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"Love me, love my game," says petite, 23-year-old Willy to lanky Eric on their second meeting, after a first encounter in Manhattan's Riverside Park in which Willy cleaned his clock. She's played since she was five and is ranked in the 400's; he's played less than four years, having discovered tennis at 18, but he already has a ranking himself. The pair's mutual attraction turns to romance, and they marry within the year, knowing that being on tour will offer few chances for them to be together. Willy is prepared to suffer Eric's envy as she advances, but she isn't ready for him to season his game as quickly as he does. On their first anniversary, he wins against her for the first time; six months later, they play in a showcase tournament for new talent and he wins his match while she chokes at match point in a humiliating loss. Not long after, in a funk over her mental state, Willy seriously injures her knee. Even when she resumes playing, she's unable to turn things around, while Eric, with a few lucky breaks but also inspired play, moves to the international circuit and continues to win. He's unable to do well in Willy's eyes, however, no matter how hard he tries, and the marriage quickly goes from rocky to ruinous. Willy discovers that she's pregnant just as Eric is preparing to play in the US Open; her announcement of what should have been happy news creates a new crisis, which proves to be the last straw.
A persistently melodramatic tone doesn't disguise the tragedy in this moving, resonant tale of two sparkling careers and two decent people unable to live in harmony.
At the top of the toss, the ball paused, weightless. Willy's arm dangled slack behind her back. The serve was into the sun, which at its apex the tennis ball perfectly eclipsed. A corona blazed on the ball's circumference, etching a ring on Willy's retina that would blind-spot the rest of the point.
Thwack. Little matter, about the sun. The serve sang down the middle and sped, unmolested, to ching into a diamond of the chain-link fence. Randy wrestled with the Penn-4. It gave him something to do.
Willy blinked. "Never look at the sun" had been a running admonition in her childhood. Typical, from her parents: avert your eyes from glory, shy from the bright and molten, as if you might melt.
A rustle of leaves drew Willy's gaze outside the fence to her left. Because the ball's flaming corona was still burned into her vision, the stranger's face, when she found it, was surrounded by a purple ring, as if circled for her inspection with a violet marker. His fingers hooked the galvanized wire. He had predatory eyes and a bent smile of unnerving patience, like a lazy lion who would wait all day in the shade for supper to walk by. Though his hairline was receding, the lanky man was young, yet still too white to be one of the boys from nearby Harlem scavenging strays for stickball. He must have been searching the underbrush for his own errant ball; he had stopped to watch her play.
Willy gentled her next serve to Randy's forehand. There was no purpose to a pick-up game in Riverside Park if she aced away the entire set. Reining in her strokes, Willy caressed the ball while Randy walloped it. As ever,she marveled at the way her feet made dozens of infinitesimal adjustments of their own accord. Enjoying the spontaneous conversation of comment and reply, Willy was disappointed when her loping backhand tempted Randy to show off. Ppfft, into the net.
This late in the first set, she often gave a game away to keep the opposition pumped. But with that stranger still ogling their match from the woods, Willy resisted charity. And she wasn't sure how much more of this Randy Ravioli (or whatever, something Italian) she could take. He never shut up. "Ran-dee!" echoed across all ten courts when his shot popped wide. Between points Randy counseled regulars in adjoining games: "Bit too wristy, Bobby old boy!" and "Bend those knees, Alicia!" Willy herself he commended: "You pack quite a punch for a little lady." And the stocky hacker was a treasure trove of helpful advice; he'd demonstrated the western grip on the first changeover.
She'd smiled attentively. Now up 4-O, Willy was still smiling.
The Italian's serve had a huge windup, but with a hitch at the end, so all that flourish contributed little to the effort. More, intent on blistering pace, Randy tended to overlook the nicety of landing it in the box. He double-faulted, twice.
As they switched ends again, Willy's eyes darted to her left. That man was still leering from behind the fence. Damn it, one charm of throwaway games in Riverside was not to be scrutinized for a change. Then, he did have an offbeat, gangly appeal . . . Ignoring the passerby only betrayed her awareness that he was watching.
