Detention Center Court

Here’s my latest short story. It’s a little cheesy, dark and melodramatic but that’s my style, I guess. Also a little heavy on the play-by-play but perhaps tennis fans will enjoy it. I got the idea last year after Wimbledon and recently figured I’d better write and publish it before Andy Murray starts winning everything and rendering it outdated.

Detention Center Court

I was woken that day by a hard metal rod, poking me in my bony shoulder.

“Federer, wake up. Wake up, dammit. The commander wants to see you.”

I brushed some hair from my eyes and squinted up into the gray morning light at this guard. Like most of the encounters in my life, he knew my name but I didn’t know his. I crawled out from under the worn blanket that had almost warmed me overnight as I had huddled in the corner of my cell. I struggled to stand and shuffled past my various slumbering cellmates to the door.

The guard led me through the labyrinthine corridors of the Geneva Civilian Detention Center (GCDC). We passed countless cells, hundreds of people, a few wearily turning their heads to see who was walking by at this early hour.

Though I once lived in mansions, villas and the finest hotels of the world, this miserable facility had been my home for a long time now. It’s amazing how quickly the old society disintegrated once the dominoes starting falling—the fuel shortages of the mid 2020s led to the food and water shortages, the riots and violence spiraled into all-out warfare, and finally The Great Chaos ensued, six years of mayhem that few persons, organizations or governments survived.

Eventually a new order set in. Power coalesced into the hands of the most ruthless. Somehow they gradually gained control of what limited food, transportation and weaponry remained. While a small percent of the able-bodied were conscripted into agricultural or military service, most of the wanderers were herded into these gigantic walled detention centers. And here we’ve stayed the last 15 years, stripped of our possessions, freedom, or communication with the outside world. All we know about what goes on elsewhere is that other detention centers exist because occasionally people are shipped in here from them—Lyon, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Prague, Milan and others. Today was one of those days.

I was led to Commander Staub’s office, near the front of the massive facility. He was a portly man, a vanishing body shape in this day and age of scarcity, with gray hair and moustache.

“Good morning, Mr. Federer. I’m Commander Staub,” he said.

“I’ve heard of you,” I replied.

“As I have of you, of course. We are honored to have such a famous and accomplished hero as one of our inhabitants.”

“That status hasn’t seemed to get me any special treatment all these years.”

“Mr. Federer, you know these are hard times. Everyone has suffered and sacrificed. There is no room for special treatment.”

I glanced around at the plush surroundings of his office. “You seem to be doing alright.”

“Now, now, Roger—you don’t mind if I call you Roger, do you?”

I could only manage a smirk in response. “What do you want with me, Commander Staub?”

“I brought you here today because we have a special old friend of yours arriving today.”

My dusty mind fluttered with hope. An old friend? Like everyone, I had so many loved ones whose location or fate I had no knowledge of after the Great Chaos. If they weren’t inside the detention center walls, it was as if they didn’t exist. I gulped, trying to swallow this news.

“An old friend?” I asked. “Who is it?”

“Oh, let’s keep it a surprise. Let’s just say it’s someone you’re quite familiar with,” he said with a sly grin. “Would you like to see him?”

Him? I sensed I was being toyed with but I didn’t care. I had to see this person, whoever he was.

“Yes, of course.”

“Good. It took a lot of negotiating with another detention center far away to get him but he’s finally here. Follow me.”

Four guards led Commander Staub and me through the building, out the front door into the center’s vehicle entrance area. In all my years at the center I had never seen this part of the center before, as inhabitants were strictly confined to certain zones of the facility. Even this area was surrounded by high walls lined with electrical wires and flanked by guard towers with armed gunmen.

The only vehicle in the entry area was an armored paddy wagon. We walked toward the back of the wagon, and Commander Staub motioned to one of the guards to open the double doors in the back. When the doors were opened a gaunt man with long gray hair was ushered out, his hands cuffed behind his back.

The face looked faintly familiar and yet not immediately recognizable. Years of violence, hunger and forced detainment had severely worn this man, as it had most everyone still surviving. I stood there staring intently at him and he at me before the stunning answer finally came to me.

“Rafa?” I asked.

“Roger?” he replied in a Spanish accent.

I walked slowly toward him as we gradually affirmed our impressions. When I arrived I embraced him in a warm hug. I stood back, my hands on his shoulders, and we smiled broadly at each other.

