Asing up was not an option. Two sets to love up and one set away Efrom winning Wimbledon, people watching might have felt I was within easy reach of my life’s dream. But I intended to allow no such thoughts into my head. I would take each point as it came, in isolation. I’d forget everything else, obliterate the future and the past, exist only in
Federer winning the first game of the set to love, serving and firing winning drives with the purpose of a man who was not remotely ready to give up the battle, if anything, actually helped my concentration, reminded me that being ahead meant nothing; winning over the long haul was all. I began preparing myself for what suddenly seemed like it might be a very long haul indeed. Partly because the sky was darkening again, threatening rain, but mainly because Federer continued playing the way he had begun, making a high percentage of winners, holding his serve easily, forcing break point after break point on mine, making me battle hard to stop him running away with the set.
People ask me sometimes whether I feel I’ve spoiled Federer’s party, whether my appearance on the tennis scene might have prevented him from setting more records. To which my answer is “How about looking at it another way? How about it’s me whose party he’s spoiled?” Had he not been around, maybe I could have been world number one three years in a row by 2008, instead of watching and waiting all that time as number two. The truth probably is that had one of us not been around, the other would have triumphed more. But it’s also true that the rivalry has benefitted us both in terms of our international profiles—among other things resulting in more interest from sponsors—because it’s made the game of tennis more appealing to more people. When it’s a procession, as we say in Spain, when one player wins time after time, it’s good for the player but not necessarily good for the game. And I think that, in the end, what is good for the game has to be good for the two of us. There’s an
Excitement generated among the fans when we are about to meet, usually in finals because of our number one and two seedings, that touches us too. We’ve played so many games against each other, so many of them incredibly close and exciting, and crucial in our careers, because often they’ve been Grand Slam finals. If I’ve had an edge in matches won—and I led by 11–6 before the Wimbledon 2008 final— it’s because we’ve played a number of our matches on clay, where I do have the upper hand; but if you look at the other surfaces we’ve played on, you’ll see that the results are more even.
All this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of other good players out there more than capable of beating us both, and who do beat us both. I’m thinking of Djokovic—especially Djokovic—but also Murray, Soderling, Del Potro, Berdych, Verdasco, David Ferrer, Davydenko. .
. But the record since I became number two in 2006 shows that Federer and I have dominated the big tournaments, playing against each other in many of the big finals. This has meant, and I think we both sense it, that our rivalry has been acquiring an ever-greater magic in people’s minds. The expectation our matches generate brings out the best in me. Whenever I play against Federer, I have the feeling that I have to play at the very limit of my capacities, that I have to be perfect, and that I have to stay perfect for a long time in order to win. As for him, I think he attacks more against me, plays more aggressively, goes for winners on his drives and volleys more than he does with other players, obliging him to take more risks and to be at 100 percent in order to win.
Whether he’s made me a better player, or I him, it’s hard for me to say. Toni has never ceased to remind me—and I know he is right—that Federer is more technically gifted than I am, but he does so not to cause me despondency, but because he knows saying so will motivate me to sharpen my game. I watch Federer playing on video sometimes, and I’ll be amazed at how good he is; surprised that I have been able to beat him. Toni and I watch a lot of tennis videos, especially of my games, both ones that I’ve won and ones that I’ve lost. Everybody tries to take lessons from defeat, but I try to take them from my victories too. You have to remember that often in tennis you win by only the finest of margins, that there is an element of mathematical unfairness built into
The game. It’s not like basketball, where the winner is always the one who has accumulated the most points. In tennis the outcome often turns less on being the better player overall than on winning points at critical times. That’s why tennis is such a psychological sport. It’s also a reason why you should never allow victory to go to your head. At the moment of triumph, yes, drink in the euphoria. But later on, when you watch a match you’ve won, you often realize—sometimes with a shudder—how very close you came to losing. And then you have to analyze why: was it because I lost concentration or was it because there are facets of my game I have to improve, or both?
Another thing about watching my matches again closely, dispassionately, is that in appreciating and respecting the skill of my opponents, watching them hit wonderful winners, I learn to accept losing points against them with more serene resignation. Some players rage and despair when they are aced, or when they are the victims of a magnificent passing shot. That is the path to self-destruction. And it is crazy, because it means you believe yourself to be capable, in some kind of ideal tennis world, of subduing your opponent’s game from start to finish. If you give your opponent more credit, if you accept that he played a shot you could do nothing about, if you play the part of the spectator for a moment and generously acknowledge a magnificent piece of play, there you win balance and inner calm. You take the pressure off yourself. In your head, you applaud; visibly, you shrug; and you move on to the next point, aware not that the tennis gods are ranged against you or that you are having a miserable day, but that there is every possibility next time that it will be you who hits the unplayable winner.
