Fifteen love.
This is it, the decisive game. Mick serving for the set. And I’m already down. I hate losing!
Just turned fourteen, Michele is already taller than me, and heavier. No doubt handsomer. Yep, he’s overtaken me in all kinds of ways. He can duck me in the swimming pool. But he still hasn’t beaten me at tennis!
He throws the ball up in the air and serves, hard and long.
Too long.
Not that I’m any good at tennis. I only started a couple of years back. In fact we’re both pretty useless. But since I’m not growing six inches a year, with all the clumsiness that entails, I’ve always been able to creep through. The first few games are even-Stevens, then around three-all he collapses and I forge ahead.
But today things are going the other way.
Five three to him, fifteen love, second serve.
He tosses it up, serves miserably short. Like a fool I’ve forgotten to creep forward. I dash to the net but don’t make it. Thirty love.
For God’s sake, I’m going to lose! Why isn’t my son collapsing?
And he serves well from the forehand side. It’s his best shot. Wham, long and well-angled the ball clips the corner where the white plastic lines stapled into the clay meet in a little lump. The bounce is bizarre.
Forty love.
Scusami, Mick apologises politely.
This is it.
Three set points, I tell him.
Just don’t mention it, he says. He prepares himself. At once I realise I’ve made him anxious. He’s going to collapse. I sense it. Suddenly I don’t want him to collapse. I want him to win, to have his day, to overtake me. For heaven’s sake, Tim wants to lose. To lose. It’s a weird feeling.
Of course, when I stop caring, I play brilliantly.
Mick puts in a solid serve and I stroke it low and hard on the backhand. All the same, it’s surely mad to run to the net. And yet… His lob isn’t quite high enough. Wham, unbelievably I’ve done one of those jump-in-the-air Henman volleys. On the line!
Forty fifteen.
Again he serves well, but this time my return is outrageously vicious. An execution.
Forty thirty. How can this be? If I was always determined to lose, could I be a great tennis player?
Mick double faults and has a tantrum. Oh dear. He tosses his racket at the net, announces he’s giving up, tennis is a stupid game. He’s lost. The hell with it.
‘But it’s only juice. You’re five three up.’
It takes me quite a while to persuade him to continue.
And now I’m in one of those classic double binds kids put you in. I’m damned if I’m losing on purpose in response to his tantrum. On the other hand I now really want him to win. When oh when will he grow up! Just to be put in this position makes me mad.
Maybe he senses how I feel. ‘Don’t try to lose,’ he warns.
‘Okay, I’ll kill you.’ I tell him. And I think, to hell with kids and their tantrums. They grow up overcoming that stuff. He ain’t going to beat me today. No way. And immediately I wham his weakest serve straight into the net.
The next point is one of those endless, weird rallies that only the worst and most nervous tennis players can manage. Half hearted ground strokes. Volleys off the wood, ballooning backhands. Until, at last, Mick relaxes and hits a really long low powerful ball I just can’t reach.
Coming to the net, he grins. ‘You’re finished, old man.’
‘The battle’s … only just… beginning,’ I tell him. ‘From now on… the gloves are off.’
But I’m panting, and he knows it.