Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

June 1, 2009

A Classy, Classic Title Bout

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim went deep on the memorable Nadal-Federer final at Wimbledon.

Mickey Lambert

Rivalry has always been an integral part of the appeal of sports, and the engine for its inherent drama and theatrics. Every faceoff has deathmatch-level implications; every interaction is pregnant with tension and anticipation. Will this be the clash of the titans that every fan seeks? Unfortunately, the actual event frequently falls well short of the hype. When Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden faced off in the 1986 World Series, it was as ho-hum a showdown as could have been conjured. Neither was on his best game; instead of the lions roaring, there was barely a mewl.

Sometimes, though, two individuals at the top of their respective games face off, and all the dreams of sports fans come true. This is a moment we collectively live for, where the best face off and create a synthesis of astronomical talent that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is at these moments—the best, against the best, at their best—that one need not be an avid fan to recognize the magnificence of the event at hand. Sport, perhaps more than any other medium, provides the opportunity to live inside a historic moment as it happens. There is a point in the most storied contests when the crowd is keenly aware that regardless of the outcome, the event itself is historically and personally significant of its own accord. And at that point, authors in attendance may start rewriting book proposals in their heads.

Jon Wertheim (center), with mixed-martial artists Gilbert Yvel (left) and Josh Barnett
"It was evident to everyone—including Federer and Nadal—that this match was one for the ages."

Jon Wertheim (center), with mixed-martial artists Gilbert Yvel (left) and Josh Barnett

Jon Wertheim, in his recent book Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, profiles one of those transformative battles—the 2008 Wimbledon men's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The book uses the match itself as the prism through which to make larger observations about larger issues: the evolution of tennis as a sport and a business, the spirit of competition and rivalry and its effect on the individual players, and the sense of collective experience that comes with witnessing a historical sporting event.

Wertheim capitalized on his good fortune of having covered the match from prime viewing territory, owing to his role as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He frequently writes about tennis, but is also known as one of the magazine's most versatile writers, covering the NBA extensively as well as penning feature pieces about a range of social and business issues pertaining to sports. He is also an increasingly prolific book author, having recently released Blood in the Cage, a profile of the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA), to go along with several previous books. He's spoken about three of his books with Gelf before: The MMA chronicle, a pool hustler's tale, and an NBA novel.

In this interview, which was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Wertheim talks about the experience of covering two of the most dominating players of all time, how the sport has evolved (and devolved) over time, and what the future of the Federer-Nadal rivalrylooks like.

Gelf Magazine: Can you talk about how your idea for a book about this match evolved?

Jon Wertheim: Well, I've been covering tennis for Sports Illustrated for many years, and had a contract with a publisher to put out a book specifically about Roger Federer. He's thought of as the Tiger Woods of tennis, and I wanted to explore his impact on the sport as a whole; that contract was a longer one, because at the same time, I was working on my book about ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts.
So, I'm covering Wimbledon for SI, which is a great experience in general—the tournament's media policy is really friendly to writers and reporters. I had been gathering material for the Federer book, as I had been for many years prior; I had years of notes from matches, interviews, and so on. As the final is unfolding, I'm in my seat, eight rows from the court, just mesmerized to be there, captivated by the quality of play being exhibited. Around the fourth set, I called my editor and said, "Maybe we need to change tacks here." I realized how many people were totally drawn in by this match; it had an impact not only on tennis and tennis fans, but on people who previously had little or no connection to the sport. People would be more likely to read a book about this match than one just about Federer, and it was an opportunity to tell his story, and Nadal's story, and the story of the sport, through a really compelling lens.

Gelf Magazine: Your personal connection to the sport comes through clearly in the narrative; has tennis always been your primary passion in terms of sports?

Jon Wertheim: Well, yeah, you could definitely say that. I've been covering it for a number of years, and I've always watched it and followed it closely. I've also covered the NBA a lot, and keep pretty close tabs on the games and players, and have done a lot of other kinds of pieces. But yeah, I really love the sport.

Gelf's podcasters, The Hack and the Flack, talk to Wertheim about Nadal, Federer, and the French Open.

Gelf Magazine: Coming into the Wimbledon men's final last year, did you have any idea that it was going to be this epic?

Jon Wertheim: There definitely was a ton of hype about the match—Federer had been on the receiving end of a lot of press crowing about his decline because he had lost a few matches, been ill in the winter, and had looked really flat more generally. That kind of came to a head after the Wimbledon final. So the stage was definitely set for a showdown, with the balance of power having shifted away from this hugely dominant player in his prime, to a young, hungry, immensely talented relative upstart. I'm not sure that anyone could have anticipated just how transformative the match would be, but the pieces were definitely in play.

Gelf Magazine: What, for you, made it such a watershed event—the greatest match of all time, as you and many others have asserted?