In the end, you have to understand that the difference in ability between the top players is marginal, practically nothing, and that the matches between us are decided in a handful of points. When I say, and when Toni says, that a large part of the reason why I have been successful is my humility, I don’t mean it in a sappy, PR-savvy sort of way, or because I am trying to make out that I am a well-balanced, morally superior sort of individual. Understanding the importance of humility is to understand the importance of being in a state of maximum concentration at the crucial stages of a game, knowing that
You are not going to go out and win on God-given talent alone. I am not very comfortable talking about myself in comparison to other players, but I do think that maybe in the mental department I have developed something of an edge. That is not to say that I am not afraid, that I don’t have my doubts as to how things will go at the start of each year. I do— precisely because I know that there is so little difference between one player and another. But I do think I have a capacity to accept difficulties and overcome them that is superior to many of my rivals’.
Maybe that is why I like golf so much, because it’s a game that also plays to the discipline I’ve acquired in tennis to stay calm under pressure. You need a base of talent, obviously, and lots of practice, but what’s decisive in golf is not letting one bad shot affect the rest of your game. If there is one sportsman that I admire outside the game of tennis, it is Tiger Woods. When he is at his best, I see in him what I would like to be myself. I like that winning look he has when he plays, and I like most of all his attitude, his way of facing up to the moments of crisis when a game is won or lost. He might hit a bad shot and get angry with himself, but the next time he squares up to hit the ball, he is back in focus. He almost always does what he has to do when the pressure is on, he almost never makes the wrong decision. Evidence of that is the fact that he has never lost a tournament when he has gone out at the top of the leader board in the last round. To be able to do that you have to be very good, but that alone is not enough. You have to be able to judge when to take a risk and when to hold back; you have to be able to accept your mistakes, seize the opportunities that come your way, when to opt for one type of shot, when for another. I’ve never had an idol in any sport, not even in football. When I was a child, I did have a special admiration for my fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moyá, but never the blind admiration of the doting fan. It’s not in my nature, in my culture, or in the way I’ve been brought up. But the closest I have come to an idol is definitely Tiger Woods. It’s not his swing, so much, or even the way he strikes the ball. It’s his clearheadedness, his determination, his attitude. I love it.
He is an example and an inspiration for me in my tennis game, and my golf game too. Excessively so in golf, according to my friends, who think I take the game way too seriously. The difference is that they play
For fun and I find it impossible to play any game without giving 100 percent. This means that when I go out on the golf course with my friends, as when I go out on court to face Federer, everyday human feelings are put on hold. I have a phrase I use before a game to set the boundary between our enmity on the course and our affection off it. I look hard at my golfing pals and say, “Hostile match, right?” I know they laugh at me behind my back about this, but I am not going to change. I am decidedly unfriendly during a golf game, from the first hole to the last.
It’s true that you don’t need the same intensity of concentration as in tennis, where, if your mind wanders for three or four minutes, you can lose three or four games. In golf you have more than three or four minutes between shots. In tennis you have a split second to decide whether to go for a winning drive, a defensive slice, or rush to the net for a volley. In golf you can take thirty seconds over the ball, if you wish, to prepare yourself for a shot. Which means there’s plenty of time to joke and chat about other things during a round. But that’s not the way I play the game, even with my uncles, even with my friend Toméu Salva, much less with my sister’s boyfriend, who is a scratch player. I take my cue from Tiger Woods. From start to finish, I barely say a word to my rivals; I certainly don’t compliment them on a good shot. They complain, they get angry with me, curse me for my rudeness. They say I’m more aggressive even than I am on the tennis court, that on court I’ve been known to smile, but on the golf course I never do, until the game is over. The difference between me and my friends, some of whom are much better golfers than I am (I have a handicap of 11), is that I just don’t see the point of playing a sport unless you’re giving it your all.
