1) Ryoma Echizen
To be fair, Roger actually liked playing Echizen. The kid was good, he was getting better all the time, and the stretch of trying to beat him was satisfying. The problem was that whenever he played Echizen, he would almost inevitably have to talk to Echizen, and as soon as the brat started speaking Roger felt an extremely uncharitable urge to punch him in the mouth. Since Echizen was seventeen years old and less than five and a half feet tall, Roger thought that this might be problematic for his reputation. So he tried to avoid Echizen whenever possible. The only thing more annoying than his open conviction that he was God's gift to tennis was the sneaking suspicion that in a few years the kid would be good enough to back it up.
Echizen was only really obnoxious when his handlers let him run loose, though, and so long as Tezuka was in the same tournament he could be counted on to be mostly civil. Echizen's manager could control him too, sort of; at least, Roger had noticed that the interviews Echizen gave with her sitting beside him, smiling demurely and threateningly, were unusually polite.
Unfortunately, neither Tezuka nor Nanako Meino was on the court when they finished the opening rubber in the Japan-Switzerland Davis Cup tie, and Roger had to close his eyes, remind himself that the greatest of all time did not give in to the taunts of children, and force himself not to beat Echizen over the head with his racket when the kid smirked and asked whether he'd started looking into retirement homes.
Roger would have wondered if it was petty to look forward to watching Rafa steamroller him into the ground - playing Spain at home on clay; he didn't care how good the Japanese team was, they were dead - except he really, really didn't care. He was going to watch with a beer in hand, and he had a bottle of scotch waiting in case Echizen cried.
2) Sadaharu Inui was the most obnoxious tennis player in the world, and Roger didn't care what anyone said about it, he was absolutely doing it on purpose.
Halfway through the third set, when Inui's monotonous muttering distracted him, again, into missing a completely unremarkable shot, Stan grabbed his arm and dragged him over to the bench. "If you throw a tantrum over this, I swear to God, Roger, I will walk off this court," he hissed in German. "He isn't doing it deliberately; I've seen him at practice. It's just the way he plays."
"How could he not do it deliberately?" Roger demanded. "He is talking! Continually!"
"Fine, maybe it is deliberately," Stan snapped. "So what? You are doing exactly what he wants if you make a fuss! Just ignore it."
"Time," the umpire said.
Roger walked to the baseline, emptying his mind of everything except the ball and the arc of his racket forming a perfect ace. "Probability of a net ball, seventy-five percent," Inui announced.
The ball went into the net.
After the match was over, and they had all shaken hands and Roger had only half-seriously tried to set Inui on fire with his brain, Inui's partner shooed him along ahead and then bowed to Roger, so low his forehead brushed the net. "I am so, so sorry," he said, in thickly accented but precise English. He straightened up, and Roger noticed that his face was bright red. It could have been from exertion - God knew Roger desperately wanted a cold shower and a lie-down - but the kid was barely even sweating; he looked like he could gulp a bottle of water and play three more sets. The Japanese boy - Kaidoh, that was his name - went on, clearly embarrassed, "He really can't help it."
Roger thought about having to play every single match with Inui muttering on his side of the net, and abruptly felt much, much sorrier for Kaidoh than he did for himself.
3) For some Godforsaken reason, Rafa actually liked Echizen.
"He is like tiny Roger!" Rafa laughed at him over the phone, two days after Switzerland had lost their Davis Cup tie in an unforeseen upset to a completely rookie team from Japan. "So cute!"
"I am nothing like that brat," Roger said. "And you should take him more seriously."
"I play him last year in US Open, you no need to say me take him serious. I know. But he is just like you, when you are being - how you say it? Brat?"
"You're supposed to be on my side," Roger complained.
"Always I am on your side," Rafa replied, briefly serious, and then ruined the sentiment by adding, "I like Echizen. He is funny kid. He try to say the Spanish with Feli, after Feli play Tezuka last year, no? Was sweet."
"Echizen speaks Spanish?" Roger asked, diverted.
"Bad Spanish," Rafa qualified. "School Spanish, no? But English, too, and he try to say the Spanish anyway. Most people on tour, only the English, no?"
"English is the only language most of us speak," Roger said, obscurely feeling that his linguistic capabilities were being challenged.
"Yes," Rafa agreed patiently. "But Echizen, from California, no, so he have the bad school Spanish, and he try to say with us. He is good kid."
"I hope you crush him in July," Roger muttered mutinously.
Rafa snorted. "No worry, Rogi, I like you more than Echizen, and I still try to beat you very hard. I do my best."
"Well, good," Roger said, and tried not to betray the warm rush of happiness that washed over him whenever Rafa said things like that. He wasn't a child, to be thrilled at any small bit of affection, and of course he knew how Rafa felt about him. The whole world knew, probably; Rafa wasn't what anyone would describe as subtle.
