|By Kenneth W. Meyer
Incredibly, the return ball punched the line towards the back of the left in-zone, and the reasonable thing to do might have been to sigh and move towards the net to shake the hand of the winner of the match, but Craster did no such thing. Throwing abandon to the wind, he dived towards the yellow intruder, snapped a quick backhand, and connected, but the ball sailed feebly into the net. Screw. The crowd cheered, probably for his opponent Solano, or perhaps in recognition of Craster’s bold dive – a man can dream, can’t he? Okay guy, pick yourself up —
He walked to the net – his left ankle was already hurting, and was he starting to limp? And shook the hand of Peres (“Fierce”) Solano. I’m telling you, do that Roger Federer pat on the ribs thing and I’ll bite your ear off — but fortunately Solano took no such liberty.
“Good second set,” said Solano politely. His English was improving.
“Thanks, I learned a lot.” Which was true. You could say it had been a master class. Solano was referring to the fact that although Craster had been crushed (Crushed Craster) in the first set, 6 – 2, he had come close to winning or at least holding off the Spaniard in the second, forcing a tie-breaker, falling on his butt and twisting his ankle in the process, but finally being vanquished with a final score of 7 – 6. In the second set he had even scored with four aces, despite being only 5’8” tall – which in today’s tennis world is less than towering. Be it noted, his aces were in no way comparable to Solano’s frightening 9 rockets, five of which Craster was unable to return.
For some reason the song “I can hardly believe that I survived – “ was reverberating in his head. Cute. Wait a minute: that was a love song – but wasn’t this too? Okay, let’s get out of here. The drill was to shake the umpire’s hand and flee the scene as quickly as possible. And ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a big hand for our contestant Timothy Craster from Missouri, currently rated at 87 —
He packed his bag faster than a businessman late for a flight taking off in 35 minutes and hobbled to the exit – yes, there was a growing limp. On his left, several young spectators were holding out the oversized yellow balls and felt-tipped pens. Better inscribe some balls while they’re still interested, he thought ruefully, and signed a few with his joking handle, “Crass”.
In the locker room he passed Ioannis, number 76, the sole Greek male in the tennis universe — Craster also liked Joao, “Not the best Portuguese tennis player – he’s theonly Portuguese tennis player” — who slapped his right hand: “Top 100 not dead!”
“Siguro, file.” “For sure, friend.” This was the only Greek Craster knew, which Ioannis had taught him. ‘Top 100’ was a group of about 300 people in the tennis world. How could that be? It meant everyone who was currently in the top 100, those recently in the top 100 who were recovering from injuries, and, well, just about anyone who had ever been in the top 100. It was probably the largest group of 100 people you could imagine. But still, you were proud to be in it. It wasn’t as good as being in the top twenty of course, but you know, one thing at a time.
Craster and his official support group for this tournament consisting of Lenny, Arthur, and Arthur’s new girlfriend Jenny entered the on-site “Champions” bar, reserved for official contestants, their families, official ‘teams’ (coaches, training partners and so forth) and corporate supporters. Now was the time for a calm evaluation, pulling no punches, looking at what you had done, owning it, and preparing for the next step –
The vanquished, now in a startling orange “Key Largo” t-shirt (none of those cute polo shirts for the North Americans), navigated towards the counter with an umbrella in his left hand, using it as a cane. The Brit tournament doctor had felt his ankle, pronounced it twisted, and proffered some painkillers. Rummaging around his office, he had returned with the umbrella, apologizing that all the canes had been given out, which in itself said something about tennisland. There had been a lot of casualties in this tournament. “As for the spill on your bum: only your dignity was damaged,” he had concluded. Tough love, that was what the doc believed in.
“Let the healing begin,” pronounced Craster.
Lenny from guess where slapped Craster on the back as they approached the bar and said, “Crass, you’re a stand-up guy, but he effin ’killed you out there. I’m sorry guy, but oooh – “ He winced theatrically. “Killed…” He repeated, in case anybody missed that.
Okay, so much for the evaluation. Craster ordered a frozen blueberry maguerita. Some said that was a froufrou drink, but they’d better not say it today. Never mind how you had played, three of those and you were on your way to a champion-sized hangover.
The champions had bad days too. Sharapova had been in tears in the hallway the other day — so even if you had the looks of a model and got to carry the Russian flag in the Olympics there were still rough moments. And everyone had seen Roger in tears after more than one contest, though in his case it hardly seemed warranted. “Darn it, I lost 47 matches out of 572 – “ Terrible. How could the poor guy stand it?
“You did all right. I liked when you fell on your can,” contributed Arthur. “The second set was strong.”
Craster sang: “When I find myself, flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race!” It was the only line from that song he remembered. General laughter. Arthur turned to his female friend:
“What did you think, Jenny?”
Jenny, a graduate student from American University in DC wearing an IndianPunjabi shirt and floppy hat, thought the world would be a better place if all males were smashing tennis balls, kicking soccer balls, shooting paint at each other, and trying to climb K2 – though she supposed it could get a little crowded on that cliff. “Better here than invading Crimea,” she suggested.
