The Pros Practice, the Audience Adores

Screams went up from the crowd pressed against the chain link fence along the sideline of Practice Court 4. They were high pitched and shrill, a girl’s movie star scream.

“Who?” I said, turning to a tanned, middle-aged woman clutching a camera. She was leaning against a metal barrier that faced the gate to the court.

“Rafael Nadal!” she beamed.

As if I had to ask.

This is Isobel Lopez’s second day at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. The U.S. Open doesn’t start until Monday morning, but she comes during these preparation days, to watch the pros practice and get their autographs. Lopez has done this now for four years in a row.

“Last year, I got Federer,” she said.  “But I want Nadal.”

What do you like about him? As if I had to ask.

“He’s really good. He loves tennis. You can see it in his heart.”

Lopez’s 11-year-old daughter, Josephine, is more blunt.

“He’s cute, he has the tennis, he has everything.”

Rafael Nadal, 24 years old, No. 1 in the world, is on the court now, in black shorts and a white shirt, and a black baseball cap turned backward. His long brown hair curls up behind his ears.

“He looks like he’s 12,” said a man standing beside me, looking over my shoulder through the chain link fence.

Nadal’s hitting with fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, in a slow, measured pace.  When I hit with a partner, we usually get just three shots exchanged before one of us shanks the ball high over our own heads, or dumps it into the net, or sends it into the next court. Nadal and Ferrero pass the ball smoothly and swiftly between them, with precision and control, as if it was threaded on a rope — 10, 15 times. After 10 minutes of this, they change ends. More screams and cheers from the rapt spectators as Rafa walks by them, tantalizingly close and real.

Now Nadal is practicing his serve, snapping the ball with a thwack into the service box. His coach, his uncle Toni Nadal, stands next to him, hugging a racquet to his chest. He lifts it up and shows his nephew how he wants the racquet to be at the top of the swing, with the racquet perpendicular to the net, like the sharp edge of a hatchet. Snap the wrist forward: THWACK.

“His serve has gotten so much better,” opined another man. 

Isobel Lopez wasn’t watching. Her eyes were trained on the gate to Practice Court Four, and, about 50 feet away, the glass doors of Arthur Ashe Stadium, next to the practice court, that lead to the players’ locker rooms.

“I got Soderling yesterday,” she said, of the Swede, Robin Sodering, who’s seeded fifth. “I saw Murray and Ferrer, and Davydenko, one of my favorites. I saw Sharapova this morning, and Melanie Oudin yesterday.”

Lopez says she stood in the exact same place, watching, waiting.

“I love them, all of them, I respect them. Because this is tough.  And all of them are good, and they love tennis. And I love tennis.”

As if I had to ask.