NEW DELHI: With less than two hours to go before the start of the Davis Cup World Group Playoffs, an Asian Tennis Federation official was seen discussing something intently with the International Tennis Federation referee. She then turned to the ambulance on call inside the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association Complex. “It’s an emergency! He’s in his room at the hotel! Go now!” She repeated herself a few times, stressing that time was of the essence.
It was evident that either a player or team member was in distress. But who? Spanish or Indian? The initial thought: it could be a certain 14-time Grand Slam winner. As expected, no confirmation was forthcoming from either of the two camps; keeping things close to the chest is part of their job description.
Sixty minutes later, while the hosts were training, a member of the team staff was seen cryptically confirming the worst possible news for the fans. Rafael Nadal wouldn’t be playing on Friday. Did he hurt himself again? Was it the wrist, foot or knee? Maybe the aforementioned medical attention was a red herring?
While those scenes were taking place inside, a huge queue of spectators, oblivious to the news, kept growing outside – much like the snake in the eponymous game on one of those primitive mobiles. The All India Tennis Federation’s masterstroke, handing out free passes, worked like a dream as one and all came out to watch the nine-time French Open champion. The magnetic pull of the living legend is without a doubt, but then, so is the lure of free tickets. Despite the RK Khanna Stadium’s capacity of housing a shade over 4,000 people, one official actually joked that they’d given away twice the amount of passes!
From the sports minister to celebrities to sportspersons, apart from casual fans, everyone came to witness Nadal. A handful of banners, large and small, sported his famous battle cry of ‘vamos’ and personalised ‘bull’ logo. Some kids and adults even had it painted on their faces. There was no doubt that the majority was firmly in India’s corner, but then, there’s no rule against cheering for the clear crowd favourite.
It’s just too bad that the moment they’d waited for didn’t materialise. It was deemed that World No 26 Feliciano Lopez would replace his fellow southpaw. After seeing the Nadal belt the cover off the ball in practice sessions on the past few days, the reveal was as anticlimactic as they come. Just before the first rubber, a section of the crowd, upon realising the ‘deception’, started a ‘we want Rafa’ chant. What eventually calmed them down was an understanding wave from the superstar in all directions.
After the first rubber, which Spain won, Feliciano shed light on the goings-on behind the scenes. “I knew, during the week, that I might have to play instead of Rafa because he’s been struggling for the last few months with a wrist injury. He’s been playing through pain and didn’t want to take a risk,” he said. Despite the initial hiccup, there’s still hope. Maybe Spain will do a switcheroo and put Nadal in the doubles. After all, he and Marc Lopez are the Olympic champions! “It’s possible,” he added. firstname.lastname@example.org