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Game, Set and Match

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February 2015

“British number two, Aaron Dingle has been found guilty of doping” – Sky Sports News

“Tennis bad boy Aaron Dingle confirms he has tested positive for cocaine at a Sydney press conference” – BBC Sports News

“What a BLOW!” – The Sun (front page headline)

“Doping scandal: Where did it all go wrong for Aaron Dingle?” – Eurosport UK

“Dingle has coked it!” - Daily Star (back page headline)

He’s destroyed his career just when he had started to look like he was going places. It's a massive shame” says four-time Wimbledon champion Jean-Pierre De Bois

“I just don’t understand why he’d jeopardise his career like that. He’s committed one too many offences for me now. I think he needs to take a long, hard look at himself and decide whether or not he actually wants to be a tennis professional” says former world number 4 James Daniels.

“’He clearly doesn’t have the stomach for this sport. I’d pack it in if I was him’ Australia’s Ross Barton taunts Aaron Dingle at Roland Garros”  - The Telegraph

"’He deserves a lengthy ban. There’s no excuse for doping, I have no sympathy for Dingle’ Ex British No.1 Robert Sugden condemns fellow Brit Dingle”  - Daily Mail exclusive

 


 

 

The last couple of weeks had been a blur for Aaron. A messy blur full of shame, disappointment, anger and condemnation.

Every newspaper, news channel, sports website and tennis professional (past or present) had had their say on the “wayward” tennis star’s latest fuck up. Hundreds of voices had been thrown into the debate, but unsurprisingly, every opinion had been the same - zero sympathy and zero excuses found.

Aaron couldn’t feel sorry for himself though, he only had himself to blame at the end of the day. He knew the risks of drug taking – the rulebook impossible to misinterpret. He knew he was competing in the Sydney International ATP tournament a couple of days later. He also knew that the coke could still be in his system when he took the routine tournament drugs test.

But he snorted the lines regardless. In some grotty club in Sydney, with shitty lager and even shittier music.

 

He had made his fair share of mistakes in the past. They have always been well documented for the world to see. Getting into fights, arriving late to tournaments, losing important matches because he was hungover – you name it and Aaron’d done it. He lost count of how many times the Lawn Tennis Association had withdrawn their funding because of his off court antics, only to see his natural talent and reinstate their support six months later.

The LTA’s leniency may have been easy to take for granted. But there was only so many times his family could stomach another spin on the same old merry-go-round that his unruly behaviour forced upon them.

One and a half years ago, after yet another infuriating mistake, Aaron had pushed too far. Like an elastic band stretched to the point of snapping, his mum had cracked and threatened to withdraw her support. Having a tennis player for a son (with the majority of his career unfunded) was not cheap for Chas. Flights, accommodation, equipment – it didn’t all come for free. And watching her hard earned money squandered yet again by Aaron seemingly not giving a shit, was one step too far.

Aaron had promised her that day he would change, wouldn’t ever let her down again. He swore that he’d work hard to become a tennis pro she could be proud of. He'd even changed his surname from Livesy to Dingle, hoping the new name would be a new start.

So keeping his word, he finally got his head straight. Started training hard and dedicating his life to becoming the best tennis player he could possibly be. He saw his game improve beyond his or anyone else’s expectations; he was winning match after match, beating tops seeds and reaching the latter rounds of ATP tournaments regularly.

By the end of 2014 Aaron was ranked 26 in the world, and he’d finally felt like he had shed the “bad boy” label which (rightly) haunted him for the majority of his short career.

The hard-earned strides he made back then however, are pulverised now. Aaron had pulled the pin and recklessly launched the grenade without considering the consequences, the moment the powdered lines were cut. And now he deservedly had to watch the devastating implosion obliterate his career, his family’s trust and his reputation to smithereens. The ruins were on display across every sports media platform you could possibly clap eyes on.

It was self sabotage at its finest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 *

 

Aaron had told the truth when questioned by the International Tennis Federation. With no leg to stand on, he made no excuses for his massive fuck up. Every detail of his catastrophic mistake was scrutinised and judged with minute precision. He shamefully admitted to taking cocaine outside of competition. Admitted to keeping the small bag of coke in his washbag, which explained how it was still in his system when tested six days later as the drug contaminated his legal painkillers in the same washbag.

Whether or not they would believe the truth was another matter... Only time would tell.

The days leading up to the International Tennis Federation enquiry were the worst of Aaron’s life. Seeing the world’s vitriolic enjoyment at witnessing Aaron’s public fall from grace hurt, but he took every piss take and insult on the chin regardless.

It was his family’s reaction that really hit home how much of a failure he was. He would never forget their disappointed faces as he told them about his positive test. His guilt clawed at his gut and teared his insides apart with the knowledge that he hadn’t kept his promise, he had let them all down yet again.

“Fucking coke Aaron. What the hell were you playing at?!” his uncle and coach Cain shouted, he was angrily pacing Aaron’s hotel room in Sydney.

“I-I just needed to get out my head for a bit... I was tired.” Aaron lamely replied, the excuse pathetic even to his own ears.

Oh yeah, cos we all do a bit of coke when we need a pick me up eh?,” Cain sarcastically responded, looking down at his nephew with fury, “If you’re struggling, you tell me, you tell your mum. We could have supported you.”

“I know,”

“So why didn’t you then?” Cain spat, frustration getting the better of him.

“I…”

Aaron couldn’t bring himself to tell his uncle the truth. Couldn’t find the words to tell Cain that his lowlife of a father had decided to turn up out of the blue here in Australia. Acting like the loving, caring father he should have been from the start, not the abusive monster who destroyed his son’s childhood.

Aaron had just made it through to the third round of Sydney. He had felt strong and confident and comfortable on the hard courts, playing the best tennis of his career. But the buzz of knocking out the tournament’s fourth seed that had been pulsing through his body was short lived; it turned to ice in his veins the moment he spotted Gordon walking through the toilets door behind him. Cornering him.

He tried to be firm and strong, told Gordon to leave and never come back into his life again. But the man still had this hold over Aaron. Years old buried memories were unearthed and suddenly Aaron felt like that small boy again; suffocating in fear and pain, confused why his father kept punishing him in a way he had no words to describe.

He needed to escape them, couldn’t let them or Gordon take a stranglehold again. So he pushed past Gordon and run as far away as he could, before his heart could break again.

When negative thoughts threatened to seep through, he’d normally find the nearest practice court, and complete his usual drills over and over again, until his body would collapse and his mind would numb to a pleasant nothingness. But seeing Gordon that day had left Aaron in a tailspin. The pain, confusion and anger he felt after the encounter blinded his rationality. So instead of finding Cain and working his negativity out on the court, he found himself inside a packed nightclub in the city, trying to find superficial solace in distilled spirits and powdered white lines, cut with his NSW Tennis Centre access card.

“…I’m so sorry Cain.” Aaron finally said, looking up at his uncle with watery eyes. Cain’d worked so hard to train Aaron, helped him climb up the rankings and finally reach the ATP world stage. But Aaron ruined all that work.

“Don’t say sorry to me, it’s not my career you’ve fucked up!” Cain threw back. Any sort of sympathy or understanding Aaron needed from his uncle, clearly nowhere to be seen.

“Cain,” Chas warned from the sofa in the corner of the room, “Quit with the dressing down please. He feels guilty enough as it is, he doesn’t need you shouting your mouth of twenty-four seven!”

“Why are you sticking up for him, when he promised that he wouldn’t pull this shit anymore?”

“I’m not sticking up for him, he’s messed up. But we need to move on from it now.” Chas said, her eyes darting between her brother and Aaron’s defeated form on the bed.

“Move on how Chas? They’re gonna ban him at the verdict, for years probably!” Cain stressed, before finally stopping his pacing and he sat down on the arm of the sofa.

“It won’t be years. Aaron came clean and is cooperating. Surely they’ve got to be more lenient with the punishment?”

Forever the pessimist, Cain rolled his eyes at his sister’s logic. “He took cocaine Chas, an illegal drug. You honestly think they’re gonna go easy on him?”

“An illegal drug, OUT of competition.” Chas impatiently spat back.

“Makes no difference.”

Of course it does.”

“I can’t believe you’re sitting there making excuses for him.” Cain scoffed, shaking his head and rubbing a hand across his forehead tiredly.

Tell them the truth. Tell them about Gordon, Aaron willed himself, but the words just couldn’t escape his lips.

Just tell them…

But they might not believe me. They might think I’m just trying to squirm my way out if this mess by lying. The ITF will think the same.

Aaron silently second guessed himself, sat there with his head in his hands, eyes closed in an attempt to block out the sibling’s argument and his own negative thoughts.

He couldn’t risk losing his family because they thought he was a liar. So he stayed silent and let his guilt continue to claw at his insides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 *

 

"Judgement Day: Aaron Dingle will hear his fate today. What will be the verdict?” Sky Sports News

Aaron waited out the excruciatingly long month between his defence presentation and the final verdict with the International Tennis Federation in Emmerdale. He had been stuck in a claustrophobic limbo there, and he struggled to stay positive. But he still tried to keep to his normal routine anyway, even when all he wanted to do was succumb to his dread and just give up.

Tennis had always been a solace for Aaron, in the times where past trauma threatened to overwhelm him, tennis had always been his salvation. The thought that it could be taken away from him for years broke his heart and left him hopeless.

In the end he didn’t care what length ban he would end up getting, he just yearned for the clarity it would bring to finally know. So for weeks he wished the days away, desperate to get to this moment, to find out the future of his career.

But now, sitting in front of the stern looking representatives of the ITF, he was petrified of learning his fate. He could get years, so many that he could be in his thirties by the time he could make his comeback. Starting from scratch at Challenger level or lower, playing alongside teenagers whose careers are stretching far ahead of them, whilst Aaron’s dwindles with each passing day he wastes desperately trying to make up for lost time.

The bleak thought left him breathless and panicked as he sat in the conference room and he struggled to pay attention to the head of the ITF drone on about his case.

“…out of competition…”

“…banned substance…”

“…cooperation…”

“…responsibility…”

They were all meaningless words, that barely reached his panic stricken ears. 

“…we thereby ban you for twelve months, and ten of those you will not be permitted to use any LTA funded facilities to train or play matches… We also expect you to hand back any prize money and ranking points that were earned in Sydney. Do you accept this punishment, or do you wish to appeal?” 

Aaron heard those words loud and clear and they left him speechless, he couldn’t believe his ears.

“Mr Dingle, do you accept?” He was asked again. 

“Y-yes. I won’t be appealing.” he replied, still in shock. 

Closing his eyes, Aaron let the relief wash over him. The tendrils of reprieve that pulsed through his system were beautifully overwhelming. 

One year! 

Of course being out for a year would hurt, but that little bit pain would be nothing compared to the agony he would have felt at being banned for longer. For months fear and dread plagued his thoughts, haunted him when he was so certain he’d fucked up his life beyond return. But one year was do able. One year wouldn’t hurt his chances of a full comeback too badly. One year he could handle.

He turned to Cain sat next to him and a breathy and relieved laugh escaped him. His uncle looks just as relieved and shocked as he was. 

“Thank you!” Aaron said a little giddy, looking from his uncle then back to the ITF panel quickly. 

“Don’t thank us Mister Dingle. Your behaviour was unacceptable and incredibly unprofessional. But we hope you can learn from your mistake and come back to the sport with professionalism and the correct attitude.” said one particularly stern looking board member, her cold stare piercing and unfriendly. 

“I will.” Aaron defiantly promised. He wasn’t going to squander the second chance they’d clearly given him for anything, or anyone. “I’m truly sorry for the mistake I made-”

“You’re free to leave now.” another board member added dismissively, interrupting his apology.  

Taking that as his queue to shut up and fuck off, he stood up and turned to leave the conference room without another word. 

 

Aaron let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding when he was finally free from the conference hall and the panel’s uncompromising glares. His legs were like jelly and his heart jack hammered in his chest as he made his way to the waiting room to meet his family. 

“You’re a lucky boy sunshine. They’ve gone easy on you, so you better not take that for granted,” Cain said walking next to him, the sternness of his words were betrayed by the ghost of a smile that flashed across his face. 

“Yeah, I know.” 

“How long?” Chas asked nervously when they finally reached her by the waiting room. Paddy and Moira by her side.

“A year, with a ten month facilities ban.” Cain replied, hugging a pleased looking Moira.

“A year, that’s great love. Come here.” she said, enveloping Aaron in the tightest embrace. “A year will fly by.”

“Yeah,” Aaron replied, words failing him when he hugged his mum back. He smiled over her shoulder towards Paddy when the older man had thrown him an awkward thumbs up.

Closing his eyes, Aaron finally relaxed for what felt like the first time in months. The weight that had been so heavy on his shoulders had lifted somewhat, allowing him to breathe freely again. 

Cain was right though, he was a lucky boy. Regardless of how pleased he was of the verdict, there was a niggling voice in the back of his mind telling him he didn’t deserve it. That he was a disappointment and always would be one, no matter what he did. 

Finally being released by Chas, he was met with his Mum’s warm smile. “You deserve this second chance.” she said, almost as if she’d read his mind. 

He smiled back, unsure of his mother’s conviction. “I’m not sure about that.”

“Of course you do,” Paddy chimed in with a reassuring shoulder pat. “We’re all fallible and make mistakes. It’s how you learn from them, that matters.”

Aaron nodded, but he still wasn’t entirely convinced.

"Enjoy those ten months off sunshine. You ain’t gonna know what’s hit ya when you’re back in training with me again.” Cain joked to his left, making everyone laugh and it dissipated the slightly awkward atmosphere that hung in the air.

“Can’t wait.” Aaron fired back sarcastically. 

Ten months of no tennis seemed unimaginable to Aaron. He knew he was going to miss the sport, the training, the matches, the travelling, even Cain with his sarcasm and "banter". But he wasn’t going to complain, he just needed to keep his head up, knuckle down and move on. 

Sure, he may or may not deserve another shot at being a pro, but Aaron knew with an unwavering certainty that he had a point to prove on his return regardless. 

And he couldn’t wait to get started.

Chapter Text

November 2014

 

“He’s done it! Robert Sugden wins his second Wimbledon title!”  - Jason Whitehead, BBC One

"World number one Robert Sugden wins his fortieth career title in Cabo”  - Bein Sports News

“Sugden’s movement on court doesn’t seem right to me, he hasn’t looked himself since Cincinnati. Perhaps he’s carrying an injury?”  - James Daniels, Eurosport One

"First round defeat for newly returned top seed. What’s happened to Robert Sugden?”  - BBC Sport Online

“Top seed Sugden pulls out mid match in Stockholm”  - ATPWorldTour.com

“The amount of matches he’s missed already is very concerning. There’s clearly more to this hip injury than he’s letting on.” says former WTA world number one Hana Anderson in Stockholm

“Basel no show for GBs Robert Sugden”  - Fox Sport Online

 


 

 

At some point in their careers, all tennis stars will have to endure the aches and pains that their profession brings. Sporting injuries were par for the course for any athlete - an almost necessary evil, where the pain barrier is ignored without complaint, and played through under pretty much every circumstance. So naturally, when Robert started feeling a twinge in his right hip, he paid little mind to it. 

The niggle started out as a small shooting pain, whenever he’d stretched to serve or returned serve. It was an easily ignored discomfort, that disappeared as quickly as it flared. It really wasn’t a big deal, so Robert ignored it and carried on winning titles. 

But months and many tournaments down the line, what was a small, irregular irritant was now a recurring searing attack of agony. Each stab of pain like a lightning bolt that crackled and charged through his right lower half, with almost every move he’d make on court. 

His coach Clive and team doctor told him to see a hip specialist, for “peace of mind” they said. But in his stubbornness, he refused. He didn’t need some “expert” wasting his valuable practice time, to tell him what he already knew - that the pain would pass in time, and his freedom of movement on court would naturally improve as a result.

Unfortunately for Robert, his prognosis was the opposite to reality, as the humiliation of getting knocked out in the first round by a qualifier in Toronto made his now performance hindering injury impossible to ignore. Swallowing his wounded pride, he reluctantly he took Clive’s advice to see the so called “best hip surgeon in the UK” in his private London-based practice.

It was there that he was told he had severely torn the acetabular labrum in this right hip joint, caused by the constant “repetitive trauma” his body was subjected to each match. A femoroacetabular impingement test was followed by a magnetic resonance arthrography scan, which was soon followed by further jargonistically named examinations that confused and petrified Robert simultaneously.

So much for fucking peace of mind eh?

Test after test, x-ray after x-ray - soon enough Robert’s fear was replaced by anger and impatience. He didn’t give a damn about which test would bring better understanding to his injury - he just wanted to be fit and able to play the sport he loved again.

“Say I have this acetabular… whatever reversal surgery like you recommend, how long will I be out for?” Robert asked wanting to get straight to the point, as he stared at the many x-ray images of his hip joint lining the wall of the Arthroscopic specialist’s office.

The day had been a particularly frustrating one for Robert, and his patience had worn thin early on in the consultancy. He should have been competing at the US Open now, showing the likes of that big mouthed, twat Ross Barton how it’s done. Not sitting there having his time wasted, by listening to some poncey voiced specialist (who didn’t look old enough to legally buy himself a beer, let alone be medically licensed to carve Robert open on a theatre room table) explain to him a surgery procedure which should have been recommended months ago.

“It’s difficult to say, as it can vary from patient to patient. But on average, recovery time is about eight to ten months.” The young specialist Dr Joseph Tate replied from behind his desk.

“Ten months? What do you plan on doing to me, a hip replacement?” Robert asked, eyes wide with fury. 

Robert had won his second Wimbledon title three months ago and earned his number one ranking shortly before. The thought of interrupting his winning momentum for a further ten months, to have this suggested surgery, then go through recovery and then finally rehabilitation, was simply not an option. 

“To ensure you have a full recovery, then yes, about ten months,” Tate explained, but sensing Robert’s hostility to the suggestion, he added “It will be the most effective way to repair the damage.”

“That’s practically a year. I can’t afford to be out that long. With all those bloody tests you’ve done on me, surely you can suggest something more practical?” Robert asked, voice stressed and desperate.  

“This is the best treatm-“

“No. It can’t be,” Robert interrupted, shaking his head and refusing to listen to the young doctor’s advice. “Me being out for ten months is not the answer.”

“Robert maybe you should listen to him-” 

“No Clive, I won’t!” Robert impatiently shouted at his coach. “I’ve wasted enough time as it is, doing all his shitty examinations. And all he can come up with, is a treatment that puts me out for a year. It’s not good enough.”

Clive had been with Robert since the very beginning. He knows tennis is notoriously competitive, that no one can rest on their laurels if they want to maintain their ranking or sustain their form. Seeing his coach happily settle for posh boy’s poor advice was infuriating.

“What else can you do Robert? Leaving it will only make it worse in the end.” Clive tried to reason.

”I know that. I’m not saying to not to repair the damage, I just want a better treatment.”

“I think you should let Doctor Tate decide which is and isn’t the better treatment for you Robert.”

“Why are you arguing with me Clive?”

“Because you’re being a stubborn prat.”

“Charming. I’m getting conned into missing a year of tennis, but I’m a prat for arguing against it!” Robert scoffed, dumbfounded that Clive couldn’t get Robert’s quite reasonable issue.

“Sometimes you just have to accept things, you can’t control everything…”

Joseph Tate was a busy man, he didn’t have time to watch the two men opposite, bicker like an old married couple. “There is a solution to combat the pain temporarily, whilst the two of you decide when it is best to pencil in the surgery,” he suggested, catching Robert’s attention immediately. “There’s anaesthetic injections called nerve blockers. They can be injected into the area of pain, and numb the patient long enough to last through hours of sport.” 

“Okay, sounds perfect. Sign me up.”

“Robert, no. Let’s think about this for a second,” Clive almost pleaded. He could read Robert’s mind, and he knew that the athlete would have no intentions to only use the injections temporarily.

“What’s there to think about? These blocker things are exactly what I need.”

“For the time being, yes. But you’re still going to need surgery.” Clive responded with a sternness to his voice, like he was talking to a child.

“Obviously!” Robert fired back, before turning to the doctor “How long can they be used for?”

“With the severity of your injury, they shouldn’t be used longer than three weeks, four the maximum.” the doctor replied. 

“Perfect.” Robert repeated, desperate to get his hands on the anaesthetics.

“So this is you agreeing to surgery in four weeks time, is it?” Clive questioned, still sceptical of Robert’s intentions.

“Yeah. The injections will get me back out on court, even just for a little while… Before the surgery.” Robert agreed. Saying all the right things, causing Clive to ignore his gut and concede fighting against using the injections, with a tired “Fine”.

“Right, well that’s that then. I’ll write you out a prescription for the anaesthetics and I’ll see you in four weeks time?” Tate smiled, before standing up and extending his hand for Robert to shake.

“Yeah. You will.” Robert replied, handshake firm as he smiled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Six weeks later and Robert continued to insist on using the nerve blocker injections, cancelling his booked surgery with Dr Tate indefinitely.

The injections had been working for a short while - the crippling pain of his hip held at bay long enough to play three hour matches if he needed. But soon enough the cracks in his plan turned to chasms. Breaking the dam and releasing the floodgates of pain in the middle of matches, allowing blinding agony ten times worse than before to flood through his body, like molten metal underneath his skin. Predictably, he couldn’t play on in that state, resulting in his performances being hindered to the point of quitting in the middle of matches and pulling out of every tournament since mid October. 

“Ahh..” Robert moaned on the physio bench, as his physio Ed gently bent his right leg at the knee and pushed the folded limb closer to his chest, painfully stretching his stiff hip. 

Robert had insisted on entering the Basel draw, ignoring Clive and sister Victoria’s advice to stay at home. He desperately needed game time after months of sitting out. So he’d struggled through his first practice session, wincing and limping his whole way through it. He’d asked for a nerve blocker minutes in, but Clive had insisted he saw Ed instead.

“I can feel your hip is constantly locking up Robert. You must be in agony?”

“It’s not so bad. It’s bearable still-” Robert lied, his argument unconvincing as he sucked air through his gritted teeth and released it through stunted, pain filled breaths. 

“I need you to be truthful Robert?” Ed questioned, repeating the same hip stretch, which Robert replied with, with another agonised groan making Clive and Victoria wince beside him.

“You are not competing in this state.” Ed stated, releasing the pressure and gently placed Robert’s leg flat on the bench. 

Rolling his eyes Robert leant up on his elbows. “I can and I will. Just give me a nerve blocker and I’ll be fine.”

“The blocker didn’t help you in Stockholm, it wore off barely an hour into the match,” Clive said from the side, “You can’t start asking for medical time outs every other set!” he stressed, trying to remind Robert of the Stockholm fiasco.

The blocker had worn off midway through the first set, when he was 5 games to 2 down. Robert had to call Ed down to administer another blocker, only for the anaesthetic to wear off the beginning of the third set, which forced Robert to retire three games in. 

“My hip isn’t as bad now, the few days out has done it the world of good.” Robert tried, he couldn’t give up so easily. 

“Oh come on Robert, stop burying your head in the sand. You should have had that surgery weeks ago!” Clive exclaimed, frustrated at himself for ignoring his gut before. 

Robert didn’t want to hear the truth, so he ignored his coach and turned to Ed. “Please Ed. I can’t miss this tournament as well.” 

He’d already dropped down to third in the world. Anymore missed opportunities to gain points and his ranking would be in free fall. 

“Clive is right, no good will come from the injections now. You’re going to need surgery to fix this.” Ed said, tone firm and uncompromising. 

“Just fucking do as I say and give me a nerve blocker Ed!”

“Robert!” Victoria warned. She loved her brother and admired his determination, but she’d been biting her tongue for too long now. “Stop being so flippin’ stubborn and just listen for a change. You can’t keep doing this!”

“What I can’t afford, is to miss anymore matches Vic. My ranking has suffered too much already.”

“Stuff your ranking. Those stupid points won’t matter when you’re forced into early retirement!” she shouted, eyes wide and full of concern.

Robert was never one to take things lying down. He would always fight to the bitter end, and if that wasn’t good enough, he’d work his arse off until it was. His father had always told him that he was a disappointment, so his determination to cling onto tennis subconsciously stemmed from wanting to prove his dad wrong.

