|Rafael Nadal at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell|
St. George's Day 2019.
The day I finally got to step on the same clay as his Majesty - King Rafa!
On this cloudy Catalonia morning, I spotted Carlos Moya on the opposite bench with Diego Schwartzman.
I had no doubt that Nadal would not be too far behind.
I raced up from the media center to get a confirmation from the guards that he had indeed entered the premises.
Although morning drizzle had delayed the start of the practice, he would not be denied a chance to stir the clay on his day off.
We file into the narrow passage, less than a dozen journalists with the special passes were allowed entry to squeeze into the narrow one-meter-wide alleyway.
In those short moments of his practice today, I felt one of the most profound and proud moments in my whole tennis life.
I am not sure if any other player in history was able to contort each high-speed incoming ball like him and bends it to his will.
Rafa even seems to enjoy the joy of sweeping his own clay court while smiling.
His ability to then transform the trajectory, speed, shape, and form so perfectly is humbling.
All the years you train to hit a tennis ball is to be able to do *this* right there in front of you.
Some of us watching just smiled knowingly at each other - grateful to be present then and there for this standing-room-only magic show we were all about to witness.
He strikes the ball on his forehand with such a recoiling force and sound that is felt echoing inside your chest before it is heard with your ears.
I have seen him many times on TV, but witnessing the volume of his shots in real life is the difference between playing a song on the radio and going to a live rock concert.
The experience is enhanced and amplified 3 times over on this small ungated side court that is bookended by one very high concrete wall.
Even the Sun itself is forced out to peek through the last grey cloud to catch a glimpse of this surreal force of humanity at work. What started out as a dreary overcast morning,
St. George's Day in Barcelona.
Crowds begin to stir on the other side as his signature grunt bellows out from this side court increasing in volume with each warm-up groundstroke.
In full beast mode, El Toro sets out to free every grain of clay from each fuzzy ball.
He purposefully cleans with every brush stroke of the Babolat racket.
Effortless in his delivery, the frame and ball become fused onto his strings for a split second - then it is gone.
Puffs of micro orange clouds bloom and evaporate on contact.
This crushing pressure exposes every seam, tests each stitch of the ball.
You see it. You feel it. Then you hear it.
WHOOP-Ahhhh! WHOOP-Ahhhh! WHOOOP-Ahhhhh!
With each heavy forehand he fires, we hear a full percussion band:
The strumming chords of main strings cutting through green felt, the sphere
compressing and decompressing air as it is turned into an egg-shaped pancake, and the sprinkled splash of tiny sand granules watering the silky dirt lawn.
All music is accompanied by his world-famous overtones from that deep Rafa grunt.You just have to close your eyes.
Tune into this tennis stereo station.
Remember the years of his matches and victories.
Then for a few moments, you are literally there by yourself with the greatest clay master who ever lived. It has been a lucid dream that I still cannot believe I witnessed if not for the selfies and kernels of red clay still lodged in the soles of my shoe.
His jazz music is written in the red sand,
Played by this one-man band,
Serenading us all with his favorite tunes.
Bravo!! Encore!! Vamos Rafa!!