It was a player’s party like many others.
It was actually a party like all the others. Lots of suits, shiny shoes, glittery dresses, flutes of expensive champagne going around and fake laughter filling up the room. Still, Roger didn’t mind too much. It wasn’t new to him. It was not his favourite activity but he could do this in his sleep. Charm the room, smile, be grateful, modest, the epitome of the perfect tennis gentleman.
Yet, tonight, something was… off. His tie was a bit tight, or his shoes a tad small. Whatever it was it was bothering him, making him feel itchy and slightly anxious. He wanted air. He wanted to not be here pretending to listen to these rich women who assumed he revelled in their meaningless conversation and elitist antics. He didn’t.
“We are so glad you won, Roger. So glad. I’ve been going on and on to poor dear Doris here about how you had to win. The whole tournament! Haven’t I, Doris?”
Doris smiled tightly, which made Roger think that she was truly fed up with the subject. Much like he was. He smiled. “Well, thank you. It has been difficult. But there’s nothing like a well-earned victory.” Both ladies nodded, charmed. “Well, it’s to be expected from the best. Right, Doris?” Roger dismissed the comment with his hand “Oh, you flatter me. There’s been lots of amazing players in this tournament.” “Yes”, the lady agreed, “but, none like you. Such poise in and out the court.” This woman, who could be his grandmother, winked at him. And Roger willed himself to put on a plastic smile.
“Not to say though…” she continued, “That that fiery Spaniard is not lovely to look at. That body… it’s like a Greek statue. It makes for very inappropriate things to come to mind…”. She made a noise of pleasure that sent a gush of disgust to Roger’s stomach. He tried to school his expression.
Her friend Doris was laughing now. “Well, at least he’s got that going on for him. Because it doesn’t seem there’s much else!”, she added in between giggles.
Roger pressed his lips together, its corners still slightly pointing up. “I beg your pardon?” he asked softly.
Doris blinked at him “Well, I just mean… his runner-up speech… It wasn't very good, was it? Not like you, so eloquent, so charming.”
Roger breathed deeply, preparing to answer when he felt someone behind him. For a joyful second, he thought this could be a way out of reach from these octogenarian snakes. “Again. You’re too kind but if you’ll excuse me… I think someone is trying to get my attention.” But when he turned there was nobody there. Just a whiff of a familiar smell and a known strong frame on an ill-fitted suit disappearing into the room.
Roger hoped he hadn’t caught those last comments.
Forty minutes and another seven inconsequential conversations later, Roger was ready to leave. But he couldn’t, not yet. It wouldn’t look good. The champion had to enjoy the festivities and be the last out of the door. Because he should be loving this. He should be drowning nice champagne while his ego was stroked by nameless people who looked at him like he just changed the world and not just hit a ball with a racket. He usually enjoyed these kinds of things quite a bit. It was his one indulgence after two gruelling weeks of tennis. Yet, he felt no enjoyment tonight.
He decided to go to one of the balconies to get some air. It was slightly chilly even for July, but Roger was made for this weather. The air felt clear even with the London streets at his feet. He put his hands on the iron railing and just breathed.
He turned around and saw Rafa Nadal, hunched on the furthest corner of the balcony, sitting on the ground with his back resting on the cool wall. “Hey, Raf. Everything okay?” The Spaniard had his eyes closed, a big sigh escaped his full lips. “Yes. Just tired, no? Tired of English.” Roger turned completely to face him. “You’re tired of English?”
“Sí. So tired. Head hurts because of English.” Roger smiled without realizing it “I see”.
Those beautiful chocolate eyes finally opened and fixed on him. “You never tired of English, Rogi? Never think: I only want to speak German?”
“I never really thought about it.” Rafa nodded very slowly. “Is very frustrate for me. English” Another sigh. “My English is very shit”.
Roger took three steps forward to stand next to Rafa, his back now also on the wall. “It’s not shit, Raf. You’re improving a lot.”
The Spaniard smiled that gorgeous smile that made girls swoon and older women want to pinch his cheeks. “You always too nice, Rogelio. Is okay, English is shit. Is fine. I no care. I here to play tennis no speak English. But…” Even though the night was a bit cold, Roger felt warm. Maybe it was Rafa, maybe he dragged the sun around wherever he went. “But?” he asked.
Rafa’s eyes shut again. “In the court is okay. Is safe. If I no understand umpire is okay because I understand tennis. In-out. Love-fifteen. Game, set, match. Even if no understand words I know tennis. And in tennis I not…” “You’re not?” he pressed.