But he’d known for a while that he couldn’t continue without surgery. The pain he felt outside the small window of numbness the blockers brought was unbearable on court, but more alarmingly, it started to affect his life outside of tennis too. 

“It could take me years to get back to my best.” Robert said, his fears finally being voiced.

“It won’t. You will be back before you know it.” Victoria encouraged, placing a comforting hand on his forearm. “It’s for the best.”

Slumping back down on the bench, Robert admitted defeat. “Okay. I-I’ll have the surgery. As soon as.”

He hated giving in. He always wanted to fight, but there was no fight to be had this time. 

Victoria squeezed his arm and smiled softly down at him. “It’s the right decision for you Rob.” 

“Victoria’s right.” Clive agreed, patting Robert on the shoulder.

Robert stayed silent, as he second guessed his own decision. But nodded his head all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s how Robert found himself lying in a hospital bed, post successful op. Stomach churning from the anaesthetics wearing off, but also due to the nauseating panic he felt, knowing that his return to tennis was so uncertain. He had a long road to recovery ahead of him.

“Hello sleepyhead. How’re you feeling?” Chrissie asked in the babied tone usually reserved for Lachlan and his annoying dog. Robert assumed she was going for sympathetic, but the sickly sweetness came off as condescending instead, to his disorientated mind.

“I wanna be sick-” he replied truthfully, his skin grey and tacky with sweat.

“It’s probably just the anaesthetic wearing off,” Victoria suggested, sitting on a chair to the right of Robert, hand resting on his. "You'll soon feel better."

“I’ll go let Doctor Tate know you’ve woken up.” Chrissie said, briskly leaving the hospital room, her heels clicking too loudly for Robert’s ears.

Victoria watched the door close behind Chrissie, before turning back to her brother. “I hope you don’t feel too down about the op. You do know it was the right decision, don’t you?”

“Yeah I know Vic. I’m okay about it.” Robert lied, not wanting to go through the same argument they’d had a month ago in Basel.

“Good. When you’re feeling a bit better, we should probably post something on Instagram. Let your fans know you’re doing well.” Vic suggested. Vic wasn't just Robert's support system on tour, she was also his publicist and one of the reasons why Robert had developed such a big following. 

“Yeah...okay…” Robert yawned, the wooziness from the drugs taking its toll and making his eyelids heavy and sleep beckon.

 

"Robert Sudgen posts on Instagram confirming he has undergone hip surgery” - Daily Mail

Hi everyone. Just wanted to write a little message on here, to let everyone know how I’m doing.

I've been going through a really difficult time with my hip for a while now, and felt like my only option was to have surgery, which went better than expected.

Words cannot describe how much I miss playing, it hurts so much to know I’ll be missing out on playing so many tournaments. But I’m determined to get back out on court as soon as possible and play to the best of my ability again.

Thank you for your continued support, it means the world to me!

Hope to see you back on the court soon.

 RJS

Chapter Text

May 2015

 

If you had told Aaron in those hellish few weeks, just after the news of his positive drugs test had broke, that the punishment of a year away from tennis would end up being one of the best things to happen to him. He wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, he probably would’ve scoffed in your face and told you not so politely to “do one”. 

But it was true, the time away had been unexpectedly, yet incredibly, life changing. 

He hadn’t picked up a tennis racquet since February. With no training or the packed schedule of the ATP tour distracting him, Aaron was finally able to sit back and just breathe for a little while. 

Playing tennis had been all consuming before, and Aaron never had room to let his thoughts and feelings just be, or even acknowledge their existence when his was playing. He had to always stay focused – Forever think forward and only forward; to the next point, the next match, the next opponent, the next round, the next tournament and repeat. 

Self-reflection, never went any further than how he’d just played on court and how he needed to improve for his next match. Meaning every negative thought or memory he had, had to be compartmentalised as a result. Forced into the smallest space within Aaron’s mind, precariously shielded from his periphery by the fragile emotional wall of his own creation.

But as inevitable as a house of cards, the unsound structure was always going to end up falling. And Gordon’s unexpected appearance in Sydney was all it took to shatter the weak foundations and destroy the vulnerable fortress Aaron had so desperately tried to protect for years. 

It was hitting the rock bottom of his career, that gave Aaron the freedom to finally contemplate his past and its impact on his present and future. After months of mental repose, he decided he couldn’t – and most importantly – he didn’t want to keep the abuse he endured as a child a secret any longer.

He’d spent too long shouldering the burden alone. Let the secret tear away at his mental health and almost lose one of the only things that made him happy, as a consequence. He yearned for more than anything, for an inner nirvana after years of torment, but he knew he couldn’t have that whilst still carrying the weight of his unspoken trauma, and using his tennis as an excuse to paper over his pain.

He hadn’t planned on telling his mum about his abuse the way he did, or when he did. But he finally told her his traumatising truth on one beautiful spring day in May. He’d only been two months into his ban, already struggling with the emptiness and uselessness he felt without tennis, when Chas had suggested going to the beach in Blackpool, where she’d taken him to when he was little – hoping the day away from Emmerdale would cheer him up.

Mother’s intuition made her right. Just like it had been when he was seven, the day had been amazing. Aaron’d felt so weightless, happy and content as they’d laughed and talked about everything and anything, licking ice creams (despite the still nippy weather) and strolling along the length of the busy beach, before finding a bench away from the crowds.

Sitting beside his mum on the pier, he felt at peace. Freed from the burdens that weighed so heavy on his young shoulders. “I really needed this, thanks for bringing us here.” Aaron smiled, face basking in the late afternoon sunshine above.

“Just glad to see you happy love. I know how hard the last couple of months have been for you.” Chas smiled back, before reaching out and squeezing Aaron’s arm affectionately.

“Can’t really complain though, can I? After the mistake I made?” he said, self-deprecatingly.

“Yeah, you did make a mistake,” Chas agreed. “But I love you to bits anyway – mistakes or not. So I’ll do anything to see you’re happy again.” 

A small, fond smile spread across his face at his mother’s words. “I love you too.” And he meant it. There was a time when he hated her for leaving him, then resented her for not noticing his pain and then for not putting him first when he burst back into her life as a teenager. But those feelings are long gone now, and they finally had the relationship he desperately craved for, the moment she walked out the door all those years ago.

Chas smiled warmly back at her son and squeezed his arm again. “How about you go treat your mum, who you love so much to some fish and chips then eh?” She suggested playfully, cocking her head towards a chippy just a bit further down the pier. 

It was a suggestion made from innocent ignorance. No doubt, the cheekiness would have made anyone else laugh, but for Aaron, it triggered something so upsetting to flood through his mind instead. 

Suddenly, the fleeting glimpse of contentment he’d felt just a few minutes ago had been cruelly ripped away, the moment the words left Chas’ lips. He now found himself powerless to stop a rising panic clawing its way up his body – its icy fingers leaving a sickening cold sweat in its wake, whilst his mind was forced to relive the painful memories of the night that changed his life forever.

He remembered everything – the fear, the pain, the sickly smell of whiskey, his father’s emotionless face...

Oblivious to her son’s inner torment, Chas carried on chatting away. “…Don’t forget to get some curry sauce too – Oh, and get us a can of coke n’all yeah?”

Aaron couldn’t respond. His ability to speak or move stolen away from him in his fight to overcome his suffocating panic attack.

“Aaron. You okay love?” Chas asked, eyes concerned when she laid a gentle hand on his arm.

The contact snapped Aaron out of his private hell, before he swallowed down the pain and quickly nodded his head. “Yeah. Yeah I’m fine.” he said shakily. Attempting to reassure his mum, but his watery eyes and pale face indicated he was anything but.

“You sure? You were miles away just then.”

You wanted to tell her the truth, here’s your chance

Aaron had planned to eventually tell his mum the truth – in his own way and in his own time. But the suddenness of this rude awakening had knocked Aaron’s equilibrium completely. It felt like fate had taken Aaron’s control, only to unfairly throw it back in his face. The disorientation forced him to default into his old ways of denial and burying his pain. “Honestly, I’m alright.” he lied, voice still weak and unconvincing, and eyes avoiding hers as he wiped the cold sweat from his face with the back of his sleeve.

Chas wanted to trust Aaron’s word, so she ignored her unease and didn’t push any further. “Right, well – off you go then?” she tried lightly, thumb pointing behind her to the shops along the pier. But Aaron didn’t move, he was still drowning. “Aaron?”

“W-what?” Aaron asked almost rudely, but not meaning to be.

“Did you listen to any of what I just said?” she questioned, unsure whether to be concerned or amused by Aaron’s strange reaction.

“No – No, I wasn’t…sorry,” Aaron admitted skittishly. His eyes darted away from hers quickly and focussed instead on a seagull nipping at a discarded bag of chips in the distance.

Chas snorted. “Charming. It’s nice to know you enjoy my company so much,” she tried to joke, but Aaron’s strained laugh in return did little to placate her unease. “Are you sure you’re alright, you don’t seem yourself?” she tried again.

Tell her the truth. Don’t hide it any longer

Aaron’s mouth opened, closed and opened again but the words he desperately needed to say were still unspoken – lodged behind his paralysed tongue.

He knew he was worrying his mum. Could feel her dark eyes searching his face, desperately trying to find the answer to whatever had clearly upset him. But he couldn’t… he just couldn’t tell her.

“You’d tell me if something was bothering you, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m fine mum.”

Stop lying and tell her the truth. She can support you

Chas stayed quiet for a moment. She knew her son wasn’t being honest with her, she just hoped he would tell her the truth in his own time. ”Right… how about you stay here lazy bones, I’ll go get our tea.” 

Aaron silently nodded, even though the thought of eating fish and chips made his stomach lurch with the need to vomit.

He stayed silent still, even as he watched his mum stand up make her way across the pier.

Please just tell her… 

Please…

Please

"Mum?”

Chas turned back towards him. “Yeah love?”

He hesitated for a second, before he took a shuddering breath and told the truth. “…My dad raped me.”

 

Things happened in a blur after that. One moment Chas was standing there, face pale and hand covering her mouth in shock. And the next, she was sitting beside him, her presence like a calming anchor as she listened to him pour his heart out and recount the abuse he endured all those years ago. 

At first, speaking about his painful past had felt like tearing open an old wound – agonising and hard to bare. But finally releasing the secret that had slowly been eating away at him, had been a relief.

The confession wasn’t going to miraculously heal his pain, but it was cathartic all the same. 

“He turned up at Sydney, you know.” Aaron sniffed, breaking the silence that had fell between them for the last couple of minutes.

“He what?”

“He followed me into the changing room toilets after the Henderson match. Don’t know how he got in there… but he started telling me how he’s been following my career and how proud he is of me. And then – and then he was asking to meet up again, like he hadn’t ever hurt me and I – I just cracked.” Aaron explained further, remembering his desperation to escape Gordon and the painful memories on the fateful night in February.  

“Is that why you took the drugs?” Chas asked gently, face still shell shocked, with smudged mascara tracking the path of her tears.

“Yeah.” Aaron replied, wiping a stray tear from his blotchy face. “I didn’t really think. I just – I just wanted to forget, and the coke was there… I hate myself for taking it.”

“Oh love, I’m so sorry,” Chas said, wrapping her arms around Aaron’s shoulders and hugging him close again. All his messing about drinking and partying in his early career, the drug taking in February which came out of nowhere – it all made sense now. It was a coping mechanism. And she should have seen it, she should have known. “I should have known something was wrong.”

“It’s not your fault. I’ve always hidden it well.”

“I’m your mum, I should have seen it!” Chas chastised herself. “God, we all gave you such a hard time for the coke,” she remembered, making her unbearable guilt lurch stronger in her stomach. “I don’t know how you had the strength to cope on your own.”

“I wanted to tell you, I really did. B-but I was scared you wouldn’t believe me. Or– or thought I was making it up to get out of a ban.” Aaron explained truthfully, breaking Chas’ heart even more, so she squeezed him tighter as his tears started falling again, and she kissed the top of his head.

“Y-you do believe me, don’t you?” Aaron asked suddenly. Pulling himself out of Chas’ arms and looking back at her with fearful eyes.

Chas took her son’s hands in hers and looked him in the eye with an unwavering certainty. “Of course I do sweetheart,” she promised firmly. “Of course I believe you!”

Her words meant more to Aaron then she would ever know. For years he’d kept the abuse to himself, petrified that his family wouldn’t believe him. His father’s words of manipulation, telling him he’ll only ever be seen as a liar, had been etched into his mind and stopped him telling anyone what his dad was really like.

But he told his mum the truth and she believed him. She hadn’t doubted him, not even for a second. 

“C’mere?” He was so overwhelmed by her support, that he started to sob onto his mother’s shoulder, the moment she pulled him into the protective hug.

“It’s going to be alright sweetheart. I promise” Chas whispered tearfully, hand gently rubbing up and down his back in comfort. “It’s going to be alright.”

And for the first time in his life, Aaron thought maybe, just maybe it would be in the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

It wasn’t easy, reporting Gordon to the police. In fact, it was the hardest thing Aaron ever had to do.

At the beginning, he hoped that maybe the abuse would get easier and less painful to talk about with each new confession he made. But it never did. Not when he bared his soul and explained each attack in excruciating detail, over and over again to the police. And especially not in the trial, where he was forced to confront the darkest moments of his past in a courtroom full of strangers and his devastated family and friends. He’s not sure what he would have done without their support.

“Aaron. Is it alright to call you that?”

“Yeah?”

“So… Aaron, I’ve been researching your tennis career... It’s an interesting read. I’ve noticed your funding was rescinded three times, for what the Lawn Tennis Association deemed “wild behaviour”, is that correct?” Gordon’s barrister began, voice patronising in its over friendliness. Aaron nodded and cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Getting into fights, arriving to tournaments drunk. Sounds like you were quite the party animal. Wouldn’t you agree?” the barrister smugly added, voice dripping in sarcasm.

“I’m not proud of myself.” Aaron admitted truthfully, his confused frown creasing his brow. The barrister’s change in direction made him feel uneasy, left his nerves spiking at his insides like tiny little needles. “I’m not sure what my career has got to do with any of this?”

The barrister smiled unpleasantly. “You see Aaron… that sort of behaviour – well, it isn’t exactly what you’d expect from an abuse victim, traumatised by his past, is it?”

“Objection!” Aaron’s solicitor shouted, before Aaron could even attempt to reply. Her face was twisted in disgust looking at her fellow professional, before she turned back towards the judge in outrage. “My client should not be subjected to such disrespectful questioning!”

“What is the relevance of this line of questioning?” The judge asked.

“Timing your honour. I find the timing of Mister Dingle’s accusations rather… convenient.” Gordon’s barrister explained callously. His questioning eyes staring coldly at Aaron.

“You can proceed with your questioning, but with more sensitivity please?” The judge asked, eyebrows raised and eyes steely.

“Yes, your honour. My apologies.” the barrister replied, not sounding sorry at all. He wanted to rattle Aaron and his insensitivity had achieved that.

“I find the timing of your sudden confession interesting Aaron,” the barrister began again, eyes flickering back to the jury, trying to gage their reactions. “Is it true that you’re currently serving a twelve month ban from tennis, for taking cocaine?” he asked, his smug gaze slowly returning back to Aaron.

“Yeah, bu–”

“See, I think these alleged attacks you are accusing your father of committing are lies. Fabricated in an attempt to escape your punishment for drug taking…”

“No–”

“…you were caught red handed Mister Dingle, so now you’re trying to blame your father for your unruly behaviour.”

Aaron shook his head, devastated by how he was twisting things. “No. No, it’s not a lie. I swear i-it’s not.” he pleaded, tears now falling down his face.  

But the barrister was relentless. “You destroyed your life and your career, so now you’re lying through your teeth, like a coward-”

“No!” Aaron shouted, anger now outweighing his upset. “You know, I wish I was lying. I wish he never put a hand on me, but he did! Yeah, I was out of control when I was younger, because I used to try to block out what he did to me. But I’m not going to let him destroy my life like that anymore. So you can try to twist the truth and use my past against me, but it’s not going to work, because I know the truth,” Aaron said with conviction, the truth of his words giving him strength. Enough so, that his stared down at the pathetic man in the dock without any fear. “He’s the liar, he’s the one that destroys lives. THAT coward raped me!”

So many times during the investigation and the trial Aaron felt so close to breaking any second; balanced on a knife edge, vulnerable and exposed, as he struggled to cope with confronting the trauma he’d experienced as a boy. But standing there watching his pathetic excuse of a father accuse him of being the liar, Aaron didn’t feel like he was seconds away from fracturing anymore. Instead, the years of buried pain, anger and hate were unleashed, strengthening his resolve.

How dare he dismiss the years of suffering he put Aaron through. How dare he deny the pain he’d caused. How dare he try to bully Aaron out of finding justice.

He wasn’t going to allow it to happen. He was going to fight back.

 

Gordon got found guilty on three charges the day after, and was sentenced to eighteen years three weeks later.

It didn’t sink in at first. A weird sort of numbness washed over Aaron the moment he heard the guilty verdict, yet, he was drowning in the sea of a thousand emotions at the same time. He didn’t know what to think, or how to feel. He just knew he was completely overwhelmed.

The tears that fell down his face were of relief and shock and some other feeling he couldn’t describe.

Regardless of how happy he felt about getting the verdict he wanted and deserved, Aaron couldn’t take any satisfaction in the victory – if you could even call it that – because it didn’t feel like one. Gordon being sent to prison wasn’t going to erase the memories which haunted his mind – they were just as painful now as they were before the trial. And that realisation hurt.

It wasn’t until a couple of months and many counselling sessions had past that Aaron started feeling a better about the trial. He came to accept that Gordon being in prison wasn’t going to magically wipe away the memories – they would always be a part of him. But they and Gordon were not going to rule his life anymore.

He was going to move on with his life, and he was going to be happy. And with each passing year, month, or day even, his past’s hold over him would loosen that bit more – until one fine day its presence would be so small, it would almost be like it wasn’t there at all. That bit of hope was a comfort, and it eclipsed any lingering pain Aaron still felt. 

So for the first time in his life, Aaron was looking forward to his future, and resurrecting his tennis career was the first thing he wanted to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Aaron had been in the middle of a deep and peaceful sleep when Cain suddenly burst into his room and unceremoniously opened his black-out curtains wide, releasing blinding light into his room. “Up you get sunshine!”

“Ugh. Cain man, what you doing?” Aaron groaned, eyes squinting against the gloomy winter daylight.

“It’s the 13th of December today. You’re allowed back to training.” Cain explained, matter of fact. He was standing at the end of Aaron’s bed, hands on his hips and his impatience palpable. “Don’t say you forgot?”

It was a date etched into his mind the moment he was banned. It was a beacon of hope which kept him grounded, when he missed his sport so much, it hurt. Of course he remembered the date – even if he was still half asleep.

“No, I remember,” Aaron said through a yawn. “It’s five o’clock though, can’t we wait another hour?” he asked almost childishly, making Cain scoff.

“Nope. No can do I’m afraid. You’ve got to start preparing.” 

“Preparing for what? I don’t even have a tournament to compete in yet!” Aaron tried, ready to sink back down into the mattress and close his tired eyes again.

“I just assumed you would want to make sure you’re fit for Glasgow, is all” Cain said, with a tease to his voice and a glint in his eye.

“Glasgow? What are you on about?”

Cain smiled down at Aaron. Excitement brightening his normally surly face. “Managed to wangle you a place in the pre-qualifier for the Glasgow Trophy draw, end of February. It’s challenger level, but it’s a start.”

“What?! You’re kidding me? That’s brilliant Cain!” Aaron said, immediately sitting up and swivelling his legs around to sit at the edge of his bed. His tiredness now completely forgotten.

The Challenger tour was the second tier of tennis, a far cry from the ATP level Aaron was used to. But the opportunity to play at Glasgow was a brilliant one, and Aaron wasn’t ever going to turn his nose up at it.

“But you’re not gonna get very far sat on your arse in bed, are ya? You’ve done that plenty for ten months – So up you get.” Cain said with a jerk of his head, encouraging Aaron to start getting ready, before he stormed out of his room with a stern “Be out back in fifteen” called over his shoulder.

Aaron had been working shifts at the pub and occasionally went for runs in between to keep fit, so he’d hardly been sitting on his arse for ten months like Cain accused. But instead of arguing with his uncle (it was far too early for that) he bit back his retort and started getting dressed in his training gear.

(The fact that the clothes were now a tighter fit than they were ten months ago, did not go unnoticed.)

 

“Fucking hell Aaron, that forehand probably left the stratosphere.” Cain chastised, after watching Aaron’s wild groundstroke fizz out of their practice court and land into the next one.

God Aaron had forgotten how much of a dick Cain could be in training. But his uncle wasn’t wrong, his forehand had been shit all day.

“Your body shape and positioning were all wrong there. Basic mistakes. You’re better than that!” His uncle continued his lecture, to which Aaron nodded in agreement. He was slowly becoming more and more frustrated with himself. He was better than he’d been producing so far.

“Come on, go again.” Cain pushed, throwing another ball for Aaron to strike, this groundstroke more controlled. “That’s more like it!”

They’d been working through some standard drills for three hours straight. Testing how rusty Aaron’s fitness and technique were after months out. 

They soon discovered that his backhand was surprisingly good, but his forehand was still unpredictable – whilst his serving was atrocious and his second serve only a little bit better. So it was safe to say he wasn’t going to be pulling up trees anytime soon. 

But he couldn’t feel too disheartened by his form, it was a work in progress after all. And Aaron knew from the moment he held his racquet in his hand again – and felt that all too familiar thrum of adrenaline pulsing through his veins, just like it used to – that he belonged on court.

He just needed to keep pushing.

After a couple more rounds of first serve practice, Cain picked up a spare racquet and made his way over to the opposite side of the court. “Right sunshine, let’s see how you fare in a match...You serve?”

The practice match had been a disaster. A completely humiliating and confidence destroying mess, which well and truly put Aaron in his place.

It started out alright – fun even. He was splaying the ball around court effortlessly and was even pulling off some cheeky, yet imperfectly executed drop shots when he started to really enjoy himself. But the longer the practice match went on, the more tired he became. And with tiredness, came shitty technique.

Soon his groundstrokes became wild and ineffective, and things only got worse when Cain started lengthening the rallies with cross court slices which had Aaron running from one side of the court to the other, constantly moving. The rallies weren’t particularly robust, but Aaron found himself embarrassingly puffing quite badly nonetheless. Yet Cain (his forty year old uncle) hadn’t even broken sweat.

He wasn’t ever going to live this down.

“You’ll get there lad.” Cain commiserated his nephew, lips pressed tightly together in an attempt to hold back his amusement at seeing Aaron’s terrible lack of fitness. Aaron wasn’t really listening, was too distracted as he tried to gulp as much air back into his over-worked lungs as possible. “Day one was always going to be painful.”

Aaron’s body felt like he’d been hit by a double decker bus, followed by a freight train, then set alight for good measure, and his jellified legs felt two seconds away from giving out completely.

His pride and confidence fared no better, they were shot to pieces, destroying the positivity he felt earlier and allowing a creeping doubt to flood his mind.

Painful was an understatement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

February 2016

 

“Good shot.” Cain had complimented, after watching Aaron’s clean forehand strike land nicely just inside the left hand corner of the baseline. 

“Get in!” Aaron cheered. His left fist clenched and his body buzzing with the addictive adrenaline pumping through his veins. He knew how well he was playing, he could feel it.

Glasgow was tomorrow, and Cain was making sure to push Aaron even more in his last training session before the match. Hoping the extra practice would prepare Aaron for his first professional match in almost thirteen months, as much as possible.

The prior six weeks of non-stop training had gone from strength to strength after Aaron’s disastrous first session. And he was secretly over the moon with how good his form was.

It wasn’t quite to the standard of his old self, but he was close. So, so very close.

“Think you’ve finally got your forehand back.” Cain joked as he walked up to his nephew and patted him firmly on the shoulder. “You’re gonna walk this.”

“You reckon?” Aaron asked, looking for reassurance. No matter how pleased he was with his form, there was still the niggling doubt at the back of his mind, that made him feel nervous about tomorrow.

“With groundstrokes like that? Definitely.” Cain said, walking away from their court.

“Hang on, where you going?” Aaron laughed in confusion.

