An excerpt from my freshest manuscript, Greatness. It tells the story of the world’s greatest tennis player, coming to terms with the true cost of “greatness” over the course of his final US Open. .
A night match in Flushing felt like daylight in a bottle. A dream, waking with a snake in his bed. The roar of an airplane, suddenly accelerating down the runway. He was alone on an operating table, exposed, prostrate, bathed in unfavourable fluorescent light, a needle plunging into the epidural space covering his spine. Vegas runs. Dime-store detective jams. Chasing or fleeing but every so often, rarer for most, it all clicked and he was star strutting in the spotlight of the world’s brightest city. He was Mick Jagger or Freddie Mercury, the court his stage.
At the baseline he raised the new ball, signalling the start of the match. As it dropped past his nose he caught a whiff of rubber, pungent like an uncapped marker. As strong as the smell was, it was fleeting. He bounced the ball three times, only ever three times, his body at a 45 degree angle to the net. He tossed the ball up through the same imaginary shaft every time so that it was impossible to read, twisting his shoulders, a slight knee bend and then falling into the court with a coordinated snap of the wrist that gave the ball its direction. POP. A wide serve (a clockwise snap), going after Cedric’s forehand. But Cedric’s forehand was waiting. His locked wrist blocked the ball down the line as King could only watch.
Brief cheerless applause, the only sound the ball kids’ shoes padding across the hard court.
Love – fifteen.
King snapped the ball down the tee, catching three lines. Cedric swatted at the serve with a chopped forehand and the ball came spinning back and jumped sideways off the court, King shanking the heavy ball high into the crowd.
Love – thirty.
A long rally, 10 strokes, 15, King and Cedric taking turns pulling the other wide off the deuce court with spinning forehands until King, winded and almost at the low wall of courtside photographers, wound up and went for an all-or-nothing shot down the line. Felts flew off the ball that didn’t even pass over the net (technically, it didn’t have to). It was pounded flat between the net post and the umpire’s chair at a falling angle, landing with a splat on the outside edge of the line from his vantage point.
“Out,” called the linesperson.
King raised his hand to signal his challenging of the call. Each set came with three challenges—an additional one added in the tiebreak. For King and many others, challenges were as much bravado as they were a genuine dispute. A way to send a message to the umpire, his opponent, spectators even, Have it your way but let the public record show I disagree.
Along with the crowd he looked up to the giant screen at the back of the court and watched the animated closeup of the ball’s gradual fall. His stomach sunk with the realization that it was fated to fall short. It was trying to reach the line but instead landed in the royal blue depths of the double’s alley. There was something about the graphics that immediately reminded him of the basic simulation of his parents’ plane’s final moments that was released to media after the investigation was concluded. He only watched the simulation once and with a deep sense of dread, his stomach plunging along with that plane. His parents had to have been holding hands in their final moments, he always caught them holding hands when they were uncomfortable in public as if they were each other’s anchor or armour. Their old love, sweethearts from school days, ended in instant oblivion.