I remember this moment because it was genuinely impressive. Years later, having watched the progress of the man who provided it, the memory has taken on even more meaning. In the second round of the 2012 Mutua Madrid Open, Roger Federer and Milos Raonic were in the midst of a very open encounter (it ended 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 to the Swiss) that closed out the day’s play. It was late night in the capital, the Manolo Santana Stadium was illuminated by the floodlights and two generations squared off either side of the net. The stage was set for something special.
But this memorable moment did not come during the match, which was played with huge intensity as Federer had to use his prowess at the net to shake off a dominant Milos. At around midnight, after a clash that could have gone either at any point, I found myself listening one of the most ambitious statements I have ever heard from a sportsman after defeat. “I stepped onto the court thinking that I can compete with the best. I step off it knowing that I can”, said Raonic having missed out on victory by the skin of his teeth. The frankness of the statement made it clear that he truly believed in what he was saying, and that he had the maturity required to find a positive amid the bitter disappointment of defeat.
It was a demonstration of the fact that great stories do not always go hand in hand with a winner’s trophy or a smile for the camera. The road to success is replete with failure; slip-ups that make a player stronger, preparing them for when their big moment arrives. That is what progress is all about, absorbing the blows, accepting the heartache and never ceasing to move forward. Milos, now one of the top players on the ATP World Tour, demonstrated this like few others in the early hours of that 2012 morning in Madrid.
His words reflected raw hunger; the conviction of a young man, then 21 years old and not yet a member of the top 20, to give his all and compete with anyone, regardless of the stage or the identity of his opponent; the fortitude of a player ready to make the leap to the top of his sport. Then coached by Galo Blanco, this was the unpolished version of a man who, five years later, is a Grand Slam finalist and has flirted with a top 3 ranking. He had shown us a glimpse of a rare ability; to be able to accept the harshness of this sport.
To me, this is the kind of special moment only seen at tournaments like the Mutua Madrid Open, an event that brings together the best players in the world and gives us a close-up of their aspirations. There are the legends who have already paved their way in the sport, but also the best of the players who are still looking to make a name for themselves and still have countless unfulfilled goals. The stage is big enough to be able to see the two meet on court. It is a chance that comes to the heart of Spain every spring, much to the delight of the local tennis lovers.
This is the majesty of the sport up close and personal and the chance to experience it in Madrid, at a tournament where the best players from both tours come together. We should appreciate the extraordinary standard of competition that we are lucky enough to witness so close to home. Each year, constantly improving on the last, it leaves us all with special memories that we can call our own. It is the joy of living in the here and now of sportsmen and women who are battling it out for their own place in history. The 2017 tournament will undoubtedly provide us with plenty of special moments. I’m already counting down the hours.
*Álvaro Rama is a journalist for Eurosport and El Confidencial