It had happened so fast, and after such a good start. But suddenly it was 5-2 in the second set, and...
"Game, set, and match. Lawson Duncan wins 6-4, 6-2. He will meet the winner of tonight's Muster-Oresar match tomorrow afternoon to play for the championship."
Heat-soddened applause drowned the umpire's words as the two sweat-drenched young men performed their ritual handshakes. Duncan still had a bit of bounce, or perhaps it was the flush of victory. Horacio De La Pena slumped back in his chair, futilely wiping his narrow face with another towel. His slender young frame seemed wilted, by the hundred-and twelve-degree, humid heat, and by eleven long base-line points in a row in which every shot he tried came back over the net, and stayed inside the base-lines.
I've got to get out of here, she decided abruptly, jamming her wadded cushion into the long Cardin bag and switching glasses. Why do I always, always put myself through this!
Fat Ernie turned as she tried to squeeze behind him on the narrow boards of the North Bleachers. He had been in L-37, Section 2, right on the center-line behind Center Court every year she could remember.
"You really want to fight this crowd?" he wondered.
"I'm exhausted. I've got to get out of this heat!" she explained. And it was, also, true.
"Your boy wilted pretty quickly, didn't he?" There was no malice in his comment. He even sounded a little sorrowful. Ernie would schmooze with a fellow contractor if points were dull, but he loved good tennis.
"He had to play a doubles yesterday right after he took Mats," she countered. "He's exhausted. Besides, he's too young to have gotten into many semi's. He's not used to going the distance yet." I'm being motherly! she realized.
"You gonna be back for the doubles?" "I'll see how I feel. Jensen-Pawsat play really awful doubles. Unless the first set goes well, I may punt."
"It's pretty hard to make doubles boring," Ernie agreed, as she lunged into a break in the traffic headed for the rest-rooms. "See you tonight?"
"Of course!" she called, pushing the crowd, furious that Ernie would think she was upset.
But, damn it, she Was upset! It's what I get for having favorites, she admitted. Why can't I cultivate a simple zen enjoyment of the game, so it doesn't matter who wins? But no! Three years ago I watched this little kid on the back courts playing really solid, intelligent clay-court tennis, the best kind, and was thrilled to watch him get into the semi's. So what if he bombed six-love, six-love; he had a natural, gorgeous clay game, and had my heart as well!
There was a queue, of course, at the Ladies', and the wait with querulous, impatient matrons only aggravated her criticism of her self.
Why do I do it! she demanded. How many of Bollettieri's boy- wonders had ignited her excitement, only to fade into dust two years later as everyone on the circuit solved the only game their coach had given them, while instead of teaching them anything new Bollettieri moved on to a new Great Blond Hope of American Tennis. How many times, in the last sixteen years she had read, lived, breathed everything she could get her hands on about tennis, had she been the only one of half a dozen indifferent spectators on some back court silently cheering on some green unknown in whom she thought she saw a talent for the game? How many young favorites had played their most brilliant games for her and a handful of others, only to fade in the quarters, or give up the game entirely for the more immediate thrills of auto racing?
She wasn't a groupie, thank God! she reminded herself in self-defense. She didn't want to intrude herself into their narrow, pressurized lives. She never demanded autographs. She didn't want them to focus their attention on her, though she read everything she could about her favorites, wondering what off-court incidents might change, might improve, might destroy the smooth, exciting games she thrilled to when they were hot.
But she did get involved. Last year she was horrified, watching Horacio's coach demanding in practice that he hit everything inside the body! She knew it denied him all the advantages of being a lefty, cramping his arm into impossible positions. Thank God that coach was gone this year, thank God his new coach had him playing doubles, adding a net-game to his solid base-line steadiness!
And look what all my involvement gets me! she reflected, washing some of the sun-block stickiness from her wrists in the dimness of the Ladies'. It just builds up more empathy so it blows me away when they bomb out! Not only do I know how bad their losing makes me feel, I know how bad it makes Them feel, and that only makes me feel all the worse!
