World-class athletes have a certain grace, an internal music, which allows them to flow elegantly across whatever the preferred surface of contest. Their feet glide and surge in an effortless ballet, then explode with dynamic forcefulness into the ball, the opponent, or the finish line. For them, winning is not an achievement, but rather, an expectation, the unfettered belief gained from every successful shot, jump, kick, and stride practice and perfected over years of early morning workouts.
By six-thirty a.m., Anastasia Karpovsky had already hit her three-thousandth tennis ball. The byproduct of an over-disciplined Russian мать and an obscenely athletic German pater, Anastasia, Stacey in America, was blessed with the genetic equivalent of a tennis racket in her right hand. Consequently, as a child tennis prodigy, Stacey was merely fulfilling her destiny.
Born in Prague – the parents met, dated and fornicated there while on coinciding business trips and decided to settle down in a neutral country to raise their children – Anastasia Karpovsky spent her formative years at the bottom of a swimming pool, battering a bald ball against the drained-out white cement walls in the midst of an unsympathetic winter. Empty pools imply potential. Over time, the child developed extraordinary reflexes learning to navigate the imperfect walls. Four hours a day from age four until age nine is enough to beat down any sense of false skill. By age seven, Anastasia had conquered the girls under-twelve year-old division of Czechslovakia’s national tournament and she’d already earned a media following from the nation’s premiere newspapers, the press then referring to her as “Our Anna,” an irony which pissed off both mother and father whose nationalistic instincts tended towards their own homelands. Once the poor child got onto a regular court and learned about the back and forth of the game, the irony of the sport played out in the hammering blows between mother and father as they fought for the sovereignty of their only daughter. Eventually they split.
Over time, Czech competition proved too inadequate for the girl. The family moved west to America in search of more motivated adversaries. They landed at the Cinterallo Tennis Academy in South Florida and began preparations for world domination, albeit training with five-hundred other tennis prodigies, non-prodigies whose parents believed they were prodigies, the prodigious who would never be prodigies, and the tag-a-long recreational schmucks whose parents figured “what the hell, why not spend our life savings and our kids college tuition on a babysitting athletic facility and pray like hell that at the end of the rainbow there is a scholarship waiting.” Fantasy and lunacy share ancestry.
Up at four-thirty, the girl met seven other pre-pubescents on the dark green back courts – all ignoring each other, aside from the threatening and accusatory glares from both parents and prodigies – and began her pre-dawn dynamic stretching routine. The aerial display of flung arms and pointed toes merely served to challenge Anastasia, her leg kicks now going slightly higher and farther than any other girl, her flexibility reaching levels to make contortionists whisper in admiration. The little shit was limber. Several courts down, one could hear the over-strained grunting of youthful ambition as two other pony-tailed talents clung to their ankles while their parents shoved their chests into their knees. With one knee vertically attached to the side of her head while the other was pointed groundward, Stacey looked out over her competition and tossed out a satisfied smile. She held the last pose for an extra few seconds just to be sure everyone was aware of the new kid in town.
In some arenas, competitive instinct would be rewarded, even respected. But here, among the obsessively greedy – a population, which viewed a father poisoning a child’s water bottle in order to secure a victory which might merit an endorsement deal for his eleven year-old son, as “nearly acceptable” behavior – people viewed this oneupsmanship like a looming thundercloud. Accordingly, Stacey’s mother stood guard over her equipment while the child performed her daily routine.
At five a.m., beneath a dark dawn, tennis sounds echoed. Squeaking shoes traversed two-inch wide white lines, negotiating the giant rectangle to develop the agility and quickness required to compete at the elite level. Unzipped racket bags and plastic-wrapped racket casings revealed newly-strung rackets and an excessive amount of stencil – the symbol of a player who receives free rackets from companies hoping to imprint their logo upon the hearts and souls of the world’s future elite. Across the green pavement, three-hundred-count ball baskets rolled towards their specified places across the net from the children. On a distant court, a Japanese woman tried to find the plug for a ball machine cord. Seven children performed a strange merging of linear and circularly angled swings and created an intermittent wind, which billowed the plastic windscreens in and out against the chain link fences and sounded like a passing car. The initial thup thups of ball against strings were like a muted xylophone, and players took care to warm up their shoulders and arms before launching full bore into Mach Seven groundstrokes, except for Stacey.
In a competitive jungle, psychological advantage is the lion. Anastasia Karpovsky did not believe in warming up her strokes. With an un-qualified roar, she rifled the first ball crosscourt with near nuclear force, the ball actually reaching the back fence a few milliseconds before the scream. Twelve heads turned southward and stared, daring her to look at them. Stacey never lost focus, destroying ball after ball with the same unrelenting force, and concentrating on seeing, actually seeing the pieces of felt touch her racket. It wasn’t some egomaniacal challenge to the rest of the athletic geniuses surrounding her. In truth, Stacey was barely aware anyone was watching. In a world where boastfulness and mocking simply played no part, her intensity was borne of excellence. Stacey’s objective was to get better, every single day, hitting harder and harder, closer and closer to the lines, with perfectly executed and repeatable form in such a way that Grand Slam trophies and millions of dollars in endorsement deals and prize money would simply arrive at her door in gratitude.
