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Lunch with William Skidelsky, St John, London

23 July 2015

William Skidelsky has recovered from a 10-year obsession with Roger Federer by writing a book about his fascination with the tennis legend. Gareth Rees talks to the author of Federer And Me over lunch at London’s St John.

William Skidelsky wanders through the doors of St John in London’s Smithfield at precisely 2.15pm. Right on time. Wearing a slightly rumpled blue suit, with the air of a man who doesn’t wear a suit that often, and carrying an unremarkable black rucksack, he does not stand out from the other diners as he checks our reservation with the maître d’ and is shown to our table, where I greet him moments later and he explains that the suit is his chosen attire for the official launch of his new book, which is due to take place shortly after our lunch.

It’s fair to assume that if Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam titles, arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen and the subject of Federer And Me, walked into St John on a Tuesday afternoon it would cause a stir. William is not Roger Federer. In fact, he is not a celebrity at all. He is something that, in many ways, is a lot more interesting. He’s a fan.

William may not have won any Grand Slams, but he’s had his fair share of success as a writer, starting his career as literary editor of the New Statesman, where he also wrote food columns, before becoming deputy editor of current affairs title Prospect and then books editor of The Observer newspaper. He is now a freelance writer.

William has written one previous book, Gourmet London, which, paired with his former incarnation as a food columnist, explains his restaurant preference: St John is a foodie’s choice. Opened in 1994, it’s located in a former smokehouse a short distance from London’s famous Smithfield Market, and is the home of deservedly revered chef Fergus Henderson’s “nose to tail” eating, i.e. eating all parts of an animal, i.e. offal.

“I love all parts of animals, you know, offal, and it’s just one of my favourite restaurants,” enthuses William, as he runs a hand through his schoolboyish helmet of brown hair, rubs a day’s worth of stubble and greedily scans the menu.

The slightly flustered (he will later confess that he hasn’t finished his speech for this evening yet) and awkward looking chap who sat down opposite me a few moments ago becomes a lot more jovial the moment the waitress arrives to take our order. Once done, we delve into William’s difficult relationship with tennis. As a child, he loved the sport and reached county level. In Federer And Me he says that between the ages of five and 11 it was “the most important thing in my life”. Yet he chucked it all in at 17. “I was obsessed as a child, but I started to become disillusioned with it at a certain point.”

He explains that one reason for quitting was the advent of what author David Foster Wallace described in his seminal 2006 Roger Federer essay for The New York Times, Federer As Religious Experience, as the “power-baseline game”. This essay, as William later explains, inspired both the renewal of his fascination with tennis and the writing of Federer And Me. “I think the 1980s was quite an interesting time in tennis, and that’s when I became interested in the game,” William continues. “Then, by the end of the 1980s, the 1990s, stylistically there was much more uniformity.”

The other reason for giving up the game in his late teens, which William outlines between difficult mouthfuls of his starter – “it’s like a scratching crouton” – is far more interesting. “There was a sort of family psychological dynamic to it all,” he says.

William’s father is the renowned economic historian Robert Skidelsky (Baron Skidelsky), author of an award-winning three-volume biography of the highly influential 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes. His older brother, Edward, is a distinguished philosopher. Although both his father and brother also played tennis, William describes being “very torn” as a child between the intellectual life his father “worshipped” and his natural sporting ability and preoccupation with tennis.

“My older brother was a very intellectual child, he was somewhat precocious in that way,” says William. “He read Nietzsche and Kant at the age of 12. So I felt that he was the clever one and I was the sporty one, and that was an identity I became uncomfortable with, because I felt it was inferior, in a way, and that it was viewed as inferior by my father and by all his friends, who were all in the intellectual mould. In a way that was the conflict of my childhood, between different sides of myself or different sides of my family, and I think it meant my sportiness always had a sense of… I couldn’t really place it. It had a mark of something inadequate.”

So he quit. “By the time I was 16 or 17, I thought, I don’t want to do that, I want to try and be really clever and go to a good university, get a good degree and prove I am just as intellectual as my father and my brother,” he says.

