A Beautiful Game

A short story

I was at the edge of the right side line waiting for a return and just barely heard it. That moron from the South was always telling some filthy thing here at the Club, when as far as I'm. concerned it should be a place to relax in and really get away from things like that. And what better way of getting clear of things than this?

Because tennis is a beautiful game. I had been hitting volleys and smashing lobs up at the net and now was back at the base line, and John and I were just rallying easy. It was a beautiful afternoon there at the Club; God, I loved it, it just gets you—the cool hazy early summertime before the heat sets in and the girls in their white skirts and brown legs and the brotherhood of tennis all mixed into one—like the Olympics, almost, the way it brings people together. A nice reasonable breeze was lifting up the Club's pennant on its pole as I hit one down the middle, and the corner of my eye saw these other things while I played, the pennant and Betty my girl's skirt blowing ever so slightly and Marg and Bill lazing in shorts in the empty stands with their Cokes. John came to the net and I lifted one in the air for him and as lightly as you hit a lob, my new strings sang even then, strung as they were to sixty pounds. I went back for his smash and lofted it up again for him, and while it was up there yelled at Betty and she blew me a kiss, secretly, and John heard me yell and nearly missed his smash.

We'd had about a half hour by then and didn't want to be too tired for tomorrow, so John said, "Let's get something wet, Herbie. I'm pooped."

I've taught George how to make the iced tea at the snack bar behind the dining room. I like it just a certain way, with a spoon and a half of sugar and two slices of lemon and lots of ice, ground up. John already had his Coke from the machine and was sitting in the stands above number-one court while I went back to order. George set down the milk-shake glass he was polishing.

"Hi there, old buddy. Time for my tea."

"Yes sir, Mister Jillson."

"George, let me sign the pad now so I can go back and sit down. I'm bushed. You can bring it out to me."

He pushed the pad at me and I signed and went out into the stands. John and Betty were watching some others who'd moved over to number-one court. "You're warm," Betty said, and put her cool white hand on my forehead while I was looking down at the court, watching a couple squirrels play who couldn't hit anything, thinking how the Club would send me on a tour for sure this summer if I won the junior Singles—and I would, with any luck at all—and right then saw the Negro. Maybe it was him that guy had been talking about on the side lines so near where I was playing.

Before I had time to think about him, George brought out, on a wooden tray, the glass of iced tea and a green plastic cocktail muddler. "You look tired, old buddy," I said. He had kind of a strained look, as if his jacket was too tight on him.

"I been keepin' busy, Mister Jillson."

I hardly heard him, though, looking at the Negro down below. He was in shorts and walking along the bottom row of stands toward one of the far courts. Where did he come from just now? God but his T shirt was white! It was sure strange to see someone like him here, at the Club, aside from the fellows like George, of course. Well, more power to him!

John must have seen my face. "Haven't you seen him before?" he asked. "Boy, where you been? He's in the tournament."

"In the—?"

"Yeah. The committee turned him down last year but had to pass him this time because he's supposed to be good. They had a fight over it among themselves and finally let him in."

"I think it's terrible," Betty said. What she meant I wasn't sure.

He was still walking and went to the green wooden backboard with a white line across it, and he banged some balls against it. He hit some forehands so flat you could have read the label on the ball if you'd been close enough.

"Is he seeded?"

"No," said John. "He's never been in any tournament before. But he's played some other colored guys, I guess, on the park courts in the south end of town and beats them all. He's a fast son of a bitch, you can see that much."

John was right. Way over at the backboard the Negro was hitting the ball at angles to make himself run. It was so far from where we sat that you'd see the ball bounce off and a second later hear the bang on that wooden backboard, and the Negro would run to the ball, hitting it on the run and bang then again, and he was always where he should be when the ball came at him.

I drank my tea slowly and watched him. The tea was getting warm and watery. He couldn't have been older than I was, either, hitting the ball on that backboard, and Jesus he looked terrific way off there; there is nothing nicer than to see someone working out like that.

John was going to say something when that friend of my dad's who'd stood on the side lines, talking, walked behind us just then and said, "I hope that nigger gets his in the first round."

