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The Trophy Kid
By Pat Flynn, Tom Jellett
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2010 Pat Flynn
All rights reserved.
This is your chance. Take it.
I straighten my strings, blow out a lungful of air, and try to forget the score.
But it's impossible. The score is all that matters in tennis, the signpost that leads to only one of two destinations.
Winning or losing. Glory or failure.
It's like a whisper in my head — 30-40, 30-40, match point! — and my body reacts accordingly, tensing with anticipation as I squat into the ready position.
The nervousness starts deep in my stomach and spreads like a bomb blast — turning my legs to jelly and filling my fuzzy head with thoughts I'd rather not have.
Don't miss. Don't miss. Don't. Miss.
With quick flicks of the wrist, Jett Scott, my opponent, bounces the ball three times. He's just about to toss it into the air and serve when I quickly raise my hand and call out, 'Wait!'
I turn and wipe an imaginary piece of dust from my eye, giving myself a silent lecture. Calm down! I think. Now!
If I can't control my mind then I can't control my muscles. And if I can't control the hundreds of big and little muscles that let me move to the ball and swing at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right way, then I will miss. And if I miss, the score will be tied at deuce and my chance would have come and gone and maybe I won't get another one.
But I can't think of that now. I have to stay in the here and now.
So I start counting. One, two, three, four, five, six.
Again. One, two, three, four, five, six.
This is why you play tennis, I remind myself. One more good shot and the match is yours.
When I turn I'm calmer. More focussed. Ready.
Jett is the same age as me — 13 — but while I'm average height, he's tall as a tree. I expect him to blast his way out of trouble with his flat serve, but instead he goes for the kicker. The change up.
The advantage of the kick-serve is that not only is it more likely to go in, but it dips and 'kicks' to the right — jumping viciously towards the side fence like a Shane Warne wrong-un. But his over-the-left-shoulder ball toss gives it away and I'm moving before he even hits it.
My feet dance out to the ball and as I plant my size 9 left tennis shoe, my hips and shoulders swivel in unison. With a still head and a semi-western grip, I uncoil like a striking snake — swinging quickly but smoothly at the fuzzy yellow Slazenger.
I love that sound. It's the ball springing off the 'sweet spot' — the place on the strings that gives maximum power with minimum effort.
The good thing about being so wide on the court is that it opens up the angle. I use it, smacking the ball cross-court so it jumps away from Jett.
The bad thing about being so wide is I have to hustle back to the centre of the court, which I do using smooth side-skips — staying low to the ground.
Jett must be surprised at how well I hit the return because he's a little slow to react. He chugs out to the ball and ends up reaching for the backhand, slicing it to the middle, short and slow.
My eyes grow big like pancakes and blood courses through my body. It's a surge of adrenalin that comes from knowing that this is my chance and I must take it. It's what I train hours every day to do.
I take fast but controlled steps forwards to the ball, cutting off the time Jett has to recover. With a few small stutter steps at the end for balance, I set myself in a side-on stance, ready to unleash on a backhand.
There are no nerves now. Only the calmness that comes from being totally in the moment. Totally in control. I've hit this shot thousands of times and rarely miss it. Especially when it counts.
I whip it cross-court. Although it comes off sweetly, there's a little too much topspin for the ball to go for a clean winner. Subconsciously, my mind still knows it's match point, and doesn't want to risk a shot that would either win or lose the point outright.
Still, it's not a bad shot. Not bad at all.
Although Jett gets to the ball he can do no more than throw up a defensive lob. I'm waiting just a few metres back from the net, my right arm pointed at the ball like an arrow, my left one cocked in a throwing position -looking like the figure on the trophy that I'm surely about to collect.
The lob is so easy I could practically head-butt it over the net. I could catch it in my mouth and spit it over the net for a winner if I wanted to.
And then a thought comes out of nowhere, popping into my head like a backhander.
You will miss.
It's a funny thing, the mind. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It can be something you know as well as ... well, your own mind, or it can be a complete stranger. I've had some issues, I admit, but under pressure my mind is usually one of my strongest weapons.
I'm so determined to prove myself wrong that I muscle the ball into the open court. I smash it with all the power of a five-year-old, my racket pushing through the ball like a brick rather than cracking it like a whip.
I prove my mind wrong, all right. I don't miss the shot.
I just don't put it away.
To his credit, and my horror, Jett doesn't give up like he could have, but sprints back to the open court on the tiny chance that something like this might happen. When the ball bounces he takes a few more quick steps and flicks his racket like a fly swat — slapping the ball hard down the line.
For some reason I stay glued to the spot, forgetting about all the times I've been yelled at by Granddad to recover to the middle, and I watch the ball rocket past me with a horrified expression on my face.
Go out! I think.
