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Tennis Is Not A Game You Play Alone

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Roger pushed open the access door with one hand, the other dangling the bottle of Penfolds Grange, and emerged onto the rooftop garden of the hotel. It was still oppressively hot; long past midnight, but the temperature had barely dipped. At least the place was deserted.

He wandered past potted palms and miniature fountains and white spotlights recessed into the ground. It was cooler near the perimeter, a slight breeze stirring the air. Roger leaned his elbows on the railing and looked out over the Melbourne skyline: lights tiling the office towers, lights pulsing along the roads, the black surface of the Yarra reflecting the neon glow of the city.

In the distance, Melbourne Park, its lights dimmed now that the carnival was over, the Australian Open done for another year. Where yesterday he had stood before fifteen thousand people, a hundred cameras in his face, completely unable to hold back his wrenching disappointment.

Now he had his privacy; but no tears came. Roger uncorked the bottle and took a long swig. Rich flavours rolled over his tongue, the liquor burning pleasantly, sliding smooth and warm down his throat. Blessed anaesthesia.

He knew that someday he would retire, same as he knew that someday he would die; it lay in the distant unimaginable future, impossibly far away. But if it galled him to be introduced as the World No 2, how much worse would it be to slip to No 3, No 10, No 100? Maybe it was time to admit his deepest fears: that it was too late, he would never get it back, and this was all there would be.

And now at last it came, moisture pricking at his eyes, blurring the city lights into a misty orange haze. He drew in a long ragged breath.

"Roger?"

He knew that voice. The last person in the world he wanted to see right now, naturally. He blinked twice and turned. "Hello, Rafa."

The new Australian Open champion stood at the entrance to the roof, the jacket of his suit knotted about his waist, tie hanging loose around his neck. His dress shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, its sleeves rolled to the elbow. He rocked on the balls of his feet, gazing at Roger in consternation. "What are you doing up here?"

Roger raised the bottle in a mock salute. "Getting drunk." He leaned back against the railing and curved a sardonic smile at Rafa, but the other man did not return it. Instead, he stepped forward cautiously, as though Roger were a startled deer that might bolt at any second. No need, Roger thought, there was nowhere he could go.

Rafa closed the distance between them and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "You should not be out here alone." He drew Roger back towards the centre of the roof, glancing behind once. Roger allowed himself to be guided, over to a bench beneath a trellis heavy with jasmine. "Are you okay?"

Roger didn't have the energy to pretend. Instead, he said, "You should be celebrating."

Rafa shook his head. "Too much celebrating already. I need air." He sank down on the bench beside Roger, stretching his long legs out in front of him.

"Would you like a drink?" Roger said, proffering the bottle.

Rafa hesitated, then accepted. He tilted it back for a polite sip, then lowered the bottle with a choked gasp. "This is good!"

"It should be," Roger said. "It's nearly twenty years old." It was the kind of vintage you saved for special occasions. He didn't say why he had bought it; Rafa could probably guess.

They passed the bottle back and forth for a while in silence, Roger growing pleasantly muzzy-headed. But Rafa kept casting him sideways glances, until Roger finally said, "What is it?"

With absolute seriousness, Rafa said, "Do you hate me?"

"No," Roger said. "Well, maybe a little." He smiled, but Rafa looked stricken. "It's a joke," he said gently, tousling Rafa's hair.

"It's not funny."

Roger let his hand fall. "What do you want me to say, Rafa? I'm not perfect. On court or off court."

Rafa looked like he wanted to respectfully disagree.

"Stop worrying about it," Roger added. "You played better than me. You deserved the win."

"I mean what I said before. You are still a great champion--"

"There is only one champion in a Grand Slam. There is only one No 1 in the world. And we both know that is you." The words came out sharper than he intended. He rubbed his face with both hands. "I'm sorry. I'm not fit company right now. You should go."

Rafa shook his head. "Stop asking me to leave. Or I start thinking you do hate me."

Roger huffed a broken laugh. He leaned back against the bench, leaves rustling against his neck, shirt clinging to his skin with sweat. Rafa's profile was backlit, outlined in gold like a king on the coins of old. Not a kid anymore, Roger thought.

"Three years," he said. At Rafa's quizzical look, "As No 2. How did you stand it?"

"You were better--"

"Forget the line," he interrupted. "I'm not some journalist. Don't tell me you never wished that guy would get out of your way. Never wondered what it would be like if he wasn't around."

Rafa met his gaze, dark eyes unreadable. "I would rather lose to you," he said, "than win everything in a world where you never exist."

Time stopped beating. Roger could not look away, even as he was sure everything showed on his face. His throat tightened, like he was back on that podium again.

Rafa leaned in close, breath warm. "You are special. Always." He touched Roger's cheek, almost shyly, then drew away. "Been following you for a long time. Had to climb a long, long way to reach you."

"Well, you're here," Roger said, mesmerised. He had to resist the impulse to trace his fingers over that spot. "What now?"

"We keep climbing together, no?" With a brilliant smile, Rafa stood. Reached out a hand. After a moment, Roger clasped it, and the other man pulled him up. They stood facing each other, not releasing that grip, exactly eye to eye. The same calluses ridged both their hands.

"I will see you in Paris?" Rafa said. It was almost a statement.

"You will." And all of a sudden Roger could imagine it, the landscape of the year unrolling ahead of him, game after beautiful game. Because this was what he did, this was why he was. And the future was full of changes, but now he wanted to see it very much.

"Good," Rafa said. "I'll be waiting."

 

- fin -