Roger Federer

Roger Federer: Portrait of an Artist by Christopher Jackson – A Review

Introduction

federer-jackson

Christopher Jackson’s book, ‘Roger Federer: Portrait of an Artist’, is not the kind of book you’d read if, as a Federer fan, you wish to learn something new about Fed’s life or the ATP tour. Rather, it is an attempt to explain the cultural significance of the great man and, more broadly, of sport and its appeal. With a philosophical bent, it will not be to everyone’s taste; indeed, there is a chapter on the history of aesthetics which could be criticised for moving too far away from the subject of the book’s title, to the extent that one wonders whether Jackson wished to force an old university essay about the history of art into a book about a tennis player. On the other hand, such explorations can be interpreted as an attempt to broaden the significance of Federer, to not limit the book’s focus to a biography of the Swiss, but, rather, to place him in a far-reaching cultural and philosophical context and, thereby, to argue that Federer embodies universal values and might even, to some extent, be the summation of them.

Summary of the Book

The fact that this book is not a biography of Federer entails that its focus is not the man but an idea of the man. This idea is explored through six short chapters, each entitled, ‘Federer and X’, where X refers, in order, to ‘History’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Morality’, ‘Power’, ‘Time’, and ‘Meaning’. These chapters set out a number of themes, the most interesting of which (in my view) will be summarised below, but in terms of the idea of Federer, I think that two main conceptions are presented: Federer as an artist whose medium is tennis; and Federer as the commercial brand and darling of the corporates, who, through his sporting successes, has come into possession of great wealth, influence and power. Jackson argues that these two identities do not always sit comfortably together, but that, on the whole, Federer has managed to make them cohere, thereby giving the sense that his life is complete. The fact that very little is mentioned about Federer’s family life in the book (where both Marx and Freud believed that that is one of two pillars on which the modern identity is built [the other being our work]) underscores the idea that the author is focusing on selective conceptions of Federer and not the real, living individual.

What is it about these conceptions of Federer that has led him to be endowed with such cultural significance, in Jackson’s view? In answering this question, the author chooses to challenge a tradition in Western culture where games (and the body) are denigrated in favour of spiritual and/or intellectual pursuits. The ancient Greeks and the men of the Renaissance defied this tradition, and Jackson applauds this, but given the prevalence of sport and its myriad fans in the modern world, one wonders whether he has chosen a straw man to challenge (despite the ability of sport’s opponents to appeal to the generally inane nature of sports commentary, which, Jackson argues, derives from a cultural fragmentation which promotes division between the intellectual and sporting spheres, amongst others – this being a motif in philosophy since Schiller, in particular). This aside, using Christopher Hitchens and other such intellectuals as a foil enables him to present his thesis on the value and appeal of sport, in general, and of Federer, in particular, as one of sport’s greatest exponents.

Three main arguments for the value and appeal of sport are presented by Jackson. The first focuses on the importance in itself of kinetic beauty, which, according to the author, eluded the artistic strivings of the ancient Egyptians and, to a lesser extent, the ancient Greeks; was realised in the Renaissance and in Neo-Paganism; was subsequently lost in Baroque art, Impressionism, Cubism, and other 20th century artistic movements; and which has now largely been bifurcated into movement, on the one hand (explaining, in part, our interest in sports), and beauty, on the other (explaining, in part, our interest in celebrity), but which does find a unified expression in the tennis of Federer – hence the latter’s great appeal. I will not explore this argument, but will simply raise the question of whether we should consider the Swiss as a sportsman first and foremost, and, indeed, whether it helps our understanding of him to categorise him as an artist at all?

The second argument refers to Jonathan Swift’s idea that sport is a substitute for warfare, and is therefore an expression of the success of civilisation with all of its trappings, such as decency, friendship, cooperation and even romance – all of which can be, and have been, witnessed on the professional tennis circuit, Jackson avers. Nevertheless, the view of sport as a morally neutral contest to be enjoyed by the civilised spectator and participant is, to some extent, a normative ideal, for Jackson argues that fans can have a tendency to revert to warfare mode and to create heroes and villains where there are none. The allure of Federer, he maintains, in part derives from the fact that his fans see him as morally better than, say, Nadal on account of his more beautiful tennis. The implicit philosophical assumption, inherited from Plato, is that ‘the beautiful is good, and the good beautiful’ (i.e. that Federer’s game doesn’t only make him a better player than Nadal but also a better man). Jackson believes that this assumption is false, and claims that, throughout his long career, Federer has occasionally been prone to petulance in defeat whilst Nadal has reacted with philosophical resolve.  This said, in keeping with this second argument for the value of sport, Jackson does believe that, on the whole, the Swiss has conducted himself in a sporting way, with decency and decorum.

