Rafa Nadal just won his 21st grand slam tournament placing him first on the all-time list. This is a monumental achievement, especially since Nadal was considered a clay-court specialist, at least early in his career. Long hair, no sleeves, and a way of creating topspin that went beyond any of his rivals, Nadal quickly adapted his lefty game to all surfaces. He changed his serve and made a myriad of other adjustments to his game. But what Nadal has more than any of his rivals is the competitiveness that just makes his opponents wilt. Every single ball is a battle. Every single point is a battle. And Nadal could and can hit a winner from anywhere on the court. But you don’t need me to tell you these things. Let’s talk about the press conference.
Indian Wells. Me, loitering around the grounds with a press pass. By this time everyone was on the digital wagon train. Shoot, edit, transmit, repeat. But like I was for most of my career, I was flying solo with no backing, choosing instead to spend my time in the hot tub or scrounging beers from various secret sources. While others were talking shop I was at the Karaoke bar with fellow snappers blowing off steam from wives and lives. It was the desert after all. I felt like my role was to not make any quick movements.
I photographed Kuerten, Ferrar, Djokovic, and a range of other players but instead of the tack sharp images of the tennis photography “pros,” I would layer up neutral density filters and handhold five-second exposures just to see what would happen. The looks from the shooting pen were often of disgust and came with frowning faces of “How did YOU get a credential.” I would just smile, nod, and pull out my Holga.
It was announced that Rafa would do a presser. I decided the Hasselblad and Delta 3200 would be the ticket. These presser rooms were always the worst lit, most depressing spots they could find. This was pure interrogation, lacking only a bare bulb and being tied to the chair.
Rafa was prickly, as he is today all these years later, but for a different reason. In these early days, Rafa was a bit shy and his English was still a work in progress. We all know how awkward that can be. Blurting something out only to be met with blank stares, and when you are on the international stage and are clearly going to become a superstar there are tentacles of money stretching far and wide. These days Rafa seems more like he’s lost his patience with the inanity of most journalism. I actually feel for him. He does seem like a standard man with nonstandard skills.
The Hasselblad provided just the cure for my perverse take on being a photographer. Each and every frame with the Blad comes with the legendary CLUNK. Pressers are quiet, really quiet, so each and every time I made a frame the entire room quivered with the small, electrical shock of the sound. As if each person was saying “ouch.” This made me very, very happy.
I deployed the Blad or the Pentax 6×7 anytime quiet was the name of the game. From yoga studios to monasteries. Nowhere was safe. I would often embellish the noise by shouting “KaBoom,” or “Shazam” with each exposure. On one assignment in a monastery in Northern California, I went to deploy the Pentax only to have the art director look over at me and mouth “Are you f^%^%^% serious?” I just winked and hit the tripwire.
These days when I see Rafa I think back to this moment. In the same room but miles apart. Me doing my job and he suffering through his. He is now firmly planted in the GOAT conversation where he truly belongs. Que Fuerte.