After Wimbledon Free Sample
© Jennifer Gilby Roberts 2013
Saturday. 2 days until Wimbledon starts
‘British hopes for Wimbledon are on the shoulders of Lucy Bennett, making her 11th appearance at the Championships. Could we see an upset that brings us a British champion? The whole country will be watching to find out.’
No pressure then.
I turn the TV off. ‘I’ve been thinking about the future,’ I say to my boyfriend Joe across the breakfast table in his hotel suite.
‘You mean Wimbledon?’
‘No, I mean after that.’
‘You’re playing at the Swedish Open next, aren’t you?’
‘I mean the distant future.’
This should give you some idea of Joe’s priorities in life. Number 1 is tennis. Number 2 is tennis. And number 3 is – yup, you guessed it – tennis. I think I, his girlfriend of four years, come in at about number 50. Unless we’re in the middle of a Grand Slam, when it’s more like 100.
Believe it or not, that’s why I went out with him in the first place. At 23, those were my priorities as well. Unfortunately, they aren’t anymore.
‘I mean, after I retire from the tour.’
‘That’s years off.’
‘Actually, I was thinking more like this year. After Wimbledon.’
Joe stops chewing and stares at me for several seconds.
‘Why?’ he asks finally, in abject disbelief.
I shrug and stare at my toast. ‘I’m tired of life on the tour. I’m sick of hotel rooms, long-haul flights, eating plans, pressure, constant practice – all of it. My results are down. I wouldn’t even be in Wimbledon this year if I didn’t have a wild card. I know now that I’m never going to win the Championships – I’m just not good enough. I don’t want to play professionally anymore.’
I have thought that so many times over the last year or so, but that’s the first time I’ve said it out loud.
Joe is staring at me, mouth open. I think his cereal actually looks better after a bit of chewing. Mind you, even fresh out of the packet it looks like hamster bedding.
Then he snorts and, blessedly, closes his mouth. ‘You’re joking,’ he states, with the certainty of a man who intends to retire only when he becomes physically incapable of lifting a racquet.
‘No, I’m not,’ I say, starting to grind my teeth and then checking myself. Funny, I never used to do that quite so often.
‘Okay,’ Joe says, and I can tell by his expression that he’s humouring me, ‘what are you going to do after this hypothetical retirement?’
That’s an easy one.
‘Coach,’ I say, suddenly smiling. ‘Teach children to play tennis. One more Bennett at the Club won’t make much difference.’
My local tennis club counts no less than 13 Bennetts among its members, all of them in some way related to me. Mum and Dad pretty much run the place.
‘And, you know, settle down. Marriage… maybe children.’
Joe has stopped eating. In fact, he’s gone absolutely rigid.
Unwisely, I persist. ‘Yes. I don’t mean right this second, obviously. I just mean… you know, in a few years. I’m nearly 28 after all; I have to think about these things.’
He doesn’t unstiffen. I busy myself with some toast and wait, avoiding his gaze.
This isn’t the type of thing we normally talk about. Joe and I have what I think of as an emotionally open relationship. In a traditional open relationship (oxymoron?), you are emotionally intimate only with each other and sleep with anyone you want. In our case, we are sexually exclusive but have our deep and meaningful conversations with other people.
That is, assuming Joe has any at all.
‘I don’t think I’m the marrying kind,’ he says finally. ‘I mean, what we have is cool. Why spoil it with all that extra responsibility and shit? Besides, I’m only 25. That’s far too young.’
‘Right,’ I say, after a pause. ‘That’s fine. You’re right, I guess.’
‘What?’ He’s tensed again.
‘Hypothetically, if you decided you did want a family, would it be while you were still playing?’
He snorts. ‘Fuck, no. Kids wreck your game, everyone knows that.’
‘That’s what I thought.’
Joe will play until his body gives out. 35 at least. And when he’s 35, I’ll be 38.
I guess that’s not necessarily too late. People do it.
He might get injured or sick or just decide he’s had enough and retire earlier.
He might not.
It might be too late.
‘Anyway,’ I say. ‘I’ve decided. I’m retiring. As soon as Wimbledon is over.’
Five minutes ago I was still wondering and yet suddenly I feel so certain.
