Saturday night at the World. For once, most of the fashionably-dressed and fine-looking women in this ritzy hotel’s lobby don’t come from an escort service.
One of the summer’s hot tickets. Browsing the crowd, I recognize the television personalities, the city’s well-connected, the athletes and per- formers of other stripes, long-legged and high-heeled, heads shaved and Samson-haired, promenading towards the ballroom. They have no eyes for us as we stalk them. Probably the way the peasantry gaped at royalty outside the castle walls as it pranced across the drawbridge, so that a herdsman or tinker might contrive importance by relating, over and over, how he’d seen the princes and princesses, the dukes and their ladies.
They pass us by: the dispatcher near the lobby’s revolving doors with a standing growth of walkie-talkies and a mound of vehicle keys in front of him, the drivers in sponsor-supplied sporty uniforms—this year, white with tiger claw slashes of red, topped by a white cap whose corresponding red gash resembles a head wound—the photo identification credentials dangling from our necks betraying us as the hired help.
Not hired exactly because in exchange for the clothes, a meal at the end of each shift and various other freebies, we’ve volunteered to drive, for the duration of the tennis tournament, the moneyed, the famous, the stars.
It’s the weekend before the Monday start to the competition, though the players forced to qualify for the main draw spent today swearing and fist- pumping in front of sparse spectators.
The grandest stars, the supernovas—to avoid being mobbed but much to the regret of the organizers—have absented themselves from tonight’s schmooze. A casual survey among us has determined that Markus Linke, Nico de Wilde and Aita Palmet are definitely not here. But the top four male and female players are coddled with their own dedicated drivers who cater solely to their desires from immediately after breakfast to just before bedtime, and so they may have slipped through our collective radar.
We’re nearly a dozen drivers, sitting behind an unbroken string of long tables pushed together alongside a wall and tableclothed with white pa- per. We’ll have little to do until the partying shuts down. The tournament puts up the majority of the tennis players in this upscale lodging. We won’t likely see them again until morning when they head to the stadium complex to practice, but there are still notables and the lesser lights to drive elsewhere.
And so, our only assignment at the moment is to gawk.
At our feet, concealed from the parading celebrities by the white paper draped to the floor, lie countless mesh bags tagged with player names, stuffed with sweaty shorts, socks, tops and underwear from today’s matches and practice sessions, awaiting the company contracted to launder the articles to pick them up.
The annual extravaganza, the days of wine, roses and glitter are upon us. You bet.
I only recognized Kwanboon Thongtip when he got into the van—a qualifier rated beyond 150 in the rankings and therefore invisible and unwor- thy of a car according to the dispatchers’ code—because I’d caught a bit of his match on an outside court while capping off another irresistible meal of meat balls and bean salad with a macaroon square.
Having groundstroked his way through lower-tier events, Thongtip’s been promoted to do battle with the big boys. But after a triumphant first set, a dubious line call, some poor shot selection, an onset of nerves and a crucial ball that nicked the net and fell back on his side, there he slouches, eliminated.
Maybe a thousand dollars richer, he’s back on the carousel, his free accommodation expiring tonight, more unknown airports ahead and a welter of upcoming tournaments to choose from. Losing is all in a day and he’s neither sullen nor discouraged, willing to chat, a rarity among the more exalted stars.
His English is a site under construction, but I can understand enough of it without taking my attention from the traffic. The difference between his former category and the major leagues is “concentration.” He pronounces it—as much to himself—as a gentle reprimand, a talisman. The way a muscle can be worked and sculpted, ‘concentrate’ has been exercised into his frontal lobe although he is too poor to afford a fulltime coach and has too little fame to attract one who will drill out his faults.
But he has game which, in the long run, may still amount to failure. The major perks—hotel suites, upgraded transportation, never-ending gifts, prize money, endorsements and flattery—won’t soon fall into his lap.
“Fight every point,” he says. “Points not easy.”
He’s onto something there. That’s an element of the stars’ allure, isn’t it? They weren’t parachuted in. Thongtip’s father could be the King of Siam and it wouldn’t matter. If you’re the president’s twitty son, you don’t start in the warehouse forklifting skids. From the first day you step out of the company elevator to do your apprenticeship, the boardroom is just an- other floor up. But if you were the tournament director’s daughter and had no forehand, the closest you’d get to Centre Court would be the box seats. Within those white lines, benefactors and nepotism hold no currency. Points not easy. Nico de Wilde has earned number one. Nobody handed it to him. There’s plenty of societal and philosophical prattle, but sports—despite its soul in hock to commerce—is the only true meritocracy.