Jon Wertheim: In addition to the rivalry that had already developed between Nadal and Federer in previous match play, the whole match just had this storybook quality to it. Here you have two guys, at the tops of their respective games, from completely opposite backgrounds, with totally different styles of play—the lion versus the gazelle. Plus, you had the context of the French final, where Federer looked more vulnerable than he ever had before—it clearly devastated him, and he was beginning to garner real criticism about his lack of fortitude. There were two possibilities going into the match: Either he was going to have to show some balls, or Nadal was really going to dominate, just as he had at the French, and this time it would be on Federer's "home" surface.
But, on top of the mythos behind the match itself, there is just the sheer superiority of the match play. The match was so layered—starting with this huge 14-stroke rally, seesawing back and forth, and just filled with these edge-of-your-seat type points, right up to the end, where the match was literally minutes away from being called for darkness. It was evident to everyone—including Federer and Nadal—that this match was one for the ages. They both raised their games, showing unbelievable guts and a level of guile that neither had previously possessed. There was a level of psychological battle there that made it as much of a mindgame as an athletic competition.

Gelf Magazine: It must have been incredible to watch up close.

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, definitely. I have seen the tapes of the TV broadcast—I usually think that tennis is done a grave disservice being watched on TV. You miss so many of the angles and corners that make the game interesting. But even on TV, you could really see how incredible some of those shots were. Both of them just played at this really unprecedented level—over 412 total points played in the match, Nadal committed a grand total of 27 unforced errors. That's just insane, otherworldly stuff.

Gelf Magazine: So, how does this match compare for you, both to other legendary matches—the 1980 John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg Wimbledon final, for example—but also other matches that might not have been played on such a grand stage?

Jon Wertheim: I really don't think any of those matches—on any stage—really even come close. The tendency is to compare it to McEnroe-Borg, but McEnroe won the first set of that match 6-1. Every set in the Federer-Nadal final was so closely contested—neck-and-neck all the way through. Either of them, with an infinitesimal twist of fate in their direction, could easily have won that match. I also think that the visibility and relative importance of a match really does contribute to its quality. When you're playing in a Grand Slam final, you're going to bring a level of play that's necessarily higher than a first-round match played on an outer court at a small tournament.

Gelf Magazine: You talk about the character that both Nadal and Federer displayed during the match. When I think of tennis characters, I'm more likely to think of a McEnroe or an Ilie Nastase. In contrast, Federer and Nadal project an almost imperturbable detachment, both on and off the court. Are they really that innocuous, or do players just have better PR management now?

Jon Wertheim: You know, one of the interesting things about this rivalry is that, even though it is one of the hugest rivalries the sport—or any sport—has seen, there's just not the level of personal animosity that accompanies most rivalries. They really do genuinely like one another, and for fans, it's not mutually exclusive to root for both—we're not talking Red Sox/Yankees here. As for whether or not they're genuinely the friendly, nice guys they purport to be—you know, given the level of access the media has to players, I just don't think there's too much opportunity for either of them to project something false. As a member of the press, you get pretty much everyman-level access to even top players—in the locker room, walking around the grounds, and so on. They don't have huge entourages, and they're not being shielded from the public eye in the same way. People who live near Federer talked about seeing him doing his own laundry in the town—that would just never happen with most professional athletes of his caliber.

Gelf Magazine: It's like playing the sport takes up so much of their energy that they're just not going to betray major emotional engagement outside of that.

Jon Wertheim: Definitely. These guys are both really focused on their games, to the exclusion of most other things. But, you know, there's also just who they are. Nadal grew up on a small island, and his uncle [Miguel Angel Nadal] was a pro-soccer star. He really grew up with the jock code of honor about leaving it all on the field. He's the most competitive guy on the court and the most diplomatic off of it. They've got image consultants, for sure, but it's not like they are being groomed for stardom, so much as for tennis superiority. If Nadal, for example, were really being heavily coached around image and presentation, he would probably not be so infamous for the ass-picking habit.

Gelf Magazine: It's not as if there aren't "characters" at the top levels of the sport, either—look no further than Novak Djokovic's celebrated impressions of fellow tour players, including Nadal.

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, exactly—sure, these guys have definite PR management, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. You know, Nadal was furious at Djokovic's impression of him—he found it really disrespectful—but he was completely laid-back about it in ensuing press conferences, even when he was asked about it.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think—especially on the American stage, where tennis is dwindling in popularity, even as it surges in viewership abroad—that the lack of fire between Federer and Nadal makes the rivalry less compelling?

Jon Wertheim: No, not at all. I mean, look at the context—prior to Nadal's rise to the top echelons, Federer had a vise grip on the top ranking. He wasn't really playing a lot of close matches; he'd go through entire tournaments—even most tournaments—without losing a set. After the Sampras-Agassi rivalry, this was pretty much a singular reign at the top. Though it was definitely exciting to watch him take guys apart, having a real foil for him makes things much more interesting.

