Fan Club: Rafael Nadal

by: Steve Tignor | February 14, 2012

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TENNIS.com

RnIt's love day all over the Christian world, which makes my new feature accidentally appropriate. This is the first Fan Club, a series of conversations I hope to be having with fans of different players. Since starting this blog, I've become steadily more amazed by the depth of tennis fans' passion, and occasional irrationality, when it comes to their favorites. What draws people to certain pros and keeps them from others? How do fans perceive the media's treatment—i.e., our bias—of their favorite player? Why are we fans in the first place? That's some of the stuff I want to discuss.

Today and tomorrow, I'll be talking to Katrina, who writes the blog Querido Rafa.

(Note: If you happen to be a major fan of a somewhat obscure player—in other words, anyone outside of the Top 3 men—send me an email. Maybe we can chat here.)

*****

Katrina,

As the creator of a blog called QueridoRafa ("Dear Rafa"), it's pretty obvious whom your favorite player is. I'd like to know what it is about Rafa that appeals to you. Do you have a first memory of seeing him play? I know I've heard quite a few fans of his say that he helped bring them back into tennis, or get them into tennis in the first place. The same is true for other players, like Roger Federer, but for different reasons. There seems to be something about Nadal's intensity—"aliveness"—that ropes people in.

The first time I saw Nadal was on the Grandstand court at the 2003 U.S. Open. We'd been hearing a lot from various agents about what a prospect he was, especially for a 17-year-old. The first thing I noticed was that he made the chair umpire and his opponent wait for the coin toss while he adjusted his water bottles—he was already doing it back then. This seemed like an intriguingly willful and methodical thing for such a young kid to do. I was even more impressed when he uncorked his first forehand winner; that shot looked like something special right away.

*****

Steve,

It’s funny that you ask—I actually was thinking about some of these topics back in December, during the tennis off-season (off-days, I mean), and the result was a series of posts on my blog called “QueridoRAFA: My Story." It was basically just some autobiographical tennis-related tales, loosely based on the structure of Rafa’s own autobiography. Since I believe it is possible that you did not have a chance to read and commit to memory all, um, 11 parts, I’ll briefly summarize the contents of the initial entry, which was about my first memory of seeing Rafa play.

It was in the spring of 2005. I had dropped out of graduate school a couple of months prior and was not in what one would call “a good place.” Nothing terrible, mind you, I was just mired in crushing anxiety and uncertainty over my future. As a lifelong (although relatively casual, at that point) tennis fan, I flipped on the French Open semis, looking forward to the prospect of a nice, relaxing, distracting-from-my-troubles afternoon of watching my favorite player cruise to victory, as was his habit. That favorite player was, of course, Roger Federer.

When the camera panned to a long-haired, punky-looking, capri-wearing teenager named “Nadal,” I laughed. Actually, I think I snorted, then laughed, then guffawed. He was jumping—jumping! Up and down! Side to side! Like an over-sugared bunny rabbit!—during the coin toss. I almost felt sorry for him—did he not realize how ridiculous he looked? Then, he sprinted to the baseline, not unlike a deranged puppy. Again, I was amused, confused, and slightly alarmed. To my astonishment, the commentators were talking him up, saying he had a good chance to win the match and the tournament—some even considered him the favorite. I was completely dumbfounded. I had never seen or heard of him before, and all of a sudden, he was going to take down Roger? I didn’t believe it. Until it happened. I’ll admit, I was rather irritated at this kid for making Roger lose and denying him, and, most importantly, me, Roger’s moment of career Grand Slam glory.

But, even then, there was definitely something about Nadal that stuck in my mind, made me want to know more about him, made me happy when the camera was on him and a little bit sad when it panned away. The energy and the expressiveness and the unbridled, un-self-conscious desire with which he seemed to play—desire to win the match, yes, but also to win every point, to track down every single ball, no matter the scampering and flailing required—it was not something I had ever seen before, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Was it real? Was he really like that? Completely uninhibited, just putting it all out there, for all to see?