The third main argument is that sport is a means of escaping a chaotic, complex, fragmented and often violent world. Furthermore, Jackson argues, with the collapse of ‘religion, class and local life’, the love of a team or an individual – and Federer is the beloved sporting superstar par excellence – can give a structure, orientation and coherence to our lives, which the traditional social supports often fail to do. Furthermore, building on his claim that sporting contests are, and ought to be seen as, morally neutral and immune to the kind of life and death struggles whose existential seriousness impels human beings to find a moral meaning for them, Jackson believes that the experience of sport can enable us to return to an original innocence whereby we can experience the joy and splendour of the games without suffering true despair when our team or player loses. He likens this experience to an Eden-type state, in which we can exercise our human capacity for leisure and lead a more complete life for it. Furthermore, and again in line with the paradisiacal state before the Fall of Man, he argues that absorption in the sporting spectacle enables us to (temporarily) relieve ourselves from the consciousness of our own mortality and inevitable demise.

Here, then, are three arguments put forward in defence of sport as a cultural phenomenon: sport as kinetic beauty; as civilisation; and as escape from our cultural and existential predicaments; and Jackson sees Federer as delivering us with all of these goods, hence his cultural significance (bolstered by his wealth, power, influence, and global recognition). However, drawing on the famous essay by David Foster Wallace, Jackson argues that the meaning of Federer’s tennis is to be found in those ‘Federer moments’ where the Swiss has executed shots or patterns of play which defy his audience’s belief. It is these moments, Jackson claims, that draw our attention to the minutiae – the figurative microscopic details of movement and play – which, in turn, enables us to gain a deeper appreciation of reality as we penetrate the veil of beauty and observe beneath it the actual structures of life. These ‘moments’ are Federer’s gifts to us, they are rare, and, related, they are a reminder of the transience and eventual demise of all human endeavours. They will last longer than the ageing physical player (whose longevity, Jackson believes, is a product of psychological, technical, and artistic factors), but their beauty – according to Jackson’s thesis – is intrinsically linked to their essentially fragile and finite nature. Whether this is a philosophically sound argument is outside the scope of this review.

Evaluation of the Book

In so far as Jackson’s book is considered as an argument, it stands or falls on the strength of its explanations for the Federer phenomenon. One theme that I’ve deliberately not focused on much above is the power that Federer’s wealth, status, and celebrity have brought. He is a brand, and he and his team have been adept at transforming and promoting (and protecting) his image. Such PR can, and arguably has, contributed greatly to Federer’s cultural significance. Certainly, the fact that he is an extraordinarily gifted and successful tennis player has enabled his PR machine to succeed to a degree to which the PR machines of lesser celebs have not. But this does not alter the fact that these latter machines can be very effective.

In short, in order to explain the cultural significance of Federer, do we need to refer to anything more than his extraordinary talent and his stellar PR (which might include his own articulate, multi-lingual abilities)? Philosophy can illuminate the true feelings and motivations of people, which had been inchoate or hidden to them, and it might be the case that Jackson’s does. However, I will end this review by asking Federer fans to ask themselves whether their fanaticism is motivated by any of the following explanations that can be detected in Jackson’s book, and, if so, to what extent:

  • The beauty of Federer’s graceful game.
  • The desire to more deeply appreciate the actual structures of life as expressed through ‘Federer moments’.
  • The idea that Federer is morally superior and noble.
  • The idea that Federer is, in some sense, heroic.
  • The desire to escape from a complex, difficult and sometimes threatening and confusing reality into a simple world where your identity is stable and coherent and allegiances clear.
  • The desire to escape from such a reality into a realm of innocence.
  • The desire to escape from such a reality into a realm of leisure.
  • The desire to escape from a consciousness of your own mortality and inevitable death.

For my part, only one of the above underpins my fandom, and it is the first on the list, but there are others which are not listed.

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Rhodri

Massive Fedfan - definitely obsessive and probably verging on the neurotic (according to my shrink). Prolific swearer on Twitter, mainly when Fed appears to be losing or when Djokovic looks like a threat to Fed’s records. Studied political philosophy for ages, but my tutors were unanimous that my greatest skill lay in drinking beer. They weren’t wrong.

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23 thoughts on “Roger Federer: Portrait of an Artist by Christopher Jackson – A Review”

  1. Roger Federer…just like Mary Poppins…..nearly peRFect in every way!
    So much to learn from the man about life in general.

  2. Nice write up Rhodri! I am mid read, thoroughly enjoying it. However, for me it is essentially very simple. The aesthetics of Rogers game outweigh every those of every player I hv ever watched( and that’s a lot) . I don’t think he’s morally superior or that it helps me escape the worlds problems. I just love to watch him play. We all know Rog likes the idea early on of playing a perfect game, executing shots perfectly. That has always driven him, as well as a deep love for the game. I hv always called him just a boy with his racquet and ball. He still is.
    We also all know that making the difficult look simple takes hours and hours and hours of practice, this applies to all the arts and to many sports. He is clearly helped with a perfect physique, an almost balletic strength and grace, and extraordinary hand to eye coordination.
    I don’t consider Nadal to hv worked any less but his game does not give me the same pleasure. End of.

