The global rankings had been announced the night before and on the day the athletes filed in to the stadium, some floated and some dragged their feet. In their quarters, the athletes had sipped juice until their numbers were called. When they heard their names they would bite onto their straws and imagine the call to their sponsors and parents.
‘I’m the best in the world.’ Or, ‘What’s so great about tennis anyway?’
Anyway, as they entered the stadium the next day, the air had a feeling of full bladders.
Cherry entered the stadium the same as every other athlete. She was number 47 in the world. In the line of athletes she walked between number 26 and number 58, and she felt like she was exactly where she needed to be.
Cherry sat down in the zone designated for athletes. She pulled a bag of popcorn from her racquet bag and started spitting kernels onto the stadium floor. She saw the fluff that had been ripped off of thousands of new balls and thought about starting a fire. Her coach approached her.
‘Cherry I haven’t seen you since the announcement.’
‘Yes,’ she said, still eyeing the fluff.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘If this is about my rank, I feel fine. Number 47 is above number 48 but it is not quite as high as number 46. A lot of good things have happened, I think, by the number 47s of the world.’
Her coach didn’t reply.
‘I’m having a good time,’ she said as a way of comforting him.
‘Yes?’ she replied.
‘You’re putting stress on my heart,’ her coach said.
‘Daniel, I have always had a unique relationship with your heart. Your heart and I have a special bond. Let me work with your heart the way that I need to.’ She put some more popcorn in her mouth.
‘Ok,’ he said.
‘Thankyou,’ she went on. ‘Really. And thankyou for this,’ she kicked her shoes against the floor, ‘it’s a pretty big deal.’
‘You’re welcome,’ said Daniel, sighing. ‘Just don’t cut me out when my heart fails.’ He made to leave and remembered something, ‘Also there is a man here who wants to sponsor you.’
‘Where is he?’ Cherry asked.
‘Right,’ he pointed into the grandstands, ‘there.’ Daniel pointed to a man who was a foot taller than the people around him.
‘He seems tall enough,’ she said.
Daniel paused and looked like he was going to say something before he left with a perfunctory, ‘Good luck.’ Cherry dozed in the hum of the crowd until a young girl with a piece of paper approached with the name of her first opponent and the time of her first match.
Cherry warmed up right there in the dugout. There was a warmup area behind the grandstands, out of view and earshot of the intermittently silent and cheering crowd, though she did not feel like facing the other athletes. When the match came, Cherry carried herself onto the court and stood facing her opponent, tossing it from hand to hand. She hopped from foot to foot. Her first match was against a girl named Elder Marybeau. Elder was a strong looking girl, with thighs like scored eggplants. Cherry made a circle on her side of the net and started spitting in it.
‘Game nine, Elder Marybeau and Cherry Winnard, for points.’ The announcement came and the crowd hushed.
Cherry had the first serve, sending it screaming over the net into a place on the court that Elder apparently did not know about. On the second serve, Elder made a swing but again the part of the court that Cherry aimed at seemed to manifest as the ball came toward it. The match went on that way, with Elder swinging her racquet like a hammer, making connections where she could, though moving more air than anything else. She took her defeat well, a handshake over the net between two wolves.
Cherry took her next match in the same way. Aria Plaid put up more of a fight and by the end Cherry was heaving and happy to embrace Aria for the one point she had conceded for Cherry’s victory. The final match didn’t happen until nightfall.
Cherry was number three in the tournament and Daniel told her that he was full and easy, no matter how she did. Cherry spent the afternoon gathering herself for her match while the crowd milled around the water troughs and picked at toffee apples. This was a battle and she was the front line. Flowers would bloom on the places she fell and fought today.
She walked onto the court, her feet still ready. The sun had set and stadium lights made as many moons around her. The moons orbited as her opponent took the field. It was the other girl’s serve. Cherry didn’t even look the girl in the face as they shook hands before the match started. Cherry felt sorry for her, as if she had done some wrong that Cherry was meant to forgive and never would.
Cherry took her position. She stood at the line, rearing to go, ready to hit, eager to scream. The first serve came up, hit the opponent’s racquet, and sailed past Cherry. The next did the same. Cherry was motionless. After two more balls, the umpires stopped the game and approached Cherry.
‘I’m fine, let me at her,’ Cherry said.
The game started up again, and the murmur of the crowd did not reach full silence as the game began. Cherry’s opponent continued to serve, and Cherry stood completely still. After the first game had been won, the umpires approached her again.
‘Are you sure you are ok? This is your final match of the day,’ they said. ‘The results of this match determine your position in the overall tournament.’
‘Let me in there, I’m gonna mess her up,’ Cherry said.
The game continued. On Cherry’s serve she was thrown a ball and it hit her on the leg. She stood still as a rock in a tide pool. At one point her opponent aimed the ball at Cherry’s racquet, trying to make some sport of it. Despite what the umpires said, Cherry insisted on continuing the match.
‘I’m all over this girl,’ she said.
Cherry remained still. The balls bounced off her. The match went on this way until her opponent had won with no points scored against her. Cherry walked to the centre of the court and presented her hand, wiping the sweat from her brow. Her opponent took Cherry’s hand and shook it hesitantly.
‘Keep it up,’ Cherry said.
Cherry left the stadium after the results had been announced and found a quiet place to lie down in the athletes quarters. Everything that was easy was suddenly everything.
Guy Preston is a psychologist and author from Brisbane, Australia. His work has been featured in 365tomorrows and literary yard. Catch him on twitter (@sleepypreston) or on his website (www.sardonicbreakfast.com).