Ronald bounced the Nassau hard-court tennis-ball twice, loosening the clinging loam from the fibres of the yellow cover. Then rocking back on his heels, as the club professional had shown him, he threw the ball up, bringing his racquet back, up and then down behind his arched back in a single smooth motion. As the ball reached its apex, hung there momentarily, he brought the racquet through in one easy action, connecting with the ball just as it began to fall. The whole sequence had been flowing, and had taken but a few seconds.
The strings impacted on the ball at a slight angle, a small slice, but with all the power he could muster... all the power he brought through from the tips of his toes to his legs, to his back and shoulders, to his arm and wrist. He was two paces towards the service line "T" before the ball even cleared the net. He knew it was a great serve... well, as great as a fifty-year-old weekend social player could get them.
The ball landed in the forehand service court, bounced low, and angled off beyond the reach of the Neil's swinging racquet.
"Ace!" Ronald yelled. "Fifteen-love." As he returned to the base-line he muttered to himself, Got you, you bastard.
Neil retrieved the ball and returned it with a careless slap of his racquet. As it rolled under the net towards the server's end, he called out to Ronald, "Hey, matey, you're fired up, today."
Too right, I am, matey, thought Ronald. "Come on," he said, "let's get on with it, eh?"
He steadied himself, rocked back, tossed the ball to a perfect height and just marginally forwards. The racquet struck the ball sweetly. The ball landed deep into the backhand corner and kicked sharply in towards Neil's body. But he was ready for it, racquet well back in early preparation, already moving before the ball bounced. He drove into it with a tightly controlled backhand, propelling the ball unswervingly down the sideline past the in-rushing Ronald. The ball skimmed the sideline about a foot in from the base-line.
"Fifteen-all, I believe," called a smiling Neil.
Bastard! Ronald walked back beyond the baseline and plucked the tennis ball from its wedged perch in the chain-link fence. He trudged back to his serving position.
Neil bounced gently on the balls of his feet, relaxed, and occasionally shaking his legs to loosen the thigh and calf muscles. He eyed Ronald warily. What's got into him today?
Ronald prepared himself for his next serve, deciding on the type of service, and the placement and speed he thought best. For months he and Neil had played their weekly match; all very friendly, of course... as it should be between friends of such long standing.
They had known each since their schooldays, and although they had gone their different ways, Neil into the Army as a career officer, Ronald into construction, they had maintained contact over the years and the miles that at times separated them.
Ronald served. The ball captured by the net about four inches below the tape. Fault. He served again.
The game progressed, and with grim determination Ronald managed to hold his service, taking the first game to fifteen.
As they passed each other at the net changing ends, Neil smiled at Ronald, "How's Pamela?"
You should bloody know, thought Ronald grimly. "She's alright," he growled curtly.
"Boy, are you in a mood today," Neil said lightly, as he took the offered tennis balls from Ronald.
"Come on, are we going to play or what?" Ronald stomped towards the other end of the court, glancing up at the house in time to see the curtain at the overlooking living room window quickly fall back into its place. "Come on, let's play."
Neil steadied himself, then served. Flat, medium pace.... just feeling his way with his first service game. Ronald returned it with a slight topspin, deep to Neil's forehand. Neil had it well covered and sent it back low over the net, straight down the line, two feet from the sideline, two feet from the baseline. But Ronald had stayed on the baseline and had already moved to the centre... covering Neil's return, his backhand shot was hard and deep across court.
Neil was there. His backhand was also across court, and again Ronald's return backhand shot was hard and deep. Neil played it plumb down Ronald's forehand line. Ronald scampered across, the sweat beginning to trickle into his eyes.... he caught a glimpse of Neil moving quickly into the net, and lunged towards the ball. He gathered the ball up low after it's bounce and lobbed it over Neil's reach. Neil turned, began to scurry back to chase the shot... too late. It bounced just inside the baseline, beyond Neil's reach.
Ronald puffed, and between gasps, called, "Love-fifteen." He wiped the sweat from his eyes, and bent with hands resting on his knees sucking in air. This was hard work.
"Hey!" Neil yelled as his snatched up the ball. "You better slow down, matey... you're not as young as you used to be!"
Not as young! Bastard! I'll show you! And her!