For lunch today in the volunteers’ cafeteria, Baseline—which more or less describes the gastronomical heights it attains—drowned spaghetti revived with a chemical, mystery meat sauce. The salad looked nourish- ing—cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, carrots and celery—but it ran out before the volunteers did and they brought in straight lettuce. In compensation, we were allowed a second lemon tart. The food is seldom poisoned or rotten but I can’t praise it more than that. Hard to decide which is worse: the peculiar flavours or the stingy portions ladled out by sour-puckered volunteers who’ve already eaten the stuff.
Loreta Fallini and Flavia Bonacci are rocking. Ranked in the fifties, they’re usually fodder for the likes of Aita Palmet, stepping stones for the eventual finalists. But they’ve both won their singles and have teamed up to take the doubles match, too. Still alive with a fatter payday coming.
They’re singing, swaying, chattering, the car suspension bopping to their peppy spirits. How about sushi tonight? We had it last night. No, that was Chinese.
They’re late for a hotel rendezvous and can I speed up? I know how to accelerate, you mad joybirds, but I also know better than to be fined and lose license points for the sake of your fleeting insanity.
Come on, just a kilometer or two faster. Is there somewhere they can stop for ice cream? Have I ever been to Venice?
Most afternoons, a lull sets in. All the players are at the complex—playing, practising, or preparing for, recovering from those court exertions. The dispatchers gab among themselves. The idle drivers stand or sit under the canopy and beside the red carpet that runs from our segregated drop-off zone, past the dispatchers’ counter and into the bowels of the sta- dium’s Pass Control. We nod off, read novels and newspapers, do crosswords, annoy friends on our cellphones, give the match on TV the once-over. On the board listing our names in order of the next assignment, I’m eleventh. A female newcomer as addled by the heat and lethargy as myself pulls up one of the plastic chairs.
“I’m Jana. I followed you out of the airport yesterday. That place is a maze. I’d never have gotten off those cloverleafs on my own.”
“You been at it long?”
“I play a little, used to come to the matches with friends. My wife suggested I expand my horizons. Seven years later, I’m still expanding.” “Your wife regret the advice?”
“Her parents have a hobby farm. They keep bees. When I’m done here, I join them and Diego. My son. You?”
“My daughter tried out to be a ball girl. When they called, I figured since I had to drive her here and pick her up, I might as well volunteer, too.” “Smart choice. Beats selling programs or serving slop in the cafeteria. If you’d applied for Centre Court, you’d be roasting slowly in the sun. Here, you’re autonomous, nobody looking over your shoulder. The stars are in your hands. They even talk to you every blue moon.”
Turns out Jana’s a translator of Slavic languages. The rest of us include managers, stockbrokers, medical students, many successful in our fields, yet we come back to bow and scrape. It’s falsely obvious why we do it. Everybody plays it cool but we’re here, year after year, driving millionaires to their jobs when we could be assisting the lonely and bedridden, taking cancer patients to their chemotherapy. Hell, some of us are probably carrying cancers of our own.
Some pretexts are more convincing than others. There’s the tourna- ment pass that allows us to watch unlimited tennis. There’s the hope of an interesting shift with sociable strangers. For the younger bunch, it’s a lark, a chance to drive top-notch cars years before they can afford them or to rub elbows with overachievers of their own generation. For the retirees, it’s the novelty that gets them out of the house. For two weeks, they re-enter a hap- pening world. A small segment has been doing it for decades. Several walk around with twenty-five-year pins. One oldster sports a prehistoric, sunken scar that runs down one leg from the bottom of his navy shorts to the top of his white sock but begins and ends who knows where.
The tour officials, chair umpires, and well-known media types we transport are quite forthcoming on the rides, as keen to communicate as we are, but they’re not the stars. When people find out about my pursuit, there’s no guessing who they mean with their invariable questions: “Who’ve you driven?” or “What’s she like?”
“Any hotshots so far?”
“Ah, Mr. Abbott. I drove him the summer before he blew those three Grand Slams in a row. Used to be a snob.”
“Not anymore. I took him to the airport to meet his wife. Two-hour delay, so we sat in the car in the holding area. He was really nice. Then when his daughters saw him, it was, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.’ Really sweet to his wife, too. Said he’d make her a cup of hot tea at the hotel to help her get over the jetlag.”
Anybody doubt Jana will be back next summer?
