As the creator of a blog called <em>QueridoRafa</em> ("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.
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.