Dan sprinted forward, and, laughing, Charlie ran after him to catch up.
DANIEL ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA, APRIL 2016
‘Aarrrgh!’ Charlie screamed as her racket connected with the rising ball right at the sweet spot. It sailed back, barely clearing the net, before landing so close to the baseline that Charlie wasn’t sure it was in. She rarely grunted – she thought it a gross and unladylike strategy some of the women used to distract their opponents – but this time it had been a purely biological response to hitting the ball with every ounce of her strength. The shrieking grunt had escaped her lips involuntarily. She was horrified but had to admit it felt good.
‘Thirty–love,’ the female umpire announced into her microphone from her raised courtside chair.
‘Challenge!’ Karina bellowed, pointing a sizable hand toward the line. ‘That was out!’
‘Ms Geiger has challenged the call. We will review the point,’ the umpire declared.
Charlie’s heart pounded from the exertion and excitement. They’d been playing for two and a half hours already, and she was two points away from winning the entire tournament in Charleston. She took deep inhales through her nose and exhaled through her mouth, walking slowly to keep her legs loose. When she glanced toward the player box she saw her father, Jake, Dan, and Todd all turned away from her, their attention directed at the mammoth overhead screens, waiting for the replay to begin.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the camera focused on Charlie’s shot: it sailed over the net, making a near-perfect arc on its path to the baseline. There, just before it landed, the camera zoomed in so only the ball and a few inches of the baseline tape were visible. In the slowest of slo-mo, the ball inched its way toward the line and tap! A tiny sliver of the ball’s underside grazed the very back of the tape. A shadow-like graphic of the slo-mo camera confirmed it: there had been one centimeter – perhaps less – of overlap between the ball and the baseline. But that’s all she needed. She pumped her fist at the same time the crowd cheered. Todd sprang to his feet and raised both arms over his head and screamed, ‘Yeah, Charlie! Now, finish this!’
‘The score shall remain thirty–love,’ the umpire announced calmly. ‘Karina Geiger is out of player challenges.’
Karina slammed her racket against her leg hard enough to hurt and shouted, ‘Mach es dir selber!’
Trying to stay calm, Charlie walked to the line and motioned to the ball girl, who immediately ran over and proffered two balls. Charlie tucked the first one in the leg of her black undershorts. The second one she bounced rhythmically one, two, three times and then tossed in the air. The late-afternoon Charleston sun was blinding, but she’d practiced in enough bright sunshine to stay focused on the ball. She watched it rise toward the sky, and then at the perfect moment, just as the ball was reaching the peak of its ascent, Charlie launched both feet off the ground, extended her right arm from behind her back to over her head, and went after it with the strength of her entire body.
The ball landed in the inside corner of the service box but Karina never even got near it. An ace. The radar screen at the back of the court registered the speed of the serve: 103 miles per hour. The crowd roared.
‘Forty–love,’ the chair umpire announced. ‘Match point.’
‘Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!’
‘Quiet on the court, please,’ the woman said sternly, but the crowd ignored her.
Charlie’s opponent looked like she was in physical pain, which she likely was: the match time was now an official two hours and thirty-eight minutes. The girls had split the first two sets, each winning one in a tiebreaker, and now the third set score was 5–4. They were both drenched in sweat, breathing hard, and beginning to feel the onset of what they knew would be hours of killer leg cramps. The temperature was ninety-one degrees.
Match point, match point, match point, Charlie repeated over and over in her mind before breathing deeply to calm herself and stay focused. If she couldn’t harness and control the adrenaline surging through her body, she’d be at risk of blowing the whole thing: her hands would start to shake, her legs would wobble, her concentration would break. Drawing in long, deep inhales, she forced herself to examine the strings on her racket while she tried to slow her heart rate.
The ball girl reappeared. Charlie accepted a towel and mopped her brow. She plucked one ball from the two the girl held at eye level and slowly, deliberately walked over to the baseline. This was it. This was where it ended, where Charlie claimed her third-ever career singles title at a Premier-level tournament. When she glanced across the net right before throwing the ball into the air, she saw Karina standing at the baseline. Instead of being in position to receive Charlie’s serve, the girl was doubled over with her head between her thick knees. Not injured or sick, from what Charlie could tell at that distance, but taking an extra few seconds to catch her breath and slow the pace.
The rules of the game dictated that Charlie, as the server, had to wait until the receiver was ready, but they also stated that the receiver had to be ready within a reasonable amount of time of the server being ready. Karina knew Charlie would never serve the ball until she was ready; Charlie knew Karina knew, and she also knew Karina was deliberately messing with the pace to throw her off. Icing the kicker. Karina was probably betting on the fact that the chair umpire would never call a delay of game on a match point, not to even mention tournament point. She was clearly using psychological warfare to try to wrest any little advantage out of a nearly lost match. It was shitty and unsportsmanlike and it was working: Charlie could feel herself growing angrier and angrier as she stood at the line, bouncing the ball over and over, waiting for Karina to look up and acknowledge she was ready to continue play.
As her opponent stretched her arms toward her toes, Charlie glanced toward the stands. Todd stared back at her as though he’d been willing her to look up. ‘Serve the ball,’ he mouthed.
Charlie’s eyes widened. It was clear what he was saying, but how could she? She looked to the chair umpire, who seemed unfazed, and then back to Todd. His eyes had narrowed; he was glaring at her. ‘Now!’ he silently screamed.
It was one of the things Todd was always harping on in their training sessions. These women were not your family, they were not your friends, they were not even your acquaintances: they were your enemies. They walk onto that court and spend every moment trying to undo your concentration, overpower your strokes, outthink your strategy, and crush your intention. They employ every advantage they possibly have, and if you want even the smallest chance of beating them, you need to play the game, too. Like a competitor, and not like the girl who’s trying to win Homecoming Queen. Charlie hated this lecture, but it was clear – at least in this moment – that Todd was right. Her opponent wasn’t losing sleep over good sportsmanship. Why should Charlie?