Let’s be clear, though: these outstanding men are exemplary in so many ways. They represent tennis honorably, carrying different attributes into the arena, handling their successes and failures with remarkable poise and dignity. And all four of these accomplished sportsmen seem to deeply appreciate their cavalcade of followers, even if their time is precious and their opportunities to reach out to fans somewhat limited. To put that more fully into perspective—and to demonstrate that these four commendable men do recognize the importance of the public— I would like to share with you the story of a 20-year-old fan from Lawrence, New York named Ruthie Freilich.
Freilich is a junior at Binghamton University in upstate New York. She is currently studying abroad in Barcelona. She was ranked in the Eastern Tennis Association during her junior days, played college tennis as a freshman, and has attended many big tournaments as a fan. She is surrounded by diehard observers of tennis all across her family. Her father, Aaron, and her uncle, Neil, are incurably addicted to every aspect of the game, from the upper regions all the way down to Futures and Challengers.
Perhaps Ruthie Freilich had no alternative but to embrace the family obsession, but she proceeds along that path on her own terms. As she says, “I enjoy watching tennis and did grow up playing it. I am not as crazy about it as Dad. But I am definitely into it.”
Not long ago, Freilich flew from Barcelona to Nice on a Thursday evening with some friends, knowing she would be spending some enjoyable time watching the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters starting a few days later. As she points out, ” There is no airport in Monte Carlo, so if any players were flying to the tournament, I am almost positive they would have to go to Nice. But it didn’t even cross my mind that any players would be on my flight that night.”
Freilich took her seat in Row 25, near the back of the plane. She had noticed some players and coaches carrying tennis bags when she boarded, but none of them were familiar to her. But then, suddenly and dramatically, as if by design, just before takeoff, a very familiar figure walked on the plane.
As Freilich explains, “Right before we took off, somebody comes onto the flight with a big tennis bag, wearing a Nike hat face down, covering his face. He then sits down toward the front of the plane, in Row 10, He takes off his hat and, literally, just from the back of his head, I knew right away it was Rafa Nadal. I knew from his hair, how he was standing, the color of his skin, and everything. I knew it was him. He was with his girlfriend. There were maybe 30 rows on this plane and there is no first class or business section. Everybody is in the same boat, And there was Rafa on my flight.”
Finding herself in an anxious state after spotting one of her tennis heroes, Freilich was internally spinning. As she puts it, “The flight has just started and I am panicking. I am a huge fan of Rafa’s and I still can’t believe he is on the flight. He is a huge name, whether you like tennis or not. Everybody knows who Rafa is. I don’t know what to do. The seatbelt sign is on so I can’t get out of my seat. It is pitch black and it is now about 10 at night and they take off the lights inside the plane. I wonder if he is sleeping. I realize he has snuck onto the flight at the last minute, so I am almost positive I am the only person who knows he is on board. People are falling asleep. Everybody is tired. So I don’t know how to approach the situation. If I go over to him, what if he is sleeping? I want to get a picture with him, but what if it is too dark?”
After thinking it over, Freilich shapes a strategy to meet the Spanish superstar. She waits until about twenty minutes after takeoff, when the seatbelt sign has been turned off. “I start walking toward the front of the plane, look to my right, and there he is. I go over to him. He is sitting in a row of three on the aisle, with his girlfriend in the middle seat. Nobody is at the window seat. I wanted to play it that there was a bathroom at the front of the plane and then on the way back to my seat I would say, “Oh my God, hello!’ So that is basically what I did. I said, ‘Oh my God, I am a huge fan and I am coming this weekend to Monte Carlo to see you play, I have seen you play at Indian Wells and the U.S. Open.’
” He was very nice and I took a couple of selfies with him and my friend got a picture with him also, and then took a picture of Rafa with me kind of sitting on the floor next to him. I told him that I was studying in Barcelona and that I loved Spain and mentioned I was trying to get to Mallorca, which was actually funny because I did get there a weekend later. He was really nice. I was speaking very quietly and we were kind of whispering, but at this point nobody realized Rafa was on the flight. He said he was happy to hear I was studying in Spain and said he was honored that I was coming to the tournament. His girlfriend was kind of wanting me to leave, but he was great. We spoke for about ten minutes.”