I tuned into the final a few days later and “lightly” rooted for him—how absurd would it have been for him to lose to Mariano Puerta after beating Roger, after all? What I remember most about that match is the end, when Rafa walked down the steps after hugging his family, with his sweaty hair hanging across his face to hide the tears. I knew then it was real.

But I didn’t actually “fully convert” to Rafa fandom until July ’09. Rafa’s loss at the French that year, followed by his heart-rending withdrawal from Wimbledon, caught my attention. I also had come across some articles and profiles on him and was impressed with how grounded, unassuming, and polite he seemed. So, yes, he was sort of a “gateway” for me—I picked him as my favorite, and soon after started getting really into tennis.

You mention the “aliveness” of Rafa’s style of play—yes, that’s absolutely a big part of what roped me in, and what has kept me interested. I always struggle to pin it down, come up with words to adequately describe it. When he’s “on,” and when he’s swinging freely, there’s an electricity to his game, a hyperathletic, hyperkinetic pop—I remember watching him play Monfils at the US Open that year (’09) and being transfixed by it; the US Open 2010, the third set tiebreak of the US Open 2011, and parts of the fourth and fifth sets of the Australian Open final a few weeks ago also come to mind. It’s intense, it’s visceral, it’s riveting, and it’s not something I ever thought I would be drawn to—yet I am.

But then, there’s also the flip-side—the fear. The palpable, visible nervousness. The missed first serves and the shaky second serves and the looping backhands left hanging in the middle of the court and the forehands that slam into the tape, for no apparent reason. He’s so human it hurts sometimes. But it’s also what makes him so appealing and relatable—the vulnerability and the imperfection and the sense that he often is waging an internal battle between belief and doubt, confidence and fear. I think the 2011 French Open final really encapsulated all of these different elements. The gloom of the first seven games (and really, the first six rounds) was almost unbearable. Then he got a little lucky (Roger’s missed drop shot), sensed the opening, and clawed his way back into the match. Belief was winning!

Belief would wi…then he lost the third set. And went down 0-40 to start the fourth. The three most important points of the season, right there? Maybe. After saving that game, everything changed. I remember thinking of the word “catharsis”; it seemed like all of the doubt and fear that had plagued him for two weeks just fell away. It was wonderful and inspiring and a little stunning (and maddening) to watch; after all the struggles and the close calls, there he was, playing his best clay-court tennis, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It also was a little strange—it felt almost like an encroachment on a very personal moment of emotional reconciliation and triumph. But of course, this is what makes him all the more intriguing and magnetic—how can you take your eyes off of someone who quietly lets you see so much?

So that’s my fan story. And then some. (You ask a Rafa fan why she likes Rafa, well, yeah. Brevity isn’t really an option…;))

A few questions for you, Steve. Why did so many journalists write negative/snarky articles about Rafa prior to the Australian Open? Why, Steve, why?? (I’m kidding. Although, I would love to hear insights on this topic if you have any...) You mention seeing Rafa for the first time back in 2003; obviously, you’ve watched and attended many of his matches since then—but are there any matches or moments that stand out to you, live in the forefront of your memories?

I know you’ve also interviewed Rafa (I remember that profile in which you described how he stumbled down the steps, forgot his passport, and almost sat on you getting into the car). Have your experiences one-on-one with him changed your perspective at all? Is it easier, or more difficult, to write about him after meeting and talking with him?

And finally, do you relate at all to the experiences of fans, with their emotional allegiances to favorite players? Obviously you have to maintain a professional distance, but I wonder if, for example, just off the top of my head, you ever secretly want to stand up and raise both arms over your head and scream Vamos! at the end of a fourth set tie-break, as a single tear escapes from your eye.

Just for example.

*****

Katrina,

Well, that’s interesting—from Roger over to Rafa. I haven’t heard of that too often, or maybe ever. You mention seeing the human side of Nadal; from what I can tell, that’s a major ingredient for any tennis fan, whether it’s Rafa or Federer or Djokovic or Juan Martin del Potro. (Are there hardcore Andy Murray fans? Perhaps he buries his vulnerability too deeply beneath the rage?)

