le Carré, author of numerous espionage thrillers, rehashes the historic 2009 French Open finals between Le Fed and the Swede Robin Soderling, and in this snippet from the upcoming novel’s extract, Perry and Gail, two Oxford academics, go to Paris to watch the French Open championship match. Does it mean that he has been a fan of the Swiss all along?
“The stadium is erupting.
First Robin Soderling, then Roger Federer looking as becomingly modest and self-assured as only God can. Perry is craning forward, lips pressed tensely together. He’s in the presence.
Warm-up time. Federer mis-hits a couple of backhands; Soderling’s forehand returns are a little too waspish for a friendly exchange. Federer practises a couple of serves, alone. Soderling does the same, alone.
Practice over. Their jackets fall off them like sheaths from swords. In the pale blue corner, Federer, with a flash of red inside his collar and a matching red tick on his headband. In the white corner, Soderling, with phosphorescent yellow flashes on his sleeves and shorts….
… the match has begun and to the joy of the crowd, but too suddenly for Gail, Federer has broken Soderling’s serve and won his own. Now it’s Soderling to serve again. A pretty blonde ballgirl with a ponytail hands him a ball, drops a bob, and canters off again. The linesman howls as if he’s been stung. The rain’s coming on again.
Soderling has double-faulted; Federer’s triumphal march to victory has begun. Perry’s face is lit with simple awe and Gail discovers she is loving him all over again from scratch: his unaffected courage, his determination to do the right thing even if it’s wrong, his need to be loyal and his refusal to be sorry for himself. She’s his sister, friend, protector. A similar feeling must have overtaken Perry, for he grasps her hand and keeps it. Soderling is going for the French Open. Federer is going for history and Perry is going with him. Federer has won the first set 6-1. It took him just under half an hour.
The manners of the French crowd are truly beautiful, Gail decides. Federer is their hero as well as Perry’s. But they are meticulous in awarding praise to Soderling wherever praise is due. And Soderling is grateful, and shows it. He’s taking risks, which means he is also forcing errors and Federer has just committed one. To make up for it he delivers a lethal drop shot from 10 feet behind the baseline…
… But suddenly Perry isn’t watching the game any more. He isn’t watching the smoked windows either. He has leapt to his feet and barged in front of her, apparently to shield her, and he’s yelling: ‘What the hell!’ with no hope of an answer.
Rising with him, which isn’t easy because now everyone is standing too and yelling ‘What the hell’ in French, Swiss German, English or whatever language comes naturally to them, her first expectation is that she is about to see a brace of dead pheasant at Roger Federer’s feet: a left and a right. This is because she confuses the clatter of everybody leaping up with the din of panicked birds clambering into the air like out-of-date aeroplanes, to be shot down by her brother and his rich friends. Her second equally wild thought is that it is Dima who has been shot, probably by Niki, and tossed out of the smoked-glass windows.
But the spindly man who has appeared like a ragged red bird at Federer’s end of the tennis court is not Dima, and he is anything but dead. He wears the red hat favoured by Madame Guillotine and long, blood-red socks. He has a blood-red robe draped over his shoulders and he’s standing chatting to Federer just behind the baseline that Federer has been serving from.
Federer is a bit perplexed about what to say – they clearly haven’t met before – but he preserves his on-court nice manners, although he looks a tad irritated in a grouchy, Swiss sort of way that reminds us that his celebrated armour has its chinks. After all, he’s here to make history, not waste the time of day with a spindly man in a red dress who’s burst onto the court and introduced himself.
But whatever has passed between them is over, and the man in the red dress is scampering for the net, skirts and elbows flying. A bunch of tardy, black-suited gentlemen are in comic pursuit and the crowd isn’t uttering a word any more: it’s a sporting crowd and this is sport, if not of a high order. The man in the red dress vaults the net, but not cleanly: a bit of net-cord there. The dress is no longer a dress. It never was. It’s a flag. Two more black-suits have appeared on the other side of the net. The flag is the flag of Spain – L’Espagne – but that’s only according to the woman who sang La Marseillaise, and her opinion is contested by a hoarse-voiced man several rows up from her who insists it belongs to le Club Football de Barcelona.
A black-suit has finally brought the man with the flag down with a rugger tackle. Two more pounce on him and drag him into the darkness of a tunnel. Gail is staring into Perry’s face, which is paler than she has ever seen it before.
…God does not sweat. Federer’s pale blue shirt is unstained except for a single skid-mark between the shoulder blades. His movements seem a trifle less fluid, but whether that’s the rain or the clotting clay or the nervous impact of the flagman is anybody’s guess. The sun has gone in, umbrellas are opening around the court, somehow it’s 3-4 in the second set, Soderling is rallying and Federer looks a bit depressed.
He just wants to make history and go home to his beloved Switzerland. And, oh dear, it’s a tiebreak – except it hardly is, because Federer’s first serves are flying in one after the other, the way Perry’s do sometimes, but twice as fast. It’s the third set and Federer has broken Soderling’s serve, he’s back in perfect rhythm and the flagman has lost after all. Is Federer weeping even before he’s won? Never mind. He’s won now. It’s as simple and uneventful as that.