BEIJING-Wasn’t it perfect? Like he had it all planned. Just three hours away from that most-awaited date of “August 18” when he’ll be crowned tennis’ world no. 1, Rafael Nadal stood at that middle podium, raised his Spanish arms to the Beijing skyline, then accepted the sparkling gold medal from his countryman, the IOC president for life, Juan Antonio Samaranch.
Our last night in this city mixed with old culture and new high-rise buildings, what a fitting ending. Camera bulbs flashed. The Spanish flag was raised. Ten thousand avid fanatics jam-packed the Center Court. And, at the center of it all stood one man whose story became history.
The 2008 French Open Champion. The 2008 Wimbledon Champion. And now, the 2008 Beijing Olympics Gold Medalist.
Wow. I wonder which, among the three, if Rafa were asked, would he rank the most special. His fourth straight Roland Garros title? A first-ever win over the almost-unbeatable-at-grass Roger Federer in one of the game’s greatest-ever matches? Or, on a cool and chilly night like last Sunday’s, when he dispatched in three easy sets the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, would Rafa choose the Olympic gold?
The Olympics, lest we all forget, happens only every four years. The Grand Slams? They’re four times each year. And so, in a span of four years in-between Olympics, there are 16 Grand Slam events. Sixteen tries to win a Slam versus one attempt at that shimmering gold.
I’d choose the gold.
I bet Rafa would.
My wife Jasmin and I, seated beside three Filipinos (one from Cebu and two from Dumaguete) were treated to a tennis spectacle by the Spanish maestro. Against Gonzalez, after Rafa won the first set, 6-3, in a little over 30 minutes, we concluded that this match will be over quick. But “Gonzo”-lambasted here in the newspapers for his “cheating” against James Blake in the semis-would not leave Beijing without a tough fight. In Set Two, he was up 5-4 and had two set points. With an easy put-away volley to level the match at one set apiece, he flubbed it-inviting Rafa back to the set, which the current world no.1 won, 7-6. From then on, it was all a rampage by the Spanish bull, winning Set 3 with the score, 6-3.
I was right behind Nadal-not more than 40 feet away-when he won that final point, collapsed to the blue-and-green surface, formed an “X” with his arms and legs outstretched, and savored this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
To me, the best part came next: the Medal Ceremony. Within seconds after Nadal’s victory, dozens of volunteers unwrapped the red carpet, installed the yellow podiums in the middle and readied the multi-colored flags.
What an unforgettable moment for the winners. Standing tall on the elevated ramp, with 10,000 pairs of eyeballs staring at you, all clapping, all cheering, all clicking cameras. On the background, your country’s national anthem is played. Your flag-the one symbol of the millions of people back home-is slowly raised. This is a moment, I’m sure, that will forever be recorded on your mind’s memory.
While we watched the Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka doubles victory last Saturday night, we left the venue early and missed the medal ceremony.
But two nights ago, we witnessed three.
Russia. Russia. Russia.
Those were the three names printed on the sweaters of the three ladies who stood proud during the Women’s Singles ceremony. Elena Dementieva won gold, Dinara Safina (who, in the final, won the first set and was minutes away from winning gold) took the silver, and Vera Zvonareva won the bronze-all hailing from the Land of Vladimir Putin.
Right after the men’s singles win of Nadal, another medal ceremony took place: Venus and Serena Williams, both ousted early in singles, redeemed themselves by winning the Women’s Doubles gold. As the sound of the Star Spangled Banner reverberated throughout the Center Court, US flags were waved and the American spectators relished the proud achievement.
Finally, three men emerged from the dugout to camera flashes that sparked all throughout the stands. Novak Djokovic, who beat James Blake the day before, got out first. He won bronze. Then Gonzalez. Then the gold medalist.
As Nadal towered tallest at the conclusion of the Olympic tennis last Sunday-and as my 10-day expedition with Jasmin to this Olympic city comes to a close as we arrive home today-the memories of the Bird’s Nest, of Lin Dan, of Harry Tañamor’s loss, of the all-grinning volunteers…. these memories I will forever remember like gold.