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Love Game
by Jonathan Lowe

After bucking the crowds at JFK I was in no mood to be pick pocketed by a pro in broad daylight, much less by a young punk whose dirty hands left marks on my white tennis shorts. But what can you do? Tourists, however we try to disguise our minority status, are perennial victims of prejudice and discrimination. So there I was, without taxi fare or pocket money back to the JFK Hilton, and worst of all, without my tickets to the US Open. Tickets which had been purchased six months in advance, and could now only be bought from scalpers at slightly more than three times the original price.

Barking my frustration at the office personnel would probably do no good, I realized. But I decided to try, anyway. Unfortunately I was beat in line by a stream of other complainers. Frustrated balding old men in Bermuda shorts and their fat hen wives, mostly. By the time I got halfway through the line my anger had metamorphosed to something akin to cynical resignation, and I pushed past the milling crowds around the courts toward one of a half dozen snack bars. My intention was to bum a glass of ice water before thumbing myself back to the hotel. I could have called a limo and charged it to my room, I suppose, but there'd been over a hundred bucks in that wallet. More than a day's wage loading and unloading furniture in Omaha. Was I gonna go home empty handed after saving so long just to see a little tennis action up close and personal?

"Sorry," the old biddy behind the refreshment stand cage told me. "We don't have any water. Would you like a Bud or Mich draft?"

I looked up at the lighted Coke display. It read: Draft Beer $3. I started walking. But since the tennis club where the Open was being held was roughly seven miles from the hotel, just to say I'd been there in case I couldn't get standing-room-only tickets for the later rounds, I decided to look around first. It was, after all, something I'd have to brag about to all the boys sitting around their wide screen TVs back home watching all the scores, clicking their remotes from sport to sport during commercials. Maybe if I just slipped down one of those private hallways unnoticed, I'd even stumble in on Agassi and Chang sipping Coke from Dixie Cups and discussing their investments. Maybe I'd overhear Edberg turn to Stich and say, "Remember that backhand cross court I ripped on you at Wimbledon?" To which Stich might reply, "That's nothing. You forget the topspin lob of mine that left you in the line judge's lap in the semis at the French." Taken from another angle, wasn't it my right to hear a little 'pro' talk, too? What with my loyalty to the WTA and the makers of Penn tennis balls? With my subscription to Tennis magazine five years running? Didn't I, Dale Gordon, loading dock jockey and fan extraordinaire, deserve a break for all the hours I'd spent of my otherwise miserable life?

The highway stretched hotelward to my right. To my left was a long green building adjacent center court, with one wing burrowing under the vaulted stands. Mentally, I flipped a coin. After that, following my instincts, I began to wonder about the death rate of curious cats.

"You're Vic Trenton, aren't you?" said the man in the green suit with the emblem of an official from the World Tennis Association.

Vic Trenton? I thought. Vic? Vic Trenton? The name rang a number of bells of the tinkly, wind-chime kind. So that by the time the sound of them approached the clangor of bronze gongs a full three seconds had elapsed. But since I'd just been caught in the restricted hallway, three seconds was all it took to make my decision. I nodded.

"We...really didn't expect you'd be coming," said the official with sudden consternation. "Wasn't there a crash at Honolulu International...something about an Air Force fuel tanker exploding?"

"Yeah, but it...didn't hold me up that long," I replied weakly and thought: I can't believe I just said that.

The official glanced at his watch, then back at me, then back at his watch.

Another moment and I'd be hustled outside, and maybe even detained for police questioning. But what the official then said was: "You're late for the briefing. We'll have to check your schedule too, of course. Craig Newman the Australian was slated to take your place in the opening round.

"But I..."

"Yes?" "I'm afraid that, well...my rackets didn't make it with me." The official smiled. "No problem, Mister Trenton," he said. "We'll have the Wilson people set you up. Just follow me."

It was like a dream. They were having their morning bull session before their first round's play...Stich, Edberg, Chang. And over in one corner, Sampras. Was it really? It was. Agassi was talking to six or seven minor contenders, oblivious to the elderly gentleman reading what I assumed were the tournament rules. My heart felt like it was about to gag me. There was a big schedule board in back, and as I passed I scanned it until I found the name Vic Trenton.

Vic Trenton {27} plays Mark Stedman {unranked} 3:15 PM, Court 7.

Someone had written in red pencil opposite this the word Pending.

On the wall was a picture board. The players were alphabetized there. And after Solomon was Victor Trenton.

Me? Well, we had the same high forehead, the same rounded cheek bones, the same over the ear hair style with locks the same dirty blond. His stats showed him to be twenty-seven, six foot-one, a hundred seventy-seven pounds.

