“Do you believe this?” Lizzie hit her racket against her heels and looked over at her doubles partner, Dave, her eyes flashing. Jack Archer was complaining of leg cramps and had called for the trainer. “Getting a leg massage right here on court when he’s down 6–3 in the deciding set tiebreaker! The next thing you know he’s going to take off his shirt and demand a full-body massage!” Just then, as though Jack had heard Lizzie, he pulled his shirt up to reveal his six-pack abs.
“Jack, I want to have your baby,” a female voice yelled from the crowd.
“Jack, I want to be your baby,” shouted another.
Lizzie shook her head. “Unbelievable!” Before she could get the word out, Jack’s shirt was off and lying alongside him as he leaned back slowly in the chair. The trainer smiled up at Jack, working his fingers farther up Jack’s thigh.
Jack’s thighs were famous in the tennis world. He had appeared in ESPN magazine’s Body Issue three times. He had even appeared in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue with one of his former girlfriends, who was a model. The editors of the magazine thought the photo so sexy they had chosen it for the cover. Even the trainer seemed to appreciate Jack’s thighs as he kneaded his fingers up toward the edge of Jack’s shorts. Jack leaned back and let his legs fall open. But the edge of Jack’s shorts remained stiff, as though at attention, and did not follow the direction of Jack’s flesh—revealing wide-open spaces between the stiff cotton material and his flesh. It was as though the air in that pocket of space between cotton and thigh were of a different quality. The trainer seemed to suffer from it, as his hands moved closer toward the great divide. It was as though he had ventured to a high elevation and was being deprived of oxygen.
“I suppose, Sam, we should be using this time to comment on the status of the match,” Mattie Frank said from the broadcasting booth. “But I can’t help wondering if this crowd wouldn’t prefer that we comment on the status of Jack’s thighs.”
“I must admit this is somewhat unorthodox” Sam Peppers replied.
“What is going on here? What can they be talking about?” Lizzie was fuming. She grabbed the bottle of Gatorade that Dave handed to her as she watched Jack chatting in a friendly manner with the trainer. The trainer looked up at Jack adoringly. Jack threw back his head and laughed.
“Jack, let me show you what you can do with those pearly whites!” came another female voice from the crowd.
“He does appear to be enjoying himself just a little too much,” Dave said.
Christina came up behind Jack. She was Jack’s doubles partner and latest girlfriend. She put one carefully manicured hand on his shoulder and leaned down and whispered something in his ear. His eyes sparkled. She turned quickly, her silken blonde ponytail falling over her small shoulders. She strutted back to her bag along the sideline, the diamond tennis bracelet dancing on her wrist with the sway of her slim hips. When she bent over to pull out a new racket from her bag, Jack couldn’t help but admire the shape of her long legs.
Everybody loved Christina. Those emerald-green eyes, the long golden mane, the heart- shaped face, and those pale freckles that deepened in color when her cheeks spent too much time in the sun would have charmed a rock.
Sam Peppers swore he could see whiskers sprout from those freckles and twitch just before Christina finished off her opponent. She was five feet eleven but moved well and covered the court with ease. The Goddess of Tennis, as she was often referred to in the press, had been born in Minsk but had lived and trained in Florida since the age of seven. Her story was the stuff of a Hollywood film. Her father had come to the States with only Christina and $900 in his pocket. Her mother had to be left behind because they couldn’t afford a third plane ticket. Christina and her father showed up uninvited and unannounced at Zacharov’s tennis academy in Florida. It took weeks of prodding, but they finally convinced a member of the staff to watch her play. And that was it. She won her first slam at the age of eighteen. Since then, she had won five more. Now here she was, four years later—number one, a darling of the press—making more money in endorsements than any other tennis player in history—male or female.
“You know what Christina said when asked by a reporter about Jack’s thighs, Sam?” Mattie asked, smiling. “She said they should be made illegal.”
Sam chuckled. “I suppose she would know. There she is with him in the most recent ESPN Body Issue.”
They flashed the image of Jack and Christina locked in an embrace on the television screen for the at-home viewing audience. That photo confirmed for Sam what he’d been saying about Jack for the past couple of years—that he had his mind on things other than tennis.
Jack had won his first ATP title at the age of nineteen. The tennis world expected great things from him. But he never made good on that promise because he spent too much time on pursuits other than tennis. As Jack was fond of saying, like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell from the movie Top Gun, he had “a need for speed.” And he might have added—danger. Jack had a pilot’s license. He’d flown in a B-1 bomber jet twice. He went rock climbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, and he liked fast cars. Occasionally he even raced on the amateur circuit. As a result, he sprained his ankles, knees, and wrists, fractured both his ankle and shinbone, and suffered countless cuts, scrapes, and bruises. But as for any injuries to the heart, Jack seemed to walk away from romantic entanglements virtually unscathed, with only the reputation of a playboy to mark him, leaving the press to speculate about the women who had become casualties to his charm.