"You blushing, Rogi?" Rafa asked. Roger could hear the smile in his voice. "I know this! No lie to me!"
"No worry," Rafa added, more soothingly. "I try to beat them for you."
"And for Spain."
"And for Spain, si," Rafa agreed. "But also for you."
4) Dance Dance Revolution was a very stupid game.
When Rafa texted him, the day after Roger arrived in town for Indian Wells, inviting him to come over and hang out, Roger thought they might have a quiet talk, maybe watch some football, maybe go out to dinner. He was not expecting to find all the Spanish and Japanese players in the tournament inside Rafa's hotel suite, crowded around the television and a brightly colored floormat.
"Rogelio!" Rafa exclaimed, jumping up and throwing his arms around Roger.
"What's going on?" Roger asked, bewildered.
"Eh, Nando, he say he is best at all PlayStation, Echizen say he kick Nando's ass at DDR, Feli say Tommy and David, they should watch, no? And then David ask Kaidoh, and Inui go with him everywhere, no? And then Echizen, his manager no let him come except she come and Tezuka come too."
"Deutsche Demokratische Republik?" Roger said blankly.
"What?" Rafa asked, equally blankly.
"Dance Dance Revolution," said Tezuka, who was sitting on the couch with Echizen's manager, as far away from the action going on in front of the television as was possible while still keeping an eye on the other players. Nanako smiled serenely at Roger and then returned her attention to her charge, who appeared to be jumping up and down in a mostly rhythmical fashion on the colored mat. Feli Lopez was cheering for him, though Roger had spent enough time around Rafa's friends to guess that he was mostly doing it to tease Verdasco.
The horrible bleepy music stopped playing, and Rafa bounded back to the television. Roger sat down next to Tezuka, cautiously watching the other players. Rafa and Marc Lopez were standing next to each other, stomping on the mat. There was no music playing, so the reason was obscure to Roger. "This is a game?"
"Aa," Tezuka said. Roger shot him an irritated look.
"It is a videogame," Nanako said, in her careful English. "Like Guitar Hero. Have you ever played?"
"Guitar Hero, yes. This, no."
"It is very similar," she explained, "except that you use your feet instead of your hands."
Before Roger could think of a polite yet cutting way to point out the sheer illogic of that statement, Echizen broke away from the crowd around the television and shoved his way to the couch, somewhat resembling a tiny sulky thundercloud. Roger glared, incredulously, as he gabbled something in Japanese to Nanako and completely ignored Roger.
"You are being rude to our guest, Ryoma-san," Nanako said firmly. "You will speak in English, please."
"Then you won't understand me," Echizen complained. "Apparently you need to know that I'm going to go get my cat," he added in Roger's general direction, and then, turning away, called, "Yo, Kaidoh-senpai! Coming?"
Kaidoh, who was trying to hold a conversation with David Ferrer using broken English and a lot of handwaving, bowed a polite farewell to the Spaniard and eeled through the room. "Hello, Federer-san," he said, before Ryoma grabbed his wrist and dragged him away. Roger at least had the satisfaction seeing Kaidoh smack the back of Echizen's head before he gave in and allowed himself to be dragged out of the room.
That left Roger alone once more with Tezuka and Nanako Meino, neither of whom could really be called a thrilling conversationalist. He and Nanako made a very stilted, formal attempt, while Roger watched Rafa fail miserably at his ridiculous dancing game. Nanako made him uncomfortable; she reminded him a little of Mirka, which was not a pleasant thought. Mirka had given up a lot of her life for Roger, but so far as he could tell, Nanako had never had a life outside of Echizen. She'd been with him when he turned pro at sixteen, and she seemed perfectly willing to continue following him around the world to look after him forever. She was like his creepy child-bride, only she managed his career instead of cooking and cleaning and bearing his children.
Mirka liked Nanako, of course, because someone higher up hated Roger, so he and Nanako had had a lot of practice smiling at each other and saying nothing of significance for extended periods of time. Once they'd exhausted the weather, Roger and Echizen's matches so far, and places that Roger recommended to eat in Dubai, however, they reached an awkward impasse that was broken only by Echizen's return with Kaidoh and his cat.
Echizen's cat was infamous on tour. He brought it to all of his tournaments; he'd skipped a presser after the quarterfinals of the US Open to take the furball to the vet. It would have been sweet he loved his pet so much, if it hadn't been obvious that he would be totally okay with getting rid of every person on the planet except maybe Tezuka and Nanako so long as he could keep the damn cat.
He'd evidently consented to letting Kaidoh carry it, which almost could have surprised Roger, except for the adoring way Kaidoh was cradling it in his arms. Roger tended to forget sometimes that Kaidoh was really still a kid - and apparently really liked cute, fluffy things. It was a little weird to reconcile with his on-court playing persona, but then, nobody would expect an overgrown puppy like Rafa to be a ruthless steamroller on the court, either. Echizen's hands were full, which might be why Kaidoh got to carry the cat. "Here," he said abruptly, thrusting a can of green tea at Nanako. She took it graciously despite the utterly graceless presentation and smiled as Echizen settled on the floor at her feet with Kaidoh to play with the cat, clearly a little embarrassed by the thoughtfulness of his own gesture.
