Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Match Maker--a Ruthless Story of Love and Tennis

Tuesdays are the days I set aside to showcase my work. Today I would like to share the first two chapters of my novel, Match Maker.

I’m very proud to say that Match Maker was voted best contemporary fiction novel at the 2011 Rainbow Literary Awards.

Fausto Unamzor made a video trailer for Match Maker, so I thought I’d share: http://tinyurl.com/2ev95ds

In the four years since being forced off the professional tour for being gay, Daniel Bottega has taught tennis at a second-rate country club. He found a sanctuary to hide from an unkind world, while his lover, Jared Stoderling, fought a losing battle with alcohol addiction to cope with his disappointment of not playing on the pro circuit.

Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor’s doubles partner.

Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor’s career in tennis, Jared’s love for Daniel, and Daniel’s very life.

Match Maker
Dreamspinner Press (Sept 2010)


In the shadow of every great tennis match
tread the coaches who groom the stars to perform
at their peak. These men and women working behind the
scenes essentially make the match.

Chapter One

Connor Lin’s eyes grew large as the ball bounced short of the service line and sailed into his strike zone. He drew his racket back while planting his body in perfect balance; his arm swung, shoulders rotated, and his racket arched up through the ball and continued into a follow-through. The ball seemed to shriek from the impact as it sped bullet-fast toward the sideline. It scorched a pale mark on the green court a half-inch from the white line. But once again, it was the half-inch on the far side of the line. The lineman’s hand flew up, and he yelled, “Out.”

Connor dropped his racket and blinked at the mark, obviously not quite believing that he had lost another game.

Sweat dripped from his nose and chin.

He glanced at the chair umpire, attempting to coerce an overrule, but the chair awarded the game to Connor’s opponent.

Connor lifted the flap of his shirt, mopped his face, and bent to pick up his racket.
Watching him from the bleachers, it occurred to me that he must have dreamed about this match for most of his teenaged life. He had begun the first game with all the charisma of a champion poised for a run at brilliance, but the match had mutated into his worst nightmare. No brilliance materialized. Point by point, his entire being shriveled. His confidence and composure evaporated.

There was nothing anyone could do to reverse his downward spiral. I felt his frustration, a searing tightness in my abdomen. I had experienced the same ordeal many times, and even though half a decade had passed since then, I knew precisely how he felt: like a man alone at thirty thousand feet without a parachute. He was playing a quarterfinal match on the show court of an ATP satellite tennis tournament, set within the twisted pine forest between Carmel and the craggy cliffs of Big Sur. Five hundred shrieking, stomping fans packed the bleachers, and the loudest of them was Connor’s father, who sat three rows below me in the players’ section.

Cold fear. It first appeared in Connor’s eyes when he must have realized that, without the help of divine intervention, he would lose to a sixteen-year-old whose groundstrokes resembled a caveman swinging a club. His fear visibly gave birth to hatred, seething, and finally, humiliation. What Connor’s eyes showed eventually revealed itself in his body language. He looked like a pro tennis player—lean, agile body, good legs, coffee-colored hair gathered into a ponytail and covered with a ball-cap turned back to front, and the prettiest almond-shaped eyes I’d ever seen—but his slumped shoulders and marred facial expressions gave him away. He was out of his league, and he knew it.

I mentally listed his technical problems with a practiced eye. He had a decent first serve, but a weak, loopy second serve that my aunt Betsy could wallop for a winner. And when serving a critical point, his toss fell an inch or so shorter than normal, making him hit down on the ball and dump his serve into the net. He scrambled from side to side with the fluid steps that produce great footwork, but he seemed unsure of himself anywhere in front of the baseline, and three volleys hacked into the net and a botched overhead told me why.

Other than that, all his troubles lay between his ears. His problems stemmed from impatience. Instead of working the rallies while waiting for a weak ball to attack, he tried to crush winners from a defensive position. He won enough points to keep him pulling the trigger, but he also sprayed enough balls long, wide, and into the net to lose every game.

