My RAFA Experience
It was the best tennis experience of my life to play with Rafa on five consecutive days during the second week of the 2011 Championships. “I play each point like my life depends on it”- it’s this mentality and attitude that made Nadal my idol when growing up- such a warrior.
I had just lost my second round match in the Junior event aged just 16 when I heard the news from my coach that I was to play with my hero that afternoon. I was struck by emotions; excitement, panic, nervousness, joy. I was getting the opportunity to play with Rafa Nadal!
Ever since I had first seen him playing for Spain’s winning Davis Cup team as a 17-year-old in 2004, I had looked up to him. I had always worshipped his determination, positivity, presence, and persistence on the tennis court. All those qualities make his opponents nervous when stood on the opposite side of the net from him. So that’s exactly how I felt when I got the call up on the Tuesday ahead of his quarter final match with Mardy Fish at Wimbledon.
I arrived at the Aorangi Park practice court ahead of time, with a substantial crowd already having gathered to watch the practice. Rafa had not yet arrived, so I took the opportunity to warm up and try settle my nerves somehow. Some of Rafa’s team came out and introduced themselves whilst I warmed up, but still no sign of my hero.
Finally, he came; all serious and intense. Not a word was said - just a handshake to acknowledge me with pure focus in his eyes. The handshake only seemed to intensify my nervousness if anything.
Stood on the baseline, looking across the net at him was like a dream. Uncle Tony fed the first ball in…Rafa and I hit 4 shots back and forth to each other before, “WHACK”- winner past me into the corner. Next rally, 5 balls hit back and forth… “WHACK”- forehand winner flew past me into the corner. And that’s how the practice went for a whole hour.
I remember hitting one feed early in the practice where I was so tight that the ball almost bounced twice in front of Rafa. But fortunately, as the practice went on, I slowly got settled in and found some rhythm and grew in confidence. From that moment onwards, I played freely and loved every second of it. He hit the ball with such power, spin and intensity. Luckily for me we were playing on the grass of Wimbledon and not on the clay of Roland Garros. Otherwise his forehands would have been kicking up way above my head.
The practice finally came to an end- much to my disappointment. To be honest, I didn’t expect much communication from Nadal given how focused and intense he was before the session, but surprisingly he came over, shook my hand and began talking to me. He asked me how old I was and what my ranking was in juniors and professionally. So I answered, that I was 16 and didn’t yet have an ATP ranking- to which he responded by telling me “You need to be in the main draw of Wimbledon in 2 years time”. That was a shock to my system- but I guess Rafa was top 50 ATP by the age of 17. He clearly has rather high standards.
After taking several pictures with Rafa- which are now framed in my bedroom- I thanked Rafa and went to get my bag. Whilst doing this, I noticed that his team seemed to be getting a little annoyed at something that was happening at the exit of the court. I was a little confused! So after a little discussion between Uncle Tony and my coach, it turns out that they had mistaken my parents, who had gathered by the court exit, for doping control people. Rafa had thought that my parents had come to take him for a doping test- hahaha!
After I finished showering, I went to the media building and did some interviews about the magical afternoon that I’d just had, before heading back to Reed’s school. At dinner that evening, I received a phone call from my coach again, saying that Rafa had asked for me to practice with him again the next afternoon. The whole thing was becoming surreal by this point.
The next day was outrageous. We practiced on court 4, with massive crowds having gathered because it was one of the match courts open to anyone with a ground pass. This time I was a lot less nervous and I settled in very quickly despite the crowd gathering by the hundred lining all sides of the court trying to get a glimpse at Rafa practicing. The video below covers some of that Wednesday practice on court 4.
I was feeling like the luckiest guy in the world to get the opportunity to play with Rafa two days in a row, but the practice requests just kept on coming. I played with him 5 times in total with the last practice being on the Saturday before his Sunday final against Djokovic. I was clearly his lucky charm! I kept on getting asked by my friends if Rafa and I were best buddies and if I have his phone number- which I don’t, unfortunately.
I was lined up to play with Rafa for a sixth day in a row. I was asked to warm him up for his final against Djokovic on the Sunday…that is until Liam Broady took my place as a consolation for having lost in the Boy’s final that Saturday! Obviously Rafa then went on to lose the final because he didn’t have me, his lucky charm, to warm him up!
So that was my Rafa story. The best tennis week of my life. I can’t wait to get back from injury to continue my journey to the top. Hopefully in a few years I’ll be able to play Rafa again. This time on the match court!
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