The evening before is filled with anticipation, a mixture of excitement and nerves. Knowing what is to come. A little bit like Christmas eve for a child. Or even like a politician the night before election day, tomorrow is big. There is no denying it, this is what we live for. I have been a fan of Rafael Nadal for 11 years now, I have been in the arena for a Rafa match copious times. I have seen the magician Federer, I have seen the admirably mechanical Novak. But still the excitement remains. It is true the first time is sweetest. The pleasure of that first hit can never be matched, but the thrill and this sense of privilege will always remain.
I awake bright and early. It is time for the pilgrimage to begin. It is only when you arrive in London that the brain starts to exert itself at a rapid pace. A city of 8 million people, all doing different things today. Some good, some bad. For me, it is oh so good. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do more. At that moment, you feel a sense of fortune, like a hand on your shoulder.
The O2 Arena itself is like a caldron, reminds me of the coliseum in Rome. This is a place where two men do battle for the pleasure of the baying crowd. Just to enter it alone brings chills to my bones. I walk through the large spacious area, thousands of people walking around. My allegiances are distinct from my clothing. A maroon Rafael Nadal bull t-shit. A beautiful piece of clothing, even if the Bull logo would be larger if I had my way, dominating the T-Shirt space. I walk past a horde of Swiss fans, slight tension knowing we are on opposite sides of what seems like something resembling a tennis war. A great man once described the 2008 Wimbledon final as seeming more like a battle for the very soul of the sport than just a mere battle for the title of “The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World”. However much like Rafael and Roger, the mutual respect is clear, we know what each man has done for each other. For several years in that glorious period when Federer and Nadal faced off on a Sunday, the world sat down and watched. They elevated each other to glorious heights in terms of fame and recognition. Without each other this could not have been possible.
We take our seats, here comes the slow build. The doubles is our appetizer. Something to feast upon before the main course. However it is much like a bowl of prawns before a delicious steak, we are all focusing on one thing and it sure ain’t the prawns. Do not misinterpret me, I love doubles. Murray Brothers versus the great Hewitt and Sam Groth was one of the great matches of the year in my humble opinion. But today the doubles is irrelevant, a bit like your local village football club does not catch the eye on the day of a Barcelona/Real Madrid footballing battle.
The arrival of the players is a sight to behold. It is clear who the crowd favours, the large roar for the Golden Boy of British tennis is ear splitting. When Rafa walks out there seems to be deathly silence. Originally I mistake this for a sign of disrespect but then I realize what is happening. The crowd of 18 thousand are in awe. Just to be in the presence of such greatness has overwhelmed people. Not me, I remain calm, focused and motivated for what is to come.
Murrdal has always been an interesting rivalry. Supposedly Andrew has the capacity to handle left hander’s due to his brother being a lefty and their constant battles throughout childhood. However, it is clear that on those cold afternoons in Dunblane that a young Jamie Murray was not getting the RPMs to truly equip a modern day Andy for such a task as facing the Rafael Nadal forehand. Andy’s true arrival came at the 2008 US Open when he crushed the dreams of many a Rafa fan in the SFs. However, Rafa has inflicted may a painful afternoon on Andy too, with crushing defeats in Wimbledon SFs being some of the most painful of Andy’s career. The main problem is, this rivalry has been too scarce in recent years, a 2015 meeting in Madrid being a rare one. That was hardly a great day with it being one of the worst performances of Rafa’s career. It is at this moment I realize the fortune to attend a battle between the two. I stand up and applaud, not either man, but the rivalry.
The match begins, Murray breaks immediately. The dark clouds begin to emerge over the court, is it going to be another one of those days which we have seen too often in 2015. But this time it is different. Rafa refuses to accept it and breaks back immediately. Once the match gets to 5-4 with Murray serving next, I know the game is up. Murray will succumb, time to relax and enjoy the show.
Between changing of ends, music bellows out. ‘Love Train’ by the O’ Jays. The lyrics resonate(YouTube it). People all over are joining hands in appreciation of Rafa. The people of Russia and China need to get on the Rafa train right now, it’s going to the next stop and nothing will stop it. ”If you miss it, I will feel sorry for you”. That is so true, anyone who is not aboard the Rafa train, I feel sorry for you.
As the match goes on you can sense a change in the atmosphere. A once boisterous Murray crowd is undergoing a conversion. They didn’t want to support Rafa, but his actions have forced them to. They can’t resist the charm of the man and who can blame them. Anyone who has seen Rocky 4 will be able to relate to this, it is almost a replica. I am sure if David Cameron or Nicola Sturgeon was in the crowd they would also find their allegiances changing too, it is almost an irresistible force.
In the end, it was a very convincing win for Rafa, a great performance. Of course Murray was poor, I can not deny that, no one with eyes can. But the question needs to be asked why was Murray so poor? There is a reason and that reason has a name, the name is Rafael Nadal. The combination of Rafa’s tennis ability, his aura and supreme mental focus have affected Murray. Like a magnetic force, it can’t be resisted.
One of the great things about watching Rafa play live is to see the small details. The footwork, for example, a great sight to see. Like a cross between a ballet dancer and a rhinoceros. Small steps of beauty but also rampaging stomps to close the ball down. Or the forehand, another stroke full of brutality, but a thing of splendour too.
Just looking at Rafa in the flesh, the superlatives come to mind; athlete, humility, greatness, humanitarian, fighter, inspiration. But the thing that seeps through most of all at those small moments is humanity. This is a normal man, but doing special things. It is at this moment the true appreciation of Rafeal Parera Nadal reaches its peak.
All in all, that brings Rafa’s record in 2015 with me in the crowd to 5-0. Maybe Uncle Toni, the puppeteer of his greatness, will be in contact with tickets for the later stages of 2016 French Open. However on today’s evidence, no lucky charm will be needed.
Thank you all for reading but most of all, thank you, Rafa.