Immortal Dreams Published Novel Part 3 of 10
‘A critic is someone who knows what to do but can’t do it.’
Anya and I flew back to America on the same flight. Our two seats were either side of an isle, I was sat next to a man who looked to be in his early forties. He seemed to like the sound of his own voice and it appeared that he felt anybody would value his opinion. Before introducing himself he had already torn strips of several celebrities, a few politicians and at some length the England football and cricket teams. Then he went to the trouble of calling an air hostess over to complain about the in flight entertainment.
‘We were delayed an hour and now I find that the quality of films are shocking.’
‘Firstly neither of those are this ladies fault. Secondly there are two classic films on there with some awesome script writing and storytelling. I’m sorry if you were hoping for something with Arnie blowing things up, but a lot of people like films where the words are important.’
‘I’ll take your word for it. Anyway what’s the meal?’
‘If it’s not lobster or steak, don’t tell him.’
The stewardess just managed to keep a straight face whilst saying,
‘There’s a menu tucked into your in flight magazine. Will that be all?’
‘Yeah thanks mate, you can go back to doing your job now,’ I made an eye gesture to act as an apology for the guys behaviour, she smiled and went off for a little giggle at and moan about the guy with her mates at the back of the plane.
‘So what do you do? Are you travelling for business or pleasure?’
‘Both actually, I’m professional golfer.’
‘Oh really, will I have heard of you?’
‘No not yet.’
‘You can’t be that good then.’
‘I thought you’d have worked that out by the fact I’m flying economy with the likes of you. What do you do?’
‘I’m a car salesman, just going on holiday.’
‘Oh so I won’t have heard of you yet, unless you’re in the worlds top ten car salesmen?’
‘A golfer eh, I never felt that Nick Faldo was as good as people made out.’
‘Oh my God. Nick Faldo’s not good enough for you?! Virtually all of us may as well pack in then. Only eleven people ever, that’s ever have won more Major Tournaments than Nick Faldo. You’re beginning to make Shania Twain sound easily impressed. Let’s just see if you can say anything positive about anybody. What about Steve Redgrave’s dedication to win a gold medal at five separate Olympics, in an endurance sport that isn’t even that lucrative?’
‘Oh yeah he did well.’
‘Did well, high praise indeed. What about Lance Armstrong winning the Tour De France seven times in a row after having cancer?’
‘That is impressive I suppose.’
‘You suppose?! Do you think Audrey Hepburn was much to look at?’
‘Sorry do you mind if I just stop listening to you now,’ I put the head phones on and I think that stopped him talking. My conversation with him did at least manage to entertain Anya.
The first four weeks of my return to the USA were spent back at Deer Island. My work on the driving range was a bit more particular than last time. Whilst hitting full shots I worked on four variations of shot. The first I called my “straight away” shot, this was a simple full shot where I aimed straight at my target and swung at virtually full power. Even this shot tended to drift very slightly from right to left. Very few players hit a shot absolutely arrow straight very often. My second type of shot I called the ‘roll’, this was when I wanted a more pronounced right to left flight and involved in me feeling my left forearm roll or rotate fractionally before impact. The roll would help me get at flags that were tucked away on the left edge of the green. To get at flags located on the right edge of the green I wanted to develop a shot I called the ‘hold’. Instead of rotating my left forearm around the ball impact area I made an effort to keep the back of my left hand pointing forward towards the target for as long as possible, allowing the ball to drift left to right in the air. Generally speaking I impact a larger than average amount of spin on the ball. Whilst this is useful sometimes it can be a negative. For example if the flag is at the back of the green it’s not very good for me to fly the ball near to the flag only for it to spin back ten feet or so, further away from the hole. So I also worked on my ‘10-2’shot. This involved hitting the ball around twenty-five yards shorter than normal with that particular club. If you can imagine the swing as going round a clock face I produce this shorter shot by using a slightly softer and slower swing than normal, if 12 on the clock represented the area just above my head then I would swing back to ‘10’and through to ‘2’. This swing will take the spin off the shot, allowing me to land the ball on the front of the green and run up to that flag at the back of the green. Also I worked on those shots between 50 and 120 yards that were so vital if you wanted to do well at the top level. Sometimes I wanted to zip the ball in reasonably low from that sort of distance, whilst other times required a higher flight that landed softly on the green. So I worked to improve my proficiency at both types of shot. If all this is getting too complicated for you, just keep remembering ‘manipulating a small white ball……..’ .
The course was a littler busier than it had been in July and August, but it was still quiet enough for me to feel like it was my own course. Sunny was virtually always by my side, monitoring my progress on the practice rang and playing herself whenever we went out on the course. She knew what I was looking for in my swing and was becoming increasingly adept at spotting faults and helping to fix them. Anytime I worked on a slight technique change I always make a special effort to ensure I don’t sacrifice my rhythm and tempo. Otherwise my swing can be like an embarrassing Uncle at a wedding, may well be making all the correct movements but still not getting the desired effect.
I checked with Sunny how she was feeling now after talking about the rape, she still hadn’t told anyone else, so not a whole lot had changed. Having said that she was happy that she had finally got round to telling someone, but just didn’t feel ready for everyone to know. Doing a little self-psychoanalysis she wondered whether it was a fear of being known as “that girl who got raped”, that stopped her being spreading news of the incident. I felt very honoured to be the one she told. She was lucky in that when it came to keeping secrets I am as good as they come, I still didn’t feel comfortable handling it. Perhaps it was too much to expect to ever handle something like that with comfort. For now I was happy to let her dictate the frequency and the depth of our conversations on the subject.
Darla’s first month of the new tennis season had started well, without spectacular improvements. She reached the last sixteen of the first grand slam event of the year, the Australian Open and reached the semi-final of a couple of other regular tour events. The work on her fitness had undoubtedly had an effect, she was noticeably quicker around the court and definitely felt stronger at the end of matches. Many other players commented on the fact that she looked fitter and was moving a lot better. However the fact that her results hadn’t really improved from the previous two years was frustrating for her.
‘Have I been working my, now extremely tight, arse off all winter for nothing?!’
I was happy to play the part of perspective checker, telling her to be patient and wait for the fitness to lead to improved results.
‘The chances were always that technically you’d be a little rustier than usual at the start of the season. So once you’ve removed any cobwebs and start playing your shots as well as ever, then the extra speed and endurance is bound to improve your results.’
‘It must get boring being so logical and composed all the time.’
‘I can pretend to lose it if you want.’
‘No that’s all right, you’re very useful to me the way you are. Not that I want you to feel used!’
‘No way, you were very useful yourself after my tour school nightmare.’
‘I guess both of our mind states need a little adjusting from time to time. Maybe mine more than yours.’
‘I’m glad you said that not me.’
‘I couldn’t have hit you over the phone.’
‘No, but I think I could feel the effects of that stare of yours from thousands of miles away.’
‘Oh that stare, it is useful to get umpires and line judges squirming.’
‘Anyway you’ve got the European clay season coming up soon and that’s always been your best season. Plus the improved physical attributes will be a factor the most on that surface.’
‘That’s what I’ve been telling myself.’
In early February I started playing on the same Florida mini tours that I had played in last year. Most of the characters on the tour were familiar from my previous experiences. Hank, Mitch, Bud and Oz were four Americans who had played the mini tours together for years. They called themselves the ‘four horsemen’, because they maintained that anytime the four of the entered the same mini tour event it meant the end of any chances for anybody else to win. Each of them was in their late thirties and they seemed to have a whale of a time. Hank and Mitch were the most talented of the four and they could probably play at a higher standard if the dedicated themselves to the game a little more, but their talent outstrips their ambition. Each of them makes a more than useful living and has a lot of fun. They like to gamble, but it’s usually amongst them so the money ends up just being passed around between the four of them. Lots of money changes hands on the course and the practice putting green, and they also play a lot of poker. Indeed some nights, after a mini tour event, often turned into a big poker night for a few of the players.
In the second week in February a new player came to play the mini tours in the Orlando area and it didn’t take us long to realise that he was definitely in the top category of mini tour player, with main tour potential. His name was Wendell a twenty-seven year old from Sydney. He turned out to be the first player who I really got on with on and off the course. Wendell shared my generally phlegmatic approach to life and had a similar sense of humour. Also it was very good to have someone to talk to about Rugby League and Cricket. His bragging was hard to bear from time to time but it was all good natured. I’ve always considered Aussies as working class Brits and the nationality that is most like our own. Wendell and I could spend an hour just making each other laugh with impressions of Richie Benaud and Geoffrey Boycott. Don’t worry if you don’t know who they are, Sunny didn’t have a clue and even she found us funny once we got going. The less trivial talks about cricket and rugby league in terms of history, tactics and players did tend to go over Sunny’s head a little but we did let her talk about American Football, Baseball and Basketball as well. Much as I had done last year Wendell had come over to America to try his luck at tour school but had heard about the mini tours and thought they would be perfect to make some money whilst acclimatising. The four horseman were happy to see another friendly guy to joke and gamble with, but they weren’t altogether happy with Wendell and I consistently winning chunks of what they considered their prize money.
One aspect of my planning that was different this year was that I wanted more experience in higher class events before making the jump to tour school. One way of doing that was Monday qualifiers. Most events on the main PGA tour have a one day qualifier on the Monday before the tournament for real starts on Thursday. There are usual only around four qualifying spots available and over a hundred entries. A lot of excellent players, who get an invite to some of the regular tour events but not others, will take part in the qualifiers, when not invited into the main draw. Usually the successful qualifiers are made up from this group of players, just depending who can play the best on the day. Every now and again a young prospect or a mini tour veteran will have a good day and mix up the applecart a little and get to play on the big boy’s tour. I stayed in Florida and waited for the tour to come to me. March is the time on tour known as the ‘Florida Swing’. The tour planners sensibly follow the weather and try and make sure that the conditions are as close to perfect all year round. So the year starts in Hawaii before moving on to places like Arizona and Southern Californian before March comes around and the tour hits Florida. Four events occur each year in Florida, known as, The Honda, The World Golf Championships at Doral, The Transition Championship and Bayhill. Playing in the events at Doral and Bayhill is by invitation only, but the other two events have Monday qualifiers.
Wendell followed Sunny and I down to Palm Beach Gardens for the Honda qualifier. That was on the East Coast of Florida about three quarters of the way down from Orlando to Miami. If nothing else the trip was going to be a good holiday. The beach was every bit as good as I had imagined. Sunny had been down there once before and she had waxed lyrical about it. I knew she wasn’t one to over hype something, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see that its splendour hadn’t been at all exaggerated. It’s the sort of place where you can easily forget about your life and find yourself wishing that somehow you could spend the rest of your life there. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there, I wanted to pursue a dream of golfing greatness. We got down there on Friday so had a full weekend to get used to being in the Palm Beach area. Wendell and I had a six hour practice session on Saturday, but we were happy to take Sunday off to relax and enjoy the surroundings. We had decided to stay in the area all week, whatever the result of the qualifying event, if we were weren’t playing in the main event we decided that we would watch it to sample the atmosphere of a tour event that way. Obviously neither of us really wanted to be watching. Keeping my New Year promise I remained relaxed in the build up to what to me was a big event. Sunny noticed the change from my pre-tour school state and liked it.
