Roger Federer, who has just became father again, is not the first tennis player who has to deal with fatherhood in the middle the season. The Romanian Andrei Pavel did even better: in 2002, while he was about to play a quarter-final at Roland Garros, he jumped into a car and made an express round-trip to Germany to attend the birth of his son. Which equals to 1000 miles in 24h, in the pouring rain with... Alex Corretja waiting for his return on the Central. Story of an epic journey.
"When I defeated Tommy Haas, who was then world n°2, in the round of 16, there was hardly anyone at the press conference. But then, I took a car to go to Germany and it earned me the most crowded press room of my career." Qualified for the first time of his life in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, what could have made the 28-year-old Romanian leave the stadium and rush on the highway to his village of Dissen am Teutoburger Wald in German Lower Saxony on this 6th of June 2002? To drive 1000 miles in nineteen hours (and a horrible weather) on the highways from France to Germany and vice versa? The happiest motivation in the world, nothing less: fatherhood. His wife Simone was about to give birth to their second child.
Initially expected at the end of June, the baby appeared to be more impatient than expected and the young woman had to enter the clinic two weeks in advance, while at the same time, in Paris, her husband was busy playing for a place in Roland Garros semi-finals against Alex Corretja. The moment was crucial for Pavel, who until then had never gone beyond the last 16 in a major tournament. "It’s a bit odd that these two events overlapped, says the Romanian, now coach on the women's tour, first of Jelena Jankovic and currently of Tamira Paszek. But no matter the sporting challenge: I would not have missed the birth of Marius for the world. The whole story with the rain was a godsend for the press, but for me, it didn’t really made a difference: I would have gone no matter what."
Three accidents, a phone call, and at the end...
Without the rain, stubborn guest in Paris during the second week of this 2002 edition of Roland Garros, the provisional program of the tournament would indeed had been kept and the press would not have been able to talk about one the most endearing stories of modern tennis: Alex Corretja would (probably) have won the match easily and Andrei Pavel would have gone home quietly to support his wife for the birth of their baby. Except that with the delays due to the rain, the last match of this Tuesday 5th of May finally had to be interrupted by the night while the Spaniard was leading 7/6 7/5 4-5. Match postponed to the following day... and soon to the day after, On the Thursday: it was pouring down with rain in Paris and very early on the Wednesday, the referee already knew that it would be impossible to catch up on that day. For Andrei Pavel, who had just received a phone call telling him that his wife was about to give birth, this persistent rain was a blessing. Indeed, he no longer had to consider withdrawing for the end of his quarterfinal: if he could make it to the court by Thursday afternoon, he would be able to finish the match. In no time, the title holder of Montreal Masters 1000 started looking for a ticket to Germany, ready to go on an express trip. « But it was really last minute, and I never managed to find a seat on any flights from Orly airport, remembers the Romanian. So with my physical trainer, Jan Welthuis, we rented a car and hit the road. ‘Let's go for a road trip of about six hours, depending on the way, but it ended up being closer to nine hours.»
Because the weather conditions were horrible throughout the journey: rain, slippery roads and lack of light, no less than three accidents happened on the route taken by the two men: "Two in France and one in Belgium." "While driving, I made a quick phone call to my wife, remembers the right-handed player. She told me that she was trying to be as relaxed as possible; she was trying to wait for me. I told her to do what was best for her, while I was driving as fast as possible." The little Marius, 20 inches and 7 pounds, was eventually born in the early evening, less than an hour before the arrival of his father, tired but happy: "These past few hours with my family were worth all the travel in the world. I was able to kiss my wife and daughter, hold my son and shed a little tear... And then I left."
"The security guards thought that my accreditation was a fake"
Welthuis drove most of the return journey while Pavel was trying to sleep in the back of the car. The duo arrived Porte d'Auteuil at five o'clock on the Thursday morning, raising the suspicions of the security guards at the entrance of Roland Garros: "They didn’t believe that I was a player! I must have looked pretty horrible... They thought that my accreditation was a fake and wouldn’t let me enter." After sorting things out with them, the Romanian tried to blend into the classic routine of a tennis player getting ready for the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament: little nap on the players lounge’s sofa, shower, breakfast and morning scrub. Usually quite talkative, he dodged the questions of the journalists that morning: "It was really not the time. I already had lost too much energy for twenty-four hours."
Exhausted by the journey, probably not really there in his head, there was obviously no miracle for him in the afternoon despite the fervent support of his physical trainer in the stands, the young father was only the shadow of himself. At the change of sides at 6-5 while he had just lost his service and that a stunned Alex Corretja was about to serve for the match, the Romanian grabbed the chair of a linesman and used it to stretch his legs while he sat down for a moment! Twelve minutes after its resumption, the game was already over (7/6 7/5 7/5). Only seventeen points were played. On his last legs, Andrei Pavel could finally go to sleep… After having satisfied the curiosity of the media.