This is a story I wrote about “almost” happening to meet Heidi El Tabakh. The names were changed to protect the innocent, but the events, such as they were, really happened as I have described them. From my perspective. I’m sure she would have no clue who I am, but to me, she was the center of the Universe, warmer than a ray of sunshine, better than everything good.
I wrote this because, on the very remote chance that she would ever read these words, I wanted her to know that just by being there, by being an inspiration, she made a difference in my life. Made it better. Made me a better person when our paths intersected those on those few occasions. So thank you, dearly, Heidi.
There is a Girl
in every Boy’s Life
that he will never forget….
I think about her a lot.
In just about every hour of every day. Even when I am asleep, in my dreams.
I try not to sometimes. Because of the heartbreak that comes with the thought of her and the glamorous circles in which she travels. I imagine that people like me are toejam to people like her.
But the reality is it is the thought of her that makes me feel better. At least in those dreams, while I am sleeping, I can pretend that I am good enough to be with her.
At precisely two-thirty-seven P.M., the chair umpire, Beatriz Ferreira, called another drop shot winner good. A few in the crowd of about fifty, give or take, laughed. The rest of us choked back some disgusted grunts or whistles. Christ-in-a-manger, Eichmann’s game was annoying. By my estimate, that was about her two hundred and ninety-third drop shot of the match.
I remember, it was Bea in the chair, because of the distinctive cadence in her voice, one that seemed like it had to be cultivated by years of schooling in one of those British prep academies for girls. The ones where the students all wear the same plaid skirts and starched white blouses and look indistinguishable from one another.
I got curious after falling in love with the strangely hypnotic rhythm of her voice at the Sony Open down in Miami one year. I always went to the first week of the Sony, each March. Spending a week in that paradise was like a Rite of Passage each Spring for me. At least, it was a way I could escape the grind of a job I hated for a few days each year. Anyway, I’d Googled Bea after happening to catch her name on a tennis match broadcast on television, and learned that she was Brazilian, but the voice that came out of her sounded, to me anyway, as British as Moneypenny’s.
“Forty-Fif-TeYEN.” Another drop shot.
It was a chilly sixty degree day, even in the January Florida sun, and I’d come to watch the rising stars who played the United States Tennis Association’s Pro Circuit at a $25,000 event in Port St. Lucie, on Florida’s south central east coast. The “Treasure Coast.” Only, today, there was nothing so rich and luxurious and golden about sitting on my hands in sixty degree weather in shorts and a t-shirt on chilly aluminum bleachers while my teeth chattered. But the scritchy scratchy sound of the players’ feet fluttering on the green clay was warm and inviting, and I was starting to wish I’d brought my racquets.
January in Florida meant professional tennis held locally in Florida, and this year, there were three Pro Circuit events held on successive weeks along Florida’s east coast, at Vero Beach, Port St. Lucie, and Daytona Beach. I’d made arrangements to take time off of work to catch a few odd days of the tennis each week, here and there, as following and writing about the professional game was somewhat of a hobby for me.
Angela Eichmann, of Germany, was serving, trying to level her quarterfinal match at a set apiece after nearly two hours of play on the Har Tru on “Stadium Court”, the one normally known as “Court 4” at Tesoro Club. Her first name didn’t sound like its Americanized counterpart, either. I knew that from having seen her play a few times previously, in other tournaments. The ‘g’ was hard, so it sounded like “ON-gay-la.” For some stupid reason, I liked that better than “ANJ-e-la.”
Her mop of blond hair bobbed up and down as she bounced the ball repeatedly, doing her best impression of Djokovic, and trying to catch her breath in between serves. An occasional “YAAAAAASSS!” emanated from deep within her, somewhere, after each of those triumphant drop shots of hers, really throaty too, like some sort of demon was possessing her. It wouldn’t have surprised me, either. No one could try that many drop shots in a match and claim to be sane.
At the other end of the court, Leila Niazy stood waiting. I had to hand it to her, she looked a lot more composed than I was.
“C’mon, Leila!” My flinty shout broke the crisp, dry afternoon air and I don’t honestly know why I yelled it. Maybe I felt some overwhelming sense of offendedness at how Eichmann was managing to construct and win the vast majority of her points. Or maybe it was because of all of those annoying “YAAAAAASSS!”s ON-gay-la was screaming. Or maybe it was something else. Okay, it was something else.
