“I can feel the devil walking next to me”
—One Night In Bangkok, Chess
Desire is what leads to sex, to hard on, to drinks bought, nakedness, to showers, towels, tooth brushing, hair combing, clothes shopping, new shoes, new sneakers, new haircuts, lipstick, mascara, false eyelashes, diets, jeans squirmed into, eyebrows plucked, hair dyed, French kissing, glances over pool tables, on sidewalks, across bars, on dance floors, on beaches, across the aisle on the plane, around the baggage gate, from the back of motorcycles, at the salon, with the masseuse, to teacher, the student, professor, cop, bank teller, housekeeper, right now between you and I, right now a zillion looks are being given—where are the eyes around you?—some caught and some passed on. Here she gives a too studied look, eyes out and open, hair thrown back, and he’s at once attracted and repulsed.
Those looks, flirtations, were irresistible to Marcelo—Mark as he was known, American names tend to conform to one syllable sooner or later—made the leap to stay with one. Ana was pretty, caring, smart, young, with smooth skin. He couldn’t imagine wanting anyone else. He met her at a restaurant. From across the room he thought she’s 100% what I want physically. She obliterated all the other women in his life. At first. They got married after six months. Then desire little by little came back out. Ana was giving him less sex, complaining it hurt. Surely it was something psychological. Marriage messed with your mind. She complained he wasn’t sweet enough with her. Didn’t buy her enough cards, flowers, chocolates, and such. He responded with rougher and rougher sex. A strange dismantling symbiosis was started.
So the glances, the double takes, the—this really happened!—tongue over the proverbial lips from a stranger entering a government building, where he was getting a passport, took great effect on Marcelo. One night he gave in and took one to his car. They didn’t make love, but Mark was changed. He’d unleashed desire—that fantasy—into reality.
At this time in his life, he was training three young talents. He’d given up on his professional career. No Grand Slams, no major tournaments, not even the major tune-ups. Didn’t win any NCAA titles, but he was good. He could serve well over one hundred miles per hour, had a nasty American Twist, meaning the ball spun one way and jumped another, Mark called it a ‘kicker’ (all his understudies had this serve, it was his signature), smacked a killer top-spin forehand and had a solid winner-producing two-handed backhand, which made him dangerous from both sides. Why then couldn’t he win?
Coaching was a natural progression. He’d studied at University of Albany to be a banker but developed a stomach ailment called Chrome’s Disease. Something stress related (from the big games). Banking was another big game. Running around with these young guys, telling them when to drive a ball, when to retreat, that was relaxing.
As his eye started to wander, to some of his students as well, one talent—Jeff Martin—decided to go pro and play a year around the world on the ATP circuit. Mark was taking him.
“You can go,” Ana said. “But I’m not going to wait around for you. People like me.”
“Of course people like you.”
“Why couldn’t you go away with me. Remember our plans to go to Europe one summer?”
“But I was needed here. Jeff needed me.”
“I needed you. But you don’t care what I need.”
“It’s all tennis to you.”
“That’s my job.”
“So play yourself. Don’t waste all your time and energy on someone else.”
This is what killed him. They were now married three years. How could she understand him so little? Why couldn’t she understand his problem in front of crowds. He was dangerous from the stands but impotent in the limelight. She knew he had tried the beta-blockers: paxil, prozac, proproponal. She remembered, certainly, nights of endless hard-ons with no semen, didn’t she? The side effects were too much for him. Couldn’t she comprehend who he was? Strangers knew him better than his own wife.
“It’s gonna be like a rock band on tour,” Jeff said. “An endless hip-hop video. Girls, girls, music, drinking, and more girls.”
“You’re going to play tennis. You’re not famous yet, by the way. You have a lot of hard work ahead of you.”
“I know. But when I succeed it’s girls and more girls. You’ll see, Mark.”
Jeff wasn’t going alone. Mark suggested that all his guys come along to get experience: James Wilson, D’Andre Irving, Clay Browne, and Jeff. They were a crew of 16-20 years old and Mark at twenty-seven.
The plane ride alone was worth going. They played pranks on each other, they got wasted, Clay got sick, the others helped him then teased him, and soon they were in Germany on their first practice court of gorgeous red clay. In the first session Jeff showed Mark’s first big fear, tightness. Mark now worried how he would do. The looser the better. He tried to talk him down a little. “You’re here to get some experience, not become the world’s number one player. Relax. You’re not Pete Sampras, you don’t have to win at nineteen. Tennis is different now.”
Clay seemed to benefit the most from the first month. After Jeff’s two first round exits, one in Spain against Aurelio Rodriguez and one to Younes El-Aynoui in Portugal, Clay seemed intent on trying his hand at these tours. The way to do it is to play at home, get your ranking up and get invitations to events. As you get higher you get more invitations. Overseas they were losing ranking but gaining experience. Clay was ranked 978. Jeff was 191, not bad. He had jumped up by becoming a semi-finalist in a New York tournament as merely a qualifier.
He talked about Clay and got all of them invitations at an Italian clay tournament that was having attendance trouble because of security concerns. Mark made plans. When entering their names into the tournaments he thought about adding his own name to the lot but wondered what his guys would think and hesitated. Then he lost the feeling and felt only the nerves of a crowd full of people expecting him to perform.
When in the zone he could be great but he had never experienced the zone with people watching.
These guys all had power games so, in the Italian tournament, only Jeff made it into the second round—his first pro tournament win—where he lost 0-6, 0-6 to a Swiss player ranked four in the world. The Swiss player won the whole thing. That was his consolation.
The plans were, after Italy, to France for a French Open tune-up. Here many big names would play. This would be a great chance for Jeff, the only one eligible at this level, and barely. Then they would play on the grass tournaments. He would then try to qualify for Wimbledon—especially if he started winning some matches. Unlikely. Then—the would skip the US—Mark wanted them to show at home with experience so they left an impression—and go to Asia. Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, and down under if they could get something going he’d play Australia. At best his career would be in full swing at this point. At worst they’d go back home with experience and a sense of what they have to do. They would at least then rip it up at home.
Of course nothing went as planned. These tournaments only paid if you won some matches. And the traveling and equipment expenses were steep. Mark expected Jeff to get a round or two into these tournaments, make a few hundred dollars each one, but he kept losing in the first round. He was not a privileged kid as many of these players were. James’ parents came with a lot of the money for this trip and now Mark felt like they’d be dry by the end of the month. Jeff needed to make some coin for them but Mark felt that if he knew he would crumble more than he was already. Jeff got frustrated easily.
He played with Mark and Mark hit a kicker with such tight spin that the ball dived down, bounced and jumped up right at Jeff’s head. He started his swing before identifying the bounce and the ball slammed him in the face. He smacked his racquet in half on the ground.
“Why the fuck don’t you play?”
“I’m your coach. You can beat all of us. It’s just a kicker. You can hit that shit.”
“You should fucking play. We’re wasting our time.”
“I know I’m not making any coin. We’re going to be broke soon. I know that.”
“That’s my problem. And we’re not.”
They survived the clay, barely, all picking up some junk shots slices that they didn’t know how or when to use.
After a loss where Jeff felt he’d been the better player but lost in straight sets 2-6, 2-6, he sat in the locker room in a towel. “The ball just keeps coming back. I couldn’t put him away. I had him all game. I just couldn’t finish him.”
“But I’m a blaster!” He shook his head. “Fuck!”
Mark took them to the beach outside of Rome in Capri . Seeing topless girls, the four Americans with hats turned to the back, got back the dicks they felt they had lost on the clay.
(continued in Fell the Devil Part 2)