Thursday’s juicy morsel is that the Grenon cousins, Richard and Arnaud, the second-rated doubles team, asked, angelically it seems, if this babe in Hospitality would care to take part in a threesome. Apparently, she snubbed them. Imagine that.
Maureen Silas is walking among the tables in Baseline, checking cheerfulness levels. She’s the assistant to the tournament director in charge of the hundreds of volunteers, a smile-addicted rubber band of young wom- anhood, always wrapped around some public relations mission.
Every July, at the dreaded drivers’ orientation meeting, she fires up the troops. The distribution of the clothing and passes is withheld till the end to ensure the audience stays captive. She pounds her jolly palms as she introduces sponsors and guests and cheerleads us to do likewise. About half take the bait.
But first up is the national sales manager of the luxury vehicles we drive. He swoons into a sensual litany of the new lavish features. The seats can be moulded to fit every bloated curve of our bodies. The onboard computer retains our DNA and will miraculously reset our preferred temperature and music as we hop aboard. Why, the car practically drives itself. If I could just remember which buttons, gizmos and doodads to fiddle with in the correct sequence, I could launch the sedan model like a space shuttle.
I get the sense he’s trying to sell us the models as much as explain them. He polishes that metal and leather from a sort of trance that just about hypnotizes us, too. But he preaches too long with his powerpoint and raptures and Willie, an older driver, finally stomps the mystical nonsense by raising his hand and asking, “How do I pop the trunk?”
When Maureen rises—as much as her stunted height permits—to deliver the rousing send-off, the room is still with anguish. Her spiel reminds us of the players and their outstanding accomplishments, as if we’ve spent the intervening twelve months in an ashram and couldn’t tell them apart from our garbage collectors.
“Remember, you are their first contact with the tournament. Be polite. They’re on the road for long stretches and this is their home while they’re here. Make it their home away from home!” It brings us to our knees, weeping. You’d think she was referring to orphans instead of globetrotters with coaches, parents, lovers, entourages and adoring fans on demand. “You are their first impression. You can’t make a first impression twice. Impres- sions count for everything.”
“Everything” stands for no autograph-seeking. No photos. Don’t initiate conversations; speak only when spoken to by the kings and queens of the court. We’re merely fleshy humanoids with severed vocal chords, like the horses in a corrida. Be neat in appearance and courteous on the walkie- talkies. Wear only the sponsored outfits. Clear any special requests with the dispatchers.
As Maureen continues meandering around the Baseline tables, paus- ing to take the pulse of men and women, ball boys and girls intent on eating, she passes in front of the large whiteboard that’s regularly updated with announcements. The tournament is scarcely at its midpoint but, in addition to tonight’s forgettable supper menu and the names of volunteers looking to car pool, someone has written—perhaps Maureen herself on a stepladder—“If you have a problem, see Maureen; she’s here to help. Don’t go away unhappy. Please stay positive.”
It’s the “please” that would have me worried about the true state of affairs.
Jerzy Gierada’s underdog third consecutive victory guarantees he’ll break into the top hundred. If his father’s Polish-accented pride swells any further, I’ll have to roll back the sunroof.
From the passenger seat, he extols the tournament and its kindnesses to his family sitting behind me: Jerzy, his younger sister and his godfather coach. Jerzy has been dialing a series of friends and is now trying to contact a brother in Milwaukee. I always keep one ear swiveled tailwards to overhear the snarls and pick up on the endearing tenderness towards children and spouses.
My masochistic strain throbs at Mr. Gierada’s gratitude. I can’t resist any longer. “How’s the food in the players’ lounge?”
“The food! Prawns, grilled salmon, two chefs preparing pasta any style you like. Everything except kolbassa.”
I brake more sharply than I need to for the red light. Tapping my fingers on the wheel, I listen to Jerzy’s voice bubble up: “Yeah, I’m playing de Wilde in the next round…I’m not kidding, de Wilde…look, it’s gonna be on TV…de Wilde. Really.”
At Arrivals, I await Mrs. Sanchez’s flight from Barcelona. I hold up the oversize sign with the tournament logo for an eternity outside the Customs doors. I’ve purposely left my cap in the car but a man of my age in these giveaway duds makes me feel like the butler I am. Or as my wife enjoys hooting, “We do our own stints but we are all part of a greater farce.”
Naturally, people stare. A number of them approach me to inquire which high and mighty is about to materialize through the doors and yes, yes, be there, right there, in their midst.
