Sonia is ashamed of her husband.
She’s sitting with a crowd of people at the local tennis courts in horror, as her husband Paul prepares to serve. He hasn’t won a game, and he and his opponent are deep into the third and final set.
It’s a hot, windy day at the South Morang Tennis Club. There’s a barbeque sizzling in the corner and cups of cordial set up for the kids. It’s the quarterfinals of the local tournament, and Paul’s lifelong dream of winning the cup is being violently dismantled.
At 48 years old, Paul is seriously overweight and has onset emphysema from years of chain smoking. Paul’s heritage is Albanian, immigrating to Australia as a ten-year-old, he loved the place immediately and connected to the nation’s love of sport.
Unfortunately, he’s being torn apart today by a much younger opponent.
His wooden McEnroe racquet has seen better days – it’s tired and wants to die. His Dunlop volley runners are undone and overcome by depression. Paul is out of breath, his sweat-drenched polo shirt clings against his skin.
He lifts the tennis ball into the air and connects with a powerful serve – off spin, curling into the court. A perfect serve, he thinks, until his opponent hammers it down the line. ‘Christ,’ Paul calls out as he throws his racquet against the artificial grass, ‘I can’t do anything right!’
Paul is a butcher by profession, he’s owned a shop in Richmond since the mid-eighties. His lamb chops are acclaimed by the locals, and he’s well-liked because of his social, happy disposition. His aspiration, though, has always leaned toward tennis and becoming a champion. As a boy, posters of his idols like Rod Laver and Fred Perry hung on his bedroom walls. At night he dreamt of aces and topspin backhands.
What was the defining moment of your life in tennis?
PAUL- Pat Cash’s 1987 victory over Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon. Boy, he played a magnificent match. Wonderful, graceful groundstrokes, ripper serve, and a killer drop shot. And he had presence. Something indefinable… he was magic. I sat transfixed as he played Lendl in ’87, I couldn’t look away. When he won, I started crying, real, physical tears. It changed my life. See, Pat Cash and I are around the same age, and we both grew up in Melbourne, so in a way, it was like I won Wimbledon, truly.
What is it about tennis you love?
PAUL- I’m into the unpredictable nature of the game. I thrive on its sense of competitiveness, and I like the community aspect of it. But, really I love the way the ball moves through the air, the sensation of movement. To me, there’s nothing better than hitting the ball with the sweet spot of the racquet, right in the middle. It’s wonderful.
Paul’s down three match points. It’s over. Even Paul’s resilient sense of determination has conceded defeat. He lifts the ball into the air and hits it with his dejected racquet. It lands in but is crushed back cross-court, Paul watching helplessly as the ball bounces away. Done, disappointed, his head sunken, he walks toward the net and shakes his opponent’s hand.
‘Good game, mate,’ Paul says.
Defeat never changes. It hurts Paul in the same way it did when he was six. His whole life he’s dreamt of winning, the praise and adulation of being the best. Not just trophies and confetti, Paul wants admiration.
On quiet days at his butcher shop, Paul would rest his arms purposefully on the counter, close his eyes and daydream. He could see the shots, the pattern of the rallies, drop shots and smashes. He could see them. Seizing each moment, he could hear the roar of the crowd. He was the man, and this was his game.
In the months he spent preparing for the South Morang Tennis Tournament, he never considered not winning. It didn’t dawn on him that he could lose, it just wasn’t his destiny.
But now, as he shuffles off the court, his racquet packed up across his shoulder, sipping at an orange Gatorade, defeat hits Paul like a pile of bricks. He wasn’t good enough, not even close. Reality hasn’t lived up to his expectations, losing hurts like nothing else.
Inside the clubhouse, Paul walks straight toward the men’s bathroom. He turns on a tap and splashes cold water onto his tired face. He lights up a low-tar cigarette and looks at his reflection in the mirror.
Obscured by his heavy eye bags and grey hair he can still see the ambitious, dream-induced kid he used to be.
As a teenager, Paul had a wonderful tennis coach. They trained together every Thursday night for close to eight years. His name was Frank Price. Unbelievably overweight, he insisted on wearing track suits two or three sizes too small. He had dark black hair, slicked back. Frank was a part-time drug dealer, he supplemented his income as a tennis coach by selling crack cocaine from his car. His dedication to tennis was tremendous. He was not a preacher of push-ups, of weights and treadmills; instead, he was a believer in the beauty and spirit of the game.
Can you describe the influence Frank Price had on you as a young man?
PAUL- Frank believed in me, he understood me. He sat me down one day and told me the most important thing about competitive tennis was eye contact. You could size up and intimidate your opponent by looking at them directly in the eyes, their weaknesses, their insecurities, it was all in the eyes. In terms of style of play, he told me to be creative, to be original in your shot selection. Whatever shot, a lob or a drop shot, you had to hit it with conviction. Don’t doubt yourself, he’d say, don’t second guess your instincts, have belief… I was shattered when he was convicted of drug trafficking, I lost someone very special.
Paul reaches for some paper towel from the dispenser to dry his face, but it’s empty. He sighs and heads outside toward the carpark. Sitting in the passenger seat of their Holden hatchback is his wife Sonia. As he approaches the car, she gives him a smile.
Paul sits down and closes the door.
‘I’m sorry Paul, bad luck.’
Paul doesn’t respond, he sits in silence looking at the steering wheel.
‘It’s ok, Paul.’
Outside Paul can hear kids laughing and locals chatting. The summer wind whistles through the trees as cars go by on the highway. All Sonia can see is a sad, disappointed man.
‘I’m so ashamed,’ Paul says quietly.
‘… Why?’ Sonia asks.
‘Weren’t you watching, Sonia, he smashed me. All those people watched me lose. They saw a delusional old man embarrass himself. Nothing worked for me out there. From the start it was a total train wreck’ Paul removes his tearful headband, ‘All that work and all that preparation and all I did was disappoint myself. I was going to put the trophy up in the window of the butcher shop, I told everyone about this tournament, and I let them down. I let you down.’
‘Paul, no. You didn’t let me down. I’m so proud of you.’
‘What are you talking about,’ Paul says sharply.
‘You gave that match everything you had. You had it all on the line, and you had a crack. Listen to me Paul, the only losers in life are the people who don’t try. Who aren’t willing to have a go, who give up on their dreams. I don’t care about the score, you’re a ripper for trying, you’re a real champion.’
Paul turns to Sonia. Her blue eyes and tied back blonde hair.
‘Ok,’ he says.
He turns the key in the ignition, puts the car in gear and heads back home. It’s a quiet ride as Paul thinks over the match and his opponent. He can’t get over what Sonia just said to him; those beautiful words have slowly lifted his soul. As he puts the indicator on and pulls up at the driveway to their house, his resolution and commitment to tennis have come back. He’s no longer bitter or upset about how the match turned out, he’s starting to move on.
What motivates you?
Paul- You know, for a long time it was emulating the champs like Lendl or Pat Rafter. As a kid, my old coach Frank Price really pushed my buttons. But right now, really it’s Sonia, she just lights me up. She makes me want to be a better tennis player, a better butcher. The best me I can be. I can’t help but be excited about next year’s tournament, I’m already signed up. I can’t wait. And, you know with some hard work, a favourable draw, maybe a new racquet and with Sonia on my side, I think I’m in with a chance of clinching the trophy. Bit of luck here or there and who knows? I’m in love with the possibility of it all.