After that kiss there hadn't been many opportunities to see each other off the court. Despite Maria's coach grudgingly agreeing that Debbie had been good for her tennis, he wasn't keen on any distractions. And since the last thing Debbie wanted was to be the reason Maria lost a match, it meant the closest they'd come to a date were stolen moments when Maria could sneak off. They might have had more time if Maria had lost a match, but Debbie could hardly begrudge her reaching the final.
At least the end of the tournament would bring some time to relax, whether it was celebration or commiseration. Maria was playing her long-time rival, Serena Mensch. Serena was on a winning streak, having not lost a set all week, whereas Maria had struggled at first, until her serve improved.
Debbie had the day off, at Maria's insistence, and she sat at the the end of the player's box closest to the exit, wondering how Maria had managed to talk her into this. The introduction to Maria's coach and the rest of her family had been in Spanish, so Debbie didn't know what Maria had told them. Her worried look had only brought her a smile from Maria. When Maria's family discovered she didn't speak Spanish, beyond the few words needed to tell them she didn't speak Spanish, they'd mostly ignored her. Which was fine with Debbie. What did you say to the parents of a tennis player you were trying to secretly date?
While they waited for the players, she occupied herself by looking over the court. From here she had an unobstructed view. She was close enough to see the umpire clearly, as he stood by his chair, looking towards the entrance to the court. She was far enough away that she wouldn't have to turn her head to follow the ball. Although she'd seen tennis matches before as a spectator, this was the first time she'd not been right at the back.
Serena was the first on court, but the volume of the applause and cheers when Maria followed told Debbie who the crowd supported. She watched as Maria smiled and waved to the crowd. She was always happy for their support and had told Debbie how much people rooting for you could lift you when things weren't going well.
Debbie's eyes were only for Maria; watching her as she unzipped her jacket and placed it on the back of the chair, then sitting down herself. She pulled a couple of rackets from her bag, tested them against each other and chose one. As she stood she glanced up at her box. Debbie returned the smile that would not have been just for her, and Maria jogged to the net for the coin toss.
While the players warmed up, Debbie leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. Maria was trying to intimidate Serena by placing all her serves on the line: a promise of things to come. Debbie's gaze was drawn to Maria's long legs, made all the more visible when her skirt flared up as she served. At first she had been amazed Maria was interested in someone like her. But it turned out that Maria had been grateful for the help and hungry for a friend. And more than a friend. She'd welcomed the understanding of her loneliness, even if Debbie's fame would be fleeting.
Debbie was still lost in her thoughts when the match began and before she knew it, Maria was serving. Her nerves were still in check and her first serve was straight down the middle: an ace. Debbie had enough nerves for the both of them and when Serena played a return winner, Debbie's hands were at her mouth. She'd stopped chewing her fingernails years before and tried not to start again now. Even when Maria narrowly lost the first game and went on to lose a close first set with just one break of serve.
As the players sat down Debbie slumped back in her seat. Maria, on the other hand, leaned forwards, her face buried in her towel. Maria's coach was mumbling to himself, presumably about all the things Maria had done wrong and how her serve had lost its edge after that first game. But Debbie knew none of them would give up on Maria yet.
When the umpire called time Debbie applauded with the crowd, shouting "Come on, Maria." Whether it was the crowd or Debbie or something else, Maria had a skip in her step and proceeded to win her first service game to love and follow it up by breaking Serena's serve. Maria quickly turned the match around with a double break, and the second set was hers not long after.
As both players sat down, Debbie took deep breaths, drowning out the excited Spanish chatter around her. It wasn't just the sun making her sweat. When she looked away from Maria to try and calm herself she saw how many of the cameras by the side of the court were trained on Maria. She wondered if that was because they thought Maria would win or if she was just more photogenic. Debbie knew she wasn't alone in thinking Maria was beautiful.
There was, though, one camera looking in Debbie's direction. She frowned, telling herself it was just getting some reactions from the crowd. She turned to the big screen, hoping to confirm this and saw herself. Everyone was looking at her. Some were pointing and others were taking photos with her phones.
She turned her head away, hoping they'd focus on someone else so she could escape. She still wanted to watch the match, but from somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as there weren't any cameras. It had been a mistake to come here.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the picture on the screen change to show some of the second set highlights and took her chance. As she stood up she caught Maria's eye. Maria looked hurt, so Debbie gave her a short, reassuring smile before she turned and left the court.
There was a bathroom not far away and Debbie retreated to it gratefully. A splash of water on her face cooled her down, then she took her time to wash her hands. She told herself that the crowds already knew who she was and would assume Maria had invited her to apologize for hitting her, even though it had just been a very bad serve. If anyone asked that's what she'd say.
She couldn't stay here too long or there might be other people wanting a bathroom break. Having spent the week here she'd learned the layout and soon found the official's room, which had a television in one corner. She sneaked in the back, peering between the people standing to see the screen.
What Debbie saw on it worried her. Maria was doing badly. She was trailing 3-0 and looking like losing her serve for the second time in this set. Her serves found the net more often than not, her backhands landed beyond the baseline and her forehands were in the tramlines.
Debbie couldn't watch; she had to watch. For Maria.
She raced back the way she'd come, but then had to spend an agonizing few minutes listening to the umpire call the score to a lackluster crowd. Finally the game was over and she could go back to her seat. But it was getting worse - after the changeover Maria would be serving to stay in the match.
Now Debbie took no notice of the cameras or the screen or anyone listening. Although people in the crowd were talking, there wasn't the volume from earlier. So when Debbie shouted Maria's name, Maria easily heard her. Maria beamed when she saw Debbie. "You came back," Maria mouthed.
Debbie nodded, smiling herself, glad she had returned. "You'd better win," she mouthed back.
Maria gave her a thumbs up, and despite needing to win seven games in a row, bounced onto court before the umpire called time. The Maria of the previous five games had gone. She served aces and she returned balls past her opponent. Every shot she went for was on the line and all of Serena's missed by inches. The crowd woke up, cheering for their favorite, while Serena's shoulders slumped between points.
By the time Maria was serving for the match Debbie almost couldn't look. She put her hands in front of her eyes, then peeked through her fingers. Serena dumped her return into the net. Debbie didn't know how Maria dealt with the pressure because it was killing her. She ceased to watch the match and kept her eyes on Maria instead. That at least gave her something else to focus on. She watched Maria's forehand, which was perfect. Her backhand caught the line and her volley was into an open court.
"Game, set and match Miss Fernandez."
Maria dropped to her knees, as the crowd stood, applauding with all their might. When the players had shaken hands, Serena trudged back to her chair to thrown herself in it and her racket beside it. Maria still had the energy to race over to the corner of the court.
The player's box was a few rows up, but the barrier was short. Maria jumped over it with a foot to spare, and raced up the steps, the people nearest congratulating her all the way. Her coach pulled her into the box as they exchanged words in Spanish. Debbie didn't need a translator to guess what they were. Maria moved along the row, hugging the rest of her family until she came to Debbie.
"Congratulations," Debbie said, throwing her arms around Maria, with no care for anything else.
"Thank you." Maria let go to grin at Debbie. "I couldn't have done it without you." Before Debbie could protest that, Maria kissed her.
With Maria's kiss she forgot about the cameras and what the media would say or how many hits it would get on YouTube. She forgot about the crowd and Mara's family and the other lines umpires who were watching. She just kissed back, feeling the same joy that Maria did.