Love for the sport. Love for tennis. What does that love mean, I wondered the other day. A scene from a TV series came to mind, where one character sarcastically describes love as “a dark bottomless pit of constant burning of a thousand white hot suns.” That made for a pretty apt description for me as I sat squished in the crowded stands of an empty practice court in the boiling midday heat, waiting for Novak Djokovic to appear for his anticipated practice session.
My brother and I had come to the Shanghai Open on October 15, Thursday, with high hopes of meeting stars players, receiving autographs and watching world-class matches. Getting burnt crisp while waiting an hour for a top player who eventually never showed up and canceled his practice was not on the list of expectations. “So this is the life of a tennis fan,” my brother mused, his general detachment to the sport giving him a supposed impartial judgment.
Oh well. The day wasn’t over yet. And the schedule still showed that the most important person on the ATP tour (to me) would be practicing soon–Rafael Nadal. After being a Rafa fan for about 4 years, I felt I deserved a chance to pursue my dream of seeing Rafa in person, watching him play live, and maybe even getting an autograph. For the last mission, I went to the souvenir store before Rafa’s scheduled practice and bought a large poster board of Rafa, then awkwardly carried it around to the other players’ practices, trying to be discreet about my very eclectic loyalty.
The Rolex clocks strategically placed around the stadium showed that it was time for Rafa to come out and practice, so I waited by the player’s lounge exit. Time passes especially slow when the scorching sun and vacant space are your only companions, and the officials next to me started saying that due to the heat several players had already canceled their practice sessions. I silently begged that Rafa’s name wouldn’t be added to that list. Finally, half an hour later than expected, at 2:30 I saw Toni Nadal near the entrance and knew who would soon follow. Sure enough, Rafa and his team emerged, the Mallorcan star surrounded by eight security guards.
Somehow, whether it’s the media or my own perception of things, I tend to view sports stars and celebrities as larger-than-life, with a presence that outshines everyone else and makes them tower over us fawning fans. Even with someone as famously grounded and down-to-earth as Nadal, I still expected him to evoke an aurora of grandeur and tremblings of awe. But seeing Rafa in person deflated any superhuman notions. He was real and human, just like anyone else, and he looked so genuine and personable. I was close enough to almost shake his hand, to see the way he smiled at the giggling and screaming girls, the way the sight of a little 5-year-old boy taking photos of him with a Samsung Galaxy phone almost made him grin with amusement.
The practice court stands were pretty full, although less than there had been for Novak, but I didn’t care.Less people to fight with for my autograph, I schemed. Rafa practiced with a local player, a young man who quickly began to show signs of exhaustion and frustration as Rafa picked up speed and ground winners past him. “Wow, five minutes into his practice and Rafa’s already hitting with the intensity of a real match,” my brother observed. Halfway through, when Rafa switched sides, my brother couldn’t help but notice that it was a nice move, allowing fans on both sides of the court to see him. “And we can see what losing looks like,” he added, nodding towards the defeated expression of the Chinese player. That’s Rafa for you. He’s always relentless.
The sun started its gradual descent, but the humidity in the air remained thick, and I watched the sweat soak Rafa literally from the shoulders of his shirt down to past his waist. I started wondering what would happen when the sweat went past his pants leg. Would it cascade down his knees, or hang like a sodden weight at the end of his shorts? Fortunately, it didn’t reach that bursting point, because after an hour Rafa wrapped up his practice. And then the pandemonium unleashed itself.
Everyone stood up and began crushing those already in front into pieces and those in the middle(including me) into pulp. I stretched out as far as I could and held my board out as Rafa moved down the line. The Chinese guard next to Rafa kept saying “If you push, Rafa won’t give you an autograph,” and people actually would let up, which shows A. how easy it is to manipulate crowds because B. there’s no way Rafa can tell if you’re pushing or not because everyone is so C. what he said really made no sense but people still fell for it. If you could read my brain is was going on like, C’mon, I’ve already been denied autographs by Tsonga, Wawrinka, and the Bryan brothers today. You’ve got to give me..me…me….ME! YES ME! YOU GAVE ME AN AUTOGRAPH! ME! AN AUTOGRAPH! MEEEE! LUCKY ME!!!!!
Later that evening we went to the center court to watch his R16 match against Milos Raonic. It was my first ever time to watch a live professional tennis match, much less one with Rafa. The lights dimmed and then swarmed across the stands in dancing beams of color. Ricky Martin’s “La Copa de La Vida” pumped through the speakers, sweeping us along in the rhythm as Rafa came strolling out amidst smoke and applause.Oh yeah. I could live in this moment forever.
But the party lights cleared to the harsh neon floodlights, and serious play began. And my eyes and ears were treated to all the sensations–the squeaking of Rafa’s shoes, the sound of the ball bouncing off the racket strings, Rafa’s odd on-court fidgeting, the soft thunk, thunk, thunk of the ball bouncing before serves—things I had read about and seen videos of on YouTube, but watching it live was like seeing it for the first time. It mesmerized me, like a work of art with beauty and symmetry, but it was also a battlefield, with fighting and scrambling, victory on the line and points on the edge.
As I stared down at the court, from my vantage point little more than a patch of blue and green with white markings and players running across it, it was as if I could see everything. The pictures and articles that I had seen and read for the past years came alive, and I could imagine it all–the USO 2013 when he collapsed on the court in sobs, falling to his knees, even the French Open clay smeared victory–each memory came to life in my mind, and I saw myself as a spectator in each scene, reliving Rafa’s triumphs.
Rafa won the first set relatively easily, but the second set went to an inch-by-inch tiebreaker. The night air quickly turned frigid and I huddled under several coats, waiting for the winning moment. When it came, I sprang out my seat, clapping my hands off, as around me the crowd cheered and far below Rafa fist-pumped and beamed with joy. It couldn’t have been better. Rafa was right when he wrote in his book that nothing is greater than the exhilaration of victory.
As my brother and I headed home and I carried my autographed board down the street, I wanted to run up to each passing stranger and shove it in their face, shouting “Do you see this? Dreams really do come true!!!” But I managed to constrain myself, my desire to appear sane overriding the urge to share my euphoria.
That night when I slept I dreamt that I met Rafa and got his autograph. Lo and behold, when I woke up I realized it was true.