Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: “Strokes of Genius”

I want Jon Wertheim’s job. I say this unabashedly. Outside of being a psychologist (which I value highly), I can think of fewer careers that would be more satisfying than being able to watch tennis day and night and then turn around and get paid for giving my opinions about what I just saw. Dude has the best gig going.

Ever so often Wertheim puts out a book. Sometimes the subject is tennis. Some years ago it was “Venus Envy”, which described as a “candid tell-all account of a year spent following the superstars and also-rans on the WTA Tour, from the 2000 Australian Open to the 2000 U.S. Open.”

I purchased “Venus Envy” shortly after its release. It read like stale gossip. You know like when you find an old version of “In Touch” magazine at the hairdresser with the cover title screaming “Brangelina’s first pregnancy!” Six kids later, that is stale news. “Venus Envy” read like light fluff with a past due shelf life. 

Wertheim doesn’t only write about tennis. He has written about basketball, gambling, and mixed martial arts. Really, it’s almost fair to call him a sports writing slut. I don’t particularly admire this only because tennis has my single-minded writing interest and I would have preferred it to have also been his. In my opinion, there are so many fascinating tennis stories worth writing about that I do not understand his dilettante-like dabbling.

Perhaps unfairly therefore, I decided that I was not going to pay for “Strokes of Genius” but would wait for it to show up on the shelves of my favorite library. After all, I had already contributed to Wertheim‘s bank balance with my purchase of “Venus Envy”. This time I would wait.

Strokes of Genius” opens with a reference to pigeon shit. Apparently pigeons used to shit all over Centre Court at Wimbledon. So in 2008, the All England Club enlisted the services of a hawk to slaughter the pigeons and thereby get rid of the pooping problem. Wertheim introduces this as an analogy to the match between Rafa and Rogi. I assumed that Rafa was the hawk and Rogi the shitting pigeon. I took immediate offense.

Jon Wertheim loves his metaphors. A zit on Federer’s face is interpreted as analogous to his pock-marked season. Rogi and Fed are compared to magnets on opposite sides of the draw, destined to converge (which magnets don’t always do -- they can just as easily repel each other, but I am being picky). Nadal’s contingent of supporters are compared to whack-a-moles. The sight of grounds men handling a rain delay is compared to a Kabuki ritual. The versatility of Federer’s forehand is likened to the Eskimo’s nineteen different words for snow. After losing the match, Federer walks off the court with his head bowed like a man caught in the rain without an umbrella. You get the picture.

Wertheim gives us a set by set breakdown of the match. This is an expected format. But one of the problems with the book is the constant cutaways from the match itself. So as Nadal prepares to serve in the fourth game of the first set, we are treated to a cutaway on his tendency to pick his ass. As Federer prepares to follow serve, Wertheim notes that he has not yet served and volleyed, which leads to a cutaway about this typical grass court technique, which leads to a cutaway about the nature of the grass at Wimbledon, and, I swear, a comment on the impact of global warming.

I get that Wertheim needed to do this because there is no way you can fill 200 plus pages by writing only about the match itself. But the cutaways are not always smooth. In fact, too often you can see the setup coming from a mile away. I don’t know who his editor was but I can’t say that I was impressed with their work. Also missing is a sense of closeness to either of his subjects. There is no intimate access. This book could just as easily have been written by your average blogger jumping to clichéd conclusions.

From time to time we are also treated to discourses from Wertheim the shrink. In set two, he forages into Federer’s childhood and does his best to emphasize the normalness of it. How this same Federer turned into the dandy dressed by Anna Wintour and controlled by Mirka is not made clear. Wertheim delves into Nadal’s equally normal childhood in set four, where he also throws in a mention or two about the whispers regarding Nadal’s alleged drug use, and also tosses in quotes about Marion Jones’ blatant lies. More cutaways. More fillers. After all, it’s a book about a five-set match that ended in darkness. There’s only so many pages one can fill with just the tennis.

Do I recommend this book? Yes I do, for shut-ins who don’t watch any tennis on TV. If you’re like me and addicted to the sport, there’s nothing that the book has to say that is particularly original or earth-shattering. There’s certainly no unique insight that readers cannot arrive at for themselves just from watching the match. What I recommend instead is for viewers to look for the repeats of this match on the Tennis Channel. It is worth watching a second or third time.


Karen said...

As a Roger Federer fan, this match never happened. Just as how the French Open never happened. He won the French and Wimbledon 2009. That is my view on the whole shebang - LOL

tennischick said...

LOL. Bad memories deserve to be erased. And not just erased but permanently deleted! LOL

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