Match Point

 

I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I stood up and walked from the side-bench towards the back of the court, passing Gavin at the net. We didn’t make eye-contact. The score was 4-5 in the final set. It was my turn to serve. If he won this game, he would win the match. My father was watching from a chair beyond the fence, stone-faced. He was wearing a tracksuit and dark sunglasses. I felt his presence all around me: in the yellow felt of the tennis balls, in the heaviness of my racket, in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. 

………I picked up two balls from the back of the court and slipped one into my left pocket. Then I walked over to the centre-mark. I took a deep breath. I looked up at Gavin. He was swaying from side to side, crouching in the ready position, twiddling his racket around. He had a menacing look on his face. He was determined to beat me in front of my father. Gavin was Canadian. We were both fourteen. He had long brown hair that swept across his forehead. He was more popular than me at school. He had a girlfriend. I had short hair. I was shy. I couldn’t talk to girls. Everybody knew that my dad was a tennis coach. If Gavin beat me, everybody would know that too.

       .  I bounced the ball three times. I held it against my racket. I swayed back, brought the racket behind my head, tossed the ball up, bent my knees, and channelled all my energy into the racket as my feet left the ground. The ball was too far ahead of me. I tried to adjust the angle of my racket in the last split-second, but it was too late. The ball hit the net and rolled back towards me. I sighed.

….,……I walked up to the ball and swept it off the court with my racket.

Then I walked back to the centre-mark and removed the second ball from my pocket. I looked up at Gavin. He took a step forward. He knew the pressure was getting to me. He knew it was a mind game. I bounced the ball three times. I held it against my racket. I swayed back, brought the racket behind my head, tossed the ball up, bent my knees, and brushed my racket up behind the ball. Kick-serve. I wanted the ball to bounce in the right corner of the service box and kick up towards his backhand, I knew that was a difficult shot for him. He would reply with a loopy backhand cross-court, but it would land about one metre short of the baseline. I would run around it and hit a forehand down-the-line so that he would double-foot himself. I had the whole point planned out, but my second serve landed a few centimetres to the right of the service box. 

“OUT!” He shouted. “Double fault.”

I tried not to look at my father.

I picked up another two balls from the back of the court, slipped one into my left pocket, and walked back to the centre mark. My heart was racing. I looked up at Gavin, swaying from side to side with a smirk on his face. I took a deep breath. I bounced the ball three times. I held it against my racket. I swayed back, brought the racket behind my head, tossed the ball up, bent my knees, and closed my eyes as I hit the ball and hoped for the best. It landed well within the service box. I let out a sigh of relief. Gavin ran around the ball and hit a forehand down-the-line, I ran into position and hit the ball back to him down-the-line. He took his racket back and adjusted his feet. I knew what was coming. He hit the ball high up in the air, a loopy shot to my backhand, pushing me back. I ran into position, waited for the ball to fall, and replied with a backhand cross-court. In this position, the best shot for him would have been to hit a backhand down-the-line, because I would have to run for it. Instead, he hit another loopy shot to my backhand because he knew that would annoy me. I replied with another cross-court shot to his backhand. It landed on the baseline, pushing him back, almost to the fence. He tried to hit another loopy shot but this time it fell short and landed in the middle of the court. I was on the attack now. I ran towards the ball and adjusted my feet. I hit the ball, early and hard. Shoulder-height. Gavin chased after it. I didn’t think he was going to make it. I probably wouldn’t have made it. But he was faster than me. He managed to flick the ball back onto my side of the court.

……….This time the ball landed even closer to the net. I had an open court. I just had to get the ball in. I adjusted my feet and prepared my racket. I wanted to hit a winner. I wanted my father to be surprised by my strength. I hit the ball as hard as I possibly could. It landed just beyond the baseline, leaving a mark in the clay.

……….“OUT!” Gavin shouted, as he raised a forefinger high up into the air.

……….How could you miss a shot like that? I heard my father say. He didn’t say it out loud. His voice was in my head.

……….“Love-thirty.” Gavin said, as he knocked the ball I had just missed back over the net.

……….I caught the ball with my left hand and walked back to the centre mark. I took a deep breath. I begged myself not to lose the next point. My exhaustion kicked in. I felt nauseous. I wiped my sweaty hands on my t-shirt. I had a blister on my hand. I had left my plaster and tape at home. I knew that my father would scold me later for being unprepared. He would say “Gavin didn’t win that match, you lost it.” I would shrink in shame. I would start crying. Gavin would be in the car. He would say nothing. He would feel superior. He would tell everyone at school that I was crying in the car after he beat me at tennis in front of my father. The shame would be unbearable. I would start crying at school. People would talk about me behind my back and laugh at me. I wanted to go back home. I wanted my mother to comfort me. I knew she would make everything better.

……   ….I got ready to serve. I bounced the ball three times. I held it against my racket. I swayed back, brought the racket behind my head, tossed the ball up, bent my knees, and hit the ball. It landed about one metre beyond the service box.

Gavin audibly laughed.

My second serve went in the net.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my father sitting in his chair. 

               “Match point!” Gavin shouted – triumphantly, mockingly, knowingly.

               I repeated the words back to myself. “Match point,” I whispered. “Match point, match point, match point.” Each time I said the words, they seemed to loosen their grip on me. I kept repeating them until they were no longer words but meaningless sounds coming out of my mouth. As I was walking up to the centre mark, I had a flashback to my childhood.

…..  …..I was playing football with my father in the garden. It was raining. I was the goalkeeper. He was shooting the ball at me and I was diving to catch it. As I was flying through the air, I felt unbeatable. I was soaking wet and covered in mud when my mother arrived at home, she was so angry at us. “How could you play out in the rain?!” She screamed at my father. “He’s going to catch a cold!” My father apologised to my mother, then he winked at me.

….  ……I couldn’t reconcile that memory with the man who was sitting beyond the fence now. What did he want from me? Did he want me to be a professional tennis player? What if I didn’t want to be a professional tennis player? But if I didn’t want to be a professional tennis player, what did I want to be? As I asked myself this question, my future expanded with infinite possibilities. I felt a rush of adrenaline.

            I bounced the ball three times. I held it against my racket. I swayed back, brought the racket behind my head, tossed the ball up, bent my knees, and served an ace down the middle of the court.

            “Fifteen-Forty,” I said.

            My father sat up in his seat, watching me closely.

 

G.B.M. 

 

 

 

 

 


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