He glanced up at the house... again the curtain dropped. She was watching.
Neil served again, and the game continued. A tough game for Ronald, lots of rallies, lots of running, scampering, sweating, grunting. He lost it, Neil won his service game. One game-all.
Both men were close to the net on the last point, and Neil held out the second ball on his extended racquet for Ronald. A gentleman player. Ronald snatched at the ball, glaring at Neil.
"What is it with you today, Ronnie boy?" Neil asked.
Ronnie-boy! I hate that... you know I've always hated that! "Yeah, what is it with you and Pam?" he muttered, turning his back.
Neil just caught the words as Ronald stomped back to the service line. "So that's it?" he called after the retreating figure. "Hey, do you want to talk about it?"
"No, I don't want to talk about it. I want to play tennis!" And I want to beat your arse!
Ronald wiped his palm on his shorts, then rubbed his hand gently on the loam surface, just enough dust on the palm, and ran his hand along the racquet grip. He brushed more sweat from his forehead with his shoulder and sleeve of his shirt. He breathed deeply, bounced on the balls of feet a few times. He knew he was already tiring, but he was determined.
He slipped one ball into his pocket, bounced the other a couple of times, stared down to court towards his opponent, who returned his glare with a slight shake of the head, and a puzzled look. Neil then nodded his head, and crouched low, shifting continuously on the balls of his feet. Ronald nodded back. One short curt nod.... threw the ball up and served.
Hard, fast, flat. Neil swung at it as it passed him by, then called, "Long!"
"Long? What do you mean, long? It was good!" Ronald argued.
"It was long.... look, here's the mark." He shoved his racquet towards a scuffmark in the loam, about three inches outside the service box.
"Bullshit!" Ronald exploded as he marched right up to the net. "That's an old mark. It was good."
"Oh, come on matey. It was long.... but look, let's play two on it, eh? Start again."
"Play two?!" Ronald was getting red in the face, the colour brighter than the blush of exertion that was glistening under the sweat. "You're cheating me! That's what it is, you're cheating me.... you and Pam! You're both cheating on me!"
"Look, matey. I think we'd better talk."
"Talk? I thought you were here to play tennis? The serve was good. It's fifteen-love."
Neil sighed, "Okay, have it your way. Fifteen-love. Let's play." He turned and jogged to the backhand receiver's court. Ronald returned to the service line.
Serve... return of service... return forehand... volley... well picked-up, return lob... overhead smash... fifteen-all.
Serve... fault... serve... backhand return... nice approach shot... into the net... thirty-fifteen.
Serve... let, play two... serve... ace... forty-fifteen. Serve... forehand across court... run, scamper, lunge, forehand down the line, wipe sweat... backhand low, clipped the net, dropping short... run, puff, don't give up, reach, well-got, ease back over net, watch it bounce twice before he can get to it... game! Breathe deep, rub stitch in right side, listen to blood thumping in your head... change ends... beat the bastard!
Ronald abruptly brushed past Neil as they passed each other at the net-post. Neil studied Ronald closely, and tried to lay a brotherly hand on his shoulder. "Say, Ron, I think we should get this out in the open... "
"It is out in the open! You've been screwing my wife... do you two take me for an idiot?"
"Hey, I know what you're thinking... but it wasn't like that. You know Pam was my girl before you married her!"
"Yeah, that was twenty-five years ago... and you ran off and left her!"
"I didn't run off... I was in the army, they sent me overseas... remember Vietnam? Remember the marches you used to go to?" Neil's voice was getting louder, veins were beginning to stand out on his temple. "Bloody hell, Ron, I was fighting for my country... and you, you stole my girl while I was doing it!"
"You left her. I picked up the pieces... I love her, damn it! She's my wife... and just because you decide to come back... "
"Come on, Ronnie-boy, don't be like that... it's--"
"Don't Ronnie-boy, me! Come on, bastard, let's play tennis!"
"Look, Ron, I don't know what you're trying to prove... keep this up, and you're going to kill yourself."
"I'm just as fit as you! I might be a bit overweight, but I can still beat you, soldier-boy. Your serve... or aren't you game enough?" Ronald stamped away, leaving Neil slowly shaking his head. He shrugged, picked the balls that Ronald had carelessly dropped near the net-post, and turned towards his service end.
