Maria's life has been tennis, always, always, since she was a little girl. Work on serving, practice footwork, get on the bike. Play with boys five years older than you and twice as tall, and never ever let them see you look like you might cry. Run and run and never give up on a ball, and fight for every point of every game of every set of every match. And then do your homework for third grade in the morning.
She thinks her father was annoyed when she turned out to be beautiful. At least at first. The boys will run after her, he told her mama, when she was supposed to be sleeping to rest for a tournament. She will be distracted. He sighed, and she could hear them kiss. ¡Dios mío!, why did she have to take after you instead of me? If she was as ugly as me, she could be a world champion.
Her mother had laughed and said she would be a world champion and beautiful, which is why Maria loves her mother best. She respects her father, though, even when – especially when – he shows her no mercy because she is his daughter, but makes her run drills until she nearly passes out. Tennis is hard work. Without pain and effort, you cannot succeed. She does not want to be Anna Kournikova, famously beautiful but never #1, never winning a title. She wants to be Maria Sharapova, beautiful and successful; she wants to be Andy Murray, working until she drops and happy to ugly-scream if it will get her to her dreams.
There is no room for boys in her life. No room for anything except tennis. Some of the other girls in the locker room have fun with the boys; she knows that some of them believe that fucking around leads to better play. Maria isn't quite sure how that works, but she imagines it has something to do with relaxing and letting go of stress. But she will never be a Genie Bouchard, cheerfully sleeping her way through the ATP tour and having fun doing it. It sounds like more stress than it's worth, and boys seem like such high maintenance.
Her family is not rich. The national tennis federation pays for her training when she is young, but that money only goes so far. Her father comes around to approving of her beauty when she uses it to land her first big endorsement campaign, bringing in more money than she's won in tournaments all year. It's a means to an end; with the money she hires a full-time physio and a PR manager. She wants her team in place when she bursts onto the world stage.
By the time she makes it to the US Open that year, the ad campaign has gone big. She is beautiful in a luminous, untutored way, they tell her, which sounds like a load of bullshit, but she smiles and goes along with it. They ask her if she is dating anyone, like Maria & Grigor, so photogenic, or Flavia & Fabio, so impish, or Caroline and Rory, so megastarry, and she shakes her head, laughing. Why everyone is so obsessed with such unimportant a thing, she doesn't know. Tennis is the important thing. Tennis is the only thing.
And then she loses her serve.
Her father thinks it's mechanical, that she's compensating for some minor niggle and has lost the knack for a moment. They run drills whenever a practice court is open, until the sweat trickles down Maria's back. Her mother thinks it's psychological, that she's facing her first Grand Slam as a possible contender instead of a human-interest sidenote and it's knocked her off her game. She talks to Maria during the drives from the hotel to the courts and back again, telling her that she doesn't have to be afraid, that she is loved no matter what happens.
Maria doesn't know what the problem is with her serve, but she wants it gone. Her serve is one of her weapons – on a good day, it buys her free points and gives her breathing room against canny opponents. Now her first serve won't go in no matter how focused she tries to be, no matter how calmly she visualizes the movements she's practiced so many times.
“Out!” calls the lineswoman across the court, and Maria screams in frustration. “It was in!” she argues, even though she knows the call was correct. Out, out, out, always out!, she yells at herself inside her head, adding a few profanities. The umpire can't hear her thoughts; it won't be an audible obscenity penalty unless she loses control and starts using them aloud, which may very well happen if she can't get her fucking serve IN the fucking SERVICE BOX....
Her second serve bounces up and hits the offending lineswoman in the head, and as if in slow motion, the lineswoman slumps to the ground.
They take the lineswoman off the court and replace her with another, and Maria goes on to win the match in three sets. But it was entirely too hard a match for a first round, and her serve is still wild. She's hitting linespeople in the head, for god's sake. If she plays an opponent of any quality at all, they'll eat her for breakfast and do it laughing.
She's heading into her second hour of practice after the match that afternoon when she sees a familiar face peering in at her through the fence. Gawkers are nothing new – when she practices on the courts open to the public, there are always crowds lingering. She gets at least two marriage proposals a day and far more lewd invitations; she refuses to sign any body parts, and has conscripted her older brother to lurk meaningfully nearby whenever she has a public practice. He's a teddy bear, really, and wouldn't hurt a fly, but he looks properly menacing, with a body built more for rugby than tennis.
This afternoon she's opted for privacy, however, which means that the only watchers will be people with all-access credentials. Is the watching girl another player? No, Maria knows all the competition – the worthwhile ones, at any rate – and also the muscles aren't there. Is she the girlfriend of one of the boys, or one of the girls, for that rate? Maria considers it, but she doesn't think so. No, there's something else...
“You're that girl,” she says, still breathing a little hard. “That linesumpire I knocked out.” When the girl doesn't say anything she adds, ruefully, “It's my serve.”
