Tinoco serves it up with Federer
LONDON -- Roger Federer looked at his inquirer with an expression residing somewhere between totally baffled and possibly disturbed.
He was preparing to defend his Wimbledon title and with it become the most decorated men's singles player in tournament history, surpassing Pete Sampras. At 31 years old with his career clearly in transition, another championship -- the last Grand Slam some think he could realistically win -- would be more than just sweet. It would, in all likelihood, cap his illustrious career.
And so he was asked, told really, from all outside appearances, it seemed he would have had little time or extra energy to visit with a 17-year-old American girl, regardless of her circumstances.
"You can always make time," Federer said gently but firmly. "It's all a matter of priorities, and it was one of my priorities this week. That's why I had the time."
The beneficiary was Beatriz Tinoco of Rockville, Md., who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma two years ago, and one year ago was approached by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, whose sole purpose is to grant wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Beatriz's wish was never in doubt.
"It was the first thing that came to my mind," she said. "And the only thing."
She always loved Roger Federer.
"Ever since I was 8 years old, and I watched the Australian Open," she said. "He just always seemed nice, classy, I don't really know. He was always so polite and played so well."
Her love only grew as she learned the game. Once, she recalled, she waited four hours at the US Open to get his autograph.
A New York Yankees and Giants fan, there is no contest when it comes to tennis or more specifically, to Federer. "I stop everything I'm doing to watch Roger," she said. "I woke up at 3 a.m. to watch him in the Australian Open."
The visit to England in June was arranged in cooperation with ESPN's "My Wish" series. Beatriz was originally going to meet Federer in the States, but he ended up not playing in that tournament.
For Federer, there was but one concern, and it was not whether he would be able to give Beatriz adequate time to make it a quality experience. Rather, he felt badly he didn't have six hours to spare, which is what he had in mind. He was assured that would not be necessary and on a Monday, Beatriz found out she would be flying Thursday to London.
First, however, the incoming freshman at University of Maryland-Baltimore had to attend college orientation.
"I didn't have too much time to think about it, which is a good thing," she said. "I would have gone crazy thinking about it."
Still, when she got to the All England Lawn Tennis Club, accompanied by her mother, Anabel, her father, Renaldo, and her older sister, Nathalia, Beatriz's expectations were modest.
"He was just supposed to say 'hi' and go to the courts and practice," she recalled. "Instead, he spends 15, 20 minutes with me."
But the best part, better even than getting tennis advice and sharing her birthday cake and chatting and yes, hugging, was that initial moment when she was sitting, waiting and "someone" called her name.
"I was like, 'What?' and then I turned and saw him and literally my mouth fell open," Beatriz said with a giggle. "I was thinking, 'Close your mouth,' but I couldn't. And then he said, 'Hi.'"
Or at least she thinks he said hi. You will excuse her if the idea of meeting her hero, her Roger, on the most hallowed grounds in all of tennis, the place where he achieved his greatest glory, less than a week after she even found out she was going, was a bit overwhelming.
But lucky? Now that's a tough concept for a kid with cancer.
"I know that I was brought this experience not by luck," she said. "But right now I feel very lucky to have had it. Even the worst things can bring something wonderful in a way and I do feel lucky."
Hitting with Roger Federer on the grass courts at Wimbledon? Are you kidding? Beatriz was undergoing treatments and was not able to play tennis her junior year of high school, but she did play her senior season and now here she was, less than a month after graduation, standing on the receiving end of a Federer serve.
"It was fun but I was really, really scared," she said. "When he served, I'm going, 'No, no, no,' but the first one was OK and when he saw I could hit it back, he increased the speed. It was so fast, I don't think he was expecting me to actually hit it. I think he was astonished actually. I don't think he knew I could play tennis."
Federer and his coach, Paul Annacone, gave her some grass-court pointers, told her to watch out for the low bounces, to keep her hands steady on her volley. Real, actual advice.
The next day was Beatriz's 18th birthday, and she would see Federer again. This time, he shared some cake with her, took more pictures, chatted some more and signed a bunch of stuff, including her tennis bag.
"It already had his signature, but it's not the real one so he signed next to that," she said. "Then he took a picture of us with my birthday cake, then he hugged me, and I cried so much. I don't know why. I love him so much and he smelled so amazing. I saw him again today, and he recognized me."
It was hard to tell who sounded more grateful.
"Many people have had their dreams, but this one was nice because we could spend more time together," Federer said. "It wasn't just a meet-and-greet. I could take her around and show her Wimbledon, play tennis with her, basically celebrate her birthday as well with her. Also meet her family, who was very sweet, so I personally enjoyed it very much and it seemed that she did too, which is nice."
"Amazing," Beatriz said, "the best birthday present ever. I could never, ever think, even for all the money in the world, that I would have this experience."
Before she left, Beatriz watched Federer's first-round match and his 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 victory over Victor Hanescu (he would be upset in the second round by Sergiy Stakhovsky, his earliest Grand Slam elimination in 10 years).
"I've been watching Wimbledon on TV for nine years," she said, "but actually being on Centre Court to watch Roger play was incomparable. ... Also, it was even more special because it was opening day and the defending champion, meaning Roger, gets to be the first one to play there.
"Everything on Centre Court was perfect, and the atmosphere was great. It's definitely one of the best memories I will ever have."
Since returning home, Renaldo Tinoco said his daughter is still recovering from the trip. In a good way.
"All the time she is talking about her travels, every day she is playing tennis and she is planning to one day go to the Australian Open," he said.
After being interviewed and watching Federer under the media spotlight, Beatriz also changed her choice of major, from biology to journalism.
But that wasn't the only change.
"Because of the treatments, she was kind of upset before but after we returned, she was so much more enthusiastic, more dynamic," said Tinoco, adding that his daughter is scheduled for doctor's exams and no further treatments, every three months this year and every six months the next. "She was asking me to drive her [to the DMV] because she wants to get her driver's license now.
"She is very excited for her life now. Much happier. More alive."