Gelf Magazine: Federer is clearly trying to trade on that domination—he's got a whole line of RF cosmetics and cologne, and a raft of endorsements that are netting him millions a year. His wife, Mirka Vavrinec, is seemingly the brains behind the business operations. What do you think about his attempts to create a brand behind his name, and how that relates to his public image?

Jon Wertheim: He's clearly thinking long-term about his security and options—as any athlete probably should. Mirka, as a former tennis player, definitely takes a more hands-on approach to managing his business affairs—she had a really promising career herself before she blew out her knee. She knows how to promote him in tennis circles, and seems to have a strong business sense.

Gelf Magazine: She seems to get slotted into the Yoko Ono role, though—being blamed for his fall in the standings and such.

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, that's definitely happened, although to employ a humorous turn of phrase, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated to begin with, so it doesn't seem to make sense to point fingers in any case. He might not be winning three Slams a year anymore, but he's still very much at the top of his game, and could easily win several more in the near future.

Gelf Magazine: What kinds of interviews did you do with Federer and Nadal and their respective circles for the book? Were they cooperative?

Jon Wertheim: Well, I have some degree of connection to both players, having covered them closely for many years. Federer, I think, wants to write a book someday—he wasn't really that cooperative. You can't really blame him, though, for being reticent to discuss the worst day of his life at great length, or for not wanting to give source material to a book over which he has no creative or editorial control. He definitely did not impede access in any way; he was just somewhat less forthcoming. As for Nadal—the language barrier is an issue, though his English skills are improving. Talking to his uncle [and coach/mentor] Toni Nadal was very helpful—he gave a lot of information about Rafa's growth and development as a player, his life now, and so on. He has all these kind of worldly observations that make for a great interview.

Gelf Magazine: What does the future of tennis look like, as both an athletic and a spectator venture? Will it continue to mirror soccer as a sport with surging popularity on the international stage and flagging interest stateside?

Jon Wertheim: The sport has a lot going for it, and a lot going against it at the same time. Tennis stars are getting way more attention than they used to—and the overall coverage is increasing exponentially—but the structure of the sport is not keeping pace with the rate of globalization that is happening. It used to be that top players would participate in a dozen or more tournaments in the US per year, and that most major tournaments were held here—plus, there was always a set of dominant American players. Now, you're lucky to see Federer four times a year stateside, and there are tournaments all over the world—not many fans are going to want to watch a final from Mumbai at 5 a.m., and they won't find it televised even if they do. It would be better if the tours were structured more similarly to the PGA, with regional circuits and the like. There's nothing to capitalize on national loyalty, either—the Davis Cup has been pretty ineffective in doing that. I think the internet can be a huge game-changer here, as can an on-demand viewing model. Being able to get up-to-date match coverage for a nominal fee, to be watched at leisure, will increase access to the sport and its tournaments considerably.

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, I've been keeping tabs on matches through your Twitter feed—I followed the whole Madrid final that way.

Jon Wertheim: Oh, no, don't read that. [laughs]

Gelf Magazine: It's helpful, though—short, real-time updates. In any case—can you tell me how you balance your full-time position at SI with two books in the last year? I don't know where you found time for a Twitter feed to begin with.

Jon Wertheim: Well, hey, desperate times call for desperate measures—I've got to feed my family, and there's a lot of interesting stories out there. In all seriousness, this book had 10 years of source material to support it—it wrote itself in some ways. Blood in the Cage was much more difficult, because I had no contacts or connections on the inside, and I was really learning about the sport as I went.

Gelf Magazine: Now that you've gotten through that hectic period, are you working on any future books?

Jon Wertheim: I am working on a book with a friend who is a professor at the University of Chicago, on economic indicators in sports—following trends and outcomes over time. It's still in the early going.

Gelf talked to Wertheim before Nadal lost to Federer on clay in the final of the Madrid Open. Afterwards, we asked him about the match.

Gelf Magazine: Surprisingly, Federer beat Nadal fairly soundly on clay at Madrid, thus officially rendering the Battle of Surfaces fairly meaningless. What are your thoughts about that victory and what it represents? Do you think it is a portent of a possible upset at the French, now that Fed has finally beaten Nadal on clay? Do you think it was just the semifinal against Djokovic that made Nadal look so flat against Federer, or is there something else going on?

Jon Wertheim: There's no question Federer got a big boost from the win in Madrid—who'd have thought his first title of 2009 would be against Nadal in Spain on clay? But, I think Nadal had simply played a lot of matches (maybe too many?) and just came out flat. Nadal lost a little momentum there, but he's still the king of clay until proven otherwise!

Robin Soderling dethroned the king at the French Open on Sunday. As soon as we get Wertheim's take on that result, we'll post it here.

Front-page image of Roger Federer courtesy of toga's Flickr via Creative Commons.

Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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Article by Mickey Lambert

Mickey Lambert is a sports fan and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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