A new book by Kevin Mitchell, tennis correspondent for the Guardian and Observer, follows the Big Four of men’s tennis through the 2013 season, a year in which Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal took every Grand Slam and ATP title while Roger Federer appeared to be in decline. Miles Wray gives his review.
If there is an antagonist in Break Point, Kevin Mitchell’s chronicle of the 2013 season in men’s tennis, it is Perfection. No matter how harrowing training regimens become, no matter how much scientific development is invested into the increasingly precise racquets, Perfection always manages to loom, undefeated, over even the game’s brightest stars. One of the few times that Mitchell explicitly acknowledges this shadow villain is in the book’s Acknowledgements: “Proximity to the best players in tennis – among the best athletes in sport – has reinforced my understanding that striving for perfection is a doomed but noble ambition.”
In 2013, as had been the case for some time, there were four players whose talents stood so high as to cast the remainder of the field in shadow: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal. I’ve ordered these men by last name here, but a proper attempt to order them by talent is so enormous a task that Mitchell doesn’t really try, even after a full, focused year of observation. Most of the pages in Break Point are dedicated to the matches played by these four men – just as most of the television coverage and tournament purses were distributed amongst them as well.
Perhaps cruelly, serious insiders and connoisseurs in the world of tennis only begin their appraisals of these uppermost-echelon players with wins, losses, serve speeds, statistics. Tennis’ closest watchers demand mastery of aesthetics as much, or more – no, it can’t actually be more – than they demand mastery of an opponent. While this is Mitchell’s opinion, it is reinforced by the various players-turned-pundits that he quotes at length. They bemoan the modern game’s reliance on power, muscularity, and technology – Mitchell makes the apt comparison between a professional racquet’s precisely calibrated strings and the endlessly streamlined Formula 1 car. The most modern of the four players, Djokovic, receives the sharpest indictment of his game:
Sometimes there is a mechanical feel to his [Djokovic’s] genius, with every calorie counted, every muscle stretched, no impediment left unaddressed. Repetition builds perfection, yet players who lived in less programmed times and hit as many balls over as many nets, such as [John] McEnroe and Andre Agassi, were more interesting precisely because they are not prisoners of method.
The limits of each man’s tennis ability is interpreted to be much the same as the limits of his moral character. Is Djokovic’s militaristic self-discipline a help or a hindrance once the best-laid plan is thrown out the window in the crucible of a deciding fifth set? Is Federer’s even keel a source of stability, or evidence of emotional aloofness, an unwillingness to dirty his hands even if that is what’s required to win? Does Murray show a competitor’s edge or just plain whininess? And Nadal – can he respond with something other than his trademark brute strength when a more delicate touch is called for?
Mitchell is far from alone in administering a psychological assessment to these four men. The format of tennis all but invites this type of scrutiny. Sent onto the court without the fellowship of teammates or coaches, these men are constantly locking horns with one another for three, four, five hours at a time – the racquets and fuzzy balls suddenly looking like very thin proxies for two determined spirits trying to outwit and outlast the other. One of Mitchell’s more poignant comparisons equates the tennis player’s task to that of a matador:
The longer they play at this level, the more the game’s elite players are reinforced in their faith in the dictum that tennis is a collection of small, accumulating wounds. They are matadors, slashing at their prey’s sense of comfort, making him sweat in every rally, won or lost, weakening his legs, his concentration and his will until his head drops and he is ready for the insertion of the finishing blade.
Unlike a bullfight, though, the central drama of tennis is our inability to know, as players stride onto the court, which one is the matador and which is the bull.
Elite tennis is also quite unlike a bullfight in that the competitors don eveningwear and mingle with organizers and each other at galas, dinners, and other events.
As the season and book progress together, Federer – the member of the four least undone with injuries, and who has in his career soared closest to the aesthetic ideal – loses the most matches. Federer loses so often in 2013, and to such unassuming opponents, that Break Point ends with the proposition that the Big Four may already have been winnowed down, via natural selection, to the Big Three.
There is a fastidious side to this book, but to me this seems to be a byproduct of any writing or commentary birthed from the world of this most prim sport. Mitchell has clearly watched an abundance of matches with both a sharp eye and an open mind. The thrill of Break Point is the same thrill of watching these men play tennis: it invigorates the mind just to see how near to Perfection they can get.
John Murray, 2014. 352 pp. ISBN: 9781848549302