Nevertheless, even with his obvious technical and mental issues, he was thrilling to watch. His grace, explosive speed, and physical beauty sent chills up my spine. I was not in love with him. How could I be? I had never even met him. But I loved watching him play.

Connor lost the first set with a bagel, and his father shrieked hysterically. At first, he directed his outburst at Connor, telling the boy how to play, then at the opponent, for not being good enough to be on the same court with his son. The chair umpire notified security on his walkie-talkie, and we all waited while two uniformed men escorted Connor’s father from the bleachers. He screamed obscenities all the way to the parking lot.

Connor sat through the whole scene crouched forward on his bench with a white towel draped over his head. I would have bet fifty bucks that tears were flowing under that towel, but I doubt I would have found any takers.

Connor’s game continued to disintegrate through the second set. After a heated argument with the chair umpire over a questionable line call, he turned to flip the bird at a heckling spectator and received a code of conduct warning for “visible” obscenity. Two games later, another out call had him tomahawking his racket and unleashing a screech. It was a sound of pure anguish. I could only shake my head and watch as that temperamental athlete, with the sublime groundstrokes of a top-ten player, suffered a mental meltdown in public view.

I longed to cradle him in my arms and explain that it was only a game, that it should be fun. I wanted him to know that he didn’t need to battle against the pressures that the world threw at him, but he was in no condition to listen to anybody, least of all a has-been like me.

In Connor’s last service game, while he waited for his opponent to step to the baseline, he glanced into the stands. We made eye contact for a dozen seconds, and he looked right through me, as if to say, “Fuck you, you know-it-all bastard. At least I’m down here, still in the fight. What the fuck are you doing?” I saw something flicker deep within those beautiful eyes, something more than defiant pride. Or maybe I just chose to see. Even though his emotions had run away with him, I saw his courage as clearly as if he were holding up his heart like a metal shield.

I sucked in my breath and held it until he looked away.

Chapter Two

Two weeks later, I ambled from the Windsor Country Club parking lot to the fastidious fleet of tennis courts carved into the hillside skirting San Francisco’s most exclusive golf course. Being the club’s tennis pro, I spent my days giving lessons to fortyish housewives and pre-teen children while their husbands and fathers played eighteen holes.

That cool August morning dawned overcast, and gusty winds drove an occasional flurry of mist off the ocean (anywhere other than San Francisco, it would be called rain,) which is pretty much the cliché weather pattern for that part of the city during summer. As I strolled down the damp stone path, I noted with some satisfaction that the courts were dark from the mist, telling me that I would have a quiet morning to get organized before the ladies arrived for their lessons.

When I passed by Mr. Tottori, the head groundskeeper, he bowed and said in slow, precise English, “Hello, Mr. Bottega. A fine day.”

“Yes, Mr. Tottori,” I said, bowing equally as low. “Couldn’t be better.”

When I arrived at the clubhouse, I found the president of the club, Carrie Bennett, waiting for me on the covered terrace. She looked slim in her navy blue business suit, and she sported a fresh, boyish haircut with streaks of blonde that erased ten years from her face, making her look thirty again.

Having Carrie down there anytime before noon meant trouble. I smiled and waved a hand toward my office, but before I could utter a word, she lifted two paper cups and said, “Morning, Daniel. I brought us some coffee. Just the thing to warm us up on a summer’s day.”

I stared at the steaming coffee. In four years of working for her, that gesture was a first. Recovering, I led her into my office, where I had to clear a space on my desk for her to put the cups down.

The desk was crammed with neat stacks of tennis magazines, equipment catalogs, instructional literature, and such. It’s amazing how much time I spent pouring over those publications, but for a perfectionist like me, that’s what it takes to stay at the top of my sport.

At the edge of the desk sat two yellow plastic trays. One, labeled “Tournaments,” held entry forms for an upcoming club event. The second tray was labeled “Other” and held a faded employment application for a prestigious Santa Barbara tennis academy, a magazine advertisement entitled “ATP Instructors Needed,” and a newspaper article about a sixteen-year-old prodigy from Long Beach who was burning up the courts and ready to tackle the pro tour.

