I loved the idea of someone writing a play called Federer Versus Murray (Gerda Stevenson is the one who did it). The idea that these tennis icons have entered popular culture is pleasing to a tennis fan, while the prospect of sitting through a play featuring athletes was intriguing, though I didn’t expect much. I pictured a sporty stage version of something noisy and jockish like Jerry McGuire. I thought locker room dialogue would be attempted; I thought actors playing Andy Murray and Roger Federer would at some point be on stage, though probably not flitting through with a “tennis anyone?” fatuousness like in drawing room comedies of old.
None of that happened. The play is about a middle-aged Scottish couple whose son has died fighting in Afghanistan. He’s been dead for three years, but his loss is still unbearable. Flo, the woman (Gerda Stevenson), works as a nurse on the night shift, and drags in after work with an air of dejected apathy – she holds on to her grief, according to her husband Jimmy (Dave Anderson). He seeks refuge from his feelings in an obsession with tennis, Roger Federer in particular. Federer is a gentleman, he explains to his skeptical wife—a sportsman in the traditional sense of the word. Unabashedly in thrall to his fandom, his conversation is littered with references to Basel and he pores over travel magazines of Switzerland, especially the Matterhorn.
All this makes perfect sense to the average tennis fan. Federer, and Wimbledon (the tournament that’s on during the play), do seem like protected, shining objects in a world going back into the mire – when you look at unending wars, senseless loss of life, and economic hardship, all of which the play grapples with. And Jimmy’s escapism seems survivalist, though Flo’s refusal to move on also makes sense. Who “moves on” from the death of a child? The characters are locked in a miserable battle, defining their grieving processes as the distance grows between them.
Tennis provides some welcome lightness, as it tends to do. When Jimmy lies on the couch in the dark living room and groggily snaps on the TV, using headphones to keep the tennis from disturbing Flo, there are knowing giggles in the audience, at least from tennis fans, who know this scenario very well. In honor of the final featuring Federer and Murray, Jimmy excitedly paints his face with the Swiss flag, giving himself over to complete idolatry. In one of the play’s nicest moments, Flo joins him in a lighthearted mood and paints her own face with the colors of Scotland’s flag. (She supports Murray out of a sentimental nationalism; Jimmy pooh-poohs him for familiar reasons.) But though they seem for once united and ready to enjoy a sports event for the sheer fun of it, Flo snaps at something Jimmy says and the scene escalates into a massive fight. They turn the tennis off at Flo’s insistence and go at it.
This was hard to get your head around, my tennis-fan companion and I agreed afterward. Even if they abandoned the tennis for a while, would Jimmy really not go back to it? “They could fight for a while, but get back in time to see the second set,” we agreed. Or fight with the tennis on in the background, getting distracted by it at times – that would have been more realistic too.
I thought the play got a bit overloaded with confrontations from this point on, apart from that loss of verisimilitude. Flo and Jimmy have different views of the war in Afghanistan – Jimmy has been trying to convince her it’s entirely mercenary, engaged in for the sake of economic imperialism. She refuses to believe their son would die for such a worthless cause. Even though that’s a believable conflict, their fighting becomes heavy with rhetoric and is hard to follow at times. I also didn’t think it worked to have Federer representing neutrality, with his Swiss heritage, since what does that make Scotland? A war-wager? Stevenson seemed to cram too much socio-political significance into the play’s 1-hour running time.
But the theme of losing a child to war is powerful enough, and the acting strong and subtle enough, to make the play an enjoyable and wrenching piece of theater. It’s not what you’d expect from a play about tennis, but what is? (Death of a Server? A Long Day’s Journey Into a Fifth Set?) In a way it uses tennis’s essential frivolity as effectively as
possible – by showing how that lightness becomes part of fighting our own darkness.