What a weekend. Those of you who know me, even in the slightest, must be expecting a tennis-based blog today. For those of you whose universe passes through a different dimension, on Sunday, Rafa (otherwise known as Rafael Nadal) accomplished the unheard-of: a tenth Roland Garros title!
No other player in the open era has ever won ten of the same Grand Slam titles. His win was celebrated by the presentation of a special replica trophy, engraved with his ten successes on the red clay.
Rafa is very special to me. Not least because his wins are not always easily come by but are always beautifully executed. He is someone who has learned the power of connecting mind and heart in order to achieve excellence.
Beyond excellence, actually. There were shots during his last two matches this year that defied physics. They were not just unbelievable; they were – in the ‘normal’ world – impossible. His opponents, as well as the spectators, could only stand and applaud. Even the commentators were heard to say: ‘I have no words.’
I have found Rafa personally inspiring since the very first time I saw him play. That was back in 2005 when he won his first French Open title. I’d never seen clay-court tennis before. It wasn’t generally accessible on Freeview TV and I’d only heard about it on the radio. I grew up watching Wimbledon – in black and white on the BBC.
My tennis experience (and, I hasten to add, as a spectator only – I’m rubbish at playing it) was entirely grass-based, with competitors wearing pristine white clothing, hitting the ball ‘politely’ over the net and rallies lasting three or four shots , if you were lucky. All nicely contained and ‘proper’.
Suddenly, I was confronted by two youngsters, wearing bright colours, sleeveless T-shirts and ‘capri’ pants. My recollection is of them ‘scrapping it out’ on the court, extended rallies of twenty or more shots – and they were sliding! They were treating the place like a playground.
Not only that but the umpire kept getting out of his chair; every time a line call was dubious, he would climb down and visit the spot to view the mark the ball had made, while the crowd boo-ed and whistled. This was not something I could ever imagine tennis could be. And I was exhilarated by it.
It was also Rafa’s first attempt at Roland Garros. At the age of 19, (he had his birthday on the day of the semi-final with Federer!) he won his first Grand Slam. He has only ever lost twice at the French since then, and on both occasions, he was injured but played on in deference to his opponent.
And this is something else I love about him. His complete and utter respect for whoever is on the other side of the net. Regardless of their ranking, Rafa brings the best game he has to each occasion.
Actually, he brings it to each point. He never plays a point without the intensity and concentration he would give to a match point. He never backs off, or takes it easy, or plays as if he can’t be bothered. He never goes into a despair-tantrum or stops trying or gives up.
If he makes a mistake, if a ball goes out or misses its mark, he merely registers that as a brief disappointment and lets it go. Next point, new opportunity. As simple as that. Always in the moment. Always present.
These are glorious qualities, made all the more remarkable by the history of breaks he’s had to take from his career due to injury. This latest achievement follows a withdrawal from last year’s Roland Garros where Rafa left in tears due to a wrist injury, and the press querying whether he would ever play at his best again. The last time they said that, he returned to win three Grand Slams in a row, ending the year as world no.1.
He carries within him a true warrior archetype, and I think this was what spoke to me the first time I watched him play. He bore a remarkable resemblance to the Sioux Indians I used to side with in old westerns. I was slowly recovering from nearly a decade of chronic illness, and his fighting spirit ignited something inside me which eventually resulted in a return to college and a second career.
In the interim, I have seen him accomplish greater and greater goals but never losing touch with his humanity or his humility in the process. And each time, I feel inspired to re-examine my own life and see where I might do the same. To become more of myself.
Three years ago, after a devastating year of loss and tragedy, I was trying to turn my life around again, when Rafa won his last Roland Garros. On that occasion, he had to beat Djokovic who was playing at his finest, and who was attempting to complete his own personal set of all four Grand Slam titles. Djokovic had never won the French. No-one other than Rafa had for the previous decade – except Federer, once.
At the time, I was contemplating taking up writing seriously. I had been going to a Creative Writing class since the autumn and found I loved writing fiction. Just as Rafa won his ninth French victory, we were challenged in the class to compose a traditional sonnet. Fourteen lines, classical rhyming pattern, iambic pentameter! That was another point at which Rafa’s determination and willingness to ‘go there’, inspired me.
The sonnet I produced is not brilliant but it captures something of what I felt on seeing him perform, More importantly, it confirmed for me where my future lay. It was at that point that I made the decision to turn my scribblings into my first novel and become a writer. I reproduce it here in deep gratitude and loving respect for my ‘mentor’.
In midst of heat and dust, two warriors came
Each bent on shaping history in their wake
The Serb with three Grand titles to his name
But never this, the red at which men quake
The Matador who’d lost but once in France
And more than sixty conquests since his start
With gutted weapons they began their dance
A fierce perfection driving on their art
They played with architectural loops and serves
Ferocious spins at thousands rpm
With graceful arcs and unrelenting curves
They bent the laws of time and space – and then
Bent double, reaching for his breath, his play,
His gut, his heart, his win. The King Of Clay