“I am” Rafa punctuated the last word while finally looking directly at him. “In tennis I am not stupid.” Roger kneeled without even thinking about it “Raf, you’re not stupid in any way”. He put a hand on Rafa’s knee to emphasize his point. The Spaniard smiled big while titling the head to the left “I know. I know, Rogi. I am not stupid, but people think… people they hear my English. My wrong words and think: He no know words, he stupid”. Roger sighed “They don’t think that.”
“They do, Roger. Stop always being nice.” The words were harsh, but the tone was as soft as his dark curls. “They do. Like before. Old ladies say: at least he has nice body. He doesn’t talk fine, no? I hear, I understand. And people think because talk English is hard for me, that I no understand. But I do. And I angry.” He pursed his lips and then took a long breath “I am angry. Because I no fucking stupid. I’m smart person. Have lots to say. But people, they only hear the bad accent, so they only want to care about nice body, big muscles, shirt with no sleeves, strong forehand. Stupid thing when serve. Me touching butt, me touching nose. They think: Nadal strange, do strange things, but he hit strong and has nice body. That is all”.
Roger felt something tore at his insides “Rafa”. The Spaniard averted his gaze, clearly embarrassed.
“You cannot understand, Roger. Everyone love you. In and outside the court. Because you the best in and outside the court. You play the best tennis but also you come to parties and do the talk so perfect. And say smart things with good accent. Sometimes I so jealous of you, Rogi. Not of tennis. Your tennis better than mine, always. Is okay. Because I love Roger playing the best. It okay that Roger is better at tennis.” Roger’s breath got caught in his chest and it was almost painful. “I not so good. But sometimes good enough. Good enough to stay on court next to Roger. And stay proud. Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win, but I always do my best and play my best tennis for Roger.” Rafa turned his body around to face him. It was so intense Roger almost wished he hadn’t turned at all. “And when we play. Is beautiful. Is the best tennis. But then is off the court. And then is stupid Rafa cannot talk. And great Roger, he talk so well. They say Rafa so sexy. Is so stupid. Roger so sexy, no? So very sexy but Roger talk good so they don’t see.”
There was way too much information in there for Roger to wrap his mind around. One thing was clear though, and that was Rafa’s distress. And that needed fixing. Right now. Roger sat next to him. “You gonna dirty suit, Roger” said Rafa with a small smile.
“I don’t fucking care”. Rafa’s smile grew into his usual beautiful dimpled one.
“It’s a show, Rafa. I put on a show. I act around these people because I have to. And play a part.” “Perfect Roger.” Roger smiled at the comment “Exactly. I give them what they want so that I don’t give them myself, you know?”
Rafa padded him lightly on the arm and it sent a jolt of electricity to his whole body.
“Is good you do that, Rogi. They don’t deserve what you have inside. That is only for the tennis and for your very important people.” His English was bad. No doubt about it. And still, even with his limitations, Rafa always found a way to make grandiose statements using little words. Little words that would weave themselves around Roger’s heart. “You are important people, Raf. I hope you know that.”
Rafa dropped his head slightly to the side, he looked mischievous, like he had a secret inside.
“I important rival. For sure. Not important person in your life.” Roger was going to argue that but Rafa must have sensed it because he patted his arm again. “It okay, Rogi. This is dream for me, one day, be a real part of the life of Rogi, not just of Roger Federer, legend of tennis. But the real Rogi.” Roger smiled. “Who is the real Rogi?” Rafa let his head rest completely against the wall, his eyes closed once again.
“The real Rogi is the one complains when stretching his legs at the gym because it hurt. Is the one who sucks fingers when eating chocolate because he likes so much. Is the one who checks hair in mirror a million times because he has little… remolino in right side of head. How you say remolino?” Rafa was making circular motions with his finger while pointing at his side. “I think it’s called a cowlick” Roger said while grinning.
“Cowlick? Cow like moo-cow?” Roger giggled while nodding and Rafa then made the Rafa Face, the one when one eyebrow went up, he pouted, and his eyes squinted. It was truly adorable. “Maybe I stupid, but English more stupid”. Roger’s cheeks hurt from smiling so big. “That’s your goal, then? To know that person?”
Rafa looked at him seriously, as seriously as he did when they were each at one side of the net. “No goal, Roger. Is dream. Goal is objective, goal you can work to make. Dream is… not work, is hope.”
Roger lost the ability to breathe properly. And he wondered when did it happen? When did that spitfire ball of a kid became a man? How did he miss that? Where had he been looking?
“That person is not perfect, Rafa. Maybe your dream will disappoint you.”
That hand, that powerful calloused hand reached for his. Rafa’s blistered fingers got intertwined with his own and then they held him, strongly.