“Rafael Nadal, I can’t believe it.”

The guards unlocked his hands and this time we shared a hug.

When they had said an old friend was coming, I had expected someone I knew well, someone from my old inner circle. I certainly had not expected Rafael. While we had been longtime friendly and respectful rivals, we had never been that close. How could we have been? Still, it was great to see him, anyone from that halcyon era so long ago. We had shared so many remarkable moments during our careers.

“Roger,” he said again, with a trembling tone of desperate relief. He looked at me with sad, watery eyes entombed in his sunken face. Though it was unmistakably Rafael, it was hard to believe that that bull of a man was now this frail stick. But even more than the physical change, I immediately sensed even a greater deterioration of the man’s psyche. I could see it in those eyes—something had shattered inside him. As bad as my life had been the past couple of decades, I had the feeling his had somehow been much worse. He looked at me like a drowning man grasping for a life preserver.

“It’s okay, Rafa. It’s okay.” I hugged him again for a few moments until he gathered himself.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Geneva. The Geneva Civilian Detention Center. Where did you come from?” I asked.

“Barcelona,” he replied, as he started to take in his surroundings.

Commander Staub walked toward us and slapped his hands on our backs. “How about that? Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, together again.”

We stood there silently for a few moments, not really knowing what to say or to make of this strange situation.

“Perhaps you are wondering why we brought Rafael here,” Commander Staub said. “Well, I will tell you. As you know, you both finished your careers with 16 Grand Slam championships. You left the world with a big unanswered question—who is the greatest tennis player of all time? Having Roger at our facility gave us the idea of bringing Rafael here to decide it once and for all.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You want us to play a tennis match?”

“Yes, but not just a match. The final Grand Slam.”

I laughed at the absurdity of it. Here we were in 2047, both of us in our sixties. Two decades of warfare, famine, and internment separating me (and surely Rafael too) from the last time I’d held a racquet in my hand. Now this glorified prison warden wanted to stage a supposed championship match for his own delusional merriment.

“No,” Rafael said firmly. “I cannot play. I no play tennis for many years. I no want to play.”

“Me neither,” I added. “Tennis is over. It’s in the past.”

This seemed to irritate Commander Staub. His guards looked at him and wondered how he was going to deal with our defiance.

“Roger and Rafael, you don’t seem to understand how much I and the guards here at the GCDC have been looking forward to this. You may think this is funny, but we are very, very serious. We want our match. We didn’t send all that food and weaponry to Barcelona in exchange for Rafael to see a touching reunion. We want a match. And if we don’t get a match, then you will both suffer great consequences.”

I wasn’t certain how much Rafael understood of what Commander Staub was saying and implying, but I sure did. And I realized we were going to be forced into this. And if that was the case, perhaps we could at least negotiate something out of this charade.

“Ok,” I said, “If we play, here’s the deal. Rafael and I each get new clothes, a cell to ourselves, and we get a year of eating what the guards eat.”

Commander Staub tilted his head in thought and then responded, “Clothes, yes. A cell for each of you, maybe. We will have to see what we can do. Guards’ meals for a year, impossible. I can barely keep them fed as it is, much less adding you two. I’ll tell you what, you can eat guards’ meals for one month after the match. One month and then you return to regular civilian meals.”

I explained to Rafael the situation and how we really had no choice, and what we were getting out of this. He nodded his head in reluctant acceptance.

“When is this match?” I asked Commander Staub.

“This afternoon.”

Rafael and I were invited to join the commander for lunch. Although I was thrilled to see steak served, it was the first red meat I’d had the privilege of eating in years and it somewhat upset my stomach. Still eating a rich, well-prepared meal was a luxury compared to the civilians’ cold daily rations. We ate heartily, and afterward I felt fuller and stronger than I had in memory.

Afterward the guards led us to a small utility room where various tennis supplies were laid out for us to choose from. Apparently anything scavenged from the rubble of the city that was tennis-related was brought here in hopes it might meet our needs. There was a stack of racquets, including woodies, a couple of T-2000s, some ’80s-era oversized Prince behemoths, and even a few decent latter model racquets. We quickly sorted out the ones with broken strings or withered grips, keeping the most recent, still intact models, regardless of our former endorsement allegiances.

