One of the blessings of maturity is that you realise that winning is not the be-all and end-all of life. Sometimes trying too hard to win can cost you a high price. This short story tells how Damien and Gill, Sue and Tim, compete in the College tennis tournament. The prize for winning is a trophy. But what might you lose if you pursue it ruthlessly?
“Did you manage those problems for our physics tutorial next Monday?”
Sue and Gill had brought folding chairs into the quad so they could enjoy the sunshine of a glorious early June morning while they studied. Gill nodded.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I suppose you couldn’t go through them with me? I’m struggling to do even one of them.”
Gill looked up from her book. “Do you mind if I just finish this section?”
“No, of course not. I’ll go and fetch the work I’ve done so far.” Sue jumped to her feet and bounded up three flights of stairs to her room, gathered an untidy armful of papers from her desk, and scuttled back down.
Gill looked through the assortment of pages until she found the first problem.
“Look!” she said. “You’ve almost finished this. You’re using the right equations, you’ve just made a mistake in the arithmetic.”
Sue scanned the paper.
“Oh, yes!” She took the paper from Gill and corrected the error. It didn’t take her many minutes to finish the problem. Meanwhile, Gill glanced through the others. ‘Sue seems to have completely misunderstood the concept’ she thought. Carefully she talked her friend through the work.
“Oh, wow! Thank you so much, Gill!” Sue hugged Gill warmly.
“Is this a private hugfest, or can anyone join in?” Gill jumped. Sue laughed.
He leaned forward, and she kissed him tenderly. They’d been dating for a couple of months, and she could still hardly believe her luck. She gazed at him, eyes shining. Smiling he took both her hands in his, moving even closer. “Tim! Look out! You’ll have the chair over!”
“I’d better be off,” said Gill. “I must take this book back to the library.”
“Get off, Tim!” Sue pushed him away. “Gill, I’m really grateful for your help. Would you like to join a few of us punting on Saturday? We’re going up to Grantchester.”
“For a liquid lunch,” added Tim. “You’d be very welcome. Bring a friend if you like; there’s room for another one in the punt.”
“Yes, I’d love to join you.”
On her way to the library, Gill paused at the College notice board. The advertisement for the College tennis tournament was still there, and she looked to see whether Sue had signed it yet. She’d been talking about it for ages.
“How about teaming up for the tennis this afternoon?” Gill jumped. She hadn’t heard Damien approach.
“I’m not very good,” she said.
“No problem. I’m no good either. But I expect it will be fun!”
Gill smiled shyly at him. “As long as you’re sure you don’t mind if I’m useless.” Her blue eyes, with their long dark lashes, peered up at him from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde hair.
Damien fished a biro out of his pocket. “Damien and Gill”. His handwriting was neat, even on the vertical surface of the notice board. He grinned, teeth creamy against his short, curly beard. “Got a lecture now. See you at the tennis courts at a quarter to two!” Gill looked again at their two names, paired on the notice board. She stared at them for several long seconds.
Sue came panting up.
“Phew! Just as well the notice is still there. Tim would have killed me if we weren’t in the tourney. I said I’d sign us up last week!”
Hastily, she scrawled “Sue and Tim” onto the notice.
“Damien’s partnering you? Wow! Lucky you! What a hunk!”
“I just hope I don’t let him down.”
“Don’t worry. It won’t matter how badly you play. It’s not the tennis court where he hopes you’ll be brilliant!” Thus, the wisdom of a twenty-one year old to a nineteen year old. Gill blushed crimson.
As luck would have it, Damien and Gill were drawn against Sue and Tim in the first round. They were on Court 3, a pretty court a little distance from the pavilion. The grass was smooth, short, and scarcely worn. The lines were fresh and bright white. There were birch trees to shelter it from the prevailing wind.
Damien tossed the ball high and opened the match with a clean ace. Fifteen-love. Tim shook his head. He should at least have laid a racket on the service. Sue moved from the net to receive Damien’s next delivery.
“Go back a pace,” suggested Tim. “The ball came high off the ground.”
Sue retreated well behind the baseline. The service was fast. She poked at it, connected, and the ball plopped invitingly over the net, ideally placed for Gill to hit a winner. Gill swung hard, and despatched the ball heavily into the net. Fifteen all.
Tim was ready for the speed of Damien’s next service, but not for its direction. The ball swung fiercely and landed just the right side of the centre line. Tim’s attempt at a backhand return missed completely. Thirty-fifteen.
Sue stood well back again. Damien slightly mishit his serve, and Sue returned it straight down the line. Damien was left flat-footed. Thirty all.
Tim grinned. “Nice shot.”
A double-fault. Thirty-forty.
Damien’s next service was gentler, as he sought to recover his accuracy. Sue stepped in and hit the ball hard towards Gill, who squealed and dodged. Damien ran across court behind her and just retrieved the ball. Hit at full stretch, his shot rocketed down the line leaving Sue stranded. Deuce.
Damien’s next service was fast and accurate, but Tim returned it.
“Yours!” yelled Damien to Gill, inviting her to take the volley.
Gill turned. “What?” she asked. The ball bounced between them, neither of them touching it. Advantage Tim and Sue.
Trying to conceal his exasperation, Damien walked across to Gill.
“I’m sorry I distracted you,” he said. “When there’s a ball that either of us could hit, I’ll shout “Yours” if I want you to play the shot. And will you do the same for me, please?”
“Yes. Silly of me. Sorry.” She felt as though her blush extended right up to her hairline.
Damien double-faulted, and the game was lost.
After a while, Damien stopped trying to coach Gill. He tried to cover her, so that when she missed a shot he was able to keep the ball in play. For a while the strategy succeeded. They were ahead three games to two after Damien’s second service game.
Tim was next to serve. Damien won the first point with a blistering return. Tim served to Gill. The sun was in his eyes, and the ball went into the net. His second service was slightly mishit, and bounced well for Gill. She gritted her teeth, opened her shoulders, and swung with venom and frustration. The ball flew between Tim and Sue, bouncing just inside the baseline.
Tim put down his racket and applauded. “Good shot!” he called. Sue ran up to the net, beckoning to Gill to come close.
“Don’t let Damien get you down,” she whispered. “Play for yourself, not for him.”
Gill tried to take the advice, and she did, indeed, play a few more good shots. But all the time she felt that Damien was watching her, covering for her, trying to win the match for both of them by his own efforts. Her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth turned down. She trudged from place to place on the court, wondering what she was doing there, and longing for the ordeal to be over.
Slowly the first set slipped away from Damien and Gill.
Sue and Tim were starting to show their quality. Tim played hard. ‘The quicker we win, the less embarrassing it will be for Gill,’ he thought.
Sue became very cross at her friend’s humiliation. When one of her shots hit Damien in the face, she was hard pressed not to show her delight. Sue and Tim won the second set six-one, and with it the match.
As soon as they’d all shaken hands, Sue grabbed Gill, and walked back to the pavilion with her. Damien watched them go. He’d begun to half-realise that Gill was upset. He watched as Sue passed Gill a tissue to wipe her eyes.
‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘You stupid so-and-so. You’ve totally blown it!’
He looked at Tim, who shrugged. “Not clever, Damien. Not clever at all.”
Damien looked towards the pavilion. Would it be worth trying to apologise? No. That would just make matters worse. He chucked his racket into his bag and slunk away to sit and sulk in his room.
Tim sauntered back to the pavilion. Perhaps tomorrow he would invite Damien to the punting party, give him a chance to recover his position with Gill. He’d better check that with Sue first, though. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he thought she’d deliberately tried to hurt Damien in that second set…