I remember exactly where I was sitting when my parents said we could buy the tickets. I remember the warm sunlight on my face and the feel of the rough couch fabric on my skin.

If I close my eyes, I’m there. Twenty years old. Two years of college done. Absurdly excited about the chance to go to a tennis tournament in Cincinnati, the chance to see Rafael Nadal.

By that point, I’d been obsessed with him for at least four years. It wasn’t romantic love, but it was devotion.

During his Grand Slam matches, I’d sit for hours watching him jump and slide and grunt and shout. I’d watch on mute when the announcers said too many nice things about his opponent.

When he won, all was right in the world. When he lost, I’d be blue for days.

Tennis was my favorite sport, but Nadal was something more than my favorite player. As far as I was concerned, he was the greatest player to ever pick up a racket, and I was his biggest fan.

About three months after that day on the couch, my mom and I walked into Cincinnati’s annual tennis tournament. It was and is part of the series of hard-court tournaments that leads up to the U.S. Open in New York, bringing together the top players in the game.

Over the next four days, I watched parts of dozens of matches and practice sessions. I took hundreds of pictures and created a separate, large Facebook photo album for each day I was there.

Kelsey Dallas watches as Rafael Nadal (left) talks with his team on a practice court at the Western & Southern tennis tournament in Cincinnati on Monday, Aug. 16, 2010. | Marsha Dallas

Flipping through the albums now, I’m both amused and embarrassed. There are so many photos, including dozens of a distant, mildly blurry Nadal.

“The camera lens was blurry just like my vision,” I wrote in one caption, apparently referencing spontaneous tears.

At no point did I actually meet my hero. I watched him from behind the fence surrounding the practice courts and from the cheap seats during two of his actual matches.

On Facebook, I wrote about his intense debates with his coaches and the pink shirt he wore on the stadium court. I described watching him do his stretches and claimed to be close to puking when I thought he would lose.

After the four days, I headed home to Illinois blissfully happy and deeply sunburned.

Rafael Nadal of Spain bites his trophy after beating Novak Djokovic of Serbia to win the men's championship match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York on Sept. 13, 2010. | Mark Humphrey

At that point in his career, a sunburn was about as bad as it got for a Nadal fan like me.

By August 2010, he’d already won Roland Garros, the French Open, five times, including that summer.

He’d also broken through on grass and hard courts, winning Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 and the Australian Open in 2009.

Weeks after I saw Nadal in Cincinnati, he’d lift — and then characteristically bite — the U.S. Open trophy for the first time.

I loved the winning. But more than that, I loved how he played.

While his main rival Roger Federer was about finesse and fluidity, Nadal won because he threw all of himself into every point. He was relentless, and it often felt like his opponents were just as surprised as fans about the shots he pulled off.

He was also eccentric. He had to arrange his multiple water bottles just so near the bench and his bags. He seemed to consider picking a wedgie to be an essential part of his pre-serve routine.

I loved it all, and my friends loved to tease me for it.

Win or lose, we would joke about my devotion. Win or lose, there was always something about Nadal’s hair or clothes or next match to debate.

But now, there’s really only one thing left to discuss, and it’s how to say goodbye.

Nadal has implied that 2024 will be his last year on tour, and many tennis fans believe he’ll retire, or at least take an extended break, as soon as he’s done at his best tournament, the French Open, which begins Sunday.

When I think about what it will be like to not see him on the court anymore, the memories that pop into my mind don’t come from his matches.

Instead, they come from what being his fan brought to my life: hours in the Cincinnati sun with my parents, inside jokes with my club tennis teammates, a french toast breakfast with my best friend after we stayed up all night watching the Australian Open final in early 2012. (Her favorite player, Novak Djokovic, beat Nadal in a five-set thriller, so I had to pay).

Kelsey Dallas poses like Rafael Nadal with the U.S. Open trophy at the U.S. Open in New York on Aug. 26, 2013. | Rebecca Kasa

Fourteen years after I first saw him in person, it’s clear to me that I was never actually his biggest fan. I barely paid attention to the non-major tournaments. I didn’t track his media interviews or read his memoir.

But even after all these years and after I grew out of making grand proclamations, I still believe Nadal’s the best to ever play the game.

It’s not because of his 22 Grand Slam titles or his incredible track record on clay. It’s not because of how humble he has always been or his punishing topspin.

It’s because he never stopped being worthy of devotion, even as his body broke down and his hair thinned. He has always played like it’s an honor to be on the court, and he’s inspired so many people to fall in love with the game.

This spring, before rumors that Nadal will retire after the French Open went mainstream, I got tickets to this year’s Cincinnati Open.

I thought of the trip like a pilgrimage, a chance to pay my respects to the man who’d been at the center of my tennis universe for nearly 20 years.

But when I realized he probably wouldn’t be there, my heart didn’t break. I thought of all the other players I’ve come to love who’d still enter and the time I’d have with my mom and friends.

In the end, what Nadal gave me was deeper connections to others, not memories focused solely on him.

He was the reason for countless conversations, new friendships and viewing parties and, yes, a few magical vacations, too.