After we chose T-shirts, shorts and shoes from a similar mish-mash collection, the commander and guards left us while we got dressed. It was the first time Rafael and I had been left alone.

As I tied my shoes, I caught a glance of Rafael’s body as he changed shirts. Ribs poked through his withered skin. His once brawny arms now hung limply like thin noodles. So much time had passed since our last encounter, I wanted to take the opportunity to reach out to him, to learn more of what he’d been through, and to share myself as well. But it was like I’d forgotten how to connect with others in such a simple, open way.

“Rafael, my friend. How have you been?” As soon as I said it I regretted the tone, as if it belittled the trauma we’d been through. But he smiled warmly, in the knowing way an older, wiser man does. He said nothing though. He just smiled and nodded his head.

“You came from the Barcelona CDC, right?” I asked. “How was Barcelona? We get no news of the outside world here?”

“It is rough. But no worse than it is here, I’m sure.”

“How did you family fare during the Great Chaos?”

“Not good. We stay safe in our home in Mallorca for a time, but later the bandits, they force us out. We survive for awhile like everyone as best we could, but finally…finally my wife and daughter…they are gone now.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

Commander Staub and four guards returned to the room.

“Gentlemen,” Commander Staub announced, “it’s time for the match.”

“What does the winner get?” Rafael asked. It’s funny because up to this point I had not even thought of who would win or lose the match. The exercise just seemed like something I had to endure. But once Rafael asked it, the question seemed obvious and necessary.

The question seemed to catch the commander off guard too. After a few moments of consideration though, he set the prize.

“Yes, yes, I guess you will need some motivation to perform your best, won’t you. The prize is the winner gets to become a guard.”

This was an immeasurable reward, far greater than I think Rafael or I would have imagined. Guards’ lives were dramatically better than civilians’. The guards’ quarters had beds, and they were provided with new shoes and uniforms which were periodically washed. Best of all, as I mentioned before, guards ate much better food than the gruel the civilians suffered. Also, in their downtime guards had access to a bar where they could use special tokens to buy alcohol or, it was rumored, prostitutes.

Civilians, on the other hand, were relegated to a monotonous life of containment, imposed for the sake of control and stability of the masses. The opportunity to become a guard was a cherished rarity. There was no set of tasks a person needed to complete to become a guard, nor did one’s previous life experience, fortune or fame matter much. Guards were simply occasionally hand-picked from the hordes at the whim of the commander. And this was one of those whims.

“Of course, even the loser still gets the benefits we agreed upon earlier.”

Rafael looked at me and nodded.

“Ok, that’s fair,” I said

We were led down a corridor to the doors to the center’s outdoor recreation area. When the doors opened I saw a sea of my fellow center residents. As Rafael and I emerged from the door, the crowd began cheering. I was quite stunned by this but obviously word of our match had been released and everyone invited. Some even started chanting “Hopp Roger!” Up until this point I had been resentful of this whole contrived stunt, but I have to admit that at that point I got goose bumps.

Armed guards cleared a path for us through the mob to a makeshift court set up in the middle of the blacktop-surfaced open area. Surrounding the court was a mixture of rusty metal bleachers, wooden benches and individual chairs, but there were many more people than seats so most people just stood around the court.

The court itself was laid out with lines of questionable accuracy and split down the middle by a ragged net affixed at each end by a two-by-four planted at the bottom in a concrete-filled tire.

Two chairs were set side-by-side just off the middle of the court for us, along with some water pitchers and cups. There were no umpires, linesmen or ball boys; we were on our own to run the match.

I looked around and saw that Commander Staub and several of the top guards had the front seats right behind us. They were exchanging tokens, placing bets, I later found out, on the outcome of the match.

As Rafael and I set our gear down, one of the guards used a megaphone to announce to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to the 2047 Tennis World Championship Grand Slam final hosted by the Geneva Civilian Detention Center!” The boisterous crowd roared approval. “Our three-set match today features 16-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal from the area formerly known as Spain,” a chorus of boos and whistles interrupted him, “versus our very own 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer!” which triggered a loud cheer. I could tell right away the atmosphere was going to be more Davis Cup than Wimbledon.

Rafael and I looked around at the preposterous scene around us. Finally, he looked at me, smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let’s do this, no?”

