“Strokes of Genius” by L. Jon Wertheim
Tags:Tennis, Wimbledon, Federer, Nadal, history
Published:June 1, 2009
Rating:4 1/2 of 5 stars (excellent)
Review:Mention the word “Wimbledon” and even non-tennis fans immediately know that you are talking about one of the most prestigious sporting events of the year. So when the finals pit the top two players at the time playing in a match that some consider the greatest tennis match ever played, it will take on a life of its own. L. Jon Wertheim writes about the match and that life it takes in “Strokes of Genius”, a riveting account of the 2008 Wimbledon finals between top ranked Roger Federer and second ranked Rafael Nadal.
Just a recap of the play on the court would make a terrific book. It was as even as a match could be, no matter which advanced tennis statistic one wants to use when evaluating the epic battle. While Wertheim’s recap was not a shot-by-shot account, there is plenty of description of the action on the court. He writes it in such a detailed and descriptive manner that just like when I was watching the match on TV in 2008, I was getting goose bumps reading about it even though I knew what the outcome would be. I had to take a breath and exhale after reading the passage describing Federer’s backhand shot to avoid losing in the fourth set tie-breaker. That describes how good both the match and the writing about the match were.
Wertheim mixes in plenty of information and stories on the two tennis legends as well. These stories are well researched and the knowledge he has gained as a writer of tennis at Sports Illustrated is evident. Topics such as the players trying out new rackets, how they handle media requests and their middle-to-upper class upbringing are described in equal parts humor, detail and precision, with a dash of melancholy when appropriate. Some other nuances about the game in general are also included. One of the better passages on tennis came early in the book when he writes that only in tennis do the opponents warm up with each other. Nadal and Federer warmed up for this match by hitting balls to each other. Can you imagine Mariano Rivera throwing batting practice to David Ortiz? Or Tony Romo throwing warm-up passes to Victor Cruz?
These stories are mixed into the play by play of the match at various points and this is the only downfall of the book. At times, these seemed to hamper the flow of reading the book. The best analogy to describe them is that they felt like excellent commercials you enjoy during breaks in the telecast of the match. I liked reading them, but would have preferred that they come at the beginning or end of chapters, not in the middle after reading about a fantastic Nadal serve or Federer return.
Overall, this is an excellent book that any sports fan will enjoy. This was a match that does become one of those “Where were you when” questions. Reading it will help one relive those great memories.
Did I skim?No
Pace of the book:Good, despite the switching back and forth between topics.
Positives:Many, but the best is the rich prose and style of writing. Wertheim paints a picture on each topic, from the game itself to Nadal’s lifestyle (relatively simple for a sports superstar). This was the first book I read by him, although I have read many of his articles in Sports Illustrated and he is an excellent author.
Negatives:Only the placement of stories and information on the players and the game. That was covered in the review. Otherwise, there were no negatives in this book.
Do I recommend?Yes, especially for tennis fans. I do think, however, that just like the match, this book would attract non-tennis fans for the excellent storytelling and recap of a historic event.