“Friends help you find important things when you have lost them...your smile, your hope, and your courage.” Doe Zantamata
When Roger finally finished with all of his post-match interviews and obligations (in three different languages), and made his way back to the quiet house his family had rented during Wimbledon for almost the last decade, he knew that his children would already be asleep. He tried to be quiet as he turned the key in the lock on the front door and eased his way inside. The first thing he saw after he closed the door behind him and looked up was a colorful banner, drawn by four small hands on butcher paper, draped across the living room sofa. It read “WE LOVE YOU DAD” and was covered in hearts and little flowers and tennis balls and what looked like a 4-year-old’s attempt to recreate the Superman logo. “Lenny,” Roger chuckled quietly to himself. He walked over to his children’s offering of love and carefully picked it up to examine it closer. He took a deep breath as he felt tears gathering in his eyes again. He had allowed a few to spill over in the shower earlier, but was determined not to spend the entire evening a sobbing wreck. It wasn’t the end of the world. Just coming home to this gift from his babies reminded him all over again that he had everything in the world to be grateful for and this was but a minor bump in the road. It hurt, though. He couldn’t deny that.
Mirka emerged from the bedroom and walked over to give Roger a hug and a kiss. She had said all of the comforting words she knew in the hallway outside the locker rooms and she understood there wasn’t much more she could do to ease his pain. She smiled when she saw him holding the banner. “I told them Dad might need a little cheering up tonight,” she said quietly. “It helps,” he said, managing a small smile. “Look, I’m sure you’re not in the mood, but Rafa and Juan are in a fifth set right now and it’s apparently the most amazing match anyone has seen in a long time, so would you hate me if I turn it on and watch the last bit?” Roger sighed and looked away, trying to swallow all the bitter, angry thoughts that were the first to leap to his mind, but after a moment he came back to himself and relented. He set the banner down next to the sofa, Mirka turned on the TV, and they both settled on the sofa together to watch. They weren’t settled for long, but ended up on the edge of their seats, as it did indeed turn out to be the most amazing match anyone had seen in a long time. Roger was surprised to find himself living and dying with each point and somehow hoping for both Rafa and Juan to win. As he himself had said at the Australian Open in 2017, however, tennis is a tough sport and there can be no draws. When it finally ended, Roger watched, breathless, as Rafa climbed over the net, helped Juan up from the turf, and hugged him fiercely. Suddenly, the emotions of the day began to catch up with Roger again. He was overwhelmed by the intensity of his own match, the crushing disappointment of being knocked out of his tournament, and a kind of searing jealousy seeing Rafa take part in this historic moment and knowing that his own chances of having that kind of experience were gone, at least for this year. “God,” he couldn’t help but think to himself, “What if this was my last chance?” He abruptly stood up and told Mirka he needed to go sit on the balcony and get a little fresh air. She gave him a worried look, but nodded in understanding. “Rogi?” she called, as he was about to shut the patio door behind him. He met her eyes for a second. “Promise me you’re not going to jump?” His laugh in response was a little too bitter, but he promised, slid the door closed behind him, and sank into the nearest chair, looking out into the night sky and just trying to breathe his way through the cascading despair.
A few hours later, Roger was still outside, lost in his thoughts, while Mirka moved about cleaning the kitchen from the children’s dinner and watching the highlights of the day’s matches on TV. She could see him out there, just staring into space, every time she walked past the patio door, but she knew there was nothing she could say to pull him out of this low. When he hurt like this, she knew he needed space. Once he had taken the time to think it all through and remember all the blessings in his life, he would come back to her. Sometimes it took 30 minutes, sometimes it took 3 days, but he always came back. She looked up when she heard a soft knock at the door and was surprised, when she opened it, to find Rafa on the other side. “Rafa!” she gasped, “Congratulations! What an amazing match today!” She pulled him inside with a hug and carefully pushed the door closed behind them with one hand. When she let him go, Rafa was grinning, still clearly on cloud nine after what he had just achieved. “Babies are asleep?” he asked, and Mirka nodded. Rafa gave her a little bit of a pout and she smiled, knowing how much he loved their children and would have enjoyed a chance to say hello. She offered Rafa a cold drink or a snack, but he just shook his head and said he needed to get back to his house and his team, but he couldn’t go to bed without checking to see, with his own two eyes, if Roger was really okay. “He don’t answer my messages” Rafa said sadly. “Oh, you know how he gets, Rafa. This one really hurts him. I think he’s worried about not having that many more chances and after we watched the ending of your match he just worked himself up into quite a state and went out to sit on the balcony. He’s been there ever since. Promised me he wouldn’t jump.” Rafa wasn’t sure whether to laugh at that last part or not. “I think he’ll be glad to see you, Rafa,” she said, and ushered him towards the patio door.