Monday qualifiers are a shoot out of a golf tournament. In this particular one there were four qualifying spots up for grabs. One round would decide which four out of the field of 144 would get to play at The Honda. All the players knew that only an exceptional score would get the job done. A steady round of one or two under par would never look like being good enough. Three or four under par would usually mean you’d just end up frustrated at being so close. The law of averages dictated that at least four from such a good and sizeable field of players would be around five under or better. So there really wasn’t a lot of time for conservative golf. Players hit drivers of most tees, aimed right at every flag and very rarely left a putt short.
I got drawn to play at 7:24am, the third group out. Playing early in the morning is a good thing generally, the greens aren’t spiked up because there’s so few players in front of you and the weather is usually at its calmest of the day. As long as you feel all right when you get up at a ridiculously early time, then it is a good draw. Wendell was out some three hours or so later. Caddies were allowed in these tournaments so Sunny was on full duties. Unless you had a court order all players had to walk, no buggies allowed. We’d had a little look at the course on Sunday and it appeared to be a straight forward enough, in that everything was out in front of the players and there were no hidden tricks to the course. Talking to the club professional backed up this assessment, he told us it was a fair course and if you played well you would be rewarded with a good score, but there was plenty of hazards out there waiting to punish poor play. So overall it was definitely the kind of course that required a good low score to qualify.
We’d parked the motor home in the clubs car park overnight. After getting up at 5:15 we had shower in our respective locker rooms, had some breakfast at the bar and were ready to go. The warm up routine went well, I felt loose from the start and the shots were coming out of the middle of the club.
‘Okay here we go, stay positive, there’s no room for anything else here,’ Sunny’s last words to me before handing me the ball on the first tee.
Despite all the talk of needing a low score I was still very conscious of the value of patience to a golfer. Trying to force things hardly ever worked, at least it rarely worked for me. Wary of blowing my self out of the tournament early on I felt I wanted to ease my way into the round and build a platform to attack from. Knowing I wanted to get to at least five under, it was no good taking unnecessary risks and finding myself a couple over par and out of it before I got started. Despite the heart rate being a little quicker than normal, I still felt I was close to that serene composure I search for. The first three holes were routinely parred. The fourth was a par five that I managed to reach in two shots and two-putt for my birdie. Another two safe pars at five and six ensued before the par five seventh hole yielded another birdie, this time courtesy of a good wedge shot to six feet. I was playing well but in danger of being one of those who produced a tidy round of three or four under that won me absolutely nothing. Usually when you shoot a really low number there is some point in the round where you have a flurry of birdies. The eighth was a very tough par three and I was happy to get down in two from a green side bunker to get my par and remain two under. After hitting my second shot on the ninth to thirty feet I was struggling to break out from the par zone. Sunny gave me a great read on the putt, one of those that I would never have seen. One of my smoothest strokes did the rest. Three under for nine holes and I was bang on target for qualifying. On the tenth, the hole was tucked away on the right side of the green behind a bunker. After a perfect drive left me a good distance for a smooth seven iron I felt it was time to take the initiative in the round and make my break for qualifying.
‘Perfect for a hold with a seven iron,’ Sunny’s confidence confirmed my belief that I should attack the flag.
The shot came of just as planned, starting about five yards to the left of the flag and just at the top of its flight it started to drift to the right and ended up bang on line. I’ve never had a more righteous feeling than the satisfaction of a perfectly executed golf shot, when it’s been something I’ve recently practiced. It left me with a ten foot putt straight up the hill to the hole. When you’re looking to shoot around six under, these are the sort of chances you can rarely avoid to miss. I didn’t need Sunny’s expertise this time to read the putt, I knew it just needed a good firm stroke. Focussed on keeping my head still. By the time I looked up the ball had already disappeared down the hole. Standing on the eleventh tee I was four under par and felt I was in the middle of one of those flurries I thought I needed. It was a par three with the flag on the left of the green. Still feeling at the top of my confidence, I hit a smooth roll with a five iron and landed about twenty feet away and bounced on to two feet. I managed to hold my nerve and not think too much about the situation to hole the putt to get to five under. With a par five that was reachable in two shots next I was still thinking about birdies. A drive and four-wood got me to just short of the green and a straight forward chip to a foot meant I had reached six under. That score in a Monday qualifier is a bit like seventeen in blackjack, in that most people will be happy to stick on that score. However in golf you can’t just walk off when you are happy with your score. There were still six holes to play and playing them in level par was a lot easier said than done. Now it was time to be a bit more circumspect. I definitely didn’t want to be the guy in the bar crying over his club sandwich, saying how he ‘finished four under but had it a six under through twelve’.
‘Fairways and greens Jack, pars are great from now on,’ Sunny spoke, playing her role as if she was a jockey on a horse that had just broken clear of the pack and needed merely to jump the remaining fences to win.
The next four holes I did hit every fairway and every green and to the external observer my pars would have looked easy. In truth I was finding it about as easy as nailing jelly to the wall. It was taking a lot of conscious effort to continue with my calm exterior, but it was working so I was happy to stick with it. A slightly loose four iron shot to the par three seventeenth left my ball in a bunker and the lie wasn’t pretty. After a little deliberation on how to play the shot Sunny and I decided to make sure I got out of the bunker even if it meant going a good few feet past the hole. After all five-under might well just be good enough and I could always birdie the last to get back to six under. I played the shot about as well I could expect in the situation. Still it went ten feet past and I was left with another of those putts that you usual need to hole to have an exceptional score. It was down hill and both Sunny and I felt it would go a little left to right. Wary of the ball running three or feet past and all of a sudden struggling to stay at five under, I wanted to get the pace spot on with the first putt. It wasn’t my best stroke but it wandered down towards the hole, I looked up a little earlier than normal, as usual after a poor stroke. My anxious look turned to a relieved smile as it managed to tipple in from the left edge with what would have been its last roll anyway. That is what’s known amongst the professional golfing community as “dodging a bullet”. A good drive and then a seven iron to twelve feet on the last hole meant there were no more worries of dropped shots. This putt was a much better stroke than the previous one but it cruelly caught the lip of the hole and managed to stay above ground. Had that gone in I would have been virtually certain of qualifying, but that extra three inch tap in meant that I wasn’t quite sure and would have a very nervous wait. By this stage my heart was racing like I’d just finished and Olympic 400m hurdle final at altitude in a personal best time.
‘I think you’re in mate,’ Sunny said as she putt the eighteenth flag back in the hole and the handshakes between the three players and three caddies occurred. Both the players I played with were experienced Monday qualifiers and both seemed genuinely confident that my score would be good enough qualify. Despite all the talk, until it was mathematically certain that I had qualified I was still going to be sitting around more nervous than any bride on her wedding day.
After going through the slightly tedious but necessary process of marking and signing the scorecard, Sunny and I went to the club bar to get something to eat. Never has anything put me off my food, and these nerves weren’t any different. One of the American guys I knew from the mini tour events made a point of finding me in the bar to congratulate me on my score. I can’t imagine him being any more excited if it had been him shooting a 66. The camaraderie of golf really does put a lot of sports to shame.
I really couldn’t envisage hanging around the club for another five hours or so waiting for my fate to be confirmed, so Sunny and I went off to spend some time on the beach. We put our beach clothes on and took an American Football with us and threw that around for a bit. The rest of the time we spent simply lying on the beach with thousands of others. As arranged on Sunday, Wendell phoned me when he’d finished with his round. He’d played well apart from his putting letting him down a little, his score of 70 would not be enough for him to qualify. A host of questions about my round bombarded me before he got round to telling me that one guy had shot a 65 but nobody else had passed or even equalled me. Sunny and I headed back to the club to meet with Wendell and get something more to eat.
Sitting in the clubhouse bar area I played that twelve footer on the last green over in my head what felt like a thousand times. It looked for all the world that it would go in, but somehow it escaped. However the putt on the seventeenth really didn’t deserve to go in. Sometimes that theory of luck evening itself out is clear, other times it’s more ambiguous. Still didn’t stop me thinking that if I’d birdied the eighteenth then I would be sitting a lot more comfortably now. During my time sitting in the bar I managed to be light-hearted with everybody and have a few laughs. With an hour or so to go before the whole field had finished another 65 had come in but I was still lying third on my own. I went to hit some balls to loosen up, just in case I ended up in a playoff to qualify. Nobody else was on the range apart from Sunny and I. It felt like I was one of those legendary great players who were practice addicts, Ben Hogan and Nick Faldo had often been spotted alone on the range when all the others had called it a day. I couldn’t claim to be showing any great signs of dedication, at most it was a good example of professionalism, to make sure I was ready should such a play-off arise.
As the last group of three players came down the eighteenth, Sunny and I joined Wendell around the green. By this time somebody else had shot a 66 so if one of these players shot a 66 or better then I’d be playing off. All three of them were top players who’d already played some tour events this year, so there was even the chance that more than one of them had beaten 66 and I would be watching the Honda. Sunny decided to try and shorten the wait, and went to ask one of the caddies in the group how the players were doing, whilst the three of them walked down the fairway after the second shots had been hit. As she walked back towards me I could tell she was trying to keep a straight face, but when she got within about fifteen yards she couldn’t stop herself breaking out one of those stunning smiles.
‘The best score is three under.’
I covered my face with my hands for a second or two and took a big inhalation.
‘Honda baby,’ I said to Sunny and pointed at her and she kept walking then hugged me. Even in that moment I still felt so happy that Sunny was so willing to hug.
‘Do you know a good caddy? I could do with a proper one now I’m playing in a tour event,’ I brought in some humour to stop the moment getting too emotional.
My best day in golf so far, I was going to play in one of the main tour events. The tour that I had ultimately came over to America to play on. Only one thing is better than the main tour and that was the four major tournaments. Despite my calm exterior over the next couple of days, the number of thoughts racing through my head was countless. Sports psychologists will tell you not to get carried away, to “stay in the now”. That’s the thing about psychology, it’s easy to know what to do, a lot more difficult to actually do. As soon as I knew I’d qualified, my mind started to race towards thoughts of what could happen in the tournament itself. If I had a dream four days and I played my absolute best I could, just could win an event on the PGA tour. The dreamer in me couldn’t stop myself from envisaging a thousand different ways that I could win. Playing out my own movies on how I could come from behind to beat Nick Benz, or bravely hold him off on the last day, chipping in to win, winning in a play-off, winning by a street, sitting in the clubhouse with the lead and watching the remaining players not be able to match my score. I was able to hold conversations with people whilst these scenarios were being played out in my head.
On Tuesday morning Sunny and I found our way to the venue for the main event. Although the tournament just ran from Thursday to Sunday, as with all main tour events, the course was set up for all the players to use from at least Monday onwards. Practice facilities were always superb and players could have as many rounds they could fit in without any charge. When we got down there it wasn’t too busy and I was teeing off for my practice round by ten o’clock. As I got to the tee there was another guy about to tee off, we agreed we may as well play round together. He was a rookie out on tour, having won his card at tour school last year – so he had my respect straight away. This was only his fifth event of the season and he hadn’t made a cut yet. However he still seemed reasonably upbeat about his game and was enjoying life out on tour. We didn’t talk a whole lot on the way around, both of us had too much information to take in. Neither of us had played the course before and so we wanted to have as good a look around as possible. The greens were at least as good as I’ve ever played on, they were already very quick on Tuesday, but I had a strong suspicion that by Thursday they were going to be noticeably quicker. Play in practice rounds tends to be relaxed, generally players won’t keep any sort of score, often play from one spot a few times until they are happy they know what the shot requires. Especially so around the greens when players will drop a ball at a few points around the green, to test out the slopes and how the ball reacts out of the various types of lie. It’s not altogether surprising that practice rounds can sometimes take up to six hours. We took our time but were still round in four and a half hours and would have been round quicker had we not been held up by a four ball for the last three holes. Both of us were conscious of holding anybody else up, often checking behind us hoping not to see Nick Benz or maybe Lee Walters, standing with hands on his hips. Fortunately nobody got within a hole of us so we never felt rushed. It was a dead calm day, perfect conditions for golf and the course was still a tough test of every facet of your game. Many factors can dictate the difficulty level, the event organisers looked like they wanted to make sure that nobody was going to shoot the sort of scores that would make the course look easy. Fairways were narrowed, rough grown and thickened both along the fairways and the collar around the greens, banks around the water hazards were cut short so the slopes would gather any ball slightly astray and nothing would stop it rolling into the water and it looked like the greens were going to be seriously quick. Another aspect that affects the difficulty of the course is the location of the holes on the green. Exactly the same course can be made at least three or four shots tougher or easier just depending on the hole locations. Some locations can be as inviting as a cool swimming pool on a hot day, whilst others can be harder to get at than the tip of Everest in flip flops. These locations are decided upon by the greens committee and aren’t absolutely finalised until the day itself, usually they will take into account the weather conditions if they are extreme, for example if the day is forecast to have strong winds then it’s going to be tough enough anyway so they will tend to be more lenient with the hole locations. I would have actually liked the practice round to be windy then I’d have seen the course at its worse, rather than imagining how bad it might be.
If I could just win, then I’d earn my tour card for the next couple of years, from then on I could earn enough money each year to keep my tour card and it’s playing privileges, I would never need to go to tour school again. Even a top five finish and the subsequent invites to one or two other tour events might be enough for me to earn the required amount of prize money to earn my card. That’s it Jack , stay in the now, don’t get carried away.
‘This is so cool, it’s like a total bonus,’ Sunny’s enthusiasm nearly matched mine.
‘So many things keep going through my mind. I could be on TV, I could play with Nick Benz, I could beat Nick, there’s all sorts of top players I could play with or finish ahead of, can I make a cut and get a cheque from the PGA Tour, will some kid ask me for an autograph?’
‘Not to mention dreaming of winning.’
‘How did you guess?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, just make sure you try as hard as you can to take one shot at a time and play your normal game.’
‘That’s what I’m trying to tell myself, whether it will sink in or not only time will tell. So many things I’m trying to make sure I do, but one thing I can control is that I have fun.’
‘We’ll make sure we have fun, you’ve earned you chance to be here so you should enjoy it.’
‘I’m going to play on the PGA Tour, who knows what might happen? This might be the only chance I get. So I’ve got to take it in and savour it.’
‘Thinking about winning is fun though.’
On the Wednesday I declined the chance of another practice round, instead choosing to practice a little in the morning and then spend the afternoon on the beach. I was still trying to find the best way for myself to prepare for a golf tournament. Some players like to play as much as they can in the build up to a big event, believing it gets them sharp in terms of competitiveness. Others will take time off before in an attempt to be fresh for the big day and trusting themselves to be able to bring their game to a peak when it matters most. I believed I was best trusting in the second school of thought, I liked to keep myself fresh. Physically I rarely felt tired from golf, but sometimes the mental effort required for me to play competitively took its toll. Over time I’ve learnt that having breaks from the game was a good thing, not just an excuse to slacken off. I could spend my whole life thinking about golf, but I’ve discovered that taking time out from the game is necessary to get the most out of my potential. On this occasion I hit the beach with Sunny and Wendell, the three of us played a little cricket as well as lounging on the sand.
Before playing the first round I went through my usual warm-up routine. When we got to the practice range Sunny and I were a little taken aback that all the balls there for the players to hit were brand new and would cost around $4 each, or £3 each back home. We both knew that was the case before we got there, but actually seeing all those balls that were just going to be hit a handful of times each during the course of the week still made an impact on us. Sunny actually grabbed a handful and put them in the bag once she made sure nobody was watching.
‘I know it’s technically stealing, but the PGA Tour won’t miss a few balls,’ Sunny spoke with a look of a kid with a hand in a sweet jar.
‘Hello Miss Hood. I’m not too up on religious knowledge but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t go something like “thou shall not steal, unless it’s from a multi-million dollar corporation”.’
‘All right I’ll put them back.’
‘Don’t be daft, you may as well keep them in there now. I’m just glad it was you and not me that took them.’
The draw for a golf tournament is semi-random. Someone will pick certain players to play together which will make good groups for television. That can be a fun and at times mischievous job, often they will put together players who are known to have a rivalry of sorts, or maybe they plain don’t like each other. If you’re an unknown player there are two virtual certainties about your draw. One is that you will play with another two unknown players and the other is that on one of the two days you will play at one extreme end of the draw. Both panned out for me at Honda, I was drawn with a couple of guys even I’d never heard of and we were going to be last group out on the first day.
On Wednesday night I phoned Will and told him they could look out for me on the Sky TV coverage, Anya could watch the American coverage and Darla and my parents promised to try and keep track of my performance. Chances are the only thing they’ll see of me is my name on the bottom of the screen as they do the alphabetical scores.
Last out on the first day is probably the worst draw for someone playing in their first tour event. You have all day to think, and the longer you have to think the longer you have to think negatively. I did manage to remain relaxed and committed to enjoying the day. One thing that didn’t help my mind set was the increasing wind speed. Until around midday there was hardly a breath of wind, but it gradually increased throughout the afternoon. By the time we teed off just after three o’clock it was gusting at up to 30mph. The two guys I was playing with had both qualified for the tour via a top ten finish on the money list last season on the Nationwide Tour. Neither had made a cut yet, so the three of us set off to play in near gales condition, none of us having ever made a cut on the PGA Tour.
Every now and again in golf you get conditions that are virtually impossible to score well in. They get so bad that it’s actually easier to relax and have fun because you develop a “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry” attitude. I played the first hole really solidly and got my par. I hit one slightly off shot on the second, ball found water and a double bogey appeared on my card. The wind didn’t relent for the whole round. As baptisms go it was as fiery as they come. Honestly I didn’t play that badly, in thirty mile per hour winds any imperfect strike can be turned into a costly shot. I made four birdies and still went round in 80. The two guys I played with suffered similarly, one 79 and one 81. All of us kept our sense of humour, several throw away lines throughout the course of the round kept us entertained. The highlight came on the fifteenth tee when a particularly strong gust blew one of the other guy’s caps off just before he started his swing. Towards the end of a ridiculously tough day we all found it most amusing, we’d felt like crying all the round and all three of us did then. The dozen or so hardy souls who were out there watching us didn’t know what to make of it at first but when they saw our reaction they joined in with the laughter.
You develop a certain bond with people when you play golf with them in tough conditions, it’s not a long lasting bond, but you feel you’ve shared more than if everything’s perfect and you all shoot in the sixties. In the clubhouse afterward the other two drowned their sorrows a little as they sat down for a meal with Sunny, Wendell and I. Without a golfing miracle none of us were going to make the cut, but for once we did have a strong excuse. Those who teed off before eight would have had no wind at all and we definitely got the worse of the conditions. Also the wind wasn’t forecast so the hole locations were not as generous as you’d expect. Although I’ve mentioned that the camaraderie amongst professional golfer is generally excellent, it was still a tough business, so I knew that half the guys would be happy that I’d shot an 80, the other half would be wishing it was an 81.
During our meal Adam came over to us, Sunny’s acquaintance from College. He’d qualified from tour school last year and had already made four cuts this season, putting him ahead of schedule for earning enough money to retain his card for next year. Today he had played about a couple of hours ahead of us and to be fair done well to limit the damage to a three over par 73.
‘Tough initiation to the big school Jack?’
‘About as tough as they come, but I’m not going to complain. No such thing as a bad experience out here, as long as you’re tough enough.’
‘Big step up in class you’re trying to make up here.’
‘The thirty mile an hour gusts were more of the difficulty today.’
‘I don’t think you realise what it takes to play with us guys.’
‘Us guys? You’ve made what, four cuts? I don’t think many people will be mentioning you in the same breath as Nick Benz and Lee Walters just yet,’ Sunny stepped in.
‘Actually I was next to Nick on the practice range last week.’
‘Really? Wow. I wonder who will play you in the film version of his life.’
‘I’m just saying it’s a different game out here.’
‘That’s funny, all the holes looked regulation size to me and I’m pretty sure I counted eighteen of them. Also I’m fairly sure that if I cut every single guy in this field, they’d all bleed.’
‘You are good at the talking.’
‘I’ll bet you a thousand dollars I beat you tomorrow.’
‘You’re on, if you can afford it,’ Adam replied smugly.
‘Oh you’ll be surprised how much you can earn on mini tours, when you’re as good as me.’
The first two days you always played with the same players, on the second day we teed off at just after eleven in the morning. Not a breath of wind in the air, perfect conditions. All three of our swings had survived the gales of yesterday in tact and we all came out firing with a ‘nothing to lose attitude’. Of course I had a thousand dollars to lose, but I knew I played my best when feeling loose and thinking positive. The course was still tough in any conditions, but you could at least attack it when the conditions were good. I was one under par standing on the par three fifteenth tee. Two of the world’s top ten players were playing a couple of groups ahead of us so the crowds were large around us all day. Although we were well aware that most of them hadn’t come to see us, it was good to be playing in front of so many people, especially as it was the day when all three of us were playing well. A medium sized grandstand, holding about five hundred people was situated behind the fifteenth green, another one behind the tee and standing spectators surrounding the green provided the hole with a fantastic theatrical feel. The other two guys had already played and safely found the green, both shots produced a polite ripple of applause. Sunny and I discussed it and decided that the yardage was perfect for a full, straight six-iron. As I went through my pre-shot routine, picturing the ball flying straight at the flag, a hush developed around the hole but still with that general murmur that was always around at a professional golf tournament. It felt like I had a couple of thousand pairs of eyes on me and that felt good. As always I closed my eyes on the practice swing and felt the perfect rhythm, before settling over the ball, ready to hit.
‘Oh wow honey, be as good as you look,’ the ball came sweetly off the middle of that six-iron.
‘Get close, go in,’ Sunny liked the look of the shot too.
The ball flew straight at the flag throughout its journey, landed about ten feet short of the hole, sat up a little with the bounce and gripped slightly on the second bounce then started to slowly roll towards the hole. Despite the distance I was watching it like I’d hit a ten foot putt, the crowd were blanked out, it was just me the ball and the hole – in slow motion. I held my breath, it was bang on line, but did it have the energy to get to the hole and stay on line? It couldn’t, it wouldn’t, it can’t, it did.
Held the club up in the air, screamed with joy, high fived Sunny, both players and their caddies. Golf crowds are great, they cheer for good play, not just particular players. American crowds in particular love a hole in one. It was the middle of the afternoon and the hospitality tents had been doing good business, the roar from all the fans instantly greeted the ball dropping and they continued the whooping and hollering, feeding off the joyous reaction from all six people on the tee. My holding a hand to my right ear all the way down the hole had the desired effect of milking the applause. Like all good golfers I repaired my pitch mark on the green, before I picked the ball out of the hole. I was tempted to throw the ball into the crowd, but I wanted to keep it for sentimental reasons. Keeping my composure to par the remaining holes to shoot 69 was in a way more impressive than the one moment of perfection, but I never got near that roar again.
Adam shot a 73 again, very disappointing given the perfect conditions.
‘What’s that noise I can hear?’ I asked as he came towards Sunny and I in the car park, cheque book in hand.
‘I can hear two, one that ker-ching of the cash register and also that of Adam slamming his trunk.’
Trunk slamming is a phrase on tour, meaning missing the cut. The player is slamming his trunk on Friday and driving off to the next event.
‘A thousand dollars is nothing to me.’
‘You can make it out for five if you like.’
‘I’m sure Nick is really relieved he doesn’t have to play against you over the weekend,’ Sunny added with a delicious smile.
Despite missing the cut, I still took a few positives from the experience. Firstly the experience itself, just being there to watch an event like that sends a shiver down my spine, actually being part of the event was a great feeling. Getting the merest taste of something I’ve hoped for virtually since I was old enough to have hopes. I like what I call a good “bounce back”, this refers to responding to a disappointing occurrence. Undoubtedly the first day was all bad. So the biggest thing I took from those two days was that I didn’t let it affect my performance the next day. Of course the hole in one was a special feeling, but actually shooting a 69 in a tour event was a far more satisfactory achievement. They even showed the hole in one on the TV coverage, not live, but still it was captured forever. Anya and Will both got to see it and sounded like it was just a surreal an experience for them as it was for me.
Wendell and I also went to the Monday qualifying for the Transition event. I played well again but missed qualifying by a couple of shots. However this time Wendell had a good putting day and it was his turn to qualify. It was great for both of us to qualify for a tour event for the first time. Obviously I’d rather have qualified myself, but I was happy for him, I even allowed Sunny to caddy for him. In the event itself he struggled each day, scoring 74 and 75 to comfortably miss the cut. He admitted he got a little tense, I knew all about that. Yet his confidence appeared to remain in tact and his drive to make it on to the tour was if anything increased, as was mine.
It was back to the mini tours of the Orlando area for the rest of March, April and May. Adam of course continued out on the main tour and certainly had the main bragging rights at the moment. Fortunately he wasn’t quick witted so I felt sure that any time our paths crossed I could come out of the meeting with some sort of upper hand. My mini tour performances were showing a steady improvement, in terms of average score and money won. The four horseman were tempted to make me the fifth, but they liked the idea of competing against a couple of top class foreign invaders. My next big moment of the year was entering the qualifying event for the US Open. First there was a one round qualifying event that was held nationally at several venues. It was easy to find a qualifier in Florida. Success in that would take you to the sectionals, two rounds to decide who joins the already exempt players in the US Open itself. By this second stage you will be mixing with some seriously well known golfers. The US Open isn’t too liberal with their invites, so a lot of top players often find themselves having to qualify.
March, April and May were great months for Darla. It was the European clay court season. This was the slowest surface on tour, the rallies were long, temperatures usually high and fitness was tested more than at any other stage of the season. It had always been Darla’s favourite surface, she got more value out of her game of stylish angled shots and a variety of spins on this surface, opposed to the faster surfaces that suited the power players more. That year as soon as that part of the season started her results improved. She entered six tournaments, reached the semi finals in all of them and won two of them. As well as the intense internal pride she felt from this, it also propelled her into the world’s top ten and into the media spotlight. Magazines wanted her for photo shoots, and not just tennis magazines. Her looks meant that she could help sell other magazines, the editors of which were just looking for an excuse to have pictures of a sexy girl in their publication. She’s been sexy for years, but now that her tennis grabbed the attention, people were making more of her looks. For me she had that fantastic combination of being gorgeous yet still having an attitude about her of not giving a shit what she looked like. Her hair gave her the individuality that the press sought after. Sports press seemed to find it impossible to write an article about one of her matches without mentioning her appearance. It didn’t bother Darla that her visual image created as much interest as her impressive tennis results. She openly admitted that she did like the glamorous and sexy photo shoots and enjoyed being known as one of the “babes of the tour”.
Despite all the new distractions Darla kept an admirable focus on her tennis. She did all the media work in her spare time and didn’t let it affect her practice and fitness hours. Throughout the season she had continued to work extremely hard on her fitness, she now genuinely enjoyed pushing herself to her limits in the gym. Benefits being shown on the tennis court helped to maintain her motivation. Her improved results all seemed to happen so fast, she was approaching the standard she had always dreamed of. When she had a moment of quiet thought, it felt surreal that she was so close to the greatness that had dominated her thoughts since as long as she could remember. It almost felt too easy, all that had happened was her tennis results improved and she was on the brink of greatness and her wildest dreams. Her body felt so efficient and athletic that when she went out on court she felt an aura of invincibility. Even on the rare occasion she lost Darla could look the opponent in the eye and think ‘yeah you got me this time, but I still think I’m better than you and I know I can beat you’. Just as we had hoped back on that patio at Deer Island, Darla had become one of those players that the other players didn’t look forward to playing against. They knew that she was going to run all day, get balls back they weren’t expecting, make them hit more shots than they wanted and fight until the last point was won. French Open at the end of May, that was what could make Darla’s good year into a one with a hint of greatness. It was the last tournament of the clay court season and Darla would have a lot of attention on her. Some of the more established stars, particularly the American who was world number one, were still the expected winners. But Darla was attracting interest in the betting market as a lively outsider who was seen the most likely to upset the established players. I for one was happy with the 14-1 odds. On the verge of a date with destiny, she feared no one and was tingling with excitement, competing for one of the four big prizes in the tennis season. Whilst Wimbledon has always been the one that Darla had most wanted to win, the French Open was also special to her, partly because she came from neighbouring Belgium, partly because it was played on her favourite surface. She couldn’t have gone into the tournament in a better state of mind or physical condition.
The first round of the US Open qualifiers is a lot like a mini tour event. The three categories of player that I’ve identified are evident, only with more amateurs play in the qualifier than a mini tour event. Any amateur needs to have a handicap of one or better to enter the US Open qualifying, so they are all useful players. You can still tell that the main motivation for some of their participation is so that they can say they’ve played in the US Open. Others are more than capable of qualifying. Wendell and I went to the same first round venue, it was a course both of us had already played and felt comfortable on.
Once you’re actually playing the event the main difference between it and a mini tour event is the non-playing people. There are many US Golf Association (USGA) officials around and one or two of the local people come out to watch. Also some of the players have significant others who come out to watch them. Once again caddies were very much allowed and that court order would be required to ride in a buggy.
At that first round stage I felt strangely nerveless, as if I’d convinced myself that it was just another mini tour event. I made few mistakes and holed some good putts to see me round a difficult course in 67. A couple of other guys did better, but it was all about qualifying and I did that with a couple of shots to spare. Wendell on the other hand struggled all day. He had trouble with his tee shots, which are normally the strength of his game and this was not a course where you could get away with driving the ball badly. From what he told me he did well to manage a 74. At first he took it fairly badly but we went out that night and he got drunk with Sunny, and by the next morning he was his positive self. This year was all about the tour school for him and the US Open would have been a pleasant bonus. He decided to go home to Australia for a month or so to recharge his batteries, and come back fresh to build up to tour school. I on the other hand had a couple of weeks or so to wait for the final qualifying stage. Found time to play a three day mini tour event, finished third and it was a good warm up. The sectional round is played over thirty-six holes on one day, hosted at twelve different venues around the country. Heat is normally brutal and many players think of it as the toughest day in golf.
I drove up to South Carolina with Sunny to play in the sectional event there. Sunny knew a little of the venue, having played the course once. We arrived in the area five days before the event, had a couple of practice rounds and familiarised myself with the general surroundings. A check on the list of entries made sure it was going to be difficult to convince myself it was just another mini-tour event. Several tour players I’d heard of, some of them new players who’ve just started to establish themselves, others who will be veterans of this event, also some really top names who are now at the latter end of their careers but their accomplishments in the game will mean they will always have great respect any time they step onto a golf course.
Now the nerves were tingling. Two good rounds away from playing in the second biggest golf tournament in the world (no matter what some Americans will tell you The Open Championship will always be the biggest). My usual day before relaxing was spent at the cinema and bowling alley with Sunny. Although the nerves were there it felt totally different to my pre-tour school feelings. Then the nerves felt like a horrible form of destructive anxiety. This time I was excited in anticipation of playing in the sort of event I’ve always dreamed of. During the relaxation day it was noticeable that the temperature raised a good few degrees and the forecast was of a heat wave lasting at least a week. I liked the idea of scorching temperatures for two rounds in one day, I would find it uncomfortable but I was confident that I will always be one of the fittest people in a golf tournament, so therefore I felt I could handle the heat better than most.
My group teed off a couple of groups from the last at about 10:30, meaning we would get the full extent of the heat. Altogether we were out on the course for just on ten hours. The heat was brutal, the fairways narrow, greens slick and rough punishing. In between rounds we only had thirty minutes, just enough time for me to get a shower and change of clothes. Normally this would be time to grab something quick to eat, but in the heat food really wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Plenty of drinks, as well as some fruit and nutrition bars kept my energy levels up. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Some players had towels soaked in ice cold water, draped round their neck in-between shots. I have a couple of tricks of my own for playing in extreme heat, soaking my socks in cold water before I put them on, making sure my hair remains wet throughout the round and when it gets really hot the sweat bands come out, just like my socks they’re soaked in icy water. I’m sure it wasn’t much fun for Sunny carrying that big bag around for ten hours in one hundred degrees of heat, but she never complained and remained unflustered throughout the day. One of those people who always looked cool, it was especially good to have her on the bag on a day when it would’ve been easy for people to get agitated and grumpy. It was a day when managing your emotions were even more important than normal, it was way too hot to get hot.
I played a steady round in the morning of one under par, managed to avoid any big mistakes and limited the damage of any poor shots. At the half way stage I was in a qualifying position, still another round to go. The number of qualifying positions at each course depends on the number in the field. In this one there were twelve up for grabs, the most of any of the events, that was the good news, but that also meant that it was the largest field of any of the qualifiers. The second round was similar to the first, steady progress kept me in a good position. A few ropey shots in the middle of the round meant for three holes in a row I had to hole tricky putts for pars. Heart began to race, living on the edge, big prize up for grabs, one false move and my dream is over, six holes of good golf and I’m in the US Open.