Without another word passing between the two old friends they played out the next game... Neil easily retaining his service, Ronald sweating profusely, his breathing ragged. Two games-all.
Ronald fought hard on his service game... four deuces before he could claim it. He led three games to two. They changed ends again.
"Sure, you don't want a rest, Ron?" Neil asked anxiously. "You're not looking too good."
"No!" Ronald hissed through clenched teeth. "I don't want to rest."
"That's your problem, matey... you never want to rest! Work hard, play hard. No wonder Pam--"
"Listen, matey, I work hard to give Pam everything she wants... Look around you! Look at all this... the house, I built it, well, my company built it... the pool, this tennis court... it's all because of me, soldier-boy. You've gone off playing your little war-games, I've worked my butt off, and Pam should be bloody grateful for everything I've given her."
"Given her? Bullshit, Ron, you think she cares about all this? What about time? Have you given her that? Care and compassion? What about that, eh? Love?"
"I love her! She's my wife!"
"Yeah, you think you own her, like you own those skyscrapers in town, all that construction equipment, all those guys that work for you! Bullshit! You don't own Pam."
"She's my wife, bastard... end of story. Now are you going to serve or what!"
Ronald strode to his receiving position. He tried to bounce a little on the balls of his feet, but finding that now to be too much of an effort, settled for a slight shuffling of his feet, stirring up little swirls of dust from the dry loam surface.
Neil walked quickly to the service line, bent to touch his toes, and then stretched his back, raising his arms to loosen any tightening muscles. He stared hard down the court at Ronald, whose gaze was fixed up beyond Neil at the house. Neil turned to follow Ronald's scrutiny, only to catch a glimpse of a familiar face in the window before the curtain was dropped. He turned back, bounced the ball, and served.
Down the centre, deep into the T-corner. Ronald's backhand return flawless in it's control, long, strong and deep to Neil's forehand... Ronald followed up his shot, coming in close to the net to gain dominance... Neil's attempted passing shot was not wide enough of Ronald's reflexive stretched forehand... a perfect stop volley... the ball digging into the loam just over the net. Love-fifteen. Neil served again... long... fault... second serve... into the net... double-fault. Love-thirty. Next serve... short, slice, moving away to Ronald's right... scuttle across... reach... connect... poor shot, but at least returned... Neil up onto the short ball... too much power, his shot is long over the baseline... out! Love-forty. Got you now you bastard!
Neil served... on the sweet spot, strong, fast, flat... ace! Fifteen-forty. Served again... rally... on and on... Ronald gasping, blowing, sweating, running, hurting... Neil's point. Neil hauled him in over the next point, Ronald on the edge of exhaustion, but doggedly chasing down every ball... Neil's point... Deuce. Again... advantage server. Again... game. Three games-all.
The blood thumped in Ronald's head like the concussion of a bass-drum... boom... boom-boom... boom. The sweat was a river down his forehead, his shirt soaked around the collar, down his back. His legs heavy. His muscles aching. His determination, his stubbornness, stronger than ever. He avoided eye-contact, head-down... ignored the face at the window... served!
Somehow, someway, he won his service game, and on the change was ahead four games to three. Both men failed to acknowledge each as they passed at the net-post, Ronald pausing briefly to grab his towel from the sideline bench seat. He wiped the towel quickly across his face and neck, and threw it contemptuously across the back of the seat and trudged leadenly to the baseline.
Neil served. Ronald slapped at the ball, returning it weakly for Neil to easily put away. Fifteen-love. Come on, don't let the bastard get you now! Neil's next serve clipped the net, flicking the ball wide of the service box... fault. Second serve... long... double-fault. The respite gave Ronald the opportunity to suck in more air... his breathing was becoming a little easier. Second wind! Now, let's get the bastard!
Serve... return... back again... long rally... Ronald's point. Serve... fault... serve... double fault. Again Ronald's point. Serve... great return, sweet shot across court, right at his feet, a winner. Ronald's game. He had broken Neil's service, the breakthrough, and now led five games to three. Got ya!
