I was in Indian Wells in March of last year, watching one of the semi-finals. That tournament is an ATP Masters 1000 event, but as I got lost in the game, it felt like the final of a Slam – the quality, the athleticism and above all, the intensity. I was watching Rafael Nadal and a then 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz.
Nadal was Alcaraz’s hero when he was growing up and you could almost see that story out on the court in California. They are both from Spain and the tennis culture there is so strong; it was that way for my generation, and it hasn’t changed. But players like Alcaraz – or Nadal – don’t come along very often.
It reminded me how I felt when I was starting out and I played Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert. I had a poster of Martina on my wall. The way she played inspired me, because she was so unconventional – a lefty, and no-one was playing serve-and-volley back then; no-one was playing that aggressive game. And she had to go through so much just to follow her dream, very few of us can even relate to that. So, growing up, I always wanted to meet her. I didn’t think I would ever play her. Oh, now I’m supposed to try to beat her? We had some great matches, really feisty. But after we retired, we have been able to form a beautiful friendship.
When you win that first Grand Slam, as Elena did at Wimbledon in 2022, there really is no feeling like it – and it’s one that you will never be able to replicate. When I watched Elena in that moment, it was beautiful, because she was so natural and true. Her reaction was like: ‘Oh my God, did this really happen?’ Well, it did, and I don’t think it will be the last time.
This is the beauty of sport. At the start of Wimbledon, each of the 120 players in that draw, and the people around them, could find a way to believe this would be their year. But outside of what the players themselves believe, the number of players who are seen as potential winners is very short. And the name of Elena Rybakina, then the World No.23, was not on that list. Only Venus Williams, who was ranked 31st when she won in 2007, rose from a lower position to become champion – but Venus had already won the tournament three times.
I always think about that side of the journey at these moments: the years of sacrifice and hard work, not just for the athlete but their family also. And suddenly, here is the moment that makes it all worthwhile. When that time came, Rybakina was able to grasp it, and to be true to herself. That memory is hers forever.
What appealed to me were the words of Nelson Mandela at the first Laureus World Sports Awards, when he said that “sport has the power to change the world”. I know it changed my life, and I want to use that power to help and inspire young people.