Joe regards me for another minute, then snorts again. ‘You just wait. The second you set foot in the grounds of the All England Club, you’ll change your mind.’
There’s nothing quite like a supportive boyfriend.
A morning practice session finished and I shower and then take a walk around the Club. It has an official title of course, but to me it’s just the Club. I grew up here. The first Club logo put on a babygro was for me.
I wander between the two rows of courts, looking at everything and nothing. The Tennis Tots are out, some of them only marginally bigger than a full-size racquet, taking their first steps towards stardom. The Meringues are on Court Six, playing doubles against the Taylors. They spy me and wave. I wave back. Everyone knows me here. Besides being a Bennett, I’m the most successful professional player the Club has ever produced.
A solitary figure on Court 12 stops practising serves and raises a hand in greeting. I blink once and then wave back. I will never get used to seeing Sam here.
Three years ago, Sam bought a house a mile away and started showing up at the Club to practice. Nothing so very exciting about that. Except that, one, like me he’s a pro. Two, he’s from New Zealand. And three, he’s the world number one. Frankly, I’m amazed he got any practising done back then, since he had to sign autographs for everyone here (including me, I confess). And for the sudden influx of new members.
At least I didn’t ask him to sign my chest like Mrs. Potting did.
For the record, Mrs. Potting is 72.
Actually, we weren’t the only ones getting excited. A lot of people were hoping he’d come over to play for Great Britain like Greg Rusedski did and actually win us the Wimbledon title (adopted Brit is better than nothing). Unfortunately, he didn’t and since then he’s won two more for New Zealand. Worse still, he was so nice about it that we all had to like him anyway.
There’s one other significant fact about Sam Pennington. For the past two years, the number one ranking has ricocheted back and forth between him and his arch-rival – the current world number two. And that would be… Joe Harker, my boyfriend. Most of the men get on well off court, but for some reason those two just don’t.
I go over to say hi. What Joe doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
‘Hi, Lucy,’ Sam says, coming to meet me. ‘I saw you out on court. All ready for Wimbledon?’
‘As I’ll ever be,’ I say cheerfully, this being my standard reply these days. I take in his chopped blond hair, blue eyes, trim physique and famous smile. ‘How’s the shoulder injury?’
‘Fine. How’s the ankle?’
Show me a tennis player without an injury and I’ll show you a liar.
‘Another title for you?’ I ask.
‘I’m healthy and playing well, but I’ll have to wait and see – play my best and hope.’
He sounds like he’s at a press conference.
‘What about you?’
‘You never know, maybe this’ll be my year!’ I give him my perky press smile. Then suddenly I hate myself. I can’t wait for the day when I never have to use it again.
‘I’m retiring,’ I blurt out. ‘This is my last tournament.’
Sam looks surprised, as well he might. I don’t generally announce my future plans to him in casual conversation. Or at all.
Then I freeze. What if he tells Mum? I can’t tell her yet, I need to ply her with wine first. And possibly a couple of tranquillisers.
‘I haven’t told anyone yet,’ I add hurriedly. ‘I only just decided. Please keep it a secret.’
What do I think; he’s going to yell it across the courts?
Sam smiles at me, a different kind of smile. ‘How about I keep your secret if you keep mine?’
What if he’s finally decided to take British citizenship? Or maybe he’s secretly gay. Or maybe he’s on some new drug that doesn’t show up on the tests.
What am I thinking? He wouldn’t exactly tell me if he were.
He regards me steadily. ‘I’m retiring after Wimbledon too.’
I stare at him. He can’t be serious.
‘But you’re good! You’re number one! I was reading this article just the other day about how strong you still are. You’re only just 30; you could have years left! And lots more titles.’
‘I might say the same thing to you,’ he says, calm in the face of a stunned Bennett. ‘And yes, I could keep playing, but I’ve decided not to. I’ve had enough of life on the tour and I want to settle down and have a normal life. I’m planning to teach children to play; help get the next generation started. Here actually, if they’ll let me.’
Sam Pennington is going to come and coach at the Club? We’ll be famous! And I’ll see him every day.
‘I’m pretty sure they’ll let you.’
They’ll probably rename the Club after him. And throw a street party. And put a statue of him in the lobby.
