Tommy, when you’re on the court, think about it.
About what, sir?
If you make it through qualifying, I’ll give you a pass.
It was April 1999 and Tommy Robredo was one of many teenage talents around the world who dreamed of making it as a professional tennis player. He was only 16 years old but the organizers of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell had given him an invitation to play on the outdoor clay court in the qualifiers.
Like any player his age, Robredo still had to juggle tennis with academic tuition at the high-performance center in Sant Cugat del Valles, where he trained. There he found an unexpected support for his tennis in Emili Luque.
Luque was Robredo’s economics teacher and quickly struck a deal with the young man ahead of his ATP Tour debut. “He told me I was a good young man, that I was smart but never in class,” Robredo told ATPTour.com before playing the final tournament of his 23-year career in Barcelona this week.
Before stepping onto the pitch at the Real Club de Tenis de Barcelona-1899 on Saturday April 10, Robredo faced Luque, who promised him a pass in economics if he passed qualification. In the first round, Robredo defeated Jordi Mas 7-5, 6-3. A voice could be heard in the stands shouting “Vamos, Tommy!” It was Luke.
Robredo listened to his mentor. So well that he next beat Ivan Ljubicic 7-5 1-6 6-2 to stamp his ticket to the peloton. On Monday, before his main draw debut on the ATP Tour, he had to go to school. However, that didn’t stop him from beating Italy’s Davide Sanguinetti 7-6(3), 6-1 in an hour and 20 minutes.
Tommy, do you have tickets for this afternoon?
Yes, I’ll give you one so you can come and watch me.
If you win today, I’ll give you a 7.
Wow! A 7?!
In an hour and 20 minutes Robredo edged Italy’s Davide Sanguinetti 7-6(3), 6-1. He had clinched his first ATP Tour win and also picked up a 7 in Economics. When he had to go back to class the next day, his teacher couldn’t have been prouder. “He bowed to me in the hallways,” the Spaniard recalls. “In the second round I met Marat Safin and he spoke to me again.”
Tommy, if you beat Safin, I’ll give you a 10.
Yes, a distinction.
Safin, who would reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings just a year later, stormed 6-1 in the opener as young Robredo appeared unable to keep the deal with his teacher. However, the youngster made an impressive turnaround by advancing to the third round of the tournament, also known as the Trofeo Conde de Godó, with a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 upset.
“It was on Court 1, which is very intimate and fills up quickly,” Robredo said. “My friends were making noise in the stands. But I remember, especially with the score 5-4 in the third set, my mom, who was at my aunt’s and kept screaming, passed out from the stress. Everyone was trying to hide them from me and I was so focused on that [even though] I realized [I] continue with the game.”
Spurred on, he returned to Real Club de Tenis de Barcelona-1899 to face Todd Martin in the third round. This time he didn’t have tickets for Luque.
Mili, I’m really sorry.
I don’t have tickets for you this time.
I’m sorry I had too many requests for you.
Don’t worry, I have to take a class anyway.
But as the Catalan went to court against the American world No. 8, he heard a familiar voice from the crowd: “Vamos, Tommy!” Robredo didn’t have to turn around to see who it was. His teacher was there again to cheer him on. This time, however, his adventure ended in a 3-6, 6-7(6) loss.
When Robredo returned to the classroom the following Monday, Luque had a little secret to share with him. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I came to school, told them I had gout and went to Godó,'” Robredo said. “He had spoken to the door staff who knew he was my teacher and they had let him in.”
Years later, Robredo and Luque met again. “I signed up at the UOC (Open University of Catalonia) for a course for over 25s and there was a math class, so I asked him for help,” said the 12-time world champion at tour level. “Although he was no longer a teacher at the center, he came and gave me blackboard lessons.”