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Greatest of All Time

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Rafa leaned back and pressed his knee. The pain was excruciating. He closed his eyes and tried to get rid of the sensation, however tough it was. He still could not believe it was the the final tomorrow, that he had come so far, literally with one knee. His team had advised, remonstrated him against playing after the first match, it was difficult for them to see how much in pain he was, how he limped after the end of the match. But he had stubbornly brushed their concerns away. He wanted to play; he was going to play despite what it takes. This was one title that was missing from his illustrious resume and by God; he was determined not to pull out this time. Well, he had received the number 1 trophy and his team were of the opinion that it was enough; he should pull out and let his knee rest. But he couldn’t, he wanted to show them that he was as good as Roger on indoors hard court, something that had always bothered him when people compared him and Roger. Something that always seem to bolster the argument that Roger was the greatest of all time. No, he was going to go all the way out. That is what he had done in all previous matches, each match was long, strenuous and hard-fought, and he had winced in pain although he tried his best to conceal it from everyone. Tony and Carlos had urged, pleaded even scolded him to pull out after every match but he held back. No, he was not going to give in. He would take it all the way to the end and even if he lost, he would go down fighting. The final was tomorrow and he would meet Roger and he just cannot pull out at this time, no matter how painful his knee was. No, he would be there and do his best to show Roger why he was the world number one.

He held back a sigh and pursed his lips as another bout of pain surged through his knee. His physiotherapist had strapped it up. He stood up and gingerly tried to walk. He knew it was getting worse. Tony was looking at him anxiously and he caught his expression.

“Rafa..it’s not better, you know that. Playing one more match would make is so much worse. I really feel you should rethink..”

“No!” He cut Tony off. There was finality in his voice. They had this conversation several times in the past few days, he didn’t want to go over all it again, when he knew his decision.

Tony gave a resigned sigh.
“OK, as you please. The court is booked for practice. Do you think you can?”

“Yes!” He said with determination.

He was back on the court for practice. To his relief, there were no onlookers and he relaxed a bit more. He first just worked on the forehand and backhands, remaining as stationary as he could. But later on he knew he had to move. He tried and again winced in pain as he shifted weight on the injured knee. He must learn not to put too much pressure on that leg, must focus on the other one. He tried to practice shifting his gait as much as he could, it was not easy since he was not used to it and shifted his focus to his knee rather than the game, which he didn’t want. But that was the best he could do. He practiced for more time, his face writhing in pain whenever he forgot that. But he tried to push it at the back of his mind and focus on his serve. It went on for more time, he practiced on, now that there were no onlookers he did not bother hiding the pain and agony on his face.

No onlookers other than his team and the usual security officials that’s what he thought. When he was trying to hit a backhand, the pain became excruiting and he closed his eyes in agony, his features contorting in extreme pain. When he opened his eyes, he found them directly looking into the eyes of Roger Federer. Roger was standing near the sidelines, his eyes fixed on Rafa and there was an expression in them he could not read.

Rafa tried to collect his thoughts and realized that Roger had booked the court right after his practice session and for some reason had arrived earlier. Roger was the last person he wanted to see at this time. He had let his guard down and let Roger see how much in pain he was. After each match, during the press interviews he had brushed off his knee injury, saying that it was not bad and the extra day in between each match gave it time to recuperate. He knew now that Roger could see through all that and knew exactly how much in pain Rafa was. He cursed himself for making him appear vulnerable in front of his greatest rival. That would never do, he should have been more cognizant of his surroundings.

He knew he could not practice any more, he was almost limping. He signaled to his team that he was done. He slowly walked back to his bench and collected his things, leaving the court ready for Roger for his practice. He did not want to look at Roger, did not want to talk to him after what Roger had witnessed. He hurried his pace as he approached Roger on his way out and with a curt nod of acknowledgement was about to pass by when he felt a hand on his arm.

Rafa would have brushed it off and continued on his way but the grip on his arm was firm.