Like any red-blooded American male, I was totally head-over-heels in love with Leila. Well, you, know, “smitten”, I guess, would be a better word, since I didn’t actually know her and she definitely didn’t know me from Adam. To my utter dismay, she wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a crowd if I’d been on fire.
But I could recite by heart enough of the superficially important stuff about her. The lovely Leila stretched five feet eleven inches, head to toe, hailed originally from Egypt, though she’d lived in the U.S. since she was a child, had gotten her decidedly un-Egyptian name from her Mother, who had a love of Western films, and had the most bewitching dark brown eyes I’d ever seen. Not to mention a completely beguiling smile with unapologetically aligned, snow-white teeth that made a perfect contrast to her dark, golden brown skin which you might dare call ‘camel-colored’ in a less politically correct day and time. Topping all of this off was a mane of dark brown hair that would have made Diana Prince turn green with envy. Leila was indeed tennis’ equivalent of Wonder Woman. She was ethereally pretty, and I couldn’t imagine a heart she wouldn’t make skip a beat.
The first time I ever saw her play, the first thing I noticed about her, from half a court away, was her magnetic doe eyes, and when I’d managed to catch my breath, I managed to shoot about fifteen minutes of her match that day, literally falling in love with her through the lens of my camera. From the first time I saw her play I just couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t notice, along the way, the other things, the important things that were open and obvious to an observer in my position. That she was an excellent player, for example, with picturesque, powerful groundstrokes and a strong serve, or that she was spirited, and sometimes a little temperamental for her own good on the court. Kind of like me. The temperamental part. I liked that. And it all made me wonder if she was as wonderful on the inside as she seemed to be to be on the outside. I certainly hoped it to be the case.
I guess Leila heard me cheering because she glanced over as she stepped considerably inside the baseline to return serve, with just the faintest hint of a crease in the corners of her mouth that was trying hard not to be a smile. And in that millisecond, I got more nervous than I’ve been in my life, as though whatever I did next was going to cause some major catastrophe. The way a schoolboy sometimes gets when he is around a girl that he likes. I wondered if she could tell.
From a court and a half away, by my reckoning, the score is now 15-30. It is hard to tell. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures today.
Leila is struggling. She started well enough, breaking Eichmann twice in the first set to take a seemingly comfortable 4-2 lead, imposing her much more powerful game and bombarding her opponent with a number of aces and service winners. But a series of wild returns coupled with a loose serve game knots this contest at 4 games all, shifting the momentum of the match, and, before you know it, Leila has lost the first set 4 games to 6 to the Drop Shot Queen.
A few more sketchy, hard fought serve games and Leila is on the ropes, down a break and serving at 2-4. Eichmann, to her credit, has figured out a strategy to employ against the taller Niazy, whose frustration at moving forward to repeatedly chase down Eichmann’s forehand drop shots is showing.
It will be a long way back today, in the windy and drab, chill and gloom of early January on Florida’s Treasure Coast.
THWACK! A thunderous backhand winner down the line and Leila draws even at 30-all in the Decisive Seventh Game of set two.
Leila’s next serve bounces off the tape, and dribbles aimlessly off the court and toward the stands where a handful of hearty spectators–mostly coaches and fellow players, and…me…sit watching. I’ve driven to Vero for the second time this week, some fifty miles each way, to see Leila play, and on this cold, wet Tuesday, I’d say I am about the only one who isn’t a player, coach or USTA official in attendance.
Eichmann’s coach starts toward the still rolling ball and then pauses, noticing that it is coming ever closer to me, at the other end of the bleachers. Or maybe it is that he has seen me taking an undeniable interest in Leila with my camera and my cheers. At any rate, he nods and I take it as tacit approval to be chivalrous, Leila’s Knight-in-Shining-Armor, at least for a moment, and retrieve her wayward serve for her, since there are no ballboys or ballgirls in an economizing $25K such as this.
Now, here is where it gets ugly, and fuzzy, and maybe that’s because I have tried to block out what can only be described as the colossal fuck-up that comes next. As I recall, I think what happens is that I walk over to the edge of the court, which as luck would have it has no fence and is totally open on the side, and, without thinking, casually roll the ball back to her end of the court, as would an actual, real, trained ballboy, but this one happens to carom off of a post and into play just as she is about to go into her service motion.
For about a second–and only a second–I feel gallant, like a hero, doing something nice for her, until I realize with horror that both Eichmann and the umpire are holding up their hands and Leila is glaring at me like I am a complete moron, or dumbass, or in all likelihood something a lot worse than either. You know when somebody says they feel about two inches tall? Well, right about now, I feel exactly two inches tall.