But even before Jett yells, 'Come on!' and the crowd roars like thunder, I know it won't.
I also know deep down in my sinking stomach that, in a split second, I've just blown the match, and can now kiss the state title goodbye.CHAPTER 2
I keep trying. This is a state final, after all.
But that smash was a turning point and turning points are called turning points for a reason.
Because afterwards, Jett seems to grow a foot taller while I feel as big as a baby. I'm struggling to hit the ball over the service line and have no idea where the next winner is coming from, my only hope being that Jett misses.
But he doesn't. Not often enough, anyway. Jett used to make so many mistakes in pressure situations that my doubles partner nicknamed him 'Choker'. In the last few months, though, Jett's improved out of sight. Apparently he's been seeing a sports psychologist who's been working on his mental game.
It's his real game that's worrying me now.
From 6–3, 5–4 up I lose three straight games for the score to be tied at one set all. The third set doesn't start off any better, because soon I'm down 3–0. The backhand that has always been Jett's weakness is killing me, especially the one up the line. I make a minor fightback but am now sitting at the change of ends 5–2 down, my brain a mish-mash of positive and negative thoughts.
I'm about to lose and people won't respect me any more.
Don't say that! I can still come back. I'm the champ!
You had your chance and you blew it.
No. It's never too late. Come on, fight!
I look for an answer in my thick towel, but all I see is darkness. Then I tap myself hard on the head, trying to whack some sense into it.
'Time!' calls the umpire, and I look up to see Jett already waiting at the baseline, pacing around like a caged lion.
To tell you the truth, I'd rather not walk out there and keep playing. While I'm sitting here, sipping on my water bottle and wiping my sweaty brow, I'm safe. It's after the match, after you lose, that the real self-doubt swishes around your belly like water going down a drain and makes you feel like digging a hole and jumping in.
And while I've lost to a lot of older players, I've never been beaten by someone my age or younger. But all that could be about to change.
'Ten seconds,' warns the umpire.
I take one more sip of water and walk out, making sure not to step on any of the lines for luck, and sneak a look at my supporters who are huddled behind the back fence. Dad's jaw is clenched shut and he looks tense as a terrorist, but that's nothing unusual. He gives me three claps and says firmly, 'Fight to the death, Marcus'
I shudder. I'm not a big fan of the 'D' word.
Mum gives a nod and a smile, which makes me feel a little better. But it's Granddad who surprises me. With a wiggle of his finger, he points to the other end and then swings his arm in the tiniest of forehands. Coaching from spectators is highly illegal, of course, and Granddad has never done it before. Still, he knows more about tennis tactics than my coach, and I wouldn't put it past him to try something dodgy. Once when he was younger he spent a night in jail for protesting against the Vietnam War.
Putting what I think he was telling me into practice, I serve wide to Jett's forehand. He dumps it into the middle of the net. My eyebrows raise in surprise as Granddad gives an encouraging clap. I serve to the forehand three more times that game and get two errors and a short return.
You're so stupid, I say to myself as I whack the balls down the other end after holding my serve. You should've figured that out ages ago.
Focus on the now, the good part of my brain thinks. It's better late than never.
Well, it would be, if it wasn't for the fact that Jett's serving for the match and serving out of a tree. He aces me down the middle to go up 15-0.
Next point I hit a lunging backhand return that hits the net-tape and drops onto ... my side.
At 30–0 I hit a return to Jett's backhand which he rips into the tape and the ball drops onto ... my side. Again.
Double far out!
The crowd ooohhs and ahhhs and my heart drops to the soles of my tennis shoes.
As if I needed it, more proof that this isn't my day. Fate or luck or God or whoever you want to call it can be the toughest opponent of all and with three match points against me on Jett's serve, it's telling me that today I'm history.
I shuffle to the backhand side, ready to lose, when Granddad says, 'One point at a time, mate.'
Despite my situation, I grin. It's our favourite saying. You can only win or lose a match one point at a time, and the fact that someone still believes in me makes me feel happier than it should.
At 40–0 Jett serves a double-fault. Thank you, I think.
At 40–15 I make a good return to his forehand and he sprays it three metres long.
My shoulders pull back a little and I stride to the other side of the court. When I'm winning I walk so fast I'm almost jogging.
'One more!' says Dad.
I take a breath and calm my mind, trying to lock all my attention onto the yellow globe that Jett tosses high into the air.
Wanting to finish the match, he hits the big one down the middle and the ball comes off his strings perfectly. I take a quick shuffle step with my right foot and then lunge out as far as I can with my left, pushing forwards to cut off the angle.
At full stretch, I get my strings on the ball but can do no more than float it back to what I now know is his favoured backhand.
