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Strokes of Genius: Wertheim's Nadal Vs. Federer Book Now Available

May 27, 2009 05:18 PM
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal represent the most dynamic rivalry not just in tennis but in all of contemporary sport, and their epic 2008 Wimbledon final match set a new standard for tennis excellence. From a unique inside vantage point, one of America’s best tennis writers, L. Jon Wertheim, provides a riveting and provocative account of this rivalry through the prism of that defining contest: Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played.

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 a 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 the portrait of a rivalry as dramatic as that of Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus, and McEnroe-Borg.

Click to order the book.

L. JON WERTHEIM is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of five books, including Blood in the Cage, a chronicle of the rise of mixed martial arts, and Running the Table, about a bipolar pool hustler named Kid Delicious, which has been optioned for film by Tom Hanks’s Playtone and is currently in development. His work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing numerous times.

Advance Praise for STROKES OF GENIUS
“Imagine a world heavyweight championship fight in a cathedral. Jon Wertheim brings one back to nail-biting-life in Strokes of Genius. His stirring blow-by-blow (and behind the scenes) account of the 2008 collision of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal in the tennis temple Wimbledon’s Centre Court illuminates a kingdom changing hands. An engrossing book, Nadal over Federer overseen by Wertheim make an unforgettable trio.” Bud Collins

A Conversation with Jon Wertheim about STROKES OF GENIUS

Why did you choose to base your book on this particular match?
I had designs of writing a book about Federer, trying to explain both his genius and his almost jarringly “normal” personality. Here was “the Tiger Woods of tennis,” and so little had been written about him. Then, the first Sunday in July, I had the good fortune of sitting a few rows behind the baseline for the Wimbledon final, undoubtedly the most gripping sporting event I had ever attended. The match hadn’t ended yet, and I knew I had to change the book to encapsulate both the rivalry with Nadal and this magical match.

How does this rivalry compare with other tennis rivalries, McEnroe-Borg in particular?
Put it this way: Borg and McEnroe played fourteen times. Federer and Nadal have already played nineteen matches. But beyond that, the contrasts are striking. Lefty versus righty. Will versus grace. Cleanliness versus grit. The fallout from the rivalry is fascinating insofar as it has clearly wounded Federer and exhilarated Nadal. On top of that, there’s this curious dimension: as different as they are, they’re both thoroughly decent people. This is the rare rivalry that doesn’t really polarize fans because neither is remotely villainous.

What do you make of the current state of affairs — that is, Nadal clearly inheriting the throne and Federer in an apparent state of decline?
As I put it in the book, in considering Federer you’d be hard pressed to find an athlete with a bigger gap between his physical gifts and his mental toughness. Tiger? Jordan? Kobe? Roger Clemens? Serena Williams? Nadal, for that matter? They’re exceptional athletes but there’s also that overlay of badass. We call them “assassins” and “warriors” and “killers” and “street fighters.” No one, to my knowledge, has ever called Federer an “assassin.” Quite the contrary. He’s a preposterously talented guy who lacks a real “athlete mentality.” To some, it cuts against his legacy. We want our idols to be convinced of their invincibility. In a perverse way, I think Federer’s self-doubt — and his adverse reaction to Nadal — makes his accomplishments all the more impressive because we now know they were almost entirely the product of sheer physical genius.

As for Nadal, he is the classic warrior, and as such is charged by the notion of defeating a rival. He is almost absurdly deferential toward Federer. But don’t be fooled. He knows the stakes and knows what it means when he so routinely beats the player many consider the greatest ever.

Whose was the most candid interview you did for the book?
I would have to say Nadal’s uncle, Toni Nadal. When we hear that a family member is coaching an athlete, we often reflexively roll our eyes and assume the kin is either living vicariously or is unable to cut the proverbial cord. In the case of “Uncle Toni,” he’s really the brains behind the Nadal operation, a thoughtful, if eccentric, tennis geek who knows precisely how to motivate his nephew and how to maximize his game. For a variety of reasons — the language barrier being the most obvious — he isn’t portrayed as the sort of “tennis Yoda” he is.

If he continues to win at this clip, do you think Nadal can break through to the mainstream American sports fan?
Tennis’ greatest asset is also its greatest liability: its international nature. The sport is followed everywhere, and the circuit threads its way from Memphis to Mumbai. The good news: a top player like Nadal is truly a global icon. The drawback: it can be hard to penetrate a single market. Nadal might play only three or four events in the United States in a given year; compare this to golf, where Tiger Woods can go months without leaving the country. That said, there’s so much to like about Nadal, so if he continues winning, more and more people will appreciate him. How can they not?




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