Tripping up a God

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Write about a character whose life changes for the better.... view prompt

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Inspirational Creative Nonfiction Historical Fiction

The following is set during the Wimbledon tennis championships in 2013.  The match in question really happened and the score is accurate. There is no record of any locker room discussion prior to the match, this is only the author’s assumption. However given the extraordinary outcome, clearly something extraordinary must also have happened before the match began…

Sergiy Stakhovsky strode into the Wimbledon men's locker room, standing artificially tall so as to project confidence he was struggling to decide if he actually had.

The locker room at a tennis Grand Slam is an odd place. For the first two days for the singles alone it needs to accommodate 128 first round competitors and then by the last Sunday there are only 2 competitors left. So it goes from cramped to very spacious. From a small chance of awkwardly bumping into your opponent prior to a match, to a guarantee of it.

In a team sport you have private space in the locker room before the game with just your team. You can get psyched up without having to worry about what your opponents are doing. In tennis it all happens in the same room. Sergiy saw this as a positive. Ranked at 116 in the world he was not able to pay for the team of dieticians, physios, coaches and psychologists that the top players had in their entourage. In fact for this tournament he didn’t even have a coach. But it fascinated him watching the best in the world and how they prepare for a match. Maybe there was something in their preparation that he could use to unlock his ability. 

He was well aware that the actual technique and physical ability of the top 200 tennis players in the world was very similar. He was also aware that despite this similarity there were certain players who always seemed to win. Sergiy’s opponent for today would be one such player. Roger Federer had reached the quarter finals in every Grand Slam he had played in for the last 7 years. Sergiy thought about that for a moment. Roger had not lost any of his first 4 matches in any Grand Slam since 2006. With four Grand Slams a year he did some quick math. That was 112 matches plus more as he got further in a lot of those tournaments. 

Those are some serious odds to come up against in a tournament that is already intimidating just for its level of prestige and grandeur. He assumed the rule to wear all white - the only tournament in the world to stipulate this - was partly just to remind players that they weren’t bigger than the sport and that they were coming to the home of tennis.  

So as Sergiy strode into that locker room standing tall, he didn’t feel tall. He felt like cannon fodder and he couldn’t help thinking about how he could at least make the match entertaining for the crowd. But he pushed those thoughts away. Those are not the thoughts of a professional athlete and they’re certainly not the thoughts of someone who is wanting to become a giant-killer that very afternoon. He found himself wondering if he did have a psychologist what they would be saying to him. But he felt they probably wouldn’t be saying anything to him. They would probably have done all the work on mindset weeks if not months beforehand. An hour or two before a match was just too late. 

As he sat down on a bench in the corner of an alcove in the locker room to prepare for this second round match, he gazed around at the pictures of previous champions and breathed deeply. For someone who plays the sport for a living it really was a privilege to come to this tournament. It’s an exclusive club that revels in history and tradition. They say the easiest way to become a member of the club is to win Wimbledon. So not easy. But then again he didn’t want to become a member - he needed to remind himself that he didn’t go in for all the pomp and ceremony. It’s all there to distract and make people feel like they don’t belong. He was there to play his best tennis and that was it. 

The match was scheduled next on court but they had to wait for the previous match to finish. Then he’d be heading out in front of thousands of fans.. Fans who would no doubt be cheering for Roger. There were a few things going through Sergiy’s mind during this wait but above all he was visualizing key points and imagining breaking down Roger’s awesome defense. 

“Would you like another towel? Or some more water?”. He was jolted out of his reverie by a man wearing Ralph Lauren which he knew to be the official dress of tournament officials. He guessed that this man was a locker room attendant although pondering the event afterwards he realized the man never said that he was. 

Sergiy looked up, took in the vision of the older man with slight stubble. He was about six foot three and Sergiy could be fairly confident about that as height is such an important part of the professional tennis players arsenal he had become good at assessing other peoples’. 

He thought for a moment. And then he thought about why he was thinking about whether to take another towel or water. This was valuable brain space he was taking up. After a few seconds he said yes to the extra towel. His reasoning was simply that if you believe you can win you have to prepare for a grueling five-set encounter which might take a number of hours. So an extra towel it was. 

The man handed it over and then paused. He then surprised Sergiy by sitting down next to him, side by side. 

“You OK?” asked the man. Sergiy was wondering what on earth a lock room attendant was doing disrupting his preparation. The man could see he was not interested in talking but he persisted. 

“Listen, you’ve got a big match coming up shortly and that’s an understatement. Your chances of winning are very small indeed, we both know that. And we don’t have much time.”

“Much time to do what?” Sergiy had taken the bait. 

“You could ask me why I’m doing this but I’m not sure I even know myself. You came here with no coach so maybe I’m just filling that role for this match only,” the man said. 

Sergiy didn’t respond. The man was being deliberately cryptic and Sergiy really didn’t have the patience. He didn’t want to be told he couldn’t win and he certainly didn’t want to spend the next half an hour talking to a stranger. 

“Do you want to know what I think about your match today?” the man continued. 

“Go on,” Sergiy said, not quite rolling his eyes. 

“Well I think two things. The first is that you have nothing to lose. So relax. If you relax you might reach your peak performance. If you’re tense you have no chance.” This was such an obvious point for a professional tennis player Sergiy felt like telling him so. But the man said it with such authority and such conviction it almost took on a new meaning for Sergiy. 

“And the second is that you need to believe. The truth is that there is almost nothing between you and Roger. There is almost nothing between Roger and anyone in the top 200. Apart from that he knows he is better than you, that he can beat you. It’s such a strong belief you could call it knowledge. People call him a genius for the incredible shots he pulls out but really those shots come from the knowledge that he is going to win. You will have hit better shots in practice when the stakes are lower. Am I right?”

“Probably,” said Sergiy, “but that’s true of anyone”. 

The man started slapping his thighs and humming. ‘Ummmm-day-do-ah-da, Ummmm-day-do-ah-da, Ummmm-day-do-ah-da’ over and over. “Do as I do” he said. Sergiy felt compelled to copy even though his rational self told him he would just look silly in front of fellow competitors. After a time, maybe two or three minutes - Sergiy had lost track - the man came to a crescendo and then stopped. 

“Is that all I need?” Sergiy said slightly sarcastically. 

“You’ll see when you get out there” the man responded. Sergiy couldn’t deny that he felt taller when he stood up and certainly calmer. And just at that moment the names Federer and Stakhovsky were called over the speaker system for their match.

*************************

Sergiy arrived back in the locker room after the match feeling a mixture of shock and euphoria. He had just beaten the best male player ever to play the game and broken that 7 year streak of reaching the quarter finals. The scoreboard showed 6-7 7-6 7-6 7-5. There was no denying it. He had won. 

How had he done it? He didn’t know, but he had an inkling. He had felt a calm sereness throughout the match that he hadn’t felt before. There was something out-of-body about the experience. But he now had the evening to let it sink in before he needed to start preparing for the next match. 

***********************

Sergiy walked back into the locker room a couple of days later. He took a seat in the same place. Call it superstition. The man didn’t. Nor did he ever see the man again during his subsequent visits to Wimbledon. But whatever happened now in his tennis career, even if he fell into obscurity, he would always remember the time he beat the best player in the world. 

June 28, 2022 13:03

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