Before I can recover, he rips it cross-court to where I was just standing. I'm nowhere near it. All I can do is watch the ball rotate through the air and drop ... right on the line.
My shoulders slump. I've lost.
For the last two years, two words have defined me. They've been under my picture in the newspaper and used time and again to introduce me.
But now, I'm state number one loser.
The umpire opens his mouth and I'm ready to hear, 'Game, set and match', but instead he yells, 'Out!'
Jett has already begun running to the net to shake hands, but this stops him in his tracks. He jerks his head around to the umpire's chair. 'What?'
'The ball was out,' says the umpire.
'No way! It hit the line!'
The umpire holds his pointer finger in the air, making the out signal. 'The score is deuce'
Jett throws his hands in the air. 'But you called it about a half-an-hour late!'
'I was just making sure I saw it properly.'
The crowd buzzes. Jett walks to the net and leans on it with both hands. First, he looks at the spot where the ball bounced, searching for a mark, and then he looks right at me. 'Did you see it?' he asks.
My mouth opens, catching flies.
I saw it, all right.
For a moment I think about overruling the umpire and giving Jett the match. It would be the sporting thing to do.
But then I'd lose.
'It's his call, I say, pointing to the umpire.
'That's not what I asked you,' says Jett. 'I want to know if you saw the ball land'
I shrug and start fiddling with my strings. It's the best I can come up with.
Someone from the crowd yells, 'It was in!'
'Quiet, please,' calls the umpire, his voice not so confident now. 'Please resume play, Mr Scott'
I glance up to see Jett shaking his head at me. I feel bad, but probably not as bad as him.
He walks back to serve and ... double faults.
Next point, he double faults again.
After surviving a near loss, it's hard not to feel lucky. My shots begin to find the lines while Jett's float out. Even the net tape is on my side now.
When I break Jett's serve again with a net-chord winner to take a 6-5 lead, he screams, 'Ripped off!' in the direction of the umpire, which scores him a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. He better book another visit to his sports psychologist.
And before I know it I've got match point. This time I hit a whipping topspin forehand up the line and it's enough. Jett dumps the ball into the net.
'Yes!' I yell, my head buzzing with excitement.
Granddad once told me that winning a tough match is the best high he ever had. 'That's why I've never took drugs. I didn't need them'
I know what he means.
But by the time I reach the net to shake hands, some of the buzz has already worn off. It might be looking at a crushed Jett that does it.
'Bad luck.' I shake his hand firmly, like Granddad taught me, but he also taught me to look my opponent in the eye and I can't bring myself to do that.
'Yeah, thanks a lot,' Jett replies, his voice low and full of hurt.
When I get off the court, Dad pumps my hand in congratulations, Mum gives me a kiss, and Granddad whispers in my ear.
'Every player gets good and bad line calls. The umpire is human too so you did the right thing not to embarrass him. You take the good with the bad. You hear me?
I nod, but feel a bit hollow inside.
Until I remind myself that I'm State Champ.CHAPTER 3
After the match I'm surrounded by well-wishers. Everybody loves a winner.
'I can't believe you snuck out of that one,' says Jimmy, my doubles partner. 'You're like that Copperfield bloke.'
'Yeah?' I say. 'He must be a real good player.'
Jimmy raises his eyebrows and I try not to laugh, but we both end up cracking up.
He slaps my arm and says, 'Anyway, I knew you'd win. You can't lose to a choker.'
Malcolm Fox, Jett's sports psychologist, is waiting to speak to me. I hope he didn't hear what Jimmy just said.
Fox shakes my hand. 'Well done, Marcus. A fantastic effort. You fought super hard out there'
'Thanks,' I say suspiciously.
Maybe he's trying to mess with my mind so Jett can beat me next time?
He looks me right in the eye. 'What I love about tennis is it's a one-on-one battle. There's no one to blame or congratulate but yourself.'
And the umpire, I think, but I don't say anything.
Fox has an American twang that makes him sound like an expert. No wonder Jett's improved so much. 'But all that pressure, he says, 'can get stressful. If you ever want to talk about anything, anything at all, give me a call.'
He hands me his card.
'Thanks,' I say, although there's no way I'll be calling him. Why would I? I'm the champ.
Before the presentation, Mum makes me change out of my sweaty shirt and Dad buys me a chocolate icecream from the canteen. My favourite.
I open it eagerly but pull a funny face after the first bite. 'It tastes weird,' I say. 'Like someone's put metal in it.'
'That's shocking!' says Dad. 'I'll take it back.'
But Granddad clicks his fingers and I hand the ice-block to him. He takes a bite.
'It's fine,' he says.
'No, it isn't.'
Excerpted from The Trophy Kid by Pat Flynn, Tom Jellett. Copyright © 2010 Pat Flynn. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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