Rafael Nadal made his return to clay courts at Buenos Aires last week, and though he did not manage to successfully defend his title, he was still able to remind himself how popular he is with the usually demanding Argentinean public – a fan-base which has always held a real fascination for him. La Nación journalist Sebastián Fest explains why.
Nadal the honorary Argentinean
It was the evening of Thursday 11 February. The stands of the Buenos Aires Tennis Club – very much the home of Argentinean tennis – were full to bursting with 5,000 fans who had flocked to see Rafael Nadal’s first match at the Argentina Open, a tournament which Guillermo Vilas traditionally dominated, winning no fewer than eight titles between 1973 and 1982. Indeed, centre court now bears his name, after a ceremony attended by the great and the good of Argentinean tennis (including Vilas himself, along with Gabriela Sabatini, Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Coria, Jose Luis Clerc, Alberto Mancini, Martin Jaite – who is now tournament director – Paola Suarez and Norma Baylon).
Great Argentine players together: Vilas, Jaite, Baylon, Sabatini, Suárez, Clerc, Gaudio, Coria, Mónaco, Mancini pic.twitter.com/TloLEjm3hO— Chip-and-charge (@chipandchargeAR) 8 Février 2016
As well as the legends on the guest list, there was another out on court as Nadal made his third appearance in the Argentinean capital, having won the title last year and made his debut no less than 10 years earlier – featuring a match etched into the memories here in Buenos Aires which saw reigning French Open champion Gaston Gaudio knock the Majorcan out in an incredible night session marked by humidity, mosquitoes and unbelievable backhands from the local favourite.
The score line from this quarter-final tells you almost all you need to know – 0-6, 6-0, 6-1. Gaudio would go on to make the match even more legendary by revealing that he saw Nadal in the locker-room after the match smash no fewer than seven racquets, such was his anger at the outcome! Quite a scoop when you consider that Rafa swears he has never broken a racquet in his life – a fact backed up by his uncle and coach Toni. "I think Gaston must be mistaken," said Nadal a few years later when asked about his side of the story, before adding with a cheeky grin "back then, I didn’t have that many racquets!"
"I would love to know how it feels to be Argentinean"
Back in 2005 when Nadal was making his Buenos Aires debut, the Argentineans had yet to take to the young man with the muscular physique who had had the gall to prevent Guillermo Coria and Gaston Gaudio from making all the headlines at their annual clay jamboree. Nadal himself meanwhile was as curious as he was impressed by the fans who seemed to follow tennis with the same passion they show for football – a typically South American fervour which leaves many open-mouthed in awe when they experience it for the first time.
Once he had got over his initial surprise, Nadal was very much taken in. In January 2008 at the Australian Open, he said in an interview with the country’s most popular newspaper Clarín, that he "would love to know how it feels to be Argentinean". This seemingly innocent phrase in the middle of a Grand Slam certainly did the rounds of the Spanish-speaking world, with Rafa’s Argentinophilia provoking smiles in South America and frowns in his native Spain.
A few months later back at his home club in Manacor, Nadal explained in more detail what he had meant by the remark. "I said that I would like to know how it feels because the atmosphere that you have in the stands in Argentina is difficult to imagine anywhere else," he said. "It is obviously impossible, but I would like just for a moment to be an Argentinean player being cheered on by his home crowd… Tennis fans down there are real supporters. The Davis Cup is one on its own with all the chanting. It’s nothing like what you come across anywhere else."
While Nadal is now an iconic figure in Spanish tennis, he has the crowd chanting for him whenever he comes to Buenos Aires, as if he were a local. The Argentineans are now on his side, 100% – so much so that nobody minded when he knocked out four genuine Argentineans (Facundo Arguello, Federico Delbonis, Carlos Berlocq and Juan Monaco) en route to the title in 2015. When he found himself with his back to the wall against Monaco and Paolo Lorenzi this year, the crowd was right behind him. And when he had to give best in his title defence to Austria’s Dominic Thiem, he was given a standing ovation as he bid farewell to a centre court that was red hot, both figuratively and literally – with temperatures as high as 40°C during the day, tournament organisation had to place fans next to the players’ chairs!
Nadal was ill coming into the tournament but still gave it everything he had – a quality that the Argentineans both acknowledge and appreciate. And when he left the court, his ears were ringing with cries of "You’re still our champion, Rafa! We love you!" On his arrival in Buenos Aires, the Majorcan was invited to the Casa Rosada to meet new president Mauricio Macri, where he of course had some kind words for his hosts, saying: "I love this great city and this great country, where people know so much about tennis". The fans returned the compliment on Guillermo Vilas court, and while the king of clay did not have the end result that he would have been hoping for, the reception he got from the Argentinean fans will have done his confidence the world of good.