Of all the places for El Matador to remember the skill of not letting himself be distracted by his thoughts and focusing only on the here and now, it turned out to be in the arms of la bella columbiana. Of course nothing happened between himself and Shakira. It was all smoke and mirrors. But she had unintentionally reminded him of a lesson he had learned years ago.
At first he had frustrated her with his timidez, his shyness and his over awareness of her presence and her beauty, his tentative responses to her confident sexuality. It took her upbraiding at him in her own dulcet manner for him to finally get it. In this moment he wasn’t supposed to be Nadal, a pretend amante. In this moment only, during this shoot, he was her lover, the man with whom she was consumed. Falling into the role, se encontró, he found himself.
How to explain even to Tío Toni how his parents’ divorce had shattered him, how his injuries had started to make him feel broken, how his mounting losses had introduced elements of doubt, and how Federer winning Roland Garros had caused him to think dark thoughts of failure? And then Shakira, off-offhandedly, gently, scolding him, “!Eres tan consciente todo el tiempo! Tienes que aprender a perderte amigo mío.”
He got it on the next take. To find himself he had to lose himself.
And just like that he started remembering one of his earliest tennis lessons with Tío Toni. They were working on his backhand and Tío Toni had one of those training devices with a ball attached. He was trying to teach Rafa how to brush up on the back of the ball to create spin. Tío Toni said that he wanted him to feel as if he was hitting a forehand on both sides, regardless of which hand was holding the racket.
At first Rafael struggled to understand. Tío Toni made him practice the movements over and over, not letting him look back to see where the racket was in preparation. “Tienes que sentirlo, no verlo”, Tío Toni insisted gently. Feel the ball. Don’t look back, just feel. And then finally, Rafa got it, and started producing the right shots. After a series of perfect returns, he shouted gleefully, “!Ahora lo entiendo! Voy a tratar de recordar.”
No! No! No! Don’t remember it, feel it! Take your brain out of it Rafa. Don’t think, feel. Don’t remember, just feel. That is how you will be the best.
When did he start to forget that lesson? When had tennis started to become so cerebral? Was it the interviews asking him to analyze his game or his opponents? Was it the constant demands to explain, to clarify, to elucidate? Words he barely understood in Spanish much less in all of the different languages flung at him throughout the year. The path to winning was not by thinking. Thinking too much had made him become too self-aware, vulnerable, beatable. He needed to go back to feeling.
He came to Mónaco feeling that he would be the king. He felt it from the moment his plane landed. He confirmed it with the 6-0 6-1 match against the Dutch player, de Bakker. He felt it again when he earned the same score against the German, Berrer. Those numbers had become magic. He felt them as he crushed Verdasco with the same score. He was so completely in the zone that it never mattered who was on the other side of the court.
It was only after he won that El Matador allowed himself to start thinking of what he had just done. For a start, he had closed the gap with Federer for the most Masters event wins. Second, he had redeemed himself in the face of criticism that he had not won a title in almost a year. Third, he had erased los dolorosos recuerdos of the loss in Roland Garros that allowed Federer to win the Grand Slam. And finally, he had made history. The first man to ever win the same Masters event six times. No one else had ever declared such a dominance over any Masters event. He was el Rey, the King of the principality.