So, your paper sends you to cover a tennis tournament and you end up across a card table from that internationally renowned poker star, Rafael Nadal.
Oh, yes. He also plays tennis.
This whole thing was kind of off the beaten path, but when somebody asks if you want to spend an hour or so with one of the best tennis players in the history of the game, you don’t care how or why. We newspaper people call that access.
And, as we poker stars say, I was all in.
Nadal, it turns out, loves poker.
“I started just playing at home with friends in Majorca,” Nadal said.
Then, he became an ambassador for the online site PokerStars, which also sponsors tournaments. They wanted Nadal as a spokesman for reasons above and beyond just getting a big-name athlete’s endorsement. They liked his clean-guy image, something to counter poker’s smoke-filled, back-room image.
This might also counteract mothers’ inclination to shield their children from Norman Chad.
With Nadal, they struck gold. If there is a nicer, more down-to-earth, raised-right athlete, you have to hunt hard.
Certainly, PokerStars also wanted Nadal just in case some gullible sportswriter from a big paper might be enticed to write about Nadal and mention them.
Clearly, that will never happen.
So we sat down to play Saturday, two hours before he had to practice for his Sunday match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The room wasn’t smoke-filled.
Nadal is good at this. He plays occasional charity tournaments and even won one, in Budapest in 2013, donating his $50,000 prize to charity.
The two other players weren’t bad, either. They were Vanessa Selbst, the only woman ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world, and Melanie Weisner, ranked as high as 54th.
This wasn’t just fluff stuff. Journalism was practiced. I asked Selbst how much money a poker player of her caliber made. She said that, in her nine years, she had generated $10 million in winnings, but really netted only half that.
I was worried less about the game then. She was clearly a peer.
The chitchat was fun. I didn’t need to ask lots of questions because Weisner did. She wanted to know how the mental games compared, if each was equally intense.
Nadal said they were.
He was asked why he plays doubles and said he had time for it in longer tournaments like this one, which Rafa and I obviously are using as a front for our poker addiction.
“I always play [doubles] with someone with whom I have a relationship,” he said.
He struggles a bit with English. Sometimes you have to translate. He meant he likes to play with his friends.
Weisner got him to be typical Rafa when she asked about the most important parts of tennis — “serve and volley,” he said, not even looking bored — and followed up by saying he does not have a great serve.
“I have a weak serve,” he said. “When you have a weak serve, pressure is on you all the time.”
Of course, 99.9723% of mankind would die for his weak serve, but that’s another story.
We talked about golf. Nadal loves that, too, as do most players here. Perhaps 95% of the motivation to play this event is career enhancement and a huge purse. The other 5% is golf. Nadal said his handicap is 2.9. At the moment, so is Tiger’s.
Soon, all this tennis chatter was disrupting the real reason Nadal and I were here for nearly two weeks.
There was lots of chatter about rivers and flops, raises and checks. I knew my best chance, against such high-level competition, was to win the mind game. I chose the role of bumbling fool. I came to it easily. Or, as Chad might say, “How did they let this guy into a big-time game?”
Which was similar to what we used to say when he wrote sports stories for the Washington Post: “Who gave this guy a laptop?”
At one point, I showed excitement when an ace was turned over on the flop. Weisner knew that, if I’d had another one, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. I would have played it close to the vest.
The bumbling fool act was working. I won another hand by doing something stupid and Selbst said I’d done well. “You’re tricky,” she said.
If she only knew.
Soon, it was time to end it. Selbst had to fly to Malta for a European Poker Tour tournament and Nadal had to head to a practice court already surrounded by adoring fans.
With one hand to go, the bumbling fool had most of the chips. The women pros were amused, Nadal more like bemused. If you know him, you know he hates to lose at anything. Don’t bet him on length of traffic lights.
And so, it came down to the last hand. The women folded and Nadal and bumbling fool stared each other down. OK, we giggled.
He had only one chance. Go all in. He laughed, but the prospect of losing wasn’t his favorite thing.
The final card came up a club, the bumbling fool had a weak flush and Nadal had nothing. There can be no challenges. It is on film.
In the not-too-distant future, the bumbling fool will watch a Nadal tennis match with his grandchildren and tell them that, one time, he beat Rafa one-on-one.
They might say, “Wow, papa.” Or they will roll their eyes.
Go all in on the second thing.