Rafael Nadal smiles during one of his Citi Open practice sessions. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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A few weeks ago, Hillary Templeton called her mom and started the conversation with a question no parent wants to hear: “Are you sitting down?” Templeton’s mom, Lisa, had just gotten an echocardiogram, in which she received good news. She was sitting in the car when she picked up the phone. Lisa assumed the worst, but her fears quickly morphed into excited disbelief.

Hillary, 28, was calling to tell her that Rafael Nadal would be playing at their hometown tournament, the Citi Open. (Disclosure: City Paper owner Mark Ein took over management of the Citi Open in 2019.)

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Lisa, who lives in Montgomery County. “I started shaking. We had spent a lot of money this year for [Western & Southern Open] and U.S. Open tickets, and we weren’t going to spend money to come here. But then, immediately, we got the full [Citi Open] series package … because of Rafa.”

Nadal, 35, is one of the most recognizable names in sports and his historic achievements and tenacious on-court spirit have earned him a devoted following. He will make his Citi Open debut on Wednesday, Aug. 4, when he plays the winner of the first round match between Jack Sock and Yoshihito Nishioka. Nadal has not played in the United States since the 2019 U.S. Open and skipped Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics this year due to a foot injury. Over the weekend, Nadal treated local tennis fans to several practice sessions ahead of the main draw, which runs Aug. 2 through Aug. 8 at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center.

At this point in his career, it’s uncommon for a player of Nadal’s caliber—he has won a record-tying 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles—to be playing a tournament for the first time, let alone be visiting a city for the first time.

“It’s a very beautiful city,” Nadal told reporters Sunday when asked about his first impressions of D.C. “I have been able to walk around little bit the last couple of days. I am very impressed. I hope to have a chance to visit little bit more the city during the next couple of days. But what I saw, so beautiful. A very green city, lower buildings than most of the American big cities. I am enjoying the city. I am enjoying the people.”

Hillary and Lisa Templeton are self-described “Super Rafans.” Credit: Kelyn Soong

Hillary and Lisa are self-described “Super Rafans,” the kind of Nadal supporters who plan trips specifically to see him play and who share their enthusiasm on Twitter. They are far from the only ones. Lisa, 60, describes the fandom surrounding Nadal as akin to “Beatlemania.” On Sunday, dozens of Nadal fans formed a crowd near the stadium court to watch him conduct a TV interview.

Lisa first became a Nadal fan shortly before the 2008 Wimbledon final in which Nadal beat Roger Federer in an epic five-set match considered one of the best tennis matches ever played. She’d cried when Andre Agassi gave his retirement speech at the 2006 U.S. Open and didn’t find a player who inspired her the same way until Nadal.

“I just love his humility and his graciousness, and I just thought he seemed like he was going to be a fantastic person to watch,” Lisa says. “And he just brought that enthusiasm that Agassi had brought for me.”

Hillary remembers watching Nadal win the 2008 Wimbledon championship on TV and has been a “hardcore fan” ever since. “I had been so tired of seeing Federer win everything—no disrespect to Federer, we like him a lot—but watching Rafa defeat him in that match, I was sold,” she says.

“I think his energy first got me into it,” Hillary adds. “And what I love about him now and try and implement into my daily life is the way that he’s able to, like, make a mistake on court or lose a point, and he just moves on. His mental strength is so inspiring and something that I strive to apply in my own life.”

Hillary and Lisa got to see Nadal live for the first time at the 2015 U.S. Open. They’ve also seen him play at the Western & Southern Open near Cincinnati and at an exhibition match in Atlanta last March before travel was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hillary owns dozens of pieces of Nadal gear. She estimates that she has about 20 hats, 16 shirts, two shorts, a couple sweatshirts, and “a bunch of masks.” Many of them come from Nadal’s tennis academy in Spain.

“Pandemic retail therapy was ordering from the academy,” Hillary says.

Hillary Templeton, in purple shirt, watches Rafael Nadal practice while wearing a matching shirt. Her mother, Lisa, is on her left. Credit: Kelyn Soong

On Saturday, July 31, she decided to wear a sleeveless purple Nike shirt with Nadal’s bull logo to the Citi Open. When Nadal walked onto the stadium court for his evening practice session with 21-year-old American Sebastian Korda, Hillary immediately noticed he was wearing the same shirt. It was not planned.

“I had no idea,” she says. “I had not worn it to a tournament yet, so I was like, ‘I’ll wear that.'”

Hillary says she received comments throughout the day for her outfit, and even had a brief exchange with Nadal after the practice session. Due to the pandemic, tournament staff informed the crowd that Nadal would not be signing autographs or posing for photos, but Hillary was able to catch him exiting the stadium and shouted, “Hi, Rafa!” She says Nadal looked her right in the eyes, gave her a thumbs up, and said, “Thank you very much.”

Moments later, Hillary posted photos of the interaction on her Nadal fan Twitter account that she shares with her mother. “My soul,” Hillary wrote, “left my body.”