June 11, 2017 will forever be etched in my memory. The excitement, the electrifying ambience, the powerful game, the cheer of the roaring crowd, the cries of victory, the quintessential Rafa celebration, the emotional tears that were unavoidable as a culmination of my 12 years as a Rafael Nadal fan – every single moment will be played and replayed in my mind for years to come.
A crushing 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Stan Wawrinka on Philippe Chatrier court made Rafa the most successful player at a Grand Slam in the professional era. The first ever tennis player to win 10 titles in any Grand Slam, Rafa clinched his La Decima at Roland-Garros in style and being totally in control of the game, of the day, and of the tournament.
June 11 promised to be a happy day, simply because summer seemed to be confident of itself. The skies were azure and clear, with no imminent threats or tantrums from the clouds. We had our breakfast at our favourite bakery, down the road from our hotel. I ordered my favourite Quiche Lorraine. By now, we were totally at home in Paris. The walk to Roland-Garros seemed like an everyday routine. There was no hesitation, no doubtful steps, not even the alertness that tourists usually have; we just strolled through the streets, deep in conversation about the day ahead of us. We analysed Rafa’s game, how he was doing so far this year. We reminded ourselves that it may not be an easy victory over Wawrinka, who very often surprised his opponents. Moreover, Wawrinka had never before lost a Grand Slam final that he’s been a part of. Yet our instinct told us that 2017 belonged to the man of the moment, the man standing on the brink of making history.
What could possible go wrong? He was in the best form of his career, he had not even dropped a set so far in the tournament, and after a few injury-plagued seasons, he was back to his former glory. So deep were we in conversation that we hardly felt the one hour walk to Roland-Garros.
We had come quite early, 5 hours early to be precise, hoping to catch a glimpse of Rafa during his practice. We had heard that he practises for 2 hours every day, even on the day of a final. Watching Rafa practice made us realise why his brilliance had not dimmed over the years. With the energy and enthusiasm of a newly turned pro playing his first Grand Slam, Rafa practiced with the highest degree of concentration and dedication. The fans were oohing and aaahing, but Nadal had his blinkers on, and his focus was only on the La Decima trophy that would make him the undisputed King of Clay.
At the end of the practice session, a fan from China who was in the audience got up and screamed “Uncle Toni, please tell Rafa that I have travelled 14 hours by plane just to come and watch him. I am his biggest fan, please get him to meet me.” I don’t know how that ended, but it set me thinking about the universal appeal of sports and sportsmen. You choose your sports hero based on certain traits he or she has, and then it just does not matter whether they are from your country or from halfway across the world, whether or not they speak your language, or follow your religion. All that is real are the human traits that transcend all geographic and political boundaries.
If you ask me now what makes me a Nadal fan, I’ll tell you that first and foremost is his endearing quality of total sincerity and immense integrity. This quality reminds me of my mother, and what I love most about her. If we are in a yoga class, and the instructor asks us to do 10 rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then goes out of the class, you can be sure that 90 percent of the class will skip one or two rounds, but not my mother. She will do her full 10 rounds with utmost sincerity and devotion.
Same with Rafa, be it a practice session, or his first Grand Slam match, or his 100th appearance in a Grand Slam, his level of dedication and sincerity, and his devotion and respect for the game of tennis remains the same. He puts in 200 percent of himself to every ball he plays. This quality coupled with his humility through all his victories, and grace through all his defeats, makes him, beyond compare, my most favourite sports person ever.
After a leisurely lunch, where we were joined by Rafa fans from all over the world, we made our way to Philippe Chatrier court for one final time. Every seat was occupied, and people had come prepared with umbrellas, sunscreens, towels, beverages and snacks. The message was clear: they had come fully prepared, and no one was getting up from their seat until the last point was played.
If the crowd expected a tense and exciting five setter with tie-breaks, they were bitterly disappointed. Although, such a match would have made my day more memorable too, at that moment I did not want excitement. The stakes were too high to afford a loss. I would make a compromise – I could do without the excitement that my sporting soul usually craves. Straightforward victory sounded good enough. And sure enough it was. Blink. Rafa one set up. Blink. Two sets up. Blink. Game, set and match. It was a sure and confident victory for Rafael Nadal as he brushed aside Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, to become the first ever player to win a tenth French Open title. As I would say to myself many times later, the universe conspired to make it Rafa’s year, and there was nothing Stan Wawrinka could have done that day to stop him.
Then came the moment that made my 8 thousand mile journey worth every penny, and a moment that I would gladly travel 8 thousand miles for to watch again, the quintessential Nadal victory celebration, the moment he hits his winning point, and simultaneously falls flat on his back. The crowd was up on their feet, whistling, and screaming, and crying. I was in a daze, and had tears rolling down my eyes. It was the culmination of a 12-year long fan affair with the man of the moment, the undisputed King of Clay, the greatest clay-courter of all time, the modest superhero, Rafael Nadal.
The celebration was made all the sweeter with Uncle Toni — his coach since he was six – handing him the Coupe des Mousquetaires in what can be described as an emotional ceremony. The details are a bit hazy for me now, as my heart and emotions overruled my mind. But, no regrets; none at all, as I would not want to relive this moment in any other way. June 11th 2017 – a day that will be etched in my memory forever, the day I witnessed history being made.