A Year Is A Long Time In Tennis
a Tennis RPF fanfic
Notes: Set during the Australian Open 2010.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction.
The fireworks woke Rafa.
He lay in the dark, listening to the explosions, stirred to uneasy memory, like a bright afterimage etched against his eyelids.
He threw off the sheets and padded out into the dim hotel corridor. Without knowing why, he took the stairs to the roof.
A gust of cool air met him as he pushed open the door to the rooftop garden. The fireworks threw shadows from palms and ferns, bursting in crimson and gold across the Melbourne skyline, as the Australians celebrated their national day.
Someone was already there, at the edge of the roof, watching the fireworks and their reflection in the river. Rafa nodded to the familiar silhouette, haloed against the sky.
"Hello, Rafa," the other man said. "I've been waiting for you to show up."
"Waiting for me?" How strange. Rafa looked down at himself, dressed only in pyjama pants, and realised. "I'm still dreaming, aren't I?"
"If you say so," Roger said, amused.
Rafa drew up alongside, and leaned his bare arms upon the railing. The fireworks shot from the tops of towers, bright and brilliant, then fell like flowers from the sky.
"You saw the match?" Rafa asked.
"I saw the match."
They watched the skyshow in silence.
Rockets rose, whistling and shattering. Rafa would never hear that sound again without remembering. Sitting alone during the time out, the fireworks exploding overhead, as the ache flared in his joints, and dread sank in him like a stone. Walking across the wide court, under the eyes of the crowd, to surrender the match to his opponent.
"Sorry I won't be there on Sunday," he said at last.
"You keep missing our rendezvous." Gently chiding. "What should I do? It's been almost a year."
Since they had met in a grand slam.
Since his dizzying victory here.
One year ago, Rafa had been number one in the world. He had Olympic gold, he held three grand slam titles, and he was chasing the fourth and final. He stood on top of the mountain, with nowhere else to climb.
One year on, he had lost that ranking, lost those titles, and the mountain was crumbling beneath his feet. Sidelined with injury, as others overtook him without a backward glance.
"Looks like you're going to have some new rivals," Rafa said.
"Are you really going to let that happen?"
Their eyes met. It was a challenge. But Rafa had no answer this time.
The silence stretched. The horizon grew dark as the fireworks faded.
"Ah. Looks like the show is over," Rafa said. He suddenly longed to sit down. He caught sight of a bench beneath a trellis hung with jasmine; he made his way over, Roger agreeably accompanying him. Rafa eased himself down, trying not to betray any stiffness.
"How are the knees?" Roger asked anyway.
"Not so good. Not like before."
He did not say, maybe never again like before. Unspoken fear, too terrible to voice, although he heard talk, everywhere.
They had said the same of Roger this time last year: this was it, he was finished, he would never win another slam. And look at him now. Rafa clung to that thought.
"Things will get better," Roger said, as though reading his mind. "You have many more tournaments to play."
The echoes of Rafa's own words drifted back from last year to haunt him, from when they stood on the podium after the final: Remember, you are a great champion, you are one of the best of history. And then, for only the two of them to hear: Don't take it too hard, it's not a big deal. And Roger had smiled through his tears and said, I know.
It seemed like the height of presumption now, that he had ever imagined mere words could fix things.
"Well?" Roger said, still watching him. "Do you want me to tell you it's not over? Is that what you need to hear?"
Roger didn't need to tell him. He didn't need to say anything. He stood there as living testament, that you could climb back out of the abyss, that you could pass through despair into glory. Rafa had followed him up the mountain; now he had to follow him through the valley. There was no path he walked that this man had not walked before him.
How did you do it? Rafa wanted to ask. How did you get through this?
He had believed he could conquer the world through sheer force of will. But there was a fine distinction between willpower and delusion, when you came up against the hard limits of reality, and the truth of what the human body would endure. You could bend the laws of physics, but you couldn't break them, and sooner or later, they would exact their toll.
"I am not the same as you," he said out loud. "My game is not the same. Maybe the future for me is also not the same."
Roger cast him an acute look. "What if that was true? If you couldn't play anymore. What would you do then?"
"I don't know." Home, his brain supplied. You would go home. His dream, someday, was the boat: sailing the island he had loved all his life, blue water below and blue sky above. But that was for when he retired. He was twenty three years old.
"Tell me," Roger said, intent, "who is Rafael Nadal?"
"A tennis player," he said without hesitation.
"Mm," Roger said. "Do you remember a year ago?"
"Always." It was at once so close and so far away.
"The world will remember the man who won that tournament," Roger said quietly. "But what I remember is the man who spoke those words of kindness to me afterwards."
Slowly, he lifted his hand towards Rafa, so as not to startle him. "Rafael Nadal is not here--" tracing his bicep--"or here--" touching his knee--"but here--" laying a hand on his heart. "This is who Rafael Nadal is. And this is what will last forever."
Rafa saw himself reflected in Roger's eyes, and wondered what the other man saw there. "You think so?" he managed. His heart thudded so wildly he was sure Roger could feel it.
"I know so."
With a tiny smile, Roger drew his hand away and clapped Rafa on the shoulder. "Go get some sleep."
"I'm not a baby." But Rafa stood and stretched anyway, fighting off a yawn.
He was halfway to the door when he remembered something. "Roger."
"Good luck for Sunday."
Roger smiled back, and said, "I wish it was with you."
The sun woke Rafa.
He lay blinking in the light, and pressed his palm to his heart.
- fin -