Conjunctions:77 States of Play: The Games Issue

Double Faults
Picture Hamburg, spring of ‘93. Cherry blossoms sleeve the trees, the Elbe River is fractured with blue and brass, the facades of riverfront buildings burnished in the morning light. The first of the tour boats, striped white and red on the prow, parts the water. The cafes set out their tables. A young man purchases a bouquet of orange lilies from a flower stand and zips it into his jacket, motoring down the cobblestoned street to his lover.

     Imagine M in her hotel, readying for the day. It’s her quarterfinal match, but she’s not nervy. She eats breakfast with her brother, Z, while their father and mother rest in their room. He orders for them coffee, toast, and marmalades. M with her skinny ankles, mousy face, rosy cheeks, is still a child. She asks for Nutella, too.

     But M is not entirely a child. She has been to rock and roll concerts. Her face has graced the covers of many magazines. She’s earned sponsorships from top beauty brands, although she fumbles with her own personal style. Fashion is not a natural language to her, not like tennis. On match days, she tries not to think about her looks. Her hair is in a scrunchie and despite the no-frizz shampoo it still curls at the edges like static.

     M has played her opponent once before and won handily in two sets. She discusses strategy briefly with Z, but they are not consumed by it. If M hits her usual angles deep in the corners, it will be over in a quick two sets once again. Very few people on tour can stop M when she plays her best. Perhaps only S, but even S has been losing ground recently.

     M has happily devoured three pieces of toast, two with Nutella, one with apricot jam. She eats with the voracity of a child, a child-athlete. All she has known is tennis, ever since she would abscond with her brother’s racket and play for hours against the brick wall of the first-floor apartment. Her father shouted down from their window to take the ball early, on the rise. She throttled the poor green orb.

     You can imagine that tennis was all about control for M. Here was the court, perfectly replicable, with its parallel lines and boxes. There was an opponent involved, of course, but their presence was almost always immaterial, another variable for her to compute. The world of the court had endless possibilities and yet they were contained, predictable, manipulable. You go backhand crosscourt, I go backhand crosscourt. We strike it back and forth. Then, when you least expect it, I go down the line. Fifteen love.

     Yes, as we all know, M could redirect the ball effortlessly. She would stand midcourt and dictate play, sending her opponent flailing from one end of the baseline to the other. Of course, we all remember her grunting, too. The guttural cry she released with each stroke. Even after the uproar about it — how loud she was, how distracting — she continued undeterred. That also betrayed the child in her, the lack of awareness, the pure intensity, but even that innocence could be spoiled by locker room gossip, the other ladies on tour complaining. Being called a stuck pig. Some say that’s what made her lose that Wimbledon final to S. I suppose we’ll never know.

     Back to Hamburg. There is an unexpected nip in the air for how sunny and sanguine the day appeared from behind the windows of the hotel. M leaves for the match with her brother, Z, but her father and mother stay behind. It’s simply another quarterfinal; how routine those have become.

     The red clay courts in Hamburg are pristinely manicured, as you can imagine. Between matches the grounds crew are out in droves watering the surface and dragging great brushes through it to break up clods. The crowd is decent for a women’s match, owing mostly to M, but well-behaved. No American shenanigans here. It’s all quiet during the points, no applause for double faults committed by the player you’d prefer to lose. The match proceeds as M expects; she takes the first set a breezy 6-4. She’s serving well. When the ball leaves her hand she intuits its trajectory, as though a thread has followed it from her fingers. She falls into a seamless mechanics; she moves with no extra step to reach the ball; her two-handed strokes follow through over her shoulders like a whip of wind, a toss of a garment, a farmer with a scythe.

     Now M is leading in the second set. At the changeover, they rest at their designated seats on either side of the umpire, toweling dry, drinking water. This is where, if you don’t mind, I’d like to imagine an alternate reality.