Yes, I’m sure it is my fault. I got intoxicated by Leila’s beauty and just screwed up. I’ve been over it and over it about nine hundred times in my head in a matter of seconds, and that’s how I’ve rationalized and come to accept it. I feel like a real dolt. So much so that after she loses the point, which costs her the break, I sneak out on the next changeover, and go watch Caddy Kaylor’s match for a game or two, from behind a tree, trying to figure out how to leave the tournament grounds without being seen by anyone else, for by now I am sure the whole damn place has seen my big stinking breach of tennis etiquette.
It is only later, after having driven the fifty miles home, that I find out Leila has lost the next game and the match 4-6 4-6. I feel like a heel.
Two points from victory now. Leila had fought hard, for three sets, and though Eichmann had seemingly won hundreds of points off of her forehand drop shot, and had managed to win a close second set, Leila had dominated the match from the baseline and was clearly motivated to get her revenge for the previous week’s bitter loss. At the hands of her retarded ballboy.
When I arrived for the quarterfinals that morning, one of the tournament volunteers noticed me standing by myself, reading through a Pro Circuit program, and she approached me and started chatting about the day’s matches.
“Wait until you see this girl Leila who’s playing later today! She’s from Egypt, originally, and is she beautiful!” I think this lady was doing her best to market the event, and the day’s matches, to anyone she could stop long enough to listen. She probably took one look at me and sized me up (typical guy) and knew straight away what (beautiful girl) and who (brunette bombshell Leila) I would be interested in watching.
I practically could have knocked her over with a feather when I told her that Leila Niazy was my favorite player, reciting like word vomit the innumerable career stats of Leila’s that I had committed to memory like any good tennis geek. She grinned one of those “Your-secret-is-safe-with-me” kind of sheepish smiles and hurried off, before I could get another word in. I wasn’t even sure what, if anything, I wanted to say to defend my honor, and so I went back to skulking.
Another crunching forehand winner down the line brought Leila to match point.
“C’mon, Leila, first serve.” It seems awfully dumb, now, to have yelled out something like that in that very moment, and honestly, I don’t even think I know how I can think of stuff like that in that situation, because by that point my palms are sweating and my fingers are usually half covering my eyes like some sort of human latticework. The point being, I get pretty damned nervous at times like that. Whether she heard or not is irrelevant, I guess. She got her serve in, and after a short rally, Eichmann netted a backhand and it was over, about two and a quarter hours after it started.
I don’t know if she felt better, having dispatched Eichmann this week, but I felt a little better. The uneasy, nauseating feeling that had been gnawing away in the pit of my stomach all week had all but evaporated. I felt marginally less guilty about my ball tossing blunder.
Leila had been a qualifier at Port St. Lucie, and six wins for the week was impressive. She was now into the semifinal, and though it was an eighty mile drive, each way down and back, it never crossed my mind not to be there the next day to see her.
A seventh win came on Saturday, but number eight wouldn’t be in the cards for Leila that week at Tesoro–she lost to Parisian and close friend Letitia Musson in the final in two sets, undoubtedly drained from a long week.
I wanted desperately to find a way to congratulate her after her brilliant week, to say “hello” and something positively charming and memorable, but I let discretion play the better part of valor, figuring that between cheering and scoping her out with my camera at five of her matches that week, the only impression I’d likely make on Leila was one I’d probably wish she sooner forget. That, coupled with the Great Vero Ball-Tossing Blunder, and I figured that staying clear of Leila was probably the only viable thing I could do.
Even as my heart surely beat faster whenever I thought about her, I couldn’t possibly find myself worthy of intruding on her time. How could I possibly find the words? Were there even words?
With a lump in my throat I walked to my car and drove home, hoping that in any event, as low as I felt, I might be cheered catching her playing a match or two at the circuit’s next local stop the following week in Daytona, a few hours north along Interstate 95.
It must have been the dumbest coincidence of luck imaginable that the first “center court” match at Daytona the following week, on the day I picked to escape from work and take off to catch a day of main draw play at that week’s $25K ITF was the classic three set clay court tilt between Angela Eichmann and Nicholette Rogers.
The main stadium court was overlooked by a grandstand, capped by a shaded deck which led into the players’ lounge, and this early in the week, with almost no one in attendance, the deck and lounge were open to all spectators, even the plebes like me. Which was spectacular on a day like today, given that that it was about forty-five degrees, and windy as hell, which for Florida, in January, is pretty awful. I know any Yank worth his or her salt is probably thinking, “what the f___ is the matter with this p___y? Forty-five is beach weather”, but when you live in t-shirts and shorts year round, and get grouchy the minute your tan starts to fade, forty-five is pretty goddamned cold.
