Like most bloggers, I feel I’m sometimes entitled to use the corner of cyberspace I’ve carved out for myself to share all kinds of written thoughts–be they tennis tournament reports, editorials, tennis related videos, miscellaneous “stuff” concerning the game, or, in this case, some literary junk I’ve been writing which is “based on” true events encountered at tournaments. If it bears no relevance or interest, then please disregard. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. This one I simply call “Leila: A Tennis Story”
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 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 by then, or at least, a way to escape for a few days each year. Anyway, I’d Googled Bea after just happening to catch her name on a tennis match broadcast on television, and learned 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 challenger level 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 and around Florida’s east coast, with three Pro Circuit events held on successive weeks, 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 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 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.
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.
From the first time I saw her play I just couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
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 administrator 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 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 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, and 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 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 Vero 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. 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 boring the life of a tennis professional could be until I saw them all, sitting around in chairs, like zombies, doing all the usual social media sort of shit 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 a couple of years prior. I always smile at that memory when I think about the 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. 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, 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 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 work 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 went on and on about all of the matches I had seen her play in person, her 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 it, but I was so sick about then I don’t think I really understood what she said. I started having nightmares, or daymares, 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 ringside seating, and the players making eye contact 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, or maybe ‘glutton for punishment’ is a more appropriate term, I spent the entire week at Leila’s matches, cheering for her, taking as many photos of her as humanly possible while trying not to be (overly) obvious about it [FAIL] and generally hiding behind a post whenever in sight of her 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.
It’s the last time I ever saw her. She never returned to our tournament.
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.
Every day I live with that regret.