We took to the court and began warming up. Though the cans of balls had been sealed, the balls were still rather dead. That was no excuse for the ugly, rusty strokes we displayed during warm up though. My first three topspin one-handed backhands framed off of my ’80s-era Head Graphite Pro racquet. Obviously my timing was a way off. My footwork was abysmal, as if I’d forgotten how to prepare to hit the ball. Rafael too could not find the range on his shots, sailing his still-wicked topspin shots far long of the baseline, drawing jeers from the crowd. Slowly though we worked ourselves into a respectable back and forth of ground strokes. After the standard progression of volleys and serves, we met at net. Since there was no umpire, I spun my racquet, and Rafael correctly called “up,” winning the first serve.

Rafael opened up the drama with a double fault. And then another. He finally spun a softie in at Love-30, which I promptly drilled into the bottom of the net. At 15-30, I returned his serve crosscourt to his backhand, which he mishit but got lucky when it crawled over the net for a winner. At 30-all, we had a short, awkward ground stroke exchange followed by Rafael missing a forehand deep.

I was rather embarrassed by the quality of our inauspicious start when suddenly things changed. At 30-40 Rafael ripped a serve down the line which I somehow managed to lunge at and block back deep into his court. He raced around to prepare for my high-bouncing return and jumped in the air as he cracked his trademark windshield-wiper forehand for the first time, sending it wide to my backhand. I scrambled to the corner and managed to lob the ball deep to the middle of the court. He hit an overhead from his baseline wide to my forehand corner. Again, I scrambled over there to manage a reply, but this time my shot was too short. With me wide and deep off the court, Rafael tried a drop shot to end the point. In his day that would have been an easy winner, but with two decades of rust he pushed it a little, bouncing just short of the service T. I sprinted fiercely forward and just managed to scoop under the ball and flick it meekly onto his side before my momentum almost carried me into the net. Meanwhile, with me in a defenseless position, Rafael lofted a topspin lob over my head into the open court. The point appeared clearly over in his favor, but my instincts sent me running straight back to retrieve it. At that point it was as if my run-down, malnourished body became possessed by the fluid, fearless athlete I once had been, because I can’t explain how I caught up to that ball just before its second bounce and sent it back between my legs screaming past Rafael at the net and landing just inside his ad-side line. Forty-two years after I’d missed that shot on my match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker of my loss to Safin in the 2005 Aussie Open semis, my body had calculated the error in my stroke and correctly adjusted my technique. When it happened, the civilians of the GCDC roared their approval and I grunted “Yes!” to myself. And for the first time, all involved realized we had a match.

From that point on the level of play was extraordinarily high, as if we’d been jumpstarted into our old form. Beyond just how we technically played, that one point rekindled a competitive fire in us, transforming us from reluctant participants back into court warriors. Perhaps we were a step slower than we were in our prime, but it certainly felt like the old days. It all felt so real, so tangible, so vital that I’m a little ashamed to say I got caught up in the moment. I knew then I wanted to win. I had to win. And I could see in Rafael’s eyes he felt the same way.

After my initial break, the rest of the set fell into the typical pattern of holding serve. My serve usually put me in position to finish a point quickly even if Rafael managed a return. Meanwhile, he used his familiar tactic of kicking serves up high to my one-handed backhand to generate defensive replies and seize control of points. Back and forth we went until I was serving for the first set at 5-4. I salvaged a break point at 30-40 with an ace in the far corner. After Rafael’s backhand error at deuce point, I took the next point and the first set with a crosscourt forehand after a long rally.

We’d become completely invested in the match, physically and mentally. It had become a battle like most of our matches long ago had been, where hours of intense conflict hinged on a few shots made or missed. I’d won round one and needed just one of the remaining two.

While Rafael always exhibited phenomenal athletic ability in his prime, I’d always felt his most impressive characteristic was his mental fortitude. His effort and focus never wavered, no matter the situation. In fact, he almost seemed to thrive on adversity as if the swing in momentum for his opponent was actually for him. This made it incredibly tough to close him out because you felt like you had to continually raise your game as the match progressed because you knew he would be raising his. This match would be no different. It was the same old Rafa.

