The Unbearable Lightness of the B List – Part 4

order of play

Michael was entered in doubles as well as singles at the U.S. Open. On the fifth day, he and his partner, Chris Bohmer, were scheduled to meet Bishop and Hamel in the second round in the grandstand, the intimate sideshow court built flush against the larger main stadium. Doubles wasn’t really Michael’s thing, as always, he preferred flying solo; Bishop was the best in the world. I was privately looking forward to watching Bishop; I’d never actually seen him play through a series odd draws and freak luck, and thought he was sort of cool, although it would’ve been apostasy to say so out loud, and I was not so stupid as not to realize the terrible rubbing of salt into the wounds of secondariness this would have constituted.

The morning of the match, Michael’s parents and I found ourselves having a late breakfast in Racquets, the members club located in the side of the stadium overlooking the grandstand, watching the place fill up. Our badges would not normally have allowed us in, but we were guests of a USTA official and Stanford alum. This was the marquee match-up of the first week, and we were the supporting cast. Everyone was looking forward to it because, due to the seeding, Michael and Pete would not meet again unless Michael made it to the singles final, and that meant getting past Gustavo Glayzer. His current record against the Argentine stood at 1-3.

But today was going to be good enough—the network was planning to show it live, preempting its regular programming, playing it to the hilt, running promos for the battle of the macho king and the young pretender to the throne accompanied by their staunch sidemen, never evidently ever having had explained to them the concept of hyperbole. I had to admit, though, as I sat there, casually but carefully dressed and made up for the camera, sipping my coffee, careful to keep food out of my teeth, that I was getting excited. ‘This is really ground zero, you’re right at ground zero,’ I kept nattering to myself. I looked at Michael’s mom and each of us smiled at the other, mirroring each other’s idiot grin. I knew how nervous Michael was about this.

The crowd started to assemble early, anticipation, electricity switching through the stands. The sun beat down brutally, but having secured their seats, the tourists and suburbanites, the aficionados and provocateurs did not budge despite the threat of heat stroke. They fanned themselves and shared their fruit cups and bottled water with those around them. The women’s singles match (Brueggler vs. Tamasari) scheduled before the main event went on and on. The women actually had the nerve to care who won, and Brueggler annoyingly struggled, drawing the thing out to three sets.

At 12:30 they closed the grandstand and wouldn’t let anybody else in, fans had been streaming to the spot from all over the grounds, the buzz having gone out, and people even clogged up the stadium exit ramps on the grandstand side, hanging over the guard rails. Finally Brueggler won, the women left, the net was measured and readjusted, and a new umpire and linespeople took their places. An audible hum rose from the stands; the TV crew mounted their cameras, swiveling them up and down, left and right, the “on” indicators flashing like jewels.

With an understanding of our relative status as sure as placement of wedding announcements in The New York Times, we were seated in the VIP box first, then Hamel’s coach and fiancée, and lastly, Bishop’s entourage. The players strode on court for warm-up and the hormone level of the joint shot up—you could almost smell it—all eyes at first on Bishop, his black curly hair glinting in the sun, smacking the ball, shirt open and feet shuffling, his many sponsors emblazoned on his sleeves. He remained mentally coiled within himself, hitting balls back and forth with supple skill; never looking at the crowd—the mere raising of an eyebrow would provoke screams and catcalls from the stands. A shrill, high female wail shot up into the air, “We love you, Mike!” and hung there, a lone sexual plaint, drifting slowly courtward. Lawrence joined us, settling heavily into the seat next to me.

The match played that afternoon was doubles on testosterone: shots skidding across court at acute angles and incredible speed, balls sent right at people’s heads or groins, the normally fitfully attentive crowd rapt and howling for blood. It was real theater; the Romans had nothing on it. Pete and Michael started a glaring contest early on, but Michael lacked Bishop’s gift for the larger-than-life, though he obviously had his own legion there in the stands winding him up. He whined, he cared far too much, whereas Pete at times appeared completely, mesmerizingly crazy, one foot over the edge, one extraordinary madman against the world. His partner, Todd “Doc” Hamel, exuded his own intensity albeit at a lower level simply by reason of proximity. Chris had no business being there.

Michael had a brilliant service game, wining at love, and Bishop started to comment under his breath about Michael’s sexual preferences, muttering just loudly enough to be heard courtside, and a ripple of snickering floated around the lower stands. They went up to each other at net. I could not hear because of the noise, but could plainly see, as could everyone else, Michael mouth the words, ‘Fuck off.’ Already having been warned, he was assessed a penalty point, and ranted on and on about the unfairness of the whole thing—he was provoked!—boos and taunts raining down on him, until the chair umpire threatened to take a game. All four players abused this unfortunate individual, by turns a tentative then overzealous enforcer of decorum and in danger of losing control of the match. Pete would seethe, serve an ace. Michael would scream, screw up. ‘That’s the difference,’ I caught myself thinking.

Michael and Chris took the first set in a tie-breaker. The second set was at 5-4, with Bishop serving for the set at 30-40, up a break. With Chris playing courageously, far above his given talent, the men traded set and break points back and forth. A secret part of me wanted Pete to beat Michael, wanted him put in his place as I was constantly being put in mine. It would be satisfying on a base level. But no one could win this set. No one could beat Bishop at this stage of his game, but no one had been able to stretch him like this, not in a long time. Good for you, sweetie. I couldn’t bear the suspense any longer and had to badly go to the bathroom—I longed to leave and come back and have it settled one way or the other, the coward’s way out—but didn’t want to be caught sneaking out at such a critical time. As it was, every time a point would end the cameraman hunched down in front of our box would jerk up and train his camera at us. Thank God for the sanctuary of shades. Nervous and anxious for Michael, I continually fiddled with mine, taking them off, running my fingers under my eyes, wiping away the sweat, putting them back on.

At the sixth deuce of the game, the sun went behind the clouds, giving us all a momentary respite. So we thought. Bishop jacked the tension up further, breaking his service motion in mid-stroke (a balk!), jerking the receiver’s chain, waiting for an impossible level of silence from the crowd. He stood there and looked up at the skies as if to invoke the gods’ wrath against the howling heathens; his eyes swept over the friends box, up along the wall to the windows of Racquets and back down again, resting momentarily on me. Sunglasses in the off position at that very instant, I stared back at him; there was nothing between our two pairs of eyes, but he looked through me, seeing nothing. A chill ran down my back at the lack of human contact despite the heat. I was startled by it and annoyed, because, after all, wasn’t I a little bit on his side, didn’t I understand? Invisible yet again. I looked at my hands and pressed my thumb against my palm—no, solid. But then, I had to think we all looked at him and saw whatever we wanted to put there, constructed the reality as we wanted it. The real Bishop was invisible as well, so I guess turnabout was fair play. But I couldn’t be for him anymore after that.

He lost the point. Advantage Raynes and Bohmer. Break point. Pete sliced a service winner; Chris netted the next point. Advantage Bishop and Hamel. Set point. The next point was a vicious rally, every ball aimed bullet-like at the body, but Michael’s last shot sailed outside the alley, and the set was lost. The top seeds never looked back after that and won the match 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.

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