As the morning wore on, The Sunshine State’s blazing sun creeped above the horizon, it’s sharp rays cutting sweating beads from pigtails and ponytails. At about 8:00 a.m. the courts looked like a dog park, with empty Gatorade containers, the remains of athletic tape dispensers, and lolling tongues and prone bodies strewn about the dewy benches, except for Stacey. The girl’s attention never wavered. Cannon after cannon exploded from the baseline as the lithe young Czech pummeled every shot. In the distance, angry mothers swing-pushed their daughters back onto the courts and demanded more. Anthropologically, the scene could not have been more Darwinian, the survival-of-the-fittest mentality evident with every mangled esteem and mutilated childhood and disfigured ounce of self-worth. By 9:00 a.m., Anastasia Karpovsky was the only child remaining on the courts, and while a select few mothers and daughters scurried away in fear, others walked by with scowls, devising distasteful plans to eradicate this girl from the academy. Anastasia noticed none of this, however, reeking havoc upon yellow fluff for another hour. Finally, she went to breakfast.
The afternoon session was worse. Three more hours of vicious drilling at the merciless hands of overly-abrasive instructors whole sole purpose was to separate the wheat from the chaff. They would determine which students should garner extra attention for private work and career-development. With four players on each court, coaches fed ball after ball to sweat-soaked students and bellowed continuous instruction on how to stroke, drive, volley and smash shots. On court seventeen, Anastasia Karpovsky was bored. To the competitors on her court, she was superior in every way, and thus, intent upon moving to the top court without delay.
While two girls perched at the net volleying back her shots, the instructor fed her side-to-side ground strokes. “Our Anna” took aim. With a maliciously-intentioned swing, she rocketed a Penn 3 on a fifteen-degree horizontal vector and targeted at the forehead of Miko Tanagawa, Japan’s number one thirteen year-old contender whose net game wasn’t exactly extraordinary. Before Tanagawa could open her already slanted eyes wide enough to see the impending danger, the ball struck the bridge of her nose with an actual like fracturing noise, followed immediately thereafter by an amalgamation of blood, sweat and tears thick enough to require two academy-logoed terrycloth towels. When the paramedics came, Anastasia was still smiling.
Although the instructors were distraught over the injury, the lead counselor placed his hand upon Stacey’s back and walked her towards the administration building, then turned quietly and placed on her Court One where the professional players raised eyebrows. They all understood the intensity required to enter Court One. Suddenly, everyone was very curious about this extremely young little girl.
With a violent screech, Anastasia Karpovsky announced her presence, and then spent the next two hours annihilating tennis balls with reckless abandon. The next day, two agents appeared outside the fence and rocked side to side in near fetal position as they calculated the best means to “get at” the mother. When practice ended that afternoon, Mrs. Karpovsky lifted her daughter’s tennis bag, placed a hand atop the child’s head and steered her towards their the-academy-will-now-provide-this-for-you condominium, dismissing any interactive attempts from the agents.
For two years it went this way – practice, eat, practice, fitness, eat, practice again, sleep. By age twelve, Stacey was competing with the some of the best female athletes in the academy, and when professionals came into town to train, the lead counselor put her on court as a sparring partner. For a hundred weeks, she’d endured the belittling smirks and rolled eyes of women twice her age, right up until the point when they struck the first ball and watched it spiral past them with a trailing and defining “whirrr.”
Then, the little French billionaire heiress arrived. With handlers toting her designer racket bag, Perrier water bottle and a personal physio in tow, she and her adamant mother strolled into the academy with open wallets and garnered the administrative staff’s absolute attention. Within two weeks of her arrival, Antoinette du Pomme had taken over Stacey’s position on Court One. One might have expected a tantrum – she was only thirteen – but “Our Anna” resolved things with dignity. She simply packed up her bag, gave a curiously competitive glance at Antoinette, a long ominous glare at the three coaches standing behind the little French twat, grabbed her mother’s hand, walked to the family’s car, and told them to head to California where another famous tennis coach would direct her career.
A week later, she stood on the court with a disciplinary master. Defined by his grey scruffy hair and a voice like Satan, this roaring dictator re-tooled some of the finer points of her technique and sent her off into local competition. Devouring her opponents, she gained a certain competitive confidence that comes from obtaining scalps. In time, Stacey would surely become the number one player in the state and challenge for the top ranking in the girls 18-and-under national division.
