Page 68 of The Singles Game


There in 30, she wrote, her fingers flying across the keyboard. She’d stop by for an hour just to say hello. No harm in that whatsoever.

17

how do you say ‘flameout’ in french?

THE FRENCH OPEN, MAY 2016

Her heart was beating so fast that she couldn’t catch her breath. As slowly as she could, Charlie walked toward the baseline. The perspiration was streaming down her neck into her black tank, and the clay stuck to her sweaty calves in the most uncomfortable way. Todd’s instructions reverberated in her mind over and over again, a mantra that brought her no calm, no mindfulness: Attack and draw. Attack and draw. Attack and draw. Attack her backhand, which was weaker than it should be, and draw her into the net, which was out of her comfort zone. Eleanor McKinley also preferred to play quickly, opting to put the ball back in play as fast as possible and not waste a lot of time between points. Charlie had read the interviews Todd’s office had collated for her. Eleanor didn’t like having the time to dwell on past points – either winners or losers – because it allowed her to get too much in her own head. She preferred to hit hard and take risks and end points rather than endlessly rally back and forth, merely waiting for either her or her opponent to hit an unforced error. Already she would be uneasy playing the French Open’s slower courts. Todd was always elated when a player went on the record with such crucial preferences, since he kept a dossier on every woman on the tour.

When she reached the back of the court, Charlie lifted her gaze to the ball boy and offered him the slightest nod. He trotted over holding two balls, one in each hand, and held them aloft as though they were precious jewels. Charlie shook her head and immediately he tucked them in his pocket and pulled out a towel. She accepted it and methodically patted down her forehead, cheeks, and neck, and then, for good measure, her forearms and palms as well. As soon as he had put away the towel, the boy again proffered the balls. Charlie nodded, almost imperceptibly, to his right hand, and he placed the ball on her outstretched racket head. After securing it under the spandex of her black, crystal-encrusted skirt, she held her racket out for the second. This one she bounced as she made her way back to the baseline, preparing to serve. It occurred to her that she was doing precisely what Karina had done to Charlie in the final of Charleston – essentially, stalling for time in order to challenge her opponent’s toughness – but she brushed the thought away. It was different now. Instead of being one point away from winning the entire tournament, she was one point from a devastating loss in the very first round.

A glance across the court revealed Eleanor bouncing patiently on the balls of her feet. Her lithe body was almost as tight as her severe bun. She wore a fitted gray tennis dress with an attached pleated skirt that barely moved, and she was as flat-chested as a boy. Altogether it gave the odd impression that she was a wooden figure, a statue carved from lifeless materials that could bounce up and down and right to left without moving anything in between.

Charlie tried to calm her breathing. A snapshot from the night before appeared in her mind like an IMAX film: her legs draped over Marco’s proprietarily as they lounged on a couch. Her exhales now, on the court, were similar to those of the night before, only now there was no long, seductive smoke trail streaming from her lips and hanging in the humid air of the hotel suite, just the quick and shallow breaths of someone who knew she was seconds away from big trouble.

Charlie realized there were no possible ways left to procrastinate. This was it. Match point for what could be the single most disappointing match she had ever played. No! That’s no way to think. Entertain that horrid thought and you are as good as done. Attack and draw. Get a first solid serve in, attack her backhand, and if she is still able to return the ball, take advantage of what will surely be its relative weakness and hit a drop shot to draw her into the net. Then watch as she crumbles, because she has no net game.

Charlie took her position behind the baseline, bounced the ball three times, and tossed it in the air. It was a perfect toss, she could tell right away, and she was grateful to the muscle memory she’d developed from tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands? millions? – of practice serves when her hips and arms worked in perfect synchronization to connect her racket with the ball. It was a hard, fast, nearly perfect serve, and Charlie was so thankful for it that she wasn’t as quick as she should have been returning to position. Eleanor seemed to read exactly where the serve was going to land. She was there, ready and waiting, as though she had received a map showing the exact intended path, and she pounced on it while the ball was still rising, smashing it back to Charlie with a shocking swiftness. Caught unprepared, Charlie ran four steps into no-man’s-land and propelled her body into an immediate lunge, taking instinctive advantage of the clay to slide the remaining few feet. She got there in time but was too disoriented to do much with the ball other than get her strings on it and pop it up into the air, and it didn’t matter that she got back to position quickly because Eleanor moved in on the weak lob, turned her body sideways, planted her feet, and smashed the overhead so cleanly and with such power that Charlie didn’t see it coming until she felt it strike her neck.

The impact alone would have been enough to ensure an angry red welt and a good amount of follow-up bruising, but the exact location of where it hit – dead center of her windpipe – left Charlie literally choking for air. She was hunched over, her head between her knees, gasping for breath. Intellectually, she knew exactly what had happened, knew it would subside in a matter of seconds and she would be able to fill her lungs normally if she could just slow her breathing. But the panic set in, made no doubt worse by the realization that she had just lost her very first round match at the very first Grand Slam tournament she had any real chance of winning, and, well, she continued to choke. She felt a hand on her back and looked up to see Eleanor crouched next to her, rubbing her palm in strong, comforting circles between Charlie’s shoulder blades.

‘Just try to slow your breathing,’ the girl murmured, continuing to massage Charlie’s back. ‘I’m so sorry.’

Because of Charlie’s high seeding in the tournament and two consecutive wins, there were more fans watching their match than might be expected at a typical first round. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the black-haired, black-clad, tiara-wearing phenom as she crushed the relative newcomer on her march to French Open victory. And now all of those same spectators were cheering like crazy and calling out Eleanor’s name. She began to feel the embarrassment more acutely as her breath returned to normal. And suddenly, the feel of her opponent’s hand on her own sweat-soaked shirt – not to mention that maddening expression of sympathy plastered on her face – well, it was just too much. Charlie twisted her body out of Eleanor’s reach and pushed herself to stand. ‘I’m fine,’ she hissed under her breath. ‘As fine as someone can expect to be when her opponent tries to win by clocking her.’

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