Freilich returned to her seat, and felt her heart racing. She was exhilarated about having such a nice conversation with Nadal, but not totally content with the photographs. She says, “I realized my selfies were good, but I wanted more. So I was figuring out how to make that happen. I felt when we landed there would be no way I could catch up with him. But when we landed, I had my friend get my [carry on] bag for me. I finally get out and there are two busses taking us to the terminal in Nice. Both busses were packed when I got off the plane, but I saw Rafa on the second bus in the back right corner with his hat on. (He had taken the hat off during the flight.) He was in his regular jeans sitting with his girlfriend, and you could tell he did not want to be noticed.”
She deliberately did not bother Nadal while they were on the bus, but waited for him outside after they reached the terminal, asking him to take another photo. He said, ‘You got it.’ Nadal then headed to the baggage claim with members of his team.
“I was shocked,” says Freilich. “When we got to the luggage belt he was there doing his own thing, taking off his luggage. I thought he would disappear when he got to the terminal, but since it was such a small airport he didn’t do that. He took his own stuff and pushed his own cart and eventually people were going over to him and getting autographs. He could not have been nicer and he did not turn anyone away. Eventually he pushed his luggage cart outside towards the exit and was met by a driver. They got into a car and Nadal was gone.”
After spending a couple of days doing other things, Freilich went to the Monte Carlo tournament on Sunday for the first time. That was when first round matches commenced while the qualifying concluded.
“I had to remember that this was at the Monte Carlo Country Club and it was laid out like a country club. The stadium is about one sixth the size of Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open. Everything was so much smaller and there were not that many people there. My Dad and my uncle are very into getting pictures with the players and I am also, but I would not make myself crazy over it. It is important to understand that with the remaining three great players—Djokovic, Murray and Federer— I did not even try to get to any of them in advance. The coincidence is unreal.”
Asked to elaborate, Freilich says, “Djokovic was the first person I met after Nadal. There is kind of a VIP tunnel right next to the Center Court. You need a special badge to get into it. A lot of players walk in and out of there because that is where they go to get their food and meet their families in that area, etcetera. I was standing there because I saw there were a bunch of people and wondered who might be walking out. Maybe five minutes later, I hear fans saying, ‘Novak, Novak, Novak!’ He is coming out of the tunnel by himself and he has a normal bicycle. People are begging him for pictures and he was very nice about it. He has always been a mensch every time I have ever seen him. I went over to him and took two pictures with him and right after that he gets on his bike and starts biking around the grounds by himself with no helmut. This tournament was so relaxed with no one panicking. At the U.S. Open you have people screaming and pushing and shoving.”
A day later, on Monday, the grounds were more crowded. Freilich noticed that Andy Murray was playing doubles on Court 2, and decided to go watch him play in that intimate setting with only ten to twenty rows of stands. “Right before I get to the court,” she recollects, “I pass that same tunnel and who is walking along? Murray’s Mom with Andy’s daughter. So I got a picture of her from behind as she walked with the baby in the stroller. When I get to Court 2, I see his wife across the way in the box. He wins shortly after that and there were not many kids around. He walks off the court and is literally right next to me, so this is a very casual encounter. I said,’Oh, can I have a picture with you?’ He was very nice, smiling and said, ‘Sure.’ So we did the photo. I had met him at Indian Wells a year ago and he was also very nice then. But I have also seen him at the U.S. Open when he was not so nice, when it seemed like thousands of people were coming after him, which I am sure was difficult. But in Monte Carlo, it was almost chill so he was relaxed.”