The fourteenth hole was the last par five on the course, I was still one under par for the day standing on that tee for the second time that day.
‘Could do with one more birdie. This is a great place to be, this is the best day of your life.’ Sunny had sensed my mindset sliding towards negative and picked me up at just the right time with her softly spoken tone.
Two super smooth swings with the driver then the four wood got me on the par five green in two shots. My putting did the rest to secure my birdie. The next two holes were easy, honest, like playing with your mates on a summers evening. Two pars down and two to go. Seventeen and eighteen were just about the toughest holes on the course. All of a sudden the negative vibes were back on that seventeenth tee. That tee was next to the eighteenth green, we had a wait on that tee for about ten minutes. Sunny went behind the eighteenth green to check how the scores were doing. She came back with the news that two pars would get me in to the US Open. Some players prefer not to know how the other scores are going, in the bigger events that have score boards everywhere they will not even look at them, believing it will take the edge off their focus. I on the other hand always liked to know just how I stood in relation to the rest of the field, I liked to be able to react to a situation. This hole had a ditch running all the way down the right and trees down the left. Just as the club came in to hit the ball I felt as if the ball might go to the right and towards that dreaded ditch. Instinctively, whether I liked it or not, my hands rolled over and pulled the ball to the left towards the lesser of two evils. From the tee we couldn’t tell how bad my punishment would be, I could be completely stymied by a tree or I could have gotten away with it and have a free swing at the flag. That walk a golfer gets used to making, you know you’ve made a mistake but you don’t know what the result of it is yet. As you walk you convince yourself that if you think positively enough then the ball will be sitting up perfectly and your line to the flag will be unimpaired. Like that old theory that a face down playing card hasn’t determined what it is until it’s turned over. On this occasion it wasn’t the best of news. A tree between my ball and the green meant that my path was blocked, even worse was that tree being only a couple of feet from my ball so my follow through would be restricted. It was serious decision time. It was a possibility to hit a hard hooking four iron, chasing the ball onto the green with its right to left flight. However that meant aiming the ball at the ditch and needing to get the shot spot on right to find the green.
‘How far away are we mate?’
‘We’ve got 209 to the front and 227 to the hole. It’s not really on.’
‘I know it’s not really on but.’
‘No time for buts.’
‘I know I’m just messing with you.’
‘Just messing with me? Trying to qualify for the US Open and you’re just messing with me? That might be a little more relaxed than I want you to get.’
‘Okay I’m looking to leave myself 119, so.’
‘You want to hit it 88.’
‘Glad you’re here to do the maths, my head is a fraction scrambled right now. Give me a seven iron, I’ll just bump it down the fairway.’
‘Could be saying goodbye to a shaft here.’
‘I can get the shaft repaired, just hoping my wrists stay in tact.’
A gentle swing about hip high was all a needed with the seven iron to make to ball carry the twenty yards of rough and then bound down the fairway. Important to keep my rhythm and focus on the shot, even though it was an easy one. Focus was never going to be a problem in this situation, just had to make sure I was thinking about the shot I was playing and not the one I was about to play afterwards, or the one I’d just played. I flicked the ball out just as I’d hoped, the tree interrupted the follow through but didn’t affect the flight of the ball. Indeed the shaft did break but I was fine.
‘So what have we got left?’ I asked as soon as we got the ball.
‘119,’ she said with one of her great smiles.
119 was the magic number because on a calm day with a flat lie it was the perfect distance for a smooth full sand wedge shot, didn’t have to take anything off the shot, didn’t have to try and hit it that little bit harder.
‘Damn I’m good,’ I wish could take full credit for the previous shot leaving me 119 but to be honest there’s always a little bit of luck involved in the precise distance those type of shots travel. What was excellent golf was the fact that I did think about what I wanted for my third shot, and had a specific goal for that shot out of the trees rather than ‘just knocking it somewhere down the fairway’. Clear thinking at a time like that was pleasing. Having a caddy there in that sort of situation is a great help to me, because I know Sunny will see any madness in my shot selection, so I tend to think things out better myself to save Sunny having to talk me out of something.
Despite having that perfect yardage there was still the large matter of hitting the shot. Went through my usual pre-shot routine and focused in directly on the flag. Smooth swing, balanced finish, desired strike and ball flight.
‘Get close,’ Sunny articulated our shared thoughts and get close it did, three feet to the right of the hole and exactly the right distance.
The putt had just a little bit of break from right to left on it, which made it as straight forward as I could ask for in the circumstances. Knocked it in almost matter of factly, calm exterior, but mind was scrambled and stomach doing more somersaults than a Nadia Comaneci floor routine. Standing on the 18th tee, I had that feeling of being about to open my exam results. I’d done my work, taken the exams now there was nothing I could do to find out if I’d passed. Of course there was something I could do, but the surreal feeling of watching myself play was taking over to the extent I felt I was no longer in control. The 18th was a straight forward par four just on 450 yards, straight forward but not easy. A long, straight and narrow fairway lay in wait, with thick rough down both sides. My swing on the tee never felt good, at the last moment I felt myself protecting against a similar pull to the left as the seventeenth and ended up producing a cut into the right rough.
‘It’s not lying too bad, you could get a five iron at it. May not come out quite as well as you would like, but if it does a five iron will get you to the green.’
‘Needs to fly a bit to get there with a five doesn’t it?’
‘A little, but it’s one of those sort of clumpy lies that sometimes produces such a flier. I really don’t think it’s worth trying a three or four iron.’
‘Oh yeah you’re right there. Five it is.’
Anytime I’m playing a full shot from thick rough, I’ve got to focus on hitting a little harder than normal in an effort to cut through the rough, whilst still maintaining a good tempo. On this occasion I felt I did both well but the rough really was thick and the five iron didn’t quite cut through it as well as we’d hoped. The ball flew straight at the middle of the green but was always going to be some way short. I was left with a shot of some thirty yards. The five yards immediately before the green was grass of around two inches long, so I couldn’t run the ball along the ground with any sort of control over the roll of the ball. So I had to play a high, soft landing pitch shot. My lob wedge was perfect for the task, but these delicate feel shots were the most difficult in a pressure situation. Where my ball was lying the grass was very short, making it difficult to slide the club under the ball to produce the desired high flight. An added difficulty was the fact that from the front edge of the green to the hole was downhill, so I needed to land it just on the green, with very little forward momentum to stop the ball running too far past the flag. Despite all the situational and technical difficulties of the shot, I knew full well that if I did everything correct then the shot was playable. I snapped out of my helpless observer state, composed myself and ensured I focussed on the hip high, slow and smooth swing the shot required. Just before I took the club back I had a clear image in my head of the perfect strike I required. From then on any time I was faced with a similar shot I also tried to remember the exact feeling of this one, the strike was as sweet as could possibly be, the ball landed about two yards onto the green, bounced once and then slowly trickled down the slope and came to rest four inches from the hole.
Waited another twenty minutes or so to have my place in the US Open confirmed. I now had an invite to one of the biggest golfing parties in the world, now I just hoped that I’d get to spend some time on the dance floor. That was a Monday and the US Open for real would get under way in some ten days on the Thursday.
‘The amount of glory is directly proportionate to the degree of challenge.’
Before I would get to play in one of the four golfing “majors” for the first time, Darla would play in one of the Tennis equivalents, the French Open. Although there was only one of her matches she won in straight sets, she got through the first week and four matches of the tournament without any serious alarms. Darla actually enjoyed her three set matches more, loving it when fitness became a factor and the game became almost gladiatorial. On the day after I’d qualified for the US Open, she played her quarter final match against the world number four, one of the few players still ranked ahead of her. For the first time in the tournament, Darla was not the favourite to win her match, but nobody was too sure who was going to win. If nothing else Darla’s recent form meant that everybody expected her to at least make the match tantalisingly close. She always called me within an hour of each match finishing, talking me through the match and her emotions, even when she knew I’d managed to watch the match myself on television.
The match was on the centre show court in front of a packed house. Darla was tingling with anticipation in the locker room before the match. Smiling as she walked out onto the court Darla was looking forward to a tennis match more than she had ever done. First set was evenly matched, her opponents greater power and cleaner hitting eventually winning the set six games to four. Darla wasn’t too disappointed with the first set, most of the games were long, several lengthy rallies and she knew that her opponent was hitting more shots and running much greater distances than she wanted to be.
Time spent sitting in the chair was a lot more important than it would appear. Fluid and energy levels needed to be topped up. Thought time, lots of thought time, in an essentially instinctive sport. Content of that inner dialogue was decided totally by the player themselves, positive, negative or neutral. Darla felt her best when her mind was relatively empty and thoughts about what might happen in the match weren’t prominent in her mind. She instead liked to focus on how she was feeling physically. This gave her great confidence that she could easily take another two sets of similar exertion level. Also she liked to look at the other player and look for any gasping for air, or paying any attention to any niggles. In this match Darla felt her opponent was beginning to blow a little hard, hoping to win the second set quickly and get off court. This helped Darla out a lot, it made her think about merely staying out on court as long as she could, rather than getting carried away with any thoughts of how to win the match. Second set was just as close and once again her opponent served for the set at 5-4. Darla had to win the game to stay in the match, she knew her extra fitness was beginning to tell, but feeling a lot fresher than your opponent at the end isn’t any consolation after losing a French Open match. Patience had been Darla’s main tactic throughout, making every rally as long as possible. Whilst not wanting to go away from that too much, Darla felt it was time to catch her opponent by surprise with some attacking shots. She swung from the hip during the first two points, producing two dazzling winners with one-handed backhand shots, one down the line one cross court. The next two points slipped away, but when her opponent double faulted to give her a break point, Darla felt like she had been given an opportunity she daren’t waste. Next point was classic Darla. At first she did well to stay in the rally at all, having to return a fast serve and a powerful forehand and happy just to keep the ball in court. She got a little more time to play her third shot and decided to test her opponent’s nerve, patience and fitness in this crucial rally. Deciding to opt away from orthodox tennis shots; Darla hit five heavily top spun high “moon balls” in a row, three backhands, two forehands, then mixed in some massive slices that really spun off the clay. Her opponents twelfth shot of the rally was the first time that she adapted well to the bizarre shots that were coming her way, pounding a flat forehand right onto the baseline and sideline, it was such a good shot she wisely followed it in to the net in order to cut off any slightly weak response from Darla, she wasn’t actually expecting Darla to get her racquet on it at all. Darla anticipated well and from there her foot speed got her into the perfect position for a forehand on the run with her arm stretched fully out. A perfect picture of grace, athleticism, style, skill and that touch of class Darla flashed a forehand down the line, past her disbelieving opponent who could only offer her racquet as if she was waving the ball goodbye as it landed in court. Darla’s momentum kept her running, then sliding towards the crowd. Just before she quite came to a stop she saw the ball land in and she jumped up and screamed ‘Come on!’ with a clenched fist. English seems to be the best language for sports stars to express themselves whatever they are feeling. It was a magic moment for the spectators in the stadium, especially those who were close enough to Darla to feel that she was interacting with them, for the commentators who love the game so much, and almost live for moments like that rally, a rally that had such an exclamation mark. For Darla magic didn’t get near describing the degree of elation. Momentum well and truly swung. Darla held serve to love in the next game and broke serve to fifteen to win the set. During her recent run of good results Darla had shown a definite killer instinct in terms of winning once she got in a winning situation, had the wins created a killer instinct or had a new killer instinct created the wins? Her opponent was understandably a little deflated by how the second set ended and Darla made sure that feeling hung over into the deciding set. Darla dominated to race to a four games to love lead. Traded service games from there and found herself serving at 5-2 with two match points. After a well placed top spun forehand Darla raced to the net and then produced a delightful forehand drop volley, game, set and match Miss Van Der Wolfe. Darla let out a joyous scream and dropped to both knees in a celebration that had become her trademark this year and was beginning to be seen too much for the other players liking. She’d watched countless videos of old matches and Borg’s celebration had worn off on her.