He held serve to take the first game of the second set and broke me at 15-40 to take the second too. He was reading my serves better, gaining that split-second extra of reaction time he needed to block the ball back into play. And once a baseline rally was established, he gained the advantage he always had against me or anyone else. We exchanged holds for three more games, before he broke me again a couple of games later to go up 5-1.

I worked hard to hold my serve the next game, but I could feel the stranglehold of his ferocious court coverage tightening. Even at age 61 he could still run down just about any shot. And he hit with so much power, topspin and controlled placement that he kept you pinned deep and in poor position to play aggressively.

Frustrated, I began to hit harder and sharper angles, going for winners. It worked for a couple of games, getting me a break of my own and then a relatively easy hold to get to 5-3. But my low percentage approach caught up with me as a string of unforced errors gave Rafael a set point on my serve at 30-40. After I nervously shanked a first serve, Rafael blasted the second one down the line for a backhand winner. He pumped his fist and exclaimed, “Vamos!” to himself.

Rafael’s leveling of the match at a set apiece quieted the crowd. Their legend, their golden boy, their hero was struggling and apparently ready to cede his title of Greatest of All Time to his rival. I sat in my chair during the changeover, baffled and deflated. The confidence I’d had in the first set had vanished, smothered by Rafael’s relentless combination of offense and defense for which I had no answers. Everything I hit to his side came back, with a purpose. It seemed almost impossible to win a point. I knew I would continue to fight, but I could feel it in my gut, as all tennis players do at times, that I was going to lose this match. Worse yet, I was starting to not care. Did it really matter who won a silly match of sixty-something has-beens?

Just then I heard a familiar voice from the crowd, my friend Stanislas, shout, “Don’t give up, Roger!” His encouragement triggered others to call out in support. Gradually the throng’s rising clamor morphed into a deafening chart of “Roger! Roger! Roger!” punctuated with stomps and banging.

As I looked around at my frenzied fellow inmates it almost brought tears of joy to my eyes. Here they were, emaciated, weak, beaten down inside and out, living without freedom, dignity or hope, and for the first day in memory they were able to forget misfortune and focus on a drama. And I was the hero of that drama, so if I gave up on the match I would be taking something away from them, cheating them. Maybe the outcome didn’t matter but the spirit of the event did. The electricity of the moment transcended physical reality and grew into a shared human feeling. “ROGER! ROGER! ROGER!”

Rafael seemed unfazed by this tumultuous scene and just sat there drinking water. If anything this was pumping him up, tightening his focus. I knew the renewed energy level supplied by the crowd would give me a boost, but I also knew I needed to try something different tactically. I could no longer wait on the baseline for errors or opportunities that rarely came. I had to use my complete game to change the dynamics of the match and disturb his rhythm.

Rafael served first to open the deciding set. I locked my concentration down. When he spun his first serve up the middle to my backhand, I sliced my return deep to his ad side and rushed the net. I hadn’t used this chip-and-charge maneuver all day and it caught him completely off guard. He scrambled over to that side and hit his standard high-arching topspin forehand, but I was waiting at the net, and slapped it away for a quick winner. My crowd cheered wildly. I did it again on the next serve, going crosscourt this time, and thus exposing more open court, but again my unconventional recklessness wrongfooted him and I put away his weak reply for another easy winner. This time the mob really exploded, sensing they were driving a pivotal change in momentum. Rafa countered my tactic this time with a hard serve to my forehand, but that played right to my strength. I cracked a crosscourt bullet, pulling him wide off the court and then put his short reply away to make it Love-40. Rafael answered with two consecutive aces, but he missed his first serve at 30-40. When he spun the second serve in to my backhand I sliced my reply, started to follow it in and then retreated backward. My change of direction caused a last-second change of decision on his part for his next shot, generating a mishit backhand into the net. 1-0 Federer.

I built on the momentum the next game. I served-and-volleyed a couple of times with success. Hell, I even won a point with a sissy drop shot. Suddenly everything was working. And at 2-0, the Geneva Civilian Detention Center recreational area was rocking.

Rafael was ready for my chip-and-charge antics the next game. He made me look a little silly with some easy passing shots and eventually pushed it to 2-1. Still, I had my break in hand and I was hopeful I could continue to hold serve. Fueled by the civilians’ support and my adrenaline I was really cracking some service bombs, and making it hard for Rafael to gain a foothold on a point. I aced him to go up 3-1.

