Seven Questions with “Strokes of Genius” Author L. Jon Wertheim

An Interview


“Strokes of Genius”


L. Jon Wertheim


Karen Flax-Jardine

To diehard tennis fans L. Jon Wertheim is known for writing the weekly “Tennis Mailbag” for the website. Wertheim is a senior member of Sports Illustrated’s staff and an author of several books including “Venus Envy” (HarperCollins 2001).  Wertheim is the author of the new book “Strokes of Genius” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009) which focuses on the 2008 Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, some say the greatest tennis match ever played. “Strokes of Genius” will hit the book stores on June 4, 2009. Jon generously took time out to answer a few questions about the book and the writing process.

KFJ: How did the book come about? Is it true that you were originally going to do a book on Federer?
JW: Yeah, originally my publisher and I talked about doing a journalistic look at Federer—not a bio or “as told to book”—basically trying to articulate his greatness. The thinking was that Tiger Woods has been featured in dozens of books; but, with the exception of Rene Stauffer, a fine Swiss journalist, no one had really put Federer under the magnifying glass. Anyway, I’d say early in the fourth set of that final, it was pretty clear that the project was going to have to morph into something different.

KFJ: How different an experience was there in writing this book compared to your
other works?
JW: The deadline was much tighter. For this book to work, I had to have it come out this spring (before Wimbledon 2009) which meant I basically had the fall and first few weeks of winter for writing. I entered the “book cave” — fortuitous it turned out, as I was able to avoid obsessing/depressing over the stock market’s 40 percent plunge that coincided with those weeks. On the other hand, this book was really a labor of love, a culmination of ten years (gulp) of covering this sport—a sport which, for all its flaws, I adore. (“Tennis, I can’t quit you.”)

My previous two books were about pool hustling and cage fighting and, while those, too, were great fun, I was learning as I went, meeting contacts and brushing up on history and learning terms. With this book, it was “in my wheelhouse” as Brad Gilbert would say. It was a much easier write, because I didn’t need someone to explain, say, the benefit of topspin or the context of Federer chasing Sampras.

KFJ: Out of all the people you had to interview for the book, who was the most difficult to pin down?
JW: Good question. The Federer camp was tough to penetrate. Fortunately I had plenty of material in my notebooks, I had been to Basel, cornered his dad, etc. But the attitude was essentially: “I’m going to write my own book one day. Why cooperate with someone who a) isn’t paying me a dime and b) isn’t giving me
editorial control?

KFJ: You note in the “Acknowledgements” section of your book you were influenced by John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game.”  What role has this book played in your career as a writer?  What other authors have influenced you?
JW: I’m a little wary of that comparison simply because it sounds so arrogant to say I tried to emulate McPhee. But yes, in “Levels of the Game,” McPhee showed how effectively you could braid a narrative around a tennis match. As for other writers, off the top of my head, I guess I would say Frank Deford (who cringes when I call him my role model but I do that anyway), David Halberstam, the late, great David Foster Wallace. Also, a shout out to Pete Bodo.

KFJ: During the course of writing the book did you watch the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon Final? If so what do you think of it now in comparison to the 2008 Wimbledon Final?
JW: I did. This is sacrilege, I realize, but I think 2008 was decidedly better. Look at everything from the match stats—Nadal had 27 unforced errors in 62 games!— to the tension to the scores of the set. (There was that one ugly 6-1 set in 1980.) I feel better that McEnroe seems to agree with me.

KFJ: What impression(s) above all others do you want readers to feel after completing your book?
JW:This was my love letter to tennis. Ideally, the hard-core tennis fans will enjoy it and find it worthwhile; but I also hope general sports fans (and, even readers in general) will pick it up and, say, “Aha, now I get why this match was such a big deal.” Secondly, I would hope people come away thinking that Federer and Nadal are exceptional people. For as often as athletes disappoint us these days, these two are every bit as….what? Good? Authentic? Honorable? Self-possessed… advertised.

KFJ: What’s on the horizon for you in terms of future writing endeavors, tennis or otherwise?
JW: A boyhood friend and tennis partner of mine—together we were like the ninth ranked doubles team in the boys 16s in Indiana in 1987—is now a finance professor at the University of Chicago Business School. We’re collaborating on a book, “Why We Win,” which we’re ambitiously hoping will be a “Freakonomics for Sports.”

Read Wertheim’s “Tennis Mailbag” weekly on Wednesdays and his AD-IN, AD-OUT on Mondays.

The book in movie terms is a “thumbs up….way up” and in tennis terms – an ace down the “T.”  The juxtapositioning in the storytelling of the key portions of the match, interspersed with behind-the-scenes knowledge, from Venus Williams trying get ready for the Champion’s Dinner to what a Federer fan in India was doing, to the play-by-play of what was going on with the ladies of the “Vamos Brigade,” made the book riveting. Add in the background stories of Nadal, Federer, along with the “inside knowledge” about what it’s like to be a journalist at a tournament.  It’s informative, yet fun. It’s a must read about the “greatest tennis match ever played,” not just for tennis fans but for all.

The book is already available for purchase. To order a copy of Jon Wertheim’s’ new book, “Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played,”check out

For those of you who live in the New York City area, Wertheim’s book will be one of those featured in the Varsity Letters sports reading series on June 4, 2009.  Details on the event can be found here.