The same goes for training, which has caused me problems sometimes when the players I’ve chosen for practice during tournaments say that I train too hard, too soon, that I don’t give them a chance to warm up and they are tired out in ten minutes. It’s been a common complaint all along my career. But I haven’t sold my soul to tennis. The effort I invest is great, but I don’t consider it a sacrifice. It’s true that I’ve trained every day practically since the age of six and that I make big demands of myself. And meanwhile my friends are out
Partying or sleeping late. But I haven’t felt this to be a sacrifice or a loss because I’ve always enjoyed it. That is not to say that there haven’t been times when I’d have liked to do something else—such as stay in bed after a late night out instead of training. As I say, though, I do have late nights. Very late nights, as is the way in Mallorca, especially in summer. I barely touch alcohol, but I do go out dancing with my friends and sometimes stay up till six in the morning. I might have missed out on some things other young men have, but I felt, on balance, that I’ve made a good trade-off.
Some players are monks, but I’m not. That’s not my understanding of how to live life. Tennis is my passion, but I also think of it as my work, as a job that I try to do as honestly and well as if I were working in my father’s glass business or in my grandfather’s furniture store. And, like any job, however large the financial rewards might be, there’s a lot of grind. Of course, I am incredibly fortunate to be one of those few people in the world who has a job that he enjoys, and who on top of that is paid extraordinarily well for what he does. I never, ever lose sight of that. But it does remain, in the end, work. That’s how I conceive of it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t train as hard as I do, with the same seriousness, intensity, and concentration as when I am playing a match. Training is not fun. When my family or friends come along to watch me practicing with Toni or with a fellow professional they know, I am in no mood for jokes or smiles; they know to keep quiet, as quiet as the Wimbledon crowds when I am playing a practice point.
But I also need to switch off and have a good time and party till late or play football with my cousins, all of whom are younger than me, or go fishing, the perfect antidote to the all action stress of tennis. My friends back home mean the world to me and not to go out with them at night to our favorite bars in Manacor and Porto Cristo would mean losing, or at any rate diluting, those friendships. And that would be no good, because if you are happy and have a good time, that also has a positive impact on your tennis, on your training and the matches you play. To deny yourself necessary pleasures would be counterproductive. You’d end up feeling bitter, hating training, and even hating tennis, or becoming bored by it, which I know has happened to players who’ve taken the principle of professional self —
Denial too far. It is possible to do everything, I believe, but always keeping a balance, never, ever losing track of what’s important. In exceptional circumstances I might even skip morning training and train in the afternoon instead. What you can’t do is make the exception the rule. You can train once in the afternoon, but not three afternoons running. Because then training becomes secondary in your mind, it ceases to be the priority, and that’s the beginning of the end. You might as well prepare for retirement. The condition of having fun is keeping the line, sticking to your training regime: that is non-negotiable.
That said, I don’t train now as much as I used to when I was fifteen or sixteen. Then I’d train four and a half, five hours a day, partly with Toni but also a lot of the time with my physical trainer, Joan Forcades. Forcades, another Mallorcan, does not correspond to the image of the muscle-bound, shaven-headed, sergeant major one sometimes has in mind when thinking of a person in his profession. Born, like Toni, in 1960, he is a cultured man, a fanatical reader and film buff, who thinks a hundred thoughts a minute and wears his long hair in a ponytail. He has read every academic treatise there is on his subject and tailored a program for me specifically designed to strengthen every aspect of my tennis. When he worked on building up my muscular strength in those teenage years (we started together when I was fourteen) it was not with a view to give me a bodybuilder’s physique or to shape me for the demands of track athletics. To train as a sprinter or distance runner does not work with tennis, because it’s not what Forcades calls a “linear” game. Tennis is an intermittent game, requiring the body to sustain an on-off explosiveness, sprinting and braking, over a long period of time. Forcades says a tennis player must take his example from the hummingbird, the only animal that combines endless stamina with high speed, able to manage up to eighty wing flaps per second over a period of four hours. So we didn’t build bulk for bulk’s sake. To do so would be counterproductive because in tennis what you want is a balance between strength and speed; disproportionate muscular weight would slow you down. Forcades would feed me the theory in our frequent drives together from my home to a gym he had on the coast. The training we did was infinitely varied, though when I was
Sixteen, seventeen we spent a lot of time on a pulley device created to help astronauts stop their muscles from atrophying in the weightlessness of space. By pulling on a cord attached to a metallic flywheel I built up my arm and leg muscles, but especially my arms, so as to increase their acceleration speed, a major reason why (they tell me scientific studies have been made of this) I am able to apply more revolutions to the ball on my topspin forehands than any other player on the circuit. Training on this “YoYo” flywheel apparatus, as it’s called, I reached a point where I was able to perform the equivalent of 117-kilogram lifts without using weights. I also built up my body strength in those days hoisting myself up and down by the arms on parallel bars. We did exercises in water, we used step machines and indoor rowing machines, we did some yoga, we worked on the muscles but also on the joints and a lot on the tendons, too, to prevent injuries and to improve my elasticity of movement. As for running, we would do sequences that developed my ability to change direction fast, to move sideways back and forth at speed. Everything we did simulated the special stresses tennis exacts on the body and conditioned me to adapt the best I could for the urgent, stop-start nature of the game. And there was another thing Forcades was emphatic about: that we should stick to the training regime even when I least felt like it, when I was tired or in a bad mood or, for whatever reason, just not feeling up to it. Because there would be days during a tournament when I would not be feeling at my best either and by training in such circumstances I’d be better prepared to compete when I was below par.
