Anyone for Tennis?

What inspired my novel, Grand Slam? Well, at just 14 years of age, I was a champion tennis player. They talked about me as the Next Big Thing. My serve was faster than all the boys my age and I never double-faulted. My long (tanned) legs transported me with unsurpassed speed around the champion courts of Australia. Tennis coaches lined up, begging to take me on as their protégé.

Actually, I made that up. As a tennis player, I excelled at horse riding. But it was my mother’s tennis dream to live through me, and enjoy the kind of success she hadn’t. In fact, she was a fabulous tennis player, but she wanted me to be better. After school I longed to spend time with my horse or at home with whatever fantasy/adventure book I was currently engrossed in. Instead, Mum bought me a Yonex tennis racquet, decked me out in the best gear, and sent me to lessons with Mr Rae at the local club. I dutifully attended those lessons, and afterwards collected all the balls from over the fence. Every backhand I attempted (and actually connected with) arced magnificently into the car park. Every single one.

The only time I liked visiting the tennis club was when I’d gallop my horse up the road (on the neatly mown and trimmed nature strip) and wave to Mr Rae as I sped by. I’d sneak around the back of the clubhouse and sit in the cool grass with my book, and Pepe would munch the juicy green blades. Sometimes Pepe would escape his paddock in the night and return to the tennis club for a midnight snack. In the morning I’d get a call from someone about it, and have to retrieve him before he found his way onto the courts and leave a lumpy deposit.

These days, I still don’t play tennis. But I do like to watch. Every year I attend the Australian Open with friends, always on the first Tuesday of the tournament when it’s likely we’ll see some of the top seeds in action. As I watch those champions – with their muscled bodies and sure strokes of their racquets – I sometimes think of those teenage years when I didn’t put in the effort I should have, whereupon I could have enjoyed weekly social time (if not competition time) with friends at a local club well into my twilight years. That said, every summer, after the tournament, I’m convinced I’ve inexplicably acquired a talent that I’ve never before possessed. Once I’ve recovered from the late nights sitting up watching those thrilling matches, I talk my husband into having a hit with me on the dirt road out front of our house, and this inevitably finds him climbing the neighbour’s fence to retrieve my backhanded balls. I give up with a sigh, usually after ten minutes or so.

As my mother hoped to live out her tennis dream through me, then perhaps in writing Grand Slam I’m living vicariously through my character, Erica Jewell. Not in tennis though. Erica was able to hold her own on the courts back in high school but she’s no Serena Williams. I’m referring to the thrill of Erica’s secret vigilante business. I remember Rough Diamond had just released – it was the first Tuesday of the 2013 Open – and I was sitting in Rod Laver Arena with tissues covering my chest and shoulders (my solution to forgetting sunscreen), imagining Erica there in the front row at the men’s final, watching (wealthy, gorgeous, best bod ever) Jack Jones chase down some back-pack carrying youth as he dashes across centre court, heading for the (sexy, tanned, Antonio Banderas-accented) champion of the day whom the brainwashed youth plans on blowing up spectacularly. Having secured the young terrorist, neutralised the bomb, and handed them over to confused federal officers, Mr Jones needs a quick escape lest his secret identify be revealed as the devilish, brave, Batman-like vigilante all Melbourne is talking about. And while the rest of the audience panics, rushing messily from the stadium, Erica leans heroically over the railing, throwing her hand out to her lover as he scrambles up the wall, a la Spiderman, and they speed off happily in his fabulous sports car toward the setting sun and his bed.

Okay, so that’s not what happens in the final version. No spoilers here. But that little fantasy was in fact the seed that started the whole Grand Slam journey for Erica and me. That’s not what I’m telling Mum though. Mum thinks it was the forced tennis lessons with Mr Rae that inspired Grand Slam. That and her gift to me of adventure books, a writer’s passion, and a vivid imagination – albeit a sometimes weird one.

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