I spot the probable Mrs. Sanchez before she spies me in the collage of welcoming faces. She’s elegant in her designer pant suit and stylish bolero jacket, a controlled flair with a sideglance of perfume. She’s not entirely at ease, maybe realizing she’s misjudged the North American temperature. A thoughtful mouth but she handles English like it might cut her. I address her in Spanish and it irons away her tension into educated speech.
Her suitcase has rollers. I let her pull it while I shoulder the carry-on. Having caught rush hour near its peak, it means an hour plus to reach the hotel.
She’s taken by such a high-end automobile having automatic trans- mission. In Europe, manual is the norm. Although her daughter Sophie has played this tournament before, it’s her first visit and she has genuine curiosity about the city’s attractions and ethnic mix, its reputation and flaws. I recom- mend a Spanish restaurant that will bolster the city’s image and not insult her refinement.
Pretty soon, we get around to the reason we’re both there—her twenty- two-year-old Sophie. Once number three and a Grand Slam finalist at the French Open, she’s slid to nineteen. Since the French, there have been injuries to neck and knee and a stall while she retooled a serve that had become little more than nuisance to her opponents. Mrs. Sanchez doesn’t follow Sophie on the circuit but shows up from time to time. Given the disappointments and setbacks, she’s happy to witness her daughter’s quarter-final match.
Mrs. Sanchez is friendly enough throughout but there’s something in her manner, not so much shyness as a mournfulness she wishes she could overcome.
What I’d truly like to get into but discreetly can’t is Sophie’s loss of intensity. Is it inactivity alone that has made her chunkier, beaten by shots she used to retrieve? Has her father and coach, demanding and unforgiving by gossiped accounts, burnt her out? Is it true he had Sophie on clay courts hitting balls at six and competing at eleven? Might she be rebelling? Has she discovered boys and lightened her affection for tennis balls? Had she really fallen for that older French actor? Because when the will goes, every knoll and dune looms like Everest.
Still, with Mrs. Sanchez I have that uncommon dialogue that makes volunteering worthwhile.
I lead her into the hotel lobby where we part company. She heads for reception and I turn in my walkie-talkie, sign, and keys to the dispatcher. A couple of drivers are drumming their fingers until the next ride. Jana waves to me from behind the tables.
There’s leftover coffee in the fancy urns the hotel provides but also a saucer with tiny jars of honey, twice as much glass as goo, yet wastefully cute. I fill a cup with hot water, a specialty tea bag and ooze in the honey. Jana makes room for me.
“Long time no see. Who’s that?”
“Sophie Sanchez’s mother.” By reception, Mrs. Sanchez is looking weary and forlorn with no expectations beyond guarding her luggage.
“I brought her and her father in.”
“What was that like?”
“All Spanish between themselves. He did the barking and she kept mumbling, ‘umm.’ That’s him there.”
In sweats and sneakers, Mr. Sanchez is impersonating the coach rather than the former ophthalmologist. Sophie hasn’t come down to greet her mother. He stands close to Mrs. Sanchez but not intimately so. He inclines his hair-thinning head but fails to touch elbow or arm, fails to kiss cheek or forehead, as though he’s receiving a messenger instead of a wife. But he does take charge of both pieces of baggage as they walk to the elevators.
Eugen Shandar, number six, has never seen a baseball game. In the car with his hitting partner, he listens to the tennis tour representative make clear that Shandar will be introduced to the team owner in his private suite. And, if the rep can swing it, would Shandar be interested in being interviewed for a few minutes in the broadcast booth during the game?
Not bad. Last year, I delivered a pair of $500 tickets to a sold-out rock concert for Raijit Rusakul and Emily Rysback.
The only thrilling words the rep has for me is to request I drop off the party as close as possible to stadium gate 14.
After the second year, I stopped signing up for evening shifts. Partly it had to do with Sledgehammer Phil, the chief dispatcher between supper and last ride. No less a volunteer, Phil can’t handle the power surge of lording it over the drivers. Away from the complex, Phil’s a prison guard. His e-mail address is “bonecrusher”. He’s accustomed to putting people in their place. From his perspective, he’s not serving the stars’ needs; they’re serving his. In contrast, Mara, the day dispatcher, is middle-aged wise with her granny glasses and knows not to impose herself on these temporary roles.
The second “partly” involves incidents like Rodrigo Bustamente. He landed at midnight. After being held up by Customs, he was ravenous for a hamburger. I walkie-talkied Phil that Bustamente was requesting a detour before the hotel. The Sledge, in bonecrushing innocence, yapped back, “Would you mind taking him to a fast food joint? I think there’s an all-nighter on Richmond.”