I was twenty-nine, six two, and weighed a hundred eighty-five. We might have passed for near identical twins. Still, I didn't know who he knew, or how he talked. And obviously, although I considered myself to be an above average tennis player, I wasn't in his class. But was I just going to walk out now, to go home and brag about what might have happened if only I'd gone through with the bluff?

No way, Jose.

Sidling over to within earshot of Sampras and company, I sat. And that was when Andre walked in. He was late too, and looked pissed just like on TV.

Rick Cohen was behind him. The two of them came over and sat behind me.

Agassi put his foot on the crossbar on back of my chair, nudging it rhythmically. I didn't turn around.

The moment of truth came at the ending roll call. I had to raise my hand for a second, and it drew a few eyes. But still, no one was escorting me out. Not the official who went to reactivate my 3:15 match, nor the real Vic Trenton.

How's that burning tanker doing right now, Vic old boy? I thought.

Bringing to mind December the Sixth of '41, I hope?

After the briefing, all the men who would be playing that day, including some who'd already played, just sat around in their tennis shorts and warmups, munching the hors d'oeuvres that had been brought in, waiting for the time when it was their turn to report to the courts. Eric Jorgensen, the Norwegian madman, came in then, and things went into limbo. They called him number twenty because that was his stable computer ranking. They also called him Eric the Barbarian, because he always aimed for the feet. The Barbarian walked over to the side table, and after selecting a Ritz cracker with a smudge of Cheez Whiz on it, plopped it in his big mouth. He was the real bad boy of tennis---somebody who would have made McEnroe look like Little Lord Flauntleroy, especially in any dark alley between the stands. He might have been higher in the standings, too, except for his tendency to growl, spit at, and otherwise intimidate his opponents. In the past, this had cost him not only points, but games and matches.

Seeing me stare at him, Jorgensen flashed a millisecond scowl and said, "Who the devil are you?"

Several other players turned slightly toward me at this. Nervously, I extended my hand. "Vic," I said, simply.

Number twenty took my hand and squeezed. He said nothing. Then he sat beside me. Agassi got up and left, a sick cheese-eating grin on his face.

Bad blood between them, I could tell. Maybe words had been exchanged, if not blows. In my peripheral vision I perceived eyes assessing me. Were we friends? Was I not the loner I hoped? They'd stopped laughing over there for some reason.

"Vic Trenton," Eric the Barbarian repeated philosophically. "Didn't I play you in the second round of the Stanley Cup two years ago?"

"Hey, that's right, isn't it?" I said, swallowing the lump in my throat.

"You aced me into oblivion, as I recall." Here I lowered my voice. "But who are you playing in the first round here?"

True to his word, the official, a man by the name of McGuffin, obtained four rackets for me from the Wilson people, all strung at ninety pounds. What he actually gave me, though, were five rackets. The fifth was a Prince Graphite. Prince, he explained, had learned that my contract with Wilson had just expired, and would I maybe try out the superior performance of one of their oversizes, which had been conveniently strung for me at precisely ninety pounds?

So now I had food, my own locker, a player pass to all games and VIP parties, and hopefully several hours to enjoy it all. I could carry a racket around and sign autographs if I wanted. Or I could shoot the breeze with all the beautiful people in the clubhouse, hoping not to pick anyone who knew me too well. Ivana Trump, perhaps? Brooke Shields? In short, I was in tennis heaven. Or so I thought.

Being twenty-seventh in the world, I soon discovered, had distinct drawbacks. The only autographs I was able to sign were for two kids, one of whom had dribbled chocolate on the back of the waxed ice cream wrapper I tried unsuccessfully to imprint with the name Vic Trenton. And the closest I got to Ivana was a chat with her bodyguard Vince, who informed me she didn't want to be disturbed. {ie. especially by a man who twenty-six people in the world had the right to call "loser."} He wasn't going to do me any favors, and I knew how that felt. In fact, as I watched Jorgensen go down in defeat to the punishing backhand of Andre, I got to see first hand how tennis was dominated by a handful of world-hopping celebrities, some still in their teens, who showed no mercy in their run for the money, the fame, and the power. Below the top ten, and you were nobody.