“For a sit down if that’s alright for you,” Cain retorted back, clearly out of breath. Aaron watched as his uncle found the nearest bench and plonked himself down onto it. “I’m knackered after that!”

The pair of them shared a knowing smile. This time it was Aaron who had barely broken sweat from the practice match, in fact, he could have played for another hour or so easily.

Long gone was the unfit and struggling athlete of December. He was ready to compete again.  

 

Aaron walked into Glasgow knowing last year’s fuck up had helped sink his respectable ranking of 26 in the world down to 1137, an unranked position which could easily plummet even lower if he didn’t start his comeback well. It was going to be a mammoth task to climb to anything close to the ranking he previously held. But as Cain reminded him that morning, he had to take it each match at a time. His ranking meant little for now.

The months of brutal training had paid off. Aaron overcome his match rustiness and nerves and managed to win his first pre-qualifier quite easily in the end. Sixteen months ago, beating a player ranked 236 in the world would have been routine, non-negotiable. For the Aaron of today, however, the win was massive – the biggest and most important match of his career to date. And he gained even more confidence and most importantly, some much-needed ranking points in the process.

After the tournament in Glasgow, Aaron didn’t look back. Next came the Loughbrough Trophy. And after Loughbrough, came the Surbiton Trophy and then The Nottingham Open – and Aaron soon found himself playing twenty-one vital matches in the space of five weeks.

Match after match, ranking points after ranking points gained – and a few Challenger finals won and lost along the way – it didn’t take long for Aaron to get into the swing of things again. His confidence was up, and he was loving every minute he played on court, and he relished each victory that was added to his ever increasing tally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

A sullen looking Cain walked into the backroom whilst Aaron and Chas were having their tea, phone in hand. “Alright mate.”

“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked with concern, putting down his knife and fork. The disappointment in his uncle’s voice had worried him.

“I just got off the phone with the All England Club rep,” Cain replied, lifting his phone to show Aaron, then scratched at his eyebrow. “They won’t be giving you a wild card for the main draw – or even qualifying, as “a matter of principle” – whatever that means.” Cain explained bitterly, shoulders slumped and mouth downturned. “I’m sorry.”

Aaron nodded his head in disappointment, before looking back down at his dinner. His return to tennis had been so positive so far. So much so, that his form had helped push his ranking into the mid 200s already, and he’d even earned some complimentary headlines from some of his biggest critics in the past. He was also the most in form British player on grass out on tour, so he wasn’t going to lie and say he hadn’t got swept up in all the excitement of maybe earning a wild card into his home Grand Slam, that his family, friends and press had all predicted.

The All England Club’s point blank refusal to acknowledge how well he was playing, felt a lot like a kick in the teeth. Clearly, a second chance from them was not on the horizon – he was a doper and a cheat in their eyes, and always would be.

“It’s alright, I didn’t really expect to get a wild card anyway.” He lied, though unconvincingly.

“But it’s ridiculous! He’s done his ban, yet they’re punishing him further!” Chas exclaimed from her seat next to Aaron’s. Hitting the nail on the head.

“I know. I tried to argue that, but they’re not having it.”

“Not even a wildcard into qualifying? That’s insulting!” Chas’ voice was high pitched in her outrage, the words spat out with venom.

“What can we do Sis? That’s their decision, we just have to accept it and move on.”

“He’s going to have to play a thousand games, and that’s before he’ll even get a sniff of the main draw-”

“Mum, it’s okay. Just forget about it.” Aaron sighed, he was gutted and he really didn’t need his mum making him feel worse by continuing to keep banging on about it.

“It’s not okay though, is it? It’s unfair.”

“I know Chas, but Aaron can get through the six matches. He’s good enough.” Cain said with a little less conviction than he probably wanted. Six matches would be hard for any player to overcome, let alone Aaron, who’d only started competing professionally again less than four months ago. They all knew the likelihood of Aaron reaching Wimbledon was slim.

“The more matches you get under your belt, the better I’d say.” Paddy supplied unhelpfully later that night in the pub, sat in a booth beside a fed up Aaron. 

Aaron huffed out a humourless laugh. “Right. I’ll thank them then, shall I?” Paddy was only trying to be encouraging – bless him. But Aaron didn’t share the same relentless positivity in the face of shitty situations that his father figure did, so he carried on sulking away and cursed the All England Club under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Usually, the venue to hold the pre-qualifiers for Wimbledon, as Cain explained, was the same Roehampton venue where the qualifying rounds would be played. But for some unexplained reason (that Aaron perhaps arrogantly, but not entirely incorrectly, suspected was soley for his benefit) this year, The All England Club decided to change the venue for the pre-quallies to one in Derby – miles away from where he would have to travel back to, to qualify into the main draw of the grand slam.

If the situation wasn’t so completely and purposefully shit, Aaron might have been flattered by the amount of effort and attention the highly respectable and entirely non-biased All England Club were paying to his progression into their competition. 

But the Wimbledon hosts’ discrimination and stubbornness to forgive had pissed Aaron off, so much so, that he seriously considered telling the posh twats to stick their Grand Slam up their uptight arses – which Aaron assumed was their desired reaction to their blatant charade, and thus, didn’t give them what they wanted.

 

“Just want to warn ya Aaron, the court is in a state.” Cain winced and shook his head in disbelief.

Aaron had arrived at the court for his first pre-qualifier in Derby early, wanting to size up playing conditions and get a decent training session in before playing his opponent. He had suspected that the condition of the court wouldn’t be to the standards he was used to on the ATP tour – it was just a pre-qualifier after all – but what Aaron found was beyond his expectations, and not in a good way.

The court was in the middle of a public park, the sounds of children’s laughter and chatting mothers drifted in the air from the playground a quarter of a mile away. Give it an hour or two, and Aaron wouldn’t have been shocked to have heard the arrival of an ice cream van, to join in with the not at all distracting noise pollution already at play.

The grass of the “court” was about an inch and a half too long and damp from the June morning dew – making the whole set up resemble more of an unkept field, rather than a professional tennis facility Aaron was expected to compete on.

It was a fucking circus. Ridiculous and shambolic. And Aaron wasn’t sure if he should have been laughing, or crying at the shitty situation.

He settled for quietly seething instead.

The first round of pre-qualifying was pretty uneventful. As expected, Aaron beat his opponent – an eighteen year old Welshman with anger-fuelled ease, ending the match 6-1, 6-0 to put himself through to the second round of pre-quallies the next day against Adam Barton – his best friend and fellow Brit – who predictably also won his first match on the court next door. Setting up the first meeting between the friends of their careers.

The next day Aaron arrived early, the same as the day before, to find the court just as depressing as the previous day.

Rise above it Rise above it Rise above it - was the mantra looping over and over again in his head, hoping it would help him keep his cool. To distract himself, he went about creating his usual pre match set up – taking out one bottle of water and another bottle of sports drink and looked to store them in the on court fridge, but he couldn’t find one.

“Where’s the fridge mate?” Aaron asked the umpire, squinting against the sweltering sun.

“There is no fridge… Or spare water bottles, for that matter.” the umpire explained, like it wasn’t a big deal that Aaron and Adam would have to play in seventy-degree heat, with no chilled water.

“You’re kidding me?”

“I’m not unfortunately.”

He was being forced to play on a shitty court in a middle of a playground, with no fridge and no water bottles. Fucking hell, the All England Club must have really hated Aaron.

“Alright lad. Ready to get steam rolled?” Adam joked. His booming laugh and the slap to the back of Aaron’s head threw him off directing a death glare towards the umpire.

“Agh…” Aaron groaned, rubbing at the back of his head, much to the amusement of Adam. “I don’t know what I fear the most; playing you, or playing on that!” Aaron eventually replied, pointing down to the poorly conditioned court, making Adam laugh.

“Fucking tell me about it. Think I could have done a better job setting up a court in my back garden.” Adam agreed, kicking at the long grass of the court. “But I see what you’re doing, already getting your excuses ready for when I knock you out, ain’t ya!” He teased, laughing at his friend’s eye roll.

“Yep, you got me.” Aaron played along, full of friendly sarcasm. 

“I kne-“

“Time.” the empire said, interrupting Adam’s reply.

Aaron knew he had to drop the joking and banter then, so he picked up his racquet and started jogging on the spot to stretch out his legs and get his adrenaline pumping. “Good luck Ads.”

“You too mate.” Adam replied kindly, already walking to his end of the court, which like Aaron’s side was drenched in baking sunshine, no shade in sight. 

The match was going to be a slog.

 

It was a fairly even match to begin with. Both players winning their service games easily, so inevitably the set had to end in a tie break. That’s when Aaron really came into his own. He made sure to utilise drop shots, knowing Adam would struggle to run after them in the scorching sun – So it was a short and snappy affair in the end, and Aaron found himself winning it and the set with his favourite a serve and volley.

The hour long first set had left Aaron sweating in scorching sun. His white top had turned translucent with perspiration and his hair became a mass of sweaty curls on top of his head, its residue dripping down his forehead and tricking into his eyes, if not for Aaron constantly wiping the sweat away his with sweatband.

Slumping down onto his seat he picked up his water bottle – which was threatening to become lukewarm already, his Lucazade no better – and guzzled all the warm liquid down.

“Have you got any towels?” Aaron heard Adam ask from his chair on the left side of the umpire. He too was suffering in the heat, his Nike headband doing little to stop the sweat pouring down his red face.

“There isn’t any. We expected you to bring your own.” the umpire replied, not half as embarrassed as he should have been.

“Oh right, it’s just as well that it’s quite chilly out then eh?“ Adam replied, voice dripping with sarcasm, making Aaron chuckle from his seat.

The circus was getting better and better. 

The umpire announced time a couple more minutes after that, and the break did little to help Aaron cool down. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back as he changed ends and got ready to serve. 

The second set picked up where the first one left off, the match even with both players winning the first three of their own service games each. It was in the 7th game that Adam’s better fitness came into play – getting Aaron stuck metres behind the baseline, moving one side of the court to the other constantly in defence. Eventually, Aaron lost his footing and twisted his ankle after Adam quickly changed direction with a powerful forehand, and the older man found himself face down in the grass of the court. Its long stalks prickling his heated skin.

He wasn’t going to lie, the unexpected respite was a welcome surprise and he didn’t make a move to get up in a hurry.

“Are you alright?” The umpire asked, watching Aaron slowly turn onto his back, eyes closed against the sun still blazing above. After a couple more seconds, Aaron eventually dragged himself back up to his aching feet and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Not really, but I’ll play on.” He replied truthfully.

Even though he was still feeling the affects of his fall, Aaron managed to claw his way out of the service game – putting pressure back on Adam’s serve. But his friend displayed the talent his ranking of 604 in the world didn’t do justice to, and won his own service game. The set was level at 4 games all. 

The longer they played, the longer Aaron was suffering in the heat. He wanted to rest back in his hotel, so Aaron decided to start taking more risks by imposing himself on the game more, and force the points quicker, in the hope to end the match sooner. He blasted through his next service game and started attacking Adam’s serve with much more aggression, which put pressure on his friend and eventually broke him, resulting in Aaron winning the second set 6-4 and winning the match by two sets.

“Sorry mate.” Aaron commiserated his friend by the net, genuinely apologetic. He hated that he had stopped Adam progressing into the main draw. He deserved to be there just as much as Aaron. 

“Don’t worry about it, the best player won,” Adam replied with no bad feeling. He shook Aaron’s outstretched hand before pulling him into a hug. “You show those stuck up twats at the All England Club what you’re made of, and get to Wimbledon, yeah?” 

“I’ll try to.” Aaron puffed out, his breath still ragged from the match. After shaking the umpire’s hand, he made his way over to Cain, who was holding a towel he really could have done with about an hour and a half ago. 

“Good lad. Win the second match today and you’re through to qualifying.” Cain stated, patting Aaron’s sweat soaked back firmly, then handed him a new bottle of much needed chilled water.

“Yeah.” Aaron nodded tiredly. Before he gulped down the whole bottle in seconds, then used the towel to mop up the sweat from his face, neck, chest and arms. 

He was already knackered from playing the first two pre-qualifying matches so far, so the thought of playing another match today, followed by three other potential matches at the beginning of the following week, was slightly overwhelming, and he mentally cursed the All England Club for the hundredth time that day, for blatantly making it as difficult as possible for him to qualify into the main draw. 

But he had to get on with it, he wasn’t going to let them get their own way. They didn’t want him anywhere near the main draw, so he was going to do everything in his power to make sure he was.

He played the second match of the day against another talented Brit – Connor Jenson. The match was tough, the heat still uncompromising, and Aaron felt leggy from the get go, but he managed to get through it, even after the small panic of losing the second set.

He was now a step closer to achieving his aim. He only had three qualifying matches standing in his way from being back at the top level of tennis and competing at world stage where he belonged again. 

There was no stopping him. 

 

“Come on Aaron, push through it.” Cain encouraged from the sidelines. He could see his nephew starting to struggle more and more.

Aaron had managed to get through the first two matches of qualifying relatively unscathed. But playing six matches in fewer days had eventually taken its toll on him, and he started to feel fatigue in full force half way through the first set of the third round of qualifying. 

He had barely been in the match, struggling to win points on his own serve, let alone his opponent’s.

Now he was 3 games to love down in the second set (he lost the first), and it didn’t look like his fortunes were improving any time soon as he watched his pacey first serve fired back into court, but out of his reach – taking the game to deuce.

Fuck 

His legs felt like lead, heavy and uncooperative, as he struggled to move. He was in a physical rut, that his mental determination just couldn’t seem to shake off. He tried to throw everything into the match; tried hitting the ball harder, tried taking the game to the man across the court from him, by being on the front foot, but nothing was good enough when his body was screaming in protest and refusing to comply.

His heart was breaking with each point lost. He’d come so far, ran himself into the ground and knocked his own best friend out, only to be falling apart at the last hurdle.

His mind drifted to the All England Club. They would love this, wouldn’t they?, with their smug faces, beaming in delight because they knew they’d succeeded in stopping him reaching the Wimbledon Championships.

He then looked helplessly back at Cain, he looked just as gutted as Aaron felt – and so did Chas, sitting uncharacteristically quiet beside her brother. They could all see his dream slipping through his fingers, if he didn’t do something about this escalating match. He didn’t want to disappoint them, he didn’t want to disappoint himself.

“Come on Aaron. Don’t be a fuck up,” He muttered under his breathe, trying to gee himself up. He bounced the ball four, five, six times and steadied his breathing – in and out in and out in and out – taking his mind off his aching limbs.

He had to push himself, it was now or never – This point was massive, if he lost it there was no coming back. But if he won it, he could still turn the match around.

Come on!

He’s not sure where he found the extra energy, but he hit his fastest serve yet cleverly onto his opponent’s backhand (the weakest part of their game) and won the advantage when they skied the return, then won the point with a beautifully worked drop shot afterwards – helping Aaron to finally get a game on the board.

His fight back continued after that. Aaron played through his tired legs and won the next six games in a row, winning the second set and putting the momentum firmly in his court for the third. It was still a struggle, but his German opponent began to struggle with fatigue also – leaving opportunities for Aaron to take advantage of. Knowing he found success playing to the German’s backhand previously, Aaron stuck to hitting hard and direct to it, frustrating his opponent and putting pressure on his groundstrokes, which soon became more and more erratic and less threatening.

Fifty minutes later and he managed to break the German’s 6th service game, and found himself serving for the match. Four points away from getting to Wimbledon.

He double faulted at first, with his nerves all over the place. He took some calming deep breaths in and out in and out in and out, and swallowed down the fear that was beginning to clamp down on his throat. His next serve was better – well hit and well worked. 15-15. Three points away

He hit an ace next, taking it to 30-15. Two points away

He just about won the ten stoke rally with a smash which thankfully had a sliver of the ball still on the line, giving himself some leg room at 40-15. One point away

Not trusting himself to hit an accurate big serve with his nerves jittering through his body, Aaron decided to serve smaller but more precise, in the hopes that he could wrong foot the German. And he did – the player couldn’t keep Aaron’s serve in play. And his legs almost collapsed from relief and fatigue the moment he watched their return hit the net. 

He dropped his racquet and raised his closed fists to the sky, and stared up at the crystal blue in elation. “Yes!” he was breathless, but he didn’t care. He wanted to scream the world down with happiness. 

He’d done it! He’d made it to Wimbledon – With no help or favours. Just relied on his ability and got through on his own merit, regardless of how many obstacles the All England Club had put in front of him.

He was going into the competition as an underdog, likely no one was going to back him, but he didn’t care. He was going back to where he belonged, and he planned on never looking back.

 

Newly returned Aaron Dingle books his place in Wimbledon’s main draw. How far can the wayward star go?” - BBC Sport News

Chapter Text

January 2015

 

“Stop trying to rush me Vic!” Robert warned his sister in frustration.

After five long weeks of post op recovery, Robert was finally given the okay to be released from Dr Tate’s care mid-January. He hadn’t recovered fully yet, he still felt sore and stiff, but thankfully there wasn’t much pain in his hip anymore. Sure, he wasn’t bed bound and in agony any longer, but he certainly wasn’t doing cartwheels down the corridors either. So he really could have done without Victoria unsympathetically trying to hurry him out of the hospital. 

“I’m not! But you’re barely moving Rob. You’re gonna have to pick up the pace a little bit.” Vic puffed behind him. She was struggling to carry the two holdalls full of Robert’s possessions in both hands. Their heaviness motivated her need to get to the car at a quicker speed than the snail’s pace her brother had set.

Robert scoffed. “That’s easy for you to say, you’re not the cripple here.”

Vic rolled her eyes. “You’re not a cripple Rob. Your operation was five weeks ago, so stop milking it and just get out there.”

Milking it? I’m still recovering from being carved open Vic. A little sympathy wouldn’t go amiss!” he groaned, taking another painstakingly slow step forward. The movement may have seemed minimal to Victoria or anyone else for that matter, but it took an extreme amount of effort from Robert to make it on the crutches. 

Vic tutted at her brother, like an amused mother to a petulant child. “You’ve had plenty of sympathy from all of us – especially Chrissie the way she’s been doting over you the past few weeks. So don’t give me all that.” She said unimpressed, but still with a fondness to her voice.

Robert kept quiet. Vic was right, Chrissie had been very… attentive, to put it mildly. Borderline insufferable, if he was being really honest. He’d been feeling more and more like her child – rather than her twenty-nine-year-old fiancé – with all the intense fussing and babying she’d been giving him over the past few weeks. At least she cared about his suffering though, Robert supposed. Unlike Victoria, who had overtaken Robert and was waiting by the hospital exit with a barely concealed smirk on her face, as she watched her brother make hard work of shuffling through the waiting area.

“Don’t laugh.” Robert warned light-heartedly. He could imagine what he must have looked like – all clumsy and uncoordinated, like Bambi on ice.

“I’m not.” Vic replied, lips pressed tightly together to stop a laugh escaping.

“Sure you’re not.” Robert huffed, pretending to be offended before he smiled back at Vic and took a couple more steps forward.

Eventually they made it outside to the car park, and the biting January cold hit Robert straight down to his bones in full force, not doing his aching hip any favours and immediately put him in a foul mood. “Where’s the car?”

“It’s not far away.” Vic said, cocking her head to her right. “It’s this way.”

Clearly Vic’s perception of a short distance did not match Robert’s, as the so-called small journey to Victoria’s boyfriend’s car turned into a ten minute trek in almost sub zero temperatures, and Robert didn’t hold back from voicing his annoyance throughout the whole duration.

“You’ve been gone ages. I was starting to think they’d changed their minds and chickened out of letting this one loose on the world again.” Ellis joked, cocking his head towards an unimpressed looking Robert. 

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Robert deadpanned, “I’m on crutches – in case you haven’t noticed – I’m hardly gonna to be speeding about like Usain Bolt, am I?” he sarcastically added, breathlessly coming to a stop by the car.

“I did offer to bridal carry you out of there, but you turned me down flat, remember?” Ellis grinned, clearly thinking he was being hilarious. Robert glared back at him in return. 

“Robert was making the OAPs with hip replacements seem speedy in there.” Vic chimed in, throwing Robert’s bags into the boot, and then (after a battle with Robert’s vice-like grip) his crutches, leaving Robert to awkwardly lean against the side of the car, waiting for Vic to help him into the passenger seat.

“Can we just go please? I’m freezing my bollocks off here.” He huffed, not in the mood to be the butt of their jokes.

Vic pulled a disgusted face. “Erm, too much information there Rob.” She laughed, then made her way around to the passenger side of the car, an idea popping into her head half way there, “Hold on a minute. Let me take a photo for your Instagram.”

“What? No way. I look a stat-” But his protest was interrupted by the sound of Vic’s phone camera capturing the moment. And her thumbs were flying across the phone keypad, no doubt typing out some cringey caption to go alongside the image within seconds.

“Vic!”

“What? Your followers will love it. You look quite sweet, all scruffy with the sticky out hair and wounded puppy eyes.”

He was wearing the comfiest (but ugliest) tracksuit bottoms he owned, and a ratty old t-shirt of a rock band he didn’t even like underneath his signature black leather jacket. His hair was a mess and his eyes were tired and his face was covered in an unflattering blonde stubble. He seriously doubted he looked anything close to sweet. “Give me that!” he demanded, practically pouncing at his sister in the hope of stopping her posting the monstrosity of a photo and regretted the lunge the moment an piercing pain seared through the lower half of his right side. “Agh – Fuck!”

Careful. No sudden movements remember.” Vic warned, quoting one of the rules Tate had listed in his pre-outpatient pep talk. “You okay?” she asked with a gentle hand placed on his back.

“Yeah, just jolted me hip a bit.” Robert winced and then blew out a shaky breath. He had to close his eyes and take in a few deep breaths to ground himself, and eventually the pain subsided. 

“Right, come on, lets get ya home, yeah?” Vic said with a sympathetic smile. He nodded his head and she pulled Robert’s arm across her shoulders, taking his weight a little and they wobbled closer to the opened door.

Getting him into the car wasn’t an easy process. There was a lot of wincing, some bickering and even more swearing (directed mainly Ellis’ way, when the cheeky git decided to crack out some predictable old man jokes), but eventually he was settled in the seat and looking forward to resting for a while. The walk from his hospital room to the car had left him shattered.

 

“You didn’t really post that photo, did ya?” Robert eventually asked, fifteen minutes into their journey back to Chelsea. The question had been playing on his mind since the moment they pulled out of the hospital car park.

“Yeah.” Victoria shrugged from the passenger seat behind him, and her face screwed up in confusion when Robert groaned. “I don’t understand what the big deal is? People care about you Rob, and they’re rooting for ya.”

“It’s embarrassing.” Robert sighed. He was feeling vulnerable enough as it was, what with the debilitating injury and being in an uncomfortable state of flux. The thought of the world seeing him that way – at his lowest – left him even more self-conscious than he already was.

“It’s not embarrassing. You’re showing that you’re human Rob. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Vic said encouragingly. She looked down at her phone and flicked back to his official Instagram page, the photo in question now lighting up the screen. “Look how many likes you’ve got already.” she added, reaching forwards and shoving her phone in Robert’s face.

The picture didn’t look as bad as he expected in fairness. Vic had luckily managed to capture a moment when his face didn’t look like a smacked arse. Surprisingly, he looked almost like his normal self – minus the chavvy bottoms and grungy top. But that wasn’t what had caught Robert’s attention, like Vic had pointed out, it was the fact that the photo already had five thousand likes and just under two hundred comments, all wishing him a speedy recovery or telling him how they’d been missing seeing him on court. Their encouragements and well wishes warmed his heart, and he couldn’t stop the small smile from lifting at the corners of his mouth. It was probably the first time he had genuinely done so since going into hospital back in December.

“Is that a smile I can see?” Victoria asked, pleased with herself and teasing her brother. Robert playfully rolled his eyes in return. “See, it’s nice to know that people care, eh?”

Robert looked back at his sister and smiled again. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Robert had secretly hoped that the rest of his rehabilitation would’ve been easier to manage at home, surrounded by home comforts and away from the antiseptic infused bubble he’d been suffocating in in the private hospital ward. But in a weird way, being home had been worse. 

