[Over the course of the summer, I will be posting a series of fictional essays on sports. This first one is a multi-part fictional essay on tennis that I crafted earlier in the school year. It is a set of thoughts drawn from the Fitzgerald quote that begins the piece. It is entitled Withdrawal for Personal Circumstances which is a USTA designation, determined by a tournament referee, when a material event arises.
It is a wonderful time in the tennis calendar with the French Open then leading into Wimbledon. For lovers of the game, I am sure you are watching a bunch of long points on the red clay of Roland Garros and, of course, reading everything Jon Wertheim.]
“Only it was too bad and very American that there should be all that waste at the top.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
I bounced the ball four times. Then, with a Herculean grunt, I hit the hardest serve of my life. My feet slapped down on the Har-Tru and I lumbered to the net with the expectation of an easy put-away.
The cupcake return I was expecting was a lob. I scampered back and spiked an overhead. Against almost any player, it was a winner. My brother, Charlie, wasn’t just any player.
Charlie gilded three steps to his right, set his feet and took a Ruthian cut. The ball was hit with such force that I could hear it whistling. I watched helplessly as it landed just inside the baseline and was left to do little more than shake my head.
It was, as always with Charlie, the extraordinary made ordinary. In everything he did, it seemed effortless. He was the A-student who learned a semester of material the night before the test. He was the dream date of every girl offering little more than that crooked smile. He was the Yearbook picture with the caption, “Most Likely to Do Whatever He Wants.”
One summer, Charlie was set on training in Spain. My father protested. The language barrier, he contended, would limit his development. Five weeks later, we watched with amazement as Charlie demonstrated his conversational Spanish with the waiter at Mama Tio’s. Problem solved.
I remember dropping him at the airport. “Charlie, Spain is a long way away,” I said. “Of course, you’re never been scared of anything. “Brother,” he replied, “everyone is haunted by something.”
Several months later, his comment flashed in my head as I sat on the hotel bed listening to my father berate him. Charlie had won his semifinal match, but the shouted tone had the air of a first-round exit.
In my eyes, Charlie had played a gritty semifinal and now it was a fast turn into the final. The last match had not been his best tennis. Nonetheless, he had prevailed. More importantly, the need now was to focus on what was working. As Hemingway once said, it was the chance “to think about what you can do with what there is.”
My father couldn’t get past it. He was mired in the last three hours. “You had almost 50 unforced errors,” he ranted. “The drop shot. The drop shot almost took my life. You were 3-12 on your drop shots. You will never beat King hitting those shots.”
My father looked incredulously at him, “Are you even listening to me?” Yes, Charlie flatly replied. “3-12 on the drop shots. 50 unforced errors.” Then, the conversation was over. Charlie nodded to me, grabbed his racquet bag and headed to the court.
The final was a triumph. There were just a few unforced errors. There were no ill-conceived drop shots. He seemed to know when to attack. He seemed to know when to defend.
For all of the pre-match drama, the message from my father had been sent and received. It was something that people always missed about Charlie. The cool detachment always left them to wonder if he had heard them. The little secret was that Charlie always listened completely, hearing ever word. It was his great gift and perhaps his great curse.
The days when tennis admirably fought for mindshare with the Big Four professional sports may have past, but the game still has its loyalists. The victory earned Charlie a wildcard berth in his first pro tournament and the opinion leaders were abuzz. Wertheim mentioned him in his tennis blog, Mailbag. He also offered a brief commentary on Beyond the Baseline, opining that he was an emergent Bjorn Borg.
The recognition was heady stuff. It seemed reasonable to assume Charlie would show some emotion. He gave little away.
Finally, when we were back in Florida, we found a few moments. We were sitting in a set of Nantucket chairs under the half-light of a setting sun. “How did it feel when you won the final point? It must have been a rush,” I said. My brother replied, “Relief, little brother. Relief.”
I probably knew Charlie as well as anyone in the world. It was, by his standards, a major reveal. He was scared of failing and succeeding. He was grappling with the omnipresence of my father. Dad was ceaselessly pushing and rarely satisfied. He was a catalyst forward and an intolerable constraint.
I wanted to offer up a thousand thoughts, assure him that I understood, offer some smart quip or wise counsel. I defaulted to silence.
My brother finally broke through the quiet. “Nick, I can’t remember who said it, but ‘whenever you feel like criticizing someone, just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages you have had.’”
“I got it, Charlie. Understood.”
We looked out at the water. It was the bluest of blues. Then, the sun set and a memorable day was done.