“My thought exactly,” agreed Craster.
Then, feeling she had been a little harsh, she added: “I don’t know tennis very well, but you seemed to keep focused. You didn’t panic. That’s got to be good.”
“You did a good job of charging the net several times. That freaked him out,” noted Arthur. “He wasn’t expecting it.”
Victory goes to the brave – well, sometimes. Craster tried to emulate Roger Federer, who largely dominated men’s tennis from 2002 – 2012 and for that matter still hadn’t exited the scene. Federer was one of the few players who actually thought ahead and employed a strategy when playing: if you were tired, simply try to hold your serve, get to a tie-breaker, and keep the match short; if you were strong, run, try daring returns, charge the net. And who could forget his hitting the ball between his legs, and smooth one-handed backhands. What did Craster mean by having a strategy? He knew what not having one meant. Consider Solano: he wanted to fight to the death over every point. That wasn’t a strategy. But it was exhausting. And intimidating.
“Of course,” mused Craster aloud with a sigh, “charging the net and actually connecting with the ball and getting it over, are two different things…”
“In fact those are three things — ,” contributed Lenny.
“See how hard it is?”
“Anyway, you had cojones...”
Someone slapped Craster on the back in passing and said good match. Thanks, nod.
Even among the top twenty players, few of them felt comfortable approaching the net: you had to be fast to get there in time, and scooping up the ball or letting it ricochet off your racket at an angle were completely different from smashing out a long forehand. It took speed and a delicate touch. On the upside, even if you missed the shot, approaching the net tended to stress your opponent. It said, “I’m taking the game to you buddy – “ And Craster had won a half-dozen points from the net, not bad for number 87.
With the possible exception of the perky Ms. Schiavone, who was known to ask at a press conference, “No questions in Italian?”, English was now the lingua franca of the tennis world, although what kind of English you might hear was another matter. Therefore Craster was not surprised to hear behind him:
“Hey hero. Now you are hiding?”
Craster and his group turned to see the 5’ 1.5” number 43 Mika Janich and her trainer, accompanied by what appeared to be two journalists and two male unidentifieds. There wasn’t much privacy in the tennis world.
Although she looked about 15, Craster knew the Pole was 20 years old. She was wearing jeans and a shapeless blue sweatshirt emblazoned, “Rome, the Eternal City”. Janich may have been petite, but opponents took her lightly at their peril. She had more energy than Caesar on his first campaign in Gaul and a game that was unpredictable. He loved the way she bounced the tennis ball about twenty times before serving, which tried the patience of every opponent. In this tournament she had surprised most observers and beaten her fellow countrywoman Radwanska. The men’s locker room joke was that Janich’s thighs were so muscle-bound they could probably crush a man’s skull. Craster was game to give them a chance to do so. The two were on bantering terms.
They did the Euro thing kiss on left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. Craster introduced his support group. Janich waved vaguely behind her, “All them,” she said dismissively, without bothering to elucidate all them what.
“I want to tell you I liked very much your second set today. It gave me, you know, good hope.”
He thought she probably meant it was inspiring. “Thanks. We’re evaluating the match now.”
“Evil — what?”
“Getting ready for the next time,” supplied Arthur. The support group did things like explain what you meant. They were good at that.
“I think we finished evaluating,” Craster, signaling for another of the fruity healers.
Her hand was on his shoulder. “Well, I am going now – “
Now Craster showed that even at the bar he could charge the net:
“How about dinner on Wednesday, Janster? I know you’re not playing the next day.”
Janich bit her lip. “Hmmm. My mom she comes too okay?”
Cranster could feel Lenny was holding his breath – for which one was thankful. “I was hoping she was free too.” He hadn’t met Janich’s mother, but why quibble. Because anyway, it probably didn’t just mean the mother. It could also mean the coach, visiting relatives, three unidentified children holding out yellow over-sized balls to be signed, and a folio of papers she had to read through before the dessert and you don’t mind, do you? That was tennisdom. “Of course it’s okay.”
“Funny guy. Bye then, you text me.”
“You see,” whispered Lenny. “There’s always the silver lining. Silver lining.” Lenny had this habit of repeating things.
Craster looked in the long bar mirror and saw a preposterous group of customers, and right in their middle, a short-haired fellow in an orange t-shirt, with an umbrella handle hooked over the counter. “Just wait till tomorrow.“ Then he would be a leaping tiger, or limping tiger, but at any rate a tiger —
“Tomorrow is another day.” Agreed Jenny.
Wasn’t that the line from Gone with the Wind? And Craster saw that tree from the movie in the sunset and that big red screen, promising all those tomorrows. Tara’s Theme was playing as he rubbed his forehead.
24 April 2014
Mr. Kenneth Meyer resides with his wife in Bellingham, WA (U.S. Pacific northwest). In a recent incarnation he was a foreign service officer mostly serving in China and the Muslim world.