There's some debate on this, but many, many fans, journalist, and writers agree that John McPhee's 1969 book, Levels of the Game, is the greatest sports book ever written. Using an extremely intimate and carefully paced narrative style, McPhee recounts a deceptively important tennis match: a semifinal at the 1968 U.S. Open between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner.
What gave Levels of the Game its enduring oomph was that it dealt not just with the intricacies of the match itself -- its psychological, emotional, and athletic give-and-take (Ashe eventually won, and then won the '68 Open, the last amateur to do so) -- but also with the changing story of American life. On one side of the net, you had Ashe, who represented the cool, youthful, post-civil-rights sports hero, coming of age in an America that was becoming more liberal, in every sense. On the other side, you had Graebner, a terrific player but also an establishment figure. Republican. Solid. Suspicious of Ashe and his mercurial talent, but respectful of the black man's prodigious skills.
A lot of sports books have been written since, but no one has ever really captured Levels of the Games' distinctive mix of politics, personality, and the thrill of competition (the book originally appeared as a long essay in The New Yorker magazine). However, last year's epic Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal provided many sports fans with the opportunity to label that match -- which Nadal won in a extended fifth set, in the English summer gloaming -- the greatest ever played. John McEnroe was among them, and he had played in the previous greatest match ever, the 1980 Wimbledon final that he lost to Bjorn Borg.
So was Sport Illustrated's L. Jon Wertheim, who has just published an unapologetically McPhee-esque book about the Federer-Nadal match, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played. Wertheim covers tennis regularly, but he's also attracted to sports on the fringes of everyday life; his previous two books were about a pool hustler and mixedmartial arts fighter. By tackling Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon '08, he's come back to the mainstream.
Obviously, this isn't the late 1960s, so the social, cultural, and political dynamics that were affecting America then aren't present in Wertheim's story. Additionally, the match took place in England, and was played between a Swiss and a Spaniard. So it isn't the tale of chaotic, challenging change. Instead, it's an analysis of the contemporary athlete in the postmodern context. It's an analysis of what it's like to compete on a grand stage, for millions, in front of the global audience, and still be a tennis player, striking a ball back forth on slippery grass, across a simple net, keeping the shots between the lines. Doing craft while simultaneously chasing brilliance and reinventing history.
The match is now viewed as a zenith for Nadal, who had defeated Federer three times in a row at the French Open, which precedes Wimbledon by a few weeks. Nadal, however, had lost to Federer in the two previous Wimbledon finals. So unlike Levels of the Game, which presented two players who were good, but in Ashe's case not yet great, and in Graebner's case, never a top-flight player, Strokes of Genius gives us indisputably the two finest players in the world, at the game's greatest venue. (And we won't see a replay this year -- which is probably fitting -- as Nadal withdrew from the tournament, citing injury.)
In many ways, Wertheim's take on the final pits the gentleman-artist against the force of nature. Federer is a portrayed as a modest cosmopolitan from a well-mannered European nation who just happens to have a ungodly ability to play superlative tennis. Nadal is shown as a family-oriented powerhouse who stormed Federer's dominance, almost punishing the Swiss' elegance with blunt, physical capability and a will to win. And everyone knows the outcome of the '08 final now: as darkness fell and the tiebreakerless fifth set stretched on, Nadal showed himself to have become a vastly improved grass-court player, Federer gradually lost his passion to continue, and in the end the Swiss relinquished his crown and with it, a bit of his soul. (Although he got some of it back at this year's French, when he finally won on the red clay.)
As Wertheim recounts this eventuality, he delves into all sorts of intriguing minutia, shifting back and forth between the action on court and the quieter drama that defines the existence of high-level modern jocks. He explains the differences between Federer and Nadal's rackets. He introduces us to Federer's essential relationship with his then-girlfriend, now wife and manager, as well as to Nadal's connection with his uncle, who's also his coach. He even offers perspective on why Federer has more...um, body hair than Nadal (suffice it to say that McPhee never had to deal with athletes and the question of "manscaping").
It's ultimately a dual portrait of pure execution, the type of mythical contest that shouldn't have a loser, but somehow must. But it's also a window into what it means to be a great competitor in the early 21st century, in a sports environment that barely resembles the world that McPhee inhabited. You wouldn't think it could be done, taking Levels of the Game and using it to make something equally compelling. But Wertheim has, and that's his personal triumph.