He was under strict orders from Dr Tate to “take it easy” for the six or so weeks left of his predicted recovery. Robert wasn’t one for enjoying “relaxation” (or doing fuck all as he would eloquently put it), so inevitably it didn’t take long for his positivity to die and for cabin fever to rear its ugly head. He could rarely leave the house in the first few weeks – his hip was too stiff and his energy too low to be able to walk very far, or for too long. He wasn’t even able to manoeuvre the stairs yet, meaning Robert found himself stuck sleeping uncomfortably downstairs in a makeshift bed in Lawrence’s study, or velcroed to the chaise lounge for hours on end like some pathetic couch potato. 

Being a sportsman, Robert was used to constantly being on the move, always having targets or a goal to aim for. If he wasn’t training with Clive, he’d have been at the gym with Ed. And when he wasn’t preparing for matches and maintaining fitness, he would have been travelling around the world to different tournaments and competing on the courts in front of hundreds of people. The free time which was now forced upon him was uncomfortably unfamiliar, and slowly driving him crazier and crazier by the second. 

He felt directionless. Bored, frustrated and feeling lower and lower, the longer the days of doing nothing went by in a monotonous blur. Not even the endless amounts of well wishes sent by his Instagram fans were able to clear the negative cloud which hung so claustrophobically over his head. Their kind words couldn’t change his situation, could they? He was still a tennis player, uselessly not playing the sport he loved and was the best at.

The “pity parties” as Vic so kindly called them, became a constant fixture to Robert’s daily routine, when the weeks of his recovery/house arrest (No Vic, he wasn’t being overdramatic!) slowly became a month and a half. With nothing better to do, he eventually decided to embrace his dire situation, and dedicated his days to either watching daytime television in its depressingly it’s-so-bad-it’s-good glory, or torturing himself by watching ATP tournaments like the Australian Open – a grand slam he’d won the previous year – move on without him. Chrissie would ask why he did it, upset himself so much by watching and he’d always reply with the same answer – he was a glutton for punishment.

Ignoring Chrissie’s concern, he watched on as Belgium’s Nikhil Sharma controversially beat Australia’s very own Ross Barton in the final of the Aus Open, wishing he could have traded places with them. The fact that he didn’t even rate Sharma – never had – rubbed bitter salt in Robert’s already wounded pride. The Belgian was just a big serve and nothing much else – Robert could beat him with his eyes closed, yet the older athlete had Robert’s title now. A title he had no way of defending. 

He had no other choice but to swallow his pride and wait out his time of solitary confinement in quiet depression. He tried to remind himself that each day that passed was another step closer to his comeback, but the positivity just didn’t ring true. He was trapped in a purgatory, with a desperate need to escape. By the end, he was so desperate that he’d have done anything to get even the smallest taste of freedom...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

He was a horrible person. Robert would always be the first one to admit that. It’s not like he planned for it to happen though – not on a conscious level anyway. He’d swear to anyone that his decision to walk to the local Waitrose to buy some milk and stretch his stiff right hip had been for completely innocent reasons. He wasn’t even the one to make the first move – that had been the fit Italian, with his dark features, sharp tongue and a sharper jawline. He’d drawn Robert’s attention away from picking up the milk when he made a flirtatious remark about Robert’s crutch. It was a corny line, yet Robert found himself laughing with the other man regardless. It didn’t take much more persuasion for the milk to be left untouched and long forgotten. 

The prior weeks of rehabilitation had taken their toll and severely dented Robert’s confidence to an unfamiliar lowness, so he wasn’t going to lie and say watching the Italian stare back at him so lustfully hadn’t felt good – because it did. It felt right in a messed up way, because it made Robert almost feel like his old self again. The one in control of his life and always getting what he wanted, not the moping hermit he’d been forced to become for the last few months. Naturally, he found himself flirting back and smiling his most charming of smiles – unable to help himself. He had the Italian hook, line and sinker after that.  

“So, you wanna have a coffee over at mine then?” Robert asked, his eyes slowly raking down the Italian’s body, his true intentions very clear.  

The other man smirked back, “Yeah, why not?" 

Things inevitably escalated once they got back to Robert’s. Navigating the stairs still wasn’t the easiest of tasks for Robert, so they settled for the living room instead – their heavy breathing and muffled moans breaking the peaceful silence of the luxurious room.

He’d always been good at this, sex and hedonism. His selfish pursuit of pleasure had always been the perfect pick me up in the past when he felt down or bored or frustrated even, and it was no different now. He couldn’t find any room to feel weighed down by the frustration of his injury when he was being kissed silly and manhandled down onto the sofa. It was addictive – the feeling of being free, yet in control – Robert chased it with ferocious abandon. Kissing back hard and bossing the situation by impatiently pushing the other man down to where he really wanted him.

The Italian wasn’t giving the greatest blowjob Robert had ever received – it was a bit too sloppy and with not enough suction – but it was scratching a much needed itch, and every now and then the other man would hit a spot and – “Hmm… yeah, don’t stop?” Robert moaned in pleasure. Too distracted by the wet heat surrounding him, that he didn’t hear Chrissie opening the front door and making her way into their living room.

“Robert darling, my meeting finished early. Thought we could have lunch togeth– Oh my god!”

Robert’s eyes shot open in horror. He pushed the Italian man away from him like his touch was a brand to his skin and reached for a pillow to cover his modesty. 

“Chrissie – I swear that I can explain.” 

“Who is she?” Italian unhelpfully asked, picking himself up off the floor and wiping his mouth.

“I’m his fiancée,” Chrissie threw back, her voice was wobbly and her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “I suggest you leave.”

Robert wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. He’d have gladly gone straight down to hell, if it meant he escaped the nightmare playing out in front of him. 

“Fiancée?... Oh,” the other man said, finally understanding just how messed up the situation was. “I-I didn’t know, I’m so sorry…” He added in embarrassment, before he threw Robert a dirty look and sheepishly made his way across the room, past Chrissie and out the front door. 

Robert barely heard him leave though, he was paralysed with panic. His throat was closing in and his ribcage felt like it was collapsing back into his spine, making it difficult to breathe. 

He knew he had no way out of this – Chrissie had caught him. She’d caught him with a man. 

FUCK

“Chrissie.” He managed to say.

“How could you.” She cried, before she stormed out of the living room and ran upstairs.

Robert quickly righted his underwear and jeans, then followed her up the stairs in desperation. He found her in a crumbled mess on the bed. “Please just let me-” 

“I don’t want to see you Robert. I want you to leave. You-you have to l-leave." 

“It wasn’t what you think,” Robert pleaded. He knew he wasn’t making any sense, she’d walked in on a man sucking him off, there was only one way to interpret it. At that point, he was willing to say anything in his desperation to fix his own fuck up. 

“Please go?” She asked again.

“We can sort this. It can be alright if you let me explain.” He babbled, ignoring her request and he slowly moved closer to the bed.

“Don’t come near me!” Chrissie demanded, wiping away her mascara tinged tears. Robert halted his steps, but continued to prattle away and ignored Chrissie’s continued pleas for him to leave – until finally she cracked. “Get out Robert!” she screamed. 

He’d never heard her so angry or upset before – it took him aback. The surprise shocked him out of his panicked fuelled haze and it allowed him to take in the scene before him. He finally saw just how distressed and distraught Chrissie was, she looked broken, and he knew he needed to do the right thing and leave. So he did, without another word.

 

With his tail between his legs, Robert sought refuge at Clive’s house under the guise that he needed another “pep talk” about his rehabilitation. He knew he was being uncharacteristically quiet and could feel the concerned glances his coach kept throwing his way, but he couldn’t seem to snap himself out of his thoughts.

He kept asking himself why he did it? He was happy with Chrissie. They were settled. They had an amazing house and lifestyle to match. He loved the man he was with her, liked the power he felt when he was around her. She was a chairwoman of The All England Club after all, and Robert had secretly reaped the benefits with better endorsements and kinder playing schedules for AELTC funded tournament for years. It was a match made in heaven. Or so he thought…

…Who was he trying to kid? Deep down he knew exactly why he did it. He did what he’s always done when boredom, frustration and lowered spirits combined – He thought with his dick – Not caring about the consequences, or anyone else’s feelings other than his own. 

He had to fix things with Chrissie. He had to win her back. He was Robert Sugden, a man of action. He couldn’t just let his perfect life slip through his fingers without a fight – especially not now, when his career was so spectacularly failing.

He snapped himself out of the pathetic stupor he’d been wallowing in and made a plan… 

 

 

Robert let himself into their home early the next morning. He could hear the faint murmuring of voices from the kitchen, so took a deep steadying breath, then headed straight for it. He found a pyjama clad Chrissie slumped against the breakfast bar table, her hair was pulled into a messy bun and her face was completely make-up free. The polar opposite to her usually well-presented self. Lawrence was beside her, rubbing a comforting hand up and down her back.

They both looked up when they heard Robert entering the kitchen, and he was met with matching looks of pure hatred. “What are you doing here?” Lawrence spat. The older man stood up from the breakfast bar and protectively put himself between Robert and his daughter.

“I-I need to speak to Chrissie, to explain.”

“There’s nothing to explain Robert. I don’t want to hear whatever pathetic excuse you’ve got, so just go.” Chrissie sighed, her voice had no fight to it. She’d always been a fiery woman, sharped tongued and always so sure of herself – it was one of the things that made her so attractive. But that woman wasn’t sitting in front of him now. Her fire and strength were gone, and she looked so defeated. Guilt clawed at Robert’s insides knowing he’d done that. He was to blame. 

“Please Chrissie. It didn’t mean anythi-”

“If it didn’t mean anything, why do it in the first place?” Chrissie sneered.

“I – my injury...I’ve been struggling-”

“Your injury?” Chrissie interrupted, “You’re trying to tell me that you cheated on me and broke my heart, because of an injury?” she laughed humourlessly and shook her head in disbelief. 

“I’ve been depressed – I-I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“You’re pathetic. You know that?”

“I love you Chrissie.”

“Were there others?” she suddenly asked, ignoring Robert’s declaration and throwing him of course. “Were there other men?”

“No.” Robert denied, the lie falling quickly from his lips.

In a way it wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. There had been men and women in the past, but that was years ago.

Chrissie saw doubt in his eyes, however, and her face screwed up in distress. “There was, wasn’t there?” she cried, face red and blotchy when fresh tears began to fall down. “You’ve been secretly gay all this time!”

“I’m not gay!” Robert fired back. The untrue accusation made him uncomfortable. Made the same prickling shame that always ghosted across his skin whenever he thought too deeply about his sexuality flare up again. Its spidery fingers left him wanting to scream and rip his own skin off.

Chrissie’s laugh was unkind and disbelieving. “Just go Robert.”

“No,” Robert shook his head and refused to walk away. “No, I’m not leaving until you listen to me.”

“If you don’t leave right now, I’ll make sure to ruin you and your precious little tennis career.” Chrissie threatened. Her eyes were suddenly steely and cold.

They both knew how much power she held, she could destroy Robert’s career in a blink of an eye if she was of the mind to. Robert had already seen what she was capable of with Lachlan’s father. Her ex used to be a famous tennis commentator, a household name and a fixture for every televised tennis event. But after one phone call from Chrissie, his entire career was wiped from existence and he wasn’t heard of ever again – like some unperson from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He couldn’t afford to risk his career like that, it meant too much to him. With no other choice, he took heed of Chrissie’s warning and admitted defeat – his plan be damned. Without another word spoken, he walked up to what was once his bedroom and started packing his clothes and other possessions into a suitcase, under the hostile supervision of Lawrence, who watched on like a circling vulture.

“If you have even a shred of decency in you, you will walk out that door and stay out of my daughter’s life forever.” Lawrence growled, twenty minutes later by the front door. His face was inches away from the younger man’s as he stepped right into Robert’s personal space.

“Don’t worry. I won’t be coming back,” Robert said sullenly, and moved himself away from the older man. “I’ll ask Vic to collect the rest of my things at the weekend.” He closed the door behind him then, and also closed that chapter of his life with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

He moved back to Leeds after that. Needed distance between himself and the destruction he’d created in London. Vic welcomed him back with a disappointed smile, a million questions he didn’t want to answer and a far too sugary tea.

He admitted the bare minimum. Kept the gender of the person Chrissie caught him with to himself – obviously. That detail was unimportant in the grand scheme of things. He’d fucked up, and that was that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

It’s almost ironic that Robert’s recovery had taken a turn for the good, in the days where his personal life had hit an all time low. Tate had given him the okay to start his physiotherapy regime with Ed a week after moving back up North, and that’s what he put all his concentration into. An hour per session, three times a week, Robert would go through the physio exercises eagerly. It was a relief to feel like he was actually doing something productive with his time, rather than just wasting it, doing nothing like he had done in London. 

He had control over his career again, a goal to strive towards. With a happier mindset, came a more positive attitude, and that allowed the fog which had been blinding him to finally lift. He felt like he could breathe properly for the first time in months.

 

But of course, Chrissie decided to drop an atomic bomb on Robert’s life the moment he finally let his guard down. The two weeks at home had been surprisingly pain free – the physio was going well, and he was getting on with his family (well, Andy and Katie) better than he ever expected. He was even invited to their engagement party at some fancy restaurant in the centre of Leeds. 

He was just finishing his third pint of the night when Chrissie waltzed into the packed restaurant, like a woman on a mission. Thanks to the alcohol, he was feeling pleasantly fuzzy around the edges and relaxed for the first time in months – but that quickly changed. He felt his stomach drop at the sight before him. Chrissie’s beautiful face was twisted and sneering, and her blue eyes were dangerous as she stared back at Robert with barely concealed hatred. She looked like a boa constrictor, ready to crush him. 

And crush him, she did. 

She proceeded to out him loudly and publicly, with an awfully spiteful nonchalance. The words were aimed to cause maximum damage, yet were said so simply, so matter of fact – like they didn’t hold any weight and weren’t being used to obliterate Robert’s life to ruins. He hated her for it. 

Shame and humiliation were slicing through Robert’s skin like relentless daggers as she told his family all about his “dirty little secret”, as she called it. He’d had nightmares about this day for years – the day he’d be forced to come out – and the reality was so much worse than he’d ever imagined. He wanted to scream and cry and rip his own pickling skin apart.

He pleaded for her to stop – to shut up – to take back all her words. She was relentless though, too determined to get her twisted revenge that she carried on in the same vain. Each of her offensive remarks was thrown at him with venom, every one of her cutting insults were spat in his face. They were all so precise and targeted with pin point precision. Robert was powerless to stop her. Too overwhelmed by her betrayal, that he lost all ability to fight, to breathe even. 

His family were stunned into silence for the whole exchange. A devastating quietness hung in the air and he could feel all their eyes on him, staring at him like he suddenly became a stranger to them. He wanted to vomit, or run away – maybe both. 

Vic was the one to eventually snap. Told Chrissie to shut up and leave, fierce like a lioness. But the damage was already done. Pandora’s box was open, and there was no way for the words to be taken back or forgotten. Chrissie had the cheek to smile then, arrogant and hateful, “I think we’re even now, don’t you?” she asked as her parting shot, then dismissively threw her engagement ring onto the table and strutted out the restaurant without a care in the world. 

He sat in disturbed silence after she left. He knew both Diane and Vic had turned to him – could feel their confused expressions boring into his face, desperately trying to find a clue that would tell them whether there was truth in what his ex had just spilled. 

He couldn’t take it anymore, so he ran away.

 

Cheating with the Italian had been wrong, the one night stands in the past had been wrong too. He knew that – he owned his mistakes and left Chrissie’s life like she had asked for.

Yet that’s how she repaid him? By outing him to his entire family and fuck knows who else… She had no right.

In a fucked up way, Chrissie was right about one thing though, they were even now. He broke her heart, so she broke his in return – “eye for an eye” as they say. They were both equal players in their twisted game of tit for tat. Yet the betrayal and pain he was feeling didn’t feel much like it was a game. It was crushing and devastating – vividly real in its brutality. 

He knew this feeling all too well. Felt the same crushing weight of shame and humiliation when his father had looked at his fifteen-year-old self with rage and disgust, because he had dared to kiss the kind farm-hand who had made him laugh for the first time since his mother had died. His dad had sacked the other boy on the spot and leathered Robert to hammer home exactly what he thought of him. He promised himself that night that he’d never act on the feelings he had for boys ever again. It was a promise that was broken rather quickly. 

Should have stuck to your guns Robert, you wouldn’t be in this mess if you did, he thought bitterly to himself.

He was pacing in the restaurant car park when Vic finally found him, breaking him out of his reverie, “Robert?” she asked tentatively, her eyes wide and her movements measured, like she was stepping into the personal space of a wild animal. “Are you okay?”

Robert scoffed. Okay? He was as far away from being okay as humanly possible. He was in hell… “I’m fine.” 

“You don’t look fine.” She said, her big eyes so full of concern. Robert ignored her and carried on pacing. “Robert, please talk to me?”

“I-I can’t believe she’d do that.” He blurted out, more to himself than Victoria.

“I know, I didn’t think she could be so vicious.” she agreed, face full of anger. Silence fell between them, stilted and stretching out uncomfortably.

“…Is it true? What she said about that bloke, and the others?” Vic asked after a few more tense minutes. Robert didn’t answer. “Robert?”

“It didn’t mean anything. They-they were all a stupid mistake.” Robert stuttered out without thinking. Realising a little too late that he had more or less confirmed that Chrissie’s accusations were true.

“So it is true then?” She was looking at him with that look again, like she’d never seen him before, like her own brother was alien to her. It made him sick.

“No!”

“But you just said-”

“I’m not gay!”

“I’m not saying that you are Rob. I’m just – I’m just trying to understand.”

“There’s nothing to understand Vic. I’m straight, like I always have been, alright?” Robert denied, but it was unconvincing.

Vic stayed silent for a moment and studied him. Robert purposefully avoided the worried gaze. “Robert, it’s okay you know. It changes nothing… We all still love you. I still love you.” She eventually said, her voice so genuine.

Her words should have been a comfort to him, but they made Robert cringe instead, and he recoiled away from her touch when she approached him. “You’re not listening to me Vic.” he pleaded.

“I am.”

“No, you’re not.” he argued back.

Vic was looking at him in confusion, liked he’d grown a second head and he had enough. “You know what? I’m done with this.” He spat, then walked away from his sister. He needed space and decided to find a taxi to take him home. 

“Robert! Robert where are you going?!” Vic shouted behind him. He ignored her and carried on walking away. 

Anywhere would have been better then his reality. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Robert was reading in his study, when Vic let herself into his house and interrupted him, “Robert, can I have a word?” 

He was still reeling from the many attempted interventions his family had tried (and failed) to subject him to over the past week, post his unceremonious outing. He was sure he would rather scratch his own eyes out, then endure any more skin crawlingly awful repeat performances, so kept himself to himself he last few days, hoping the questions would eventually die down. But clearly not.

“If it’s about what I think it is – I’m not interested.” he abruptly replied, wanting to close the subject before it could even be opened.

“Er excuse me, no need to be stroppy!” Vic chastised, like she was talking to a teenaged boy. Robert rolled his eyes and carried on reading his book. “If you’d have let me finish, I would have told you that the Daily Mail has asked for a quote about Aaron Dingle.” she huffed, and Robert put his book down, intrigued. “Have you heard, his ITF verdict is next week?" 

Dingle’s failed drugs test had been all over the sports news like wild fire for months, of course he heard about it. Just because he had spent the majority of the year thus far as a part time hermit, didn’t mean he was living under a rock!

“Yeah I’ve heard.” He scoffed.

“Well. What should I tell them?”

Aaron Livesy – no Dingle – or whatever bloody name he was going under now, was a moron. Pure and simple. 

Robert prided himself on being a great judge of character. He was always able to get the measure of someone quickly, and he disliked Aaron Livesy/Dingle the moment he arrived on the tennis scene – all chavvy and gobby and unprofessional. Clearly, the younger man’s venture into drug taking was proving Robert’s damning first assessment was a fair one. 

The boy was a liability. Infuriating and childish, but most annoyingly of all, completely ungrateful for the natural talent he possessed. He was probably the most naturally gifted player the country had produced in years. Yet he had managed to squander that and his career for a measly couple of lines of cocaine. 

Robert felt sick just thinking about it. He would give anything to be as fit as Aaron Dingle. Would have traded their places in a heartbeat, before the younger athlete went and fucked it all up. How could he not see how lucky he was? How could he not appreciate the position he was in? Tennis clearly wasn’t as important to Dingle, as it was to Robert… Robert decided he would deserve exactly what came to him. 

“I don’t know, tell them something like: “He deserves a lengthy ban for what he’s done. There’s no excuse for doping, so I have zero sympathy for Dingle.”” Robert sighed, “What?” he asked incredulously when he noticed Vic pulling an unimpressed face at his suggestion. 

“Don’t you think that’s a little bit – I don’t know, harsh?” she asked.

It wasn’t harsh at all, Robert was being quite diplomatic for his standards. But this was Vic all over; always one to sympathise, always believing that people deserved second chances - even if that person was an idiot like Aaron flippin’ Dingle. It’s an admirable, yet an equally infuriating part of her personality. (He knew deep down that he shouldn’t complain about her kind heart too much though, anyone else would have washed their hands of him years ago, but she hadn’t.)

“He took cocaine Vic! It’s either I say that, or: “Aaron Dingle is a selfish, idiotic, waste of space, who deserves exactly what’s coming to him – which should probably be rehab.”” He paraphrased, eyebrows raised in question. “You pick which one reads better!”

Fine.” Vic rolled her eyes and pulled her phone out from her back pocket, then started typing out her brother’s quote, ready to be sent to the newspaper.

Hoping Vic was done pestering him, Robert got back to reading his book, before he was interrupted yet again by his sister clearing her throat. “What?” he asked rudely. 

“Seeing as you’re not very busy, I thought now’s a good time to – you know…maybe talk?” Vic asked.

She was sitting down on the squishy sofa in the corner of the study and tapping at the empty seat next to her before he even registered her suggestion properly. He stayed glued to his desk chair though, and stared as blankly as possible back at her. 

His sister’s face was schooled into an expression Robert suspected was designed to be open, non-judgmental – made in an attempt to make him feel more at ease and less tight lipped. He appreciated the gesture to a degree, but her tight smile and expectant eyes made him feel on edge and nervous.

“There’s nothing to talk about.” he dismissed. 

“But there is Robert.” Vic said, suddenly standing up again and walking closer to him. “I love you Robert, I always will. No matter what, okay? You can talk to me – about anything you want?”

She was being so transparent. She hadn’t said the words “talk to me about your questionable heterosexuality Robert” - but the implication was there, floating awkwardly in the air between them like a giant, rainbow coloured elephant in the room. 

He couldn’t be having this conversation. Not now, maybe not ever. 

“Leave it Vic.” 

But she ignored his warning and carried on with the same spiel she’d been spewing all week. Going on and on about how he needn’t worry about what their dad (the man who hated what Robert was and said and showed as much) would feel about Robert’s attraction to men, because she was clearly psychic and knew with an unwavering certainty that he’d have accepted him regardless. It was so far from the truth, he couldn’t stand it.

“I said leave it!” Robert hissed aggressively.

He didn’t stay long enough to see his sister’s reaction, he stormed out the house leaving the frame of the front door reverberating behind him, before she could say another word.

He was running away from his life so often now, he was surprised his feet even touched the ground. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

He wasn’t sure what made him finally find the strength to say it. Maybe it was the four gin and tonics he had earlier that night at Doug’s birthday party. Maybe he was simply sick to death of lying to himself and everyone else for the past two months. Or maybe the fear which controlled and stopped him living his life the way he really wanted was finally gone... Robert wasn’t sure where it came from, but one minute he and Vic were sitting in his kitchen nursing a couple of brews and talking about nothing in particular. And the next, he finally said the words that had been on the tip of his tongue for the last fifteen years.

“Vic, I’m bisexual…I-I like both.” he stuttered out as his nerves lodged in his throat like cement.

“Okay.” Vic said, with a small but loving smile on her face. 

“Okay…” Robert repeated then cleared his throat awkwardly. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself; where to look or what to do with his clammy and shaking hands which felt useless on his lap. He settled for avoiding his sister’s eye and concentrated on watching the wisps of steam leaving his mug instead. Hands clutching on with a vice-like grip, knuckles white.