But competition isn’t always life’s crux. Beneath the intense exterior of an athlete lies something hidden deep inside, a pillowy softness which manifests in a feeling of solitude, a knowledge that one’s talent is more than just a means to an end, more than just God-given, but also a massive burden upon the karmic soul. Excellence is a sharp blade. To be great at something, to chase that demon into the darkest depths of championship blah blah blah, one has to sacrifice some sense of self. The immortality of the soul requires this, as though absolute ease and unhindered excellence is simply not allowed, a misnomer to all elitists. No, despite her practiced calm, the fiery intensity raging within but exiting in the smooth flowing stroking techniques of a superior athlete, despite the competitive gleam in her eyes and the confident manner with which she strode across the strewn bodies of her vanquished, something else was available, if only in the dark hours, after midnight sounded and the rest of the household was fast asleep. In these solitary moments, when other children dreamed of monsters and demons and cruel things in the night, Anastasia Karpovsky found herself in tears.
As a child, life exists inside our heads, the outer world stimulation merely an information source for our own imagination. We see, assess, react, and then internalize until we return to become master of our own domain, the creator of our own internal world. Society is like a tiny pond that we run to when we are in need of something new, but life occurs in the very narrow sphere of our own personal influence. By age thirteen, the realization comes that life exists outside the individual. It is now a flowing river into which we can now dip our toes or jump in freely, dousing ourselves in the joys and sorrows of a mass population. For Anastasia Karpovsky, this realization occurred on the back of a single incident.
While her mother drifted off to the restroom, Anna had taken a respite from her drilling session and sat on the bench to drink. A small child approached her and accidentally dropped a Barbie doll over the fence. Anastasia bent to retrieve the doll and turned to find the child in tears. “Is she dead?” asked the child, the sentimental liquid now falling from her chin. In that moment, Stacey saw the fear of a child, the symbolism of death, and a metaphor for loss. In that moment, “Our Anna” realized hitting a tennis ball might have profound implications for her life, that the world outside of her head, beyond the lines of the practice court, involved emotions and attachment and absence. To a prodigy, this information proved stunning. Not wanting to upset her mother or her own personal path to a championship life, Anastasia Karpovsky began her life of repression. She felt the blade’s edge during brief moments during practice, when an errant shot now no longer “needed more work” but was a sign that something was missing from her life. The soft pulse of impossibility slowly worked its way through her veins and entered her heart, only to be recharged into something fierce and determined. But over time, a few of those blood cells began to coagulate into a tiny mass, a diminutive place inside a tiny chamber, which beat quietly into the dark of night when she took time to rest. And that is where the tears came from, not so much streaming from her eyes, but rather, welling, like a pool after too much rain, brim-filled but not leaking, hinting at a desire to pour out and release themselves. For long minutes, before sleep overtook her little body and she’d fade off into dreams of championship tennis, Stacey would cry.
A year went by and Karpovsky turned fourteen, the magic number for turning professional, the prodigy then reaching her goal and heading off to Europe for some of the introductory professional events. Mother in tow, generally to ward off the media and agents surrounding the young star, Stacey arrived at tournaments with one agenda. She intended to win. Fame, money, and retirement by age twenty-five hung in the balance and the child entered her first match with pristine focus. No different than other athletic audiences, tennis crowds always find something to cheer about: the underdog who finds a way to compete and challenge a higher seeded player, her competitive effort evident in dives and scrambles violent enough to win the audience’s admiration, the defender whose smooth grace and unparalleled athletic wherewithal rise above the crowd at the most pivotal moments, showcasing a champion’s ability to achieve in combat, to come through in the clutch, and to perform hundreds of other cliché phrases – cliché because average people can only express excellence in terms of a few superlatives – that accompany excellence under pressure, and finally, the young prodigy, whose enviable talent gives us all hope that perhaps we mortals can perform to that level, or perhaps our child can, and that this youngster, as we watch them travel through the professional ranks, takes a part of us with them, because she is almost our daughter, and we saw her when she was just starting out, as an innocent, and talented, and not yet dominating the world. She is ours. We feel as though we have played a role in her development, not because it is true, but because we supported her in her early rounds, and helped provide her the confidence to continue. Tennis crowds cheer for children because they know how tough it is in the professional competitive world, because they understand children do not belong at that level – not without the requisite emotional maturity that no average fourteen year old can possibly possess. The fans support her because they feel she needs their help to battle full grown women, and because she has not yet developed the arrogance and standoffishness and competitive malevolence inherent to professional life.
And so Stacey began winning. Her first tournament victory came in her first event, the final rounds ending with such vociferous screams that the lead newspaper story actually began with a commentary on the new sound in the sport, as though the reporter was incapable of recognizing the actual talent and work ethic required to perform at this level. Courtside reporters generally are.