That performance made everybody in the tennis world sit up and take notice. No matter how well you played in the regular tour events, some people wouldn’t take a player seriously until they performed well in one of the four major championships. Now she had a rest day before her semi final match. Media attention increased, they watched her practice session in greater numbers than ever before, and press conferences lasted longer and were more heavily populated. Questions became more personal, press make out they care about the person not just the player, but only when the player’s done something that has even managed to catch their lazy attention. Darla felt comfortable in the spotlight. Being a strong extrovert helped her deal with all the extras of being a world class tennis player. Also she was so pleased with how well she had been playing for the previous couple of months which helped her feel like she belonged in a major semi final. Had she got a lucky draw and not played that well to get into the semi final, then she might have started to doubt herself. As it happened she was ready and looking forward to the biggest match of her life.
The semi final was against the player ranked seven in the world, one place above Darla. Yet the players ranking was not the biggest challenge to be overcome, she was French and would have an extremely partisan crowd behind her. So far Darla had been one of the crowd favourites, being from nearby Belgium helped, this time virtually every person in the crowd would be against her. Now the locality of Darla’s nationality only meant that the crowd would be especially frenzied as it became a “Derby”, atmosphere as well as them desperately wanting a French player to get to the final. Darla had never played in such an atmosphere before but she was looking forward to playing the villain in her first major semi final. She would rather play in front of 30,000 people all cheering for her opponent than play in front of no one. Players can either be humbled by such an atmosphere or be inspired.
The two players were well matched, in all three of their previous matches there had been paper thin margins between victory and defeat . Darla had a lot of nervous energy before the match and felt uncoordinated in the warm up. It took her a couple of games to lose that feeling, but once she got running around, chasing down balls and creating her shots as always, Darla was feeling comfortable and positive about the match. The stadium was full and apart from a band of half a dozen Belgian fans on the back row and three of Darla’s friends in the player’s area, every single one of them wanted to see Darla get beat. It had a federation cup feel to it, as if the two players were representing their country. At first it was good-natured support for the home nation player, but as the match wore on and Darla clearly wasn’t being intimidated, then it became unsporting. Darla loved every second of it. In the first set she trailed 2-0 and 4-2 but eventually she got it back to 6-6 and into the tiebreak. Darla’s tactics didn’t change because she was in a tiebreak, especially as she was on clay, she wanted to make the rallies long and minimise time between points to make the match as physically demanding as possible. Much to Darla’s liking it was a baking hot day. Bad start in the tiebreak but much like in the set Darla came back. She led 6-4 and had two set points, the first one on her serve. Adrenalin flowing hit her hardest serve of the set but it was a couple of inches too long. Second serve heavily spun, clipped the top of the net, popped up in the air seemed to take an age to come down and landed agonisingly the wrong side of the line for Darla. Crowd erupted, always a sign of a raucous crowd when they cheer your mistakes just as loudly as their player’s good shots. The noise went on for ten or fifteen seconds, the umpire called for quiet in a not all that authoritarian tone. Looking at her racquet, fiddling with the strings, Darla managed the composure and strength of mind to remind herself that she still had set point in the first set of a the French Open semi final, stood ready to receive serve, just as determined and positive as at any time in the match. An exchange of down the line back hand shots ensued, before Darla hit one with fantastic disguise across the court. Opponent chased the ball, but in vain, Darla had won the set. A scream of “come on” and holding a hand to her ear as if to question why the crowd had suddenly gone so quiet, let everybody know just how psyched up and far from intimidated Darla was feeling. She had kept her emotions under wraps until that backhand shot had turned into a winner then she felt a huge release and ran to her chair, emotions flowing and heart well and truly on her sleeve. She didn’t really want to sit down, but did so out of habit, she couldn’t stop her legs from moving throughout the changeover period. More excited than she’d ever been, she just needed to win one more set to be in the French Open final, just one more set.
The second set if anything was even closer than the first. Each game was hard fought, and no player was ever more than one game in front. The set was enthralling to watch, each player was virtually at the top of their game and the top class winning shots were not easy to keep count of. Neither player had ever run so much in a set of tennis, Darla in particular left the observers, not to mention her opponent, dumfounded on several occasions, by not just getting to the ball but producing a shot that kept her in the rally when almost every other player on tour wouldn’t have even tried to run it down. Feeding off the crowd, it felt good to be playing the bad girl. All the way through the set looked like it might well be another tiebreak and it duly got the climax it deserved.
The tiebreak turned out to be a microcosm of the set itself. Both players hit stunning winners, both missed an easy chance to win a point, both got a lucky break off the net tape, to and fro without any player ever looking in control. Crowd was out of control, Darla was beginning to feel that the umpire was being swayed by the overwhelming partisan nature of the crowd. A couple of fifty-fifty calls had gone against her, so far not having too much effect on the match. Still Darla had fixed him with a couple of steely glares. Darla was feeling the literal heat, but not as much as her opponent, both players were sweating profusely. The clay seemed to reflect the heat, creating a sauna feel, not doing anything to stop Darla being on the edge of losing her temper. Great matches like this always seem to have one especially memorable moment, by which they will be defined. In this match the moment started with Darla 8-7 up in the tiebreak, match point. She drew her opponent into the net with a well-disguised drop shot and the response gave Darla a chance to hit a passing shot to win the match and go into the French Open final. Even in the heat of the moment, the floated shot by her opponent meant that Darla had the slightest moment to consider what she was about to do. Without a hint of tightness Darla ripped into a topspin backhand down the line with an extravagant follow through. Followed the balls flight, couldn’t take her eyes off it, flew past her opponents outstretched racquet, it seemed to be following the line all the way, the heavy top spin meant that the ball was going to come down before the baseline, but would it go wide? Both players watched anxiously, it seemed like an age to both of them, Darla saw the ball hit the side line and no call from the line judge, she’d won, she was in the final, dropped to her knees and screamed, ‘Yes!’
‘Out,’ umpire spoke with a monotone as if he had no idea of the impact of what he was saying.
‘No!’ Darla screamed immediately after her shout of yes and jumped back up to her feet barely a moment after knees touched the ground, her moment of triumph was so fleeting yet so distinct.
‘You have got to be kidding me, check the mark, please check the mark,’ Darla moved aggressively towards the umpire’s chair, gesticulating with her racquet.
As the umpire reluctantly began to climb out of his chair, both players went to where the ball had landed. Tennis balls on clay courts make marks and this is often used to decide close calls, it is by no means conclusive, but a strong guide. As soon as Darla got there she could see that the white of the line had been disturbed, just had she had suspected, and there were no marks outside the line. The umpire looked as if he was deliberately milking the moment, walking very slowly.
‘Look the white is disturbed and there’s no mark anywhere else,’ Darla pleaded, she knew she was right but feared a fair hearing wouldn’t be hers.
‘That mark is not distinctive enough and I saw the ball out.’
‘What?! Then where is the mark? Where’s the mark? Show it to me.’
‘A mark isn’t always made, it skidded so maybe wouldn’t have made much of a mark.’
‘That’s bullshit! She knows it’s in,’ Darla pointed at her opponent who would not look her in the eye. ‘Why are you doing this, are you doing it for these people?’
The umpire calmly walked back to his chair with an aristocratic swagger about him in an attempt to look authoritative. Darla followed him back to the chair, now completely out of control. ‘Please at least tell me why you are cheating me?’ No response. ‘You are a fucking joke!’
‘Code violation warning Miss Der Wolfe. Eight points all.’
Darla produced more expletives but sufficiently under her breath to avoid further wrath of the umpire. Boos and jeers from the crowd, Darla walked back to play the next point, gesturing with her hands to her ears to mockingly ask the crowd for more noise, then dropped her racquet and clapped above her head then stuck both thumbs up. Fully aware of the part they had played in the diabolical call. Commentators agreed with Darla on the call but couldn’t bring themselves to condone Darla’s reaction. All in all it was several minutes between Darla hitting that backhand and playing her next shot. It was her to serve; she gave herself a little talking to before playing the next point, determined not to let the umpire cost her this match. Not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it. Fantastic first serve and Darla was playing the point like the previous one hadn’t happened. Long rally, both players covering the width of the court, Darla’s foot speed tested to retrieve a drop shot then an excellent lob. Darla flashed a cross-court forehand at a devastating angle right onto the same line as the previous point, right under the umpire’s nose. She clenched her fist and turned round to steel herself for her second match point.
‘No fucking way!’ Darla pulled the spare ball out from under her skirt and smashed it forehand in the general direction of the umpire, it thudded into the chair about half way up. ‘You’ve have got to be shitting me, you incompetent prick!’
‘Violation Miss Van De Wolfe, point penalty, game and second set…’
‘Oh god, no way.’ Darla turned away from the umpire, literally bit her bottom lip, dropped her racquet, crouched down onto her haunches, ran her hands over her head, pulling off her bandana, and held them on the back of her neck. Meanwhile her opponent walked, appearing emotionless, to her chair - she knew she had just been handed the set by poor officiating and knew the set deserved a better climax. Darla’s head was spinning like she’d never imagined possible, all of a sudden she was so self aware; the blisters on her feet stung, her legs ached, she realised just how much she was sweating and how hot she felt and her heart was pumping ferociously, like she had just finished one of her most exhaustive gym work outs. Her world was crashing in around her, her dreams being destroyed by events conspiring against her. Stood up, turned round and tossed her racquet towards her chair. The French crowd loved it, hoots of derision were almost deafening and Darla was in no mood to play with them this time. Despite her fragile mental state Darla was still aware that if the umpire felt she over stepped the mark again then the next course of action would be disqualification, she decided that her anger needed to be taken out on something else. Much to the crowd’s entertainment Darla picked up her racquet and swung it at her drinks on the floor by her chair, sending the bottles of fluid flying. Fortunately she managed to avoid breaking a racquet for what would have been the twenty third time in her career (yes she did keep count), that would probably have resulted in another violation and subsequent disqualification. But this was the most out of control she had ever felt, usually she was fully aware of what she was doing but just did it anyway to relieve some tension. Slumped in her chair, breathing heavily Darla closed her eyes, composed herself slightly and said the smartest sentence she had ever said.
