March 2022

Back to Issue 11

Love Means Zero

By Mike Wilson

“Loving someone is like having a mental illness that’s not covered by health insurance…”

from the short story “On a Stone Pillow,” by Haruki Murakami 


Matches were in progress on the other tennis courts when I opened the gate to the court assigned for my USTA match, but I didn’t see any opponent. It was embarrassing to stand passively on an empty court by myself, so I hit a few balls against the fence, then started practicing my serve, serving three balls, then crossing around the net, gathering them up, and serving to the side where I’d started. I was finishing the third serve when my opponent sauntered in and set his tennis bag down beside mine. It was Robert, the civil engineer who stole my girlfriend. Who, to my misfortune, the opposing team had chosen to play against me. And there, climbing to the third row in the bleachers where she could see everything, was Karen. She’d come to watch. Him, not me. Or maybe she’d come to watch us both.

I was determined to be all business – what else could I do? I walked over to Robert.

“Did you open a can?” he asked, meaning a can of new balls for the match.

I had a can in my bag, but what I said was “You’re home. Home team opens.” At $4 a can, I wasn’t going to provide his balls at my expense.  He looked at me like I was being a jerk, but then reached in his bag and pulled out a can. He knew.

“Whatever,” he said, pulling the tab. The pressurized air escaped with a hiss. He tore off the lid and tossed it in the trash basket. A courteous player who opens gives one or two of the balls to the other player, but Robert kept all three. We went to opposite sides of the net to begin warmups.

Robert swatted his first ball hard to my backhand, not a groundstroke for warmups but a winner. I barely got a racket on it, but I saw how it was going to be. Fine. I was ready for the next ball. As we exchanged groundstrokes I focused on getting my muscles lose and tuning my reflexes to the ball’s pace. When I went to the net for volleys, I didn’t react when he struck the ball as hard as he could to make it unplayable or sailed it over my head. I wondered what Karen saw in this guy, but thinking about things like that is dangerous territory to visit before a match. Involuntarily, I glanced at the bleachers, but Karen was wearing sunglasses. I couldn’t tell who she was looking at. She had on pink shorts I hadn’t seen before. Her hair was cut different. I approved – it looked good on her – but then I remembered she was looking good for him.

We practiced serves. I took inventory of what Robert had – a challenging kick serve to the backhand, a slice wide to the deuce that he had trouble placing, and a flat body serve that isn’t as hard as he probably thinks it is – guys with big shoulders always think they’re more powerful than they really are. When it was my turn, I calibrated placement of my serve down the T and tried a couple of slices wide, but only a couple because I use it as a surprise. I didn’t practice the body serve because it always comes naturally during the match when I need it. My only opportunity to observe Karen was during the seconds Robert took to collect balls I’d just served. From the tilt of her head, I surmised she was watching me. I wondered if she was regretting her decision or if the hardness in her heart was still an unappealable judgement.

Serves done, it was time to spin. Normally home spins, but when Robert didn’t jump on it, I wasn’t going to wait.

“M or W?” I twirled my Wilson tennis racket, covering the butt end where the initial is.


I held the butt end out, facing him, and removed my hand. I could tell from his face it was W.

“I’ll serve,” I said, extending my racket for him to give me the balls in his pocket.

“Want me to hold one?” he asked. Three balls in one pocket can be a little much. Had it been someone else, I would have said yes.

“No.” I rolled the third ball against the fence, where I could retrieve it easily.

As I approached the service line, I glanced at the bleachers. Karen was looking at her phone. It occurred to me that she really didn’t give a shit about either of us. I thought of an old Kinks song. Love Stinks.

I bounced the ball, my eyes to the ground, setting my intent. Toss to the ideal spot above my head and strike the point two-thirds of the way up the face of the ball. Power wasn’t important on this first serve. Control was.

 My serve sailed down the T to his backhand, just where I wanted it, and stayed low, difficult to lift with the topspin that, I knew from warmups, Robert liked to load into his shots. His return went in the net.

“Fifteen-love,” I called out in a flat voice, toeing the service line to serve to the ad court.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow description of the match, but speaking generally I was in control. I served to his backhand most of the time, mixing it up the occasional slice wide or hard body serve at his right hip. When he served, between his mistakes and my good shot-making, I was able to break him in the second game and again in the seventh, then held serve to take first set 6-2.

I was up 5-3 in the second set, preparing to serve for the match, when I allowed myself the thought that I had it in the bag. That moment of indulgence weakened my mind, and my eyes wandered to the bleachers. Karen no longer was wearing her sunglasses. Her eyes were on Robert. Suddenly I visualized her having sex with him, doing with himthe things she used to do with me. There couldn’t have been a worse time for me to picture that

I shook my head, as if a cockroach had crawled into my ear and I was trying to dislodge it. I forced myself to concentrate. I was one game away from winning. All I had to do was put the horse in the barn. But as I bounced the ball, I noticed all my energy had leaked from my body. My spine was a wet noodle. I tried to counter this feeling by tensing my muscles but I knew, as I tossed the ball, I’d only succeeded in stiffening myself. The first serve was powerless and went into the net. The second, too. A double fault. I walked to the net and picked up the balls. It was just one point.