It happened like this: Jorgensen came onto the court for their 12:15 match with fourteen rackets, as if he expected to break a few on the linesmans' heads. It was hot, maybe ninety degrees, and if you looked across the flat green hot top, you could see waves of heat like the horizontal lines on an old tube TV. Since this was the first center court match of the tournament, I glanced up at the announcer's booth and sure enough, there was Bud Collins up there, practicing his one-liners for broadcast. The match began with Jorgensen scowling across the net at Agassi, and Andre returning nothing except a cold, implacable stare which held in it all the implicit cruelty of the grave. Agassi opened with a service ace, which was overruled by the chair umpire, who called it out.

Jorgensen grinned. Andre just barred his teeth. The mood was set.

The second service went thus: Agassi served into the Norwegian's backhand, a serve which I overheard the man with the laser speed gun say was a hundred three miles an hour. But Eric the Barbarian somehow returned the service up the line, catching Agassi off guard. Andre reached for it, managed a slice drop shot, and after recovering, charged the net. But then Jorgensen lobbed.

So Andre jumped to slam it, missed and doubled back again, slamming it this time right into Jorgensen's solar plexus. End point one.

"You can always tell when he's scared," Agassi told the waves of heat around his feet. "He wets his pants."

Cackles of laughter from the stands. The crowd loved a good blood letting.

They knew what was on the line all too well. It wasn't just the money or the car or the trophy so much as the chance to be admired by the likes of Trump and Nicholson and Brooke. If you were good enough in this ritual slaughter of your opponent, you'd get to bed your own movie celebrity on a more or less regular basis, too. And the endorsements and commercials you'd clinch would keep you in black Russian caviar for at least until Wimbledon.

This is what the crowds paid to see. I could imagine Bud up there too, quipping away one-liners from a list of them he had ready, and maybe substituting a laundry list for all anyone knew. Several times during the first set Jorgensen shrieked at the judge. Then he shattered a racket on the net post, and was fined a penalty game. Mellowing slightly in the third and final set, however, he only once turned to the linesman and said, "Minimum wage isn't enough for you, is it?"

After the match, which he lost 6--0, 6--2, 6--1, everyone ignored him except me and Connors. Jimmy, walking past him toward the winner with a microphone, said, "Nice try."

"Right," Jorgensen replied, wryly. "Right."

After Jimmy had joined the circle of smiling faces over where Agassi stood sipping Gatorade, Eric turned to me and said, "Look, so I lose in the first round here. Big deal, right? There's always a match somewhere that the brat pack doesn't go. Maybe I'll go to the Fiji Island Open or the Papua New Guinea Cup. Listen...I'll win because no one above me knows how to get there! And if not, we still get paid by Nike and JC Penny. Right? They pay us just in case by some fluke we make it to the top ten. Then they have us under contract already, and we can't up the ante for a while. Hell, Fruit of the Loom is even negotiating with my agents. You gotta see this thing in perspective."

"I think I'm beginning to," I said, realizing my own match was coming up in about thirty minutes.

3:15 PM. Mark Stedman, of course, had no idea he was about to play a fork lift operator from Omaha. This helped me do well in the warmups. Plus the fact that my bloodstream was about to OD on adrenalin. As Mark retied his shoelace, I scanned the meager audience sitting behind the woven fence surrounding Court 7. The faces looked bored, intolerant. Expiring minds wanted to know whether we could relieve that boredom before they returned to their fast food, traffic jam, diaper rash, tax and spend world. Some of them had even ponied up scalpers money to get in, such was their desperation, and I knew all too well they were looking for a show.

Well, I'd give them a show. Even if I lost every game.

I served to Stedman. I didn't have any topspin on it. It was just a bull shot, hard into his backhand. He netted it.

Well, what about that, I thought.

I tried it again. Stedman almost got a handle on it this time, but not quite. Not yet. It was too conventional, too unexpected. So I tried it again. This time he returned it to me with a little something extra. But my adrenalin was really pumping now, and I squeezed it by him cross court.

Then, the next point, I chopped his return over the net for a let court winner. The people clapped. They didn't care if the point was sheer luck. It was winning that counted.

Now I had the psychological edge. It wasn't enough to break him, but I continued to hold my own. And when I did finally break him, it was 5--4, my serve. Stedman managed a rally in the second set, where he broke my service twice. He would have broken it again, except he was making as many unforced errors as McDonalds has commercials. He kept rubbing his elbow too, and grimacing. Yet he won 6--4 anyway.

The third set could have gone either way. Except I obtained added incentive. I thought I saw Bjorn Borg in the audience. He was wearing a baseball cap, and had short hair and dark sunglasses. I kept looking over at him, trying to make sense of the signals he was giving me. Was it really him? I wasn't sure, but it helped me win the tiebreaker, 7--6.