Rafa hesitated when he saw his friend’s face through the glass door, hurt and disappointment etched all over it. He steeled himself, slid the door open, and stepped outside. Roger looked up in surprise. “Hey,” he said, with as much cheer as he could muster. “Hey,” Rafa said back. “I don’t even know what to say about your match with Juan tonight. Just incredible, Rafa. You played incredible. No one else could have pulled that off except for you.” Rafa smiled and ducked his head, still as shy and embarrassed now as he had been at 17 when Roger first offered him compliments. He managed a quiet “thank you.” “Was a tough fight, no? Now I gotta find a way to beat Nole.” Roger smiled and said “if anyone can do it, it’s you.” Rafa hadn’t come to this house to hear accolades from his biggest rival, but he had to admit it felt nice. Tonight’s battle with Juan had taken everything he had and he was proud he’d managed to win. His pride was tinged with a little sadness for Roger, though, when he remembered why he had come over in the first place. He walked to the railing of the balcony and rested his arms on it, looking out. Roger finally got up from his chair and went to stand beside Rafa. Roger wanted to say all kinds of things, wanted to ask Rafa if he thought Roger had missed his last chance at a Wimbledon title, if Rafa thought they’d ever play another final against each other again. Almost as if he could read his friend’s mind, Rafa leaned over so his shoulder bumped against Roger’s and said “It’s not over, Rogi.” Roger immediately bit back with “How do you know? What if this is the beginning of the end? You’re five years younger than me, Raf. What if...” Tears were threatening again. He was not going to start bawling his eyes out in front of Rafa. Again. He stopped speaking and let out a huge sigh. He hated this feeling. He was surprised when Rafa physically reached out and put his hands on both of Roger’s shoulders and turned him so they faced each other. Roger still couldn’t look him in the eyes. “This is not the end. You were three, maybe four shots away from beating him, no? He played the match of his life. You know how many times they say you’re finished and you always come back. Always. It’s bad luck. One bad day. Not the end. You hear me? Not the end.” The sheer forcefulness of Rafa’s words and the sincere belief he heard behind them had snapped Roger out of his “woe is me” trance for a moment. He knew there was nothing his rival or anyone else could really say to take away this dark cloud, but it warmed his heart to feel that he was making an effort. Roger felt the ice starting to melt and was suddenly so grateful for his friend’s presence. He knew Rafa had also had a long, emotional day and should be out somewhere with his team, with his girlfriend, celebrating. Instead of thinking of himself on what should have been one of the best nights of his life, Rafa had come all the way over here to try to comfort Roger. Rafa always put others first. His friend’s generous heart made Roger want to be a better person. He took another deep breath. “You think this is finally the year we’re going to play each other in the final in New York?” Rafa was relieved to hear Roger trying to talk in positive terms about the future. “Yeah,” he said, “This is gonna be our year. For sure.” Rafa still had his hands on Roger’s shoulders and he smiled when Roger leaned in and hugged him. They held on to each other for a full minute.
Mirka looked up when she heard the glass patio door slide open again. She heard Rafa and Roger giggling about something before she saw them step into the living room, arms around each others shoulders. Roger let go of Rafa long enough to turn around and close the patio door behind them. Mirka was relieved to see the joy creeping back into her husband’s eyes. They said their goodbyes to Rafa, wanting to let him get back to his team and his family after such a long day. As Rafa was walking down the front steps, Roger called out to him and Rafa looked back, curious. “I hope you win the whole thing,” he said, and he had never meant it more sincerely than he did at that moment. Rafa smiled and said “I’ll see you in New York, Rogi.”