polyester strings and modern racket technology also helped the baseliner’s cause and to homogenize play at the four major tournaments and beyond.
Nadal versus Federer on grass bore little resemblance to Sampras versus Ivanisevic on grass. Nadal versus Federer at Wimbledon, stylistically, was not far from Nadal versus Federer at the Australian Open: lots of baseline exchanges, occasional forays to the net, and first-strike tennis when a ball landed too short or floated too high.
Both Federer and Nadal were also, on a more fundamental level, anchored in a culture with egalitarian values that tempered their sense of self-importance and also allowed them to live without being hassled or hounded.
Federer had beaten Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001 with a classic serve-and-vollley game but had then gone on to win his Wimbledon titles largely from the baseline.
Federer explained that when nearly everyone served and volleyed on grass, staying back was the wrong choice because it would have meant hitting too many passing shots. But as equipment and playing styles changed, Federer realized that he had an edge over the field from the baseline, too, just as he did on hard courts and even on clay against players not named Nadal.
Federer thrives on compartmentalising. Taking his mind off the tennis while taking his children to a museum in Paris or a park in Melbourne helps him to fully focus when it comes time to perform on court.
The role that Mirka has played in Federer’s career and life, too, gets Clarey’s attention. Mirka helped Federer with both the big picture and the details. She has played a decisive role in making Federer the best version of himself on court and building his brand. Clarey did not get an interview with Mirka and says she would have had plenty to illuminate and perhaps debunk, including reports of her pre-Roger romance with a member of Dubai’s royal family.
What explains Federer’s endurance? Sports science and a better understanding of nutrition, training, and recovery were all factors. So was the ability of a player like Federer to put together a personal, highly qualified team and afford to bring his family on the road.
Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles, a feat he shares with Nadal and Djokovic. Gunter Bresnik, one of tennis’s top coaches, says that Federer should have won at least 30 Grand Slams. He has lost more than twenty times after holding match point, while Nadal and Djokovic have lost fewer than ten such matches.
Clarey writes that there’s a seductive school of thought that Federer has had an easier path to greatness, that he amassed the bulk of his Grand Slam titles when Nadal was not yet a true all-court threat and Djokovic had not yet clicked into top gear. You could make a strong argument that the only major Federer won with both these men at something resembling full throttle was the 2008 US Open. But that’s forgetting that Nadal and Djokovic became as fabulous as they did only because they had Federer for a measuring stick, writes Clarey.