The last week of January, I was fortunate enough to be selected to speak at Cisco Networkers in Barcelona. Besides the fantastic professional opportunity it presents, it also was a good excuse for me to play tennis with my friend Steve Simlo who was going to be there. In the past, Steve and some of my other work colleagues have taken time out to play tennis when our work schedules intersect. We’ve done it in Frankfurt, Vancouver, Orlando, Anaheim, Santa Clara, Orlando. We were looking forward to taking off at some point during the week and playing on a clay court.
Rafa will win
Also, that week was the Australian Open Tennis Tournament in Melbourne. Rafa Nadal, the master of clay from Majorca, was going to be making a run at his first hard court Grand Slam victory, so I expected there to be good coverage in Spain. There was also the drama of Roger Federer pursuing his 14th Grand Slam title to tie the all time record of Pete Sampras.
When I arrived at my hotel, I asked the front desk, “What channel will be covering the Australian Open?”. The concierge looked at me insistently and said “Rafa is going to win”.
I smiled and said ‘Oh, that would be fine. I would very much like to watch it. Do you know what channel it is going to be on ?” He looked at a newspaper and told me he thought it would be on Canal Plus or Sky Sports and didn’t know the time. I decided I’d figure it out myself.
Well, it didn’t work out for me and Steve. It seemed that whenever one of us was free the other was busy. We were never able to line something up. By the end of the week I decided to make an appointment at a tennis club and at least get a lesson and hit some balls with a pro. After an exhaustive search for a club with an English speaking tennis pro I found the courts on Montjuic - a picturesque hill where the 1992 Summer Olympics were held. I made an appointment for Saturday at noon.
Nadal, Verdasco and Federer
Meanwhile, the drama at the AU Open was proceeding very nicely. Four out of the past eight Grand Slams finals featured a matchup between Roger Federer and Nadal. After Roger’s devastating defeat at Wimbledon followed by Nadal winning the Gold medal in Beijing it was a much anticipated showdown on a hard court.
Roger was playing very well down under. He put everyone away in straight sets with the exception of Tomas Berdych - who pushed Roger to 5 sets. This run included a complete blowout of Juan Martín del Potro at 6-3, 6-0, 6-0.
The only thing that was standing between a Federer/Nadal Grand Slam final re-match was Fernando Verdasco. I’ve never watched Verdasco play before this week but I was very impressed. Verdasco is a fellow Spaniard from Madrid. His rise in the tennis world was ironically linked to his victory for Spain in the Davis cup when he was asked to step up when Nadal was injured and couldn’t play. His new found confidence found him roaring into the Australian Open in which he knocked out Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - the finalist from 2008.
On Friday, the Nadal/Verdasco match was going to start at 9:30am Central European time. I didn’t have any meetings that day but I needed to prepare for my presentation on Monday in London. I planned to watch the match in my hotel room and work on my slides. The match was very intense with both players displaying great serving and incredible shot making. Verdasco won the first set in a tiebreaker. Into the second set Nadal rallied and won the set 6-4. It was nearly 12pm in Barcelona and I didn’t want to spend the whole day in my hotel room. I thought that I would head out for lunch and that Nadal would probably win anyway. I could check the score later on my phone.
A dark room
Even with Google maps and speaking a little Spanish I still had a hard time finding particular locations in Barcelona. I thought that it would be a good adventure for today to go find the tennis club on Montjuic where my lesson was going to be on Saturday. I took the metro to a funicular to the top of Monjuic. Once there, I walked along the ridge overlooking the city, past museums and sculptured gardens. I bought a sandwich in front of a musician playing guitar and ate my lunch.
A while later I found my way to the tennis club. The courts were made of bright orange clay and built with old stone that looked like it was 100 years old. After speaking to the man at the front desk and looking around the club, I checked my phone to see the final score of the Nadal/Verdasco match. It said they were in a 5th set! They have been playing for almost 5 hours. I asked the man at the desk…
Andy: Verdasco, Nadal, cinco set, ahora, now ?
Tennis Club Guy: Oh, si. (in broken english) Would you like to watch ?
Andy: Yes, yes, mucho gracias.
Tennis Club Guy: I’ll take you to the room.
He walked me up a short flight of stairs to a dark room with a TV playing. There were 3 white haired men sitting in overstuffed chairs and a couch behind them. Some younger men were standing around the room. I looked at one of them and asked ‘Por favor’ and pointed to the couch. He shrugged his shoulders and indicated for me to sit.
