Return

His father told him a thousand times, ‘Eye on the ball and hit through it. Return, return, return,’ and no matter how many tennis coaching courses he’d received in the intervening twenty years, Yves’ mind still recalled his earliest paternal instructions.

Yves became world-class, fourth in all of France, and qualified for the finals at Wimbledon where the grass courts and the polite clapping of a crowd, more interested in strawberries and cream than the tennis, gave the impression that it was little more than a game in the park.

‘Concentrate on your footwork and movement,’ said his coach, a former Wimbledon champion. ‘He’s big and not used to the pace of grass.’

Unseeded Yves had been drawn against the world-leading Texan, Chuck Johnson.

Yves had never shaken hands with Johnson before and, as his opponent slouched up to the net with his white cap worn backwards, he seemed to grow and grow until he loomed over Yves. Make him move came to Yves’ mind as he smiled falsely and responded to the American’s proffered fist bump.

A gold coin whirled in the air; Yves won the toss and opted to serve. A small evening crowd settled into the serried rows of seats, like the teeth in a shark’s mouth.

Yves twirled his racquet confidently. It was a pity his father hadn’t been able to travel from France to watch the match on the hallowed lawns of SW19 – Wimbledon was colloquially known by its postcode. The English! Totally bizarre. Yves, nevertheless, felt his presence, knowing he would have loved to have been there.

Boom!

Yves’ serve hurtled across the net.

‘Fifteen love,’ called the umpire wearing a straw hat with a dark green and purple striped band.

Then, ‘First game to Mr Dupont.’

In the second game, the giant’s serves were too fast.

‘One game all.’

The sun dipped below a cloud.

‘Game and first set to Mr Johnson.’ The crowd clapped politely.

Yves resolved to stand closer to receive. It worked. He returned more of the Texan’s serves and the score soon stood at one set apiece, but the Goliath won the third set.

The fourth set started in crepuscular light. Johnson thundered down his serves. Yves blinked in the gloaming as the ball flashed past.

Neither did Yves relent on his serve and at six games all they embarked on a tie-break. He gripped his racquet a little more tightly. The small crowd, which had loyally stayed, sat glued to their seats.

Return, return, return,’ buzzed in his mind. ‘Move, move,’ mouthed his coach from the sidelines. Yves rubbed his aching legs; moving didn’t come without effort and they had been playing for over three hours.

The lights of the electronic scoreboard glowed in the dusk.

‘Two sets all. Play is suspended,’ said the umpire.

David had withstood Goliath’s initial onslaught.

That night Yves phoned his father in Paris.

‘Remember what I taught you. Return, return, return,’ said his father. ‘You’ll overcome him. I’m sure.’

Buoyed by his father’s words, Yves strolled onto court the next day but Johnson resumed his pounding with three aces.

‘Game to love,’ called the umpire.

Yves’ nerves jangled as he tossed the ball into the blue sky. Out!

‘Double fault, love fifteen,’ said the umpire.

Yves moved his angle for his next serve and hit the ball as hard as he could. Ace! The crowd cheered and with his nerves settled, the battle recommenced.

The American continued to thump down his serves.

Return, return, return,’ his father’s overnight encouragement buoyed him against the American’s serve.

An hour ticked by, then two, then three. Serve, return, or out, or into the net. The points were quickly over. Goliath was tiring, yet he still had his deadly serve.

As game to Johnson was matched by game to Dupont, news of the titanic battle spread. People crowded into Wimbledon’s smallest court, oohing and aahing at the vicissitudes of the match.

Yves served for the twentieth time to stay in the match.

‘Advantage Johnson,’ announced the umpire.

Yves had to get his serve in and urged every sinew in his body to swing his racquet with extra venom. Ace! Game saved. 20-20.

Five o’clock became six, then seven, then eight. It was getting dark. Six hours and no let-up. Return, return, return.

Ace followed ace as Yves matched Johnson’s serves. 50-50.

Yves jumped up from his changeover chair, swinging his racquet to show he was ready for another round, like a bare-knuckle boxer.

Return, return, return.

He stood closer to the centre line and Johnson’s service came straight at him. Bam! He returned it with a vicious forehand.

‘Fifteen all.’

Yves summoned one more ounce of energy and the next return, which made the glimmer of hope become a glow.

‘15-30’

Another stunning second return.

‘15-40.’

Almost there but the tall American won the next three points.

‘Johnson leads 51-50, final set,’ said the umpire.

Yves won his serve and jumped up from his chair, noticing the Goliath trudge his position. One more push.

Return, return, return.

He swayed from side to side threateningly, his confidence as high as his adrenaline levels, but the American’s serve crashed down. He was made of steel.

‘Game to Johnson. 52-51.’

The scoreboard glowed in the dimming light.

‘Play is suspended,’ declared the umpire.

Yves was too tired to call his father that night. The next day, Yves resumed with his serve to level the match, but a cool wind blew up and cloud darkened the sun. He shivered as he prepared to return to stay in the match but mysteriously he lost his ability to serve and return. Point after point went to the American.

‘Game, set and match to Johnson. 55-53.’

Yves had lost. Head down and inwardly cursing, he re-entered the locker room. An official took his arm and pulled him to one side. ‘Mr. Dupont,’ he whispered. ‘I have sad news. Your father died in Paris earlier today.’

This story was submitted as an entry to the Mani Lit Fest short story, less than 1000-word, competition. Although not a winner, it was mentioned in despatches: on 17 December 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: