A happy band of Rafateers hang out on a BBC 606 thread and it was with much excitement that four of us – myself, Rafandready, Clare and Debs – headed out to the Foro Italico in Rome last week in order to support our lovely boy.
We were lucky enough to have tickets from the Wednesday through to the final on Sunday, and it was with much glee that we arrived at the practice courts on the first day to see Rafa practising on the furthest court away.
First up was Philip Kohlschreiber. As we are so used to taking the Rafarollercoaster, we never these days take anything for granted – even on clay – as Kohli had given Rafa a tough match at the Australian Open. It turned out to be, however, a pretty routine 6-1, 6-3 scoreline. They were playing some pretty good music at this tournie and at the end of the match, we were treated to some Latino rhythms. Rafa obviously liked it too as he shook his hips (wonder where he got that trick from?) in unison to the music.
Next up was Victor Hanescu. We didn’t know much about this guy and Rafa disposed of him again in a fairly comfortable fashion. It was the first time that we had seen Rafa in a night match, and as such, some of the glitterati of Rome came out to watch him. Rafa’s love for football is widely documented (or soccer to our American friends), and he’d been ably followed by some of AS Roma’s finest in his previous match. But that evening, we were treated to the attendance of Il Capitano himself – Francesco Totti. Being a follower of Italian football, it was a thrill to see him myself too, and the subsequent pictures of these encounters show how much Rafa also gets in awe when meeting superstar players. So sweet …
But then it was down to the serious end of the competition and the quarters where he faced Stanislas Wawrinka. Now Stan is no klutz on clay, and from the off it was apparent that he had an obvious game plan. From somewhere, Rafa managed a break, but it was with a bit of a wonder that he had managed to walk away with that first set. The second was a bit anti-climatic as Rafa romped home 6-1.
And so to Saturday and the semi-final. His opponent was the conqueror of Roger Federer – Ernests Gulbis. Now much is made of this young man as he has been declared “the next young thing” for a good couple of years. But most of what we knew about him was that he was perhaps from a background of too much privilege, and that he didn’t have the discipline to knuckle down and work on his talent, preferring rather to hang around the hippest nightspots. But nobody beats Federer by doing nothing, and so we did have rather one or two nerves going into this.
Rafa broke him in the opening service game … and thank God he did. This young man was playing ‘lights out’ tennis – hitting winners from all over the place and having a magnificent serve on him. Well done to Rafa though for managing to hold onto his serve, which meant he came out the winner of the first set 6-4. And so to the second … Rafa’s errors increased and he was eventually broken to make it all square. This was tense for us, I can tell you. Every time you thought Rafa might just have a bit of daylight in a game – boom – and another big serve came tumbling down. But as it got to the business end of the set, Rafa did what Rafa does and exerted some pressure and had a break point in the 8th game which he didn’t convert. But he was knocking on the door. When Gulbis had to serve to stay in the match, Rafa responded to lead 40-0 and relief of all reliefs and joy of all joys, he took the match. At one point in the final set, this little English voice cried out … “Come on Rafa! You can do it!”. Step up Rafan for helping Rafa win the match.
On that day I wore my “Don’t worry … he is NADAL” t-shirt. But let me tell you … I was.
And so to the final against David Ferrer. Rafa was of course the hot favourite, and had it not been for the two lengthy rain delays, put it all together and it was a fairly decent match. It was sad that the weather brought this great tournament to a bit of muted end, and even more sad that most of the Italian crowd didn’t hang around to see the final stages of the match. But we did … and we loved it. Clare commented that it was perhaps the first time since the 2008 French Open that Rafa didn’t fall to the floor on his back upon victory. Well … damp clay is nobody’s cup of tea and I also think it was out of respect to his friend David and the dis-jointed manner in which he got the victory.
But a very happy Rafa took the podium to receive the trophy and the greatest thing of all … we got to see him bite it. Well done Rafa on equaling Agassi’s record of 17 Masters victories, made all the more happier as we were there to see it.
So that was the tennis … but perhaps the stand-out moments for us was how close and personal we got to Rafa. This wonderful man totally makes himself accessible to the fans. Every time upon entering the stadium, upon leaving, at practice and after the matches, there he is doing the line, signing all that is put before him and making the fans feel so very happy.
Our first encounter was following practice on the Friday. From Thursday onwards he made sure he was on the practice court nearest the fans so that we had the best of views. He still remains focused during practice – he doesn’t engage with the fans, he doesn’t make eye contact, he just goes about his steady business, as he should. He didn’t go to the side of the court where we were standing on Thursday to sign, but on Friday he finished up his practice to allow Isner and Querry onto his court. He sat on his chair to watch them hit a little, and then with a big smile on his face he ran right across the court to the side where we were standing, laughing to himself as he tried to dodge the bullets they were firing down.
And so we all got our first autographs. The excitement you feel and the adrenalin rush you get as you know he’s coming down to you is amazing. I managed to squeak out “Good luck Rafa!!”, and he looked directly at me and nodded his head in acknowledgement – *swoon*. On Saturday, Rafan acquired another autograph and on Finals Day, we waited around the Players’ Entrance to then have Rafa come out and make his way over to the Players Lounge area. We waited for him to finish up, and I was directly opposite him when he came out. I offered a Queens Club programme for his signature and he said to me, “Pen? Pen?” – which I didn’t have, doh!! – but some kindly person helped out and there was another signature. Between myself, Rafan, Clare and Debs, we had tickets, magazines, a programme, caps and the Spanish flag all signed – simply because Rafa takes the time out to greet all his fans and do so. But the best moment belonged to Rafan. As he signed she said to him, “Good luck, Rafa. You can do it! You can DO it!!”, to which he said, “Thank you”. Bless.
After the trophy presentation and speeches, things were packed away whilst Rafa was still doing TV interviews by the chair. When Rafa had finished his media work, guess what he did? Yep … he went around the whole stadium to greet the tennis fans. He started on our far side of the court and signed all that was put before him, and Clare and Rafan got another haul of autographs, and of course the close sighting. He then went across to the crowds on the other side of the court and took his time to sign everything once again, before picking up his trophy, and taking his leave.
So how to sum up the experience and the man? Well … I would say that the man made the experience.
We all love his tennis, and his guts, and his fighting spirit, and as his fans, we’ve not had the best of times over the last year whilst sticking with him and always trying to see the positive. But what I saw during that week was something more than just the tennis player. Rafa the man … and why its about supporting him as well as his tennis. Because I fail to think of another superstar sportsman – and he is that – a Superstar Sportsman, who ensures that he practices close to the fans so that they can see him, so that they can watch him. As I’ve discussed, he takes time out on entering the stadium, on leaving the stadium, after practice sessions, after matches, to go to the fans to sign all our memorabilia and for that one, split second to make us feel that our support to him matters, and that it counts. And he takes the time to give back to us because of the support that we give to him. He is so high in our esteem right now, I just can’t find appropriate enough words to say it.
So that was our Rafateer in Roma experience – and we most certainly lived the drim. Thank you Rafa!!! and Vamos!!!