I trained as an adolescent the way I have continued to train: as hard as I do when I play. If ever I needed pushing, Forcades had his methods. Appealing to my competitiveness, he would say something like, “Do you know Carlos Moyá (whom he also trained) can do ten of those in thirty seconds? Well, since you’re a bit tired today let’s stop at eight.” And then, of course, I’d do twelve.
My father and my uncles are all big, strong men, so there was nothing freakish about me developing a big, athletic body, but because I’d advanced so fast up the tennis ladder I had to make a special effort in my teens to build up my strength in order to compete with grown-up professional players. Several years passed before I found myself
Regularly playing against people my own age, or younger.
My first victory as a top-level professional, in an ATP tournament, came two months short of my sixteenth birthday in the Mallorca Open, against Ramón Delgado, who was ten years older than me. Thanks to this win I stepped up to the international Futures tour, the level below the ATP tour, where I won six tournaments in a row. That led me on to take part in the Challenger series, where players ranked between 100 and 300 in the world typically compete. Now I was coming up all the time against players who were twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four years old. I ended the year 2002, age sixteen and a half, ranked 199 in the world. Early in 2003, less than a year after my breakthrough win against Delgado, I played in two of the top ATP World Tour competitions, Monte Carlo and Hamburg. In the first I achieved an even bigger breakthrough than my victory over Delgado: I beat Albert Costa, who had won the French Open in 2002; and, in the second, my friend and mentor Carlos Moyá. Both were in the world top ten at the time, both of them Grand Slam tournament winners. In four months I climbed from 199 to 109 in the world rankings. I had a badly timed setback, a shoulder injury in training that took two weeks to cure and stopped me from making my debut at the French Open in Roland Garros, but shortly thereafter I played Wimbledon for the first time, making it to the third round. The ATP voted me 2003’s “Newcomer of the Year.” I was a teenager in a hurry, madly hyperactive, operating at a thousand revolutions a minute in training as in competition.
In 2004 my body said, “Enough!” My run was cut abruptly short by a tiny crack in a bone of my left foot that kept me out of the game from mid-April to the end of July. That meant no Roland Garros, no Wimbledon. I’d charged up to 35 in the rankings, and getting back, recovering my rhythm after such a break—the first break in my career because of injury, the first of several, as it would turn out—was not easy. At the time it was cruelly disappointing; in the long run, maybe it was no bad thing. Because the frailty of the body, in my case, has made the mind stronger. And maybe my mind needed a rest too. The wisdom and support of my family and the way Toni had programmed me to endure adversity led me not to despair but to a point where my desire to win, and my determination to do everything it would take to
Win, became even more clearly honed.
That period allowed me to absorb a lesson that all elite sportsmen and — women need to heed: that we are enormously privileged and fortunate, but that the price of our privilege and good fortune is that our careers end at an unnaturally young age. And, worse, that injury can cut your progress short at any time; that from one week to the next you might be forced into premature retirement. That means, first, that you must enjoy what you do; and, second, that the chances that come your way once won’t necessarily come your way again, so you squeeze the most you possibly can out of every opportunity every single time, as if it were your last. Toni had conveyed that message to me in words; now, as I recovered impatiently from my injury, I felt it in my flesh and blood. The more the years pass by, the more loudly you hear the clock ticking. I know that if I manage to keep playing at the top level at the age of twenty-nine or thirty, I’ll be a very lucky and very happy man. That first serious injury I had made me aware at an early age how quickly time passes for a professional athlete. It has served me in good stead. As my friend Tomeú Salva says, very quickly I became “an old young player.” I attach a huge value to what I have and I try to act on that understanding in every point I play.