She doesn't do apologies. Linespeople should know to move, anyway. They shouldn't get distracted, that's for amateurs. First rule on the tennis court, keep your eye on the ball.
“It's pretty terrible,” the girl agrees, which wasn't what Maria expected. It's oddly charming, somehow.
She turns back. “Usually people move.”
It starts with laughter.
The next day is her off day. Maria trains in the morning, and then her mother coaxes her to visit the Empire State Building. It's a tourist trap, and she spends most of her time there thinking about her serve. Maybe she should be enjoying her time in New York, but she'll have many years in New York, if her body holds up (and she fully intends that it will – she already eats on a carefully constructed plan, and does stretches all day every day). She'll never again have her chance at a real first impression.
She trains again in the afternoon, then puts in time in the gym before they go to dinner in the players' cafeteria. Her training is nothing too heavy – you don't want to overtrain during a tournament – but it leaves her itching for more. “I want to practice my serve,” she tells her father, when he wants to go catch the hotel shuttle. “Just a little longer.”
He frowns. Maria knows he worries, sometimes, even him, that she pushes herself too hard. But if she got the beauty from her mother, she got the drive from him, and he relents. “One hour,” he says, shaking his finger at her playfully. “No injuries. I'll go to the gift shop for your mother. She wants a shirt with that lineswoman's face on it.”
That memory only makes her work harder, once she gets to the courts. Why won't this damn serve go in? She knows some days are worse than others. She knows sometimes you can only wait until one day, magically, the knack comes back. But really, her serve has fucking horrible timing to pull this at a Grand Slam, it's worse than your period coming the day you get new white tennis dresses...
“Psst, hey!” the fence behind her says.
Maria's alone on the tennis court, though a shout will bring the locker rooms out to investigate, and she turns quickly. But it's only the lineswoman, with a cardboard figure taller than she is herself.
She's a pretty girl, the lineswoman. Maria hadn't really realized that before. She's been told she can be a bit myopic, focusing only on tennis balls, lines, nets, the sound of a clean racquet hit. The lineswoman, however, is certainly pretty. Far prettier than her cardboard figure.
She's also tired. Maria can see that she must have been working all day, busy on the bottom half of the WTA draw, or perhaps on some men's matches. The hit on the head yesterday can't have helped, either; Maria imagines having to stand still all day, focusing on the flight of the ball, moving only to call the line or avoid being knocked out. It's not a pleasant prospect. There's a reason Maria's a player and not a linesjudge.
“I thought you could use it for target practice,” the pretty lineswoman says, quite possibly because she is suffering from exhaustion. The head is too high for real serve work, and Maria thinks she hasn't quite fallen to trying to knock down cardboard figures. Parlor tricks.
“If you aim for my head, you can't miss,” the lineswoman says, looking so earnest and helpful.
She really is very pretty.
It's not that, Maria thinks firmly, as she draws up into her service motion. It's just that she feels a bit sorry for hitting the woman in the head, even if she should have moved. She'll knock down the cardboard figure a couple of times, just to humor her, and then autograph it or something. All in a day's work.
The problem is, Maria doesn't expect it to be this much fun.
“Again,” the lineswoman said, and fuck, her smile is as pretty as the rest of her. She sets up the cardboard figure, fixing the floppy head, and Maria can do nothing else except knock it down again, and again, and again, because each time, that smile comes out.
And it's the damndest thing, but as she knocks down that silly cardboard figure, she can feel her muscles loosening. Ah, they say, serving! Is that what we're supposed to be doing?
Yes, she tells them, savagely, and then decides to stop talking to the voices in her head and concentrate on making the lineswoman laugh instead.
They even play a little tennis. Maria is good at coaxing, and even though the lineswoman – Debbie, she says her name is, sharing it as shyly as she shares her water bottle – says she's horrible, she gamely takes the racquet Maria offers her. She is horrible, as it happens, completely hopeless, but instead of Maria finding it annoying as she usually would, she finds it charming.
It's the relief that her serve is slotting back into place, she tells herself, and hits another easy sitter back over the net, just to watch Debbie try for a backhand.
Debbie draws a mustache on her cardboard doppelganger, surprising Maria into real laughter. She can't remember the last time she laughed like that around anyone except her family. Tennis isn't really all that funny. It's a job, it's a passion, it's a vocation, but it's rarely funny. She's not like Aga Radwanska, who laughs at everything, her whole face lighting up. She's not like Caro Wozniacki and Serena Williams, who share private jokes and send each other off into peals of laughter. She's herself, Maria, and like Maria Sharapova who shares her name, she is here for business.
Except Debbie's mustache is truly funny.
And when they walk under the lights of the stadium, and climb up to the top, Maria is only half dreaming of the day when she'll earn her place headlining the night session in front of all those thousands of fans.
She's half – more than half – dreaming of the girl walking by her side.