His square jaw and powerful physique made his good looks manly and rugged, but his insouciant smile and playful blue eyes gave him the kind of boyish charm that worked with both women and men. He was working that charm right now on the trainer who kneeled before him and touched his thigh as though it were the thigh of David, Michelangelo’s glorious statue come to life right here on court.
Lizzie watched the trainer’s fingers as they worked their way skillfully up Jack’s muscular loin. Who does that man think he is? That he should stop the match over a cramp? Look at him! The arrogance! She could feel the adrenaline surging through her body. She would use that adrenaline on the very next point. She was convinced that her heart was racing because of her desire to win this match. Yet she couldn’t help herself from staring at that gap between Jack’s shorts and his thigh. The trainer’s fingers were right at the brink of the divide. Just as the fingers slipped beyond the edge, Lizzie blinked and then gasped. She saw Jack staring back at her. She quickly turned away.
Jack was used to being admired by the female sex. Hell, he was used to being admired by the male sex too. But he wasn’t used to seeing a woman blush like that. He watched her pacing back and forth, hitting her heel with her racket. Her tennis outfit was plain and traditional. It wasn’t fashionable, like Christina’s. There was something about its simplicity that Jack liked. The stiffness of the cotton and the straight lines of the cut couldn’t hide the woman underneath. Not to a trained eye like Jack’s. She was athletic, but she didn’t have the boyish adolescent figure that so many of the top women players in tennis had. At five feet seven she was short when compared to the Amazons who made up the top ten in women’s tennis. Her body was more voluptuous. Danger, Jack thought, curves up ahead. The only angles Jack could see were in her face, which Jack found himself admiring. When she blushed, the contrast of her light complexion and her dark hair was that much more vivid. He caught her eyes flashing at him just before she turned away. But he couldn’t tell whether they were gray or blue. Why didn’t she look back at him? he wondered. No matter, he thought. Suddenly he felt the need for speed. It was time to finish this match and finish it quick.
“Dave and Lizzie, the clear underdogs, have come from behind. They’ve got momentum on their side,” Mattie Frank said as the players walked back out on court.
“Maybe not after this time out.”
“I wonder, Sam. Do you think that grueling loss Jack suffered in his singles match before this one took a toll?”
“It might have. But in my day, cramps were something you suffered through. It’s not an injury. It’s fitness. And fitness is part of the game. What’s going to happen when Jack gets to the Grand Slams? The Australian Open is going to begin in a few weeks. Cramps mean a lack of fitness. A player at this level ought to be able to play through them.”
“I wonder if he thought this match was going to be a little too easy. I don’t think he expected this level of tennis from Dave and Lizzie.”
“They’ve definitely made it a match. Now we’ll see if they can close it out.”
Jack approached the baseline, bouncing the ball with his racket. He looked over at Christina. She nodded. Dave and Lizzie stood on the other side of the court, waiting. The sun began to dip in the sky, casting a shadow across the court. Jack walked up to the service line and bounced the ball a few more times before he threw it up into the air. When the ball came back down, he slammed it with his racket. The ball went flying toward the corner pocket of the service box and looked unhittable, but Dave managed to get it back. It barely skimmed over the net. It dropped with Jack positioned well behind it on the baseline. Sam Peppers was just about to say, “What a return,” when Jack ran forward. He extended his racket along with his body as though they were of the same piece and sent the ball spinning to hit the back of the line, just out of Lizzie’s reach.
“What a return of a return!” said Sam.
“I think it’s fair to say Jack’s no longer suffering from leg cramps.”
The score was 6–4. It was Jack’s serve again. He took the second ball out of his pocket and bounced it. He brought it up to his racket before he threw it up and swung his racket around. Smack! The ball sped like a bolt of yellow lightning right into Dave’s body.
The score was 6–5. The applause was deafening. Lizzie felt her head begin to pound with each shout from the crowd. Jack! Jack! Jack! It was Lizzie’s serve. Concentrate, she told herself. One more point and this would be the biggest win of her career—her first title. She kept her eyes on the ball as she bounced it in front of her. She felt her breathing move in tandem with the ball and tried to put the noise out of her mind. One. Two. Three. Three bounces of the ball—no more. Like many athletes, Lizzie was superstitious. She threw the ball up, swung her racket around, and hit the ball just outside the line.
“She’s going for too much,” Sam said.
“This kind of thing happens all the time with players who are new to being in this kind of situation. The nerves get to them.”
Lizzie tried to put the fault behind her. She would not double fault. Three bounces of the ball, she said to herself, no more. One. Two. Three. She hit the ball into the net.
“Double fault,” the announcer said. They were tied at six games apiece. “Players change sides, please.”