I looked at him close. He was visiting from the South and played tennis like a squirrel. Why don't they grow up down there? He had a gold-colored can of beer in his hand, and this close to him you could see how fat his belly was and how flabby his arms were getting. In the shorts he looked like an enormous baby with diapers on.

"How does that black boy look to you?" asked the fat man.

"Darn good," I said. "More power to him."

He frowned and went off, swigging the beer.

Before my shower I walked downstairs to the lawn where the umbrella tables were set up and two waiters were bringing drinks from the bar outside to the Club members. Everybody but the waiters sat around in white. It was loud down there, lots of talking and laughing while the waiters brought drinks, and for a few minutes I sat on the grass near a table in the shade, away from the half-hazy glare of the sun you couldn't see but only feel. I got up then to go in for a shower and glanced through the fence for a last look at the Negro way off there. That white line cut him in half as he chased a ball.

In the locker room John was getting dressed.

I took my shoes off. "John, that Negro picks a silly way to warm up, that's all I can say."

"What's so silly about it? You mean hitting against the backboard?"

"Yeah. That's not the best way in the world to..."

John stood up, all dressed, and came close to where I was sitting, damn near pushing me off the bench.

"Herbie, wake up," he said. "How else would he get any practice?"

What a day next morning was! I was down early. A slight breeze promised to blow all day and keep the players cool. I love a breezy, cloudy day myself, when the sun isn't closing in on you.

Joe Evans, the Club pro, says on a cool day I'm capable of beating anyone. My match was at nine, and up on the veranda was the big white sheet full of names for the junior Singles. It wasn't taped down tight on the board, and the lower left corner fluttered noisily for a second in the breeze, as behind it and down below on number-three court two of the better men in the state began warming up for their match, their white sweaters on.

"What a day, huh, old buddy?" I said to George on the veranda. He was putting on his jacket.

"It sure is, Mister Jillson."

Just then Mike and his brother Paul came along. They were both entered in the junior Singles.

"Well, men," said Mike, "this is it, huh?"

"Let's do or die," said Paul.

"Let's die," said Mike, "except for the next champion here." "How's the backhand?" asked Paul.

"It was fine yesterday," I said.

"I'm sorry to hear," said Paul.

"Say men," said Mike, "I've figured out what it is I don't have. It's just one thing: stamina."

"It's not stamina you need," I said. "It's just a simple matter of getting everything back."

"No, but look, Herbie—look at all these five-set matches. I was looking at a book last night about the Davis Cup. They say in there that the most famous Davis Cup was in 1938. It was America and Germany. It was two-all in team scores, and the deciding match was a singles between Budge and Baron von Cramm. And it went to two-all in sets—can you imagine the pressure?—and Budge finally took the fifth set with that sun burning down on him. The stamina—that's what did it. He finally took it away from that Nazi."

"What was it," I said, "a grudge match?"

"How should I know?" said Mike.

"It probably was," said Paul. "The damn Nazis and all."

"I doubt if they really hated each other, though," I said. "They'd be above that."

"Maybe," said Mike. "It was nice for Budge that he won, though."

All three of our opponents had shown up. There was mine already down on number-one court, waiting. After the first two minutes of the first set, with him scared and playing so bad he almost screwed up my game, I settled down and went through him in twenty minutes. John, playing later that morning, stayed in too. In the shower at about noon I asked John if the Negro was still in. The Negro had won his match by a default, John said, because Dick Martin, his opponent, refused to play with him.

Marg and Betty and Bill were all in the stands above number-one court, where I went after my shower. They'd all finally gotten out of bed (they lie around all summer) and come down to sit in their usual spot. They just seem to end up there.

"Don't let me forget it today, would you, Betty?" asked Marg. "I'm going to get a tan. I'm determined."

"How about this practically professional tennis player here?" asked Bill. "Is he getting some sun this afternoon? It might break through real good. How about the beach, boy?"

"No sun for me," I said.

John felt good from having won his match. "You better look out for me, Herbie, if I can stay on my game like today."

"You guys are all so buddy-buddy," said Bill. "But you'd cut each other's hearts out for that damn cup. You don't fool me."

Marg turned on the pink portable radio sitting between her and Betty. The five-day forecast was for increasing sun, the morning haze lifting a little earlier each day.

