The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer review – the art of bowing out | sport and leisure books

Geoff Dyer has always been an essentially youthful literary presence. Across a career that has blended novels, biography, essays, criticism, memoir and journalism there has been a consistently wide-eyed attention curiosity about the nonsense things that catch his him: DH Lawrence; Jazz; Burning Man; Russian cinema; drugs; the Somme … Of course, one of the main things that has always caught Dyer’s attention is Geoff Dyer, and he now attempts to bring his trademark freshness, bounce and humor to an examination of the decidedly unyouthful spheres of “things coming to an end, artists’ last works, time running out”. This is his moment. While Dyer may still be young at heart, he is also now in his mid 60s, had a mini-stroke in his mid 50s and his tennis habit has left him with “multiple permutations of trouble: rotator cuff, hip flexor, wrist, cricked neck, lower back, and bad knees (both)”.

Dyer’s obsession with tennis has only grown in intensity over the years. He still plays twice a week – although these days he’s unable to serve overarm – and his TV time has been significantly multiplied by a friend sharing a password for the Tennis Channel. The endless speculation as to Roger Federer’s retirement has naturally been of interest and it became important to him “that a book underwritten by my own experience of the changes wrought by aging should be completed before Roger’s retirement”. (“Yes, ‘Roger’, not ‘Federer’,” he explains, “even though I’ve never met him it’s Roger, always and only Roger.”)

Yet just as Dyer’s book about DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, was about not writing a book about DH Lawrence, so this book is not really about Federer. We do learn bits and pieces of what he means to Dyer – down to a close reading of two points he lost to Novak Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final. But he is a minor player when compared with Dyer’s study of Bob Dylan’s terrible concerts yet endless appeal, the aged JMW Turner throwing caution to the wind, Beethoven’s late quartets, Nietzsche’s breakdown or, naturally, Dyer himself. Longtime readers will know the bones of his biography – working-class Cheltenham; grammar school; Oxford; 80s boho life in Brixton, which followed into a writing career – but the snippets of it here are seen through a new lens. He remembers how his relatives lived in a “world of poorly paid, often unpleasant and unrewarding work” regarded retirement as something to “look forward to from a surprisingly early age. It was a form of promotion, practically an ambition.” A Duke of Edinburgh award camp (he stopped after bronze, and quitting is also a theme of the book) is recalled as the moment he heard the news that George Best had given up football aged only 26. More tangentially a trip from Oxford to see the Clash at Lewisham occasions an elegiac passage on the notion of the last train, which he and his friend had missed. Another riff recalls the misery of last orders being called in British pubs.

The capaciousness of Dyer’s themes allow him to roam widely. (And maybe to gather some apparently random pieces of work into the book.) There are sections on the linked demise of the Plains Indians and the buffalo, and on Robert Redford, facing death alone on a stricken yacht, in the 2013 film All Is lost Among the many novels Dyer has called time on is The Brothers Karamazov (his copy still has a 2012 receipt from a restaurant in Bologna between pages 80 and 81) and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – the first attempt after volume five, the second at book three. His only regret was not abandoning it sooner, “ideally before I’d even started”.

But while he is a connoisseur of the humdrum details of failure – often skilfully crafted for humor with himself as the target – he also has a joyous appreciation of the transcendent and the triumphant. The long list of “things one comes round to at last, late in the day” includes the writing of Jean Rhys and Eve Babitz, and Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp. In a book about things that are mostly too late, the many mentions of lockdown strangely feel slightly too soon. Not because they are distressing, more that they are still too familiar and not even Dyer’s originality can render them surprising.

In another writer, Dyer’s tendency to self-centredness could easily be wearying. But the minute he pulls out for display – the free tennis login, taking shampoo from hotels on an industrial scale – ring true to life and embody a kind of openness. And it is this openness and attention to things that encourage you to trust and follow him in occasionally more arcane forays, such as Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence. But there is always humour, as well as the sense that he has looked closely and thought about things. He might note that at any poetry reading, “however enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I’ll read two more poems.’” Yet his book is saturated by deep engagement with poetry from Larkin to Tennyson, Milton, Louise Glück and more.

Dyer acknowledges he is trending towards demographic norms in that he finds himself increasingly reluctant to “stray far from the military history section of bookshops, with an ever tightening focus on the second world war”. But he is also someone who still engages in intricately choreographed hallucinogenic drug-taking in Joshua Tree, literally dreams about playing football (“my best dreams of the year”) and rides his bike with the apparent gusto of an eight-year-old. Age has come upon him, but youth has not gone. It is knee supports on both legs that now keep him on the tennis court, but like Federer, it is a reserve of flair, touch, timing and a keen eye that keeps him in the game.

The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings by Geoff Dyer is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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