Not that it always works. Barely a month after my return from injury in 2004 I found myself up against Andy Roddick in the second round of the US Open in New York. Roddick, who’d won the US Open the year before, is a broad-shouldered, good guy, and he was a bit too broad-shouldered and good for me on that day. I fell abruptly to earth, obliging me to remember that, for all my successes, I was still a growing boy. Much bulkier than me in those days, Roddick was world number two then, behind Federer, having been number one the year before. I was playing him on the fast courts at Flushing Meadow, a surface I was still some way from getting to grips with. I had no answer to his enormous serve and received a sound beating, worse even than the score of 6– 0, 6–3, 6–4 suggested.
But my chance would come to avenge that defeat later that year. The highlight of 2004 was representing my country in the Davis Cup,
The tennis equivalent of football’s World Cup. I made my debut against the Czech Republic, when I was still seventeen, and immediately I fell
In love with the competition. First, because I am proudly Spanish, which is not as trite as it sounds, because Spain is a country where a lot of people are ambiguous about their national identity and feel that their first loyalty is to their region. Mallorca is my home and always will be—I doubt very much I’ll ever leave—but Spain is my country. My father feels exactly the same way, evidence of which is supplied by the fact that we’re both passionate fans of Real Madrid, the Spanish capital’s big club. The other reason I love the Davis Cup is that it gives me the chance to recover that sense of team belonging that I lost, with a lot of regret, when I abandoned football for tennis at the age of twelve. I’m a gregarious person, I need people around me, so it’s a peculiar thing that destiny—largely in the shape of my uncle Toni— should have made me opt for a career in a game that’s so solitary. Here was my chance to share once again in the collective excitement I had felt on that unforgettable day of my childhood when our football team won the championship of the Balearic Islands.
I didn’t have the most promising start to my Davis Cup adventure, though, losing my first two games, a singles and a doubles, against the Czechs. It was the toughest possible surface for me, meaning the fastest: hard court and indoors, where the air resistance is lowest. But in the end I emerged as the hero, winning the final and decisive match. Overall, I hadn’t covered myself in glory and might very well have been singled out (“What was he doing there at that age?”) as the reason for our defeat, but when you win the game that clinches victory by the narrowest Davis Cup margin, 3–2, everything else is forgotten, luckily for me.
We then played Holland and won, but no thanks to anything I did, since the one game I played in, a doubles, we lost. But the semifinal against what was then a strong France team was something else altogether. It was my first time representing Spain in Spain, in the Mediterranean city of Alicante, with a local crowd roaring its support in a way I had never felt before. We had a strong team, led by Carlos Moyá and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who were in the top ten, and Tommy Robredo, who was number twelve in the world rankings. I won my doubles match but, in such company, was not expecting to be picked by our captains to play in the singles. I wasn’t, but Carlos suddenly felt
Unwell, and on his advice, they named me in his place. I won my match and I won it well, and we went through to the final against the United States.
Until then, I hadn’t felt as nervous as I should have been. If I had been older, I would have been more aware of the national weight of expectation on my shoulders. I look back on it now and I see myself playing almost recklessly, more adrenaline than brains. But I sobered up and gulped when I saw the stadium where we were going to be playing the final. It was in the beautiful city of Sevilla, but not in the most beautiful of settings. The Centre Court at Wimbledon it wasn’t, nor was I going to be hearing the echo of my shots once the hostilities began. Silence was not going to be on the agenda. Nor were we going to feel remotely cushioned or enclosed. They’d improvised a court in one half of an athletics stadium around which they were going to seat 27,000 people: the biggest audience ever to watch a game of tennis. Add to that the Sevillanos’ famed exuberance and you could well and truly forget the hushed reverence of Wimbledon, or for that matter anywhere else I’d ever played before. This was going to be tennis played before a crowd of screaming football fans. Although, going into the final, I was only down to play one doubles match, and although I was going to share the load with Tommy Robredo (who, as senior partner here, would actually be carrying a disproportionate share of the responsibility for success or failure), at my eighteen and a half years I felt more pressure and more tension than I had ever felt in my long decade of relentless competition. Our rivals were the twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, the world number ones and quite possibly the best doubles pairing ever. We were not expected to win, but the sense of occasion just in the buildup, the mood in the city, the excitement every time people saw us, was unlike anything I had ever imagined witnessing on the eve of a game of tennis.