As for competition, the girl was relentless. She’d posted motivational notes across every wall in her bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and garage telling herself she would win the world’s major tournaments. She’d finish dinner before her mother. She’d pee faster than the other women in the stalls. During practice sessions with older boys, she’d refuse to leave the court until she won a game. While many of these boys were older and stronger and fitter and better than Stacey, they respected her passion enough to continue on the practice court until she quit. But Anastasia Karpovsky would not quit. No matter what. No matter the bloodied hands and knees from diving for shots. No matter the dehydration and cramping. No matter the glycogen depletion, the sweat lines, the torn shoes. No matter the broken strings, the dead balls, the darkness. No matter the opponent’s desire to leave the court, his appointments and other practice sessions or fitness training schedules. No matter her dietary habits, sleep requirements, recovery needs. Her coach once made a joke that he would have the words “One More!” tattooed on his ass in respect for her tenacity. Stacey would NOT quit until she won. At some point, the boys would give in, letting her hit winner after winner and pretending to chase the ball in futility. Stacey did not care. Winning mattered. Winning and the emotional satisfaction she received from conquering whichever adversary stood opposite her court.
And it was HER court. She’d spent endless hours studying videotape of the game, watching past champions during their elite performances, taking from them the best shots, movements, mechanics and mental wherewithal, categorizing them into drawer after drawer of recorded excellence. She’d walked every foot of a tennis court, working to increase her strides so she could cover the inches more efficiently, with biomechanical flow and unparalleled swiftness. She’d struck shot after shot from every position, developing obscene Euclidian angles and mastering both high and low percentage plays. By fifteen years old, she’d trained all of the game’s technical aspects.
Along with technical prowess comes confidence. For “Our Anna,” confidence was not enough. She viewed competitive pressure as an exploration of her talents, as though critical moments offered an opportunity to test her strength, her acumen, and her will. The World Cup penalty kick, the last second three-pointer, the game-winning field goal, and for Stacey, the shot that determined the match. Pressure proves champions. Surely, she’d seen others crack under debilitating strain, the tears and tight arms and full body cramps sending some of the world’s best athletes into the sports psychology offices for some presumed quick fix. For Stacey, pressure offered illumination. It was less “I can” than “I will.” A perfect blend of “I refuse to lose” and also, “I expect to win.”
Not confidence but belief, a sort of personal piety, an indestructible faith in one’s own will. Watching other athletes collapse under the weight of expectation made Stacey smile. For her, excellence was a habit borne of daily commitment and internal fortitude.
When she finally left the court, always victorious, always on a positive note – a training habit she’d begun when she was six years old – she headed home to her slumber, to return to those quiet moments under the sheets where the tears welled up once again. Her dreams not far off, she’d take these few moments to find her own humanity. And here, with the house silent, the tennis courts a quiet slab of tranquility awaiting dawn’s breath and the pressure and intensity of her life settled for a few brief moments, she thought of her father.
He’d left her mother in Czechoslovakia, offering millions of dollars for a lifetime of riches and no access to the children. Or she could have the kids and no money. The mother, accustomed to a life of luxury – the glorious evenings of diamonds and pearls and pretentiously dressed women in flowing over-priced gowns had become part of her joie de vivre – chose the children and set about a path to develop a champion. To date, the path was well-conceived. Stacey though, although a competitive and driven corpus of ambition, was a compassionate and loving child. In short time, she longed for her father, the masculine presence into whose arms she’d crawl at night and listen to bedtime stories. The man she’d call Daddy and whose pipe smoke drifted beneath her bedroom door at night and brought her comfort. The father who’d hug her when she felt sad, or happy, or nothing at all. The man who understood unconditional love and felt like a soft teddy bear at all times of the day. The person for whom she wanted to reign supreme over the competitive world, and show the trophies and exclaim his name and thank during a post-championship speech. The gentleman who gave birth to her and then disappeared for no reason she could understand at such a young age. One day “Daddy” held her in his arms. The next, “your father” is no longer here. And for this reason, Anastasia put in the work, dedicated herself to the day when he might pick up the phone to say “I love you,” or show up with a bright smile in the stands of her competition and applaud one of her shots, and then smile as she caught his eye across the court, and supported her in the way he’d supported her as a child. Then, her life would be complete, in a way that only a father’s daughter can understand, in a way that champions and lovers and single men and hookers and orphans and a million other people simply can’t fathom. A daughter’s love for a father.
And then, with puffy red eyes, a runny nose and a very wet place upon her pillow, with rumpled hot sheets and a complete darkness in the house, with a mother’s soft breathing sounds distantly rising and falling, with the moon near vertical and a gentle breeze cuddling all the citizens of the night, Anastasia Karpovsky feel into a deep sleep.