The Road Toward Rafa's Renaissance

Years have passed since my first summer tennis tour of Europe. Updated in 2020, after Rafa's 20th GS. The memories are still warm.

Lawn chairs at the poolNadal at French Open (11)Lawrence of UK, Jacky of USA, Caio of BrazilJC at Mardid Open

On this self-guided five-city tennis journey, I flew to Spain, France, and Great Britain to retrace the footsteps of the tennis legend and my personal hero - Rafael Nadal. Along the way, I discover many wonderful cultures and met individuals from all walks of life, all of whom celebrating tennis.

I've had some time now to reflect and recollect my thoughts and memories from my experience.  It was a colorful journey, sharing the road with many friendly characters helping me along the way. Hopefully, my story will inspire you as Rafa has helped inspire me in life.
"We always talk, speculate, dream or maybe even playfully plan about these adventures - but how often do you meet someone who has followed it through in their lifetime and talked about it..."

French Open Map      Terra Battue  Show CourtWimbledon Slazenger balls

From the red crushed clay of Roland Garros to the freshly mowed lawns of Wimbledon - the boundless empire of tennis stretches. Spanning three countries (Spain, France, UK) with all her tennis territories united together in glorious victory by Rafa, less than a year earlier. 

When seeking the Wise Man atop the mountain - you end up learning more from climbing up that mountain than you ever would from meeting the wise man.

I sought out in an ambitious quest to pay homage to the Nadal Kingdom of Tennis.  This presented an appealing opportunity to see a "Summer in Europe" - centered around tennis, was too good to pass up.

Pictures of Nadal vs Federer at the Madrid Masters 1000

Summer 2019 Update:
I was able to visit Rafael Nadal at his home island of Mallorca for 3 days! I met Uncle Toni and Naomi Osaka for the first time on the same trip.

Part 1: Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

To truly understand someone I knew, could only be done by walking in his shoes...only by sweating on the same soil as the young master. First, it was to the Spanish capital of Madrid. A land of bull rings, beautiful open parks, lots of artists, and Gothic-style buildings from another era.

Being my first time venturing to Europe, I was both anxious and excited - unsure about the language barriers and not knowing what to expect as an American traveling solo in Europe, but excited to be immersed in a new world of tennis, art, and culture.

ATP Masters 1000 on Clay

The Madrid Masters, was oddly the first-ever ATP Masters 1000 level event I had ever attended even though 3 of them are in the USA. The facility was brand new, designed around the Caja Magica (Magic Box) that has a close-able roof and surrounded by water. The metallic seats give a very airy feel, but the echos of that place when Rafa is on-court is like a soccer match.

Caja Magica (Magic Box) in Madrid Spain

The previous day's Semi-Finals was the longest ever 3 set match in Professional Tennis History at the time. Pitting Rafael Nadal against Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9). I still remember the yelling and cheering and celebrations that went on nearly 20-25 minutes after the last point. Truly an epic. The next day, it was the classic battle - Nadal vs Federer, on clay.

Luckily, I had found 1 single ticket left buried on the online system, and I wisely reserved it in advance. Fans and friends had anticipated this match-up for weeks! I was very fortunate and excited...probably only one of a non-Spainards in that stadium.

Even a Crown Prince of Spain had come to pay tribute to the huge sporting event!

If Tennis were a religion, this trip would be the Holy Pilgrimage every true tennis fan must invoke at least once in your life...

Finding myself with a few weeks between career moves and motivated by a newfound sense of freedom, I set off to see it all but little more than a week with just a rough idea and a tennis dream to plan it all out...

Part 2: Barcelona, Spain

Later, I enrolled for a week alongside other tennis professionals at his former Academy of the Sanchez-Casal in Barcelona for a week. Thereby seeing the life of other young rising juniors could I truly begin to understand how he grew up.

That was where his talents were nurtured to yield his genius, his style, his influences, and development as a player starting out.

The Sanchez-Casal Academy had been featured on Tennis Channel as the premier tennis facility in Europe. I really wanted to go see for myself. After all, the red clay was where most of the great champions had started and Barcelona is just a terrific beach city for young people.

The camp was located a few kilometers away from my hotel, so every morning I would walk across the main highway and trek down a small road next to a river. This is where students and the local academy bus would pick up and drop off the kids. At the main intersection was the city bus that would take people to the city.

