He Silence, that’s what strikes you when you play on Wimbledon’s TCentre Court. You bounce the ball soundlessly up and down on the soft turf; you toss it up to serve; you hit it and you hear the echo of your own shot. And of every shot after that. Clack, clack; clack, clack. The trimmed grass, the rich history, the ancient stadium, the players dressed in white, the respectful crowds, the venerable tradition—not a billboard advertisement in view—all combine to enclose and cushion you from the outside world. The feeling suits me; the cathedral hush of the Centre Court is good for my game. Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing. If I made a mistake on a previous point, forget it; should a thought of victory suggest itself, crush
The silence of the Centre Court is broken when a point’s done, if it’s been a good point—because the Wimbledon crowds can tell the difference—by a shock of noise; applause, cheers, people shouting your name. I hear them, but as if from some place far off. I don’t register that there are fifteen thousand people hunched around the arena, tracking every move my opponent and I make. I am so focused I have no sense at all, as I do now reflecting back on the Wimbledon final of 2008 against Roger Federer, the biggest match of my life, that there are millions watching me around the world.
I had always dreamt of playing here at Wimbledon. My uncle Toni, who has been my coach all my life, had drummed into me from an early age that this was the biggest tournament of them all. By the time I was fourteen, I was sharing with my friends the fantasy that I’d play here one day and win. So far, though, I’d played and lost, both times against Federer—in the final here the year before, and the year before that.
The defeat in 2006 had not been so hard. I went out onto the court that time just pleased and grateful that, having just turned twenty, I’d made it that far. Federer beat me pretty easily, more easily than if I’d gone out with more belief. But my defeat in 2007, which went to five sets, left me utterly destroyed. I knew I could have done better, that it was not my ability or the quality of my game that had failed me, but my head. And I wept after that loss. I cried incessantly for half an hour in the dressing room. Tears of disappointment and self-recrimination. Losing always hurts, but it hurts much more when you had your chance and threw it away. I had beaten myself as much as Federer had beaten me; I had let myself down and I hated that. I had flagged mentally, I had allowed myself to get distracted; I had veered from my game plan. So stupid, so unnecessary. So obviously, so exactly what you must not do in a big game.
My uncle Toni, the toughest of tennis coaches, is usually the last person in the world to offer me consolation; he criticizes me even when I win. It is a measure of what a wreck I must have been that he abandoned the habit of a lifetime and told me there was no reason to cry, that there would be more Wimbledons and more Wimbledon finals. I told him he didn’t understand, that this had probably been my last time here, my last chance to win it. I am very, very keenly aware of how short the life of a professional athlete is, and I cannot bear the thought of squandering an opportunity that might never come again. I know I won’t be happy when my career is over, and I want to make the best of it while it lasts. Every single moment counts—that’s why I’ve always trained very hard—but some moments count for more than others, and I had let a big one pass in 2007. I’d missed an opportunity that might never come again; just two or three points here or there, had I been more focused, would have made all the difference. Because victory in tennis turns on the tiniest of margins. I’d lost the last and fifth set 6–2 against Federer, but had I just been a little more clearheaded when I was 4–2 or even 5–2 down, had I seized my four chances to break his serve early on in the set (instead of seizing up, as I did), or had I played as if this were the first set and not the last, I could have won it.
There was nothing Toni could do to ease my grief. Yet he turned out,
In the end, to be right. Another chance had come my way. Here I was again, just one year later. I was determined now that I’d learn the lesson from that defeat twelve months earlier, that whatever else gave way this time, my head would not. The best sign that my head was in the right place now was the conviction, for all the nerves, that I would win.
At dinner with family and friends and team members the night before, at the house we rent when I play at Wimbledon, across the road from the All England Club, mention of the match had been off-limits. I didn’t expressly prohibit them from raising the subject, but they all understood well enough that, whatever else I might have been talking about, I was already beginning to play the match in a space inside my head that, from here on in until the start of play, should remain mine alone. I cooked, as I do most nights during the Wimbledon fortnight. I enjoy it, and my family thinks it’s good for me. Something else to help settle my mind. That night I grilled some fish and served some pasta with shrimps. After dinner I played darts with my uncles Toni and Rafael, as if this were just another evening at home in Manacor, the town on the Spanish island of Mallorca where I have always lived. I won. Rafael claimed later that he’d let me win, so I’d be in a better frame of mind for the final, but I don’t believe him. It’s important for me to win, at everything. I have no sense of humor about losing.
