With the steady drizzle, the tournament directors had closed the magnificent white roof, which Tristan Neeley looked up to now in hopes of anchoring his reeling nerves.
Mixed results. It felt like an artificial grey-white sky held up by futuristic girders and beams, evoking the scene of a NASA rocket launch.
Still, he was better off than early in the match when individual sounds from the crowd would seem to separate and shoot through to him like blasts from a water gun, making his elbows feel weak and the small hairs on the back of his neck prick up. A woman’s tinny laughter, the clink of a cocktail glass.
He recalled the moment in the hotel back before his first round battle: staring himself down in the mirror, looking strangely like a beach with tanned face, blonde hair, and sea green eyes glinting like the devil. “Forty-first time’s the charm. Eye of the tiger, you absolute killer.”
As the overwhelming underdog, and the American, the crowd was rallying for him. Now approaching four hours, the match had matured, building like tantric sex or ostinato music composition. Twice a woman had legit screamed out prior to the conclusion of a point, prematurely anticipating its end; once just before a phenomenal backhand stroke from Rodrigo which went crosscourt zipping right past Tristan’s eyes seeming to emit heat and hum like a missile. Tristan was right to let it fly, it had landed just out.
During the third set tiebreaker, following a scintillating rally of over twenty shots Neeley wondered if the fans could detect the meteor showers going off in his chest beneath his red-dyed microfiber hybrid polyester threads. Shit was getting hectic out there, making his heart hop and pulse and bang like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Even though things felt way different at the beginning. No doubt many of these hip, sexy or otherwise well-heeled New Yorkers had come out to the event as a status thing, a fun thing to do on a Saturday; and no doubt many were indulging in the Honey Deuce, a bracing cocktail of lemonade, vodka and raspberry liqueur garnished with frozen honeydew melon balls skewered on a pick, resembling tennis balls.
How very cute, and delightfully alcoholic. A more sophisticated circus this was.
But by now – by Match Point for the Great Big Underdog – everybody was dialed in, and everybody well felt this was no game, no mere contest.
This next point seemed to have the outcome of Life Itself riding on it, at least for Neeley.
As he positioned himself to return serve he felt his lightweight red shirt, white stripes on the shoulders, drenched and clingy yet comfortable. His eyes seemed wired open except for little lightning blinks. His nerves were screaming alive, but somehow hanging together, like the murmurations of starlings or geese flying in a V.
The V was for victory, or Vamos! – ‘let’s go!’ in Spanish.
He stood in his crouch head and heart pounding with anticipation, the handle of the racket turning rapid pirouettes in his hands like a hyper fairytale ballerina.
“I am a composer, enrapt at work,” he whispered. “I give you: Swan Lake with a Siberian tiger.”
“Pleeeassse, quiet please,” the chair intoned.
Tennis at this level was a high wire act, he understood now.
Not far away, across the East River in Manhattan, a determined Frenchman and his pals had once clandestinely strung up a high wire and the man, Philippe Petit, had proceeded to walk in between the new World Trade Center towers with no safety net below. The tightrope walker had called the act his greatest coup, and the achievement was memorialized in a quality film years later.
For the last two weeks Tristan felt as though he were planning something furtive, engaging in a series of hush-hush meetings with close conspirators. Throughout match days and practice days he hadn’t quite dodged for cover behind the well-kept cypresses and arbor vitae trees around the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but whenever he spotted a big-name player or retired legend he had tried his best to scurry out of sight.
He didn’t really belong here was the thing, not in the second week. He wasn’t supposed to even sniff a Slam semifinal – crashing a party as prestigious, and enriching, as this one.
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With the serve clock blinking down to 0, his opponent went into his ball toss.
At the orb’s peak everything seemed to pause still.
Then – Whack!
The ball came like a cannon shot with unexpected velocity down the T and he had to scramble off-balance to give his racket strings any chance of getting to it. But he made it and with surprising dexterity flicked the ball back with decent depth so that it landed a couple feet past the opposite-side service box.
Rodrigo moved there easily and cranked a topspin forehand down the line.
Again Neeley had to run and lunge on purest instinct to reach the speeding green-yellow sphere. The best he could do was flatten the racket like a frying pan and slide it underneath and pop the ball up like a space shuttle and pray it would land in and far back in the court. The ball was sent so high that after hustling back into ready position at the center of the baseline he had time to watch it begin its descent. The roof-works in the background again reminded him of rocket-launch scaffolding.
He also had time to tell himself that his Match Point was as good as lost: even if his outer-space ball did land in, Rodrigo’s expert smash winner would be as sure a thing as the contention that a pack of excited hyenas sounded disturbing and insane.
But for whatever reason the gauges of his Nike-headband-ringed sweat-pouring Argentine Hulk of an opponent proved off. The ball did hit the court surface in play and bounced above Rodrigo’s head, setting him up. But his downward overhead strike sent the ball bulleting into the top of the net, and the bright sphere was kick-thrown several feet in the air.
Then began plummeting.
On its journey down it marginally bumped the high taped part of the net like a shy apology and at last fell to the Olympic blue surface… on his opponent’s side.
Tristan’s mind reeled with disbelief; he collapsed to the hard surface in an awkward heap.
The next moments were on fast forward: shaking hands at the net, waving to the fans in all directions as they stood and roared, feeling his smile wider than highway lanes.
In his chair he leaned forward, looking down to steady himself. He focused on the crisscross pattern of the white laces of his shoes and shook his head, which moved as if under water.
An image of his first and longest-serving coach – full dark beard, bald in front, white Wilson headband, blazing icy blue eyes – flashed through his thoughts.
Neeley closed his eyes tight.
“This is for you, Pop. This is my Shostakovich Symphony 7; it took fifteen years but I finally wrote my own. I hope you were listening.”
In the hotel room he showered at length, dried and dressed, the significant soreness in his legs and back magically imbued with pleasant warm glow. As he made his way to the far table holding his phone he paused to look in the tall mirror fixed on the wall.
“So what do you think about tomorrow?”
When he spoke again he was copping his father’s West Texan accent.
“What do I think? I think that if you stand well inside the baseline on second serves and look to attack, take the ball on the rise as often as possible, take calculated chances by changing directions especially by going down the line, throw in a few moon balls during long rallies to knock him off his cocky-ass rhythm, mix in some serve-and-volleys and a few drop shots, use the crowd’s rambunctious energy to push and refresh you, then you have half a fighting chance.”
Tristan had expected to laugh but found himself wiping his eyes with thumb and index finger instead in a series of slow pincer movements.
He turned his gaze to the window overlooking a gritty world of fading light, breathtaking lower Manhattan skyline surging across the water.
“Whatever happens, Coach, even if I fall, you and mom have always been my towers. Why don’t you put on Blue Danube for her tonight? Something light to celebrate. And be sure to give her many, many kisses from me too.”
About The Author
Warren J. Cox writes and paints in beautiful central Virginia, USA, where he also works as an academic editor. His prose has appeared previously in TIMBER, Ducts, Eunoia Review, Rabid Oak, Slippage Lit, Corvus Review, Defenestration, Emrys Journal Online, and elsewhere.
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