I noticed something about Rafael at the beginning of the next game. He looked tired and ragged. Throughout the match, and indeed throughout the history of our rivalry, he usually had to work much harder physically to win our points than me. He countered my pure power and efficiency of movement with speed, brute force and sheer tenacity. This approach had served him well, but now, decades later, with his body a weathered wisp of its former self, I wondered if perhaps this grueling tussle was wearing him out. A part of me felt sympathy and concern for him. Another part of me smelled blood.

At 30-all in the next game we engaged in a long baseline rally. Finally gaining a short ball, I whipped a certain forehand winner to his ad court, which he nonetheless doggedly chased. But in his pursuit, Rafael stumbled and fell hard onto the blacktop pavement. I’m not sure whether the fall indicated my premonition about his stamina was correct or he simply slipped on one of the scattered pebbles. Rafael laid on the ground grimacing in pain as he clutched the left shoulder he’d landed on. I ran over to him, as did Commander Staub.

“Are you okay, Rafa?” I asked.

After a few seconds he sat up and muttered unconvincingly. “Yes, I’m fine.” We helped him up and he tried to move his left arm around but was obviously in great pain.

“There’s no need to continue, Rafael,” Commander Staub said. “You and Roger have put on quite a show here today. Why don’t you call it a day?”

“No,” Rafael said defiantly. “I can play. I will play.”

“I insist…” the commander began.

“No! I want to play!” Rafael barked. We looked at Rafael a little stunned. How could he play when he could barely move his arm?

“Rafael, maybe he’s right.” I started but he interrupted me.

“Get over there,” he said to me, pointing to my side of the court. “I can do this. Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes, let’s go.”

I returned to my side of the court and the fans applauded Rafael’s gutsy insistence to resume. I wasn’t sure what to expect on the next point, and was surprised to find him hitting quite well and in fact he won the point. When he lined up for his next serve, it struck me—Rafael, a natural right-hander switched by his coach Uncle Toni as a kid to hit left-handed because of its inherent advantages in the sport—was playing right-handed. Rafael won the next point also on an error of mine to take the set to 3-2.

Somehow the psychological dynamic had shifted during this injury break. I’d gone from sensing victory was near, to being concerned about Rafael’s condition, to now not being sure if sportsmanship dictated I should play a wounded man any differently.

Judging by his play, it was becoming rapidly apparent I needn’t have any misgivings about his fitness. Rafael seemed reenergized. I figured I should attack his backhand, formerly his forehand side, but he went to great lengths to run around it and hit forehands. When he had no choice but to hit a backhand, he simply sliced a one-hander back with respectable results. Playing with uncharacteristic aggressiveness, he began dictating the points and broke my serve to even the set at 3 apiece.

I’d invested too much of myself in this match to let this odd shift in momentum determine the outcome. I resolved to ignore Rafael’s injury and play as well as I could. If I could do that, I believed I would win.

The next game was my best of the match. I broke Rafael’s serve in four straight points through long, beautifully constructed rallies, all capped by winners. In the next game, he similarly broke my serve in four superb points. It was 4-all. We then traded games of hard-fought service holds. 5-all.

The level of play had reached a crescendo, as had the fan frenzy. Every point was capped by exuberant roars of approval or groans of disappointment. Meanwhile, I was having a blast. I realized I missed the high of matches like this, where so much seemed at stake, and yet a part of you knew really nothing was at stake. In a larger sense, I missed tennis. It was great to be back on a court.

Rafael began his next service game missing a first serve and then pushed his second serve just long of the line. At least I saw it that way. After I called the ball out, Rafael gave me a dirty look.

“How can you call that out? It hit the line,” he called out pointing to the line from the other side, as if that was going to change my mind. The crowd called out in strident, even vulgar defense of me. It’s a good thing Rafael does not understand Swiss-German, I thought to myself.

“No, it was out. It’s my call, and I called it out.” I replied, rousing a predictable supportive cheer.

Rafael looked around for support, as if there were someone to appeal to. Sensing the hopelessness of it, he reluctantly shook his head and returned for the next serve. He seemed to take even longer to prepare for this one than usual, just holding the ball and glowering at my side of the court for an eternity before firing a rocket serve that I sent long with an errant backhand.

