Page 25 of The Singles Game

Charlie was relieved when the waitress returned with their dinners. She’d ordered the salmon because she’d eaten it the night before her first-round win. It was stupidly superstitious and of course no better than reading tarot cards or avoiding sidewalk cracks, but she couldn’t help herself: she would eat salmon every single night until she lost. She’d also wear her ponytail in a braid with a ribbon woven through it, drink exactly two mugs of mint tea after dinner, and turn off the lights at ten on the dot. How would sex with Marco fit in? she silently wondered. She had slept with him the night after her win, so technically speaking, she should probably do it again …

‘And what about fitness?’ Charlie’s father asked between bites of his steak.

Todd chewed, swallowed, and polished off another shot of tequila. ‘What about it?’

‘Well, Marcy felt like that was a major way forward for Charlie. That it was easier even a few years ago to be reasonably in shape, but that the women’s game has evolved lately to become so much more about strength and fitness.’

‘Why do you think I have her on the new eating plan? She’s a knockout, don’t get me wrong, but we still need to shave off a few more pounds. Long, lean, strong. We’ll get there.’

Charlie took a sip of her sparkling water and stared at her plain grilled fish and side of greens. She was permitted specific carbs on match days – steel-cut oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, certain protein bars – but practice days were a drag. When had it become normal to listen to a group of people discuss her weight and her body right in front of her? The only thing weird about it was that, two official matches into Todd’s regime, it didn’t seem weird anymore.

‘Well, I think she looks great exactly the way she is,’ Charlie’s dad said, and Charlie could feel herself blush. ‘I meant more from a stamina perspective.’

It had probably been only two or three years after her mother died when Charlie had found two books in the glove compartment of Mr Silver’s car: Raising Daughters with Dignity and Respect: A Parent’s Guide and The Single Dad’s Primer on All Things Girl. Page corners were turned down and paragraphs were highlighted, and her father had even made some notes in the margins, things like ‘Don’t always compliment appearance, compliment innate qualities,’ and ‘Always tell her she’s enough just the way she is.’ She’d cried for nearly thirty minutes that day, sitting alone in the driver’s seat of the beat-up Jeep Wrangler that had always embarrassed her, and wondered where he’d found those books. The thought of him shopping the local bookstore, searching for something – anything – that could help him navigate the overwhelming task of raising two kids alone, could make her throat close to this day.

‘Of course she looks great!’ Todd all but sang. ‘You gotta trust me on this. I got Adrian down from two hundred to below one-ninety and what happened? He won Roland-Garros that year.’

‘Yes, but Charlotte’s weight aside – which, for the record, I personally think is perfect – and focusing again on fitness: Marcy felt strongly that more off the court and in the gym could really pay dividends from the perspective of—’

‘With all due respect, Peter, I’m not Marcy.’ Todd had set down his fork and turned to look at Charlie’s dad. ‘Of course Charlotte needs to be fit. But that won’t mean shit without the whole package. Yes, her backhand’s great, blah, blah. Again, not enough. She needs a body that can cover the court and not give out during tough, hot three-setters and killer strokes, but then what? Attitude, that’s what. Does she want it? Does she really, really want it? Does she want it so bad she can fucking taste it? If the answer is yes, then Charlie needs to show that. It’s not enough to show up: she’s got to stomp all over her opponents. And that’s what you’ve hired me to help her do.’

Charlie threw her father a grateful look for not reminding the table that Todd was certainly not his choice.

‘Wusses don’t win Slams. It’s the same in tennis as it is in life: nice guys lose. It took some time, but we roughed Adrian up a little, got him fired up and ready to win, and guess what? He started winning. That farmer fucking teddy bear. All the time. Everything he entered. Because when he walked onto that court, his opponents knew, could feel, that he wanted nothing more in life than to crush them. And there’s real value in that.’

‘Definitely,’ Charlie said. She wasn’t sure she agreed entirely, but there was no arguing with Todd’s record. And where, exactly, had Marcy’s insistence on fairness and good manners gotten her? A double injury and a loss in the rankings, that’s where.

‘To new strategies and bright futures,’ Jake said, holding up his glass. Jake may have still been learning the ropes, but he’d known his entire life how to defuse an awkward situation, and never before had it come in so handy.

Charlie reached for her sparkling water while her father held aloft his still-full tequila snifter, and they clinked with Jake and Todd.

‘To Charlotte, who’s going to take her new badass self and trample the competition. Starting with that whiny little Croat tomorrow,’ Todd said with a grin.

‘How about to a very happy twenty-fifth birthday? May this be your best year yet,’ her father said, smiling at Charlie.

‘It’s your birthday, kid? I didn’t even realize. Happy, happy,’ Todd said, taking another slug.

Charlie didn’t bother correcting him or telling him the actual date. It wasn’t hard to see her father despised him and, yes, he was no Marcy, but Charlie knew – she just knew – that Todd Feltner was exactly what she needed. She was nearly twenty-five years old, in the best shape of her life, and had never made it to the finals of a Slam. It had to be now.

‘We can discuss the rest of the image stuff another time,’ Todd said, scrolling through something on his phone. ‘There’s already a lot of food for thought.’

‘“Image stuff”?’ Mr Silver asked, eyebrows raised.

‘The new Charlie needs a hotter look. Sexy and glamorous – don’t worry, we’re not going for dykey here – just a lot more sophisticated than this whole little-girl-with-braids-in-tennis-dresses thing she’s got going on. Hard to take someone seriously when they perpetually look like they’re twelve. Especially with a bod— a figure like Charlie’s. It’s practically criminal not to take advantage of it.’