“I’m proud of you, you know?” Vic said suddenly, making Robert finally look up and he was met with his sister’s watery eyes and she squeezed his forearm affectionately.

“What for? It’s not a big deal.” he awkwardly laughed, attempting to play down the fact he just came out to his little sister. 

“It is, Rob. It is.” she said so lovingly, before pulling him into crushing cuddle. “I love you always.”

An unexpected warmth spread through Robert’s body and he couldn’t fight against the smile which was spreading across his face. He fondly squeezed Vic that little bit tighter before saying, “I love you always, too.”

Vic finally released him from her loving embrace and the siblings shared a pair of proud smiles. It was in that moment that Robert knew that he was going to be alright – more than alright actually… he knew his future was going to be great. 

Acceptance and freedom to be ones true self were life changing. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

“I’m not a china doll Clive, stop treating me like I’m gonna break any second.” Robert groaned in frustration. 

Robert had been training continuously since July and now he was starting to get antsy. He would be enjoying being back on the training courts, if Clive wasn’t insisting on wrapping him up in cotton wool the whole time. He was desperate to start competing in some tournaments, but the nice and easy training sessions Clive was currently putting him through, wasn’t going to get the athlete very far. 

“I know, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious.” Clive explained, “There’s no need to rush you.”

“I’ve been training for four months now Clive, how is that rushing me?” Robert exclaimed, making Clive sigh. “I’m going to have to step it up a gear sooner or later. This nicey-nicey approach isn’t gonna get me very far in Flushing Meadows, is it?” Robert tried to reason.

“Wait – What? You want to go to the US Open... you can’t be serious?”

“Yeah, I am.” Robert replied sharply, annoyed at Clive’s almost patronising reaction.

“You’re nowhere near ready for that.” Clive said matter of fact - completely righting Robert off, “You’re months away from being fit enough for a grand slam.”

Robert scoffed, offended by his coach’s negative attitude. “Well thanks for that, nice to know you believe in me so much.”

“I don’t mean to upset you Robert-” 

“So help me get prepared then.”

“No, it’s too soon.”

“Too soon? Clive, I haven’t played tennis in over a year. I-I can’t wait any longer, I need to get out there,” Robert pleaded. The last year or so had been hell for Robert, not being able to play was slowly killing him and he wasn’t willing to wait any more. He had to play. “I’m ready, I know it.”

“The US Open is in a month’s time.” 

“I know... please Clive, just let me try?”

Clive’s face softened as he saw how emotional Robert was, a few minutes passed as the older man contemplated the situation… “Fine,” His coach eventually sighed, “If you’re serious about entering into Flushing Meadows, we’ll have to double up on the hours here as soon as possible, and the session intensity will have to ramped up to your old levels.” 

Robert smiled appreciatively at his coach. “Thanks Clive.” 

“Don’t mention it.” Clive dismissed as he set up the ball machine to a higher setting.

“No, I mean it. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well. You better not come crying to me when you’re suffering later.” His coach warned, but there was no heat behind his words. “It’s going to be a shock for you, if we’re going to train anything close to what you used to do.” 

“I know, I’m ready for it.” Robert said defiantly. 

 

Robert was nowhere close to ready. He had the unfortunate pleasure of finding out that ugly truth, curtesy of Ross flippin’ Barton in round one of the hard court grand slam. 

Barton didn’t just beat him. He completely and utterly schooled him on the court. Robert couldn’t get a foot in the match at all, one minute he just about won his first service game and the next the Australian had blitzed through and won all three sets, before Robert could even catch his breath properly. 

Robert knew that his return was going to be tough and he was going to be extremely rusty. But he had confidence that he could have made it through the match alright. That was before he looked at his side of the draw properly. His confidence soon drained when he saw that he was going to face the world number two. He knew then that the match would be a struggle.

Still, the gulf in class and ability between the two professionals was a giant eye opener for Robert. He was outclassed and outplayed on every count. Not only was Barton fitter than Robert, he was quicker and stronger, and the thing that hurt the most, he was younger – and it showed. Barton was a professional at the top of his game, in peak condition and brimming with confidence. Robert was the complete opposite. 

“C’mere” Vic asked with a sympathetic smile, when Robert walked off the court and made his way into the player changing rooms after the match. He was completely deflated and he welcomed the comforting hug straight away.

“I’ve humiliated myself.” He mumbled. 

“No, you haven’t. You played some good shots out there. There’s definitely positives to take out of it.” Vic said, nodding her head in encouragement and tried to smile brightly. 

(He lost the match 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, you’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find any sort of positivity out of that!)

“You told me it was too soon, and I ignored you like an idiot.” He sighed to Clive, completely disappointed and frustrated at himself for being so blind.

“It was always going to be difficult in the beginning. You’ve ripped off the plaster now, the worst is over. Learn from it and move on.”

“Vic’s right. Don’t be so hard on yourself, alright?” Clive said, with a friendly slap to Robert’s back. “You’ve just got to dig in, and you’ll get there.”

“In a year’s time. You’ll be back here and you will win the thing. I know it.”

Robert smiled, appreciative of her support. “Of course I will.” He laughed cynically, still unsure but he liked the thought. 

“Now that’s the kind of attitude I like.” Vic beamed.

 

 

January 2016

 

After the embarrassment of Flushing Meadows Robert didn’t look back. It was slow going at first, he lost a lot more matches, felt down and didn’t really enjoy being out on court, but he got stronger with every minute he played. 

It was around January time where things just seemed to click into place. He took his low ranking of 67 up to 39, and with the rise in rankings, Robert started to see the kinder side of tournament draws. He wasn’t drawing the top seeds as much now, which allowed him to really sink his teeth into the rounds, and he found himself regularly reaching third, fourth and even a few quarter final rounds of the ATP series. 

He wasn’t completely to full strength. His swerve was just short of the same power he used to produce, and he wasn’t quite at a hundred percent mobility on court still. But he was pleased, how could he not be? He was enjoying his tennis again and playing with a smile on his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so care free and happy on court. It made all the hard work he’d put into physio and training completely worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Robert hated clay courts. Always has done and always will. Clay courts are notoriously uncompromising – they take pace off Robert’s serve, slow down his footwork and take so much out of his game which relies on quick and snappy play. Why he was competing at Roland Garros then? God only knows.

Despite his hatred of the surface, Robert surprisingly hit the ground running and played some great tennis in the earlier rounds of the tournament. Before he knew it, he was preparing to play in a quarter final tie against none other than Ross Barton. He hadn’t played the younger athlete since his US Open thrashing. He was nervous, yet quietly determined to make sure what happened in New York did not happen in Paris as well.  

That being said, even he was shocked by the end result.  

From the moment his racquet hit the first ball, Robert dominated the match. He bossed the rallies, controlled the flow of the games and put constant pressure on the Australian’s serve – making his cocky opponent crumple on multiple occasions. It was all one way traffic, which saw him breeze through the first set and it looked like the second was going the same way.

Watching himself win point after point with ease, Robert knew with an unwavering certainty that he was back. He’d found his form again.

He could feel it in his mobility on the court. His movement free and comfortable, just like in his heyday.  

He could feel it in the power he was generating behind his shots. So pacey, not even the clay could hold them back – neither could Barton. 

He could feel it in the perfect precision of his serving. Sixty percent of his first balls were unreturned, and he collected a tally of eleven aces. 

He could feel it in the adrenaline buzzing through his limbs like wild fire. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in a long, long time and he was addicted once again.

The audience could feel too. Their palpable excitement was radiating from the stands and their cheers were deafening whenever he earned a point. The place erupted when he won the second set. 

Everyone knew the match was only swinging one way – Robert’s. Barton couldn’t live with him, and Robert felt like he was going to explode with uncontrollable emotion. 

No one could ever describe Robert Sugden as being a crier. He was too stubborn and proud to let himself shed a tear, or show any form of vulnerability on the court in the past. But sitting there in Paris, two sets up and only two service games away from taking the third (and winning the match) against the world number two – Robert felt completely overwhelmed. So much so, that he grabbed his towel from the seat next to him, held it up to his face and cried his eyes out for the whole world to see.

They were tears of happiness, of relief and of every emotion in between.

After a stern telling off from Clive, Robert quickly got his emotions under control again and managed to hold his nerve to win the final two service games – winning the match 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. He smiled cockily back at Barton when his beaten and sulking opponent barely shook his hand at the net. Getting through to his first grand slam semi final in over year was an amazing feeling. Beating the big mouthed twat who’d mocked him so mercilessly last time they met, just made it all the sweeter. He made sure to lap up every last drop of vindication.

 

Robert’s French Open excitement came to an unfortunate end when he narrowly lost the semi final to the world number one, Marek Kovačić. The result didn’t matter to Robert as much as you’d expect. For the first time in his career, he walked off the court after losing and felt immensely proud of himself, because the strides he made in the competition were massive and in a way, career defining. They more than made up for the disappointment he may feel for missing out on the final.

He’d laid down a marker in that tournament. There was no doubt in Robert’s or anyone else’s minds after Roland Garros that Robert was a contender again. 

Robert Sugden was back. And his next stop was Wimbledon...

 

“The fallen king has returned: An emotional Robert Sugden inspires at the French Open. Can the in-form Brit win Wimbledon?”  - ATP.com 

Chapter Text

“With the Wimbledon Championships beginning in two days’ time, we have brought ex British number one James Daniels into the studio this morning to help discuss all the big talking points ahead of the first round,” Sky Sports anchor Leyla Harding began, turning towards James Daniels to her right, who smiled politely back at her. “Morning James, thanks for joining us this morning.”

“Thanks for having me.”

“We’ll start with quite a disappointing point, that being the very poor showing for home grown players in the tournament this year,” Harding started, then momentarily looked down at her notes for some pointers, “There will be no British players on the Ladies’ side and only two Brits in the Men’s draw. That must be a huge concern for the Lawn Tennis Association and The All England Club?” 

“It is a concern for British tennis, that’s for sure,” Daniels agreed solemnly, “A lot of money and resources are put into nurturing, encouraging and ultimately producing British talent in the sport. The lack of athletes in the draw is a massive disappointment.”

“One of the two male Brits in the draw is Robert Sugden. The former world number one has had a very difficult year or so – especially when coming back from his right hip operation. But he was in fine form at Roland Garros only a few weeks ago. It’s really great to see him back, isn’t it?” 

“It is wonderful to see. And you’re right, Robert hasn’t had an easy year, and he really struggled when he first came back after his hip complications. He probably came back a bit too early, he wasn’t nearly fit enough to enter the US Open last September and he was made to pay the price by Ross Barton in the first round.”

“Robert has a very big following, they all seemed very concerned for him in the first month or so?” 

“And I was too. I, like many others saw that match against Barton and was extremely worried for Robert. He didn’t look half the player he once was and we all thought he was going to struggle. But credit to him, he has worked extremely hard, climbed up the rankings and started hitting some really great form. He was magnificent in Roland Garros three weeks ago. Only narrowly losing out to Marek Kovačić  in the semi – who has looked unplayable since he earned his top seeding. It’s very pleasing to see.”

“We could all see he became quite emotional towards the end of the third set of the French Open quarter final against Ross Barton. Do think that indicates that he’s not quite there yet, mentally?” 

“Robert picking himself up after his embarrassment at the US Open and pushing on like he has shown that he has the exact mental strength he needs.” Daniels responded, “I don’t believe him showing emotion on court was a negative thing. It shows just how much this sport means to him, and I will never criticise a player for showing passion.”

“If he continues the great form from Paris, do you think he has a good chance of winning his third Wimbledon title?” 

“If he brings that same level of performance, I don’t see why not. He’s an extremely talented tennis player, who knows exactly what it takes to win a title. I would never rule him out.”

“We’ll move onto our second British hopeful in the draw – Aaron Dingle – who of course has only recently come back from his twelve-month ban for illegal drug use. How impressed have you been with his return?”

“It is probably well established that I’m not the biggest fan of Aaron Dingle. I’ve always believed that his twelve-month ban for taking a Class A drug was a far too lenient punishment for the extremity of his wrongdoing… That being said, credit where credit is due, Aaron has been very good since his return, and deserves some praise.” 

“His journey to Wimbledon has been very different to Sugden’s. He had to come through not only qualifying, but pre-qualifying as well to reach the main draw. He had to show some great mental and physical resilience to get through what must have been an extremely tiring playing schedule. Do you think that bodes well for his chances in the main draw of the competition?” 

“Well it depends on which Aaron Dingle turns up, doesn’t it?” Daniels replied with a sceptical laugh. “If it’s the Aaron Dingle of 2013/2014, then I think he has a good shot at doing well. But if it’s the ill-disciplined and out of control Aaron Dingle we all unfortunately know so well, then I think we will all end up disappointed again.” 

“His faultless attitude since returning surely shows that the unprofessional behaviour which has plagued his career is a thing of the past?”

“For any other player I would say yes, it does. But I simply do not trust Aaron Dingle. The positive and professional attitude he is currently showing is great, but nothing new. We have been here before with Aaron. Seen him get his head straight and really knuckle down – like he did after the LTA pulled their funding for the third time early 2013 – only to see him ruin it all a year or so later. It is a consistent pattern of behaviour that we will no doubt see agai-”

Aaron turned off the TV in a huff, then threw the remote onto the coffee table in front of him with a little more force than necessary. He couldn’t listen anymore. 

“I don’t know why you bothered watching it in the first place. That bloke wasn’t ever going to say anything good about ya.” Cain scoffed out when he made his way across the hotel room and stood behind a fed-up Aaron sitting on the sofa.

His words weren’t a comfort, but Cain was right. James Daniels – the 2006 All England Club inductee and who seemed to be the president of the Aaron Dingle hate club – hadn’t ever had a good word to say about Aaron. Not even in his solid eighteen months of top form prior to Sydney. So, his less than favourable opinion of Aaron now didn’t come as a surprise, nor his criticism of the twelve month ban. No doubt, his fellow All England Club members shared the same view, if the fiasco they forced upon him in the pre-quallies and quallies a few weeks ago was anything to go by.

Still, regardless of how expected the words may have been, it didn’t make hearing the ex-professional and Aaron’s childhood hero’s words of hatred and distrust – spat so freely on the country’s biggest sporting channel – hurt any less. 

Aaron had woken up in the morning feeling anxious and jittery. He struggled at breakfast, finding it difficult to swallow past his nerves which were threatening to clamp his throat closed like a rapidly tightening noose. He thought watching the telly would have been a nice distraction... well clearly not. 

“Don’t worry what idiots like that Daniels say. Just let your performances do the talking alright?” Cain said authoritatively. Everything was so black and white with him, but not everyone had the same armour. 

“Yeah, I know.” Aaron sighed. Unable to keep the dejection he was feeling out of his voice.

“Right, well up you get, might as well get going yeah?” Cain said. He squeezed Aaron’s shoulders with both his hands, then picked up his training bag.  

“Yeah.” Aaron heaved himself off the sofa with a sigh, picked up his racquet bag and twisted his arms through the loops of the bulky rucksack. 

It wasn’t the weight of his heavy bag that was bearing down on his shoulders when he left his hotel room behind his uncle. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

“Are you okay?” Cain asked in the car. His eyes darted between the road, Aaron and back to the road quickly. They had been driving for twenty minutes now, yet Aaron hadn’t said a word. He couldn’t help but feel concerned. 

“Yeah. Yeah, just nervous.” Aaron replied with a half truth. His smile faltering.

“And that’s it? There’s nothing else?” His uncle asked patiently, eyes still darting between Aaron and the traffic ahead.

“Like what?” Aaron asked with a frown, but he knew what his uncle was getting at really. 

“I don’t know... you’ve just been quiet since that Sky Sports interview,” Cain said worriedly, “Please don’t take what Daniels said to heart.”

“I haven’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t great to hear, but I’ll get over it. It’s not a big deal.” Aaron dismissed quickly with a shrug of the shoulder. His eyes were avoiding Cain’s by purposefully looking out of the passenger window, not helping to convince his uncle.

“People like him don’t know you, they don’t know the real reason behind your actions, okay,” Cain said passionately, he hated how low his nephew thought of himself, “You’re not some waste of space like he or the press make out you are, always remember that.”

Aaron smiled back at his uncle, it was small and subdued, but appreciative all the same, “Yeah. I know.” 

“Good. You’re gonna prove them all wrong at this competition, I know it.” Cain continued his pep talk, but the soft ping of Aaron’s phone distracted Aaron momentarily. Reading the text message made him smile immediately. 

Liv: Good luck at training today big bro xxx

Justice hadn’t been the only light at the end of the dark and painful tunnel the trial created. Aaron also found his little sister again. Liv. The last time he’d seen her, she was only a little girl. Now she was an amazingly bright but gobby teenager, not unlike what Aaron was like at her age. Their relationship started off rocky – finding out she was testifying against Aaron wasn’t the greatest of reintroductions – but they moved past that and Aaron soon found out how great she was. She was could be a little pain in his arse, mind, but he loved her dearly and was so thankful that they were close now. 

Aaron: Thanks Liv x

Liv: Can I come to your first match? X 

Aaron: No x

Liv: Why not?!? X 

Aaron: You can’t miss out on school x 

Liv: It’s boring tho x 

Aaron rolled his eyes fondly. He lost count of how many times they had had this same conversation in recent weeks.

Aaron: But it’s important x 

Liv: I’m always giving it the big’un at school that my big brother is some cool tennis player, but I haven’t even seen him play live yet. It’s embarrassing x

Aaron: I’ll get you tickets if I survive until the weekend. I promise x 

Liv: There’s no if, you’re gonna smash it, I know it x

Liv: So I’m going to hold you to that! ;) x

Aaron: We’ll see x

Aaron felt the weight of low expectations lighten on his shoulders and the knot of nerves which gripped his insides like a chokehold loosen their grip over him, as he felt the warmth of Cain and now Liv’s support seep into his bones and clear the negative fog from his mind. It wasn’t the first time that he took strength from his family, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. The knowledge that they’d always have faith in him made him want to move mountains for them, and he soon found that the low rumblings of excitement and determination were building inside him. 

“Who’s got you smiling then?”

“Just Liv.” Aaron said, “She thinks I’m going to “smash it”” he quoted, fondly rolling his eyes at her encouraging words. 

“If you play to the level we all know you’re capable of, then I think you will.” 

Aaron nodded his head, even though he was still sceptical. He might not have shared the same level of unwavering confidence in his ability like his family did, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t looking forward to finding out how far he could go. He couldn’t wait.

“We’ll see.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

  

Aaron was practically buzzing like a live wire by the time him and Cain were making their way through the swanky facilities of Wimbledon – his racquet bag slung over one shoulder and his footsteps light and eager. 

He hadn’t been to Wimbledon since 2014 when he got knocked out in the second round by the crowd favourite and tennis legend David Metcalfe. He had been disappointed with the early exit and had promised himself to get further the year after. Though that chance never came. Instead, Aaron found himself banned from tennis and sat in a police interview room, finally reporting Gordon and drowning in the sea of haunting memories he had to share.

Watching the Wimbledon Championships had been a small comfort to him then. A much needed distraction that took his mind off of the impending trial and the dread of knowing he was weeks away from having to confront his darkest demons in a courtroom full of strangers. It also made him miss tennis so much. He watched the players go through the exhilarating highs of winning and then then the crushing lows of losing, wishing that he was a part of it too. 

And now he was back, and he was going to enjoy every second of it. 

“We’ll start with a lighter session today, yeah?” Cain suggested, walking through the doors of the induction area. “Don’t think we should push you too far after the qualifying rounds.”

“Sound.” Aaron shrugged without protest. Never one to shy away from an easier session. He was seconds away from collecting his player pass and locker key – his fingers in mid-air, a hair’s breadth away – when a voice interrupted his progress. 

“Mister Dingle, can I have a word please?” A young and well spoken member of staff had asked. Her badge said her name was Heather – Chief Assistant to Lawrence White.

“Alright.” Aaron said. Eyebrows then raising in an impatient “well go on then” face when she stayed silent.

“It’s probably best to go outside.” The assistant – Heather – eventually suggested. Her smile tight and awkward.

“Okay,” Aaron replied unsurely, emphasis on the “O”. He looked at Cain (who just shrugged back) then back to Lawrence White’s assistant with a confused frown. She was already making her way outside. 

Both men followed the assistant and she took them to one side. “Mister White and his fellow Club members have requested for you to complete a drugs test before you start training.” she explained, her overfriendliness bordered on patronising. 

Oh

It was a slap in the face, but it was also one of the “conditions” bestowed upon Aaron in light of his return from suspension. He could be drugs tested wherever and whenever the tournament hosts saw fit. It was a small, and truth be told, reasonable price to pay for his fuck up last year. Still, being forced to take a drugs test seconds after setting foot in the bloody place, was not the return to his favourite grand slam that Aaron had been hoping for.

For fucks sake, he hadn’t even picked up a racquet yet!

“What, now?”

“Yes, Mister Dingle.”

“Can’t I at least get my pass and locker sorted first?” Aaron asked frustratedly.

“I’m afraid Mister White insisted that the test be done before you enter the Wimbledon training facilities.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. Of course, he did. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.” he sighed rudely, too annoyed now for any niceties. 

He was just about to head back in the direction of the induction entrance, when Heather interrupted his stride, “Not that way Mister Dingle.” she said awkwardly. “If you follow me this way?” she asked, her hand pointing in the opposite direction. 

Aaron and Cain shared a pair of confused looks, neither making a move to follow. After a beat Cain nodded his head – a silent “just do it” sent Aaron’s way. 

Doing as his uncle said, Aaron followed the assistant – Cain hot on his heels. She lead him out of the player complex and guided him further and further away from the practice courts, until she finally came to a brisk holt outside a set of public toilets. 

“You can take the test in here.” the assistant said, waving her hand in the direction of the toilets behind her. 

Aaron laughed humourlessly and shook his head in disbelief. The All England Club hadn’t exactly hidden their hatred of Aaron thus far. The obstacles they threw his way in attempt to keep him as far away from their tournament made that perfectly clear. But this latest attempt at a power move had taken their transparent discrimination to a whole new level of ridiculousness. 

They clearly wanted to embarrass him by bringing him here. Wanted to ostracise and shame him like an unwelcome criminal. He hated them for it. 

“No toilets back there by the practice courts then?” Aaron asked sarcastically, mouth downturned and arms tightly folded across his chest.

The assistant threw an awkward smile Aaron’s way, then had to shuffle back to let a member of the public walk into the toilets behind her. “Mister White believed you would prefer the privacy – away from your competitors.” 

Her attempt at justification fell flat, bless her. 

Aaron scoffed. “Yeah, cos this is completely discreet innit?” he fired back and opened his arms out to highlight their surroundings. There were members of public loitering around everywhere. Just finishing their early lunches before going back to watch their favourite players practice. He could feel their intrigued eyes watching on, probably pleased to have a front row seat for Aaron Dingle’s newest shame.

Aaron could feel humiliation colouring his cheeks and slowing spreading down to his neck.

At least the assistant had the decency to look guilty by the whole affair, but unpacked a urine sample kit and extended her hand for Aaron to take it nonetheless. “It’s just a quick urine sample. Once it’s done you can be on your way.” she tried to encourage.

Aaron stared at her extended hand, however, he made no attempt to take the kit from her. 

“Just do it Aaron.” Cain sighed heavily. He too was fuming at the Club’s attempt to humiliate Aaron, but the sooner his nephew did the deed, the sooner they could start on what they were there for – to prepare for Aaron’s first round match.

Aaron let out an angry breath, then like the good, well behaved and most importantly, clean professional he was, he snatched the kit out of the assistant’s hand and stormed off to the men’s toilet without any further complaint.  

Cain was sitting on a bench not far from the toilets when Aaron walked up towards him, slumped shouldered and mouth downturned. “Alright?” Cain asked.  

Aaron nodded his head, “Yeah.” he sighed, then passed the envelope containing his sealed urine sample over to the assistant. “Here, knock yourself out.”

She hurried off the moment the package was in her hand, no doubt scurrying off to report back to Lawrence White.

“You’re gonna have to get used to that, you know.” They weren’t exactly the words Aaron wanted to hear at that time.

“Yeah I know,” Aaron agreed, scratching at his short beard and worrying the corner of his bottom lip between his teeth.