So that’s exactly what he did. He went to Oxford and earned a degree in history before embarking on his fruitful career in journalism – and he didn’t play tennis, or even follow the game closely, until 2006. William had admired the 21-year-old Federer at Wimbledon in 2003, the fledgling star’s game reminding him of his childhood heroes McEnroe, Edberg, Mandlikova and Graf, but he roughly pinpoints the birth of his obsession with the Swiss star and his rapprochement with tennis to the day he read David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay more than three years later.

In Federer As Religious Experience, widely and justifiably regarded as one of the most beautiful and insightful pieces of sports writing in the canon, Foster Wallace talks of the “Federer Moment”, the occasions on which the player appears to achieve the sublime, the superhuman.

“What was revealing and liberating and revelatory about that Foster Wallace piece was this idea that you could be really clever, really subtle and intellectual, but about sport. So I’d always compartmentalised the two things, and here was the sense that you could bring them together, with Federer as a subject,” says William, greedily demolishing his plate of what, judging by the writer’s head nodding and reply of “mmm” when I ask for his verdict, must be superior sweetbreads.

“I thought he [Federer] had kind of brought tennis back in some way,” he continues. “It had been going down this one path that was very much cut off from its roots, its history, and I feel that he effected some kind of change in the evolution of the game. That as an idea, almost as a metaphor, resonated with my own personal history. Some idea that I’d gone off course, I’d tried to run away from my sporty side and actually, finally, as an adult I could embrace it. That was a path to feeling more myself as an adult. That’s what I was trying to explore. I wanted to find out why this guy had such a hold on me.”

Federer And Me has impressed most critics, and it has received a lot of coverage in the UK press, but Simon O’Hagan, writing in The Independent, did question the accuracy of the book’s subtitle, A Story of Obsession. How strange did it get?

“It mostly didn’t get too odd,” admits William, taking a sip of his drink. “The truth is, a fixation of this kind mostly involves watching all of his matches, and caring a lot about those matches, and thinking about him. It’s within the range of normal… I’m not a stalker.”

Federer And Me is not about a deranged loner, and perhaps O’Hagan was right when he questioned its subtitle. But it is, as Williams says, a very personal book; he had no interest in writing a straight biography of Federer.

“The angle I wanted to explore was fandom and obsessive fanship, and it seemed like quite an intriguing thing that had happened to me, that I had become so ensnared, obsessed by this particular player, and I was also aware that it was a phenomenon that had happened to lots of other people. I think Federer does inspire a particularly obsessive kind of fanship. There are people of all ages and social backgrounds all over the world, so it seemed to me that this was a phenomenon worth exploring, and my feeling about fanship is that it’s not often explored.”

We discuss how as an adult William has managed to combine the cerebral and the sporting, thinking about his game far more than he did as a child, but also to enjoy it. “I’m much more adept at keeping my emotions in check,” he says, savouring a spoonful of pudding.

“It’s that thing where as an adult one’s not striving for that much really. There’s only so much I can achieve. I can endeavour to be the best player in my club. Those goals keep one interested, but it’s not too serious.”

At some point we have ordered desserts – a small and uplifting trifle for me and buttermilk pudding for William – and as they now arrive, the conversation meanders: how tennis is not just like riding a bike; how American Vogue’s infamous editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, a Federer fellow obsessive, has requested a copy of Federer And Me; how unlikely William thinks it is that Federer will read his book; and, finally, how William is no longer a Federer obsessive.

“I didn’t mind so much when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open. I was less upset than I am usually,” he says. “A few years ago not winning a Grand Slam seemed terrible, but now, you know… Federer’s changed, he’s just happy to keep on playing. I don’t think he cares so much about winning anymore. I think for a long time he thought, I am the best, I should be beating everyone, and he was prepared to fight for that and it was awful for him when he lost. Now you get the sense he doesn’t care.”

But William is not Roger Federer, and I get the distinct impression that he does still care a little bit. He’s still a fan.

Images: Rebecca Rees

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