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Huge Fan Row – From loving Roger Federer to adoring Rafael Nadal

A huge fan of Rafael Nadal, Lubna Qureishi wrote these thoughts about our champ for SI.com:

If I had a dream job it would be sportscaster. A sportscaster dedicated to Rafael Nadal, that is. That’s how much I love him. But it didn’t start out like that.

I never played much tennis as a kid, growing up in the ‘80s, a few lessons here and there. I would sometimes watch Wimbledon and catch John McEnroe erupting at the chair umpire. But I rediscovered the game in 2001. Commentators like Chris Evert and Jim Courier and technological advancements like Hawkeye and the calculation of serve speed and topspin really helped me appreciate the game and its players.

And soon I made another discovery: Roger Federer. I saw him upset world number one Pete Sampras in a Wimbledon fourth round match in 2001, and in 2003 he won his first Wimbledon title. But then he kept on winning, tournament after tournament. Who could resist Federer, defeating (the word beating doesn’t fit his style) every opponent with swan-like grace, not a hair out of place, not a bead of sweat? That suave invincibility! And his post-match interviews—in multiple languages—so gracious. I hadn’t become aware that the majors were all played on different surfaces.

One day on TV I happened to see Federer playing in the French Open final in June 2008. How fun, I thought, I’ll just sit down and watch the elegant Federer win in straight sets again. Only it wasn’t looking like that. Whatever groundstroke or backhand slice Federer offered, a blistering reply would inevitably come back, neutralizing the shots and turning offense into defense (come on, am I not sounding like a sportscaster?). Nadal dominated the world number one. Who was this guy who could actually ruffle the feathers of The Swan? Who was this intense, smoldering Spaniard, wearing long shorts and no sleeves?

I didn’t like how this opponent seemed to be pushing Federer to his limit. My suave, swan-like Swiss actually broke a sweat, losing in straight sets. Who was this guy disrupting the tennis world order? Rafael Nadal. Don’t worry, I told myself, that was clay. Clay is clay. And grass is Federer’s. And my anticipation for Wimbledon began. Of course, I felt this tournament would be a breeze for The Swan. He had never lost a Wimbledon final thus far. I kept track of his matches during that fortnight (love that word) and it was beginning to look like Federer and Nadal could meet in the final. This didn’t worry me at all. The press was abuzz, however, talking about Nadal and whether his clay court prowess would translate onto grass that year.

“Could this be the year you beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon?” a reporter asked Nadal one day at a press conference mid-tournament. They had played each other in the final in 2006 and 2007. I remember his response was something like this: “I don’t know if I can beat him here, I have never won here and he’s won six times—no, five—I sure hope he doesn’t win a sixth,” he said with a smile. His answer charmed the room. His smile caught me off guard.

The day of the men’s final arrived. After all the hype, everyone was anticipating a marathon of a match. I woke up at six a.m. to watch it. Would it be the suave, swan-like Swiss, or the smoldering Spaniard (who, I noted, actually looked kind of great in white)? I went to another corner of the house so I wouldn’t wake up my sleeping family members with my passionate cheers. However, there was one uncomfortable feeling that was new, that had been simmering—the feeling that I didn’t actually know whom I would be cheering for! What was going on with me? I wondered. Nadal took the first set. I couldn’t believe it. And then the second. The Swan was two sets down in a final! My four-year-old son came into the room.

“Mom, Federer’s losing,” he said, brow furrowed with confused astonishment.
“I know,” I said with a tense breath, and I realized to my shock, that I was fine with it.

With Federer being behind. More than fine. By this time the rest of my family joined me in front of the TV. When The Swan took the third set and was mounting his comeback, I knew for sure where I stood. I began cheering for Rafa (I could now call him that). Loudly. “You got this! Come on! Do it!” Under my breath I wished The Swan would double fault. As they watched my transformation in real time, as if it were its own sporting event, my family looked at me in disbelief. You might even say in horror. “Mom, what happened to you? You liked Federer so much,” my son asked. Rafael Nadal.

That’s what happened. The match continued. Federer and Nadal tried to outsmart each other by adjusting their games, outdo each other during long rallies, and outlast each other as dusk fell. There were deuces, agonizing tiebreaks, match points lost, not to mention interventions from nature. I rooted for Rafa till the very end, when he closed it out amid the gasps of the awestruck crowd, beating Federer in a five set Wimbledon thriller. It was beyond victory; Nadal managed to dethrone Federer in his house. Everyone was shocked; the new champion himself looked stunned, almost apologetic, as he held the trophy among the flashes of cameras. My own marathon of emotions left me exhausted and my voice hoarse, as I bore witness to greatness unseating greatness.

Nadal played fiercely and fearlessly, but that match wasn’t the exact moment when my loyalty changed. It truly began when I heard him at the press conference. English is not Nadal’s first language but that didn’t matter because humility needs no translation. And to this day his whole vibe is what makes me a fan: his game, athleticism, humor, humility, humanity, positive attitude, and yeah, he can do elegant things too—have you seen him in a suit? I became a wild, true, unabashed Nadal fan, following his every tournament, cheering loud enough to wake up the household as I watched the Australian Open at three a.m., and taking a red eye from San Francisco to attend the 2019 US Open final. My 80-year-old parents even watch him play; in fact, my mom supports my intense admiration:

“I have something for you,” she said, handing me a full-page New York Times ad of a glistening Nadal in Tommy Hilfiger underwear (briefs not boxers; I believe it is a significant detail).

When I need a boost, I google his name for the latest story. His wins intoxicate me with glee. His losses gut me. My friends think of me when he wins (a great association), even congratulate me. I have nothing to do with his victories, though I wish I knew him personally. I was devastated that he had to withdraw from Wimbledon 2022, his hopes for a calendar slam dashed. But I’ll always have Wimbledon 2008. They call it the best tennis match in history; I agree. I also call it the match that heralded my new allegiance.

From that day on it was Vamos, Rafa! And always will be.

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