The request came via Christmas card, which was probably why Michael noticed it. In a world where it was all done by e-mail or text message, where Michael got everything from his bills to pictures of his nieces and nephews on his iPad, he was astounded to see the gold-trimmed envelope sitting beside his breakfast. The stamps were American but the handwriting looked European, especially the “1” and the “7” in the address. Michael immediately knew who had sent it.
He slit it open and took out a generic white card with a generic picture of a couple riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. Given that it was half-past eight in the morning and already well over twenty-five degrees Celsius outside, the image had no relevance to Michael’s personal Christmas season, but he was used to that. Like a lot of Australians, he still carried childhood memories of watching his father barbecue in a bathing suit on Bondi Beach while humming “White Christmas.”
The inside of the card was written in the same neat but unusual handwriting that graced the front of the envelope. Dear Michael, it read. I’m sorry to be writing to you on such short notice, but I hope you’ll understand. Arkady’s English had improved drastically, Michael noticed, but he’d always suspected Arkady spoke and understood more than he let on. You may be aware that every year, I play a charity match on Christmas Eve. Michael was aware. The tennis world was still small, and something like that got a lot of publicity. Last year, Arkady had played Boris Becker in the rain in Los Angeles, and Michael had watched on TV. Unfortunately, plans for this year’s match have fallen through, and we’re at a bit of a loose end. The venue’s already booked in Sydney, and I was wondering if you might be willing to play. It would help me out a lot, as well as helping the Australian Cancer Research Foundation. Please get in touch. Arkady Yemelyanev.
The inclusion of the last name, as if Michael knew dozens of Arkadys, was a typical Yemelyanev mind game. Michael was sure of it. He noticed the phone number beneath the name—American, of course, since Arkady had lived in California since before they both retired—then set the card aside. He ate the eggs and toast Carmela had thoughtfully prepared for him and wondered how he could turn down the invitation without looking like a selfish ass who didn’t care about cancer.
Later that afternoon, Michael was out on his court, bouncing a tennis ball off his racket and waiting for Holly. She was late, as usual. When he finally heard her mother’s car coming up the drive, Michael pushed a button to open the gate. A moment later Holly bounded into view between the manicured flower beds, her black hair in plaits and her glittery pink racquet case slung over her shoulder. “Hi, Michael!” She waved and came up to the court. Early in his coaching career, Michael had wondered whether he should insist on being called “Mr. Morgan,” but it seemed too late now. In any case, Michael had called his own coaches every name under the sun when they weren’t around, but hadn’t usually called them anything to their faces. He didn’t want it to be like that with Holly, or with any of the kids he worked with.
“Hi, Holly.” Michael served the ball into the empty court. It bounced off the hard surface and against the back fence. “You been practicing?”
“Of course.” She sighed like an exasperated woman four times her age and unzipped the racquet case. “Have you?”
Michael laughed and picked up another ball as the little girl took her place on the other side of the net.
Michael had never thought he’d end up as a teacher, and he’d certainly never expected to end up a private coach to the children of wealthy Sydneysiders, girls and boys who idolized Federer and the Williams sisters and, God help them, Anna Kournikova. Michael had never really thought about life beyond tennis at all. For years, he’d lived in the moment, never thinking beyond the next practice, the next match, the next tournament. He’d been a rock star, but the difference between him and Mick Jagger, Michael soon came to realize, was that Jagger’s career could survive age and the inexorable march of time. Maybe not gracefully, but it could survive.
“Nice one,” Michael called as Holly, her eyebrows furrowed, backhanded a volley over the net. Michael returned it easily, of course, but she came back with an excellent return. Michael let her score a point, which caused her frown to only deepen.
“You’re not trying your best, Michael.”
“Holly.” He might be a forty-one-year-old in knee braces now, but he was also a three-time French Open champion, an Australian Open winner, and a former world number four seed. She was a ten-year-old with a unicorn on her T-shirt.
“I won’t learn if you don’t try your best,” Holly replied, a condescending tone in her voice. “Let’s go again.” Michael obeyed. They volleyed for a while, Holly getting in some impressively good shots, until Carmela appeared on the other side of the fence with a tray in hand.
“I bring a snack,” she announced. “Holly’s mother ring and say she might be a little late.” Of course. Michael had threatened to drop Holly as a student many times over her mother’s chronic time issues, but they always made up for it with extra money. More importantly, Michael liked Holly too much to give up on her. Of all his pupils, she was the only one he thought might actually have a chance.
Carmela set down the tray of Tim Tams and two tall glasses of fizzy lemonade. Holly thanked her politely, then, as Carmela headed back to the house, pulled a bottle of Gatorade out of her duffel bag. She took a long swig and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, leaving an orange streak on her skin. “I’d really like to work on my backspin more tomorrow. I’m worried about meeting Portia at the tournament in January.”
“Don’t worry.” Portia Fox-Robinson was the closest thing Holly had to a rival, and even then, Holly bested her seventy percent of the time. Michael would have killed to have a rival like that. He’d had Arkady Yemelyanev.
“I want to win,” Holly said. She hesitated for a moment, then took another gulp of Gatorade and reached for a biscuit. “A lot.”
“I know. I wouldn’t work with you if you didn’t.”
Holly nodded sagely. “I saw you the other day. On the computer. Dad and I were playing on YouTube before he left for New York.”
“Oh, yes?” Michael had met Holly’s father only a handful of times. He was a millionaire businessman who showed up to his daughter’s games in a three-piece suit with diamond cufflinks and a mobile phone permanently attached to his ear, but at least he showed up.
“We saw a clip of you playing the Russian. Yem…Yam…”
“Yemelyanev.” Michael took a drink of lemonade. “Did I win?”
“Yes. You were very good.” She sounded amazed.
“You’ve seen me play before.”
“You were better this time,” Holly declared confidently. “You played better. Faster. It was good. You should have done that more often.”
“Now you sound like my coach.” If Michael had played as hard against Agassi or Sampras as he played against Yemelyanev, he might have won more than four Grand Slams in his career, or so his coaches had always maintained. Michael hadn’t noticed himself playing any more or less hard against any opponent, and he always wanted to win.
“I’d like to see you play for real,” Holly went on, then clarified, “I mean, a real match. A competition. I bet you’re still the best.” She sounded so sincere, so convinced, that Michael smiled. He felt like reaching out to hug her, but he wasn’t stupid. Instead, he reached down and picked up his racquet.
“Come on.” He waited until she set down her biscuit, then tossed her a ball. “We’ll get in a few more shots before your mum gets here.”
Holly’s mother arrived twenty minutes later, full of apologies and what looked like a new haircut. She giggled unnecessarily, casting her eyes up at Michael and pursing her lips and confirming, in a seemingly off-hand way, that Holly’s father was in New York for the rest of the week but would be home by Christmas. Michael knew what she meant by that. She made the thinly veiled offer frequently, and Michael had never taken her up on it. Instead, he said good-bye to Holly, pocketed the check she handed him without looking at it, and went back up to the house. Carmela was upstairs, running the Hoover and singing some Filipino pop song. She’d put Arkady’s Christmas card up on a shelf in the kitchen. It stood next to a lone photograph in a silver frame, a picture of Michael’s mother Vera, standing in her back garden beside her beloved yucca trees a few weeks before she’d died. Of breast cancer. He drank deeply, then set down the glass and reached for the telephone before he could change his mind.