At a quarter to one I went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. The subject we had chosen not to talk about was the only one on my mind. I watched films on TV and only dozed off at four in the morning. At nine I was up. It would have been better to have slept a few hours more, but I felt fresh, and Rafael Maymó, my physical therapist, who is always in attendance, said it made no difference—that the excitement and the adrenaline would carry me through, however long the game went on.
For breakfast I had my usual. Some cereal, orange juice, a milk chocolate drink—never coffee—and my favorite from home, bread sprinkled with salt and olive oil. I’d woken up feeling good. Tennis is so much about how you feel on the day. When you get up in the morning, any ordinary morning, sometimes you feel bright and healthy and strong; other days you feel muggy and fragile. That day I felt as alert
It was in that mood that at ten thirty I crossed the road for my final training session at Wimbledon’s Court 17, close to the Centre Court. Before I started hitting, I lay down on a bench, as I always do, and Rafael Maymó—who I nickname “Titín”—bent and stretched my knees, massaged my legs, my shoulder, and then gave special attention to my feet. (My left foot is the most vulnerable part of my body, where it hurts most often, most painfully.) The idea is to wake up the muscles and reduce the possibility of injuries. Usually I’d hit balls for an hour in the warm-up before a big match, but this time, because it was drizzling, I left it after twenty-five minutes. I started gently, as always, and gradually increased the pace until I ended up running and hitting with the same intensity as in a match. I trained with more nerves than usual that morning, but also with greater concentration. Toni was there and so was Titín, and my agent, Carlos Costa, a former professional tennis player, who was there to warm up with me. I was more quiet than usual. We all were. No jokes. No smiles. When we wrapped up, I could tell, just from a glance, that Toni was not too happy, that he felt I hadn’t been hitting the ball as cleanly as I might have. He looked reproachful —I’ve known that look all my life—and worried. He was right that I hadn’t been at my sharpest just then, but I knew something that he didn’t, and never could, enormously important as he had been in the whole of my tennis career: physically I felt in perfect shape, save for a pain on the sole of my left foot that I’d have to have treated before I went on court, and inside I bore the single-minded conviction that I had it in me to win. Tennis against a rival with whom you’re evenly matched, or whom you have a chance of beating, is all about raising your game when it’s needed. A champion plays at his best not in the opening rounds of a tournament but in the semi-finals and finals against the best opponents, and a great tennis champion plays at his best in a Grand Slam final. I had my fears—I was in a constant battle to contain my nerves—but I fought them down, and the one thought that occupied my brain was that today I’d rise to the occasion.
I was physically fit and in good form. I had played very well a month earlier at the French Open, where I’d beaten Federer in the final, and I’d played some incredible games here on grass. The two last times
We’d met here at Wimbledon he’d gone in as the favorite. This year I still felt I wasn’t the favorite. But there was a difference. I didn’t think that Federer was the favorite to win either. I put my chances at fifty-fifty.
I also knew that, most probably, the balance of poorly chosen or poorly struck shots would stand at close to fifty-fifty between us by the time it was all over. That is in the nature of tennis, especially with two players as familiar with each other’s game as Federer and I are. You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one. From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes—shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees—in every shot. And there are so many other factors—the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical. So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try and hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true, at speed and under immense mental pressure, time after time. And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train, the better your feeling. Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up being world number one. This was the goal I had set myself during my three patient years as number two to Federer, and which I knew I would be very close to reaching if I
When the match itself would actually begin was another question. I looked up and saw patches of blue in the sky. But it was mostly overcast, with thick, dark clouds glowering on the horizon. The game was due to start in three hours, but there was every chance it might be delayed or interrupted. I didn’t let that worry me. My mind was going to be clear and focused this time, whatever happened. No distractions. I was not going to allow any room for a repeat of my failure of concentration in 2007.
We left Court 17 at about eleven-thirty and went to the locker room, the one at the All England Club that’s reserved for the top seeds. It’s not very big, maybe a quarter of the size of a tennis court. But the tradition of the place is what gives it its grandeur. The wood panels, the green and purple colors of Wimbledon on the walls, the carpeted floor, the knowledge that so many greats—Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Sampras—have been there. Usually it’s busy in there, but now that there were just the two of us left in the tournament, I was alone. Federer hadn’t showed up yet. I had a shower, changed, and went up a couple of flights of stairs to have lunch in the players’ dining room. Again, it was unusually quiet, but this suited me. I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and that continue right up to the start of play. I ate what I always eat. Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion— with olive oil and salt, and a straight, simple piece of fish. To drink: water. Toni and Titín were at the table with me. Toni was brooding. But that’s nothing new. Titín was placid. He is the person in whose company I spend the most time and he’s always placid. Again, we spoke little. I think Toni might have grumbled about the weather, but I said nothing. Even when I’m not playing a tournament, I listen more than I talk.
