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August 30, 2011 1:50 PM

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Meeting Up With Rafael and Maria

Nadal and Sharapova Behind-the-Scenes....

Nadal and Sharapova Behind-the-Scenes. Unlike the legions of copper-toned fans and free-swilling sponsors roaming around the U.S. Open, I would not qualify as a follower, rooter, groupie or even hanger-on. Despite my parents' attempt to lay the groundwork for a sport for life, my interest in tennis peaked after a childhood summer or two of weekly lessons at Featherdeck. The name proved ominous, as in lightweight. Tennis whites are nice enough and who doesn't like a post-match chilled lemonade, but the back-and-forth of the sport itself can be eyelid-lowering.

That said, one tennis player who has always held my attention is Rafael Nadal. The guy just won't quit. You have to give it to a player who always battles back, regardless of what hard-charging opponents throw at him. The effort is always there. And win or lose, he appears humble. After beating Roger Federer at the epic four-hour 48-minute Wimbledon finals in 2008, Nadal said his rival "deserved this title, too." The chance to interview such a tenacious player was not to be missed.

After unveiling his Armani Jeans ad, the 10-time Grand Slam winner seemed to be enjoying himself as he sauntered past shouting admirers on Macy's ever-chaotic main floor. Upstairs he was cool as could be, responding to questions with an unassumingness that was very much it's-what-I-do. With his native Spain still wrestling with the Eurozone's highest unemployment rate of 21 percent, Nadal understands how his wins can lift a nation. Given his understatedness, it would only make sense that only a Spanish fan could capture what he means to his homeland. As one camera-toting visitor said, "When he plays, everyone suffers with him."

A few weeks earlier, Maria Sharapova cleared her schedule one Sunday evening while in Toronto for the Rogers Cup. At 6-foot, 2-inches, she would be hard to miss in a sleepy hotel lobby and yet she still felt the need to extend a hand and introduce herself. During our two-hour chat, a quartet of travelers sat unfazed talking loudly about the hotel's celebrity guests. That, to them, apparently meant the band Journey, whose ramped-up tour bus was parked out front. "Who?" asked one woman. "You know, 'Don't stop believin'...'" chimed in her friends.

The easygoing Sharapova couldn't have been happier about their disinterest -- and her anonymity.
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