What was I going to do with Bustamente, girlfriend, coach and a trunkful of luggage listening in? I got home at 2:30 to a suspicious wife.
The mornings, on the other hand, especially on weekends, rival heaven. At seven, alone in a vehicle, I skim the peaceful asphalt like a hov- ercraft. The clientele in their plush sheets sleep as heedlessly as the homeless under newsprint in Wycliffe Park. Except the stars have partners. I stir my coffee in the lobby and with a handful of drivers, like wildlife filmmakers camouflaged at a Serengeti watering hole, bide my time.
It’s an instructive form of stargazing. The female players are passably presentable but the men shuffle from the elevators to the dining room for breakfast as they might to a sandy beach: unshaven, uncombed, in sweat shirts or bathrobes and flip-flops, ball caps worn backwards. Where we would be banned, they are welcomed. Some stop by the tables to ask a question or arrange a drive. Occasionally, there’s bitching at the lack of laundry pick-up on Saturday although they’ve been forewarned. Mainly, it’s “good morning.”
Hours later, the players are ready to be driven to practice, their ap- pearance not much improved and the drivers itchy to get behind a wheel. But there’s this to admire: unlike golfers, Sarmite Dzalbo, Nelly Voitovych, Edina Bekesi, Trond Bragstad, and Zrinko Lazic carry their own bags. Nico de Wilde and Aita Palmet, too.
Oh, Iliana Babikova, I am smitten.
By your lively face and the tanned thighs streaming from your ten- nis skirt. By how you’ve pinned your hair. How you instantly begin poking buttons and twisting knobs on the dash as though you have a dreammobile just like this one in your garage. Maybe you do. But mostly by how you hustle your Russian, French and English, all in the same sentence, as you might rush the net for a simple putaway of a short ball.
“…Russian… et pour toi, don’t you feel good about it…Russian… c’est bizarre, how did she become number four? …Russian…it’s pathetic.”
It’s aimed at your mother in the back but you’re bursting in all direc- tions. I can’t vouch for the Russian but the French and English are perfect. To which language your mother replies now and then in parental indulgence, I can’t say, but I would chauffeur you to Antarctica just to keep you talking.
Seventeen, thirty-one years my junior. Climbing up the rankings and all over life. Seizing me in my primal places. If my longing and envy were crystal, they’d shatter.
Thankfully, you travel with your mother. Sometimes, the way a teenage girl looks at her coach, or the tone of their exchange, I might not be wrong in suspecting he’s working on more than her ball toss and backhand.
If I could interrupt you with a brief anecdote.
When Diego was four, we took a spring vacation and whiled away a day in Oxford. It was graduation week. The air was raucous with freedom. The pubs sucked in and spilled out students. On the sidewalks, tight against the buildings, empty bottles stood paired like bobbies. The women were dressed up or hardly at all. In the evening, a stunner on George Street, champagne bottle in hand, in a mini-skirt and dark stockings, their seams racing up the calves to tease and hide. Sashaying, dolled up in confidence. Intellectually- armed, beautifully sophisticated, opportunities galore unveiling before her hazel eyes, unstoppable.
It’s not powdered rhinoceros horns or the sperm of exotic fish; there’s only one proven aphrodisiac and it is youth.
Chris Leyton, number forty-three, narrowly holding on. Two Grand Slam titles and tremendous upside at the outset before the fun loosened his racquet strings and started messing with his concentration. One GS semi-final in the last six years.
Strapping fellow. Serving, handsome. Smashing an overhead, hand- some. Motionless, handsome. He shuns the golf carts, preferring to walk back from the practice courts through the throng with his shirt off and the masses besieging him. Simply too good-looking to be running after sexless objects. Many women have pointed this out to him. Of every nationality, they’ve re-channeled his talent. That’s the dirt, anyway.
This talent with balls frankly mystifies me. Ordinary in most other respects, the stars can fabulously swat, slice, volley a velvety ball and for this, crowds and sponsors gather, paying them extraordinary sums, swamping them with adulation. It bugs me occasionally. Why wouldn’t it? I have skills they say society values but it shells out to those who entertain, who cure our boredom more than to the ones who heal us of illness and ignorance.
In seven years, one ride, a Swedish coach, has asked me what I do. Actually, apart from inquiring if I had a job, even the tournament rep who interviewed me didn’t much care what I did. Why did I want to drive and was my record clean? That’s three questions more than any player ever asks.