So anyway, in between sitting on my hands, shivering, guzzling barely lukewarm coffee, and making as many trips into the players’ lounge as possible to soak up the heat in there (I never realized until that day just how monotonous the life of a tennis professional must be until I saw them all, sitting around in chairs, like zombies, doing all the usual social media sort of bullshit like tweeting and snapchatting and instagramming each other on their smartphones….) I was sitting in the freezing shade on the deck, in my hoodie, counting all of Eichmann’s dropshots again, and feeling totally sorry for Rogers, who at one point in the third set threw up her hands in disgust and yelled out exactly what I was thinking: “Can you POSSIBLY do ANYTHING else?!”
About that time, I noticed Leila’s mother standing , oh, let’s call it three and a half feet to my right, wearing her traditional habib. I’d seen her at some of Leila’s tournaments before, including the week previously at Tesoro. The funny thing was, I had this picture of Leila as a glamorous tennis star, right, and yet I’d seen her Mom chiding her to make sure she ate her banana in between sets at Kiwi Club, in my home event at Indian Harbour a couple of years prior. I always smile at that memory when I think about that famous celebrity part of her. You’d think someone as glamorous as Leila wouldn’t have to worry about being told to eat a banana but I guess moms will always be moms….
Leila joined her Mother a couple of minutes later. She stood in between where her Mother was standing and where I was seated, about a foot away from me. I wanted to be sick just about then. Not sick. I…I just couldn’t breathe. The two of them spoke in Arabic, and stood there, talking, watching, waiting, talking, lingering, for about an hour. I was petrified.
At first, I thought maybe she, or they, were wanting to give me ‘what for’ for the ball tossing incident in Vero Beach, you know, maybe for costing her a match, which to a player is earnings, money, part of her income, so I was dearly hoping I hadn’t ruined her life and focused on trying to keep my head down while praying that she didn’t notice me inside my hoodie. Inside my shell. Where I was safe. Kind of like when the teacher is looking for somebody to answer a question in class and everyone has their nose in their book.
Then I decided I would get a little brave and try to indirectly impress her by letting her overhear my amazingly astute tennis knowledge, so I critiqued Eichmann’s limited and awful tennis game in a conversation with my own Mother, who was seated to my left. The things an idiot will do to impress the girl he likes.
Shortly before Eichmann’s match finished, Leila and her Mom left the deck and walked down to court 7, where she soon played, and ultimately won her first round match against Katy Howard. There was a nice lady in the stands who noticed my rooting interest in Leila, and when she saw me keeping score of the match in a notebook, she asked me a whole bunch of questions about Leila, which I happily answered. Any excuse to talk about her–to think about her for a few minutes–was welcome. Leila’s Mother was at the other end of the bleachers, cheering her daughter on. When Leila walked off the court, rather than walk directly over to where her Mother was seated, she made a circuitous route behind the bleachers, passing maybe two feet from where I was sitting, which seemed strange, considering that she went over to talk to her Mother anyway. Silently I was wondering if, you know, maybe it was one of those hints girls give you, like I was supposed to say something to her. But like a fool, rather than say, “congratulations!” or something equally appropriate, I just looked at my notes, as though if I did actually look her, or saw her looking at me, I would explode or melt down like Chernobyl.
But it wouldn’t be the last time Leila and I would “meet.”
That was three months later.
It was April 29. My Birthday, of all days. The Pro Circuit was in town, my hometown, at the Kiwi Club in Indian Harbour Beach. Leila was in the draw, and come hell or high water, I was going to see her play, even though I had been off of work a number of days already, what with the Sony, and trips to Tesoro, and Vero and Daytona. But my boss knew that I liked tennis, and I never took vacation apart from going to tournaments, so when I told him I was going to take some time off to see a few matches the week of the Kiwi tournament, he had no problem with it.
Leila was playing doubles the first time I saw her that week. With her best friend, Caddy. It was a warm, muggy day at Kiwi and having come straight from work, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and dress pants and had just taken a seat as the players were warming up, and was sitting there, minding my own business, when I felt a tug on the back of my shirt.
“Aren’t you hot in that?” I turned around, and a woman, one of those obvious I’m-a-tennis-club-person-are-you? kind of ladies, smiled at me, and pointed at my shirt and again asked if I wasn’t feeling warm wearing a long sleeve dress shirt on such a humid day.
