Behind The Writing Of ‘The Master: The Long Run And Beautiful Game Of Roger Federer’

Christopher Clarey (photo: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)

WASHINGTON, August 25, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer is the story of Roger Federer’s life and the longevity of his brilliant career, told on both an intimate and grand scale by New York Times tennis correspondent extraordinaire Christopher Clarey – and it’s done in a way that no one else could possibly tell it.

The process of writing the book ‘The Master’ that Clarey undertook is not unlike his job of being tennis correspondent for the New York Times. After all, Clarey levereged his 30 years of covering global sports for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, where he was chief sports correspondent and a longtime columnist. Clarey, who covered his first Grand Slam tournament in 1990 at Wimbledon, is one of the world’s leading authorities on tennis – an award-winning journalist who isn’t afraid to communicate honestly and critically. He’s traveled in and reported from more than 70 countries and six continents.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer (Photo courtesy of Hachette Book Group)

Clarey has covered Roger Federer since the beginning of his pro days, and witnessed the Swiss superstar’s first Grand Slam main draw match – on Court Suzanne-Lenglen at the French Open in 1999 – long before he became a tennis icon.

Throughout the book’s 421 pages (published Tuesday in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands by Twelve/Hachette Book Group), Clarey follows Federer’s long, rich and rewarding career across the globe, from South Africa and South America to the Middle East and in Federer’s native Switzerland. He’s witnessed all of Federer’s 20 major titles at all four Grand Slam venues and been there for his biggest victories and most crushing defeats.

“I have followed Federer on six continents; interviewed him more than twenty times over twenty years for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Our meetings have taken place everywhere from a private plane to a backcourt at Wimbledon to Times Square to Alpine restaurants in Switzerland to a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris with a ridiculously good view of the Place de la Concorde while his future wife, Mirka Vavrinec, tried on designer clothes.

“One habit that separates Federer from most other elite athletes I have encountered is that he will ask you first and not in a perfunctory manner: inquiring about your own journey to this particular place, your own perceptions of the tournament, the country, the people,” Clarey writes in ‘The Master.’

“‘The reason Roger is so interesting is because he’s so interested,’ Paul Annacone, his former coach, once told me.”

Clarey relied upon more than 20 exclusive interviews he’s enjoyed with the former World No. 1 Federer over the years to tell the story of one of the greatest tennis players and defining athletes of our time with keen insights from many who are closest to him. In ‘The Master,’ Clarey conducted interviews specifically for the book with the likes of Federer’s support team: his wife, Mirka; his childhood coach, the late Peter Carter; and his longtime fitness trainer and confidant Pierre Paganini, all who have been fundamental to Federer’s success.

Federer: From temperamental teen to elegant shot maker

We see and learn how Federer has changed over the years – from a temperamental teenager with the bleach-blond ponytailed hair who had difficulty losing to being put on a lofty pedestal thanks to his self-possessed manner, elegant shotmaking and competitive instincts.

Over the decades, Federer has shared his gift of polished athleticism and made it look easy – gliding about Wimbledon’s Centre Court like a dapper and handsome Fred Astaire on a dance floor – even when it always wasn’t. After Federer learned to manage his temper and expectations – and became a Zen master on the tennis court – he became composed and took his game to a totally different level. His career took off and he began to win major titles. Now, there’s always the friendly smile and gentle demeanor that transcends Federer’s ability to easily communicate with fans and media in multiple languages of English, Swiss-German and French. After all, as Federer told Clarey, “I consider myself really like a regular guy with a fascinating life as a tennis player.”

Clarey writes of Federer: “‘We are sort of returning guests at most of the cities and tournaments, and we’ve also created a lot of friends around the world,’ he said. ‘It’s that home-away-from-home feeling. I’m able to reproduce that quite easily now, especially now with the kids. I want to keep reproducing that for them so they always feel comfortable everywhere we go.'”

The author continues: “Federer’s curiosity – be it polite or from the heart – sets the tone for a conversation rather than a structured interview. It is disarming, although that does not seem to be his intent. What it creates, most of all, is an air of normalcy amid the extraordinary, and that is something Federer projects very intentionally. Federer can handle being on a pedestal (he has had lots of practice), but he often emphasizes that he is happier seeing eye-to-eye. His mother, Lynette, might well have passed this on. When someone hears her surname or a shopkeeper sees it on her credit card and asked is she is related to ‘that’ Federer, she answers in the affirmative but then quickly shifts the focus by inquiring if they have children of their own.”

