Page 23 of The Singles Game


Charlie could still clearly remember the first time she met Natalya. Charlie had competed all over the western part of the United States, but her father hadn’t yet hired Marcy to coach her and travel with her beyond their home region. Natalya had been training for years at one of the Florida academies, but her manager mother wasn’t pleased with the instruction she was receiving, so she moved Natalya to a small, prestigious academy near Sacramento. The very first time they played each other was a fourteen-and-under tournament where both girls had made it to the semis, and Charlie was floored to see Natalya blatantly cheating on her line calls. There were no line judges or umpires for most junior tournaments, just a whole lot of talk about sportsmanship and honesty and integrity. Natalya won that day, and she proceeded to win every match the two of them played for the next two years. Finally, with Marcy’s support, Charlie filed an official complaint to the tournament director of a sixteen-and-under the girls were playing in Boulder, Colorado, and an official was dispatched to the court. Charlie won that day for the first time, and it didn’t take much to recall the look of hatred Natalya had flashed her as Charlie held the tournament trophy high.

A rivalry had been born, at least according to Natalya. Charlie hated the conflict, completely refused to engage. Her mother had always insisted she take the high road, so she tried her best to stay out of the girl’s crosshairs, to kill her with kindness, to maintain a polite, professional distance whenever possible. But Natalya didn’t make it easy: she bad-mouthed Charlie every chance she got; she tried to hire away Marcy; she hit on any guy in whom Charlie showed the least bit of interest. It wasn’t only Charlie Natalya attacked – she was nasty and vindictive to everyone on the tour – but she was especially ruthless with the attractive women around her age, especially when a particularly good performance threatened her clear number one ranking.

‘Charlie? You there?’ Jake asked.

The sound of his voice jostled her back. ‘What? Yes, sorry. I have to run. I’m meeting Todd soon for a strategy lunch and then I have lifting from one to three. I’m hoping to cram in a massage before heading back to the hotel. Dinner’s at six?’

‘Roger that. I’ll make sure Dad knows. He’s wandering around downtown Melbourne right now, practicing his Crocodile Dundee accent on unsuspecting shop owners.’

Charlie forced a laugh, which caused Natalya to turn around and glare. ‘Quiet on the court!’ she shouted from the opposite baseline.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said under her breath as she strode toward the car. ‘I was just leaving.’

6

no more little miss nice girl

MELBOURNE, JANUARY 2016

A guy wearing a Euro-tight suit descended upon Charlie the moment she walked through the door. ‘Charlotte! We’re so happy to have you join us!’

Charlie wracked her brain trying to place him. Was he the husband of a player? He seemed gay, so it was unlikely, but you never really knew these days. A colleague of Jake’s from Elite Athlete Management? A friend of Todd’s? Someone she’d met a dozen times before, who would surely be offended when she didn’t remember his name?

‘Hey, great to see you, too!’ she said with way too much enthusiasm. She prayed she wouldn’t have to introduce him to anyone.

‘Great first match!’ His enthusiasm met her own. Still no hint.

‘Thanks, I definitely got lucky. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.’

‘Yes, you’re playing tomorrow afternoon? We’ll get you out of here in no time.’

‘That would be great …’ Okay, so he definitely worked at the restaurant. Todd’s assistant had booked the table at Botanical weeks earlier: he insisted on eating at the trendiest restaurants in every city they visited. ‘Better optics,’ he always said when Charlie asked why they just couldn’t go somewhere low-key.

‘Your father and brother are already seated. Todd isn’t here yet, but he called to say he was on his way.’

If you’re not early, you’re late, Charlie couldn’t help thinking. ‘You know Todd?’ she asked. This wasn’t the least bit surprising, but Charlie didn’t know what else to say.

‘Honey, that man has brought every player to eat here since we opened. All the greats. They come to celebrate wins and they come to cry into their sparkling waters when they lose.’

‘Wow. I had no idea.’

Charlie followed the still-nameless maître d’ through the modern leather and steel dining room. She noticed a large party in the corner, a mixed group of Slovakian male and female players with their coaches, but pretended she didn’t see them. When they reached the table, Charlie was relieved to see her dad and Jake already seated.

‘Happy birthday, sweetheart,’ Mr Silver said, standing to embrace Charlie. He smelled of the same subtle aftershave he’d been wearing for as long as Charlie could remember. And tennis. That combination smell of new tennis balls and sunshine and Har-Tru clay that every man who spent his life on or near the courts seemed to emanate from every pore. He smelled like home.

‘Thanks,’ Charlie said, hugging him tightly. ‘But it’s not until next week.’

‘Well, we thought we’d celebrate tonight because we’re all together. It’s a double celebration – first big match back.’

‘Twenty-five sounds old, doesn’t it?’ Charlie accepted the seat her father had pulled out for her and turned just in time to see Jake shake the maître d’s hand and him slide a piece of paper into Jake’s pocket.

When the man wished them a good meal and left, Charlie turned to Jake. ‘Did he just slip you his number?’

‘Mind your own business,’ Jake said.

A busboy appeared and poured them all water from a carafe. Jake drank his down in one swallow and asked for more.

‘Isn’t there a more modern way to do that? Can’t he, like, beam it to your phone, or find you on some location-based app where he can see your pecs before committing?’ Charlie poked her brother.

‘You’re charming.’

‘I’m just saying, the gays are usually very cutting-edge with these things.’

‘Okay, okay, let’s all calm down,’ Mr Silver coughed, yanking on his already unbuttoned shirt collar. No one had been more supportive (or less surprised) when Jake came out in college, but Charlie’s father still grew suddenly quiet and uncomfortable with any direct references to Jake sleeping with men. Which naturally delighted both Jake and Charlie to no end.

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