‘Can I have a toilet break please?’
Despite knowing that there was very little chance that Darla actually needed to go to the toilet, the umpire had no option but to grant the break.
‘Oh thanks ever so much,’ even when she severely lost her temper, she never lost her sarcasm.
Darla was escorted off the court by a female official and had earned herself an extra few minutes to calm down. In the toilet she took the opportunity to relieve some of the tension within her. Before going back on court she ran the cold tap until it was ice cold, then soaked her hair to saturation point and splashed her face a dozen or so times. Looking it the mirror, she controlled her breathing as the water dripped down her face, looked deep into her eyes and produced her best icy stare. In the time she gave herself between walking off court and walking back, pulling a new racquet out of her bag, Darla did exceptionally well to remind herself that this was the sort of situation she had dreamed of before the match. A long energy-sapping tussle, where fitness was going to play a big part, it was going to come down to whom could outlast the other in the last set, in the scorching heat. One set to play to get into the French Open final, which was a good place for Darla to be, no matter how it had come about. She walked back onto court feeling physically relaxed and mentally fresh enough to focus on the next set, the all-important set. She was dressed appropriately for the heat, all in white, loose cotton skirt and the skin tight Lycra like vest top that she assured me was a lot more comfortable than it looked. By way of a change as much as anything else Darla decided not to put her bandana back on, instead she would let her hair loose and keep it wet during the sit down at the change of ends every other game. A sarcastic but extremely loud cheer greeted Darla’s return to the arena, she blew kisses to the crowd then it was well and truly on with the “game face”.
Third set was a vintage titanic struggle. It is matches like these that make spectators wish that the ladies played five sets, it would have taken on even more epic proportions. Neither player gave an inch, whoever won this set was going to have truly deserved it. Darla kept fresh during the sit-downs by not only drinking plenty of water but also saturating her hair. Heat was unrelenting and whilst all Darla’s hard work in the winter was paying off in just the way she dreamed of, her opponent was beginning to struggle. After an early break of serve each the set became one that was dominated by the servers. By the time it got to four games all everybody could tell that Darla’s opponent was feeling the effects of the heat. Suffering with cramp, nausea and dizziness but her will never wilted and the crowd demanded that she continued to compete to the best of her ability, and she never let them down. Darla knew she could outlast her opponent, but as they got to the business end of the set and match Darla also knew that it could be just one or two points that decides the match, so concentration and intensity needed to be at their best. Serving second in the set meant that Darla had to serve to stay in the match. Added pressure of knowing if she lost her serve then there would be no chance of recovering from that. It crossed her mind that it didn’t seem right that Darla could be feeling so much stronger than her opponent, but not be victorious. Reminding herself that tennis is essentially a skill game, Darla focussed in on winning the match. Her opponent knew as well as anybody that she was struggling with her fitness levels so she started to swing from the hip and go for big winning shots as often as she could, realising that long rallies suited Darla more than ever. This worked in her favour and made her very dangerous. Darla looked to be in control of the match, moving her opponent around and really making her struggle in the heat. Indeed Darla was winning the majority of the points, holding her service games comfortably and often threatening to break her opponents serve. She had four break points that were all thwarted by devastating winner from her desperate opponent, each of which was greeted by a cheer worthy of winning the tournament. Serving at 7-8 Darla was beginning to struggle to keep her patience. She made the mistake of thinking that she was going to win all her own service games and it was just a matter of time before she made the decisive break. This wandering mind plus some inspired hitting by the French heroine resulted in Darla finding herself love-forty and three match points down. Crowd was loudly murmuring in expectation, could their girl actually do it on her last legs? Commentators were saying something along the lines of, ‘After two hours and forty eight minutes Darla Van Der Wolfe faces three match points.’ Darla took a little time to compose herself, closed her eyes and eradicated the thought of the eruption of the crowd if she lost one of these match points, imagined herself winning then focussed on the next point. Perfect time to produce a classic, wickedly swinging left hand first serve to the right hander’s back hand, her opponent lunged at it and swung with all the effort she could muster but could only get the frame of her racquet on the ball and deflect it into the disappointed crowd. One down, two to go, take your time. Another good first serve, this time straight at the player, saw her chance and tried to smash a big forehand winner but couldn’t clear the net. The crowd did nothing to hide their disappointment and tension. Two down, still one to go. First serve into the net this time, crowd more excited and anxious than ever. Darla didn’t wait for the quiet, preferring to serve with the noise rather than be delayed. Second serve was understandably edgy, heavily spun, safely in but not much pace at all. The ball sat up and came at a perfect height for a powerful flat forehand. It got the treatment it deserved, a flashing forehand down the line right into the corner. Darla anticipated the shot correctly and was quickly off chasing down the ball, foot speed still as quick as at the start of the match she looked to be bursting blood vessels to retrieve the ball and stay in the point, game, set and the match. As soon as the forehand was hit and cleared the net the crowd went up as one, as if the point had been won. Some how, some way Darla stretched out on her backhand and just before the ball would be past her and into the wall surrounding the court, with a flick of the wrist Darla managed to produce a defensive lob back into court. A gasp from the crowd. It wasn’t the best of lobs, but it kept Darla in the point for now. Nearly over balancing after hitting the shot, the lob was just high enough to give Darla time to regain her full balance and head back to the centre of the baseline. Another forehand was pounded, this time into the other corner. Darla raced across, well behind the baseline almost running into the line judges and ball boys and girls. Once again the crowd thought it was over, once again they had underestimated Darla’s, speed and determination. Retrieving with another lob, this time forehand and even higher, Darla slid into the back wall, bumping gently off the, advertisement slogan covered, canvas. Shaping up for another pounding her opponent had the presence of mind and skill to choose and execute the correct shot, a delicate drop shot just four of five feet over the net. Fortunately for Darla she had guessed that this shot was coming and set off towards the net before the ball was struck. Feeling she was always going to make it to the ball before it bounced for a second time Darla started to think about what kind of shot to play, in the end she only had time to manage to push it backhanded straight at her opponent a foot or so in from the baseline, Darla’s main worry was whether her momentum would carry her far enough to touch the net, therefore losing the point, set and match. Sliding to a halt she had to really stamp her feet down so slow her natural progress, her front foot came to rest about an inch away from the net, then her upper body began to over balance. What a way to lose a French Open semi final that would have been. Before she had time to think about how close she had come to hitting the net, Darla was hurtling back to retrieve the lob shot that landed about a foot in from the baseline and the sideline. She’d run to the right, to the left, forward so she may as well have a go at going backwards. The ball was heavily top spun, Darla was quite close to it when it landed, but the spin took it shooting away from her. One big extra long stride and a lunge out with the racquet got her in position to hit her third and highest lob of the rally over her head. Darla smashed into the wall, putting her right hand and leg up to protect herself, she bounced back and turned back into the court. The ball was in the air for a long time, for the French lady waiting to hit the ball it must have seemed like a hundred times longer. Darla knew the ball was going to bounce up high and her opponent would be able to hit the ball hard into any area of the court she wanted. Out of desperation Darla ran across the court to cover the left side, well before her opponent hit, just to try and distract her. Two noises that followed were the sweetest of Darla’s life, whack of racquet on ball followed quickly by ball on net. Always make them hit one more. Some how, some way Darla was still in the French Open. The crowd was living this match, every emotion, and every shot in that rally produce and expectant cheer followed by a disbelieving gasp. The French lady out on the court was distraught, screaming ‘no!’, dropping her racquet, holding her head and falling to her knees. What a chance to get into the French Open final. Darla walked back and to along the baseline like a caged Panther, staring at her opponent with an icy nature that was saying ‘you had your chance, I’ll get mine’.
Next point first serve in, weak response to mid court, Darla quickly forward to pounce on it and flashed a top spin forehand down the line comfortably far enough away from her opponent to be a winner. Understated clenched fist, quickly back to play the next point. Another first serve in, floated response, heavily sliced backhand shot that Darla followed into the net, a very tired and weak lob, Darla didn’t let it bounce, smashed it domineeringly, it landed in and bounced up into the crowd. More pronounced fist clench, jogged back to the baseline and bounced on her toes whilst her depleted opponent slovenly went to collect balls from the ball boys and girls. Eight games all, final set of the French Open semi final, this is what it’s all about, let’s get it on. Never could a player have had more of a feeling of “now was the time to finish them off”, than Darla right then. She knew how hard her opponent had worked to stay in the match, never looked like getting a break and match point, then found herself with three and managed to waste all of them. That forehand into the net at 30-40 had, Darla strongly suspected, finally broken her will. Darla managed to step up the intensity another gear or two, hit every shot she had in court, made sure her opponent was going to have to work hard for any point. Ground strokes began to flow off her racquet and the French lady couldn’t muster the energy to chase down the balls that weren’t within a few feet of her, and anytime she did move more than a stride or two to get to the ball she was so depleted she couldn’t manage to hit the ball in court. Killer instinct required and killer instinct was produced. Darla broke serve losing only one point in the game and virtually skipped to her chair for what she hoped would be the last sit down of the match. The water over her head felt better than ever and she was giddy with excitement, her legs bouncing up and down as she sat. Icy stare remained, but she did allow herself a big smile as she got up to walk out to serve for a place in the French Open final. Her suspicions appeared to be correct, opponent had nothing left to give and nobody in the crowd could have asked anymore of her, and she had been running on empty for most of the third set. Darla pounded down the serves, ripped into the ground strokes and even produced some of her classic deft touches and angles, got to forty-love up and three match points. Three match points, that sounded familiar. Surely this time it meant the end. After three hours of the best tennis she’d played in her life, exhaustive heat, bad calls, temper tantrums, good luck, bad luck, sweetly struck shots, miss-hit winners, blisters, sweat, heart racing, crowd baying, being one point away from defeat three times, serves, backhands, forehands, volleys, top spin, slices, drop shots, lobs and one toilet break Darla was one point away from the French Open final, something she’d dreamed about since she was old enough to hold a racquet properly. And over an hour after she thought she’d won this match. One big deep breath, bounced the ball three times as always, and smoothly moved into that stylish service action. Darla had hardly served volleyed throughout the third set but she thought that would be the best way to end the match if the first serve went in. It did go in and the return was average speed and straight at the advancing Darla. Her eyes lit up as she focussed on the ball and got into position for a backhand volley, fully aware that anywhere in the left half of the court would be a winner. A crisp, stylish, technically sound backhand volley that Stefan Edberg would have been proud of produced the Borg style celebrations. As soon as she hit the volley Darla couldn’t help but let out a huge squeal of delight, when her knees hit the ground so did her racquet, both hands covered her face as she shook her head in disbelief, ran her fingers through her hair and produced a classic Darla smile. The crowd was honourable enough to give both players a rapturous standing ovation. Noticing her opponent trudging to the net, Darla jumped up to her feet. The pair hugged each other at the net, a long hug out of genuine respect; they kissed on the cheek twice in that French way that these two ladies made look very classy. After that they exchange words whilst making great eye contact, clearly utmost respect for each other.