Unlike most team sports fans, tennis fans are drawn to something personal and relatable in an athlete. Part of me thinks that fans in tennis actually make the best judges of their favorites, because (a) they know so much about them and watch them more closely than the average journalist does, and (b) because fans watch with empathy—they try to see their favorite player’s side of things, rather than trying to remain objective.

Unfortunately, in my experience, fans of one player don’t typically make the best judges of that player’s rivals—no empathy there, obviously. Either way, it makes tennis fandom an intense experience. You really live and die with your player, as irrational as it may seem; unless you’re Spanish, Nadal doesn’t represent you, the way your local football team does, but that only seems to make the identification stronger, or deeper. Choosing a tennis player hardly seems like a conscious decision at all. You’re drawn to that person for reasons you might not even be able to explain.

The weirdest thing for me is that on more than one occasion I’ve been a fan of one player in a rivalry, yet when I’ve met both players, I’ve liked the other person more at a one-on-one level. But that hasn’t stopped me from remaining a bigger fan of the person whom I personally liked less. (Can you follow that? For me, at least, being a fan of someone doesn't necessarily mean I'd rather have a beer with that person).

Fandom is strange, and it must be very strange for the players in an individual sport—they must wonder at times, “Why criticize me? Why do you care how I do or whether I ever live up to my potential or win a Grand Slam? Isn’t that just my own personal business?”

Also interesting to me are fans who say they can see the vulnerable side of say, Rafa, yet can’t see anything vulnerable about, say, Federer or Djokovic. I admit that I have more trouble seeing vulnerability and nerves in Federer (which his fans say they notice), whereas I can clearly see it in Nadal or Djokovic. Rafa himself seems more polarizing than Roger. There are those, like you, who are drawn to his trance-like intensity on court; but there are many who are put off by his tics and grunts and muscles. I don’t think that’s as true with Federer, do you? Frankly, I’ve never seen a player with the widespread popularity that Federer has. Which I’m sure only makes fans of other players—i.e. Rafa and Djokovic—even more exasperated.

I see you have enjoyed “many” of my posts—but not all. Is that because you think I’ve been unfair to Nadal at times? I know his fans, and probably you, hated my column at the start of this year’s Australian Open about his brief feud with Federer, and his public talk about changing the schedule. I think that one was misinterpreted by Rafa lovers—partly my fault, of course, for not making it clear what I was trying to say. Which was: I found it surprising, from what I’d seen of Rafa when he was younger, that he would keep taking a public stand on the politics of the sport. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised; he’s always tried to articulate his opinions and never been a “go along to get along” type. As for the positive and negatives of his stance: I agree with his goals regarding Davis Cup and the schedule; I disagreed with him criticizing Federer, who to me seems like he’s trying his best, in public.

In general, though, when it comes to Rafa, Roger, and Novak, virtually every time I sit in their press conferences or see them at tournaments, I come away impressed and like them more. Rafa in particular has evolved. It could be tough to get much from him in interviews a few years ago; he was easily distracted one minute, cautious with his English the next. Now he’s a spokesman for the sport. But I always felt like he had a basic, stoical sort of integrity to him. Like his seriousness with the water bottles, he seemed very in control of himself and purposeful for a teenager.

I remember one press conference in particular, after he lost early at Key Biscayne in 2006. Rafa said at some point that he was "going to use all six of his senses" to get better. He was informed by his publicist, Benito, that there are only five senses. Rafa didn't blink. "I'll have to find one more," he said (or something to that effect). He did it with such a comically serious face, everyone laughed. You had to like him. And you half-believed he was going to do it.

But do I stand up and “Vamos!” at the end of a set, with a tear in my eye? That I cannot reveal.

Let me leave you with this question: What bothers you the most about the coverage of Nadal in general?

*****

I'll put up Part II of our Rafa chat tomorrow. (You can now read Part II here.)

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