A few years back, a massive storm knocked out the lights citywide. The thunderclaps scared our Labrador witless and sent her whining to the basement to pee on the carpet. Centre Court at the stadium was flooded like a wading pool.
In the van, trapped in the honking and steaming aftermath, Aita Palmet, Elena Vilar, and Mirela Nastasa—as I recall, the thirty-second, sixty-ninth and eighty-fourth best in the galaxy then—resisted for the forty minutes it took the traffic to budge about a kilometer. Luckily, we weren’t far from The Ravines. Having overheard their bladder distress, I passed on our location and watched them slide back the door, troop off and out of sight to do their business. Does it get more ordinary than that?
Leyton keeps to himself. The magnet wants no filings at this moment. Taciturn, focusing on his upcoming match—or trying not to—he checks his up-to-the-minute technological gadget—probably some tournament’s gift—for messages; thumbs a reply; slips on earphones, earpads, earbuds, whatever the latest lingo is; and plugs himself into a music player.
Ina Kaveris, number seventeen, has been around for a decade.
Beanstalk of a girl, stilts for legs. Usually beats those ranked below, seldom anyone above. A journeywoman. Winner of lesser tournaments. A good workout for the eventual champion. Gets to most balls with those stems, but questions regarding the fight in her won’t go away.
Today, she’s fighting. It’s in English with her Australian coach. Both in the back seat. They’re not hammer-and-tong blows like when a jilting is underway. Measured. Barely. With respites between rounds. Professional tennis has a crazy system. The coach commands, but since he’s paid by the player, Kaveris is the boss. And so the disagreement is low-key with neither aggressive voices nor the slapping down of an ultimatum.
When they get to the U.S. Open in New York, the last shot at a Grand Slam for the year, Kaveris wants to take on a fitness trainer. The coach is okay with that but Kaveris, to reduce costs, has proposed putting the trainer up in the coach’s hotel room. The coach has objected strenuously. Doesn’t he rate his own room? Besides, he was considering flying his wife over and Kaveris has caught him out. In the endless travel, he hasn’t seen her in months.
“Who have I seen?” Kaveris answers.
It’s frustrating to have the hotel entrance come into view. The issue is unresolved. Like the electricity going out five minutes before the TV drama concludes. I should have faked a longer route. Well-behaved ‘“thank yous” as they lift their respective bags and walk apart to the revolving doors.
Sophie Sanchez abandoned her quarter-final against a lower seed while trailing 1-6, 0-1. In the official tournament release, the blame for the abandonment and for Sophie skipping the mandatory post-match media interview rests with “a virus infection.”
Jana, relating the story, says that Mr. Sanchez made a scene at recep- tion the next morning, claiming he’d been overcharged for the miscellaneous expenses. The two weren’t speaking en route to the airport. The driver she got this from wasn’t sure, but believed Mrs. Sanchez had left separately to catch the flight to Barcelona.
Without make-up, in grungy clothes, Morten Eilersen’s girlfriend remains blonde, bosomy, and pretty. No surprise she’s a knockout. Whether they’re number nine or ninety, they always have the pick of the litter. This one’s studying economics at the university in Copenhagen but accompanying Eilersen for the summer. A suitcase is still missing from the previous tour- nament in Hamburg, and I’ve been tasked to squire her to a chic shopping district while Eilersen bangs balls on the practice court.
She’s pleasant to boot, and the drive is a fantasy first date with the high school homecoming queen in your father’s Mercedes. I don’t hurry the gas pedal.
I learn tidbits about other tour players, Leyton for example, con- firming some of the rumours. She says the majority of them are decent but speak little, and in the beginning she thought Morten was just being rude. She’s relaxed and talkative because I suppose most of the time she has to be circumspect among foreigners as she and Eilersen bound from country to country. A driver isn’t to be feared.
I’ve lowered the volume on the walkie-talkie and she doesn’t notice when it squawks. A puffed-up driver, misunderstanding his true status, comes on to report that he has “an important load from the airport and am heading for the hotel.” To which Mara immediately responds, dryly and deflatingly, “They’re all important loads. Thanks.”
When I revert to Eilersen’s girlfriend, she’s altered her slant. She’s explaining that though tripping around the world is tiring, she’s enjoying the experience and appreciates how fortunate she is.
Still, ricocheting among the tournaments and surfing on the moods of Eilersen’s successes and defeats, she’s living in somebody else’s life and how long can she let that go on? How I sympathize. Not clear cut, is it?