"As long as you guys are winning..." said Bill. "I know how it is with you guys."

Hearing the forecast made me sticky, and anyway I was sick of listening to that squirrel Bill, who'd do just about as well on the court with a baseball bat, so I went inside the clubhouse where it was dark and cool and the waiters were setting the tables for dinner. That friend of my dad's from the South was slouched with a can of beer in a big chair, by another fellow.

"The papers were going to call him a dark horse," he said, chuckling.

Aside from that idiot, though, the next few days were tremendous. My game kept getting better. Even a backhand lob which I usually throw up too short was landing deep and solid in back court. In the round of sixteen, my man hit three smashes in a row down on my backhand, and I lifted each one back till on the fourth, he just swished the air. He was buggy by then. You hit even three of those things in a row, bending your neck and looking up into that sky, and you're ready for the nuthouse. After that he just broke. That whole week was tremendous, with just a bit of wind to keep you cool and the morning matches starting early, the girls in their white short skirts out there too. It was a purification. I beat Paul and then beat one of John's close friends; and then I watched John go down playing the Negro. John got beat just as quick as when I play him. The Negro got to everything, like a backboard. At the net he was a cat, volleying with an easy crispness. It was beautiful to watch him take John, and he went on and on, getting stronger than ever in the last set. His serve had warmed up to the hilt by then, and it came in like a bomb. When he moved around you didn't hear his feet, his shoes didn't scrape or squeak at all; it was unusual for someone his size. But it was seeing them come off the court that made you look close. John was dragging across the court and dripping sweat just like a slug leaving a wet path on the sidewalk, but the goddam Negro just wiped his face once with a towel and looked ready for two sets of doubles.

They passed by me on the way to the shower. I called John to one side.

"John, what happened?"

"Well, the sun wasn't in my eyes, I didn't develop a blister or steel elbow or even get off my game. I just got beat, that's all—just plain got beat."

A tournament is a queer thing, all right. It starts out with so many, and so few in the stands watching, and ends up with so few, but so many in the stands. They had started into the Club that Sunday for the whole last day's activities, the Mixed Doubles finals and all. The Club frowned on it, but some people had brought lunch bags. Everything was clean, and just now the courts were being swept off and the new strip of white canvas across the top of the net on number-one court was being cleaned with a wet cloth. At the same time, two officials were measuring the height of the net and adjusting the center strap.

I had been down at the Club all day because frankly I had been too nervous to sleep late that morning anyway. I stood on the veranda but at the rear of the deck, out of the sun, and watched them adjust the net. There had been no haze at all that morning, and very little breeze. It made me hot just looking down at the court. You couldn't see haze, either, no matter how far out you looked, past even the far courts, over even into the green treetops among the thirty-thousand-dollar homes adjacent to the Club. All you could see in the air were heat waves rising from the courts.

My stomach was all tied up. Thank God it was about time. I took three snow-white balls and went down to number-one court. The Negro hadn't come out yet, and I flopped a towel over the end of the net and threw balls into the air and smashed them to the other side. The crowd was there, all in white, and they were quiet because of the Negro, you could feel it. They had been following the tournament and anticipating that the Negro would be beat out before now. They couldn't really relax and enjoy the tournament as they had in the past. He was kind of ruining their summer.

The Negro came out, and three colored fellows in the stands cheered for him. He hit a few smashes that I lobbed for him, and it was like a dream, the crowd stirring a bit now and the Negro laying smashes down in front of me, each one in almost the same spot at my feet.

The line callers were ready and the Negro won the spin of the racket and as he started to serve I noticed the flag go limp on its pennant as if a lead weight had been tied to the end of it. The breeze stopped dead. There was nothing but him and the sun and a great white splash of crowd in the stands on my right, and that's about all I remember of that set, running back and forth across court as he ran me, and his shots hitting those side lines as if they were two yards wide and no wind.

In the second set I was seeing red balls in front of my eyes from serving into the sun and blinking, and once I called him nigger to myself just to get up my game against him. I studied him once picking up a ball, and wanted to feel that he was as hot as I was under this sun, but he seemed composed, as if the sun could do nothing more to him. I finished the set thinking of that thermos jug during the five-minute break, thinking of something wet going down my throat. I heard the audience clapping a couple of times near the end of the set, I didn't even know who for. The clapping came like a roaring sound and like part of the heat across my ears.