At one o’clock, with an hour to go before the start of play, we went back down to the locker room. An unusual thing about tennis is that even in the biggest tournaments you share a locker room with your opponent. Federer was already in there, sitting on the wooden bench where he always sits, when I came in after lunch. Because we’re used
To it, there was no awkwardness. None that I felt, anyway. In a little while we were going to do everything we possibly could to crush each other in the biggest match of the year, but we’re friends as well as rivals. Other rivals in sports might hate each other’s guts even when they’re not playing against each other. We don’t. We like each other. When the game starts, or is about to start, we put the friendship to one side. It’s nothing personal. I do it with everybody around me, even my family. I stop being the ordinary me when a game is on. I try and become a tennis machine, even if the task is ultimately impossible. I am not a robot; perfection in tennis is impossible, and trying to scale the peak of your possibilities is where the challenge lies. During a match you are in a permanent battle to fight back your everyday vulnerabilities, bottle up your human feelings. The more bottled up they are, the greater your chances of winning, so long as you’ve trained as hard as you play and the gap in talent is not too wide between you and your rival. The gap in talent with Federer existed, but it was not impossibly wide. It was narrow enough, even on his favorite surface in the tournament he played best, for me to know that if I silenced the doubts and fears, and exaggerated hopes, inside my head better than he did, I could beat him. You have to cage yourself in protective armor, turn yourself into a bloodless warrior. It’s a kind of self-hypnosis, a game you play, with deadly seriousness, to disguise your own weaknesses from yourself, as well as from your rival.
To joke or chatter about football with Federer in the locker room, as we might before an exhibition match, would have been a lie he would have seen through immediately and interpreted as a sign of fear. Instead, we did each other the courtesy of being honest. We shook hands, nodded, exchanged the faintest of smiles, and stepped over to our respective lockers, maybe ten paces away from each other, and then each pretended the other wasn’t there. Not that I really needed to pretend. I was in that locker room and I wasn’t. I was retreating into some place deep inside my head, my movements increasingly programmed, automatic.
Forty-five minutes before the game was scheduled to start I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return; the first step in the last phase of
What I call my pre-game ritual. Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow. I’m a different man when I emerge. I’m activated. I’m in “the flow,” as sports psychologists describe a state of alert concentration in which the body moves by pure instinct, like a fish in a current. Nothing else exists but the battle ahead.
Just as well, because the next thing I had to do was not something that, in ordinary circumstances, I would accept with calm. I went downstairs to a small medical room to have my doctor give me a painkilling injection in the sole of my left foot. I’d had a blister and a swelling around one of the tiny metatarsal bones down there since the third round. That part of the foot had to be put to sleep, otherwise I simply couldn’t have played—the pain would have been too great.
Then it was up to the locker room again and back to my ritual. I put on my earphones and listened to music. It sharpens that sense of flow, removes me further from my surroundings. Then Titín bandaged my left foot. While he did that, I put the grips on my rackets, all six I’d be taking on court. I always do this. They come with a black pre-grip. I roll a white tape over the black one, spinning the tape around and around, working diagonally up the shaft. I don’t need to think about it, I just do it. As if in
Next I lay down on a massage table and Titín wrapped a couple of
Straps of bandage around my legs, just below the knees. I’d had aches there too, and the straps helped prevent soreness, or eased the pain if it came.
Playing sports is a good thing for ordinary people; sport played at the professional level is not good for your health. It pushes your body to limits that human beings are not naturally equipped to handle. That’s why just about every top professional athlete has been laid low by injury, sometimes a career-ending injury. There was a moment in my career when I seriously wondered whether I’d be able to continue competing at the top level. I play through pain much of the time, but I think all elite sports people do. All except Federer, at any rate. I’ve had to push and mold my body to adapt it to cope with the repetitive muscular stress that tennis forces on you, but he just seems to have been born to play the game. His physique—his DNA—seems perfectly
Adapted to tennis, rendering him immune to the injuries the rest of us are doomed to put up with. They tell me he doesn’t train as hard as I do. I don’t know if it’s true, but it would figure. You get these blessed freaks of nature in other sports too. The rest of us just have to learn to live with pain, and long breaks from the game, because a foot, a shoulder, or a leg has sent a cry for help to the brain, asking it to stop. That’s why I need to have so much bandaging done before a match; that’s why it’s such a critical part of my preparations.