It was the 5th set, 4-4. I can’t believe these guys still had this much energy. Nadal is serving - loses some points but holds. Now this can be the final game. Verdasco is serving, he needs to hold or lose the match. On the bottom of the screen it says total points - Verdasco 189, Nadal 189. At this point I think nerves got to Verdasco. He double faults and gives Nadal 3 match points. Verdasco holds off one of the match points but then sadly double faults to end the match.
The old men were gesticulating and teasing each other during the match. As soon as the all Spanish semi-final was over, they got up and left the room.
On Saturday, I was looking forward to hitting some balls on a clay court - and maybe learning something from a Barcelona instructor. When I left my hotel the ground was wet from some overnight rain but it didn’t look too bad. When I got up to the club it seemed that Montjuic had received more rain and the clay courts had puddles. The instructor didn’t even show up that day. The manager was a nice guy and he walked me over to a court with a wall and said I could hit there for 15 Euros an hour. I wanted some exercise and was holding my racquet so I agreed. It was an interesting setup. There were targets on the wall and I was practicing my ground strokes on clay.
The Nadal/Federer rematch started again at 9:30am. I had a 2:30pm flight to London and I thought I would have time to watch most of the match. Then I realized that I would need to leave for the airport at noon and would only see the first half of the match.
Everyone was wondering if Nadal would be able to come back after that epic match against Verdasco. It turned out to be the longest match in AU Open history. Federer definitely was the favorite since he has never lost a Grand Slam final on a hard surface and this was the first time that Nadal has made it to a final on this surface.
The coin toss for these two is always irrelevant - Roger always prefers to serve and Nadal to receive. The match quickly gets off to a rocky start. In the first game Roger wildly double faults and then shanks one to give Nadal the first break. Roger recovers his nerve and then breaks right back in the next game to level the set. The set proceeds until 5-5 when Roger has a number of errors and is broken again. Nadal finishes the set at 7-5.
Roger seemed to get his act together in the second set and produces some amazing shots to win the set at 6-3. Now, I need to head to the airport. Maybe I’ll be able to watch it there.
After a taxi ride, checking in my bags, going through security, I make it to my gate. My plane is taking off in about an hour and will be boarding soon. I ask where there might be a bar or restaurant with a TV. They tell me at the other end of the concourse - about a 10 minute walk. I grabbed my stuff and start going. It is 10 minutes at a very quick pace. I find a bar with one big TV screen. There are a bunch of people watching the final. The crowd is made up of people from around the world. The score is 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 0-2 in the forth set. Nadal is visibly exhausted and it almost looks like he’s given up on this set. Roger pulls it out at 6-3 to level the match at two sets a piece.
Damn, I need to catch my plane. They should be boarding by now. I’ll have to find out what happened when I arrive in London. I run back through the terminal and arrive sweating and out of breath. What ? My plane is delayed. How long ? At least 45 minutes. Great, I run back through the terminal - another 10 minutes. By now lots more people have gathered at the bar. No one is eating or drinking - they are just watching the match. I can’t get the same seat back. I can see the play but I can barely read the score. The match is very close.
Both Roger and Nadal look exhausted. Federer plays well for a few points then hits a bunch of errors. Nadal pulls ahead to 4-1. It looks like Nadal is closing in on his first hard court Grand Slam title. However, the crowd seems to be with Federer. A huge roar greets him as he comes out to serve. He is able to hold at love and brings it to 4-2. Nadal holds at 5-2 and now he is a game away from the title.
Its another game when Fed can’t get his serve together. He double faults and sets up two title points for Nadal. Federer defends the first one but in the second title point Federer hits a forehand long and Nadal falls to the ground - an Australian Open champion.
Now, I really gotta catch my plane. I run through the airport for the fourth time and this time they are boarding. I fly to London and land during the beginning of the worst snow storm in 20 years.
When I arrive at my hotel there is a TV in the lobby that is running a clip of Roger crying at the award ceremony. After I get to my room I’m able to watch the whole thing on the web. Federer can’t control himself enough to speak but Nadal has a huge heart and puts his arm around him and tells him he can do it. Roger speaks for a few minutes and then Nadal accepts the trophy and tells Roger that he is “a great champion, you are one of the best in history and you’re going to improve the 14 of Sampras.”
I’m sure that Roger will meet and pass that record. I’m just not sure it will happen with Nadal in the final.