Newly self-conscious, Willy bounced the ball on the baseline six, seven times. If her coach knew she was here he would have her head, as if she were a purebred princess who mustn't slum with guttersnipes and so learn to talk trash. But Willy felt that amateurs kept you on your toes. They were full of surprises-inadvertently nasty dinks from misconnected volleys, or wild lobs off the frame. And many of Riverside's motley crew exuded a nutritious exultation, losing with a shy loss for words or a torrent of gee-whiz. With Randy she was more likely to earn a huffy see ya, but she preferred honest injury to the desiccated well done and two-fingered handshake of Forest Hills.
Besides, Riverside Park was just across the street from her apartment, providing the sport a relaxing easy-come. The courts' wretched repair recalled the shattered Montclair asphalt on which Willy first learned to play: crabgrass sprouted on the baseline, fissures crazed from the alley, and stray leaves flattened the odd return. The heaving undulation of courts four and seven approximated tennis on the open sea. Poor surface mimicked the sly spins and kick-serves of cannier pros, and made for good practice of split-second adjustment to gonzo bounces. Craters and flotsam added a touch of humor to the game, discouraging both parties from taking the outcome to heart. An occasional murder in this bosky northern end of the park ensured generously available play time.
In the second set Randy started to flail. Meanwhile their audience followed the ball, his eyes flicking like a lizard's tracking a fly. He was distracting. When the man aped "Ran-dee!" as the Italian mishit another drive, Willy's return smacked the tape.
"You threw me off," she said sharply.
"It shouldn't be so easy." The onlooker's voice was deep and creamy.
Abruptly impatient, Willy finished Randy off in ten minutes. When they toweled down at the net post, Willy eyed her opponent with fresh dismay. From behind the baseline Randy could pass for handsome; this close up, he revealed the doughy, blurred features of a boozer.
Emerging from his towel, Randy grumbled, "I've been hustled."
"There was no money on the line," she chided.
"There's always something on the line," he said brusquely, "or you don't play."
Leaning for his racket case, Randy grabbed his spine. "Oooh, geez! Threw my back last week. Afraid I'm a pale shadow . . ."
Zipping up, he explained that his racket had "frame fatigue"; not much better than a baseball bat, capisce?
Her coach Max often observed, When boys win, they boast; when girls win, they apologize. "I was in good form today," Willy offered. "And you got some pretty vile bounces."Double Fault. Copyright (c) by Lionel Shriver . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Q: Why did you choose tennis as the backdrop for Double Fault?
A: When I began to write this novel, I had serious misgivings about the direction my literary career was heading in. Like Willy, I've always had a single ambition -- to be a novelist. I had consecutively published my fourth and fifth novels, but only in Britain, and I thought I was slipping off the literary map. I found that possibility inconceivable. Meanwhile, my husband, Jonathan, was receiving faxes from American university presses practically begging him to write a book for them. That drove me crazy. So I realized I was sitting on top of a gold mine and decided to put it in my novel.
Q: Why can't Willy be happy for Eric's success?
A: I was simply being loyal to my subject matter. If Willy had been another type of person, she would have been able to work it out. But after dedicating her life to one goal, Willy can't be noble. Failing is one of the hardest things to do well. It's a lot like growing old.
Q: What message are you trying to convey to a greater audience?
A: I want my readers to feel sympathy for themselves. It's hard enough not to get what you want without feeling that you didn't measure up. Hopefully readers will gain a new appreciation for the people around them who gave everything to a single goal and didn't get what they wanted. Failure may sound dark to American ears, but in Ireland, failing well is revered. In fact, succeeding is somewhat suspect, because we all know that luck plays a significant part. That's what I want people to remember: that they're not the only one in the boat, and that it's not their fault.
Q: How does it feel to publish your sixth book in the United States?
A: Incredible! I'm back.