I had far from given up hope, but the calculation our captains made was that we’d lose the doubles match, giving one point out of a possible total of five for the Americans, and that much would rest on Carlos Moyá, our number one, winning both his singles games. He’d beat Mardy Fish, the number two American; but beating Roddick was by no means a foregone conclusion. The advantage we had was that
We were playing on clay, our favorite surface—not Roddick’s. But he was a formidable competitor, a high-voltage American, and he was world number two, ahead of Carlos, who was then number five. The betting was on Carlos, who would be playing before his own fans, but it was by no means a safe bet. Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was 25 in the rankings (but he was better than that, injuries that year had brought him down) was expected to beat Fish, but against Roddick the odds seemed fifty-fifty. The critical thing was to win both our matches against Roddick, because we really did think we had the beating of Fish, twice.
Those were the numbers, anyway. That was the logic. But what if Fish did win one of his matches? It would not have been the biggest surprise in the game’s history. We’d all suffered surprise defeats in our time (Carlos had lost to me that year, so he could certainly lose to Roddick), and complacency was far, far from our thoughts. Where we all agreed was that the first game on the first day against Roddick, our number two against their number one, would be massively important. If Carlos beat Fish and we won that one, we need not worry about Tommy and me failing to pull off our own surprise in the doubles, and we’d only have to win one of our two singles matches on the third and final day. With the pressure eased, Carlos’s chances of beating Roddick in the matchup of the number ones would surely improve. And even if Carlos were to lose, the pressure on Fish, knowing that if he lost, the U. S. was beaten, would be another major factor in our favor.
So the big game, as we saw it on the day before the matches began, was the one between our number two and Roddick. And our number two was supposed to be Juan Carlos Ferrero, French Open winner and US Open finalist in 2003. Except that he wouldn’t be our number two. It would be me; me against Roddick on day one. And not because he had an injury, but because our three captains decided I should play in his place. Instead of watching on the sidelines, giving my teammates all the energy and encouragement I could muster, I had suddenly been selected to take center stage. Our captains’ boldness, or rashness (as many people saw it), came as an enormous surprise and shock to me. Juan Carlos had reached number one in the world rankings while I had never advanced beyond 50. Besides, Tommy
Robredo, my doubles partner, was ranked 13. The entirely natural thing would have been for Tommy to play if Juan Carlos didn’t. I was the kid in the team, there almost as much as a cheerleader as anything else, the way most people inside and outside the team saw it, for this grown-up business of a Davis Cup final against the United States of America.
Now, for all the camaraderie, tennis is an individual game, and we all want a chance to play. No one would have believed me if I’d said I preferred not to. The pressure and the responsibility excited me more than it scared me. If I’d felt any urge to run away, I might as well have quit professional tennis there and then. No, this was the biggest opportunity of my life to date and I was so thrilled at the prospect of playing I could hardly breathe. But I felt uncomfortable and apologetic. I was young and brazen enough to feel I could beat Roddick, but I was not so crass as to fail to see that pitting me against him would be a violation of the natural order of things. My family had instilled in me a reverence for people older than myself, and these two teammates I’d been selected over were not only my elders, they were also—by any objective light—my betters. It was true that I had been playing well in training that week and Ferrero had been a little below par, but we all knew well enough too that training was one thing, the heat of competition something else. In a game as big as this, experience counted as much as current form, and if Ferrero wasn’t the one, then Robredo, who was four years older than me and a winner of two ATP titles (to my zero at this point), was surely who should replace him.