Eilersen’s snagged himself a beauty. She’s so engaging and, with that hint of quandary added, I haven’t the heart to tell her that, by coincidence, I drove her predecessor two years ago.
Each year, once or sometimes twice during the tournament, I humble myself at Centre Court. I make this pilgrimage on one of the early-bird shifts when the entire stadium complex is ghosted by scarce and sleepy security personnel and a handful of drivers nursed by their customized coffees as they await the assignment of vehicles for the day’s first and empty shuttle to the hotel.
From the dispatcher’s counter and along the player-postered corridor, it takes but a moment. The corridor broadens into an area that soon will be guarded and restricted, but at that hour I move unchallenged past the parted curtains. It’s not the opening from where the players emerge but an adjoining access used mainly for the maintenance of the court. Still, as I stroll through, I’m often reminded of the quotation above the players’ entrance at Wimbledon’s more renowned Centre Court: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat these two impostors just the same. The dark curtains frame and tame the court—as the tunnels must have the Colosseum—but beyond them “Centre Court” splurges space right up to the sky.
There’s a tingle and spring from the first steps on the artificial carpet that pass through my sneakers and rub warm my calves. I cross the green out-of-bounds and the white lines onto the blue playing surface. On all sides of this bowl, the multicoloured seats rise like applause. The sun has almost cleared the topmost rows, and through the thinning morning mist it could be a fuzzy ball that has clipped the net and hangs eternally suspended for the instant before it drops. Centre Court is cool, half-shadowed, and as hushed as if players were in the middle of a rally.
I always touch the net, respectfully laying hands on the white tape of that unsacred grail. I take in whatever falls into my vision much the way my wife does an elegant buffet. Then leisurely I pirouette, splashing glances on every seating section from the lowest to the loftiest, unable to resist imagin- ing how I might look from each vantage point as I scamper to retrieve an impossibly-angled shot; the surge I might feel in puncturing that hush and hearing them gasp in wonder or shout aloud.
On my visits, I rarely haunt Centre Court longer than a few minutes. Just enough for the impostor in me to concede. Just enough so that leaving it is akin to a child’s encircling, pleading arms dragging on my leg.
On occasion, I’ll convey a retired champion, now a coach, TV commentator or tournament guest. If his appeal has faded, they throw him in with a current crop of contenders and, say, a Japanese journalist.
I’d love to hear reminiscences or shop talk of past matches and stars, strategy, how to attack a second serve, whose temperament can be exploited. I’d read in a magazine that the aging Dusan Kendra, holder of four Grand Slams but today only of the rear seat in the van, claimed he could predict an unidentified rival’s serve. The rival habitually stuck out his tongue during his ball toss. Tongue left, the ball would kick out wide; tongue right, a hard, flat serve down the middle.
I drive, crying out for such trade secrets, such bite, but the young- sters are too reverential. In laconic sentences—from within their charmed circle and cautious in the presence of an outsider—they pronounce on the draw—“some very serious matches, even in the early rounds”—but never an adversary. They refer to the exhausting tour schedule and recall a previous injury—“bad bounce, late backhand, torn cartilage”—without mentioning they immediately had an MRI on the wrist where the rest of us might wait months. They laugh at the walkie-talkie alerts the drivers share of police speed trap locations. They describe and recommend movies. They remark on the turning radius of the van, for God’s sake. Everything except.
And the memorable stuff stays under wraps.
It’s about four, drivers sunk in torpor. Nico de Wilde’s personal pilot and automobile wait at the fringe of the red carpet. I figure he’s due to appear any moment.
I distract my sluggishness with the human traffic that has access to our cordoned zone: food suppliers, cleaning volunteers, media technicians. When I turn back to the uninspiring match on TV, he’s standing about two metres away. Tall and svelte, composed and supreme, in a baby blue top and charcoal gray shorts, bulging red tennis bag at his feet. He’s looking at the same screen, likely awaiting his fiancée.
Before long, the scattering of drivers finds excuses to stand in prox- imity, like a colony of meerkats, upright on their hind legs, searching for danger. Everyone’s attention is nailed to the TV as though it’s announcing the second coming.
We’ve been properly indoctrinated: nobody intrudes or nudges up to his aura. Other workers and volunteers, unaware, walk to and fro outside the canopy. A driver returning from break notes our curious configuration and sidles up to me.
“It’s de Wilde,” I whisper.
“Where?” suddenly whispering too.
“That’s not de Wilde.”
