“Good match.” Amy walked from her baseline to the net. She took Riley’s hand and shook it. She was hot and sweaty, her skin a little rough from gripping a racket every day. Only ten years Riley’s senior, and she already worked as a teaching pro.
When their hands slid apart, Riley said, “Thanks.”
“Keep practicing those volleys.” Amy leaned her racket against the net. She wiped her forehead with her towel. “Master those and you’ll beat a lot of kids your age.”
“Continental grip, right?” Riley picked up his racket and held it out. “Like this?”
Amy glanced at his hand, drying off her hands with the towel. “Turn your racket a smidge to the right.” Riley turned it left. “Other right.” When Riley turned it again, Amy laughed. “Very funny. You know the grip.”
Riley smiled. He did, but he wouldn’t have minded if Amy adjusted his grip with her hand. “I want to play another practice match when I get it right. Maybe I’ll win.”
Amy laughed. “We’ll see.” She tossed her towel to the bench. “Now where’s my next opponent?”
Riley grabbed his own water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and chugged it. Nothing was better than winter clinics. Over the summer, this court—and all the others—were outdoors. In the winter, the club erected a bubble, a temporary grid of steel beams crisscrossing beneath a thick, plasticky, dome.
This was court one, the show court, where the club scheduled tournament finals in the summer. Today, it was also the court where Amy reigned, awaiting new challengers every half hour as part of today’s match play.
Riley was about to ask if Amy would play another set when the new girl burst into the bubble. She jogged over, letting the door slam behind her. She wore her tennis bag across one shoulder; it bounced against her side with each step.
“Hello, Miss Hannah. Where have you been?” Amy asked.
“Playing a tiebreak,” the new girl said. “With Derek.”
Riley snorted. He’d beaten Derek a thousand times in the past few years. Maybe this new girl wasn’t as good as the pros thought – Riley had heard them whispering about her tournament record before match play.
“Have you two met?” Amy asked. “Hannah, Riley. Riley, Hannah.”
“Nice to meet you.” The new girl set her Wilson bag down on Riley’s bench, next to his extra racket. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
“You’re with me until noon. Anything particular you want to work on?”
“Can we play a set?” the new girl asked.
“Sounds good.” Amy picked up her racket and turned to Riley. “You’re back on court two.”
“I know.” Riley didn’t move. “Can I watch a point?”
“Someone’s waiting for you.”
“Please? I’ve heard Hannah’s really good.”
Amy looked to Hannah and then back to Riley. Hannah shrugged. “If you really want to,” Amy said. “Just one point.”
Riley shuffled to the back of the court, squatting against the edge of the bubble, beside a steel beam. When the new girl reached her baseline, she fiddled with her racket strings, examining Riley through the gaps in the polyester...probably wondering why he’d chosen to squat behind her instead of sitting on the benches, like he should have. Riley wanted a front row seat.
Amy bounced a ball on the opposite baseline. Her forehead creased with concentration. The new girl had white stripes down the back of her shirt; they shifted back and forth, blocking his view of Amy as she readied herself for Amy’s serve. Ace her, Riley thought.
Amy hit an easy serve. The new girl split-stepped and hit a forehead back. Though Amy could’ve put the ball away, she didn’t. She’d done the same thing at the beginning of Riley’s set: Amy could hit a thousand winners off of each shot, but instead of pounding the ball, she returned it, analyzing Hannah’s forehands and backhands, identifying weaknesses and cataloging them. Testing her opponents.
The new girl split-stepped again. There was something magical about her, something natural and easy and right. So that was why the pros were whispering about her earlier—she never stopped moving, and she was never caught unaware. Riley watched the new girl’s feet, her perfect split-steps, the swish of her skort as she chased a short shot from Amy.
Amy, of course, was even more perfect. Now, Riley wished he’d sat on her side. Who cared about watching the new girl lose when he could’ve been watching Amy’s powerful legs and toned arms, the turn of her body with each shot, her brown ponytail bouncing with each split-step.
The new girl charged the net. Time for Amy to destroy her. Amy’s passing shot bounced well within the court boundaries and knocked into the wall to Riley’s right. Ha! Riley would’ve gotten his racket on that, at least. He couldn’t wait to see how Amy beat her in the next point.
But Amy stopped play. “You’re practically in the alley. I had the whole court to pass you. Don’t make it too easy for me.”
Hannah moved to her right. “Better?”
So what if the new girl was twelve or whatever, and beating some of the kids Riley’s age? Amy’s suggestions and advice were reserved for Riley, her special student, because they were so good together and worked so well. Riley and Amy, teacher and student and more, without Hannah.
“Watch out—at some point, I’m going to make you do that again,” Amy said.
The new girl nodded, and Amy served the next point.
What just happened? Amy was supposed to be Riley’s pro. She saw him as more than a student; he knew it. They always worked together. He took private lessons with her. She gave him extra time, because she liked him so much, and sometimes she brought presents around the holidays, a little bag of candy or a few cookies. If she didn’t like him, why did she treat him special? Was Amy lying, faking it? Riley, her favorite student, was a mere shadow in the back of her strategizing session with the new girl, an intruder in their private bubble, their private moment. His presence—and feelings—didn’t much matter, whether they filled the bubble or not – and he wondered how long before it popped.
The new girl flubbed an easy forehand; the ball sailed into the net. This time, Amy offered no advice. Instead, she called, “Riley. When are you going to court two?”
Written by: Natalie Schriefer
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix