The fact that I was out of deodorant only added to my tension. Obviously this made no sense - you don’t win tennis matches on the basis of scent - but my nerves were already more shakily balanced than a house of cards. I had my first match of the tournament today and even something as trivial as a marginal decline in hygiene made me feel like the locker room was closing in around me. I must have started breathing faster - Christ, I must have sounded like I was properly panicking - because I heard a voice on the other side of the lockers asking if I was alright.
Even for a professional tennis player, I’m pretty tall, so I probably could have taken a look over the top to see who it was. But the owner of the voice, also of course being a professional tennis player, was so fast that he was round my side of the lockers before I’d even finished my reply.
The rather bright fluorescent bulb - although to be fair dim enough to feel relaxed - shone on the top of his jet black hair. I figured that from how much he was sweating his practice session had just finished and he hadn’t had time to shower yet, so I tried to be as brief as I could. You really, really don’t want to be kept from a shower after you finish a practice session in the glaring Australian sun.
“Hello, Camillo. I’m just out of deodorant - it’s fine. Sorry,” I said. I shoved my t-shirt on and slipped my belt through my trouser loops, trying to look industrious about it.
I wasn’t really paying any attention to him at this point, but I’m pretty sure he giggled.
“Here, Léo,” he said in his curious mixed accent. He was born in Syria, but grew up as a refugee in Italy. Everyone knew that; it was what had made him a talking point before he’d got so good. I’m also pretty sure his name hadn’t always been as European as Camillo.
There was a clatter near my bag and when I looked over there was an aerosol can of deodorant sitting there.
I looked up, pretty sure my eyes were dead wide. Oh God, did he think I was freaking out purely because of deodorant?
“Uh, thanks,” I said. The tension in my stomach got even tighter as I looked into his dark brown eyes. Hyperventilating over deodorant in front of the world number six - as far as he knew - was definitely making me blush.
I used the deodorant as quickly as I could and looked up to thank him again but he was already wandering away towards the showers. I sat down on the shiny wooden bench that had actually always been uncomfortable - like, that wasn’t just me. I let my breathing calm down and tried not to think about my upcoming match, the actual source of my tension. Maybe I’d make less a fool of myself afterwards, regardless of whether I lost or won. The history of my life and my personality were against me, but one can but hope.
My coach, Ron, was waiting for me when I got out the locker room. His eyes were brown too, but much deeper set in a coarse, wrinkled face. I had always liked how weathered he looked. It emphasised the fact that he was an experienced, knowledgeable fountain of wisdom.
“You alright?” he asked.
I nodded and tried to shake the blush off my face. My cheeks had never stopped being rosy. It made me look about seven when the blood started to rush to them during a match.
“Just bumped into Camillo Tamer,” I said as we started down the corridor. It was enormous - easily double my height. Okay that’s probably just how it felt. The photographs of past champions lining the walls made it feel so epic though. I was at the Australian Open. I was playing in a Grand Slam. I probably wasn’t going to win, but maybe I’d be a statistic in history, if not a headline.
“Ah, he give you any tips on how to break into the top twenty at the age of eighteen?” said Ron. He chuckled. “Did you see his scoreline from yesterday?”
I nodded. “Six-love, six-love, six-one. Closest I’ve ever seen to a triple bagel.”
“He does seem to be on fire recently. Mind you, this whole place is on fire.” Ron pinched the front of his poloshirt and flapped the material a bit. He was from Birmingham, in the UK. His body could not have been less prepared for the heat.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s twenty-six now, maybe his year for a Grand Slam?”
Ron shrugged. “Wouldn’t put it past him.”
I pictured him doubled over in his typical grandiose victory bow with the trophy tucked into his chest. Yeah, him winning would surprise nobody, maybe not even him. I shook my head and started talking to Ron about my drop shots. I had to put Camillo out of my mind and focus on my own game, as boring as that might be.
Of course, this wasn’t easy when he won his next match in record time. It was literally all anyone could talk about. Anyone. There were fans at the signing tent chatting about it in the queue, then shutting up immediately when they reached me. I smiled and tried not to let my nerves show, though my hand was shaking as I signed their programmes. But what did they expect from me, the professional tennis player who stutters the entire way through every press conference?
For once Ron agreed that my nerves were well founded. He wouldn’t say that, of course, but he’d gone all quiet and reserved the whole day. I’d made it through my match yesterday - I was seeded to, so that wasn’t anything special - and whether I won tomorrow was about fifty-fifty. But my match after that was Camillo himself. I was doomed.
And so, because my brain hates me, all I could think of at the start of the match was about how he’d looked at me in the locker room. It was like I was just a little kid freaking out about meeting their favourite player. I was ranked forty in the world and I was only two years younger than him, so I knew this wasn’t true. But apparently my brain didn’t.
I hit so many unforced errors as we were warming up that I was practically surprised the umpire didn’t just hand him the match. But some weird mix of gravity and the crowd quieting down managed to settle my pulse a bit and I even passed him a couple of times when he came into the net. And I mean proper crush-your-dreams passes like Andy Murray used to hit.
It was break point on his serve. My pulse was had been racing for the past half hour, but that was just my heart trying to keep up with me as I ran around all over the court. It’s actually really hard to feel nerves when you’re that pumped up. There’s no time to daydream when your body is having to work so hard to feed you oxygen.
And before I knew it he’d climbed out of love-forty and held his serve. I whispered a curse under my breath and tried to stop myself just feeling surprised I’d got him to break point at all. Internal self-deprecation was, according to Ron, my biggest enemy on the court.
But seriously, it’s not self-deprecation when it’s true. Like, he took that match in straight sets with me not breaking his serve a single time. It’s not self-deprecating to think you’re going to get beaten by Camillo Tamer.
My reflections on the match continued much like this all the way to the showers, then through a conversation with Ron and my mother, then to the player’s lounge where I’d left some belongings. But when I got there, something clicked. This would be my last day here in this cubby-hole of deep leather couches and enormous flat screen TVs. Tomorrow Ron and I would be straight off to the next - much smaller - tournament to use the practice courts there. And Camillo Tamer would be sitting here watching the matches from the other half of the draw to see who he’d be up against next.
That could have been me. Well, it couldn’t have - but it … could have. It makes sense in my head, though that probably doesn’t count for all that much. A drop shot while he was stranded on the service line instead of a pass into the corner also made sense to my adrenaline-fueled brain.
I flopped down onto one of the couches and slung my cap over my face. I sighed, then sighed again. I really didn’t want to get up and gather together my spare shoes and shirts.
“Uh, hey. You okay?”
I groaned. Why was the universe conspiring to embarrass me? I could do that perfectly well by myself. Even with my eyes shut I could recognise the deep yet somehow energetic voice of Camillo Tamer. I dragged my hands down my face and looked up at him from under my cap.
“Ah,” Camillo said when our eyes met. He looked at me for a moment with his head tilted to the side. Then he shrugged and said, “Fair enough reaction.”
I nodded and put my arm over my face again, my nose right in the crook of my elbow. My heart was beating fast again. I could not let him see how wide my eyes were, or how little they were blinking.
“Hey, Léo?” he said, his voice softer this time.
I took my arm away from my face too fast and it hit into the back of the couch. I sighed and looked up at him. I was probably already at maximum humiliation now, so what did a few more blushes matter?
“I can totally understand if the answer to this is no, but my coach is sick and I usually practice with Maderic, who has a match just now.” He grinned and pointed to the TV screen with his thumb. Maderic had just won the first set. “Would you be free for a practice session?”
My jaw hung open. I’m convinced this was of its own accord but I sympathised with it. He couldn’t possibly be asking this. He knew the bloody answer - of course I was available! But he’d literally just beaten me, like forty-five minutes ago. I chewed on my lip for a solid thirty seconds, then made my decision.
“Sure,” I said, because my humiliation levels really were at maximum.