He’ll be my co-coach. And I’ll see him every day.
‘Well, that’s great,’ I say, blinking at him. ‘It’ll be great to have you. At the Club, I mean. Um… actually that was my plan too.’
Sam smiles. ‘I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of each other then.’
‘I guess so,’ I say, trying to sound nonchalant.
I have to confess that before Sam started coming here I had a small crush on him. All right, quite a large crush. When he and his long-term girlfriend split last year, I confess to a few heart flutters even though I was with Joe. But I’m completely over that now.
‘Joe will be thrilled,’ I say, looking down at my feet in case he can see me blush.
‘About you or me?’
For a moment, I hear ‘you and me’. Then I give myself a mental shake. I have a boyfriend and it’s not him. I have no business thinking things like that.
‘About you, of course,’ I say, attempting a light laugh. It doesn’t work. ‘He doesn’t care about me.’
A second later, I realise what I’ve said.
‘I mean…’ I stop. Actually, I have a horrible feeling that that’s exactly what I meant, even though I didn’t mean to say it. As my Aunt Gladys always says, the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
Will Joe actually care if I leave the tour? Will we stay together without it when our homes are on separate continents? Do I actually want to stay with him? Why has this aspect of retirement not crossed my mind until now?
‘I mean…as a player,’ I say lamely, ‘because I’m not competition.’
Sam is looking at me with that steady gaze. I have a feeling that his mind is working furiously though, the way it obviously does on court. Ever heard the expression ‘still waters run deep’? This man is a case in point.
‘Of course,’ he says at length. ‘But as a girlfriend, I’m sure any man lucky enough to have you would miss you terribly if you were no longer there.’
I look up, startled. For a moment, I almost think he’s flirting with me. Then I laugh at myself. As if! He’s gorgeous, his career winnings figure looks like a Euro millions rollover jackpot and he’s famous for being an all around nice guy. Plus his ex-girlfriend was an absolute stunner. He is way out of my league.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you how I go about applying to become a coach here.’
‘Oh,’ I say, giving myself a mental slap. ‘Well, you’re supposed to write to the committee expressing interest and stating your credentials. Although, in your case, I think all you need to say is, “I want to coach here.”‘
Sam smiles. ‘I like to do things properly. Who do I address it to?’
‘Mum,’ I say, then feel stupid. ‘I mean, Mrs. Margaret Bennett OBE – don’t forget that part – Chairman etc.’
‘Anyway,’ I say hurriedly, before I can blurt out any more uncomfortable truths. ‘I have to run off. I’m meeting someone. My cousin. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. See you later.’
I jog off towards the clubhouse before he can answer. When I get to the edge of the courts, I sneak a quick look back. He’s looking after me. I look away again and walk off to Maddy’s.
Maddy is actually my third cousin twice removed (something like that anyway). We also went to the same school, went everywhere together outside of class (she’s five years older than me) and had our first taste of alcohol behind the same shed. She is therefore classed as both family and friend. I’m still not clear on whether I chose her or not.
‘Hello, darling,’ Maddy says, ushering me in. ‘What a lovely surprise. You’re just in time for some of my fruit flan.’
‘I’ll have to pass,’ I say quickly. ‘Got to be strict about the diet until Wimbledon is over.’
I pull my shoes off and go through to the living room, feeling a tiny bit guilty. The entire Bennett family uses diets of some kind to get out of eating Maddy’s cooking, which is… experimental, shall we say? If you’ve ever seen The Vicar of Dibley, think Letitia Cropley and you’ll be halfway there.
What will it be like to be able to eat anything I want? Maybe I’ll try getting fat.
Maddy brings in a couple of glasses and a jug of water with slices of fruit floating in it.
‘Tomato! What an original idea.’
Maddy nods enthusiastically and sits down across from me, setting the tray on the designer coffee table. Every room in her house looks like it’s straight out of Ideal Home.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Maddy says, spinning her rings around her fingers. She’s finally taken off her wedding ring. ‘I’ve made a decision.’
Maddy likes to announce her decisions. This is regardless of whether they are momentous (‘I’ve decided to marry/divorce Robert’) or rather less so (‘I’ve decided to switch brands of toilet paper’). She gives no clues in advance where on the scale the current decision falls.
‘Okay.’ I sip my water. You know, the tomato really isn’t that bad.
‘I’ve decided to start dating again.’
‘Good for you.’ It’s been six months since her divorce came through and I never liked Robert much anyway.
‘And I have my first one tonight.’
‘Can you help me pick out an outfit?’
She’s asking me for fashion advice? You might as well have Trinny and Susannah do the Wimbledon commentary.
‘Details, Maddy! Who is he? What’s his name? When did he ask you?’
She looks self-conscious. ‘Actually, I asked him. I’ve never done it before, but I wanted to get to know him and I don’t often see him, so I took a chance. It’s that player at your club. Sam something.’
Maddy… and Sam?
‘We’re going out for dinner. Will you help me?’
Help her look gorgeous for a date with Sam. Can’t think of anything I’d like more. Other than, you know, taking a bath in liquid nitrogen.
Stop it; I shouldn’t be so selfish. She needs my support. And it’s only a drink. She’s not going to end up marrying him.
Christ, she could end up marrying him. I could have to wear a cream puff dress and be her bridesmaid. Then I’d have to see them and their cute little kids at family get-togethers.
My imagination is running away with me. And what do I care? It’s just a silly crush – hero worship – which I’m going to get over any day now. I mean, it’s not as if I’m in love with him or anything.
‘Of course I will,’ I murmur. ‘That’s… great.’
‘What’s the matter?’ she asks anxiously. ‘Don’t you think I’m his type?’
Maddy is tall, blond, slender and elegant. Now I think about it, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam’s ex. So I guess she must be.
I still don’t know why they broke up. No one seems to (except presumably them). They were together for four years and she came to all the tournaments. Then, at Roland Garros last year, out of the blue he turned up without her and when asked just said they’d split up. Wouldn’t give any details, even though fans, journalists and players alike were crazy to know what happened. So either he’s a really private person or it was really, really messy. I suppose we’ll never know.
I want to say ‘forget it, he’s mine’. But he isn’t. And I have a boyfriend.
What kind of tennis player starts a relationship right before Wimbledon anyway?
Clearly, one who’s about to retire.
‘I’m sure you are,’ I say, forcing a smile and trying to sound cheery. ‘Of course I’ll help.’
The things I do for family.
Having duly plied Mum and Dad with wine (early, I know), I attempt to break the news of my retirement over lunch.
However, Wimbledon begins on Monday and my parents are die-hard tennis fans. A full pre-tournament analysis is under way.
‘It’ll be Sam versus Joe in the final,’ my mother declares, heaping salad onto Dad’s plate. ‘They’re both so strong on grass.’
‘I don’t know,’ Dad says thoughtfully. ‘Joe could face Deschenes in the third round and they’ve got a pretty even record on grass. But it depends if Baer’s shoulder holds up, because if it does he might well take out Deschenes in the second round and Joe’s…what, 5-1 against him?’
‘Yes, but that’s all on hard and clay. They’ve never met on grass before and Baer would definitely have the edge. But even so, I think Joe will go through. And Sam too, so long as Trenkov isn’t having one of his flashes of brilliance when they meet in the quarters. But that’s only a worry if he gets through Trinkett in the third, which isn’t likely and…’
Normally, I’d join in. I love tennis, I always have done. Playing, practising, teaching, watching – all of it. But right now, I wish we could talk about something else. I want to get up and yell, ‘There’s more to life than tennis!’
Mind you, in this house it would be like standing up in a Bible study group and shouting, ‘God doesn’t exist!’
I study my parents across the table, still debating what ifs about the next fortnight. Both, as ever, dressed head-to-toe in sports gear. Both tall, slim and remarkably fit for their ages. Mum is pretty much an older version of me. Same bushy brown hair, same grey eyes, same harmless-looking face. We’re the kind of people who always get asked for directions and who weirdos sit next to on the bus. Mum, however, can freeze you with a look if you’re annoying her. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit that gene. Dad is the looker of the family. I think he looks a bit like Harrison Ford.