    I do however think that the narrative has changed because of his age and the fact that these attributes now have a poignancy attached as the sand runs out. This has lifted some commentaries to near hysteria which is both irritating and unnecessary. Take the emotion out of it, and he is a beautiful tennis player, and we are fortunate enough to witness it.

    1. Thanks, Susie. I agree with you entirely! I attempted to distill the book’s central arguments into the most compact form I could (the book itself is more winding and free-flowing, contains some tennis anecdotes, and is probably an easier read than my summary!) so that they could be set out for evaluation. I found most of them unconvincing, but I nevertheless found them interesting and the book worth reading…

  3. I enjoy reading your review Rhodri. The writer has some points but without reading the book overall I’m left with the feeling that he was trying to articulate his views by attaching them with Federer. A bit deliberate.

    To me certainly the first point always underpins my fandom: Feds graceful and beautiful game, also how the shots he makes sometimes completely defies physics it seems, humanly impossible. I’m an atheist but to me Fed can indeed walk on water. He’s above us. Yet in the meantime he’s such a down to earth guy, family man just like all of us. I guess that fact provides some sort of assurance that “all is good”.

    Finally not really a Federer factor but personally I do find following sports gives some sorts of sense of stability and innocence in today’s increasingly complex, hypocritical and power chasing world. Hence I always feel very strongly about doping, allegations of cover ups and incompetence of authorities. At the end of the day sports structures and institutions are it above our human world. Quite sad.

    1. Thanks, April. It would be nice if the sporting sphere were a domain of innocence, ‘beyond good and evil’. But when external goods such as money and power are linked to a practice or institution (and they generally have to be in order to sustain that practice or institution), the threat of corruption arises, and the goods internal to that practice are compromised. I think there’s a case for silent bans being very noisy instead!

  4. Am going to buy and read this book, thanks to your well-analysed review, Rhodri. Here in India, Federer as a brand is not very relevant, because he’s not shown promoting brands on TV. So, for me it’s always about the “beauty of his graceful game” and also about his “heroism ” in not giving up when things don’t go right but to try and keep making changes. That’s a huge life lesson from Federer’s life that I take away (and so it seems do many other tennis players).

    1. Thanks, Sucharita. I don’t think we see Federer’s advertising much in the UK (although, to be fair, I stopped reading newspapers years ago) but you can’t escape it on the internet, particularly if you’re a Fedfan on twitter! However, like you, I see that as quite secondary to the man on the court, wherein he fulfils his true destiny!

    2. He’s picked his brand allegiances quite well too, not just signing any sort of deal or endorsing every product going so never came across as a sell out…

  5. Thank you for a fascinating piece. I came away from your review with the impression that the author began with a thesis and used Federer as a way of exploring his ideas, rather than beginning with Federer and going from there.

    Your question about why we are fans of Fed is an interesting one. His beautiful game is part of his appeal for me, I tend to favour sports such as figure skating and diving that have a strong aesthetic aspect. But more than that, it is the simple enjoyment of watching someone who is truly excellent at what he does. For me, watching tennis is partly for escape, for the same reason I enjoy mystery novels. I think we all need a respite from our daily lives and following tennis in a serious way, not just watching tennis but reading about it, discussing it, and occasionally writing about tennis provides that. And although I don’t see Roger as a heroic figure, he is someone we can admire for his personal qualities as well as he amazing tennis.

    1. Thanks for your reply and for setting out your reasons for being a Fedfan. It is possible that the author began with a desire to justify the value of sport against those high-minded opponents of it. This said, though, the book was dedicated to his mother who is described as a longstanding Wimbledon fan, and it is indicated that the author is a Federer fan. Alas, we’re also told that his sister supports Nadal. Clearly, the black sheep….!

  6. Hi again Rhodri. I emailed Chris and he has read your review!!!!!!! he is clearly grateful and interested. He asks that anyone who reads the book post a review on Amazon… you see marketing always present! 😉

    1. Thanks, Susie! For an Amazon review, I’ll post a link to my review for maximum self-promotion and to help Jonathan in his quest to become a dot com millionaire. 😉

  7. Bit late to comment here as I’ve been down with flu. Thanks for the captivating post, Rhodri. The Federer phenomenon – I like that!

    Haven’t people (including writers and fans) already run out of the ideas and the words describing how great our Roger is? 😆 For me it was ‘love-at-first-sight’ really. His beautiful game hit me like a bomb. So everything else about him (except his hair 😬 ) is secondary or icing on the cake. I still would be his fan and love to watch even he was far from as great as he actually is as person or what he has achieved.

    What’s the best book out there or ‘a must’ about Fed in your opinion?

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