After Titín had done my knees, I stood up, got dressed, went to a basin, and ran water through my hair. Then I put on my bandanna. It’s another maneuver that requires no thought, but I do it slowly, carefully, tying it tightly and very deliberately behind the back of my head. There’s a practical point to it: keeping my hair from falling over my eyes. But it’s also another moment in the ritual, another decisive moment of no return, like the cold shower, when my sense is sharpened that very soon I’ll be entering battle.
It was nearly time to go on court. The adrenaline rush, creeping up on me all day, flooded my nervous system. I was breathing hard, bursting to release energy. But I had to sit still a moment longer as Titín bandaged the fingers of my left hand, my playing hand, his moves as mechanical and silent as mine when I wrap the grips around my rackets. There’s nothing cosmetic about this. Without the bandages, the skin would stretch and tear during the game.
I stood up and began exercising, violently—activating my explosiveness, as Titín calls it. Toni was on hand, watching me, not saying much. I didn’t know whether Federer was watching me too. I just know he’s not as busy as I am in the locker room before a match. I jumped up and down, ran in short bursts from one end of the cramped space to the other—no more than six meters or so. I stopped short, rotated my neck, my shoulders, my wrists, crouched down and bent my knees. Then more jumps, more mini sprints, as if I were alone in my gym back home. Always with my earphones on, the music pumping inside my head. I went to take a pee. (I find myself taking a lot of pees —nervous pees—just before a game, sometimes five or six in that final hour.) Then I came back, swung my arms high and round my shoulders, hard.
Toni gestured, I took off the earphones. He said there was a rain delay, but for no more than fifteen minutes, they thought. I wasn’t fazed. I was ready for this. Rain would have the same effect on Federer as it would on me. No need to be thrown off balance. I sat down and checked my rackets, felt the balance, the weight; pulled up my socks, checked that both were exactly the same height on my calves. Toni leaned close to me. “Don’t lose sight of the game plan. Do what you have to do.” I was listening but I was not listening. I know at these moments what I have to do. I think my concentration is good. My endurance too. Endurance: that’s a big word. Keeping going physically, never letting up, and putting up with everything that comes my way, not allowing the good or the bad—the great shots or the weak ones, the good luck or the bad—to put me off track. I have to be centered, no distractions, do what I have to do in each moment. If I have to hit the ball twenty times to Federer’s backhand, I’ll hit it twenty times, not nineteen. If I have to wait for the rally to stretch to ten shots or twelve or fifteen to bide my chance to hit a winner, I’ll wait. There are moments when you have a chance to go for a winning drive, but you have a 70 percent chance of succeeding; you wait five shots more and your odds will have improved to 85 percent. So be alert, be patient, don’t be rash.
If I go up to the net, I hit it to his backhand, not to his drive, his strongest shot. Losing your concentration means going to the net and hitting the ball to his forehand, or omitting in a rush of blood to serve to his backhand—always to his backhand—or going for a winner when it’s not time. Being concentrated means keeping doing what you know you have to do, never changing your plan, unless the circumstances of a rally or of the game change exceptionally enough to warrant springing a surprise. It means discipline, it means holding back when the temptation arises to go for broke. Fighting that temptation means keeping your impatience or frustration in check.
Even if you see what seems like a chance to put the pressure on and seize the initiative, keep hitting to the backhand, because in the long run, over the course of the whole game, that is what’s wisest and best. That’s the plan. It’s not a complicated plan. You can’t even call it a tactic, it’s so simple. I play the shot that’s easier for me and he plays
The one that’s harder for him—I mean, my left-handed drive against his right-handed backhand. It’s just a question of sticking to it. With Federer what you have to do is keep applying pressure to the backhand, make him play the ball high, strike with the racket up where his neck is, put him under pressure, wear him down. Probe chinks that way in his game and his morale. Frustrate him, drive him close to despair, if you can. And when he is striking the ball well, as he most surely will, for you won’t have him in trouble the whole time, not by any means, chase down every attempted winner of his, hit it back deep, make him feel he has to win the point two, three, four times to get to 15–love.
That’s all I was thinking, in so far as you can say I was thinking at all, as I sat there fiddling with my rackets and socks and the bandages on my fingers, music filling my head, waiting for the rain to pass. Until an official with a blazer walked in and told us it was time. I sprang up, swung my shoulders, rolled my neck from side to side, did a couple more bursts up and down the locker room.