I settled my lanky body into a swivel desk-chair and took the coffee she offered, sipping, enjoying the rich bitterness. Over the cup’s rim, I watched her eyes scan the room as she relaxed into the chair beside my desk. The four walls were the color of tobacco spit, and the only window was rusted shut. A paddle-bladed ceiling fan wheeled above my desk, gliding around in slow rotations, but it moved too slowly to stir the air. It made a clock-tick sound with every rotation, announcing each second that passed. The stringing machine had a dozen stringless rackets waiting on the floor. The bulletin board on the wall posted the lesson schedule in different colored inks.

Her gaze settled on the six photos hanging on the wall behind me, framed pictures of me posing with McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Courier, Sampras, and Agassi. Each one fading yellow with age.

I had moved from L.A. to San Francisco four years ago, and I took this job as my respite from an unkind world. I found comfort and safety within these dingy walls. Over the years I’d made it my own, with pictures, trophies, and a bookcase for my sports books and magazines. It was more comfortable than it looked.

“When you played on the tour,” Carrie said, pointing an index finger at the pictures, “you hobnobbed with these guys?”

“Sure, I met them all. Got to play with most of them.”

“You must have been good?”

Finally reduced to a must-have-been. I closed my eyes and listened to the tick, tick, ticking of the ceiling-fan. I opened my eyes again and glanced up to study its action. The movement had no beginning and no end; it just kept going in a circle—tick, tick, tick.

“What brings you down here, Carrie?”

She withdrew a pack of Winstons from her purse. When I shook my head, she tossed it back where it came from and, frowning, said, “Ever hear of a kid named Connor Lin?”

The name sounded familiar, and I had to reflect for a moment before the light went on. I nodded. “Saw him play in Carmel two weeks ago.”

“What did you think?”

“Terrific strokes and plenty of courage, but he’s soft upstairs.” I pointed to my head. “Can’t handle the pressure. His old man’s a real piece of work. In fact, I think dear ol’ dad is the root problem. Connor could be a top player if he’d dump his old man and hire a professional coach.”

Carrie’s lips spread into a wicked little grin. “I’m thrilled you said that, because you may be the remedy that Doc Bottega just prescribed.”

Slowly, I set my cup on the desk. My unblinking eyes riveted on her. I hadn’t coached a big hitter in four years. They all trained in Southern California or Florida, and nobody remembered me—“fallen off the map” would have been a gross understatement. “He wants to train here? With me?”

Her grin blossomed into a smile. “They’re eating breakfast in the dining room. You should see that kid eat. What I wouldn’t give to be eighteen again.” She patted her waistline.

“Why me? A dozen coaches would hock their family jewels to train a kid with his potential.”

“The father wants to keep him close by, wants to help with the training. He thinks he’s the Chinese equivalent of Richard Williams.”

She explained that the father worked all night driving a forklift at a wholesale produce warehouse in Oakland. He trained Connor in the afternoons and slept when the boy was at school. The mother managed a Cantonese restaurant on Clement Street. They had sent Connor to the Huntington Beach Tennis Academy for three summers, but he had stopped improving after the first year, so they were now looking for some local one-on-one training. They apparently couldn’t afford a big-name training camp if he was not improving, no surprise there.

“Besides,” she continued, “the old man is hard-core Chinese. He wants an Asian coach, so you fit the bill. As for the Windsor Club, having an up-and-coming tennis star as a member would be a prestigious feather in our cap. We’re waiving the initiation fees and annual dues. We want this to work.”

For the first time ever, I was being offered a job because I’m half-Chinese, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. The situation seemed absurd, but I noticed a slight trembling in my hands. “You’re serious? You want me to train this kid?”
“Daniel, relax. Just give him a look-over. If you like what you see, we’ll work something out. If not, he walks.”

We strolled up the path to the clubhouse dining room. Memories bombarded my consciousness, some painful and some glorious, all jumbling into something that began to simmer. At the same time, a secret little dream I’d held inside for four long years, like a tightly woven cocoon, began to beat with new life.

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