Page 88 of The Singles Game

Charlie did a quick scan of the Royal Box: Elton John and David Furnish, Anna Wintour, Bradley Cooper. Then she turned around to check out the player box. Only at Wimbledon did two opponents share one box among their guests. To the left sat Natalya’s parents, coach, physio, hitting partner, hair and makeup artist, and a couple of Russian girlfriends. Benjy was nowhere to be found, but Charlie knew from Jake that he couldn’t get away: the Dolphins had just drafted a new backup quarterback, and Benjy was helping to train him. Next to Natalya’s crew, Charlie saw her own entourage watching her intently. Todd, Jake, and her father sat in the box’s front row, and they all waved when they caught her gaze in what could have been a choreographed performance. Behind them, Piper and Ronin sat in the first two seats on the aisle. Piper gave her a double thumbs-up and blew a kiss. In the third seat was Dan. He looked handsome in chinos and a button-down and was chatting animatedly with Ronin while they waited for play to start.

Dan had been waiting for her in the kitchen earlier that day, showered and dressed and ready to go. He had handed her the amethyst wristband on their walk to the site, and she had had to press her arms into her sides to keep from hugging him. He had also shown her the hats he’d asked Nike to make for the guests in Charlie’s half of the player box: all white with a subtle white swoosh on the back and a decidedly unsubtle TEAM SILVER in enormous black print across the front. Every one of Charlie’s entourage was wearing them, except the one who sat sullenly to Dan’s left: Marco. Nearly every time Charlie sneaked a peek, Marco was staring at his phone or checking the crowd to make sure people recognized him. Once, his eyes had even been closed. I won’t wait another day, she thought to herself as she walked out onto the court before serving for the first time. I will end it tonight.

One of Charlie’s secret fears was not just losing but losing so badly that the first set – or, shudderingly, the entire match – would be a shutout. She wouldn’t fully exhale until she had logged at least one game on the scoreboard, which she did, easily holding her serve to lead in the first set, 1–0. The women stayed on serve the rest of the set until the score was 6–5 in favor of Charlie, and Natalya won the next game to force a tiebreaker. Natalya had a massive 5–1 lead in the tiebreak, but Charlie battled back to win it on an ace and take the first set, 7–6. When Charlie pumped her fists exultantly and nearly collapsed to the ground, she could feel the crowd cheer with her. She could sense their desire for her to win, and for the first time that day she felt certain she would win.

The second set was grueling but much less linear than the first. Natalya broke Charlie’s serve early, and although Charlie was able to break her back, it set a strangely uncomfortable pace for the next few games. The wind had picked up a bit, making the bounces a little less predictable, and the temperature felt as though it had dropped a few degrees in minutes. A slew of neatly uniformed ball kids appeared on the sidelines during a changeover to prepare for possible rain: they would quickly unfurl a specially fitted cover to keep the grass court dry and, if necessary, begin the process of closing the infamous Centre Court roof. It was enough of a distraction to both players that each of their games seemed to suffer: Charlie couldn’t get a decent first serve in; Natalya hit too many easy unforced errors. They both quickly rebounded with a string of strong winners until the final game of the set. Charlie literally gave it away at deuce with two astonishing double faults in a row. The crowd groaned. She couldn’t look at her box. The second set went to Natalya, 7–5.

Charlie sat in her chair on the sidelines after losing the second set and breathed. She wasn’t panicked, but she was angry at herself. Nearly two hours had elapsed already, and she was proud that she still felt strong and energized without the sickening adrenaline surges that had haunted her past matches. But now there was a whole set ahead. On the positive side, with the exception of the double faults, Charlie had played beautifully. If anything, Natalya was the one who, despite eking out the second-set win, looked piqued and annoyed. Charlie could see her inspect her racket’s grip and fiddle with a new roll of grip tape, which she tried to pry open with her teeth. Natalya’s frustration grew more obvious every moment as she bit and chewed and stabbed at the packaging, and Charlie couldn’t look away. No doubt Natalya had six identical rackets in her bag with freshly wrapped grip tape already in place, but for some reason she kept wrestling with the one in her hand. When the chair umpire called time and the women were expected to begin the third and final set, Natalya chucked her racket so hard into the side court that it left a small divot. Technically she could have been called for unsportsmanlike conduct, but the officials were no doubt wary about penalty calls during a Slam final. Charlie bounced lightly on the balls of her feet and sidestepped along the baseline to keep loose while she waited for her opponent, who had finally pulled a new racket from her bag. A frisson of hope surged through Charlie as she pressed her Swarovski amethyst to her mouth. It was obvious Natalya was beginning to unravel. It was time to pounce.

Once again, they each held service and then broke one another at exactly the same times, bringing the score to 4–4. Charlie felt a momentary stab of panic when Natalya moved ahead to 5–4 with consecutive down-the-line winners, but she was able to even it out on her next serve. After holding their own serves once again, the women were tied at 6–6. Todd had hammered into her the danger of not closing it out early in the third set: Wimbledon scoring didn’t allow for a tiebreaker in the final set, so Charlie needed to win by two full games no matter how long it took. As Charlie sat on the sideline, trying to slow her breathing after a particularly grueling twelve games, she tried not to remember Todd’s warning: Don't let it drag out in the third. You’re fit, but you’re still only a year into recovery. And Natalya’s record in long matches is the stuff of fucking legends. The match clock already read three hours and six minutes: Wimbledon history, Charlie knew, and most certainly the longest match of her professional career. Her legs were beginning to cramp, although not horribly, and she was more winded than she would have liked, but all things considered, she felt good. She had been playing her absolute best tennis. Regardless of what happened, she would be able to be proud of how she played.

When the umpire called time, Charlie jumped to her feet with more energy than she felt and did a little jog next to the chair to loosen her hamstrings. She glanced up at the player box and saw Dan on his feet, his hands folded around his mouth to create a little megaphone, literally screaming her name while the hordes of quiet and polite fans who sat around him looked on in equal parts amusement and disapproval, when she felt Natalya sidle up next to her.