“Rafa I need to talk to you” Roger’s voice was soft yet demanding.

Rafa gave a resigned shrug. He did not want this but could not be helped, so he might make it quick. He forced a smile.
“Hi Roger, I see you tomorrow, no. Need to go back, don’t want to delay your practice.”

Roger quickly glanced around. There was no one within earshot.
“Rafa, your knee. It’s not okay. I was observing you practice. You seem to be so much in pain. It is not good at all for your knee. I really think..”

“It’s okay Roger. It is perfectly fine” Rafa cut him off bluntly. This was the last thing he wanted, to hear this from Roger. “I am fine. So don’t worry about it. I see you tomorrow, ok. Need to run back to the hotel.”

He tried to brush past, but the grip on his arm tightened.
“Rafa, please don’t deny it. You are in so much pain, I could see it from your face. Please don’t risk to make it worse” Roger’s voice had a pleading urgency.

Rafa tried to laugh it off.
“Come on Roger. I told you I am fine. I can take care of myself”

“But Rafa, you just cannot go on like this. I suspected it all along, even after you laughed it off at each of your press conferences. But now I have seen it with my own eyes. I refuse to believe you. You must not take such a risk. It’s madness to play one more match if you ask me” Roger’s voice was getting more and more urgent.

Rafa again tried to laugh it off. “I am not a kid anymore Roger. Why do you care?”

Roger’s eyes burned into him.
“I care Rafa, I do care…because, because you mean..” he left it off, words drying in his mouth but his eyes had a strange expression, a mixture of care, concern and something else Rafa couldn’t decipher.

Rafa tried to gauge but in one moment his knee pain again surged through his mind and with that anger, anger at the pity that was being shown to him, under the garb of sympathy and care. Before he could stop himself, the words came out of his mouth.

“You can keep your care to yourself Roger. I don’t want any more pitiful looks or talk. I told you I am fine and I can take care of myself, thank you. If you think I am going to pull out and offer you the trophy on a platter, you are so wrong. I know it is not clay court, but yes be assured that I will do my level best against you tomorrow and will go down fighting if it comes to that”

The words were biting, hurtful and Rafa regretted them the moment he spoke. But he could not take them back, how much ever he wanted. Roger’s eyes instantly turned cold, hard, distant and he moved back.

“Fine then. See you tomorrow” He turned to the court to start his practice.

Rafa cursed and kicked himself internally but there was no going back. He would focus on the game and will show Roger exactly what he said.

The crowd was deafening at the finals. It was their beloved Fedal showdown. Rafa felt the throbbing pain from his knee but he was determined to ignore it, to push it to the back of the mind and focus entirely on the game. This was one trophy missing from his resume. He would try his best. If he had to lose, it would not be from not making a valiant effort. He would give his best, even if he wouldn’t be able to walk for many months afterwards.

He braced himself and the match started. He had avoided looking at Roger altogether during the warm up. The warm up itself had been painful but he conditioned his mind to forget all about the pain and fight it out. When the match started, he focused on the game, returning Roger’s serve, pushing any thoughts about his knee to the back of his mind.

The first set was long, painful, back and forth they went, volleys after volleys, Rafa struggling again not to writhe in agony but trying his best to focus on the game. He would not give up easily, if Roger was to win he will make Roger fight for it. They pushed the first set to a tiebreaker. And Rafa exalted when he won it.

The scorching pain in his knee surged again as the second set began, his movements became sluggish, he found he was not able to run half as fast as he previously could and it was a pain to put any weight on his right leg. The long first set had been brutal on his knee. Roger won the second set easily 6-3.

Tony and rest of his team came over anxiously between the break.

“Rafa you must listen to me. Your knee is so much worse. You are practically limping. One more set would kill it. You must not continue. Please, rethink. Pull out. Your knee won’t be able to take any more strain” Tony pleaded.