Set four? It was like a dream. Not the counting sheep kind of dream, but the nightmare kind where something small and round and furry is after you, and the harder you try to escape it the closer it comes to Pac-manning you.

I had my rhythm, and I was playing the most incredible tennis of my life, it was true. But Stedman wasn't missing as many as he had been. Or was it that my freakish Twilight Zone luck was back? What is certain is that now it was Stedman who was wiping the chalk that had splattered his knees, while the chair umpire overruled my shot out. He won three straight love games, making it 5--2.

I looked over at Borg, and there he was expressionless as ever in his tourist disguise, but I knew, if it really was him, that he was having a bad hair day. Then he tapped his head with one finger. A private communication, meant for me?

Think Vic. Think. That's what it's all about.

I decided to rush the net. My height gave me an advantage there, at least. And if I used a lot of angle, and made him reach for it enough, maybe that elbow of his would give out and...

Yeah. Sure. But had I given any thought about what would happen if I won the thing? Or if I lost, might the real Vic Trenton, temporarily incommunicado in a hotel room in Honolulu, then call and learn about his entering and failing to advance into round two? I could hear it now. He'd be yelling like Eric the Barbarian. There'd be questions asked of Mr. McGuffin. Serious questions involving his retirement income. In short order, McGuffin would be making McMuffins, and I'd be hustled off in a squad car.

If I stayed around long enough, that is.

As I moved up to intercept Stedman's devastating ground strokes, a plan began formulating in my mind, and it involved calling the New York Time's sports editor, and maybe the National Enquirer. Naturally, it would sound better if I won. Perhaps, if the real Trenton wasn't informed, they'd advise me to keep playing. And I'd get to meet Ivana and Brooke after all. My serve and volley game improved dramatically from that point. Then Stedman began to assume the appearance of someone in critical need of elbow surgery. I won the match 6--4, 4--6, 7--6, 7--5.

"Hi...Bjorn?" I said, greeting the sunglassed and elusive former superstar outside the fence.

"Hi," Bjorn said. "Whoever you are."

I took his shoulder and guided him to one side of the people-stream.

"How did you know?" I whispered.

"Well," Bjorn replied, evenly, "it might have something to do with your change of style. Playing right-handed these days, are you?"

I smiled, albeit nervously. "This is my...one lucky break," I told him, my voice almost pleading. "It's a fluke. Never happen again. Next week I'll be back lifting crates in some warehouse. So do me a favor, and don't tell yet?"

"You get no promises from me," Bjorn replied, frowning.

"But why? Why? You don't know what it's like being me. I've been a faceless fan for years, always paying the money, going to the games and paying court fees, buying balls and magazines and videos. You're used to people swarming around you all the time, driving Ferraris, eating with people like Princess Grace."

"Yeah," Bjorn said. "All the time. Only Vic is my friend too."

Five minutes later, security arrested me in the parking lot, trying in vain to hail a limo. They took me to the central office for interrogation, where a fat man by the name of Gillespie introduced himself as the director.

McGuffin stood behind Gillespie, looking like a man who'd just eaten his tie. He wasn't wearing one.

"We've just had a tip about your identity," the director informed me, his tone glacial. He leaned and put his hand on the filing cabinet beside him.

"So we looked into it. Just to make sure you weren't ambidextrous. Now, would you care to explain this, Mister..."

I extended my hand. "Gordon. Dale Gordon, gentlemen. Love the game. But I'm just a...warehouseman from Omaha, up here on vacation. And before you decide to call the police on this, I think you should know that my bondsman's call will be made instead to the offices of Sports Illustrated. Don't you think it'll look a little funny having a forklift driver from Nebraska winning in the first round of the U.S. Open?"

Gillespie did a double take, and rubbed his chin for a long time. He resembled someone himself, now: Walter Cronkite.

"And if you're thinking this might be good publicity for you," I added, "like this nobody wins...meaning so can you, mister consumer...forget it.

For Borg's sake we'll just invalidate the match and let the real Trenton play it over, if he's coming at all. As for me, like I said, I'm just here for a little tennis action. Can we work something out?"

"Borg?" the bewildered director responded. "It wasn't Borg who complained to us, Mr. Gordon. It was a young man who found your wallet, which had a driver's license in it. Mr. Borg is on his yacht off the Greek islands, having turned down options from CBS to offer commentary during this tournament."

The next day, washed and shaved, and with my guest pass securely buttoned in my shirt pocket, I took my seat in the top center section of the grandstand.

"How's it going, old buddy?" I said to the man in the faded dungarees and Budweiser cap sitting next to me. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Immensely," Borg replied with a genuine smile.


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