All of a sudden I was leaning my racket against the net—I'd lost the second set too—and was drying my shaking hand on the white towel as the crowd stirred slightly. There was Joe Evans the club pro saying something, but I was only waiting for a ball boy to bring that thermos jug.

"The knees," whispered the pro hoarsely, as I waited there for the jug. "Bend your knees on the backhand."

The boy brought the jug and some paper cups. All I wanted was to open the jug. I kneeled and unscrewed the lid. It was all cool and dark down there. Slivers of ice and pieces of lemon floated darkly around inside.

"Did you hear me?"

I poured, slopping some of it onto the court, and drank half the cup shakily, my arm too tensed up to hold it steadily, as some of the tea trickled down my chin. I slumped then into a deck chair brought out to the side of the court, while the Negro walked around.

I could talk after the first gulp. "Yes, Joe, but he keeps—"

"Yes, but bend your knees. And stand inside the base line on his serve. Try that."

I was drying my neck with the blinding white towel and still holding the empty paper cup. I began to stop Joe as he screwed the lid on the jug and gave it back to the ball boy to take into the clubhouse, but Joe gave me a look and then said, "Did you hear what I said to you?"

In the heat I tried to remember. "Yes, but stand inside?"

"Take his serve on the rise, on the rise."

"But it comes in—"

"Yes, but try it."

The third set was hell, even though I won it. When I came to the net on his serve it felt like no man's land up there even when I made a placement, and suddenly we were into the fourth set and I kept up the net business, with him starting to throw lobs. Up, up they went, way up there, he could lob you to death, and I'd wait for it as it seemed to hang there like a fly ball against the blue sky with the whiteness to my right and my left hand up and shading the flaming sun and slapping that lob, wishing it was him who was bending his neck and looking into the sun, and slapping it once three times in a row and the fourth time into the net. The crowd went wild. After that I was wondering who I was, waiting for his serve that kept getting stronger and beginning to see my backhands hitting the tape instead of clearing, and I thought of the thermos jug again as I ran from side to side and wondered when to go to the net and when not to, my right hand wet and trembling whenever I let go the racket to wipe the grip against my T shirt. All I could think of was to get a drink when this misery was over.

Suddenly there was a great yell and clapping, and I was walking to the side lines with my heart still pounding like drums from the last point and hearing only that and my own breath that was trying to get some air with not a whisper of it near.

The ball boy looked at me meekly in a strange silence of several seconds, and finally I noticed the Negro standing there, his hand out, so I shook it, and the crowd roared to see what good friends we were. This is one of the really fine things about tennis, all right, the way it brings people together—but, God, I was thirsty. I bent down and unscrewed the lid on the thermos jug and finished off the tea. There hadn't been much left. The Negro was kind of still milling around there as if he didn't know where to go or as if he was so amazed to have won he couldn't collect himself just now. There have been unseeded players who have won this thing in the past, though—at least two of them. I started for the shower room and then John and Mr. Evans came up to both of us and started saying what a marvelous game we had both played. The Negro just stood there and took it all in. He was smiling, at me and at everybody.

"For God's sake," I finally said to the three of them, "what am I doing standing out here?"

I had to get out of that sun, all right. I ran up to the veranda, not taking my racket, and inside to the coolness of the clubhouse, back across the dining room all set for dinner, and over to George at the snack bar.

"Some tea for me right now, George. Like you make it."

"But sir, these gentlemen been waiting—"

"Aw, make it for me, old buddy. Come on."

I turned and flopped onto a couch till the tea came on a wooden tray with a green plastic cocktail muddler. I signed the pad as George held it.

"Put the glass right in my hand, George."

Whew! It's a beautiful game, but that tea sure tasted good! There is nothing like sitting inside in the coolness to bring you back to life. And maybe this too is what's so nice about being young—you bounce back so fast. Because already I was thinking what I'd do differently next time I played the Negro, though I knew I'd go on that tour anyway, because they'd never sponsor him. I sipped the rest of the drink slowly and then stretched out, feeling the sweat drying on my body. This was delicious. You can teach George to make awfully good tea.