     In this reality, M wins her quarterfinal match in Hamburg with a tidy two games, a courteous handshake, and a wave to the crowd. Her family takes an early dinner out, a restaurant recommended for its succulent oysters. She wins her semifinal match and then the final in a tight three sets against S. She goes on to win Roland Garros for the fourth time because no one can stop her. Wimbledon may take longer, another year of growing on the grass, of anticipating the odd bounce. Here too she will win, inevitably, like a falcon that misses its prey once but not twice. She will feast without self-deprecation. She will mature into a woman who knows when to dismiss the dessert menu, holding a hand to her stomach, not out of anxiety over her figure but out of knowledge of her own fullness and need. She will commit the occasional fashion faux pas, but this will morph into an aspect of her character, less of a critique from the media and more of a keeping-up-with-dear-M, what has she done now — yellow snakeskin? Her net game will sharpen as she ages, to adapt to the aggressive youngsters, to end points early and preserve her energy. She and S will ripen their gripping rivalry; M always the feisty, mousy little girl, however old; S always the towering guard, blonde and statuesque. M will accrue trophies until the game recedes for her, the court not the paradigm of the world, as it once was, but the opposite. She will know the world’s other lines, the lanes as she drives at night alone, listening to the radio; the lines at the grocery; the picket fence lining the shore; her own face, lined. People will not speculate about her greatness, about what might have been, if you can imagine it, but will assert her greatness with confidence, with the numbers to prove it.

     But, as you know, what really happened at that changeover was that M, as she leaned over to take one last drink of water before returning to play, was stabbed in the back with a nine-inch boning knife wielded by a man named G. Before he could strike again, fellow fans in the crowd grabbed him by his jacket. A blotch of red spread on the back of M’s white collared shirt. She reached for the wound but couldn’t grasp it, because what hurt was what had been carved out of her. You could read anguish on her face, pain twisted with shock, because who would guess this would happen to her, to anyone.

     I can imagine the stands emptied in a rush, as though there were a fire. Nobody wanted to be in that place, only the grounds crew remained. They had to clean the blood from the chair, to groom the clay. Her opponent progressed to the next round, via walkover, as though — in another reality — M had sprained an ankle, pulled out to rest it before Roland Garros. The word spread. The ambulance on the grounds was not for an elderly fan, but for a player — and not any player, but M. What would happen now? Were they safe? Who was next?

     Yet the tournament continued, the fans returned. No one wanted delays, to let the ghosts and what-ifs arise. The players wanted to play; the fans wanted to watch. Walking the grounds, I imagine you could hear eruptions of applause from the very stadium where it happened, fans holding their breasts after a startling volley, all instinct, inhuman, brushing the line.

     Meanwhile, the man responsible was arrested, and M was in the hospital. S went to visit M, the only player to do so, but it was appropriate given that the culprit, G, was found to be an obsessive S fan, his sole professed motivation for the violence to remove M from the field and allow S to reclaim the top of the sport. And so there S was, paying her dues to M in the hospital.

     You can imagine the visit. M looks mousier and girlier than normal, lined with tubes, blankets tucked into her sides. S looks more statuesque than normal, standing over the bed, weeping. It’s hard to know if S feels worse for M or for herself, for not knowing how to proceed under the present circumstances. Can she have felt complicit in the atrocity, as though her fans were an extension of herself? S pushes the bangs from her forehead only for them to fall back again. She sputters, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

     M does not say anything, only bites her lip and nods. She cries too, steely tears that she tries to disguise, one or two falling quickly down the side of her face and onto her pillow. S appears so tall from M’s vantage point, reclined on the bed, as though an angel. The two had not held many conversations in the past, at least not verbal. M feels a strange intimacy with S, having felt the weight of her shots, having seen her in distress and in victory, the raw, unguarded faces she makes on the court. M knows her posture exactly, she could pinpoint it anywhere; erect but not stiff, like a dancer at rest.

     S is wiping her tears on her forearm, the same gesture she uses to dab sweat away mid-match. She turns from M to rotate a bouquet of pink roses in their vase, interspersing them with baby’s breath. S, like M, functions better when doing, rather than thinking. S knows she will play in the final, and she wishes it were right then, that she could set her body in motion the way it had been trained. All she says is, “I have to go.”