Serving to the ad side, I purposed to place the ball wide, to Robert’s backhand. “Out!” Robert called. I took a breath, and on second serve exaggerated my motion, hoping for more control, but the outcome was worse. Another double fault. Now I was panicking, because I knew what was happening. My serve had gotten hinky. The serve is the only stroke in tennis over which a player has complete control, and when you lose confidence in your serve it has a multiplying effect, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can happen to anyone. Even professionals sometimes have their serves get hinky, are reduced to rolling their serves in or even serving underhanded, while the TV commentators cluck their tongues, uncomfortably witnesses to a public nervous breakdown.

I was down love-30. But worse, I felt disoriented, like a traveler in a land where I don’t speak the language, hesitantly boarding a bus that might take me back to the hotel, or to a village where it’s customary to rob strangers. I bounced the ball and served – into the net. On the second serve, my toss was wide to the right, but rather than catch it and toss again, I chased after it, striking at an angle that made follow-through impossible. The ball floated like a shuttlecock and Robert stepped aside to let it land beside him, well beyond the service line. The corners of his mouth turned up. He immediately turned, walked over to the ad court, and positioned himself to receive. Minutes before, I had been the one in charge. Now, I was a defenseless victim, alone on a dark road where a mugger named Robert lay in wait..

Being down love-40 isn’t impossible to overcome, but it is when feelings of impotence pull you down like ankle weights. Plus, Robert’s renewed vigor and the purpose gleaming in his eyes made it worse. I hit a simple serve that rolled in, soft and right in his wheelhouse, like some loser jumping off a bridge. Robert pounced on it, driving a forehand deep down the line for a winner. The match was now 5-4. If Robert took the next game, we’d be tied and, having the momentum, he would likely win.

We went to the side of the court for the changeover, stopping in front of our tennis bags. I didn’t look at his face, because I feared seeing something in it that would dishearten me irreparably. Robert held out his racket, impatient. I removed the balls from my pocket and gave them to him. He swaggered past me, crossed around to the other side of the court, but I remained by my bag. I wiped my neck and face with my towel and drank water from my thermos. I looked in the bleachers at Karen’s expressionless face, wanting her to make eye contact with me. She didn’t. And then I felt my chest tighten like a fist clenching around a stone, a stone made for throwing.

I felt hate. A powerful, no-holds-barred hate that yearned to pound something into submission, to inflict pain for the pleasure of doing so. I felt that hate focus into a laser beam. I tossed my towel to the ground, picked up my racket, and strode to my side of the net. As I took my position to receive serve in the deuce court, my skin tingled with danger. I watched Robert bounce the ball. Now I was the one who was impatient – impatient for Robert to set the point in motion, my racket already cocked to attack.

Robert kick-served to my backhand. Rather than wait for the ball as I had throughout the match, I leaped forward and smacked the ball halfway down the ad court sideline, using a shortened swing, as if I were hitting a volley. He was surprised and didn’t recover in time to make a play.

I had 15, Robert had love.

I took my position on the ad side. Robert served to my backhand again. This time I hit deep to his forehand corner, not hard, but a slice with enough underspin that the ball stayed low after it bounced. He dug it out, but not high enough to clear my racket at the net. I placed my volley in his backhand corner.

I had 30, Robert had love.

Now I was two points away from winning the match. I noticed Robert talking to himself as he collected the ball from the corner. He stepped to the service line. I could tell that he’d given himself some instruction and guessed his plan was one of those slices wide he rarely was able to place. He tossed the ball and swung, slicing wide and deep. “Out!” I shouted, unnecessarily, because it was obvious, but to underline his failure. I was delighted to see anxiety invade his face as he bounced the ball before the second serve. He went to his go-to, the kick-serve, but struck it long.

I had 40, Robert had love.

One more point and the match would be mine. Robert’s face was sober. I saw him summoning what he had inside to meet the occasion, and it occurred to me that he might do just that – rise to the occasion. He tossed the ball and hit a solid serve with pace directly at my body. I stepped to the right and blocked it back with my backhand, but my return was short and weak. Robert rushed forward and punched the ball down my forehand sideline, but with caution because he couldn’t afford to hit this one out. The moderate pace of his shot allowed me time to reach the ball and loft a lob to his backhand corner. It was a lucky get, but corroborated my belief that I was in the right, that the fates believed my hatred was justified.   

Robert scrambled back, but was not able to get behind my lob. His only option was to return it with his backhand while running away from the net, a direction opposite the direction of his shot. There’s no way to get body weight into a shot like that. Consequently, his return lob floated short.

A sitter.

I positioned myself at the net and cocked my racket over my shoulder, never taking my eye off the face of the ball. I smashed it hard to the forehand side of the court and watched the ball bounce over the fence like an exclamation mark.

The shot satisfied me, but the look of defeat in Robert’s face exulted me. I felt like a lion ripping the throat of an antelope while it screamed. When we shook hands, I said all the right words in a deliberately fake voice so he’d know I meant the opposite, to write in permanent ink I beat you.   

We each packed our rackets, towels, and water in our tennis bags without speaking. He left first, anxious to escape the shadow of humiliation that followed his progress across the court to the gate where, I saw, Karen was waiting. She took his hand. Together, they walked away. I stood there, holding my tennis bag, watching.

I had the match, but Robert had Karen.

That horse I thought I’d put in the barn? It had escaped. In the distance, I could hear hoofbeats pounding and barn doors squeaking, swinging back and forth.