Inside the Academy were acres and acres of Red Clay tennis courts! I had never seen so many before in one place before. Kids as young as 4-5 years old were busy swatting away as their coaches would hand-feed them. A few years later, I would take the coaches program back in the USA at Naples Florida.

For lunch, we would enter the same dining halls as young students. Many of them were teenagers, sent overseas by their parents to train there. Andy Murray's mom had sent Andy there for a few years and helped him develop his patience for the clay, which in turn improved his defense and footwork...a key reason for his win at the US Open and finally Wimbledon.

As you exit the lunchroom, you see overhead the glass frame of the Davis Cup final victory of Spain.

Spanish Davis Cup Jersey - the origin of Nadal's glory, where all of Spain and the rest of the world learned of his name.

After the morning private lessons and workouts. In the afternoon after lunch, I would train with the Spanish Coach (Daniel "Dani" Sorribas). He was the junior coach of Argentina's Canas when he was little, Dani told me. The drills were designed to emphasize footwork and improving dynamic movement, rather than simply racket technique or swing motion that they do in the US.

The 13 drills are laid out very specifically for "X" "V" on the court, and swing volley patterns within the court. Rapid hand acceleration and stamina burning exercises are the norms here. If there was one thing I remember, it was the advice: "Save your feet for tomorrow", Dani said...I knew I would need it!

Overcoming the pedestrian fear of Travel and exploring the World

It seems that every year around this time late in the Spring as the weather is becoming just warm enough to go outside in the morning without a sweater, the idea of travel comes to my mind.

Specifically, it is the idea is seeing the French and Wimbledon grand slams together.  At first, I always envisioned this to take place on the honeymoon trip (Paris / London) or take a leisurely drive on the Autobahn with a factory-ordered BMW.

Over the years, this tennis idea takes many different shapes and forms as in a daydream floating around like a feather on a light summer just the slightest whenever there is another exciting ATP event is televised on the air. 

Tecnifibre pro stringers at French Open Tsonga IMG_0504

But whether it was work or family or other earthly commitments - something more urgent always seemed to always brush aside these well-intended notions; "Europe is too far", "You don't have enough vacation days", "The exchange rate for the Euro is bad this year" - the fears and reality would talk me down like Icarus and his paper wings...not too high now.  Whatever it was, there's always one excuse or another that was able to hold me back.

What surprised me was it took a short monologue on the season finale of "Amazing Race 14"  to trigger the epiphany that would eventually allow me to overcome these previous seemingly un-scalable mountains of time, distance, and price.  It was like Destiny calling through the DVR in replay mode...the timing and relevance were uncanny:

Lake 2 Church Farmers market Folk Festival of Madrid

"My entire life, I felt like I've done what was expected of me - what was the right thing to do.
This was my opportunity to do something that everyone thinks is a crazy thing to do. And I'm just so grateful! I come out of it feeling there are no sort of "walls" or "rules" in terms of what we have to be.
What's been enlightening to me in the race is you can have a lot of fun! - just doing the crazy, unexpected, and completely unconventional; and it makes life sorta interesting."
- Victor Jih (winner of the Amazing Race season 14) 
So I thought to myself, well if not this year, then you'll wait for another - then another, then another..."So if not now, then when?", I asked myself. How much longer will Rafa and Federer still be competing for 5-sets to win championships in epic fashion. Will you get another chance to go see Nadal on clay if you don't go now?

Madrid building topChurch archMadrid Sunrise - i like the color on the side of that housePlaza MayorInside Catherdal

Damn the torpedoes...I'm going to go for it!

You should too before you get too old to enjoy the adventures of life, remember to live it once.

Plan for it well in advance if you want to maximize your enjoyment but make the leap.

Blog it, selfie it, capture it, share it, but at least you will know that you went for your dreams.

Editors' note:
My goal is to try to help others in their 20's and 30's plan a tennis vacation of your own.

Travel in Europe is quite affordable by air and staying at AirBnB's can make your stay even more authentic as you learn about the cultures from the natives of Spain, France, England etc.

Read more about my Tennis Travels.

The Roadmap to Rafa - Summer in Europe

One Tennis Pilgrimage - sharing my own chapters...from the modern gospel of Tennis.
Stories from this Tennis Player's "Camino de Santiago" trail.

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the places and moments that take our breath away."