I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny—unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd—to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan. — Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
When it comes to sports, what does it mean to be “obsessed?” Is it a fan who watches all 162-games in the Padres season? Owns Pelicans season tickets and face-paints nightly? Travels 2,500 miles for a Packers game without a ticket? Names their son Jagr Crosby? Or is it, as recounted in Warren St. John’s entertaining year-following-Alabama-football book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, the couple who skips their daughter’s wedding because it interferes with the Tennessee game? (That’s it, but didn’t she know better? Roll Tide!)
Obsession takes on many forms, but the working definition in sports is when a team, player, or athlete takes on an outsized role in the fan’s life and interferes with well, life. For perpetually-besotted woebegone Exley, zeroing in on the graceful All-American Frank Gifford was a hedge against the darkness, a way to push the demons away for a few hours of Giants football, or at least until Chuck Bednarik comes barreling down. A Fan’s Notes is a “fictionalized memoir,” altered just enough from its author’s lonely existence to not bear the title An Alcoholic Fan’s Slow Suicide Note. It’s a brilliant work and nearly fifty years on, remains the one to beat in the niche, yet growing, realm of obsessed fan tomes.
One of the latest in the canon is Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by London native and Guardian writer William Skidelsky. He read Exley prior to writing and found a kindred spirit, particularly in the way a single athlete becomes the focal point, as opposed to a lifetime of team fandom best exemplified by Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. (Jimmy Fallon be damned.)
“I see team fandom as being essentially tribal in nature, whereas individual fandom is romantic. If you support a team, the main feeling it gives you is one of belonging. If you support an individual, the psychology has more to do with identification,” says Skidelsky. “While writing the book, I spent a bit of time looking at the academic literature on sports fandom, and I was very struck by the fact that almost all of it was about team affiliation. There really was very little either on individual sports like tennis, or on being strongly drawn to individuals within teams (a la A Fan’s Notes). I was pretty surprised by this, because I find individual attachments much more interesting, being more susceptible to them myself.”
Federer and Me takes structural cues from A Fan’s Notes, it roams through dark periods in Skidelsky’s life, returning to idea that the Swiss Magician offered constancy during confusing, troubling times. Like Exley, Skidelsky doesn’t think he can live up to his father Robert’s exacting intellectual standards, going so far as to quit playing (and watching) tennis during the prime of his youth, even though he loved the game and was quite good at it. It was probably all in his head anyway, as Robert—a big fan of the blunt brutish American Jimmy Connors—didn’t seem to put undo pressure on his son to be a scholar. Deserting tennis for punk bands, trench-coats, lager and sex was a self-inflicted wound, the result of a low-level depression that kept Skidelsky from understanding he could’ve enjoyed it all during his Eton and Oxford days. Center Court Sundays by day, Happy Mondays by night, kind of thing.
Skidelsky’s longtime tennis apathy provides an interesting framework for Federer and Me. Although he started playing again in the early 2000s, taking on writers and editors after he joined the working world, Skidelsky didn’t turn to Fed because he was wrapped up in the sport on the whole per se. The beauty of the most beautiful men’s player in history provided the light as Skidelsky came out of the gloom. Exley wanted Gifford to be his drunkard buddy in absentia—a mythical creature who existed solely in Exley’s mind—whereas Skidelsky wanted to admire a living work of art, perhaps to an uncomfortable degree, but his obsession was steeped in wanting Roger to bring “the qualities of effortlessness: skill, talent, elegance,” to the court.
“It’s a peculiarity of the book (and some would say, I’m sure, a weakness), that I don’t say, or attempt to find out, much about Federer the man,” says Skidelsky. “But in a way, I wanted the book to reflect what I see as a kind of purity—that you can fall in love with an athlete purely for aesthetic reasons, while not caring much about, or even for, their personality.”
Conversely, you can hate an athlete for their winning ways. Like say a certain lefty from Mallorca whom the author calls a “corrie-fisted clodhopper,” compares unfavorably to a boa constrictor—as opposed to Roger the cheetah—and declares to be “the one flaw in [Federer’s] otherwise perfect universe.” Dude really hates Rafael Nadal.
Interestingly, Skidelsky is more of a casual fan during Roger’s incredible 2003-06 run when he won ten-of-eleven Grand Slam Finals. It ratchets up after the rise of Nadal, reaching its high in 2010 when Skidelsky watches a Federer-Djokovic match at the O2 from the second row. However, it was also simultaneously a low point in his tennis obsession. Skidelsky dragged his girlfriend along a few days after she terminated a pregnancy after learning the baby could not survive after birth. His need for the distraction of Federer won the day, but in seeing the mixture of “Mozart and Metallica” up close, Skidelsky realizes he’d been using tennis as an escape. “Denial gave way to lucidity; what had been distorted became clear.” They patched things up. Today, they have two kids.
This is the big difference between A Fan’s Notes and Federer and Me. Namely, a lightness of foot when needed, a la Roger debuting the sneak-and-half-volley SABR attack in 2015. The Raffy-loathing is cheeky good stuff, particularly one stretch where Skidelsky rants about Nadal’s constant tendency to grab his own ass like a toddler with severe butt itch, and there’s more where that came from. Exley’s is a work of dark, dark, dark comic genius, but readers head down a path of no return where the shits are going to win. There isn’t room for nerdy digressions into racket technology, pints with the Backpack Babes in their RF earrings, a dreamy press conference question that elicits a smile from Fed, a sidebar into the homoerotic undertow, and the oddity of a three-euro Travel Pussy being sold in the men’s room at a post-match tennis party in Halles.
Hell, Federer and Me even ends with a mash note. Skidelsky thanks Roger for the joy he’s brought him, helping him recover from the doldrums, allowing him to be a “happier freer adult.”
Which begs the question, does it qualify as an obsession if it brings peace, love, and understanding?
“Obsession having negative connotations, this was undoubtedly true in the past, but I don’t know if that’s always the case nowadays,” says Skidelsky. “I think we live in an age when obsession has become almost respectable.”
It certainly feels that way, at least in comparison to the über-sports-obsessed-text. At its core, and in its spirit, A Fan’s Notes is about Exley’s death. Federer and Me is about Skidelsky’s life.