Changeover: A Tennis Tale (Part 2)

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.

To this point in the lopsided match, Chet had employed various futile strategies to disrupt his opponent’s game: chip, lob, dink, come in, stay back, serve and volley, going for the lines, hitting down the middle, delay between points, speed up between points. Chet thought up these various strategies himself. Officially, a coach existed but Chet had not bothered seeking him out. The coach knew nothing about tennis, had never played the game, was morbidly obese, taught strength training and team sports in the school’s two fat-men physical education department, and only took the job for a few extra dollars and because the team needed an adult supervisor and no one on staff at Fir City High School knew anything about tennis—except Mr. Love—nor ever would since tennis had fallen so far out of the public’s imagination as a recreational sport or popular culture phenomenon since its heyday in the 1970s. About all the coach ever said to his players in embarrassing blowout moments such as these amounted to yelling, “you gotta suck it up!” or suggest drawing upon “intestinal fortitude.”

Who or what had created this youth tennis machine? Chet’s opponent seemed more the product of the Soviet Olympic bureaucracy or a sports apparel conglomerate sponsorship than a teenager from Oregon, a state hardly known for stellar tennis. Who was this kid? Before the district tournament, Chet had never heard of him. No one had. He came in unseeded, affiliated with a private Catholic high school not a member of the Timber Valley League. After the machine dispatched his first two opponents 6-love, 6-love while still wearing his warm-ups, a few enterprising players did some phone work and discovered he was ranked number one in the Pacific Northwest, had won the Washington boys’ championship in the fall without dropping a set, and then moved to Oregon so he could win the spring high school state tournament and thereby pull off a double victory heretofore unknown in the annals of Pacific Northwest youth tennis. He had quasi-legal endorsement deals from a dozen companies, a publicist, and a full tennis ride to any university in the country, although he was quoted in the press as saying he wanted to attend Stanford, at least a year before turning pro. He had Instagram sponsorship. He was a sophomore.

Before Chet sat down, he scanned the crowd. All his teammates had been eliminated in the early rounds and had rushed off to fast food jobs, get high or play video games. He did not see a familiar face: not his girlfriend Tricia, Mr. Love, his sister, mother, step father, father, step mother, or his last surviving grandparent, his beloved grandfather who introduced him to tennis while the other kids attempted the x-treme games they worshipped. Chet was not surprised by this collective absence. It had always been this way at his matches and it was all his fault. He never expressly told people not to come watch him play. Rather, he said things like, “Well, I know you have to work…it is a long drive to the match and that traffic is terrible…It is going to be a blow out…It will cost a lot of gas…I do not know when I am going to play and I do not want you to wait around…it is probably going to rain…”

And so on. Because Chet commanded respect from his family for his integrity, intelligence, hard work, straight A’s, and independence, which manifested in his propensity to seeing movies or eating restaurant meals alone, they left him alone, and never attended the matches, even the big ones, like the quarterfinals of the district tournament in Chet’s senior year. The family had always been a bit detached when it came to emotional support, but the love and allegiance were there. Just everything was implicit.

Tricia was absent too and that was also Chet’s fault. She wanted to come, but Chet undermined the idea. She even offered to give him a ride to the tournament site. If ever there was an adjective to best describe Tricia, it was taciturn, and when Chet said that she would be bored waiting around the complex for hours until he played, that it would waste her time, that he wanted to drive to the tournament alone to prepare himself, Tricia did not respond and gave away nothing in her face of the tremendous rejection she had received. She wished him luck and gave him a card.