“No I cannot, I must finish the match. I don’t want to pull out” Rafa’s voice had an air of finality and determination. And Tony knew that he won’t be able to persuade his nephew any more. With a resigned sigh, he went back.

Rafa sat on the bench and collected his thoughts. He wouldn’t think about his injury. No he would focus on the third set, and no matter what it takes he would try his best. He would show them that he was not going to pull out, he was going to give a fight to Roger on the indoors hard surface, which was not his favorite and show them that he was as good as Roger on it. He will do it, no matter what it takes.

He braced himself and when the third set started, ignored the throbbing pain from his knee and kept his mind and eyes on the game only. The cheers from the crowd, the atmosphere everything dulled the pain. He found that he was able to return Roger’s shots and gave it all. The third set went on and on. Roger trying his best and Rafa refusing to give in. Deuce after deuce, volleys after volleys and finally it went to tiebreaker. And finally there it was, Rafa won 7-5.

He flung himself on the ground, the applause from the crowd was deafening and he couldn’t take it in. He had done it. He had won his first ATP masters final trophy, that too on an indoors hard surface against Roger, that too practically working with one knee. It was too much to take in. The feeling was exhilarating. Finally he managed to pull himself up, moving about as if in a dream, trying his best to mask his limping as he walked around acknowledging the crowd, drinking in his success. His team were cheering, pride, joy and also some worry mixed equally on their faces. He smiled at them reassuringly and turned back to go towards the net.

Towards the net, towards Roger for the usual after-match salutation, suddenly he got a sinking feeling in his stomach. The biting words came surging back, he regretted it so much but he could not take them back. He could not look Roger in the face, his cheeks went hot with regret and shame. But it could not be avoided, Roger was waiting on the other side of the net. Rafa refused to meet his eyes, so did not know the expression in them. He avoided looking anywhere but at Roger’s face and after the briefest touch quickly made over to the chair umpire.

The trophy ceremony was glittering. Rafa stood next to Roger while the preliminary speeches were going on and forced himself to avoid stealing a glance at Roger. They never talked. When Roger’s turn came he was extremely gracious in in speech and heaped praise on Rafa for winning both the year end 1 and the ATP finals trophy and said that he couldn’t think of a more deserving person.
Rafa felt his face burning in shame when he listened to Roger. But the damage was done. He could not take back his words, could not look up Roger in the face. When his turn came, he mechanically thanked everyone, his team and Roger for a well-played game. He answered all the questions in the post-match press interviews also mechanically, again brushing off the knee injury as not a big deal and that he was perfectly fit.

After what seemed like a never ending evening, he finally collapsed on the couch in his hotel room. He was done with all the ceremonies, interviews, talks and now the pain was throbbing in all his nerves. His knee cried out in pain when he shifted even the slightest weight on that leg. Tony, Carlos and rest of the team had tended to it, did some physio, put strapping on it and finally left him alone when he told them he wanted to sleep, he was going to see his doctor the first thing when he landed in Spain the next day. They left his room and finally he was by himself. The excitement, effort of the day finally catching up with him. He was trying to force himself to sleep but the throbbing pain wouldn’t let him, he had taken pain killers but still it was nowhere close to getting bearable. His heart was filled with mixed feelings, of course the joy of having finally attained the coveted trophy reigned supreme but there was this aching feeling when he remembered his words to Roger, his regret and shame, his refusal to look at Roger after the match and avoiding him throughout the post-match ceremonies. Roger had attempted a few times to draw nearer to him but he had managed to move away and Roger had given up. Rafa still didn’t know why he did that, but his hurtful words were burning in his chest and he felt he just couldn’t meet Roger’s eyes. He desperately wanted to apologize but couldn’t gather the courage so he had taken the easy way out, avoiding him altogether.

A knock on his hotel room door interrupted his thoughts.
“Come in, the door is unlocked” he called, assuming it to be Tony or one of his other team members.

His jaw dropped when Roger came in.
“Roger” he couldn’t get any more words out.