In the space of several days, Freilich had met and taken photographs with Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Only Federer remained for her to complete a personal Grand Slam of sorts, a feat few fans could realize in such a short span—or, for that matter, even across a lifetime. But before Freilich had the chance to realize that particular dream, she witnessed a scene that left her mesmerized. There is a VIP Entrance and exit and another for those not in that category. “When you leave the tournament,” explains Freilich, “you are on a big road with cars and no traffic light. So to get from Entrance One to Entrance Two you are literally walking up a road with cars zooming by and the road is winding. I looked around and saw Novak on his bike again, surrounded by four security guards who were looking in the street to make sure there were no cars coming. Then Novak gets on his bike without a helmut and peddles away, leaving the tournament. I have never seen anything like it. It was crazy to me that the No. 1 tennis player in the world travels to and from the tournament on his bicycle.”
It is now Tuesday, and Freilich is enjoying her last day at one of the world’s most prestigious clay court tournaments—an event Nadal will capture for the ninth time five days later. She has seen an impressive cast of top players up close in this intimate setting, but “Federer has been nowhere to be found. I haven’t seen him once, not even on the practice courts. My Dad is texting me because Federer has his first round singles match on this day and he says, ‘Look out for him. He has to be there. See if he is practicing.’ But I went into the day not believing I was going to see him. I could not even believe I had met the other three, so I am still in shock about that. But it is much more crowded than the other days, so I have no expectations whatsoever about Federer.”
Freilich watched Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Federer perform on the Center Court, trying to observe how the players got from the central stage back to the VIP area. She discovered it was impossible to track down any of the players after their Center Court clashes. “At that point,” she laments, “I completely lost hope of meeting Federer. There was no way I was going to see him.”
But Freilich underestimated her extraordinary capacity to be in the right place at the right time— to sense an unexpected opportunity and seize it, despite nearly insurmountable odds. She left the grounds of the Monte Carlo Country Club that Tuesday evening around 7PM. Suddenly, there was “commotion.” She realized someone of prominence was leaving, and recognized the moment precisely for what it was.
“I looked to my right,” she recalls. “and I see Roger. I think that was the first time I really started to panic. What were the chances that the exact time I was leaving the tournament, he would be leaving, too? He is about twenty feet away, just walking and talking to a few people, very relaxed. And that was when I quickly realized I had to try to get a picture with him. But there was really tight security. There was a big security guard kind of pushing me back. He didn’t want me going anywhere near Roger. I was standing about a foot away from Roger’s taxi. I wanted to get the picture with Roger at the last second before he got in the taxi. This big security guard was standing in front of me, so I literally go underneath the security guard and I say, ‘Roger, I love you. One quick picture!’ Roger literally turned around as he was going into the car, turning back to look at my phone. He went into the car and off he went. But I got the photo.”
And so this enterprising, intelligent, observant and astute 20-year-old had somehow managed to meet every member of the ” Big Four”, all under different circumstances, with each of these men graciously honoring her requests. “One was on a flight, “she muses, “another after after a small doubles match, a third just by chance. Up until this point, I had seen Roger as basically untouchable. I saw him almost as a God. It was all about the circumstances, when and where you get to meet them. They all were nice. If Federer would have been on my flight, I think he would have been even nicer than Nadal was, but Roger was rushing into his car.”
Does Freilich have any advise for other young fans who might find themselves in her shoes someday in a similar tournament environment? She replies, “Fans shouldn’t get discouraged if a player is walking by and doesn’t sign an autograph or take a picture with them. It doesn’t reflect at all on their character. It just depends on the circumstances you meet them.”
Summing up the entirety of her Monte Carlo experience, Freilich asserts, “I feel very lucky to have gone to this tournament. It was an amazing experience. With the moments I had with those players, it shows that they are just regular people. The fact that Djokovic is going back and forth to the tournament on a bicycle, and Nadal isn’t flying on a private plane and is carrying his own bags, and Federer is taking a regular taxi back to his hotel, and Murray’s daughter is there with her grandmother—it tells you a lot. These players are plastered all over ESPN, all of the tennis magazines and in Nike ads. They all have big endorsements. But when you see them in these little moments like I did, you find out they are just like everybody else.”