He stealthily circles the perimeter of the group until he has de Wilde in profile, then freezes, another meerkat.
Kennet Hedman, I think, arrives with two lookers. The party of four loads itself into de Wilde’s car and glides away. But before, as he emerges from under the canopy, fans hanging out from the concourses at the rear of the stadium have recognized him. “Ni-co! Ni-co! Ni-co!” they chant, snapping hundreds of pictures that when developed will expose the world number one to be ant-size. De Wilde acknowledges the well-wishers with a huge smile and restrained wave.
When they’ve left the grounds, a security guard approaches. Power- fully compact, white short sleeves suffering from bodybuilt biceps, with dyed blonde spiked hair, an earring and an overbite.
“Who was that?”
“You don’t know?”
“I was working VIP yesterday and he talked to me for a minute like a regular guy. Then leaving last night, I see his face on a banner hanging from the stadium. Must be a biggie. Is he any good?”
“You might say that.”
His blankness is more funny than strange. I’m certain his universe of iron pumpers has its biggies too.
For the drivers, the tournament isn’t climaxing but winding down.
The bulk of the players have lost and departed for their next event. There have been a few upsets but Nico de Wilde and Aita Palmet have reached their finals. The stadium is sold out. The organizers are elated.
Mara, busily writing, pushes the walkie-talkie and keys across the counter. “Car 33 Miguel. Take it downtown. They need it later.”
Car 33 happens to be the top-of-the-line XGS model. By the time I’ve readjusted the prior driver’s seat for comfort, rotated the outside mirrors to my satisfaction, replaced the radio station with one I can tolerate, tested the air-conditioning flow, Mara’s at the window.
She shoves in a blue mesh laundry bag crammed with the usual soiled sportswear. “There’s been a change. Take this with you.” “Whose is it?”
“Really.” The pampering and entitlement never let up. Arriving as number twenty-two or seven, they’re treated royally. They battle to one and the sky’s the limit. “Who even knew she sweated?” I’ll say this: they’re the modern aristocracy, but unlike the traditional one they work, train daily for hours, yes sweat, and hurt if necessary, for their acclaim and rewards.
“Do you know Wayside?”
“The industrial park. Should I switch cars?”
“You’re fine. I’ve downloaded a map for you and here’s the address.
You’re going to Comfy Cotton Diapers. Call me when you get there.”
It takes a while to zoom in on Comfy Cotton Diapers in Wayside’s desolation of squat cement buildings. A bush-obscured sign announces its existence and points me to ‘Deliveries’ at the back.
I press the walkie-talkie. “Mara, I’m here with that important load.” “Give it to a Mr. Ishman. Only him. He’s expecting it.”
Mr. Ishman, all business in checkered tie and demeanor, seems tobe working alone this Saturday. Palmet has used his services before. Her dainties come back faster than via the tournament’s handling process, and fluffier.
“Mara, he’s got the package. It’ll be ready in two hours, give or take. Should I continue downtown?”
“Yeah but wait till it’s done. Bring it with you and hand it to the dispatcher.”
“Right. Over and out.”
I park the XGS in the measly shade of a maple and lower all the windows to snare any stray breezes. The seat can be coaxed almost horizontal. Little noise aside from the thirty degrees cooking the pavement.
Perverse notions cross my mind. What sort of ransom could I get for Palmet’s kidnapped underwear? For Palmet herself? How much exactly does an idol go for?
Can’t say idol worship gets me far, but what does it keep me from? Well, the hobby farm, to name one.
I snuggle deeper into the upholstery, wonder about today’s lunch offerings. In the dying meals of last year’s tournament, Baseline trotted out chicken mirabella, salad with a balsamic vinaigrette and flan. Flan. It could all be gone before I finish the assignment.
This driving for reflected glory distorts, maybe demeans. But I’m only sure that I might be wrong. Their lives seem so global, ours so fenced in. In their private aircraft and helicopters, they touch down in our backyards with the force of a propeller’s wash. When I shift the transmission automatically into drive, I wipe my sleeve across a windowpane and peer into a rarefied world. So many realities on the planet, so few we see. It’s that glamour thing. We think we’re above it and then we find it on us like sticky pollen.
South of Wayside, in hospitals and hospices, bodies are failing, quitting, surrendering, at their weakest and worst. The stars have cornered sunlight, lean limbs chasing lovely yellow balls that spin and bounce with health. For all that, it’s not about how smoothly they move—but how smoothly they move us to spend our awe on trifle.