Roger closed the door behind him and sauntered towards Rafa’s couch. His face was unreadable. Rafa quickly was up on his feet, forgetting his knee. For once, the pain was unbearable and he almost cried out in agony, dropping the façade, stumbling and trying to reach out to the armrest of the sofa but it was too far and Roger was near him in a trice, holding him up and supporting him.
“I..I am sorry..thanks” he muttered under his breath, trying to get away from Roger and reaching for the armrest but Roger held on to him, preventing him from moving away.

“What brings you here Roger?” Rafa enquired, looking anywhere but at Roger.

“Maybe just the desire to be acknowledged for once since you thought I didn’t exist outside of the match today” There was a sharp bitter tone to Roger’s voice and Rafa jolted up his face to look at him.

Roger’s eyes were still hard, cold but they had a hurt expression. Rafa dropped his eyes.
“ I am so sorry Roger, so sorry for those stupid words. I regretted them as soon as I said those. I shouldn’t have.”

Roger remained quiet.

“Please Rogi, I was an idiot. Forgive me?” He lifted his eyes hopefully.

Roger smiled once he heard the familiar name.

“ Yes you are an idiot Rafa..or else why would you play with practically just one knee” His tone became more serious. “ It pained me so much Rafa to see you in pain on court, masking the injury. I was scared for you..worried for you..worried what if the injury got worse and kept you away from matches in future..I would not have that for anything. It’s not the same without you Rafa. I miss you so much when you are not in the tournament, I just want us to keep on meeting in the finals of each tournament. There is nothing I love more and I just couldn’t bear the thought of you giving your all when you were so much injured and thus risking more injuries. You must promise me Rafa to take care of your body and not do anything rash” Roger’s eyes were locked on Rafa’s.

Rafa colored , “Si Rogi. I will..but I just had to do it this time..I had to have a go at this trophy. Show that I can beat you on the hard court..” He smiled proudly.

Roger smiled fondly “Yes you proved that Rafa. Yes you took the risk but did it finally and shut those tongues who only called you the king of the clay. You are the world number 1 and the greatest of all time now”

Rafa found himself overwhelmed “No Rogi. That’s you..you are the greatest. I can never be the..”

His words were muffled by Roger placing his finger on his lips. “No Rafa, you are the one..the one who takes risks despite the injuries..I always play safe Rafa, I know my limitations. But you are different, nothing can equal your passion and fighting spirit. You don’t know how much I admire that in you. That’s why I can’t bear the thought of you missing out any tournaments due to your injuries, I am so used to having you in the finals Rafa and I don’t want to give that up. That’s why I care, I do care so much Rafa”

Rafa blushed deeply, he tried to open his mouth to say something but was interrupted by his phone ringing. Reluctantly he picked it up when he saw that it was Tony. He spoke quickly in Spanish.
Turning to Roger he said “Tony is coming here, he’s bringing some painkillers”

Roger smiled and nodded “Yes I should be going now, just wanted to see you before you leave tomorrow.”

Rafa nodded, reluctant to let Roger go but knew that if Tony saw him there would be more questions than he would like to answer. “Si Rogi. Thanks for coming. I..I appreciate it so much”.

“Promise me you would take care of the knee”

“Si, I am seeing the doctor as soon as I land tomorrow”

“That’s good. I hope to see you at the Australian open”, smiled Roger.

“It’s in January Rogi. I would like to see you before then” The words blurted out before Rafa knew what he was saying. He blushed red.

Roger had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes “How about the promised invitation to your academy? Switzerland is very cold in December.”

Rafa blushed further as he took the hint “As I said Rogi, you don’t need an invitation. You are welcome anytime”

“Well then I hope to see you there next month. As you said, your house is my house” Roger again smiled mischievously and pressing Rafa’s hand, was out of the room before Tony could spot him.

If Tony thought his nephew’s cheeks were tomato red when he entered the room, he accepted the explanation that it was due to the pain, heat and fatigue from the day.