The reality was that I was by some distance the lowest in the world rankings of our four team members; I’d had a bad year, for much of which I had been out with an injury; I had recently been beaten badly by Roddick; and I was eighteen years old. Besides, I’d have more chances to play in future Davis Cups than all of them, so if I put myself in Juan Carlos’s and Tommy’s shoes, I could see how playing in this final might mean even more to them than to me. Things became quite tense inside our group, and so I decided that rather than put the captains on the spot I’d go and talk to Carlos about it. I’d already known him for some years. We had practiced together many times. I trusted him as if he were an elder brother. And he was one of my own,
I asked him, “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable, more confident,
Honestly, if Juan Carlos were to play? I mean, I’m so young and he’s won so much more than me. . .” Carlos cut me short. I remember his words exactly, “Don’t be a dumb ass. You go ahead and play. You’re playing well. For me, there’s no problem at all.” We talked a little more, I continued to remonstrate a bit, arguing the case against myself, conveying how embarrassed I felt. But he said, “No. Take it easy. Enjoy the moment, take the opportunity. If the captains have decided to put you in it’s because they’ve thought about it long and hard and they trust you. I do too.”
That settled it. It would have been ridiculous to carry on insisting I should not have played. First, because, in truth, I was dying to; second, because it would have meant questioning our captain’s judgment, which it was definitely not my place as a teenager to do. The extreme option, a principled rebellion, would have been too stupid for words.
So I played, going on court after Carlos had done me the additional favor of winning the first match. If I beat Roddick, we wouldn’t win the Davis Cup, but we’d have a big foot in the door; if I lost, it would all be up for grabs. I was as motivated as I had ever been, fully aware that this was, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest match of my young life. I was also afraid—afraid that I would not be up to the challenge, that Roddick would give me the same beating he’d given me in the US Open, that he’d win 6–3, 6–2, 6–2, something like that. That would be embarrassing and no help to the team whatsoever. Because you can lose but at least tire him out along the way, drain him for the next match. But if he thrashed me again, I’d have failed the captains who had placed such faith in me, my teammates, the public, everybody. It was a very high-pressure match for me. It was the Davis Cup final, on Spanish soil; I wasn’t playing for myself alone; and, yes, above all, what caused me the greatest fear was that very risky decision they’d made to pick me.
But when I went out on court, the adrenaline pushed the fear away, and the crowd swept me along on a tide of such emotion that I played in a rush of pure instinct, almost without pausing to think. Never has a crowd been more behind me, before or since. Not only was I the
Spaniard flying the flag in one of the most fervently patriotic cities in Spain, I was the underdog, the David to Roddick’s Goliath. Anything further removed from Wimbledon’s fine sense of tennis etiquette (silence during points: forget it) it would be hard to imagine. I’d never achieve my childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer, but this was the closest I’d ever get to feeling the atmosphere a football player feels walking out onto the stadium for a big match, or scoring a goal in a championship decider. Except that here every time I won a point, practically, all 27,000 people erupted as if I’d scored a goal. And I have to admit that I quite often responded as if I were a footballer who’d just scored. I don’t think I’ve ever pumped my arms in the air or jumped in celebration more often during a game of tennis. I am not sure how Andy Roddick felt about it, but there was no other way to respond to the festive energy that washed down on me. A tennis crowd rarely has much influence on the result compared to a football or basketball crowd. Here they did. I’d always known about the benefits of home advantage, but I’d never felt it before; I’d never quite known the lift a crowd can give you, how the roar of support can transport you to heights you had no idea you could reach.
I needed the help. Blood wasn’t spilled, but it was a battle we waged out there, Roddick and I, in that amazing amphitheater, in the warm winter sunshine of Sevilla. It would be the longest match I’d played in my life up to that moment, three hours and forty-five minutes of long, long rallies, constant slugging back and forth, with him looking for opportunities to charge to the net and me almost always holding back on the baseline. Even if I’d lost, I’d have done my bit for the cause, exhausting him for the match two days later against Carlos, who’d won his first game comfortably. And I did lose the first set, which went to a tiebreak, but this only encouraged the crowd even more, and I ended up winning the next three sets, 6–2, 7–6, and 6–2. I remember a lot of points well. I remember in particular a return I made to a very wide-angled second serve that went round, not over the net, for a winner. I remember a backhand passing shot in the tiebreak of the third set, a critical moment in the match. And I remember the final point, which I won on my serve when he hit a backhand long. I fell on my back, closed my eyes, looked up, and saw my teammates dancing for joy. The noise
In my ears felt like a jumbo jet flying low overhead.
We were 2–0 up in the five game series; we lost the doubles, as predicted, the next day; and on the third day Carlos Moyá, who was our real hero, and who had been chasing this prize for years, won his match against Roddick—and that was that. I didn’t have to play Mardy Fish. We’d won 3–1 and the Davis Cup was ours. It was the highlight of my life and also, as it turned out, the moment when the tennis world stood up and started paying close attention to me. Andy Roddick said something very nice about me afterward. He said that there weren’t many truly big game players, but that I definitely was a big game player. It had certainly been big pressure I’d had to overcome, after the controversy of me being chosen to play Roddick, and it gave me new confidence on which to build for when the time came to play big games, Grand Slam finals, all alone.