Lizzie looked straight ahead. Let that point go, she told herself. They were still in it. She still had one more serve. She kept telling herself to focus; at the same time she was reminding her eyes to remain unfocused. Her vision revealed only a patchwork of color. Forget that a slightly fleshy tone in that patchwork might be Jack or Christina going the other direction. She wouldn’t look at either of them. Not even at Dave, who must have been somewhere behind her. Just get to the other side of the net. Three bounces. Get your serve in and then stay in the point.
When she got to the baseline, she turned to receive the two balls the ball boy threw in her direction. With both in hand, she kept telling herself that she would need only one. If only she could believe it. She picked what looked like the firmer of the two and put the other in her pocket. Three bounces. She took a deep breath, staring down at her feet for a moment.
“This could be the deciding point of the match,” Sam said.
The ball felt too light. Her racket was like a wing as she swung it behind her. It felt as though she had thrown the racket from her hand and it was only her arm that was coming around as the spinning yellow ball flashing in the sun came back down, growing larger as it drew nearer. Slam! The ball sped toward Christina. She hesitated a moment, thinking it was going out. It hit the outside line, but Christina had the biggest wingspan in the business. She lunged with her long legs and threw her racket out, striking the ball back over the net to Dave’s forehand. He pounded it back to the baseline, but Jack was there. He hit an elegant one-handed backhand that bounced up, almost hitting Lizzie in the face. Using her racket as a shield, she caught the ball squarely in the center of her racket. When the ball sprang from her racket, it looked as though it would dive into the net. But then the ball seemed to catch a vector, and it took a deceptive turn. It dipped just over the net and angled toward the outside of the line. Yes, Lizzie thought! That’s it! Christina was at the net on the other side and Jack was too far back to get to it. She had gotten a point off of her serve. One more point, she thought. One more. And then the unexpected happened. Before Lizzie could realize what had happened, something yellow, like a flash of bottled sunlight, spun past her. She turned and watched it hit the green asphalt and bounce away.
“How did he get to that ball?” Sam cried.
“He was well behind the baseline. We’ll have to watch the replay. I could almost swear the ball bounced a second time before he got to it.”
“What do you suppose was in that oil the trainer was rubbing on Jack’s leg, Maggie?”
“Are you suggesting it was a bit of snake oil, Sam?”
Lizzie was stunned. She could hear the loud cheering of the crowd, but it sounded far away. She felt something on her shoulder. It was Dave’s hand.
“Come on, it’s not over yet,” he said.
Lizzie realized then that for the first time in the tiebreak they were behind. One more point, and they would lose. It wasn’t over. Not yet.
It was Christina’s serve. Lizzie stood back at the baseline, waiting. Dave and Jack were at net. Christina’s hair glimmered in the sun. She threw her ponytail back over her shoulder, revealing her long, gold mesh Elsa Peretti earrings. Lizzie readied herself. Christina tossed the ball in the air but let it drop right in front of her. “Sorry, mate,” she said. The crowd laughed. She bounced the ball again. She pulled up as though she were getting ready to toss the ball. Lizzie bent forward, swaying left and right but Christina suddenly straightened herself to bounce the ball some more. When she finally brought the ball to the strings of the racket, she fixed her emerald eyes on Lizzie. Sam Peppers couldn’t help but think he saw those whiskers twitching from her freckles, which seemed to dance coyly as the sunlight hit them. She lifted her pert chin into the air, swung her racket around, and threw the ball into the air.
Christina’s serve was in, but it wasn’t so fast or so powerful that Lizzie couldn’t return it. Lizzie hit a forehand she had meant to go deep but Jack was able to catch it at net with a backhand slice. Dave returned it over the net, and Christina pounded it back with her famous two-handed backhand. It looked as though it would go deep, and Lizzie stood ready for it. But Christina’s backhand could be deceptive. It dipped past Dave. Lizzie ran for it, sliding into the splits on the hard court as she extended her racket and reached for the ball, only to watch it bounce in front of her just outside the edge of her racket. It was over. Before Lizzie knew what had happened, Dave was by her side, helping her back up. Lizzie felt a snapping sensation in her thigh but ignored it.
“Are you okay? That looked like it hurt.”
“I’m fine. I’m just sorry I couldn’t get to it.”
Lizzie looked over the net. Christina jumped into Jack’s open arms. He swung her round, and she arched her back as though they were a pair of figure skaters performing a spin. The cameras captured the moment and sent it out to the four corners of the world. The press couldn’t say enough about the stunning couple and about Christina’s beauty, which seemed almost blinding as Jack swung her round and round. Even Sam Peppers couldn’t contain himself. Borrowing a line from the song “I Feel Pretty” from the musical West Side Story, he said, “She is oh so pretty. Who wouldn’t pity any girl who isn’t her tonight?”