She bought herself an Amstel Light, partly in loyalty to the tournament sponsor, partly because of the heat. She stood, drinking it, at the entrance to the west stands, watching Lozano and Witsken chop Jensen-Pawsat apart three-love. It was a leaden, lack-luster match. Both teams mopped and dawdled between points, further deadening the game.
I don't need this! she decided. If I leave now I can get a good dinner for a change, maybe even do a little shopping, act like an ordinary human being instead of a tennis fanatic! I don't need the aggravation. I can turn off a hard-court four-love power- serve duel on the tube; maybe I should get a better perspective on the importance of clay-courts in the larger life of the planet. All the new satellite-tournaments on hard surfaces are squeezing out clay anyway. Duncan had to spend four years in Europe to learn a good clay game. The whole tour's turning into a hard-surface power-game that's not worth my time.
Later, she couldn't remember why she was drifting past the main entrance of the Longwood Cricket Club; perhaps she was thinking of satisfying her selfish hungers with a smart bargain in Filene's basement. But she was stopped long before she ever got to the trolley station.
As she approached the entrance, she heard a young gofer saying "They're a little busy, but they said there'll be a cab in ten minutes."
"Thank you for doing the call," replied the figure sitting in a welter of overnight-bags, racquet-cases, and equipment satchels. He looked like a collapsed mosquito. But it was the same black hair, the long, beaky axe-blade face with the wide, shy mouth wrapped around the bottom. The eager, alert dark eyes she had watched on the court stared pointedly away from the club-members entering and leaving. He looked shell-shocked, self-conscious, embarrassed.
As she passed, without meaning to, without even thinking, she said "Excuse me, would you mind signing my program?"
The open young face that turned up at her was full of confused astonishment.
"But I have losed!"
"I know," she smiled, digging for her program and a pen. His soft, honest voice almost made her cry. "But you were the one I came to see play. Please?"
"But of course," he said politely. Then, hesitating a moment, he carefully scrawled his name into the bit of white space just below the cover-picture of Mats Wilender, last year's winner, whom he had beaten 6-3, 6-2 in the quarter.
"Thank you so much," she said, meaning for his matches as much as for his signature.
"My pleasure," he said, handing program and pen back up to her. And then, as she reached to take them, a look of recognition burst like a soft sunrise over his features. "Ah, you are the face!" he said, and smiled. "Every match, no matter who watches, I look and see the Longwood face!"
She blushed. "Of course," she explained. "Three years ago I picked you out in the back court because your base-line game was so steady. I was thrilled when you made the semi's."
He smiled, with a little shake of the head. "Six-love, six- love."
"But you had never come so far before!" she insisted. "Of course you were tired. And this year you beat Wilender, and then had that doubles match? I'd be tired, too."
He smiled. "Mats did not play at his best."
"But you did! Mats didn't lose, you beat him! You're going to the net now. I'll bet that surprised him."
He nodded. "I have a new couch. We are working on my game."
"Maybe he should let you enter little tournaments, where you'll have to learn to last through the finals."
He nodded. "That is a very good idea."
Behind her a cab beeped noisily. "Deela Peena?" the cabby shouted.
"I must go," he said, wrestling his gear into the front seat. "I sign for team-tennis in Miami. I did not expect to come so far."
"I was so glad you did!" She extended her hand for a farewell. "Will you be back here next year?"
His smile was a sunburst. "Of course!"
"Then so will I! Goodby!"
As the cab sped off for Logan she was suddenly aware of people around her staring, some in curiosity, some in envy.
She glanced at her watch, and crossed the street between bewildered motorists. She'd have time before tonight's matches to treat herself to a good meal at Legal's. And maybe before that she'd drop into the Booksmith up at the Mall to see if the newest tennis magazine was out yet.
Tonight it would be Oresar against Muster, and they were both good, steady base-line players, just like Duncan. She liked them both and, no matter which one won, it would be an excellent final tomorrow. With Horacio gone and Krickstein gone, and Andre Agassi that poor, lonely little eighteen-year-old gone, she had no favorites left to root for any more.
All she had to do now was relax and enjoy the tennis!
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