You’re the sum of all the games you’ve played, and while that Davis Cup final was far from my thoughts three and a half years later, as I tried to win the third set at Wimbledon’s Centre Court against Federer, it had left its mark. At least it had helped in the first two sets, which I’d won. But he had begun this set playing some brilliant shots, and I was on the ropes, nowhere more so than in the sixth game, on my serve, when I went 15–40 down after playing a really disappointing backhand into the net. For the first time in the match I lost my cool, letting out a cry of rage. I was angry with myself because I knew perfectly well I had not done what I should have done on that shot. I cut it when I should have driven it. My head had failed me. I knew that was not the shot to hit, but I had a moment’s hesitation, a moment of fear, and hit it anyway. I went for the conservative option, I lost my courage. And at that moment, I hated myself for that. The good news was that Federer was on edge too. It was a tremendously tense game for both of us but, for that very reason, it was not the most dazzling game of the match in terms of the quality of the tennis. We were both playing poorly at the same time. The difference was that I played less poorly when it mattered the most. He had four break points in the sixth game, each of which I defended successfully, until finally I got an advantage and won the game, on my second serve.
And so we were at 3–3 with him serving, the famous “crucial”
Seventh game coming up. It’s not always as crucial as tennis lore has it, not at all, but this time it was: I saw my opportunity and I felt I was ready to take it. He had to have been rattled by his failure to capitalize on the chances he’d had in the previous game. At this point overall in the match he’d had twelve break points to my four, but he’d taken one and I’d taken three. Here was evidence of how tennis matches turn on the big points, of how the difference between victory and defeat lies not in physical strength or native ability but in having the psychological edge. And that was on my side of the court right now; the tension was at its highest, but the momentum had shifted. Suddenly, having survived the pressure he had been piling on me the game before, I was feeling fleet-footed and sharp. Looking up, I saw the sky was heavily overcast, not a shadow on court. It seemed as if it really was going to rain after all. All the more reason to try and kill off the match now.
And that was what everything suggested I was about to do. Three times he came to the net and three times I won the point. He was rushing things, losing his cool. I was 0–40 up. I heard a cry of support from where my uncles and aunt were sitting. “Vamos Rafael!” I glanced up to acknowledge I’d heard them. But then, in the blink of an eye, the tables turned again. It was I who succumbed to the pressure. I made a poor return of serve, short to mid-court, and handed him the point. Next, I failed to return a serve. But it was a good serve, so on to the next point. I had one last chance to break before he could get back to deuce. Here, at 30-40, was the point in this match that I never forget. A terrible memory. He missed his first serve, hit a perfectly returnable second to my forehand, and I fluffed it completely, into the net. It was my third chance, having lost the previous two, and fear gripped me. I lacked decision, my head was not clear. That was a test of mental endurance, and I failed it, that’s why I remember it so painfully. I failed where I had trained myself all my life to be strongest. And once again, I caught myself thinking, “I may not get this chance again; this might be the turning point of the match.” I knew I had lost a big chance right there to win Wimbledon, or to come very close to winning it.
And, sure enough, two great serves and he won the game. It was a huge disappointment, but I had to wipe it out of my mind immediately.
And I did. I won the next game comfortably and he did the next one on his serve. He was 5–4 up and then, as forecast, the rain came down. I was ready for this and took it calmly, even though more than an hour passed before we were able to restart. I marched to the locker room, where Toni and Titín promptly joined me. Titín changed the bandages on my fingers and I changed my clothes. We said very little. I was in no mood for talking. Federer was looking more relaxed, chatting and even laughing a bit with his people. He was down two sets, but I was more tense than he was. Or looked more tense, at any rate.
Back on court, I served to save the set and did so; and two games later saved the set again. We went to a tiebreak and he killed me with his serving, ending the set as he’d begun it. Three aces, plus another serve that might as well have been one, gave him the tiebreak by seven points to five and the set, 7–6. I’d had my chance, and through a couple of moments of weakness when I should have been strongest, I’d thrown it away. But I was still two sets to one up.