I laughed and told her I’d just come from work to see “my favorite player.” That seemed to spark an interest from her. She asked who my “favorite” was and I told her it was “Leila Niazy”, and as I went on and on about all of the matches I had seen Leila play in person, this lady’s eyes sortof twinkled. She politely waited for me to finish, and then offered up this gem that made me want to barf:
“Well, you know, I’m hosting Leila and her doubles partner, Caddy for the week. They’re staying with my husband and I at our home and….”
I heard the rest of what she said, but I was so sick about then I don’t think I really understood it. I started having horrible visions about what the dinner conversation might surely be like that night at that house, not entirely because of all of the things I spilled to this woman (which I did), and not entirely because she was nursing a big pitcher of some type of beverage that definitely wasn’t water.
Not to mention all of the gazillion or two pictures I shot of Leila during the match. With basically courtside seating, and the players making eye contact with those in the crowd at almost every turn in between points, I imagine it wouldn’t be hard for Leila, Caddy and their hostess to put two and two together if they did start talking about it.
And, like a knucklehead, I spent the entire week at Leila’s matches, in plain sight of her, cheering for her, taking as many photos of her as humanly possible, and generally hiding behind a post whenever she approached so as not to give her the impression that, you know, I had any interest in her. Some things seem pretty stupid when you think about them in hindsight.
Though she had another fine week. on the green clay, Leila left the tournament site a short time after losing her semifinal here at Kiwi, but not before one last colossally epic missed connection.
It was Sunday afternoon, and after a week of rain delays, Leila’s semifinal had been postponed until Sunday. It was windy as hell, and after taking the first set against Yelena Ostronova, she lost in three, but the interesting part was the conversation I had with an elderly couple up from West Palm for the day during the third set. They noticed my extreme partisan rooting interest for Leila, and asked me about it, and her, and at one point, in Leila’s final service game, after she’d served three doubles in a row, the wife leaned over and whispered ‘you’re making her nervous!” Frantic, and worried that my cheering was causing Leila to cough up her match against Ostronova, I asked, “Really?!” I really didn’t want another “Vero” on my conscience.
Anyway, after the match was over, the husband looks over and says, “you should get her number! If I was a single guy like you, I’d get her number!” I always wonder why people say stuff like that. What’s the point? Have you looked at her? She’s probably got a husband or nine million boyfriends.
A little while after the match, Leila and her “host lady” came walking past, obviously leaving the tournament venue on their way to take Leila to the airport and on her way to the next tournament. As they approached, and just about where they passed a couple of feet in front of where I was leaning against a post, the host lady, in her booming voice, yelled out, “Well, if anyone wants to say goodbye to Leila, we’re leaving now….” It was the way she sort of ran it out at the end, and kept it open, like she was waiting for a response. I dunno, like one of those “Girl Hints” I mentioned before. It’s probably nothing. Probably my complete and total imagination. But it was, undeniably, a chance to have said something to her. Anything.
I love that movie, “Say Anything”, with John Cusack and Ione Skye. It’s unbelievably relevant.
“Congratulations.” “I like your game.” “I think you’re really pretty.”
It’s the last time I ever saw her. She never returned to our tournament.
I never got a chance to say anything to her.
They say that life is a journey. The places we go. The things we do. Regrets are the things we don’t do.
Every day I think about Leila.
About not having the courage to say “hi” to her.
Or, “I’d like to get know you.”
Every day I live with that regret.
The thing is, I am pretty sure that Leila’s friends know that I like her. Whether that’s good or bad, or they have a laugh about it, I have no clue.
So many times I’ve wondered, ‘Are you the one who’s watching?’ Is it really you? Do we really have this…this unspoken way of talking to each other, of communicating?’ It hardly seems possible, but it seems like it has to be true, and my mind is unspooling at colossal rate trying to piece it all together. It probably already has. I know that you know. You must. Or maybe …maybe it’s all in my imagination. I wish all of those times had been different, in Port St. Lucie, and Vero , and Daytona, and Indian Harbour, and in Miami, too. That I had had the courage to talk to you. To say something. To start something. I know why I didn’t. Why I couldn’t. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would interest someone like you. I didn’t care if the others thought I was an idiot for asking for a photo or autograph. That was a dumb thing fans do. There was something more important about the possibility of meeting someone who made my heart spin.
I wish I could say that more eloquently and more poetically.