Now I was supposed to hand over my bag to a court attendant for him to carry it to my chair. It’s part of Wimbledon protocol on Final Day. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. I don’t like it. It’s a break from my routine. I handed over my bag but took out one racket. I led the way out of the locker room clutching the racket hard, along corridors with photographs of past champions and trophies behind glass frames, down some stairs and left and out into the cool English July air and the magical green of the Centre Court.
I sat down, took off my white track suit top, and took a sip from a bottle of water. Then from a second bottle. I repeat the sequence, every time, before a match begins, and at every break between games, until a match is over. A sip from one bottle, and then from another. And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.
Federer and the umpire were standing at the foot of the umpire’s
Chair, waiting for the coin toss. I leapt up, stood across the net from Federer, and began to run in place, to jump energetically up and down. Federer stood still, always so much more relaxed than me, in appearance anyway.
The last part of the ritual, as important as all the preparations that went before, was to look up, scan the perimeter of the stadium, and search for my family members among the blur of the Centre Court crowd, locking their exact coordinates inside my head. At the other end of the court to my left, are my father and mother and my uncle Toni; and diagonally across from them, behind my right shoulder, my sister, three of my grandparents and my godfather and godmother, who are also my uncle and aunt, plus another uncle. I don’t let them intrude on my thoughts during a match—I don’t ever let myself smile during a match—but knowing they are there, as they always have been, gives me the peace of mind on which my success as a player rests. I build a wall around myself when I play, but my family is the cement that holds the wall together.
I also looked in the crowd for the members of my team, the professionals I employ. Sitting alongside my parents and Toni, Carlos Costa, my agent and great friend, was there; and Benito Pérez Barbadillo, my press chief; and Jordi Robert—I call him “Tuts”—who is my handler at Nike; and Titín, who knows me most intimately of all and is like a brother to me. I could also see, in my mind’s eye, my paternal grandfather and my girfriend, María Francisca, whom I call Mary, watching me on television back home in Manacor, and the two other members of my team who were also absent, but not for that any less critical to my success: Francis Roig, my second coach, as clever a tennis man as Toni, but more easygoing, and my smart, intense physical trainer Joan Forcades who, like Titín, ministers as much to my mind as he does to my body.
My immediate family, my extended family, and my professional team (all of whom are practically family themselves) stand in three concentric rings around me. Not only do they cocoon me from the dangerously distracting hurly-burly that comes with money and fame, together they create the environment of affection and trust I need to allow my talent to flower. Each individual member of the group complements the other;
Roger won the toss. He chose to serve. I didn’t mind. I like my rival to start serving at the beginning of a match. If my head is strong, if his nerves are getting to him, I know I have a good chance of breaking him. I thrive on the pressure. I don’t buckle; I grow stronger on it. The closer to the precipice I am, the more elated I feel. Of course I feel nerves, and of course the adrenaline and the blood are pumping so hard I can feel them from my temples to my legs. It’s an extreme state of physical alertness, but conquerable. I did conquer it. The adrenaline beat the nerves. My legs didn’t give way. They felt strong, ready to run all day. I was bristling. I was locked away in my solitary tennis world but I’d never felt more alive.
We took our positions on the baselines and started warming up. That echoing silence again: clack, clack; clack, clack. Somewhere in my mind I took note, not for the first time, of just how fluent and easy Roger was in his movements; how poised. I’m more of a scrapper. More defensive, scrambling, recovering, on the brink. I know that’s my image; I’ve watched myself often enough on videos. And it’s a fair reflection of how I’ve played most of my career—especially when Federer has been my rival. But the good sensations remained. My preparations had worked well. The emotions that would assail and overwhelm me if I hadn’t performed my ritual, if I hadn’t systematically willed myself into shedding the stage fright the Centre Court would ordinarily induce, were under control, if not altogether gone. The wall I’d built around myself stood solid and tall. I’d achieved the right balance between tension and control, between nerves and the conviction I could win. And I was striking the ball hard and true: the ground strokes, the volleys, the smashes, and then the serves with which we wrapped up the sparring session before the real battle began. I went back to my chair, toweled my arms, my face, sipped from each of my two bottles of water. I had a flashback to this stage in last year’s final, just before play started. I said to myself one more time that I was ready to accept whatever problems came my way and that I would overcome them. Because winning this match was the dream of my life and I’d never
Been closer to reaching it and I might not have another chance again. Something else might fail me, my knee or my foot, my backhand or my serve, but my head would not. I might feel fear, the nerves might get the better of me at some point, but over the long haul my head, this time, was not going to let me down.