Page 2 of The Singles Game

‘Put on the other one,’ Marcy said.

‘No, they’re too big. My heel’s slipping.’

‘Next!’ Marcy barked, tossing over another Adidas shoe.

Charlie tried the right one on this time and shook her head. ‘I’m a little jammed up in the toe cage. And it’s pinching my pinky toe already. I guess we could tape the toe and try it …’

‘No way. Here,’ Marcy said, untying a pair of K-Swiss sneakers and placing them at Charlie’s feet. ‘These might work.’

The left one went on easily and felt like it fit. Hopeful, Charlie slipped on and tightened the laces on the right shoe. They were clunky-looking and ugly, but they fit her feet.

‘They fit,’ Charlie said, although they felt like she was wearing cinder blocks. She did a few jumps followed by a short jog and a quick cut to the left. ‘But it’s like wearing a pair of bricks. They’re so heavy.’

Just as Marcy was reaching into the bag to pull out the last pair, an announcement came over the ceiling speakers. ‘Attention, players. Alice Atherton and Charlotte Silver, please report to the tournament desk to be escorted to your court. Your match is scheduled to begin in three minutes.’

Marcy knelt down and pushed against her toes. ‘You definitely have room in there. Not too much, right? Will they work?’

Charlie did another hop or two. There was no denying they were heavy, but they were the best of the three. She probably should try on the final pair, but she glanced up just in time to see Alice in her own all-white outfit walk past the training room and toward the tournament desk. It was time.

‘They’ll work,’ Charlie said with more conviction than she felt. They have to work, she couldn’t help thinking.

‘Good girl.’ The relief on Marcy’s face was immediate. ‘Let’s go.’

Marcy slung Charlie’s enormous racket bag over her shoulder and headed out the door. ‘Remember, as much spin as you can. She struggles when the balls jump high. Take advantage of your height over hers and force her to hit high ones, especially on her backhand. Slow, steady, and persistent will win this one. You don’t need excessive force or flash. Save that for the later rounds, okay?’

Charlie nodded. They were only just approaching the tournament desk and already her calves were feeling tight. Was the right heel rubbing a little? Yes, it definitely was. She was going to get blisters for sure.

‘I think I should try on those last—’

‘Charlotte?’ Another Wimbledon official, also clad in the same purple polyester skirt suit, took Charlie’s elbow and led her the final ten steps to the tournament desk. ‘Please, just a signature right here and … thank you. Mr Poole, both ladies are ready to be escorted to Centre Court.’

Charlie’s and her opponent’s eyes met for the briefest of seconds and they each nodded. Half nodded. The only other time they’d played before had been in Indian Wells two years earlier in the first round, and Charlie had beaten her 6–2, 6–2.

The entire group – Charlie, Marcy, Alice, and Alice’s coach – followed Mr Poole through the tunnel that led to the most storied tennis court in the world. On both sides were enormous glossy black-and-white photos of tennis legends who had emerged victorious from Centre Court: Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray. Clutching the traditional trophy, kissing it; thrusting their rackets high into the air; pumping their fists. Exultant. Winners, all of them. Alice was glancing from side to side, too, as they walked toward the door that would take them onto Centre and thrust them onstage.

A hard squeeze on her upper arm from Marcy brought her back to the moment. She accepted her racket bag and slung it over her shoulder as though it weighed nothing, even though jammed inside were six rackets, a roll of grip tape, two bottles of Evian, one bottle of Gatorade, two outfit changes identical to the one she was wearing, extra socks, wristbands, shoulder and knee tape, Band-Aids, an iPod, over-the-ear headphones, two visors, eyedrops, a banana, a packet of Emergen-C, and the lone laminated photo of her mother that lived in the small zipped side pocket and attended every practice and tournament with Charlie.

Marcy and Alice’s coach left to take their seats in the players’ box. Although the two women walked onto the court at the same time, the audience cheered extra loudly for Alice, the hometown favorite. But it didn’t much matter who they were cheering for: Charlie’s pulse began to race in the exact same way it did before every match, big or small. Only this time she felt a tingling wave of sensation through her chest, a fluttering of anxiety and excitement so strong she thought she might be sick. Centre Court at Wimbledon. She allowed herself a quick look up to the stands, a moment to take it all in. All around her were crowds of well-dressed people standing and politely clapping. Pimm’s. Strawberries and cream. Pastel suits. She’d played Wimbledon before, five glorious times, but this was Centre Court.

The words reverberated in her mind over and over again as she tried to will herself to concentrate. Normally, the routine Charlie performed when she reached her courtside chair was focusing: racket bag placed just so, water bottles neatly arranged, wristband put on, visor adjusted. She did all those things in the exact same order as always, but today she couldn’t pull herself together. Today, everything registered when it should have disappeared into the background: the on-court anchorwoman repeating her opponent’s name into the camera; the match announcer introducing the chair umpire; and most of all, the way her socks slipped into her sneakers, something that never happened when she was wearing her own shoes. She had enough experience to know that none of this was a particularly good omen – not being able to control your thoughts before play began usually didn’t end well – but she simply could not block out all the stimuli.

Warm-up was a blur. Mindlessly, Charlie whacked the ball to Alice’s forehand and backhand and then fed her volleys and overheads. They each retreated to opposite sides to try a few serves. Alice was looking loose and comfortable, her lean legs moving fluidly around the court, her narrow, boyish torso twisting effortlessly to reach the ball. Charlie felt tight just watching her. Although the new shoes technically fit, they were making her arches ache and her right heel was already beginning to chafe. Again and again she willed herself back to the present, to the natural rush she felt every time she stroked the ball just so and it spun and bounced exactly where she’d intended. And then, suddenly, they were playing. She had lost the coin toss and her opponent bounced the ball on the opposite baseline. They’d done a coin toss, right? Yes, she thought so. Why couldn’t Charlie recall any of the details? Whoosh! The ball whizzed past her left shoulder like a bullet. She hadn’t even managed to make contact with it. Ace. First point of the match to Alice. The crowd cheered as madly as British etiquette permitted.