Changeover: A Tennis Tale (Part 1)

In the spirit of Wimbledon, which began this week, I present a short story I wrote a decade ago, but have recently updated. Enjoy. And get out there and play tennis this summer.

Chet never saw the passing shot. He should have. He had crouched in textbook volleying form in perfect position at the net, covering the line where his opponent, running way wide to his right, must return a short sliced approach shot, must, because conventional wisdom at every level of tennis dictated it. It was irrefutable geometry. That is, unless the opponent mishit the ball and won the point on a fluke winner.

The return never came up the line; there was no mishit; Chet never saw the ball. His opponent ran down the approach shot with ease and then took a vicious forehand swing more appropriate to a decapitation than a tennis stroke. Chet saw these two developments fine—the rundown, the swing—and prepared to volley. What he never saw, although he whiplashed around to see something, was a yellow missile rocket past his temple with such ferocious topspin that had Chet actually touched it with his racket, he might have sprained his wrist.

The missile landed precisely where the up line and the service line intersected. Geometry refuted. Chet turned around and saw the ball stuck inside the chain link fence, something the fence’s manufacturer guaranteed could not happen. He then heard clapping and exclamations of wonder from the spectators after they all grasped the impossibility of this crosscourt forehand winner. The noise grew and resounded through the sprawling recreational complex, and Chet was on the other receiving end of the adulation because his opponent had just executed the shot of the tournament.

Chet walked to the fence, wrested the ball free and held it up for inspection. The shot of the tournament had won the game at love and Chet now trailed love-3 in the second set of a quarterfinal match for the Timber Valley League boys’ singles title. He had lost the first set love-6 and not won more than one point in any game. He had been aced a dozen times, including two serves that propelled balls through the fence. At the net, he had taken two forehands off the chest, knocking the wind out of him, denting his body with black welts, quite possibly the unlikeliest injury a player could sustain in a high school tennis match. But this wasn’t so much a match as tennis by enfilade.

Love-6, love-3, an odd game of a match, and thus time for the changeover, the ninety seconds allowed when players switch sides of the court and can rest, talk to one another, say nothing, take refreshment, run off to use the restroom, confer with a coach, or walk over to the other side and wait for the other player to resume play. It is strictly up to each player how he spends his ninety seconds and most players develop a distinct changeover ritual depending whether they are winning or losing. Chet did not have a ritual for the unprecedented beating he was absorbing and he needed to invent one in ninety seconds if he was to salvage any shred of dignity.

Chet trudged off the court and sat, then slouched on a plastic bench. He did not feel physically tired. Rather, he felt the crushing mental fatigue, disillusion really, associated with getting your ass utterly kicked by an opponent in a publicly viewed competitive sport. His opponent did not share the bench. Instead, he took a seat in a gleaming portable chair specifically designed for rest during tennis changeovers. Chet looked left. His opponent, who, once comfortably seated, and having checked his smartphone, began alternately consuming organic fruit juice and trail mix as he listened to music through an ear piece whose cord ran into a neon bag stuffed full of $350 rackets and assorted other tennis accouterments. Attached to the bag’s strap were a half dozen tennis club ID badges. Behind Chet, the chain link fence rattled. He turned around and saw a harem of five girls in tight black tennis dresses, with slender waists and apricot midriffs, shaking the fence trying to attract the attention of his opponent, who was momentarily oblivious to their presence, but then stood up and went over to chat with them. Chet caught most of the conversation and it had nothing to do with tennis. Chet half unwrapped a melted candy bar and half-peeled, spotted banana. He took a bite of each and washed it down with lukewarm tap water from a plastic milk jug. Chet toweled off and looked at his opponent. Not one drop of perspiration tainted any part of his body or discolored his tailored shirt made from some new shiny synthetic material. His hair was perfect. He was furiously text messaging his other distant harem.