“I not want perfect. If I want perfect I can have. Perfect Roger is tonight’s Roger. Nice suit, nice smile, nice English words. I say you, I don’t want that. And I know Rogi not perfect. I say you, he sucks fingers with chocolate. That not clean. Also, not polite. My mom be angry at you, Rogi, if she see you. She hit you in the head.” Roger laughed “And still I want that dream.”
That strong hand disappeared, and Roger missed it the second it stopped touching his skin. He then figured he wanted more. More contact, more Rafa. So, he asked more.
“And you have more dreams about me, Raf?” He tried to sound upbeat and funny. He didn’t quite pull it off.
“A lots, Rogi”.
Roger leaned on his right shoulder until it touched Rafa's to playfully nudge him. But left the shoulders touching. Rafa understood, though. He always did.
“I dream we play tennis until me forty and you forty five. I dream we play all the finals all the years all the Slams. I dream I win more than Sampras. I dream you win double than Sampras. I dream they always say: Federer and Nadal.”
Roger felt a roar grow inside of him. It sounded like a big and loud and resounding ‘YES’.
“I also dream I so fast in hardcourt they say: Nadal, the king of hardcourt.” Roger laughed at that. “I dream we travel the world together on the tour. And have breakfast together every day. You have Lindt chocolates and I have Nutella and we no get fat.”
Rafa was looking ahead at the night sky as if he could see all those dreams painted in front of him.
“I also dream…” Rafa paused for a long minute, the silence was tense, he was talking his time, like this was a decisive second serve on a match point. And finally, after all the touching of the shoulders and the bouncing of the ball, he hit. “I dream you look at me more… Different. I dream you no have girlfriend... I dream you like guys from Mallorca... I dream you kiss me. Every day, every night... I dream is okay to love another tennis player.”
The words took time, but they hit like the fastest of aces, going through Roger like he wasn’t even there. He opened his mouth, even though he didn’t know what to say.
“But” Rafa said finally looking at him. His smile was still there but his eyes were sad. So very sad. Way sadder than they should ever be allowed to be. Because Rafa was the sun and should always be bright and happy. “These are stupid impossible dreams. These I know never be true. But it okay.” He nudged Roger’s shoulders for a second before putting a bit of distance between their bodies. Roger wanted to hold him in place, but he didn’t. Rafa looked at the dark London in front of him. “I still lucky. I play tennis every day, I your best rival. I have good family and good friends. I have the sea and fishing and PlayStation and Mallorca. And because of famous can go to see Real Madrid a lot for free.” Roger couldn’t look away from his profile. He needed to engrave it in his mind forever. He thought Rafa’s long lashes looked a bit moist. Maybe it was the night air or maybe it was tears he didn’t allow himself. Whatever it was, Roger couldn’t have looked away for all the Slams in the history of tennis. “Impossible dreams hurt a little sometimes. But one day, when Rogi marry and Rogi have children, I hope finally I forget dreams. And then only have one dream, to be good friend with real Rogi. And be happy with friend. And it enough”.
“Rafa” It was a plea. For what, Roger didn’t know.
But Rafa still answered it. He put his hand on Roger’s shoulders and squeezed softly trying to console him. Like Roger was the one who needed comforting at that moment. People would probably never know who the real Roger was, and they would never ever know what Rafa was really like. And that was good, because not many humans deserved to know how incredibly kind Rafael Nadal was. Roger didn’t want them to know.
Rafa moved from the wall, getting ready to stand up. Roger didn’t want that either.
“I hope soon, no?” Rafa said and it took Roger a minute to realize what Rafa meant. And when he did, he felt pain. Physical and real pain. “Maybe when I win Wimbledon, no? Still a bit of time.” He had a sweet smile on and it was an honest one. Because that was Rafa.
“Rafa” try as he might, he couldn’t seem to say anything else even though he wanted to say so much more.
“It okay, Rogi. Just forget. Is strange night, no?” He squeezed his shoulder again, a little harder this time “I tired of English and say too much. Tomorrow it all forget.” Roger shook his head and swallowed all the anxiousness that was in his mouth.
“I can’t, Raf.” He said finally.
Rafa leaned towards him and placed the softest of kisses on Roger’s lips. It only lasted a second, but the warmth of those lips burned him for a small eternity.
“Perfect Roger can.”
Rafa then stood and disappeared into the long-forgotten party.
It was Roger’s turn to look at the sky.
He thought that Rafa was right. Perfect Roger could do it. He could easily forget this balcony and all the right and wrong English words that had filled it. But the real Roger wouldn’t be able to do it. And actually, didn’t want to do it. At all. Because now that he knew those dreams existed, he wanted them too. And for him, they wouldn’t be hopes, they would be goals. And he would make them happen, as he did with everything he wanted… and everything he got.