Double Fault

He started off the morning with a double fault. He knew it was an omen. His shoulder was stiff, his posture awkward. He could detect a grin on the face of his opponent. Contempt? Superiority? Pity? Confidence that the match was already over before it had begun? Something. Annoyed, he served to the other side of the court, a wide angling shot that was barely returned, and yet the crosscourt volley he should have put away went wide. The next lost point was a smashed lob into the net. Then, double fault again.

They switched sides at one-love, then again at three-love. He thought about the horn which had inexplicably stopped working on his new car, the engine noise when he went over 60 miles an hour. He wondered if he had got as good a deal on the car as he originally thought, then dropped another game by playing too tentatively.

Less than a month remained of vacation and he would have to go back to teaching every day. New students, two new teachers in his department, a new director . . . Also, an in-service to prepare, unfamiliar faces, changed hours, and the uncertainty, always, whether the momentum and enthusiasm would be there, whether his new groups would merge with that mutual energy which made the classroom come alive.

Then there was the water pump on the roof of his house which probably needed to be replaced, the loss of several thousand dollars now on his mutual funds, and the landlady raising the rent. So much to think about, so much to worry about. His stomach was hurting him this morning, too. Perhaps amoebas. And the pain in his lower back had returned.

The air was fresh from the rain the night before. The cloud cover kept that court cool and the mourning doves provided a kind of febrile accompaniment. He looked across at the carefully painted lines glistening in the wet. He served carefully, hard, with a sharp slice to the left. Unprepared, his rival returned it wide. His next serve was strong as well, and he was able to return his opponent’s volley with a crosscourt backhand which caught the outside line. He picked up the next two points and the game through his rival’s unforced errors. His own poor play had created a negative momentum which his competitor had fallen into. But that was the high point of the set for him. His opponent easily recovered and, with an ace serve that cut the outside of the center line, ended it 6-1.

He went for water and a towel, thinking about the first summer he had played with any seriousness besides hitting the ball back and forth among friends. He was thirteen, the summer of his eighth-grade year, and his coach was a retired Army officer named Colonel Flack. The colonel was loose and lanky, somewhere between the ages of 55 and 60 but somehow ageless: lean and hard, quick-wristed, able to execute drop shots, slices, and angled returns that sent the boy scurrying this way and that, exhausted at the end of the morning, while the colonel hardly raised a sweat.

Counting back, he was probably as old now as the colonel was then. Funny how he hadn’t thought about him in all those years. The colonel used to tell him, “This is one sport you can play the rest of your life, son. Better than golf, more physically demanding. But like golf, too, in that unless you empty your mind of everything except the game, you lose. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re in good shape, or your strokes are smooth. If you’re not focused, you’ll lose.

The colonel and his mind game. The colonel was always focused. He was single-minded. When he played tennis, he only thought about tennis. There was something simplistic about that, the boy thought then. But now, on this cool July morning, he had begun to question his easy dismissal of the colonel’s advice. Even more frustrating than losing the first set had been the feeling that he was not present in his own life. He took a deep breath and looked around him. The sun had streamed out in fractured rays from the cloud cover. A red-tailed hawk swooped over a nearby field. The bougainvillea, red and violet, was luminescent in the morning light.

He breathed a thank-you to whatever energy suffused the world and stepped back out onto the court, his racket comfortable in his hand, moving in a bouncing step towards the service line.

The next game lasted fifteen minutes with six deuces and a volley that went two dozen strokes. He was focused and intense, and his opponent rose to his level of play. On the final shot, his advantage, the ball coming to his forehand side, he twisted as his opponent moved, and hit a devastating crosscourt backhand which caught his rival off guard as he moved in the other direction anticipating a forehand volley.

They were tied at 5-5 when they finally took another break, had a drink of water, wiped off the sweat and fanned themselves with their hats. They were both playing well, so they said nothing to each other. To compliment would be to jinx, a well-known psychological tactic. Make your opponent self-conscious and he would begin to miss his strokes. Besides, no need to say what you both knew: that you were equals, evenly matched and each playing at the top of their game; that it had gone beyond competition, or of who would win or lose. They were in the game, fully immersed, alive.

Then his opponent’s cell phone went off. He spoke briefly to his secretary, advised her on how to deal with a customer, then said he’d be back in the office in a half hour. They went back onto the court and the play was desultory. In the distance the church bells tolled as if they were in mourning for a lost soul. His opponent began missing easy shots, tried to rush the net too soon, and was easily lobbed. He missed first serves and was tentative with his seconds. The set ended 7-5 and they returned to the bench to pick up their gear.

“Good match,” his opponent said, offering his hand. “We both won a set. Broke even for the morning.”

He smiled as if in agreement. He thought of saying, you lost the last set because of a phone call. But then he’d have to say, I lost the first set because of a broken horn, a noise in my engine, a new class, an in-service.

So, he added nothing. Just made plans to meet again next Friday. Anyway, he had things to attend to: a visit to a mechanic, a call to the school, and what was it his wife had asked him to pick up at the store on this way home?

Michael Hogan is the author of 27 books including The Irish Soldiers of Mexico which was the inspiration for an MGM feature film and two documentaries. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Harvard Review, Story magazine, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. He lives in Guadalajara with the textile artist Lucinda Mayo and their Dutch Shepherd, Lola.

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