Ronald tossed the ball high, and bringing his racquet through its arc smoothly and surely, connected flawlessly with the yellow cloth covered tennis ball.... an impeccable execution of the classic service stroke. With strong, sure strides, he followed the ball's flight into the net, the ball clearing the net by bare millimetres to land accurately within the service court, beautifully placed to angle away from Neil's forehand. Ronald jiggled expectantly a racquet-and-a-bit's distance from the net, crouched in the model net-player's stance, ready to volley a winner from Neil's return of service. This he did effortlessly. Fifteen-love. He could feel the set going his way; he was on his way to a convincing win. Take that, bastard!
He served to the backhand receiver's court... again, an exemplary service. But Neil was ready this time, and returned across court with a perfectly timed backhand. Ronald scurried to his left, and bending his knees low pulled through an equally good backhand shot, angled this time squarely down the forehand sideline. Neil was there. His forehand answer, with a respectable amount of topspin, powered towards the deep forehand corner at Ronald's end of the court. Ronald darted across, racquet back slightly behind him, he timed his footwork so that his left foot was foremost, his shoulders parallel to the sideline, slight pause... perfectly balanced, racquet through... great shot, straight down the sideline. Neil was there. He answered with a slightly floating backhand that sailed high over the net heading across court to Ronald's backhand. Ronald dashed across... sweat again beginning to trickle into his eyes, his breath becoming more laboured, the second wind expiring... his backhand down the line not as strong, but sweetly placed. Neil was there. Bastard! Neil's forehand return was again across court. Ronald struggled to get across in time... he was late, slowing down, stretched, lunged desperately at the ball... slipping on the dry loam, his feet gave way under him. He fell awkwardly. Shit! Fifteen-all.
He painfully managed to get back on his feet as Neil called to him, "Hey, matey, you alright? Do you still want to keep going?"
Ronald brushed the dust from his knees, wincing at the touch on the large graze, "Of course, I'm bloody alright." He limped back to the baseline, retrieved the ball and prepared to serve. He paused, wiped the sweat from his brow, bent, then straightened, then re-bent his leg, easing the stiffness from the drying abrasion, took a deep ragged breath and served.
Fault. Served again... double fault. Fifteen-thirty. It was becoming difficult to even lift the racquet above his head, the weight of the graphite racquet now feeling equal to that of a heavy duty truck battery, the kind he used to lift so easily in and out of his first old battered dump truck... years ago when Pam was young. He glanced around furtively, but there was no movement at the window. Was she still there? Was she still watching? Bitch! He gathered up the balls, and staggered to the baseline.
Rock on the feet, toe... heel, toss the ball, racquet through, grunt, connect, send the ball hurtling over the net... a missile hitting its target... a hand-grenade blowing apart the opposition. Ace! Thirty-each. Take that, soldier-boy... this is war!
He served again... good. Neil returned... Ronald hobbled, scampered, got it... return... Neil was there... bloody Neil was always there... back again... run, groan, hurt, breathe, breathe, blood thumping inside your head, return... Neil was there, again!... eye on the ball, racquet back, clobber the damn ball... pain in chest, stitch? Ignore it, be ready for Neil's return, run... run... got it! Forehand cross-court winner! Phew! Forty-thirty... set point! Got ya!
Ronald dragged himself back to his service position, rubbing the stitch under his left rib-cage, the strange tingle running down his left arm, sweat streaming down his forehead, his chest back, arms, trickling down his leg, pooling around his grazed knee... huffing, sucking gulps of air, pain.
He tossed the ball high, it lingered in the still air, hanging there waiting for Ronald's racquet to come crashing through to propel it towards the service court. The ball was captured by the protective net. Fault.
Ronald took the second ball from his pocket, tossed it, hit it, grunted... and fell gasping to the ground. The pain in his chest now incredible in it's intensity, nothing else existed... nothing in this whole world... no tennis, no Neil, no Pamela... it was all pain.
His breathing dragged to a shuddering halt, his eyes closing, the world dimming... his sweat dripped into the dry loam; dark, moist pools in the desert.
Distantly he could make out the shape of the tennis ball as it continued its flight... slow... everything was so slow... time slowing down... he watched the ball, fascinated as it hit the net, fell to the ground and began to roll, roll so slowly back towards him.
His brain sent one last message: Double fault. Bastard!
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