Federer: Mastering both himself and the game of tennis

As Clarey points out, Federer not only was able to master himself but also the game of tennis. It extended to Federer’s business career as well, where despite coming from a small but wealthy country, he built himself into the most financially successful tennis player the sport has ever seen. While Federer’s career earnings on the tennis court have exceeded $130 million, his off-court earnings have pushed his combined earnings power well over $1 billion, thanks to his many endorsements such as Rolex, Uniqlo, Credit Suisse, Lindt, Mercedes Benz, Barilla and On. He has also accumulated more than $50 million for his foundation. His charity takes care of more than one million  children in Africa.

“Federer is widely perceived as a natural,” Clarey writes, “and yet he is a meticulous planner who has learned to embrace routine and self-discipline, plotting out his scheduled well in advance and in considerable detail.

“‘I usually have an idea of the next one and a half years, and a very good idea about the next nine months,’ [Federer] said in Argentina. ‘I can tell you what I’ll be doing on Monday before Rotterdam or what I’m doing Saturday before Indian Wells. I mean, not hour by hour, but I pretty much talk it through day by day.'”

In ‘The Master,’ we also see how Federer’s longtime rivalries with his contemporaries, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick, have changed him, too.

As Clarey writes: “Though it is rare to see Federer sweat, there has been tremendous toil and ample self-doubt behind the scenes. He has played in pain far more than most of us realize. There has also been no shortage of bruising setbacks in the spotlight. One could easily argue that the two greatest matches in which he has played were the 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal and the 2019 Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic. Both ended in bitter defeats in tight fifth sets that extended past regulation.

“He has been a big winner, racking up more than a hundred tour titles and twenty-three consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, but also a big loser.

“That has no doubt contributed to his Everyman appeal, helping to humanize him. To his credit, Federer has absorbed the blows, both public and private, and rebounded with the accent on positive energy and the long run.”

Clarey knew the time was right to write ‘The Master’

After achieving so much – being the first to win 20 Grand Slam singles titles, 103 titles overall and a record 237 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world – Federer, who just turned 40 earlier this month, finds himself in an unusual if not poignant situation after more than two decades filled with hard work, according to Clarey. Last week, Federer announced he would be having a fourth surgery on his right knee that would not only force him to miss next week’s US Open, but it would also shut down his 2021 season and keep him sidelined indefinitely.

After maintaining his physical health for so long and being able to play well into his thirties, which had been a blessing, we learn that Federer is human after all. Inevitably, as Federer has shown in the years since winning his 20th major title at the 2018 Australian Open, the game is very grueling. “Your body is going to break down at some point,” Clarey said in a recent interview for the NPR radio program Hear & Now.

Clarey knew the time was right to write a book about Federer after his heartbreaking, five-set 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) loss to Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon Championships final and the way the season ended for him. “I sensed that the main body of work was done,” Clarey told me during a telephone conversation Sunday afternoon.

When I asked him what, if anything, we should expect from Federer going forward, Clarey suggested that the Swiss maestro’s best days may be behind him. “I didn’t see him winning another Slam,” he said. “The pandemic has put a further delay on everything. I felt like this was the right time to work on a project like this.”

So, Clarey took leave and stepped aside from the pro tennis beat at the New York Times the first half of 2021 to complete the writing of the book.

As Clarey explained to Hear & Now: “I feel like the book has a elegiac tone to it in places and a valedictory tone to it as well.”

Advance praise for ‘The Master’ has been plentiful

“Roger Federer is the most beautiful and balletic player I’ve ever seen. In this entertaining and deeply researched book, Christopher Clarey, the top tennis write of today, tells the story of how Federer because of of our greatest champions and how much harder it was than he made it look.”

Billie Jean King, former World No. 1 player and 12-time Grand Slam singles champion.

“An iconic master in his own field, Christopher Clarey is the perfect writer to wrap up the gift that is Roger Federer’s career. You’re not going to get a better look into his life, personality and character. Christopher got close but not too close to Roger to compromise his perspective on this great champion. He shows sides and layers of Roger through conversations and stories that we have never been privy to before. I have deep respect for Christopher’s fair and thoughtful journalism.”

Chris Evert, former World No. 1 and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion.

• “It takes a master to know a master. Among the many highlights of this valuable biography: informed glimpses of other great stars in Federer’s long career.”

George Vecsey, New York Times sports columnist and bestselling author of Coal Miner’s Daughter (with Loretta Lynn).

“Style married with substance. Heft married with levity. Polished, detail-oriented, executed with grace, Roger Federer gets the biography he deserves.”

Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated executive editor, Tennis Channel correspondent and author of Strokes of Genius.