Back and forth we went for numerous points in the game, eventually engaging in an extended deuce-ad interchange. On the fifth ad-in, I once again sliced my backhand return and charged the net, but the ball sailed a little on me and Rafael called the close call out. Immediately, the crowd voiced their outrage. I, myself, didn’t have a good look at the ball but I knew from the feel of the shot it was going to be very close to the line. I was willing to give Rafael the benefit of the doubt, but my supporters were not, perceiving it to be a retribution call on his part for the call of mine he’d earlier questioned. The tense crowd was becoming so unruly and threatening that some of the armed guards had to stand up and wave everyone back to a reasonable distance.

Now it was 5-6, my serve. As I sat in my seat during the changeover, my heart was racing. Still I felt confident I could win the game and send the set and match to a winner-take-all tiebreaker. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see it was Commander Staub. He walked around in front of me and knelt down so that we were speaking almost face-to-face, a moment of intimate words amidst a raucous atmosphere.

“Roger, I just wanted to thank you for participating today and for giving us a wonderful match, regardless of who wins,” he said with a smile.

“Thank you very much,” I replied and shook his extended hand. He then moved down to speak with Rafael.

I thought it was odd he didn’t wait until after the match for that type of comment, but shrugged it off to concentrate back on the matter at hand.

After awhile I was ready to resume play but saw that Commander Staub and Rafael seemed to be involved in a more lengthy discussion so I just waited. I couldn’t hear the conversation, and I wondered what they could be talking about at this point that couldn’t wait until after the match. Judging from their expressions it appeared to be strangely tense. Eventually I stood up and walked to my side of the court to indicate my readiness. After 30 seconds or so more they wrapped up their conversation, but Rafael remained seated by himself a little longer, just staring straight ahead, in deep thought. The restless crowd started to whistle before Rafael finally walked over to his side to receive serve.

I began the game with an ace and hit a winner to take the second point after a short rally. I hit an easy shot long to lose the third point, but won the next two points on unforced errors by Rafael, giving me the game. I was pleasantly surprised I’d held serve without much difficulty and looked forward to the tiebreaker. Needless to say, the fans were at near pandemonium knowing the smoke from the gunfight was about to clear.

We were to play a standard tie-breaker: the first player to win seven points by at least two points would win the set and in this case the match since this was the deciding set. Rafael began the tiebreaker with a double-fault. Very rare for him in such a clutch situation, I thought, but I’ll take it. The next point I spun in a mediocre second serve and he knocked it into the bottom of the net. We started a rally on the next point, but he inexplicably hit a short, weak shot to the middle of the court, which I easily put away for a winner. 3-0 my favor.

Something seemed odd. This was too easy. Rafael, the ultimate competitor, was not putting up much of a fight. I stared over the net, trying to read my foe. We’d faced each other in countless showdowns over the years and the one thing I’d never seen was Rafael not performing at a high level when crunch time arrived. It’s not that he never made an unforced error, it’s just that if you were to defeat him at the end of a close match you had to earn it. I didn’t think time would take that away because it’s a trait of a man’s character, not his game. But he wasn’t himself in his play or his body language.

Rafael seemed to pick up on my skeptical look and hit a nice serve on the next point. I hit a fair return and we began a reasonable point. However, when I hit a good crosscourt shot deep into his ad corner, he did not attempt to return it. It was the type of shot 90% of pros probably would have watched and accepted as a winner, but not Rafael. Even that day in his older, slower condition, 9 times out of 10 he goes for that ball. 7 out of 10 he gets it back. At least once he hits it for a winner. But to just watch it? I looked into his eyes and I knew then something was wrong.

The ecstatic crowd was oblivious to Rafael’s tank job. They figured he was choking or I had raised my game or both. They just knew I was three points from victory and the ensuing celebration. The guards were already lining up around the court to keep things under control. Somebody had set up a small table off to the side with an old tennis trophy to give to the victor of the match. That sure would look silly in my cell, I thought.

As Rafael prepared to serve he seemed unnatural and stiff. He was going through the motions, playing a role. When he tried to hit his first serve, his form collapsed halfway through and he missed the shot comically, sending the ball into the court before it even got to the net. Catcalls mocked him. He prepared for the second serve but the sadness in his eyes belied an internal struggle. He closed his eyes and shook his head in frustration. I believe he truly wanted those serves to go in to at least keep up the act of competing but his body rebelled against what it was told to do.