Anybody within earshot of Darla as she took a shower after that match might have thought she was having some sort of break down, unashamedly screaming with joy, relief and excitement.
The press conference afterwards was her biggest so far, winning through to the French Open final in such a dramatic match was always going to get the presses attention. After all the predictable questions along the lines of ‘how does it feel?’ , ‘what does this mean to you?’ and ‘are you confident about the final?’ the questions started to get a little more personal and Darla didn’t mind one bit.
‘Do you regret the way you reacted to the calls at the end of the second set?’
‘Not really, I won the match and nobody got hurt.’
‘What about setting an example?’
‘What about the umpire setting an example? Those calls were so bad I think some sort of investigation might in order.’
‘Are you saying the umpire’s corrupt?’
‘Not even I’m going to comment on that one guys.’
‘So you think it’s all right to argue with officials?’
‘If I think they’re wrong I will tell them.’
‘What message is that giving to the youngsters watching?’
‘It’s saying have the independence of mind to not take someone’s word as gospel, and if you do disagree with someone then feel free to voice your opinion.’
‘Surely you don’t advocate smashing the ball at an umpire.’
‘Oh come on I’m pretty good, if I’d wanted to hit him I would have done.’ A rumble of laughter reverberated around the room, but still most of them weren’t impressed by Darla’s antics. ‘You guys really are a joke. You’ve no idea of the power and influence you have. Every spare column inch you get you tell everyone that today’s game has no characters and is played by a bunch of emotionless robots. The minute one of us shows any emotion and passion or any hint of a strong character, you absolutely crucify us for it and say we set a bad example. It’s a lot easier now just to be an emotionless robot because you get less hassle, I just like being myself so much I’m not going to conform to avoid your wrath. Talk about setting examples you guys are the worlds worst. You go on about celebrity women being too thin and forcing young girls to try to be as thin, then the next day you’re showing some obscure picture from a weird angle of some gorgeous female pop star and highlight a pound or two of fat and telling the world that she’s fat. Someone like me comes along with my wild hair, big mouth and sexy photo shoots and you don’t know how to handle it. That was a quality tennis match out there today, if you can’t write at least two thousand quality words purely about the tennis then you are in the wrong job. But I’m sure you’ll find time to write about my diabolical behaviour, my hair and both our outfits. How do you get a job as a sports journalist any way? Do you have to prove you have no physical talent, an inability to write coherently, limited knowledge on the sport you write about and distinct lack of sensitivity when it comes to invading someone’s private life? Or do they just take you on a trial basis and see how you go? Any more questions?’ Darla took a couple of sips from a bottle of water and sat back in her chair as a slightly stunned silence hit the room for about twenty seconds.
‘Do you enjoy those photo shoots?’
‘Yeah, they’re okay for a bit of a laugh, something to get me away from tennis for little bits at a time. If you’ve got it there’s no harm in flaunting it. Although pretty much none of you in here will know about that.’
‘Do you like being a sex symbol for guys around the world?’
‘Can’t really help being gorgeous can I?’
‘Are you looking for a man right now?’
‘I’m not going to limit myself to guys, there’re plenty of gorgeous girls out there. There’s a few out on tour with me, after all we are all lesbians aren’t we?’
‘Are you saying you’ve have lesbian relations with other female members of the locker room?’
‘Lesbian relations with other female members of the locker room? First of all not a great command of the English language, your mother tongue no less. “Lesbian relations” means there’s no need for the word female in that sentence. Secondly if you’re going to ask about something you obviously consider to be seedy and part of a dark private life, why are you tripping over your tongue to avoid certain words? Why don’t you just say ‘have you had sex with any other female professional tennis player, if so who was it, how was she and have you got any video evidence?’
Cameras started to flash, Darla was making headline news by being her cheeky self. Film crews were filming this live and thanks to Darla it would be seen in virtually every country with televisions and at least a remote interest in tennis. Most of the journalists packed into the room didn’t know what to do with themselves, and couldn’t bring themselves to look at Darla. One tabloid journalist from England decided to make more of the moment.
‘So have you or not?’
‘Oh I’m such a tease aren’t I? I’m not going to tell you, I promise to reveal all in my autobiography that I’ll write when I’m done playing. Anyway I’m sure in your paper you’ll say something like “It is rumoured that Darla Van Der Wolfe has at one time or another had sex with every member of the WTA Tour. Often after matches she likes to unwind by forcing other players into sexual acts and likes to celebrate big wins with an orgy in her hotel room.” Great sports journalism by the way, oh and I might need some help with the actually writing of my autobiography so I was wondering whether any of you people knew anybody who can write? Anyway I’ll leave you to your fantasies; I’m off to my hotel room to have an orgy that will last until an hour or so before the final. Unless anybody wants me to contort myself into a position so you can take a photo of me and make me look fat. Then again, who am I kidding I’ve seen you trying all week to get that kind of shot. Let me know if any of you manage it, so then I will know it’s time for me to develop an eating disorder. What would you people do without me? You’d have to write about the tennis, how dull would that be?’ Darla rose from her chair and nonchalantly walked out of the room, cameras flashed and there were a few shouts of ‘Miss Van Der Wolfe, one more question please’. But Darla simply left the building, got into one of the courtesy cars and was driven back to her hotel.
Finding a place in America to watch that semi final wasn’t easy but Sunny and I did eventually find a sports bar that was showing it. Only the two of us were watching it but we were as enthralled by the drama as all the people in the stadium. Our groans of disbelief and disappointment and cheers of joy did catch the attention of the staff and some of the customers, but none of them actually sat down to watch more than a few points. That night we watched “Sportscenter” on ESPN as we often do and half the programme was dedicated to Darla. Only showed her hit one shot, showed her outbursts of rage but most of it was dedicated to her press conference with a few words bleeped out. Sunny and I were in hysterics throughout the whole of the interview and the discussion by the guys at ESPN afterwards.
When Darla called that night I was so happy to congratulate her on her win and her press conference. Despite having watched every point, I didn’t mind at all as she talked me through the match. With regards to the press conference she said she knew she was being outrageous and that a big fuss would be made about it, but that made her more relaxed about the final. Definitely didn’t want to start going into her shell now on the verge of the biggest match of her life. Having said that she did isolate herself before the final by spending the rest day in her hotel room. Only the hotel maid shared time with Darla between the press conference and getting up on the morning of the final. She made a few phone calls to a few people close to her but she didn’t want other peoples company complicating her thoughts and preparations. She hadn’t had a coach since firing one when she was nineteen for undue attention he paid her and she hadn’t felt the need for one since. In a match she was alone anyway, so she figured she’d rather be completely alone so she could focus only on what she wanted to do, rather than worrying about what the coach wanted her to do. She was a great student of the game and knew her own game inside out as well as knowing her opponent’s games intimately. Plenty of rest and recuperation was a wise choice on the day before the French Open final.
On the day of the final Darla was all business and no show. No interviews, no interaction with anybody, a gentle practice session then into the locker room to get ready. Another packed house witnessed this match, this time Darla was the crowd favourite, now that she was the underdog and local player against Lauren Fisher, the American world number one. Lauren had risen to number one in the world by dominating the game for the last six months, she was the new queen of tennis and in most people’s minds the clear favourite for the final.
It took a lot of conscious effort for Darla to get the blinkers on and focus on that ball and nothing else. She can’t remember knocking up, the coin toss or any of the pre-match necessities. This could be her one big chance and she was going to put every last mental and physical effort into her performance. Whilst lying in bed the day before Darla had worked out her game plan. She was going to take a few risks on serve, serving as big as she could. In the rallies, variation was going to be her watchword, wanting to never allow Lauren to hit the same shot twice in a row. Meaning plenty of unusual angles, sharply spun shots, drop shots, lobs and moon balls. By the end of the match Darla wanted Lauren feeling tied up in knots and dizzy. Darla knew that this type of strategy depended heavily on playing to something very close to her potential, otherwise the “clever variations” would just turn into “weak, easy to play against, sloppy tennis”. In a French Open final Darla thought that it was no place to be playing a respectable match and getting beat, even if it was against the world number one. If she was going to get beat she was going to get beat in her own style, and a style that at least was intended to win the match. Winning was the only thing Darla let herself think about.
If she could have bottled her state of mind for that match and sold it, Darla would be a billionaire. Later she described it as “like playing in a trance”. Game plan executed to the letter, every type of shot was coming out of the middle of the strings and almost without exception it was the correct shot for the situation. Lauren was chasing shadows and looking dumfounded, her superior power being completely nullified by the positions she was being made to play from and Darla’s superior foot speed and court coverage. Darla’s serve was flowing, faster than she’d ever served, which in itself caught her opponent by surprise. Sports psychologists talk about a “flow state”, where everything seems automatic to the player and their own mind stays out of their way and allows them to perform as close to their potential as they have ever done. Nobody knows how to get into the ‘flow state’, or even how to stay there when you find yourself in it, as a sports performer you dream about getting into it and Darla and I would sell our soul to hit that state in a big tournament. Darla didn’t know why she was feeling and playing so well, she didn’t care, all she focussed on was keeping that steely glare, poker face look and banned negative thoughts from her mind.
Darla led 5-3 in the first set and had a set point on her opponent’s serve. After drawing her opponent into the net Darla had plenty of time to get into position to hit a backhand from the corner of the court, shaped to hit a flashing powerful passing shot, turned out to be an unbelievably well disguised topspin lob. Lauren had set herself for an instinctive volley and could only respond by looking up at the ball as it passed her head, she didn’t even turn round to watch the ball land in; instead she just walked straight to her chair.
The second set continued in the same vain, much to most people’s surprise. Darla was expected to make the game close but most of the experts had expected her to be over powered and ultimately lose the match. It didn’t matter if none of them believed, as long as she did. It was a breathtaking display of shot making, the kind of tennis that the purists cried out for in today’s power dominated game. Passing shots ripped down the line and flew across court, lobs floating agonisingly out of reach before majestically dipping to land in court, drop shots teased the player to chase them only to seem to be determined to hit the ground twice before being hit by those pesky strings, volleys were clipped away at angles with deception that were borderline cruel, serves were smashed down and swung away from her opponent.
Second set, four games to two up and serving at 40-0, Darla was keeping her foot on her opponent’s throat. Not once was she going to stop hustling around the court and fighting for every point and every ball. Lauren hit one of her trademark power ground shots down the line into the corner. Given the score it would have been easy for Darla to coast it and leave the ball, but it was just another lost cause she wanted to run down. Quickly into her stride she scampered across in her now familiar athletic running style and once again defied the odds to get her racquet on the ball and shovel it back into play with a desperate flick of a forehand at full stretch. Left knee bent so she could get down to the ball, pushed off it to get back into the court, somehow her lower leg went one way and the knee and the upper leg went the other. The snap could be heard twenty rows back in the noisy crowd and the shrieks could be heard by everyone watching.
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