"Rogi, you play with me!" Rafa called excitedly, waving from the TV.
"No, thank you," Roger said.
"What's the matter, geezer?" Echizen asked from somewhere in the vicinity of Nanako's knees. Roger didn't need to look at him to know he was smirking. "You scared?"
"No," Roger replied with great dignity.
"Yes, you are."
"Ryoma-san," Nanako reprimanded mildly.
"The only reason you wouldn't play is if you were scared," Echizen said.
"Maybe I don't want to," Roger snapped.
"Because you're scared." Echizen made an absurd cooing noise at his cat, and didn't even have the grace to look embarrassed.
"If I play, will you be quiet?" Roger gritted out.
"If you beat me, sure," Echizen said, flashing an insolent grin. "Come on, old man, let's see what you're made of."
Rafa looked a little disappointed when Echizen gestured for him to get out of the way, but he obeyed with good grace. "Okay, I play winner, no?"
"You should probably play the loser," Echizen said, with such complete deadpan that Roger couldn't really tell if he was being deliberately rude or it just came naturally to him. Kaidoh hissed a warning from his seat on the floor, and Echizen glanced over at him. "What?"
Rafa laughed. "Is okay, I no mind. Be nice to Rogi, no?" He patted Echizen on the head, which made Echizen scowl and Roger try not especially hard to conceal his grin, and went to talk to Lopez and Verdasco. Roger's smirk lasted as long as it took for him to realize that now he had to actually play Rafa's stupid bleepy dancing game, and then abruptly vanished.
He only half-listened to Echizen's monotone explanation of the game: there were arrows, they lit up, you stepped on the corresponding arrow on the floormat, fine, easy. Then some electronic high-pitched female voice started wailing about - samurai? What the fuck - and about a minute later his half of the screen started flashing GAME OVER.
Echizen kept playing, although his footwork deteriorated slightly in quality, presumably because he couldn't stop laughing. The Spaniards crowded around. "Wow," said David Ferrer, whom Roger had until then considered a very nice, polite young man. "I never know someone can suck more than Rafa at this game."
"David," Rafa said reproachfully.
Ferrer responded with a flow of rapid-fire Spanish which appeared to boil down to approximately, "Well, you do." Rafa glared at him.
"So," Echizen said, while his obnoxiously high score illuminated the television screen, "want a rematch, old man?" At least he was a little out of breath, Roger consoled himself.
"No," Roger said coldly. "This is a very stupid game."
Rafa smiled and slung an arm around his neck, forcibly pulling him away from Echizen. "Of course is only silly game," he said. Roger's temper was soothed almost against his will by the warmth of Rafa's body pressed up against him. "We go now, eat dinner, no? Sorry for make you wait." So the evening wasn't totally wasted, at least.
The next day Rafa told him that Ferrer and Lopez had told him that Tezuka had beaten Echizen three times in a row after they left, and Echizen had spent the rest of the night sulking and playing with his cat. All in all, it was an okay start to the tournament. But Roger was never playing that stupid bleepy game again.
1) When you came down to it, they played damn good tennis.
Rafael NADAL d. Ryoma ECHIZEN 6-4 6-0 3-0 ret. (heat exhaustion)
Kunimitsu TEZUKA d. Fernando VERDASCO 7-5 2-6 6-3 7-6(3)
Sadaharu INUI / Kaoru KAIDOH d. Feliciano LOPEZ / Fernando VERDASCO 6-3 6-7(8) 4-6 6-1 9-7
David FERRER d. Kaoru KAIDOH 5-7 6-7(21) 7-6(6) 7-5 6-2
Rafael NADAL d. Kunimitsu TEZUKA 6-4 7-5 4-6 7-6(5)
Roger leaned back on his sofa, watching Rafa jump up and down and hug his teammates and generally look ridiculous. Wait for it, wait for it... yes, Lopez had decided to give him a piggy-back ride again. The Spanish Davis Cup team was full of overgrown children. "What are you smiling about?" Mirka demanded playfully from the doorway, then glanced over at the television screen. "Oh, did Spain win? Don't answer that, the smirk is sufficient."
"I'm just going to go text Rafa now," he said, deciding that discretion in the face of merciless teasing was probably the better part of valor. Mirka laughed and vanished into the other room, leaving him to choose his words with obsessive care. Congratulations, campeon! Spain (and I) appreciate your service.
He didn't get a reply until hours later, but he wasn't particularly expecting one; he knew how long team celebrations took. Rafa must have slipped away if he was able to even check his phone. always happy 2 serve, no? 4 spain, and especial 4 u. ;)