He had been buzzing when he first walked into the building, and now he felt the complete opposite. The whole fiasco only a moment ago, felt a lot like a rude awakening. An ugly eye opener. That, coupled with the less than favourable character reference he received this morning on Sky Sports, made it abundantly clear to Aaron that he would never be allowed to forget or ever move on from the mistake he made last year. Regardless of how well he had played since his return and will play in the future, and no matter how many drug tests he will pass, his past will always hang over him. It will always follow him around, like an albatross around his neck.

He was a pariah to his sport, and he couldn’t help but feel completely downhearted by it. 

“Come on sunshine. Let’s get to work.” Cain said with a false cheer. “We’ll be lucky if any of the courts with be available now.” 

Aaron swallowed down his emotions and nodded his head defiantly. He had no other choice but to get on with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

They were only five minutes away from Wimbledon when Robert’s nerves started bubbling away like tiny butterflies in his stomach. He had always loved Wimbledon, it was his favourite grand slam and it would always be special to him. However, for all the excitement he was feeling about being back there, there was also the faintest whispers of pressure too.  

He used to excel under pressure. Used to welcome it with open arms and a cocky smile that no one could wipe off his face. With his career, he had to be that way. 

At twenty years of age Robert was bestowed the crown of Britain’s great tennis hope. No British tennis player had won a grand slam title for over seven decades then, and the nation believed they finally found the chosen one to carry the weight of their hopes and dreams in the shape of Robert Sugden – A boy barely out of his teens and only just learning what the world looked like beyond the postage-stamp sized village he grew up in. 

The pressure might have been too much to handle for other lads his age, not for Robert though. He was eager, hungry, driven and truth be told, a smidge bit arrogant too. He took what could have been an overwhelming burden and transformed it into something to find strength and success in. 

Forty-five career titles were proof of how well he put that tactic into practice. 

Things were different now though. Robert was a different man and a different player – post injury, then rehabilitation. He was older too. There was so much more at stake for him now. He didn’t have the endless amount of years ahead of him anymore, so he knew he had to grab his opportunities with both hands and keep a vice-like grip for as long as possible. Wimbledon this year was no different. 

That knowledge brought a whole new level of pressure that Robert was uncomfortably unfamiliar with. He felt almost sick with nerves.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed. 

“I know what you’re like, you. You over think this stuff. But just look at this and Roland Garros as being stepping stones to building your confidence,” Vic said, reading the nerves on Robert’s face. 

“Yeah.” Robert replied. Swallowing past his anxiety – it was getting harder and harder to do.

“Remember, your real aim is to win the US Open, so just do your best here and pick up the points... you’ll probably break into the top twenty after this,” Victoria continued her pep talk.  

“Yeah.”

“However far you get is fine. There’s no pressure, just go out there and enjoy your tennis,” she encouraged with a smile. She made it sound so easy.

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Robert denied quickly, letting his fidgety fingers tip tap out a rhythmless beat against the steering wheel.

“What’s with the monosyllabic answers then?”

“I – I could just do without the mother hen thing you’ve got going on at the moment, alright?” Robert said impatiently. The words snapping out harsher than they were meant to. 

Vic scoffed, completely unimpressed by her brother’s outburst. “And I could do without the grumpy git thing you’ve got going on.” she fired back sarcastically, “But you don’t see me biting your head off though, do you?” 

Robert sighed, feeling guilty. “Sorry Vic, I don’t mean to take it out on you. But I feel nervous enough as it is, and all the talk about pressure and stuff, it’s making me feel worse.” he admitted, taking his eyes momentarily off the road and onto his sister, then back in front of him again. 

“But that’s the point I’m trying to make. You don’t have to feel nervous.” Vic said frustratedly. 

“Vic has a point you know.” Clive chimed in from the backseat and Robert just about held back from scoffing. Clive’s the biggest worrier Robert’s ever met, he had some front. 

Thank you, Clive,” Vic said pointedly, her eyebrows raised as she stared back at Robert smugly. “See. I know what I’m talking about.”

Robert playfully rolled his eyes, then flicked his eyes back to his sister momentarily, “Remind me why you’re here again?” he teased, then let out a breathy laugh as Vic took a swipe at his arm, “Oi, watch it. I’m driving here!”

“You ungrateful wretch. I’m the only person mad enough to take care of your PR.”  

“True...” Robert said with exaggerated consideration, “You know, for a second there I thought you might be some award winning sports psychiatrist. What with all that career changing advice you’ve just given me.” he quipped, face smirking when he saw Victoria’s jaw drop in mock offence. 

“Shut up,” Vic said, face caught between a frown and a smile, “I was just trying to help you.” 

And in a mad way, she had. He felt lighter all of a sudden, and thankfully, less like a giant ball of nerves. 

Maybe Vic was right. He probably didn’t need to worry after all... He wasn't ever going to tell her that, mind. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

“What will you do if you see Chrissie?” Vic asked beside Robert, her big hazel eyes full of concern.

They had just left Robert’s Porsche in the player’s car park and were now walking towards the main reception. They were in Chrissie’s domain now, so it was highly likely that he was going to bump into his ex at some point.  

“Pretend she doesn’t exist,” Robert said with a shrug, “And if I manage to win the thing, then I’m going to rub it in her face like there’s no tomorrow.” he said with a crooked smirk. 

The All England Club was Chrissie and Lawrence’s pride and joy. Lawrence was the chairman of the prestigious members only club, Chrissie was his heir apparent. Robert winning their tournament for all the world to see, would hurt Chrissie more than anything. 

He could already imagine what their faces would look like if he did in fact win Wimbledon. It was an image he was desperate to make a reality.  

“She deserves a slap in the face n’all, for what she did to you.” Vic said, her hatred for her ex future sister-in-law clouding her voice, making Robert smile. 

He didn’t disagree. He could still feel the phantom echoes of the humiliation he felt the day Chrissie outed him. He wasn’t ashamed of his bisexuality like he was back then, though, that didn’t make the memory any less skin crawlingly awful to remember. He would enjoy every second of payback.

“They both didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory though, did they?” Clive stated, matter of fact, and he immediately went quiet under the intimidating sight of a matching pair of Sugden death stares.

“It’s no excuse for what she did.” Vic fired back adamantly.

“No, it’s not. That’s why I will make sure to milk winning Wimbledon for all it’s worth.” Robert promised. 

“Her face would be a picture.” Vic said with satisfaction. 

“Yeah, it would.”

Robert winning Wimbledon and getting a bit of revenge was a bit pie in sky at that point. It didn’t hurt to dream though, did it?  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

The first day of training at any grand slam was always reminiscent of a testosterone filled pissing contest. Both days of training were an opportunity for all to puff out their chests and show their competition exactly what they’re made of. 

The Robert of old used to enter the practice courts with his head held high, a smug smile plastered across his face and an air of uncompromising confidence oozing from his every pour. He thought he was the best – no, he knew he was the best and he wasn’t ever afraid to show it.

Robert missed that version of himself. 

Don’t get Robert wrong, he thanked his lucky stars every day that he was back to playing tennis, injury free and feeling good about himself again. But he missed the arrogant and cock sure nature he used to wear like amour and the invincibility it inevitably brought with it.

He looked around at his fellow athletes training on the other courts. There were the new stars of the sport, fresh faced and hungry for success, just like he had been at their age. There were also the regulars, or the old guard as Robert liked to call them. They were the ones Robert had spent a decade or more touring the ATP circuit with. Some of the best moments of Robert’s life were when he beat them to grand slam glory, some of his worst were when he lost to them.

Young or experienced, they were all his competition. He wondered if they even considered him in the same way. 

Two years ago, there wouldn’t have been any doubt in Robert’s mind.   

Clive unfortunately, was in one of his particularly smothering moods so far. Worrying and fussing over Robert’s every puffed breath or small groan. He appreciated that his coach cared, of course he did, but Robert’s return to the tennis was almost a year ago now. If his body hadn’t keeled over then, it probably wasn’t going to do it now. Clive needed to back off. 

He just finished a particularly physical practice match with a Hungarian qualifier. It felt good to get his lungs working and blood pumping, yet Clive saw the exertion as being one step too far and suggested going to lunch. Robert saw an opening.

He told Clive that he would catch up with him and Victoria after a five-minute breather – that had been an hour and ten minutes ago. He decided to use the little bit of freedom to practice his serving. He always found the sound of the loud crack of his racquet strings meeting the top spinning balls of his serves almost therapeutic and took satisfaction in the fact he could now crank his serves up to his average speed of 140 mph again.

He just clocked in a serve of 139 mph when his stomach rumbled loudly, signalling the end of his session. It was when he was wrapping up that he felt a pair of eyes on him. 

Looking up, he found that the pair of eyes belonged to none other than Aaron Dingle. The younger man looked slightly startled before he looked down at the floor. Clearly embarrassed at being caught staring.

“Like what you see?” Robert quipped loudly, full of confidence and flirty. 

Aaron huffed out a laugh and shook his head, amused by the older man’s arrogance, “Not bad, I suppose.” he fired back, his voice attractively gruff. 

Intrigued by the younger man, Robert volleyed the tennis ball that he was holding away and made his way over to Aaron who was hovering awkwardly at the sidelines. He must have arrived to practice late and was now waiting for one of the courts to free up. “You can have this court if you like?” he said with his right thumb pointing to the court behind him. 

“Nah, that’s alright. I don’t want to rush ya.” Aaron said quickly.

“You’re not rushing me. I was gonna go for lunch anyway.” Robert insisted with a genuine smile.

After a few short paces, he finally came to a stop in front of the other man, and he was suddenly left speechless by just how attractive he was.  

He never really paid much attention to Aaron in previous years. His much publicised antics and negative reputation for being out of control and a “lad’s lad” had always been a huge turn off, so Robert barely gave him a second glance. He couldn’t help but notice just how gorgeous the younger man was now. His fit body was broad and powerful – made all the more mouth-watering by his tight-fitting black training gear. His handsome face was framed by a strong jawline, which was attractively actuated by a light stubble. And his eyes – his eyes were the brightest blue Robert had ever seen. They had a beautiful strength to them as they stared back at Robert, before lighting up slightly as he smiled, “Thanks.”

“No worries.” Robert insisted, then proceeded to pack away his racquet and water bottles. He could see the younger athlete out of the corner of his eye, watching Robert whilst he did it. Feeling his eyes on him made the pinpricks of lust ghost across Robert’s skin like a lightning bolt. He hadn’t felt this attracted to someone in a long, long time.

He slung the racquet bag over his shoulder, ready to leave, but he found he didn’t want to rush. “What time do you call this then, Dingle?” he found himself asking, accidently flirty and made even more so by the accompanying teasing smile.

Aaron huffed out a laugh. “Fashionably late innit,” he nonchalantly replied, shrugging his shoulders and mouth – A move of such natural and casual “I don’t give a fuck” confidence. It should have infuriated Robert, yet, coming from the man standing in front of him, it did anything but. Want and lust were licking at his insides like wild fire. 

“Right.” Robert laughed, then bit his lip. “Not good for first impressions though is it?” he said, brow creased with a playful frown.  

“I don’t care what people think of me.” Aaron said with that same confident shoulder and mouth shrug, but a hint of a smirk was pulling at the corners of the younger man’s mouth – drawing Robert’s attention to his pink and appealing lips. 

He was too attractive for his own good. 

“Besides, it’s not like it was by choice.” Aaron added vaguely, but with a hint of bite to his words.

Robert frowned slightly in confusion. “Meaning?” 

“Got side-tracked by our wonderful hosts welcoming party.” Aaron explained, voice dripping with sarcasm. “A drugs test.” he clarified after a moment, reading the confusion on Robert’s face.   

“Oh… right-” Robert stumbled out. Taken slightly aback by the answer.

Aaron’s visibly cringed at his own confession and Robert’s reaction to it. He immediately avoided Robert’s eye by awkwardly picking at the taut strings of his tennis racquet. He clearly wasn’t proud of last year’s mistake.

Robert found he wanted to show the younger man some support. Wanted to see him smile again. 

“You’re gonna pass it though, so they’re going to be wasting their time eh?” Robert said lightly, cutting through the awkwardness that their conversation had suddenly veered towards.

Aaron’s head snapped up, surprised by Robert’s belief in him. “Yeah. Yeah, definitely.” he agreed defiantly.  

“Good.” Robert nodded and Aaron smiled back, it was a small and soft thing. “And you’re okay now, yeah?” Robert asked, “I mean – I heard about the gruelling qualifying they made you play this year?” he added in explanation.  

Aaron nodded, “It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. But I appreciate every minute I have on court, after being out for so long.” he said with an endearing smile.  

Robert nodded his head in understanding. He knew all too well how painful it could be to not be able to play. Sure, unlike Robert’s, Aaron’s exile from tennis had been self-inflicted, but that didn’t mean that the forced absence hurt the younger athlete any less than it did Robert. “I know what you mean.” 

“And are you alright? You had hip surgery, didn’t you?” 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m really good – the best I’ve been in ages actually.” Robert said truthfully. “It was really hard at first – don’t know how I got through it – but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” 

“Good.” Aaron said, genuinely pleased, “You would never think you’ve only recently come back from surgery, the way you completed those drills earlier.” he added encouragingly, making Robert smile smugly. How long had Aaron been watching him?

He was about to reply with some cocky retort about Aaron eyeing him up, when a voice impatiently cut through their little bubble, “Aaron we’re not here so you can have a mother’s meeting with Sugden, so wrap it up, yeah? We’ve wasted enough time as it is!” 

“Alright Cain. Wait a minute.” Aaron shouted back, clearly finding the older man’s impatience amusing.

“Is that your coach?”

“Yeah,” Aaron nodded, eyes on his coach who was watching their exchange with intense impatience. “Cain, he’s my uncle n’all.” he explained with a fond smile on his face. 

“Does he always look like he wants to murder someone?” 

Aaron chuckled at that. “That’s just his face’s default setting. Don’t worry, it’s not personal.” he joked, “We’ve had to wait almost an hour for a court, so he’s in a right mood.” 

Suddenly Robert remembered how the younger man had been waiting for a court to free up, and immediately felt guilty for holding him up. “Oh god, sorry. I’ve been chatting away when all you want to do is train.” Robert apologised quickly, “I best be off and leave you to it.”

“Nah you’re alright mate. He’s just impatient.” Aaron said, looking back at Robert with sincerity, “Thanks though. For the court.”

He smiled that small and soft smile again, the one that made Robert feel weak at the knees.  

He heard a lot about the younger man during the course of his troubled career – a lot of unsavoury and dislikeable things. Yet, that careless, volatile, thuggish chav clearly wasn’t the man standing in front of him. There was something endearing and incredibly likeable about Aaron Dingle. Robert couldn’t stop the rush of attraction and fondness for the other man from developing.  

He found that he wanted to get to know this Aaron Dingle – the real Aaron. 

“Don’t worry about it. Us Brits need to stick together eh?” Robert winked, nudging Aaron’s arm. He felt his pulse spike at the contact.

(What was wrong with him? Aaron was probably straight.)

“True.” Aaron smiled. “I’ll see ya tomorrow then, yeah?” he asked, the hopeful tone in his voice made Robert’s limbs feel like jelly.

“Yeah. I’ll see ya.” Robert agreed. He was going to make sure of it.

He slowly made his way around Aaron and out of the court, making a beeline for the canteen area. He knew he was going to be met with a very unimpressed Clive, but he didn’t care. His amazing but fleeting encounter with Aaron Dingle justified the white lie. 

Unable to help himself, he turned around to get a last look, only to find that Aaron was looking back at him. Unmoved from the spot he’d been standing in previously and clearly not taking a blind bit of notice to his uncle’s instructions. 

Aaron looked down the moment their eyes met across the courts, all shy and endearing – making Robert smirk.  

There was no denying it. Robert liked Aaron Dingle – a lot…

(By the time Robert reached the canteen area, he came to the disappointing conclusion that the younger man was probably straight.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

“That was some breather you had.” Clive greeted him sarcastically. “I brought the cavalry in case you keeled over somewhere.” he added, cocking his head towards Ed. His physio and Victoria were sitting opposite his coach.

“Sorry, got chatting to Aaron Dingle. We were comparing training gear and stuff.” Robert said, the lie slipping out with ease. He sat down beside his coach and dug into his food without blinking an eye. 

“Training gear?” Clive asked sceptically, “For an hour and a half?”

“Yeah.” Robert shrugged, “He doesn’t have any sponsored gear, so…” Robert trailed off. Thankful that his brain quickly supplied him with the image of Aaron’s muscle hugging black training gear, there hadn’t been a logo in sight.

“I’m not surprised. Who’s going to want to sponsor an ex coke head.” Clive scoffed unkindly, making Robert frown. 

“He took cocaine once Clive, that hardly makes him a coke head.”

“He probably did it more than once.” Clive argued back. Robert shook his head in disagreement.

“Why are you sticking up for him anyway, I thought you hated him?” Vic asked. Her eyes were narrowed, like she was trying to figure something out.

“I’ve never hated him,” Robert denied unconvincingly. He had hated Aaron before. Before when he was just a notorious name, wasting his talent away whilst Robert was stuck at home, half crippled. Now, he was the man with the soft smile and beautiful eyes, regretful for his past mistake. He deserved to have someone on his side.

“You should watch yourself around him Robert.” Ed said so seriously, snapping Robert out of his thoughts. The over exaggerated graveness was almost comical.

“Jesus Ed, we were only talking about training gear. You make it sound like he’s going to be leading me astray or something.” Robert scoffed.

“He’s trouble.” Ed said simply.

“And why’s that?” Robert threw back, feeling offended on Aaron’s behalf.

“Trust me Robert, I know him.” Ed said with bitterness.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, I got to know him pretty well when I dated him.” Ed said with a knowing frown.

Robert felt his brain short circuit and recalibrate in a split second.

Aaron Dingle isn’t straight? 

“You-you dated Aaron Dingle?” 

“Yeah,” Ed shrugged.

“When?” Robert asked, hoping his unwarranted jealousy didn’t come through in his voice. And he deliberately chose to ignore the funny look Vic was sending his way – it was caught between a frown and a smirk. She couldn’t know what he was thinking, could she?

“I don’t know, three years ago maybe.” Ed shrugged again, “You must remember me talking about an ex called Aaron? – The one who was a complete nightmare?”

Robert tried to think back to the few conversations he and Ed had had about their love lives down the years. He unfortunately came up blank. It wasn’t a surprise. Truth be told, Robert found Ed to be a complete and utter bore – harmless, but a bore all the same. His words tended to go in one ear and out the other.

“No,” he admitted quietly, his mind going a mile a minute. 

Aaron Dingle dates blokes

Robert thought maybe he misread the lingering looks and warm smiles Aaron had thrown his way earlier – wishful thinking maybe clouding his judgement. With this new bit of information, Robert now knew he hadn’t. He felt the pulse of excitement spike in his veins, and he couldn’t hold back the smile which spread across his face.

A window of opportunity had opened, and Robert wasn’t going to bother trying to pretend to himself that he wasn’t going to try and take it. Because Aaron Dingle dated blokes and Robert wanted him. 

Robert had the feeling Aaron felt the same.

Chapter Text

“You’re in an incredibly good mood this morning.” Vic observed with a knowing smirk when Robert made his way into the kitchen. His sister was sitting by the breakfast bar, her head resting on her closed fist and her eyes looking mischievous. “What’s got you all smiley then? Or should I say who?” she added, emphasis on the last word – making Robert temporarily stop in his tracks, feeling almost caught out.

Robert was in a good mood. He had an enjoyable and restful sleep the night before, dreaming of soft blue eyes and raven dark hair. It left him waking up with an uncontrollable smile on his face and a spring to his step. He’d practically been skipping about the town house he had hired for the tournament from the moment he got up. 

“Can’t I just be excited that I’m back at Wimbledon?” he asked, not willing to let his sister in on the real reason why he was so happy.

“Yeah you could,” Vic agreed lightly, watching Robert prepare his porridge and fruit, “But we both know the real reason why you’re in such a good mood.”

Robert rolled his eyes and sat down beside Vic. “Go on, seeing as you’re so knowledgeable, why am I?” he asked with a playful sigh. 

“Aaron Dingle.” Vic said with a triumphant smile.

His sister knew Robert far too well. She had hit the nail right on the head with two simple words and they both knew it. Robert could feel his pulse jackhammer in his veins at just hearing his bloody name. “What about him?” 

Vic pulled a face, “Don’t be boring Rob, you know exactly what.” she smiled, and Robert just shrugged his shoulders, trying to save some face. 

“I don’t know what you mean.” he replied purposefully ignorant, then took a large spoonful of his breakfast.

“You fancy him.”

“What? No, I don’t.” he lied – badly. He did fancy Aaron – well, it was more than just that. The younger man had managed to get right under Robert’s skin (even in their far too short encounter). He’d never experienced such a visceral and instant attraction to someone before. Aaron was different and Robert knew it… But he preferred not to discuss that or the fact that he wanted to get into Aaron Dingle’s pants with his little sister.

“Oh, come off it, Rob. You were practically fist pumping the air when you found out Ed dated him.” Victoria quite rightfully pointed out, her eyebrows raised teasingly, “There’s nothing wrong with fancying him you know, he’s a good-looking guy.” she added with a shrug.

Robert scoffed. “You sure you’re not the one who fancies him, seeing as you think he’s so good looking?” 

Vic shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Nah, you’re alright. I’m very happy with Ellis, thank you very much.”

“Shame that.” Robert quipped.

Vic slapped Robert’s arm, who dramatically groaned in pain, “Shut it, you. Ellis is great, so I won’t hear a bad word against him, alright?” she reprimanded firmly with a menacingly pointed finger aimed towards Robert – she looked the spitting image of their mother, a vision that warmed Robert’s heart to see.

“Anyway, I know what you’re doing Rob, you’re just trying to change the subject. But I ain’t falling for it.” Vic said with a smug satisfaction, “So let’s get back to discussing you and your little crush.”

“It’s not a little crush.”

“Fine, a big one then?”

Robert snorted, amused by his sister’s insistent teasing, “It’s not even… Even if I do fancy him – which I don’t, by the way – why are you so interested?” he asked laughingly. 

“Rob, you’re my brother, of course I’m interested.” Vic replied, her tone making it sound like it was the most obvious answer in the world and Robert was an idiot for even asking. “Plus, I know how hard it was for you to come out last year, so seeing you comfortable enough to date a man would be lovely.” she added with a warm smile, her teasing tone gone; sincerity and pride present instead.

He smiled warmly back at his sister, still bowled over by her unconditional support. He really did love her. “Thanks Vic.” he said, squeezing her arm affectionately. 

He hadn’t really put much thought into dating men – or women for that matter – since he came out to Vic last August. His training and return to tennis had taken up all of Robert’s concentration and time, with little room for much else. So dating had been the last thing on his mind. There would have been a time, however, that Vic’s suggestion of openly dating a man would have been an impossible option for Robert, something to be embarrassed by or repel away from, but not now. He’d come a long way since those days of denial and self-hatred. It really was so refreshing and liberating to not feel ashamed of his sexuality like that anymore. And to know he had his family’s support made it all the better.

“Are you going to see Aaron today then?” Vic asked suddenly, overly casual as she quickly took a bite out of her slice of toast. It could only be construed as fishing.

“Dunno, maybe,” Robert replied non-committally, shrugging his shoulders as indifferently as possible. The fact that Robert had every intention of seeing the younger man again today was left unspoken. No way was he willing to admit that to Victoria. He wouldn’t hear the bloody end of it.

“Maybe the both of ya can talk about your training gear again eh?” Vic added, the sarcasm dripping from her words not going unnoticed by her brother. Robert frowned in faux confusion. “Come on Rob, as excuses go, that was a pretty poor one – for your standards anyway.”

“It was the truth,”

Vic hummed in disapproval, “Yeah right.” she said disbelieving, but good-naturedly. “You were gone for over an hour.” 

“Well I trained on my own for a bit first, alright,” Robert confessed. He caught the questioning look on Vic’s face and quickly added, “Clive was doing my head in and I needed some space for a bit… Don’t tell him I said that by the way?” He could already envision Clive’s reaction and how their inevitable conversation would go – the same way as every other time Robert had brought up the subject since his returned from injury. A dead end.

