They spent most of the practice working on Charlie’s famed one-handed backhand. Todd thought she wasn’t being aggressive enough with it after her injury, and he was right. At one point he yelled at her for slicing the ball one-handed. ‘Lazy!’ he screamed. ‘Your wrist is completely rehabbed. If there’s something you need to tell me about how it feels, then do it. If not, start moving those fucking feet!’ It went on like this for nearly three hours: Charlie scrambling, pushing, lunging, sliding, twisting; Dan returning every shot like a backboard; Todd screaming until his voice went hoarse and sweat slid down his brow. ‘Is this what I signed on for?’ he yelled over and over again. ‘Is this really the maximum of what you’ve got? Because that’s goddamn pathetic!’
When she was finally allowed a break, Dan filled her water bottle and said, ‘He’s pretty tough on you.’
Charlie glanced at Todd, who’d moved to the other side of the court to take a call, and said, ‘Yes. But it’s good. I need it.’
Dan cleared his throat.
‘What? You don’t think so? I had the nicest coach on earth before him, and look where it got me. Twenty-three. Todd may not be the fuzziest guy around, but he’s the best.’
‘That’s for sure. Hasn’t he coached more players to Grand Slam titles than anyone else?’ Dan took a deep swig of water; not that he looked like he needed it – he had barely broken a sweat.
‘Sure has. He took Adrian Eversoll from obscurity to winning three Slams in a year. I’m the first woman he’s ever agreed to coach,’ Charlie said with pride.
‘Cool. That’s cool.’ It was obvious Dan thought the exact opposite.
Charlie’s phone buzzed with a text.
What the hell time is it there? Call me. I have news.
Can’t call. Tell me now. Charlie smiled. Piper was constantly getting into trouble and there was little Charlie enjoyed more than living vicariously through her. They rarely saw each other, but it never seemed to matter: they always picked right up where they’d last left off.
Not a chance, ho. Call me.
Who u calling a ho? Just bc I had random sex w/M last night after we bumped in 2 each other in the hall?
I love it! I’ve finally convinced u?
Would u kick him out of bed?????
Fair point. Call me when u can.
‘Charlie! Stretch it out and meet us at the car in twenty. Dan, come with me,’ Todd barked, already halfway to the facility. Without a word, Dan dropped his cup in the garbage and trotted after Todd. Charlie glanced at her watch and tried to see if there was enough time to call Piper but decided to wait until she was back at the hotel. She used a towel to mop off her forehead and neck and did some cool-down stretches. The late-morning heat was just starting to pick up, and almost without thinking, Charlie sprayed all her exposed skin with another layer of SPF 70. Most of it slid right off her forehead and into her eyes. Wrinkles were inevitable – the tour schedule literally chased the sun around the globe for eleven months out of every twelve – but Charlie had read somewhere that 70 percent of professional athletes who mainly practiced and played outside got skin cancer by age fifty. Marcy had always been a lunatic about keeping Charlie protected with hats and specialty face sunscreens and loose SPF practice clothing, but Charlie hadn’t been so diligent about it now that she was with Todd.
She wanted to text Marcy a picture of herself and her giant bottle of La Roche-Posay with some idiotic caption that she knew would make her laugh, but of course she couldn’t do that. When her phone rang again, she was momentarily convinced Marcy had read her mind and called to say hello, but Charlie knew without even looking at the screen that it was impossible: you didn’t fire someone and then chitchat like girlfriends.
‘Hello?’ She held her breath while waiting for the response. Of all the difficult parts traveling so much entailed – airports, delays, jet lag, strange hotel rooms, difficulty maintaining a functional relationship, to name a few – one of the most annoying was essentially sacrificing caller ID. It almost never worked in foreign countries, so answering every call was a crapshoot.
‘Charlie? It’s me.’ Jake’s voice sounded like it was a million miles away instead of five.
‘Hey, I’m heading in for a shower. What’s up?’
‘Just wanted to make sure we’re all still on for dinner tonight. Is Dan coming? I know Todd is. I need to know how many to make the res for. Heads up, Dad wants to celebrate your birthday tonight.’
‘Hmm, I think it’s just us – you, me, Dad, and Todd. Dan made it pretty clear that when he’s not working he’s doing his own thing. Unless there’s a special someone you want to bring? Being that it’s my birthday celebration and all.’
Charlie draped a clean towel across her neck and walked off the court. Natalya Ivanov, the statuesque Russian currently ranked number one in the world, jammed her body past Charlie at the court’s entrance. The girl’s racket bag slammed into Charlie’s thigh with a serious whomp.
‘Excuse me,’ Charlie said as nicely as she could manage.
‘What? Are you talking to me?’ Jake asked.
‘No, not you. Just bumped into someone walking off the court. No big deal.’
Infuriatingly, this made Natalya laugh. ‘Why don’t you worry about manners, and I’ll worry about winning.’ She leaned in so close when she said this that Charlie could smell her shampoo.
Before Charlie could come up with a single response, Natalya turned and followed her coach and hitting partner onto the court, already chatting with them in a glamorous mixture of French, Russian, and English.
‘Oh, I hate her so much!’ Charlie hissed into the phone, rubbing the reddening scratch across her thigh. ‘Why is she so nasty? I ignore the bait. But she’s always such a bitch to me.’
‘Natalya, I’m guessing? Good. Channel that anger and use it to beat her. I’d like to see the two of you in the finals together. So would the entire world, and certainly all of your endorsers.’
Charlie felt her fingernails dig into her palms. The finals. Of a Grand Slam. Against Natalya. She would do anything – anything – for that opportunity. All those years of practice and training, lifting and sweating and sacrificing – it would all be worth it if she had just one chance to beat Natalya in front of the whole world. There, she admitted it.