     M thinks they will never play again, and a hole opens in her, as though someone has died. She is wrong, though. They will play again five times, but M will only win once.

     G never spent a night in prison, excused for a poor mental state and for not desiring to kill M, merely to incapacitate her. He was not considered a threat, only looney. He had, so the word goes, been driven nearly suicidal by S’s loss to M in Berlin a few years back. The game had always been a matter of life or death for him; he was acting out of sheer survivalism. S was not a tennis player, she was his tennis player. She represented his country, his way of life, the essence of what was good and admirable. When she bounced into a shocking forehand, it was his winner too, Germany’s winner; she channeled every ounce of excellence that had been poured into her by their nation, their heritage. For her to lose, or worse, for her to develop a losing streak, was not simply a threat to her career but to his life force, to the morale of her people. And he might be hated, but he would be the paschal lamb, and those people would thank him for it, because S would return unfettered to her game. S would gather up trophies like eggs from a chicken coop. S would be considered, without qualification, one of the greatest players of all time.

     I sometimes think of G, who is apparently still clinging to life, when I watch tennis nowadays. Some time ago, one of my players lost a devastating final at Wimbledon, having held two match points. After the defeat, the afternoon, although brilliant and hot, felt empty and suffocating, overexposed. Even the bushes looked petrified. All I could imagine was what would have happened if one of those two match points were converted. I was filled with disdain for his opponent, who was an artless player, a poor sportsman. I was listless, as though drugged. I sank into an existential stupor. I could hardly eat. The fries on my plate looked like fingers. Recently I read a fellow fan online describe the memory of that loss as still eliciting a physical pain. My instinct is to glance away from it, as though it’s the sun, and I have the rest of history, like the sky, to observe instead.

     But I think of G because, as heinous as he is, I am disturbed to sense those inclinations within myself. A player becomes mine, another becomes anathema. I subsume her victories; I follow each point as though it is my will to live at stake. What was most childlike about M — about all of us, until some experience sets us straight — was to see only the court, to think what transpired within its boundaries was entirely up to her.

     After the stabbing, M would sit down every night with a bag of potato chips and eat as though the bag were her sole solace, the only portion afforded to her in the whole world. A bag of wavy Lay’s, the delectable crunch. Maybe a container of French Onion dip, the chips breaking under the weight of the dense cream. Maybe chocolate bars too, or a jar of Nutella, a spoon. No, the stabbing was not up to her, nor was her father’s eventual cancer diagnosis and death. But the food was pleasure, comfort, something she could lose herself to without the pain of loss. M became like the rest of us: outliers, onlookers, imaginers. Exiled from the world of action in the court, trapped in the world of response. She fought her demons eventually, so the word goes, as we all must do.

     When I wake up in the mornings, I check the scores on my phone before I get my baby girl. I turn on the TV while I feed her. I spoon the yogurt into her mouth with my eyes on the screen. I don’t want to miss a point. I’m dying to see someone win, to know it’s possible, before I can begin my day, the same day, with its finite iterations. I tell myself that tennis is like prosody, that it is beauty exercised, its technicalities worthy of study and devotion. What it is likely closer to, for me, is subjugation, being in thrall to another’s body, submitting to each bounce, all while knowing the player, if able, can take the ball crosscourt or down the line, and it is up to them, and I am under their grasp. And we love to live under others’ grasps until we don’t.

     My daughter, though, is different. When she sees a ball, she chases it. She picks it up and throws it. It is delightful to begin the game, to play in earnest. She tugs me into the yard, past the bearded iris. You can picture spring of ‘21, surely. People sit on their porches with their laptops, their dogs leashed to posts. Neighborhood kids hopscotch until they vanish indoors. When we take a walk, we roll the stroller over the chalked squares in the road. The numbers have faded. In another day, a strong rain will wash them clean.

Kelsey Peterson’s “The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal,” originally published in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, was a recipient of the PEN/Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and anthologized in PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 (Catapult). She teaches at Pennsylvania State University.