“I barely spoke to Aaron.” he then threw in offhandedly, hoping Vic would finally drop the grilling.

“You “barely spoke to him” yet you still managed to fall head over heels in love with him. That’s impressive.” No such luck then!

His sister was relentless like a dog with a bone, Robert couldn’t help but be amused by it, “You know, sometimes I think I’m working with the wrong sibling,” Robert threw back lightly. Wanting to steer the conversation away from his ridiculously fast developed feelings for Aaron Dingle, and decided that winding Vic up would be the best way to do that. “Andy wouldn’t be bullying me like this.” 

Vic scoffed, “If Andy worked for you, you wouldn’t be here now to be bullied. He’d have strangled you years ago.” Vic laughed out with a smile.

“True.” Robert agreed with a shrug and a smile of his own – not offended by Vic’s statement in the slightest. He was just relieved that his diversion worked. Talk of Andy’s hatred for Robert was much more comfortable and familiar ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Eventually Victoria quit her relentless ribbing and Robert was left to eat the rest of his breakfast in peace. That was until Clive suggested to start the day with a light gym session instead of the more desired route of going straight to the Wimbledon practice courts. He was secretly reluctant, knowing the gym stoppage would cut into the time he could be spending with Aaron Dingle, though he agreed with his coach all the same.

He went through the motions with Ed in the gym. Following his physio’s instructions and suggestions to the letter – even if his mind was elsewhere. Aaron Dingle had ignited something deep within Robert and he couldn’t fight against it. He imagined that what he was feeling was close to how an would addict feel, craving and desperate for their next fix.

He still enjoyed his time in the gym though. The exercise got his endorphins going, muscles aching pleasantly, and it nicely reminded him of the fact that his right hip was still as good as gold.

Two of hours in the gym done, Robert showered, changed into his training gear and met up with Clive again. It was going on half ten by the time Robert and his team made their way to Wimbledon.

“Make sure to work on your back hand today, yeah? I noticed that your shoulder movement wasn’t as loose as it should be yesterday.” Clive commented as he and Robert made their way from the car park and were just about to reach the practice court area.

Robert didn’t answer the older man, he was too distracted because his eyes caught sight of a familiar dark brown head in one of the courts ahead of them. “Robert?” 

“Huh – Sorry, yeah I’ll work on it.” he agreed absentmindedly, ripping his eyes away from Aaron and turning towards his coach.

“Are you okay? You’ve been away with the fairies all morning.”

“I’m fine – just excited about tomorrow.” Robert deflected, unable to stop his eyes from pinging back to Aaron’s figure in the distance.

Clive smiled in relief, “Good. You’ve worked so hard to get back to this level, make sure you enjoy it.” he said kindly with a fond slap to Robert’s shoulder.

“I will-”

“You have some nerve, showing your face here after what you did!” A voice – Robert had the unfortunate pleasure of knowing so well – growled from behind him. Interrupting their conversation and halting both Robert and Clive’s steps.

“Just ignore him-” Clive tried to warn, but Robert didn’t take heed and shrugged off the light grip Clive had on his forearm.

Robert quickly turned on his heels – jaw already painfully clenched – to find Lawrence staring back at him like he was some sewer vermin that had crawled his way into the grounds. The repulsion was mutual, Robert always hated the pathetic old git.

“Well I’m a tennis player, playing in a tennis competition, that I’m automatically eligible for. So no, I don’t have a nerve at all – it’s pretty standard stuff actually.” Robert replied through gritted teeth. 

Undeterred, Lawrence ignored Robert’s explanation and took an aggressive step closer, “Any decent person would have stayed away. That was the least that Chrissie was owed after what you did to her!” the older man spat, “But how stupid of me to forget, you don’t have a decent bone in your body, do you?” the older man added, looking Robert up and down with pure disgust. 

“After what she did to me, I don’t owe Chrissie anything!” Robert sneered back. There was a time when Robert felt guilty for cheating on Chrissie and never apologising for it, but that feeling soon died in the aftermath of Chrissie’s spiteful revenge. Her malicious voice sneering the words – “I think we’re even now, don’t you?” – after she'd burned Robert's world to ashes echoed in his head like a bad dream.

Yeah, he didn’t owe her a fucking thing. 

“You deserved exactly what Chrissie did to you, and more!” Lawrence growled. His finger pointed and accusatory as it pressed roughly into Robert’s chest, his face millimetres away from Robert’s.

“Lawrence-” Clive began to Robert’s left, Robert spoke over him.

“I deserved to be outed against my will, did I?!” Robert laughed humourlessly, unable to stop his voice from rising when frustration and anger got the better of him. “Would you like it if someone outed you the same way?” he asked through a hiss, swatting Lawrence finger away from him and getting into his face.

“You are both being ridiculous,” Clive chastised, “Stop this, before you start drawing people’s attention!” His words of caution fell by the wayside though, both men ignored him like he wasn’t even there.

Lawrence laughed unpleasantly, eyes locked on Robert, “I’m nothing like you Robert-”

“You sure about that?” Robert goaded, smile smug and eyes piercing.

Chrissie had told Robert all about the not so secret affairs Lawrence had had with fellow married men before she was born. He’d also seen the lustful looks Lawrence had gullibly thrown his way, thinking he was being subtle, before Robert and Chrissie started dating. The older man was far from straight like he claimed. 

“-I don’t shamefully sleep around with anything that moves.”

Robert felt the jibe to his bisexuality like a stab to the gut. It must have showed on his face as a triumphant and wicked smirk cracked across Lawrence’s – he knew he landed a successful hit.

Robert brushed it off as best he could, determined not to let Lawrence win.

“You’re right, you’re not like me. You’re worse,” Robert fought back with fire, “You’re so in denial, it’s a joke. Everyone but you can see that you’re a sad old fool, who’s pathetically hiding his sexuality by leeching onto his daughters’ lives like a bad smell.” he sneered, enjoying the sight of Lawrence’s arrogant face melting against his cutting words, “You think I’m shameful? How about you take a look at yourself.”

Lawrence took a shuddering breath – like Robert’s words had been a physical blow that winded him – before taking a couple of unsure steps back, “You’re a despicable excuse for a human being, Robert,” he said shakily. The obvious cracks in his voice made the insult not quite land as hurtfully as he no doubt intended. “Stay away from my daughter.”

Knowing he lost the battle that he started, Lawrence sheepishly walked away from Robert and Clive – no doubt looking to nurse his wounded pride elsewhere. 

Not done yet, Robert smugly shouted towards his retreating back, “Oh don’t worry, I don’t plan of going anywhere near her… until the both of ya’s are handing me the Wimbledon trophy in the final, that is!”

Lawrence didn’t respond to Robert’s goading. He just carried on his way and Robert savoured the sweet taste of victory. 

“Was that necessary?” Clive asked when Robert turned his attention back towards his coach.

“He started it!” Robert said, exasperated.

“Yes, but you didn’t have to bite, did you?” Clive’s voice was heavy with disappointment, “You made yourself just as bad as him!” he added, his head jerking in the direction Lawrence had fled to.

Robert was about to reply when the sound of raised voices stopped the retort from leaving his lips. His eyes followed the direction of the sound and fell upon a sight that made his pulse stop. 

He found his legs were moving before his brain could think twice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Aaron woke up with the biggest smile on his face, that not even his six o’clock alarm could wipe off. He tried to tell himself as he sleepily laid in bed that the happiness he felt was simply because he was back at Wimbledon and had got a good training session under his belt the previous day. Deep down though, he knew that wasn’t entirely true. Those two points were a bonus, but there was only one real reason for his positive mood and that reason was Robert Sugden.  

The blonde man had taken Aaron by surprise the day before. He had seen the comments the older man had made about Aaron and his failed drugs test last year, so expected him to be just as judgemental and unforgiving as the rest of the tennis world. Yet, Robert had been the complete opposite. He was friendly and kind for giving Aaron his court, and then surprisingly supportive after Aaron awkwardly let slip about his embarrassing drugs test. 

Aaron had felt low after the terrible morning he had had. But that negatively slowly washed away with every second he had spent in the blonde’s company and soon enough he felt himself feeling lighter and his burdens were soon forgotten. He should have been raring to go after waiting so long for a court, but he found he didn’t want their conversation to end – to the point he was even willing to ignore Cain’s pestering, so he could speak to Robert just that bit longer.

After a couple of minutes of basking in the enjoyable reminder, Aaron finally heaved himself out of bed and trudged himself across his small hotel room to the bathroom. Hoping a shower would help wake him up more. 

He, Cain and Paddy were staying in a small Travelodge close to Fulham for the duration of the Wimbledon Championships. The hotel rooms were basic to say the least – a necessity rather than a luxury he could no longer afford now he was no longer touring the ATP circuit. It’s not like he was rolling in it before his ban, but money was in much shorter supply now he was playing on the Challenger tour (a notoriously stingy circuit when it came to competitors’ prize money) instead.

He showered, then dried himself roughly with a spare towel whilst pulling out a fresh set of training gear from his suitcase. The shorts and long sleeved t-shirt were plain, black, and indistinguishable – another product of Aaron’s need to penny-pinch post cocaine ban. He was currently playing without a clothing deal, Nike had understandably dropped him last year and unsurprisingly there wasn’t a queue of potential new sponsors knocking on his door now. He had to settle for buying his plain traditional Wimbledon white competition attire and black training gear himself, in a fly-in visit to a Decathlon ten minutes away from his hotel three days ago.

Looking down at his practice gear laid out on his bed, his mind suddenly flashed back to Robert Sugden yesterday. His memory reminding him of how the blonde had worn Ted Baker sponsored gear; the top was a light blue colour adorned with a slightly darker paisley pattern and his shorts the same darker blue. The clothing (pattern aside) was a casual look – it was just training gear after all – yet Robert had managed to make the polo shirt/shorts combo look slick and stylish and fashionable.

Sugden was effortlessly attractive, and Aaron found himself smiling again just thinking about him.

A loud flurry of knocks to his hotel room door snapped Aaron out of his thoughts of Robert Sugden and he hurriedly opened it. Cain was waiting on the other side, fully dressed and visibly itching to get going already.

“Morning sunshine.” Cain said loudly, walking past Aaron to invite himself into his nephew’s room.

Aaron closed the door and followed his uncle, who had plonked himself down onto the sofa already. “Morning.” Aaron smiled. His happy mood lightening his voice and face.  

Cain narrowed his eyes as he frowned at his nephew – mock suspicious, “It’s six twenty in the morning and you’re smiling. Are you feeling okay?” he asked sarcastically, making Aaron pull a face. 

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Aaron rolled his eyes, then sat down next to his uncle, “Just feeling good after yesterday’s session.” he explained with a one shouldered shrug. He knew he wouldn’t live it down if he told Cain the truth, so told a half truth instead. 

“Glad to hear it,” Cain nodded his head, “You should savour that joy, though.” he warned, “I went easy on you yesterday. Today we’re back on it; full drills, practice matches, gym sessions – the lot. I expect nothing less than blood, sweat and tears being shed, got it?” he asked with a purposely exaggerated sternness, his uncle’s weird way of teasing him. 

“Duly noted.” Aaron retorted back good-naturedly, his eyebrows raised. Cain smiled back.

“Think it’s best for you to keep away from Sugden, mind,” Cain suddenly said with a knowing smirk, “The two of you were nattering away like a pair of old ladies yesterday, you’d hardly get anywhere with him around.”

Aaron’s heart embarrassingly skipped a beat at the mention of the blonde man, but he covered that up by huffing out an awkward laugh, “We spoke for like five minutes.”  

“Yeah, well, watching you staring at Sugden all smitten was five minutes too long for me,” Cain quipped back sarcastically, as quick as a flash. Then heaved himself off the sofa, “Come on then, let’s get going.” he instructed, before Aaron had time to really comprehend his uncle’s observation of the day before. 

Was he that obvious yesterday? … Cain said it so off hand, he must have been joking, right?

Please don’t say Robert noticed too 

“Come on, get yourself dressed. We wanna head out soon and beat the traffic.” Cain instructed from the door. “Aaron!?” he pushed, when Aaron hadn't made an attempt to move – his mind too preoccupied with his eternal panic. 

Aaron was snapped out of his thoughts and nodded, “Alright.” he said quietly, waiting for his uncle to leave before getting dressed quickly. 

Thankfully, his blush had drained from his cheeks by the time he met Cain in the lobby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

After stopping off at the hotel breakfast bar, he and Cain finally made their way to Wimbledon. Like the day before, Aaron walked into the grounds pulsing with an excitement that only a grand slam could bring. Aaron also felt a secret added layer of anticipation for the day’s training, knowing he was going to see Robert again helped swell his bubbling nerves to the point of almost bursting.

Unconsciously Aaron’s eyes searched every practice court, looking for the tall blonde – the one he hadn’t stopped thinking about all morning – but felt the pang of disappointment twinge deep in his stomach when he couldn’t find him. Robert Sugden was nowhere to be seen. 

Aaron ignored the feeling and decided to concentrate on completing his drills instead. He was crouching down, pulling out his favourite practice racquet when he sensed a presence above him. “What are we starting with then?” he asked, not bothering to look up, thinking it was his uncle by his feet. 

Unfortunately, he was wrong. 

“Livesy, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.” Ross Barton said, looking down at Aaron with his cocky face pulled into a hateful smirk.

Aaron snapped up to his full height immediately, “It’s Dingle.” he corrected through gritted teeth.               

“It’s what?... Oh yeah, silly me, I forgot you changed your name. New name, fresh start and all that, weren’t it?” Ross asked in a patronising tone. “Still managed to fuck it all up again though, didn’t ya?” he laughed unkindly, slapping down hard on Aaron’s shoulder, knocking him slightly off balance.

Aaron shrugged off the other man’s hand and bit down on his tongue, trying to hold back his emotions.

Ross Barton and he had previous. They had only met a handful of times, and each occasion had been heated and unpleasant. The Australian was a notorious wind up merchant and unfortunately for Aaron, the older man had decided early on that Aaron was his favourite target. With his long list of unprofessional misdemeanours, Barton had an unlimited supply of ammunition to fling Aaron’s way – and the Australian never held back from using it.

“Is there a reason you’re here, or...?” Aaron asked impatiently, mouth a tight line. His shoulders and back were so rigid, it was almost painful - He ready for a fight. 

“Just wanted to say hi, is all. I’ve missed seeing you around on tour. You’ve always been good for entertainment.” Ross said in an unpleasant tone, slapping Aaron’s shoulder again. 

Barton was getting under Aaron’s skin so easily and he knew it. His face was pulled into a wolf-like grin – all teeth and dangerous – as he stared back at Aaron with unkind amusement.

Aaron had to take some deep breaths to calm the anger which was raging inside him. “Fucking do one Ross.” 

Ross cackled loudly. “Alright mate. No need to swear, I was only being friendl-” 

“You alright mate?” Cain’s voice cut in at just the right time.

“I’m fine.” Aaron replied tightly, “Barton was just leaving.” he added firmly, throwing a dirty look the other man’s way.

“Whatever, mate.” Barton said with a dismissive shrug. Aaron kept a suspicious eye on the Australian as he sauntered away – bold as brass and cocky as anything.

He wanted to knock that smug smile right off his face.  

“What did Barton want?”

“Nothing,” Aaron sighed, “He was just being a wanker like usual.”

“Right. No surprises there, then,” Cain quipped. He too was keeping a distrustful eye on Barton, who was now three courts away, hitting his forehand groundstrokes with unnecessary aggression. “You ready to start?” 

“Yeah.”

“Good. Let’s get to it then.”

 

Aaron managed to get a good training session in with Cain. His uncle wasn’t lying when he warned Aaron that that he was going to be pushing him. The drills were difficult and tiring and physically demanding, but he completed them all with a relentless determination. He was striking the ball well, moving great and enjoying the burning ache in his limbs. It gave him much needed confidence for his first round match the next day.

Aaron and Cain were having a temporary rest when the older man’s mobile pinged with a new text message. “That’s Moira. She’s asking me to call her back ASAP. Is it alright if I ring her?”

“Yeah, sure. You don’t have to ask.” Aaron nodded and Cain threw an appreciative smiled back. “I’ll carry on on my own for a bit, yeah?”

“Yeah, alright. Thanks mate.” Cain said, his phone already pressed to his ear when he walked away for some privacy.

The courts were surprisingly quiet considering the time and Aaron was grateful. It was quite nice to not have an audience this time around – no prying eyes, all staring at the pariah as he trained like there had been yesterday. Aaron couldn’t help but notice that Robert Sugden still hadn’t made his grand entrance though. The blonde athlete had teased Aaron yesterday for arriving late to training, yet he had managed to make the same mistake himself today. Aaron made a mental note to pull the blonde the same way when he finally made his appearance. 

With Cain not around Aaron picked up a bag full of tennis balls and decided to practice his serving. It wasn’t the strongest part of his game. His lack of height made it difficult to generate the same power other much taller tennis players were able to produce, therefore he had to make sure his serves were much more precise and that took a lot of mind numbingly boring practice.

He’d been back on court barely a minute before Ross Barton decided to make an unwelcome reappearance. “I was watching you earlier-” 

“Right. And that’s not weird at all.” Aaron retorted sarcastically. 

“-I’ve got to admit, I’m impressed,” Ross carried on, not acknowledging Aaron’s hostile response, “You were hitting those white lines like a right champ, Livesy.”  

Aaron heard the backhanded compliment for what it was. The dig at his drug taking past was unmistakeable. And as Barton planned, it immediately put Aaron’s back up. He could feel the embers of rage building inside him again and he tightened his grip around his racquet. Needing to divert his furious nerves somewhere that wasn’t Ross Barton’s face.

With his grip still vice-tight, he mentally counted to ten, then managed to smile in a not so friendly manner back at the other athlete, “Thanks. You can fuck off now.” he said dismissively and then channelled his bubbling anger into hitting his next ball hard and incredibly direct – it turned into a 125 mph serve, his fastest yet. 

“Dude, what’s with all the hostility? I was complimenting you.” Ross said all too smugly, still not willing to let go of his wind up.

Aaron didn’t respond or even look at him, his only reply was the loud crack of another serve – 127 mph. 

“…The rumours are true then,” Barton said out of nowhere, voice suddenly very serious. The change in tone ripped Aaron’s concentration away from launching into another serve and he stared back with questioning eyes.

He knew no good would come from asking but found himself doing just that regardless. “What rumours?” 

One look at Ross’ cocky face and Aaron knew that was the wrong move, he had played right into Barton’s hands, “Well, you can never trust a junkie can ya? Their mood swings are far too unpredictable.” he sneered with dark eyes looking straight at Aaron in a challenge. 

A small audience had gathered around them by then. All eavesdropping on the tense exchange, yet pretending they weren’t. Aaron heard faint whisperings and sniggers at Ross’ latest wisecrack. It seemed like Ross did too as his already infuriatingly cocky smile managed to spread wider into an even more hateful grin. 

Aaron’s clenched fists twitched at his sides when he got right up into Ross’ face and growled, “I'd leave if I was you.” 

Ross laughed at Aaron's warning, not giving a single fuck. “So much aggression. Honestly, you’re blowing this all out of proportion mate.” he taunted, then paused, “Aww, you probably need a fix or something, don’t you?” he asked with synthetic sympathy, made all the more patronising by the shit eating grin that followed. 

Aaron couldn’t stop himself from aggressively grabbing Barton’s top and shoving him backwards. He wanted to knock the prick out.

“I’m not a junkie and I’m not your mate. So I suggest you shut that big mouth of yours, before I wipe that smug smile right off your face, alright?” he threatened, teeth bared and his grip on Barton’s Adidas training T-shirt white-knuckle tight and barely controlled.  

“Alright dude, take a chill pill...” Barton squirmed with pantomime fear, before his face split into his signature sneering smirk, “Oh no wait, I forgot, coke is more your style eh?”

The red mist of anger clouded over Aaron and he finally cracked. The Australian had thrown one dig too many Aaron’s way and he dropped his racquet to launch himself at the smug git, shoving him back into the flimsy barrier between the court they were standing in and the one next to it. The force of the push caused the whole thing to precariously rattle behind them. 

Aaron’s right fist was ready to connect with Barton’s nose when a gentle hand grabbed Aaron’s raised forearm and stopped the movement. “Don’t!” – Aaron struggled to get away from the grip, but the hand wouldn’t let him go, “Woah. Aaron, Aaron. Stop – Stop!” 

Robert Sugden. 

“Look, there’s paps around. They’ll be all over this.” he quite rightly pointed out. Aaron could see they were already taking photos of the altercation from the press’ side of the netting.

Aaron felt his stomach drop at the sight. He knew the media was going to have a field day with this.

It was then that Aaron became aware of Robert’s hand still on forearm, the grip warm and strong against his skin. He wasn’t sure when the blonde man had appeared, but he suddenly felt embarrassment and shame creep over him, knowing that the older man had seen him so out of control. His touch now felt like a brand.

“Just calm down, okay. He’s not worth it.” Robert said in a soft and soothing voice. Aaron could feel the other man’s body heat radiating through his t-shirt and into Aaron’s, he was standing so close. It might have been a comforting sensation if Aaron wasn’t so completely mortified. 

“Aww, look your boyfriend has come to save you. How sweet.” Barton cooed –

Just for a second Aaron had forgotten about that twat. Without thinking he tried to lung at him again. 

“Aaron, no!” Robert shouted, arms now snaked around Aaron’s shoulders, pulling him away from Barton. “Come on, calm down.” he said in a much sterner tone, snapping Aaron out of his blinding rage slightly.

He pulled Aaron further away from Barton and blocked his view of the other man. His blue green eyes looked back at Aaron so kindly when he said, “Aaron look at me. Just ignore him okay. Don’t let him get under your skin.” He said it in that soothing voice again. It was so quiet and soft, it was almost hypnotic. 

Aaron couldn’t help but be drawn in. 

Knowing Aaron had finally calmed down, Robert threw him a small smile, then turned his gaze to Ross Barton and fired back, “Why don’t you do everyone a favour and just fuck off, Barton?” 

Ross’ hands flew up in pantomime innocence. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, why are you having a go at me, I’m the victim here, mate. You saw that he attacked me,” he exclaimed in mock outrage. “Don’t see why I’m being made out to be the bad guy, do you?” he asked with over exaggerated exasperation, speaking to the gathering of fellow professionals who were still gawping and staying silent, not wanting to get involved. 

After a beat of silence, Ross turned his attention Aaron and Robert’s way, “Well,” he sighed, “this was fun,” he added smugly, then started walking backwards away from the pair, “I best be off. But Livesy, you should go somewhere about that anger of yours mate. That’s out of control.” he said with a pointed finger towards Aaron.

Aaron looked down at the ground in embarrassment. 

Robert watched the Australian as he sauntered his way into another practice court. “He’s threatened by you, I reckon.” he said when he looked back at Aaron, “That’s why he was trying to wind you up. It's what he does.” 

The shame he felt by his own stupid behaviour left Aaron feeling exposed and embarrassed – even more so now he was alone with Robert, a bloke he really liked and someone who had showed belief in him. He’d completely showed himself up in front of the other man, he must have thought Aaron was a complete head case. 

So Aaron did what he’s always done when he felt vulnerable and wounded – he lashed out. “It’s funny, but I don’t actually remember asking you for your opinion, or for you stick your nose in my business, for that matter!” he snapped out, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth.

Robert’s face immediately dropped and hardened at Aaron’s words. “Most people would thank the person who’s just had their back,” he huffed out, affronted. “But don’t worry, I’ll leave you to it next time you threaten to deck someone.” he added with fire, before shouldering past Aaron. 

Aaron looked skyward for a moment, full of regret. Robert was only looking out for him and he threw the blonde’s kindness right back in his face by being a hot-headed prick. He couldn’t let things end so badly between them, he took in a breath then called out, “Robert wait? I’m sorry-” 

Robert stopped dead in his tracks and turned back to face Aaron. His face was a complicated mix of emotions, curious yet cautious. 

“I just wanna move on from last year, and Ross… he wouldn’t – regardless of what he said, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you, okay. I’m sorry.” Aaron apologised again, his face portraying his genuine regret. 

