Sports

The Master serves up a delightful volley of insights

Kamesh Srinivasan | Updated on October 07, 2021

Christopher Clarey’s gripping book on Roger Federer is episodic, interpretative, built around places, people and duels

When Marat Safin saved a match point to beat Roger Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open, on way to the title in 2005, the volatile Russian had beaten qualifier Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 in the first round. Despite that chastening experience in his maiden appearance in the big league, Djokovic reached the Top 100 in world rankings that year, was in the Top 20 within a year and was No.3 behind Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2007.

But while the Russian retired with two Grand Slam titles at the age of just 29, Djokovic looks good for many more, after matching both Federer and Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles this season, and as for the Swiss player, even at 40, he is still serving aces on the court.

Why did Safin, a genuinely cutting edge talent – who could have taken his place in a three-way rivalry with Federer and Nadal - burn out so fast and how did Federer manage to remain at the top of his game for so long?

Gripping read on an amazing career

You get all that and more in The Master, a gripping read on the amazing career of Roger Federer. Putting world tennis in perspective, and providing an intimate insight into the world of Federer, New York Times correspondent Christopher Clarey’s book is sure to delight not only tennis enthusiasts, but sports fans around the globe.

What’s especially good about the book is that while trying to understand Federer, the author has also brilliantly captured the life of many other champions – such as Safin.

In these days of ready availability of videos of almost all the pulsating moments in sports, Clarey with his 30-odd years of experience in reporting the best of sports around the world, has succeeded in extracting the essence of Federer’s career in a book that is by his own admission, not an encyclopedia, but “episodic, interpretative, built around places, people and duels’’.

The most memorable duels that Federer took part in certainly come alive in the book. For most of us, who woke up past midnight to watch Federer pulverize Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6(3), 6-0 in the US Open final in 2004, there is plenty of appropriate recall of the many defining moments in Federer’s career - the exhilarating wins and the heart-breaking losses.

“I haven’t seen a player play that well in my life,” Hewitt, a former world No.1 who had won two Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon before he was 22, had said then. The Aussie had an 8-2 win-loss record over Federer at that time, which became 10-18 by the end of his career.

What makes Federer tick

Clarey has covered Federer right from his Grand Slam debut at the French Open in 1999, and interviewed him over 20 times over the years. But he has gone beyond these interactions and done a superb job in analysing what makes Federer tick by talking to more than 80 people, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Marc Rosset, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, the parents of Federer, many coaches right from Federer’s childhood, and other members of the support staff, to help us understand the most famous Swiss and his tennis from many angles.

For young aspirants, there are plenty of important take-aways, as the author takes us back to a young Federer who showed loads of talent, but had all the faults of temperament that destroyed many a career – including that of Safin.

It is fascinating to read how Federer was disciplined for throwing his racquet that damaged a costly back screen, by being asked to wake up early in winter to clean the courts and toilets for a week. A sports psychologist was also drafted in early in Federer’s career to help him channelise his negative energy for a positive purpose.

Federer grew up on clay and ‘lightning quick’ indoor courts in laying the foundations for a dream career, in which he has earned more than $1 billion, with prize money accounting for only about $130 million. This despite Federer underselling himself for many years, when he was earning less than half of Maria Sharapova’s $20 million in a season.

Direct interaction with Federer

You need to read this book, which is quite racy, to really understand what all went into shaping this sensitive and brilliant tennis player into an all-time great. Despite the many biographies, this book offers tons of original content, thanks to the author’s direct interaction with Federer and access to all other prominent characters of his time. You get insights into how Federer has kept himself fresh mentally despite all the demands on his time.

The way Federer tackled Djokovic in the Wimbledon final of 2019 is still fresh in memory, even though the Swiss with South African roots, blew away two match points.

The author sums up the match nicely. Federer hit 91 winners to 54 by Djokovic, hit 25 aces to 10 by the Serb, converted seven break points to three, and won 218 points to 204 by his opponent.

Djokovic won the critical points, in the longest final in Wimbledon history that spanned four hours and 57 minutes, for a 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) victory.

‘’It was one shot. Don’t know which one. Your choice. I feel it is an incredible opportunity missed,’’ Federer said.

There was no such chance when Hubert Hurkacz of Poland outclassed Federer 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-0 in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon this year. He has not played another match. The 40-year-old Federer had to undergo another knee surgery, miss the Tokyo Olympics and the rest of the season.

Even as the future looks uncertain, Federer, who has been travelling with his four children, wife, coaches, trainers and support staff, has maintained, ‘’I never fell out of love with the sport.”

The book has no introduction, nor does it have any contents page. The chapters begin with a dateline of places like Tigre, Argentina; Ecublens, Switzerland; Wimbledon, Paris, Dubai, etc. You pick up any chapter for a fascinating read, but it is impossible to miss even a sentence, as the author packs so much in the 400-odd pages. And while the tennis predominates, you get glimpses of his family life and other influences as well.

If you read the first two pages, you will be hooked to the book, till you reach the last word!

The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer

Christopher Clarey

John Murray Press / Hachette India

421 pages; Rs 799 (paperback)

Check out the book on Amazon

Kamesh Srinivasan is Deputy Editor at The Hindu and has been covering sports for three decades

Published on October 06, 2021

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