Mum played professionally between 16 and 22. Dad was her coach for three years, her boyfriend for one and ultimately her downfall when he got her pregnant with me. They retired gracefully, got married, moved back here and quietly took over the running of the Club.
It is possible to keep playing with a family, although even now it’s rare on the WTA tour. It’s just really hard work and my grandparents were dead against it.
I sometimes wonder if they wish I’d never been born. After all, if they really wanted children they’d have had another, surely?
‘Guess what,’ I say, when the discussion pauses momentarily, ‘I’ve decided to retire after Wimbledon.’
It’s as if I’ve pressed the pause button on my life. A spoonful of soup is halfway to my dad’s mouth, which is open. Soup drips from it onto the tablecloth. Mum is poised to pick up the wine bottle, hand grasping thin air.
The grandfather clock in the hall starts chiming the hour. I count the chimes and then check my watch. Only wrong by two hours and thirty-eight minutes, a new record. One of these days we’ll actually get it fixed.
Mum unfreezes first and grabs the bottle. Hands shaking just a little, she pours two glasses and then sets it down again on the Andre Agassi coaster. She takes a deep breath and looks calmly at me. I start picking at my nails. I know that face. It’s her ‘stupid umpire’ face. It means she’s trying not to lose it.
‘Why?’ she asks. Dad puts down his spoon and looks expectant.
She sounds just like Joe. Why is this so shocking? I’ve been living out of a suitcase for most of the last 12 years. I go to the airport as often as everyone else goes to the supermarket. I want to get off this treadmill. Why is that so hard to understand?
‘Because I’ve had enough of life on the tour and I’m ready to settle down,’ I say, twisting my hands under the table.
Mum and Dad exchange glances.
‘Are you pregnant?’ Mum asks.
‘No,’ I say crossly. ‘I’m not.’
Why do they assume this decision has been forced?
‘But you and Joe are thinking about getting married and starting a family, right?’ Dad prompts.
‘Me and Joe? Of course not! We’re not going to do that. I don’t want to marry him.’
What is wrong with my tongue? It keeps saying things I don’t mean it to. Terrible things. True things.
I don’t want to marry Joe. I don’t even want him to come back with me. When my tennis career ends, so will our relationship. We got together because we were both married to tennis and now tennis and I are divorcing (amicably, we’ll remain good friends), there’s no reason to stay together.
I don’t love him. Our relationship is based entirely on sex and tennis. We’re what…fuck buddies? Except we’re not even really friends. It’s virtually a business arrangement.
Christ, what does that make me then?
My parents are now giving me funny looks and I realise that I must have directed my look of horror their way.
‘I don’t know quite what’s happening there,’ I say diplomatically. ‘But I’m coming home for good and Joe’s staying on the tour. I’d like to coach at the Club. And maybe join the committee. Or something.’
Mum and Dad look at each other again. I suspect doctors in mental asylums must exchange similar glances.
‘Lucy,’ Mum says finally, ‘I don’t think you’ve thought this through. You still have a few more good years in you. Chances to win the Wimbledon title. You shouldn’t waste them.’
For one moment, I slip back into fantasy and imagine lifting the Rosewater Dish. Then I shake my head and climb out. As fantastic as it would be, it’s not going to happen. I have too much wear and tear and not enough talent.
‘I’ve thought it through,’ I say, even though I’m now wondering whether I have. ‘I’m ready to bow out of the race. Maybe I’ll help train a future champion instead.’
Dad picks up his spoon again. ‘I think you’d be wise to reconsider,’ he says. ‘As much as we’d love to have you at the Club, that will still be there a few years from now. Tennis careers are over quickly enough without cutting them short.’
‘Mum cut hers short,’ I retort. ‘And that turned out all right.’
The silence that follows lasts a fraction too long.
‘Of course,’ Mum says crisply, ‘but I didn’t have a choice and you do. I wouldn’t like you to make a decision that you later come to regret.’
She takes a sip of wine, looking hard at me. ‘Promise me you’ll give it some more thought before you make a final decision.’
This isn’t going well. The only person I’ve told who isn’t convinced that I’m making a terrible mistake is Sam.
Maybe he was just too polite to say so. Or, more likely, he doesn’t actually care what I do. I mean, why would he?
Or maybe he’s the only one who understands.