Rumor has it that there have been a couple of Rafael Nadal sightings so far this week. The lone mega-superstar remaining in the men’s portion of the Western and Southern Open tournament has supposedly been spotted on one of the practice courts. Because he received a bye directly into the second round, Rafa has yet to play an official match even though it’s already Day 4 of the tournament. I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of him either on the court or in the media center. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s even here. It’s time to go in search of Rafael Nadal.
With 15 Grand Slam trophies and 10 French Open titles, the 31-year old Spaniard will also, at tournament’s end, assume the mantle of the #1 player in the world. If not for Roger Federer, Nadal could arguably be considered the greatest ever in the history of the game. But Roger’s not here, so everyone’s focus is on Nadal. Every fan wants an autograph, every media outlet wants an interview, and every opponent wants a piece of his flowing scalp. Throw in the local paparazzi and you can see why Nadal would seek witness protection. You won’t see him casually strolling the tournament grounds, eating nachos, or playing video games in the player’s lounge. I bet he’s holed up in some private mansion up on the banks of the Ohio, sipping a red sangria while listening to some mellow Mallorcan melodies.
Nadal’s allegedly playing Richard Gasquet on Center Court this evening, so I’ve rearranged my whole schedule to witness this apparition. As match time approaches, Rafa’s adoring fans pack the stadium in anticipation of another expected coronation. Sure enough, as the buzz of the crowd intensifies to a soaring crescendo, Rafael Nadal struts in royally—tanned and toned– as king of this particular court. He’s real, he’s here, and he’s ready for battle.
Not so fast, my friend. During warmups, the skies open up and Nadal quickly disappears back into the stadium tunnel to escape the unwelcomed rain delay. Did I really see him briefly out on the court, or was that just a figment of my overeager imagination? To me, he’s like a ghost—a Spanish speaking specter disguised in colorful Nike gear.
After the rain showers have dissipated and the court has dried, Nadal emerges a second-time ready to play. Say what you may, the guy’s a symbol of purposeful persistence. He attacks every ball as if it’s match point at Wimbledon. They’ll be no gimmes for Gasquet this evening, as Nadal pounds every forehand while chasing down every errant shot. You would think at his age, he’d want to concede a few points here and there just for the sake of energy conservation. Instead, he’s going full throttle in heat and humidity, trying to win every point and beat you into submission. You have to love that passion, drive, and determination. In two quick sets, Nadal bids adieu to the Frenchman who really never had a chance.
After the match, Nadal addresses the Center Court crowd and signs a few obligatory autographs on the way out of the stadium. He’s completely enveloped by his security team, protected like El Chapo against a vindictive cartel. Forget about a selfie with the man of the hour. They’ll be no post-match interview either. Nadal is out of here as surreptitiously as he came in, his big burly security detail running interference for him like a well-tuned offensive line. For all I know, they’re off to Jeff Ruby’s for the late-night $72 ribeye specials.
The sad part about all this sequestration is that Rafa purportedly is a really nice guy. He’s someone you wouldn’t mind playing a round of golf and downing a few beers with—or maybe having in your fantasy football league. He always appears friendly, cordial, and accommodating in public. How ironic that Rafa and Roger—two major tennis icons—also happen to be two of the most affable and congenial people in the sport.
But wait a minute! Despite the midnight hour, an announcement comes over the media center intercom that Nadal has agreed to make a few post-match comments after all. I rush down to the interview room to hopefully catch a glimpse of this champion up close. He fields the first few queries which are all about the match tonight and the upcoming US Open. That’s fine, but I want to know his thoughts much further into the future. When he furtively glances my way, I ask him if the success Federer is having at age 36 influences his thinking on how long he’ll be able to continue playing at such an elite level.
“No,” he answers definitively. “I do my way, and Roger did his way, no? Everybody is different. For me, personally, I always say the same. I’m going to keep playing until what I am doing makes me happy. I am a very lucky person that I can choose when I want to stop, so that’s the real thing.”
After an awkward pause, he seems compelled to further expound. “If I am happy doing what I am doing, and especially if I am healthy, I continue, I keep going, because I love this sport,” he continues. “I love the competition, and I still feeling the passion for what I am doing, no? When I arrive the days I lose one of these things, I gonna do nothing.” Now that’s a man after my own heart.
As the session concludes, I follow Rafa out of the player’s exit as he loads his racquet bags into a tournament SUV. I want to say something meaningful to him but nothing comes to mind. We’re just two dudes looking to head home after a long day at the office. As I walk back to my car through the dimly lit parking lot, I glance back and see Rafa personally tipping the valet. Something about that simple act just makes me want to smile.
Greatness in tennis is like pornography in general. I can’t really define it exactly, but I know it when I see it. I think I witnessed it tonight. I came to this tournament in search of Rafael Nadal. What I found was greatness personified.
John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoyed this column, please check out the following links to his previous blogs in this tennis series.
#1 Tennis Anyone? https://huangswhinings.com/2017/08/13/tennis-anyone
#2 Tennis Fantasyland http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-fantasyland/
#3 Tennis is Served http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-is-served/