I have loved tennis for almost as long as I can remember. I started playing when I was around 10, and I quickly took to the sport. I played at summer camps, took lessons during the week, participated in USTA tournaments, and played for my school's varsity tennis team during high school. It's safe to say that for four or five years, tennis was my biggest hobby. The last time I played competitive tennis was on the team at MIT during my freshman year of college, but I still play just for fun whenever I can. It's well known on the poker tournament circuit that wherever I am, I will probably have my rackets in tow, always ready for a game.
Not only do I play tennis, but I really love following and watching it too. Everything about it fascinates me: the pop of the ball against the racket, the eerie hush of the crowd, the strategy behind every shot, and of course the anticipation and excitement during a long rally. Professional tennis players are amazing and skilled athletes, and among them, Rafael Nadal is one of the best of all time. Honestly, he's probably my biggest all-time sports hero; he's an amazing competitor, and I'm total awe of what he's been able to achieve. I was beyond thrilled when PokerStars told me I'd be playing Rafa in a promotional Heads Up match in Monte Carlo.
The day of the match, I was super excited. I arrived at the Casino de Monte Carlo around 4PM to find that we were playing the Salon de Jeux Privés - a huge room that feels like part casino and part castle, with cathedral ceilings, bronze columns, ornate carvings, and crystal chandeliers. It was surreal! There were lots of media around, including lots of people from the mainstream press. This was probably their first exposure to the game of poker, which is pretty cool when you think about it. There was a whole set up for the press conference we would have afterward, as well as a poker table set up in the back.
Despite the lavishness and particularity of the set up, the whole game took only twenty minutes. There wasn't much table talk, as Rafa was mostly focusing on playing well; heads-up was a new format for him. I did make a little bit of conversation, though. I asked him whether or not he thought I could take a point off of him in a hypothetical tennis match between the two of us. He quickly quipped, "Sure, I might double-fault." Even though that probably isn't true - in reality, he would take 40 mph off his serve, hit it perfectly without missing a single serve, and still ace me every time - it was gracious of him to throw me a bone (even the sad, frail, pathetic little bone that it was).
In the end, it was such a fantastic time and Rafa was gracious in defeat. I'm just glad we stuck to the poker table instead of taking our competition to the tennis court.
Vanessa Selbst is a member of Team PokerStars Pro