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Unforgettable

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Watching these two greats will stay with me, writes independent Media's Stuart Hess

Rafael Nadal jumps the net while Roger Federer looks on during the Match In Africa Tennis Exhibition held at the Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town on Friday. Picture: AP Photo / Halden Krog

Row three. Seat 36. Block 316 Upper Tier. Cape Town Stadium.

From there I watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play tennis. It was a long way back from the posh court-side seats occupied by Patrice Motsepe, Bryan Habana, John Smit, Helen Zille and Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll among others. It didn’t matter one bit.

There are few sportsmen who stop me doing whatever I’m supposed to be doing. Roger Federer is one of them. I was insanely jealous of my former colleague, Kevin McCallum who got to interview Federer a few years back at Joburg airport. Federer was supposed to talk to him for 10 minutes, he gave McCallum nearly 20 minutes of his time.

So when I got offered that ticket in the upper tier of Cape Town Stadium, it didn’t take long to say ‘yes,’ and book a flight.

It did worry me how much I’d be able to see from up there – about 100 metres (maybe more) from the court, but my concerns were unwarranted.

From the Upper Tier, I could see the ball and follow the rallies, although, with exception of the odd booming forehand from Nadal couldn’t hear the ball on the racquet.

Nevermind though. It was an amazing experience.

The Cape Town Stadium is a terrific venue. Why it’s taken Western Province Rugby so long to move, only their administrators will know. There are clear views of every part of the field and in the case of a tennis match it was pretty amazing that you could follow a point so clearly.

It’s why 50 000 people could be heard gasping when Nadal cracked one of his signature ‘off forehands’ or Federer cranked up a first serve.

And sure it was an exhibition, and so the rallies were relaxed, the shots struck with only half the force they would be in a proper competitive encounter, but even in that, the skill of those two was ridiculous. Only after the match as we made our way out of the stadium did we realise just how windy it was courtside. To be able to control a ball the way they did was simply incredible.

There was a rally involving them swapping back hand slices, low, cutting across the ball, barely getting it over the net, and when it bounced it deviated like an off-break. Try that indoors, it’s pretty darn difficult, never mind in an open stadium, with the wind swirling.

At times I’d take out the binoculars and follow the movement of each player. Federer at his best flows like water. That wasn’t so much the case on Friday, the wind making him look clumsy occasionally as it held up the ball – he still hit cleanly however. Nadal is forever ticking.

He can’t stop moving. Even in his seat, his legs keep going – and yes even in an exhibition match, he does that thing with the bottles at the change of ends, turning them precisely so that the label faces the court.

There was less of the underpants-pulling-hair-tucking-sweat-wiping routine before he serves than what he does in a proper match, nor was the ball being bounced as often. But the traits were there and there was a crowd pleasing first pump after one successful stretch back-hand volley at the net. He also stood metres back behind the baseline to return serve, something I found strange given this wasn’t a serious match.

I’m still hoping to make plans to watch either one of them in a competitive match, but even if I don’t I’ll take the memories of Friday with me. At times I’d watch some spectators close to me.

There was an elderly couple seated one row behind me whose daughter had got them tickets. They were enraptured. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had only been accessible through television for them. Here they were in the flesh, 100 or so metres away sure, but it was them. And those two people never took their eyes off the action. I won’t forget them.

I won’t forget seeing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal live. I am very, very lucky.