As it became clearer to me something fishy was going on, my own emotions became increasingly mixed. I wrestled with how to deal with this situation. It was all happening so fast and there was not much time to think. It was my serve at 5-0.

I intentionally hit a weak serve in to give him a chance. He hit an awkward backhand into the court, but when I countered with another easy ball to his forehand he sailed it well long. 6-0, my favor, and my serve for the match after we changed sides.

When we passed at the net I looked at Rafael to try to communicate to him at least unspokenly that I knew something was going on, but he averted eye contact. I reacted without thinking by grabbing his arm, and asking beneath the din “Rafa, what’s wrong?” but he quickly glared at me, pulled away and continued to his side of the court.

In that moment he looked at me I saw a face of sadness and hurt, fear and shame. I knew right then I could not beat this wounded animal even though it was rolling over for me. Something Commander Staub had said to him during their conversation had snapped Rafael’s will and I couldn’t accept it. The world had taken everything from this man but I could not stand to see them take his fighting spirit, the only thing he could hold close to his heart when he would eventually lay down to die. And in a way, I couldn’t let it be taken from me either. Our lives in tennis had not been about money or cars or titles or any of those long gone items. It had been about our will to achieve greatness.

I hit my next serve extremely soft and when Rafael managed a crosscourt forehand return, I started to move toward it, and then feigned twisting my right ankle and tumbled to the court. I grabbed my ankle and writhed in supposed pain. Rafael, Commander Staub and some of the guards came to check on me and the crowd quieted to a concerned hush.

“Roger, are you okay?” Commander Staub asked.

“My ankle,” I said, “I think it is broken.”

They helped me up to my feet and I poured on the anguish as I tried to put weight on it. There was no way I could continue I said, and therefore Rafael was the winner by default. Nobody knew how to handle such an anticlimactic ending. There was confused milling about before eventual acceptance. Finally the guards led us off the court and dispersed the disappointed citizens of the GCDC.

Commander Staub was upset and, I believe, a little skeptical of my condition. It was a little too coincidental for it to happen on match point I’m sure he thought. Still, he did not question my honesty, at least not to my face. In my head I certainly questioned his. I later found out that he had bet heavily on me and had threatened Rafael during their on-court discussion to lose the match or lose his citizenship, which meant banishment to the ravaged wilderness beyond the walled detention centers, a fate of almost certain death.

I thoroughly enjoyed my new clothes and the month of eating guards’ meals, but especially my move to a new solitary cell. Privacy away from the sick and the filthy was a welcome relief, for a time at least because six months later the Commander said cell shortages required him to give me a cellmate. I suspected the real reason was more vindictive. A month later another cellmate was added and later another.

As promised, Rafael was enrolled in the guard corps. It was strange to see Rafael as a guard, wielding a weapon and ordering us here and there. But he became one of the civilians’ favorite guards because he was one of the few who displayed compassion and generosity. When he could, he would save some of his meals to give to a civilian in particular need.

These days Rafael and I occasionally find ourselves with a few moments to chat and reminisce in the recreation area. It is always nice to talk about the old times, the glory days, if you will. But it is also bittersweet for it only emphasizes how much we’ve lost in our lives. Sometimes I wish I’d never had much of an exciting past at all, but merely been an ordinary citizen. Maybe it would be less painful that way.

Rafa likes to joke with me that we need to break out the old racquets and balls again for another rematch to settle it once and for all. But we both know our tennis days are over. We value the memories though. For when you have nothing to look forward to, you can always look back.

~ by jonwbecker on January 13, 2009.

5 Responses to “Detention Center Court”

  1. Cool story, Jon! I didn’t know you were a writer. Let’s hope this grim future remains nothing but a figment in your imagination!

    • Thanks. You use the term “writer” loosely. I enjoy writing every now and then, but I won’t be quitting my day job for sure. As for the future, yeah, I doubt it will be this bleak. If it does, I have a feeling the Nadals and Federers of the world will somehow still do okay.

  2. Easily one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a while. Riveting yet moving. Good work my friend!

  3. Amzing stuff man. I was bit too emotional while reading. But I was very sad to think that we will miss thes two great legend after 10 years.

  4. great imagination and fabulous writing. i hope we’ll never face this kind of world

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