Yurosh strode confidently onto the court with the visible arrogance often possessed by so-called ‘child prodigies’. He had the serve of a thirteen year old, but all the grace and charm of a crack addict. He stepped up to the baseline, draped in a glossy white Nike windbreaker and matching tracksuit pants. Yurosh spun his brand new racquet impatiently in his hands as he waited for his opponent. Tommy Barton scampered into position, stumbling and dropping his racquet. I concealed my amusement, fearing the judgement and eternal damnation of any overly invested parents. Tommy picked himself up and waddled into position. I handed Yurosh three balls and climbed into the umpire chair. With pen and scoreboard in hand, I signalled the start of the under 11 boy’s grand-final.
Yurosh glided his fingers through his thick, eastern-European mane and tossed the ball into the air. His racquet struck the ball with a fierce momentum, propelling it over the net and into Tommy’s service box. Despite his goofy, gummy-bear appearance, Tommy Barton had an inexplicable technique akin to that of a drunken master. His movements appeared chaotic and uncoordinated, and yet, he always returned his opponent’s shots with staggering speed and precision. Tommy swiped his racquet through the air, whipping Yurosh’s serve back cross court. Yurosh dashed to return Tommy’s forehand. His strings barely scraped the ball and hit it out.
Yurosh whacked his racquet against his shoe as he sulked across the court and prepared to serve. Tommy waddled happily across to the other side of the court, ready for the next point. Yurosh wiped his sweaty hand against his shiny tracksuit and gripped his racquet tightly. He lobbed the ball up and once again, his racquet snapped downward with incredible force. The ball crashed through the air and nicked the corner of the service box. The ball smacked the back fence before Tommy had raised his racquet. I rolled my eyes as Yurosh pumped his fists and exerted loud, unnecessary grunts.
A grizzly, Russian voice cried out from the crowd.
A towering, athletic man in heavy black sunglasses leaned obtrusively against the fence. Beneath a fluoro-green tracksuit, an airtight singlet exposed a dense bundle of chest hair. An obnoxious gold chain swung hypnotically between the thick folds of dark fur. Behind him, a younger woman sat delicately in a camping chair. Her manicured frame was constricted by a garish leopard print top and neon pink yoga pants. Enormous golden hoops dangled from her earlobes like hollow Frisbees. She had sat there the whole morning, mesmerized by the shiny screen in her hands. The man barked like a pitbull through the fence.
“Hit the ball, Yurosh!”
Yurosh shrank as his father’s words circled him. For the first time, I felt sorry for him.
Yurosh snapped to attention and stared at Tommy with a fiery determination. He tossed the ball and launched it toward Tommy. The ball’s trajectory sank and crashed into the net.
“Yurosh!” his father snarled.
Yurosh buried his eyes into his shoes, cursing beneath his breath. His second serve arched well above the net and a wave of relief washed over Yurosh’s face. Tommy addressed the ball with his signature, spaghetti style. The rally lasted an impressive ten shots before Tommy mistimed a backhand and sent the ball careening into the double sideline. Noticing the sudden applause, Yurosh’s mother popped up from her phone and clapped enthusiastically, oblivious to her son’s achievement.
After Yurosh claimed the first game, the two boys switched sides. Yurosh wore a lost expression as he walked past the net, craning his neck in search of something.
“Dad, I need my water bottle!”
Yurosh’s father massaged his dark eye brows.
“Where is it?”
“In the car. Can you get it?”
“No. Wait till later.”
Tommy called out from the baseline.
“You can use mine, it’s just behind you!”
Tommy pointed at Yurosh’s feet. He tracked Tommy’s finger to a baby pink water bottle with a cheerful lady-beetle emblazoned across the front. Yurosh handled it hesitantly.
“You sure it’s yours?”
“Yeah, my sister let me borrow it!”
Yurosh cautiously brought the bottle to his lips and took a sip. A smile crept across his face as he screwed the lid shut.
Tommy and Yurosh proceeded to exchange a series of gruelling rallies and tight games. The match was tied at five all. Yurosh was up forty-love as he carefully prepared to deliver his serve. His father grimaced through the fence, monitoring his son’s movements meticulously from behind his bulky sunglasses.
“Finish it, Yurosh!”
The serve torpedoed into the service box and kicked up over Tommy’s head. Tommy jumped and managed to hook his racquet around the ball. On his way down, he landed awkwardly and crumbled to the ground. The crowd held their breath as the ball rocketed toward the clouds. The ball hung, suspended in the sky. It fell into Yurosh’s court and leapt above his head. The shot was slow and easy. The match was his.
In that moment, the world stopped. The sound of the crowd melted away and every eye turned to Yurosh. Yurosh’s father gripped the fence tightly, grinning in anticipation. Tommy had curled into a ball on the ground and clutched at his leg in pain. Yurosh’s eyes widened, hypnotized by the ball dancing lazily in the air. Beyond the court, a coach was bringing the tournament trophy down from the clubhouse. The golden trophy gleamed like diamond in the sunlight. Yurosh grinned. He drew his racquet back and prepared for victory.
The world resumed and Tommy cried out in anguish. The cry pierced Yurosh’s ears as the ball landed. His eyes darted to Tommy, then back to the ball. He hesitated and lowered his racquet slightly. Another howl rang out and Yurosh’s attention snapped to Tommy. Abandoning the shot, he sprinted toward Tommy.
I vaulted off the chair and bolted toward Tommy. To my surprise, Yurosh had arrived before me and was already comforting Tommy. Tears streamed from Tommy’s face as he cried out in agony. His ankle had swelled like a tyre and jutted out from his leg at an unnatural angle. In a panic, I called out to the crowd.
“Someone call an ambulance!”
A delicate Russian voice replied through the fence. I looked up and recognised the leopard print.
“I already have. They’re on their way.”
Tommy’s parents tore across the court, followed by a first-aid officer carrying a bulky pack of medical supplies. Tommy’s cries had now been reduced to soft, laboured whimpers. Yurosh offered him tiny sips from his water bottle. Yurosh and I were instructed to step back. The officer applied an ice pack to Tommy’s ankle. Tommy’s mum picked him up from the ground and cradled him in her arms. In a delirious state of shock, Tommy leant over his mother’s shoulder and whispered loudly at Yurosh.
“Di-did I win?”
Yurosh stared at Tommy’s glazed, gummy bear eyes and grinned.
“Yeah, you won, buddy.”
Sirens blared as the ambulance pulled up outside the court. Tommy flopped his head against his mum’s chest and mumbled softly.
“Good game, Yorsh.”
“Good game, Tommy.”