Robert’s face softened slightly as he studied Aaron for a moment – he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end under such an intense gaze – before Robert smiled back at Aaron in understanding. “You move on by winning matches here. Not by picking fights with pricks like Barton.” he said firmly, making his way back over to Aaron.

“I know,” Aaron replied looking down at the grass court, his embarrassment flaring up again. But he forced himself to look up at Robert as the other man stood inches away, “Thanks, by the way – for calming me down. It’s-it’s nice to know someone has my back here.” 

Robert nodded his head slowly, “No worries,” he shrugged, it was a casual movement – a not-a-big-deal kind of gesture. But it was a big deal to Aaron, it meant a lot. “Are we going to start training together, or are we just gonna stand around here all day?” he suddenly asked with a teasing tone, one eyebrow raised and mouth smirking. It was an invitation.

And it knocked an unexpected laugh out of Aaron. “Yeah, alright.” he beamed back. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

They had been training together for almost three hours now. Three hours that Aaron had loved every second of, and they had scarily went by as quick as a flash. Aaron was very aware that he couldn’t take his eyes off Robert the whole time. He also knew he was staring that bit too long for it to be normal. But he couldn’t help himself, being around Robert Sugden was messing with his head. 

He had always been attracted to the older athlete from afar – he had eyes, it was impossible not to notice how fit Robert Sugden was. Well, he was more than just fit. He was gorgeous. And Aaron couldn’t help but be mesmerised by him; From his thick blonde hair which was styled so perfectly, it looked effortless. To his blue green eyes which were playful and teasing, yet radiated warmth at the same time. Then there was his flawless and slightly tanned skin, endearingly covered in a light dusting of freckles, you only noticed when up close. And of course, his broad swimmer’s shoulders and long toned limbs, which should have made him clumsy and bulky, yet, surprisingly he moved so gracefully on court, feline-like and utterly alluring.

If Aaron was soft – which he wasn’t (he was) – he’d say that Robert took his breath away.

“How comes you were late?” Aaron asked when they were on a water break. It was a feeble attempt at taking his mind off his spiralling thoughts, “Not great for first impressions was it?” he playfully quipped, mirroring Robert’s words from yesterday. 

“We’ve already met, it doesn’t count.” Robert shrugged back, not missing a beat. 

“Fine. Not great for second impressions then?” Aaron corrected, making Robert laugh.

“I got sidetracked by our hosts wonderful welcoming party, if you must know.” Robert replied with shining eyes. Like Aaron had just done with him, he mimicked Aaron’s words from the previous day.

“What, they made you do a drugs test? Why?” Aaron asked, a frown creasing his forehead in confusion.

Robert pulled a face, “I wish! A drugs test would have been hell of a lot less painful, trust me,” he huffed out with a roll of the eyes, “Had a run in with Lawrence White – ex future father-in-law – Can’t say he was pleased to see me.”  

“What happened?”

Robert sighed, long, heavy and full of frustration, “According to him, I shouldn’t be here. He clearly thinks after everything that happened between me and his daughter that I should have stayed as far away from their competition as humanly possible.” 

“Are you not with Chrissie White anymore then?” Aaron asked, hoping his voice didn’t portray just how pleased he was at hearing that information.

“Nope.”

“Oh,” Aaron said as casually as possible, “Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. It ended up being for the best.” Robert sighed out, then tipped the rest of his water bottle’s contents down his throat.

“A messy break up, was it?” 

Robert scoffed, “That’s an understatement, I’d say it was more like atomic bomb destruction.” he said, brows knitted.

“That bad?”

Robert nodded his head – the movement slight and subdued, “We ended up hurting each other badly.” he replied quietly and sadly – then looked away almost shyly, like he’d said too much. “How comes you don’t wear any branded clothes?” he asked out of nowhere, clearly wanting to change the subject. 

Aaron felt caught out by the change in direction, “Erm,” He looked down at himself. His all black training gear looked so cheap compared to Robert’s. The blonde was wearing a white Ted Baker polo shirt – the first two buttons undone – with a seventies inspired maroon polka dot pattern and navy shorts. It was awful really, but he managed to pull it off.

“Nike dropped me last year and I haven’t had any new offers, so I’ve just bought my own stuff.” Aaron explained with a shrug.  

“No offers at all?” Robert asked, frowning.

“Nope.” Aaron shook his head, face slightly embarrassed. “You’ll be surprised how unforgiving people in this sport can be.” he added heavily.  

Not everyone is like you

Robert’s frown deepened. “I know all about that, trust me.” he said with a humourless laugh, “I hate people who act like they’re whiter than white and have never made a mistake in their life, yet, they’ve fucked up more than anyone.” 

There was a bitter understanding shadowing Robert’s face suddenly, almost like he was speaking from unfortunate experience. Aaron wondered if Robert had his ex and her father in mind. He knew all too well how judgemental they were, their attempt to publicly humiliate him yesterday was perfect proof. 

“You know what though, fuck them. You’re better off not being beholden to sponsors or anyone else for that matter, anyway.” Robert stated defiantly, the fog of bitterness from seconds before clearly shaken off.

Aaron smiled, “That’s what Cain said.”  

“Yeah? Clearly great minds think alike eh.” Robert said brightly, placing his water bottle back down and turning to make his way back to their court. 

“Robert?” Aaron called quickly. 

“Yeah?” he asked, face open as he stared back at Aaron in expectation.

Aaron’s heartbeat was pounding against his chest, whilst his mind desperately tried to plan the words he wanted to say, “I-I just wanted to say, that – that the support you have given me these past few days, it erm… it – it means a lot.” He ended up stumbling out.

Robert smiled back at Aaron, then shrugged his shoulder. “It’s like I said yesterday, us Brits need to stick together.” he quipped back lightly, walking backwards a couple of steps. Aaron didn’t make a move to follow, Robert’s playful eyes were pinning him right to the spot and he could feel the warm tendrils of want seep into his bloodstream.

“Come on daydreamer, we don’t have all day.” Robert teased, now on his side of the court, waiting for Aaron to catch up.

“Yeah, sorry.” Aaron forced out, dropping his water bottle down alongside Robert’s, before making his way back out on court, opposite the other man. 

Aaron was in trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Things didn’t change after their water break. The longer Aaron was around Robert, the more he could feel himself being pulled right in. Aaron knew he needed to put distance between himself and the unprofessional and quite frankly ridiculous feelings he had for Robert Sugden. He hoped the hour he spent training alone with Cain would have helped, it didn’t – his eyes always found Robert across the court like an unconscious pair of magnets. 

He decided to try a different tactic, he let the other man know that he was going to cut their training short and get to the canteen – alone. Robert had other plans in mind, however, “Oh okay. I’ll come with ya.” Robert suggested with a smile.

“No, no, that’s alright. I don’t want to interrupt your progress.”

“Don’t be silly, I wouldn’t mind the break as it goes – unless you wanna escape me, that is?” Robert asked with that teasing signature smirk of his.

“What no! Why would I?” Aaron denied too quickly, words all jumbled together. Robert’s face lightened with fond amusement.

“Lead the way then.” The blonde smiled, head cocked in the direction of the canteen.

So much for distance. Aaron now found himself in even closer proximity to the man that he was shamefully crushing on like a teenage boy. They no longer had the net of the practice court between them. Robert was sitting in the chair opposite him, so close that their knees were touching slightly – neither man willing to break the physical connection any time soon – and Aaron could smell the attractive mix of cut grass clinging to the blonde’s clothing, his sun-warmed skin and then the peppery spice of his expensive aftershave. It made Aaron’s mouth water. 

Sitting at the small table with him, it didn’t take Aaron long to realise just how easy it was to talk to Robert. There were never any awkward silences or breaks whilst they sat together and ate. Their conversation flowed freely and effortlessly, like they’d known each other for years, not days. They talked about the charity Robert was hoping to set up, all aimed to help under privileged children and teenagers get access to free tennis facilities. And when that thread of conversation found its natural end, soon enough they found themselves talking about all sorts. The blonde was funny, intelligent and playful, and luckily for Aaron, he seemed to get his sarky banter (which most people confused for rudeness) and gave Aaron as good as he got. 

Robert was drawing Aaron in more and more with every joke and crooked smile. He was falling down the rabbit hole head first at lightning speed, with no ability to stop himself. Aaron wasn’t sure he would have wanted to anyway. 

“Are you going back out on the court after this?” Robert asked, his plate now empty in front of him.

“For a while, yeah. You?”

“Probably.” Robert replied, eyes twinkling – they looked a lot greener in the canteen lighting. “How about after?”

“After?”

“Yeah, after,” Robert smiled, “What gets Aaron Dingle going outside of tennis?” 

“W-why do you wanna know that?” Aaron asked awkwardly, the almost suggestive wording making him feel nervous all of a sudden.

Robert chuckled, “It’s called making conversation,” he said sarcastically, “You know, that thing people do when they want to find out more about each other.” 

Robert looked back at Aaron with amused expectation, waiting for his answer, Aaron couldn’t help but melt against it, “I quite like cars, I guess.” he said vaguely – his ability to engage in small talk had never been great, but it seemed to be worse around Robert. He had no equilibrium around the blonde.

“Oh wow, how informative. Thanks for sharing so much about yourself.” Robert retorted, amusement dripping in his voice rather than annoyance which his sarcastic words may have suggested.

Aaron’s laugh puffed out through his nose, then he shrugged his shoulders, “You asked, I told.” he said lightly, enjoying watching Robert shake his head and grin. Suddenly his nerves were gone.

“Surely you can give me a bit more than that?” The blonde smiled.

“I don’t reveal my secrets to strangers.” Aaron shrugged, unable to stop the flirtatious tone from colouring his words.

“Didn’t think I was one,” Robert quipped back, voice honeyed and smooth. He leaned in closer to Aaron with playful eyes. Disarmed by Robert’s crosshair gaze Aaron could only swallow and stare right back. “Are you going to tell me what car you drive, or does that go against the whole Aaron Dingle: Man of Mystery image you’ve got going on?” 

Aaron rolled his eyes and relented, “A Subaru WRX STI.” he replied proudly. He loved his car, it was his pride and joy. 

“Oh no.”

“What?”

“Aaron Dingle is a boy racer,” Robert said with a teasing shake of the head, “Why am I not surprised.”

Aaron pulled a face, “How does that make me a boy racer?”

It was Robert’s turn to pull a face, “Aaron, you drive a rally car.” he said simply, like no further explanation was needed. “Bet you have racing stripes and everything.”

Aaron did, they were yellow-

“So,” Aaron replied quickly, face frowning and unimpressed - that seemed to make Robert smile even more. Yes his car was a rally motor, but "boy racer" made him sound like a knob, “What car do you drive then?”

“A Porsche 944.”

Of course the blonde drove such a sophisticated car. Everything about him was sophisticated. 

Aaron couldn’t stop himself from whistling, impressed, “Nice. What year?” 

“1988.” Robert said, smiling so smugly when he saw how impressed Aaron was, “Used to drive an Audi R8 before.”

“You’re kidding?” Aaron asked with excitement, he knew how gorgeous that car was, how well it drove, “How comes you don’t have it anymore?”

“Lost full custody in the divorce.” Robert replied lightly, clearly referencing the atomically messy fall out of his and Chrissie White’s split. 

“Oh, right.” Aaron said, “You didn't want to get another?” 

“No,” Robert sighed heavily, leaning back in his chair, shifting uncomfortably all of a sudden, “The Audi reminds me of a version of myself that deep down wasn’t happy or being truthful to myself. I didn’t want to be that person who hides anymore, so I got a brand new car.” he added quietly, tone and eyes very serious.  

Aaron couldn’t help but notice that a flash of panic ghosted across the older man’s face after his confession, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. The blonde had clearly hinted at something deeply personal to Aaron, something he didn’t intend to do.

There were hidden layers to Robert Sugden, that much was clear. Aaron found himself yearning to ask Robert what he had meant. He wanted to drag the waters away and find the real Robert Sugden underneath the surface – but it wasn’t his place really.  

“Fair enough.” He settled with saying instead, companied by a small smile and a shrug – feigning indifference.

A comfortable silence fell between them then. Only the sounds of Aaron’s cutlery scraping across his plate filling the small space between them. Aaron looked up from his almost empty plate to find Robert’s head cocked to the side and eyes studying him, like he was some abstract painting in some poncey art gallery he was trying to find the hidden meaning of.

Aaron’s face flushed immediately under the attention. 

“What?” he laughed nervously. The older man’s face would have been unreadable if it wasn’t for the smirk which lifted the corners of his lips.  

“You’re not what I expected Dingle.” Robert admitted after a beat, his eyes shining with something, Aaron didn’t know what. 

It wasn’t the answer Aaron expected. “Oh – Yeah? What-what did you expect then?” he asked suddenly all tongue tied – a far too frequent habit he had developed when around Robert Sugden, for his liking – and Aaron mentally kicked himself for it. He decided to cover up his embarrassment with sarcasm, “Me snorting cocaine across this table?” 

Robert scoffed in amusement and rolled his eyes. “No, not that,” he laughed and Aaron looked back at him in confusion. “I don’t know... I just – you’re just different to what I thought you’d be.” Robert confessed, eyes sincere and his small smile genuine.

“Right...” Aaron said, not sure what to make of that answer. Different, was it good? Was it bad? 

“You’re not what I expected either, you know.” He found himself saying in return.

Robert’s eyes snapped back to Aaron and he smirked, “Yeah?” 

“Yeah. You’re like, a hundred times more arrogant then I thought you were going to be.” Aaron bantered back with his own smirk. 

A cackling laugh rumbled out of Robert’s mouth – a noise Aaron found himself hoping to hear again and again. “With my looks and my talent, it’s hard not to be, mate.” The blond fired back with the smuggest smile Aaron had ever seen. 

Aaron shook his head in amusement. “You’re unbelievable.” 

“It’s been said.” Robert threw back with a flirtatious lilt to his voice. The older man’s smile was crooked and his eyes were looking right into Aaron’s. He couldn’t look away from them, pinned by their blue green intensity.

And everything else around Aaron melted away into nothingness.

Both men went silent and they stared at each other for just that bit too long. The air suddenly thicker and hotter around them. The charged moment was like being struck by a lightning bolt – sharp, electrifying… and thrilling. Aaron hadn’t wanted something or someone so much in all his life than he did then, looking at Robert.

It was Robert who eventually broke their moment, clearing his throat and pushing his plate away, “D’you wanna head back now. Maybe do a practice match?” he asked, a little less cocky than he’d been a minute ago – a small tell sign that maybe he had been just as affected as Aaron.

For Aaron, it was like resurfacing from being underwater. The sounds of the canteen area background hum quickly filtered back through to his ears and he finally exhaled the breath he must have been been holding in the whole time, “Yeah. Yeah, sounds good.” he said a little breathlessly, still recovering. 

He was so in trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

“Go on, admit that you’re impressed?” Robert pressed Aaron playfully with a glint in his eye. 

They were warming down from the practice match they had just finished. Robert had won the semi serious match quite easily in the end and clearly wasn’t afraid to be smug about it. 

The blonde was taking large gulps out of his water bottle and Aaron couldn’t help but stare at his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. He ripped his eyes away from Robert’s throat then scoffed.

Sugden may be gorgeous, but he was cocky as anything and Aaron wasn’t willing to help inflate his ego anymore.

“Hardly. You’re nothing special mate.”

“Oh really?” Robert leant in close to Aaron’s side, his breath tickling the shell of Aaron’s ear, “How comes you haven’t taken your eyes off me this whole time then?” he asked in a whisper, before moving away again. 

His left eyebrow was cocked in a challenge and that attractive smirk of his was spread across his lips. They were full and so kissable – Aaron’s eyes were drawn to them like a gravitational pull.  

“What? I-I don’t know what you mean.” Aaron spluttered out nervously. The fact that he had to rip his gaze away from Robert’s mouth didn’t really help his point.

He could feel embarrassment flush crimson across his face. There was no way that Robert hadn’t noticed.  

Robert’s smirk only got wider. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed Dingle.” he teased, stepping closer to Aaron again. There were attractive creases around his bright eyes and they looked incredibly blue all of a sudden – glinting like the sun’s reflection on the ocean.  

Aaron’s heartbeat nosedived within his chest and he lost his ability to speak. He couldn’t believe he had been so bloody obvious this whole time.   

“There’s nothing wrong with eyeing up the competition. I’m doing the same.” Robert eventually said, dragging his eyes away from Aaron’s to make a show of looking around at all the courts.

Relief washed over Aaron and he let go of the breath he’d been holding in. The meaning behind Robert’s words perhaps not so embarrassing as he first feared. 

“Not going to lie, you’ve definitely caught my eye.” Robert added, eyes looking straight at Aaron intensely. They were almost challenging him and Aaron’s blush turned a deeper shade of red at the intentional flirtatious wording. “I’m impressed. You’re a talented player – considering.”

“Considering what?” Aaron laughed out, finally finding his voice.

“You hadn’t played for a whole year. Doesn’t look like you’re rusty at all. I know I was when I first came back.” 

“Thanks.” Aaron said, genuinely chuffed with Robert’s compliment.

Robert shrugged. “Between you and me, I think you’re gonna be a dark horse in this tournament.”  

“I don’t know about that,” Aaron laughed, “I might not even make it through tomorrow.”  

“Nah, you’re gonna breeze through it, I know it. Especially if you play anything like you have today,” Robert said with sincerity, “Trust me. I know something good when I see it.” he smiled lustfully and his eyes flirtatiously dragged down Aaron’s body – from his head all the way down to feet – then back up again. 

Aaron’s breath hitched in his throat. He could feel his own lust coiling – molten hot – right down in the pit of his stomach. 

Robert smirked again, like he knew the affect his words were having on Aaron. “Well, I’ll see you on Tuesday then.” 

“Yeah.” Aaron agreed on a whisper, eyes unconsciously locked on Robert’s lips and then his eyes.

“D’you wanna know what else I know?”

“What?”

“Bet you don’t look half bad in white.” Robert whispered, voice rich and silky like melted chocolate. He had the cheek to wink as he walked backwards a couple of paces. “Good meeting.” he smiled, then turned around and made his way out of the practice courts with his coach in tow, leaving Aaron barely able to breathe. 

With Robert out of sight, Aaron huffed out a laugh and tried to ignore the lust that was electrifying his body. He didn’t succeed. He had to also bite down on his bottom lip to try and stop the smile that was dying to spread across his face. That didn’t work, so he took a large drag from his water bottle instead. His buzzing energy needed to be doing something.

He was too distracted that he didn’t hear Cain walk up beside him. “You know, if this training malarkey you’ve got going on with Sugden continues, you’re gonna have to at least try and hold back on the heart eyes.” 

With his eyes permanently Robertwards the whole day, he had almost forgotten that Cain had been watching them from the side lines the whole time.

His uncle’s comment made him almost choke on the water. “Y-you w-what?” he coughed. Wiping the excess water from his lips and chin. 

“You. You were practically drooling all over the court staring at him all day. You’re gonna have to rein it in a tad, mate.” Cain said, eyes swimming with amusement. 

“No-no I wasn’t.” 

“Aaron, come on, even a blind man could have seen it.” Cain’s face looked two seconds away from bursting into a fit of laughter, “You couldn’t have been any more obvious if you tried.”

Aaron could feel his cheeks heating up. “Shut up.” he said childishly. Not knowing what else he could say when he’d been caught red handed by his uncle.

Finding his response hilarious, Cain threw his head back and finally let out the cackle he’d been clearly holding in for hours. It wasn’t often that his uncle did laugh, the image might have been disconcerting if Aaron wasn’t so embarrassed.

Aaron shoved the older man a little to shut him up, so his uncle held out his hands in mock surrender. “Don’t shoot the messenger, alright. I’m only telling ya what I saw.” he laughed out, “I thought it was quite sweet, actually.” 

Aaron glared at his uncle, who was smiling like the Cheshire Cat still – clearly loving the opportunity to take the piss out of his nephew. “If it’s any consolation, I think Sugden was right there with you with the sickeningly in love looks.”  

Aaron wasn’t stupid. He’d seen the lustful looks Robert had thrown his way, heard every flirtatious comment crystal clear, and could feel their palpable attraction ricocheting between them, thick like pollen in the air. Hearing the confirmation that the attraction was mutual had his heart jolting in excitement and lust crawling up his spine regardless. God, he wanted Robert.

He was definitely in trouble.  

Chapter Text

British number one Robert Sugden (World No. 24) draws Italy’s Davide Destro (World No. 31) in the first round of Wimbledon. Fellow Briton Aaron Dingle (World No. 241) faces a Centre Court battle with USA star Elias Jacobs (World No. 3) – BBC Sports News

 


 

“I left you for five minutes and you did this!” Cain said in rage. The loud slap of a national newspaper hitting the table – its headline: ‘Drugs Cheat Dingle Explodes in Barton Bust Up’ spread out across its back page – being the object of Aaron’s uncle’s fury. “What the fuck, Aaron!”

A nervous Aaron, along with a bumbling and equally nervous Paddy and a cool as you like Cain had only just sat down at a table in the hotel’s breakfast bar when Aaron’s uncle had pinched the abandoned newspaper from a nearby table. Aaron looked down at the tabloid and internally cringed at the sight. What stared back at him was a perfectly timed photograph from the day before, capturing the moment when he had pulled his fist back, ready to punch Barton’s face in. He turned the page to find even more damning photos inside; him shoving Barton into the court barrier, Robert having to pull him away and calm him down, him trying to lunge at Barton again.

God, it all looked terrible. No, worse than terrible, he looked like a complete psychopath.

Fuck

Not sure how to respond to the shitshow printed in black and white before him, Aaron swallowed hard, folded the paper back up and stayed silent. “Why didn’t you tell me this happened?” Cain pressed impatiently.

Not mentioning yesterday’s argument with the big mouthed twat hadn’t been a conscious decision on Aaron’s part. Truth be told, the incident with Barton had completely slipped his mind. He’d been far too distracted (and embarrassingly so) by Robert Sugden from the moment the he had luckily intervened. It was like Aaron’d had tunnel vision. Robert, with his gorgeous eyes and crooked smile was all he could see the day before, all he could think about… He wasn’t going to admit that to his uncle though, obviously.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal.” he shrugged instead, finally finding his voice. His guilty eyes skittered away from his uncle’s and he shoved another forkful of his breakfast into his mouth as a distraction. 

“Almost decking Barton wasn’t a big deal was it?” Cain questioned scornfully, eyes like a hawk’s, staring across the table at his nephew. Paddy’s were staring questioningly at him too.

“I didn’t actually hit him, did I? So, what’s the problem?” Aaron tried to justify with a nonchalant shrug, the words sounded lame and childish even to his own ears. And the flippancy didn’t help to mollify his uncle’s rage. Unsurprisingly, it only helped to infuriate him even further.

“Yeah, only because Sugden pulled you away, by the looks of it!” Cain spat back, hard and razor sharp. It had been a while since Aaron had received a bollocking from Cain about his stupid behaviour. He’d missed it... like a hole in the fucking head. 

He was about to continue his unconvincing defence when Paddy beat him to it: “Don’t you think Aaron could do without the lecture now? He’s got a tennis match in four hours,” he began to suggest, sensing an ill-timed storm brewing, “Can’t it at least wait unt-” His words were cut off abruptly when any sort of conviction he may have had immediately melted against the death glare Cain had sent his way in response. His lips practically collapsed in on themselves to form the tightest line to keep whatever else he planned to say at bay.

Cain’s angry eyes cut from Paddy back to Aaron knife-sharp and steeled. “No distractions, no trouble. Just let your tennis do the talking. That’s what we agreed before we came here.”

“Yeah, I know we did-”

“Why’d you do this then.” Cain interrupted, finger jabbing down onto the newspaper by Aaron’s hand. The heavy-handed movement caused their already slightly wonky table to shake even more, clinking their drinks together and drawing the attention of the hotel staff and some fellow hotel guests.  

Aaron took in a breath, wanting to control his bubbling emotions and waited for the gawping eyes to lose interest and be drawn elsewhere. After a deep exhale he finally turned back towards his uncle. “I tried to ignore him Cain, I swear, but he just wouldn’t let up.” he tried to explain, his tone frustrated and full of bite.

“Let up about what?”

“The cocaine, obviously!” Aaron said quietly angry. Leaning forward, he tried to make his uncle understand, “He was calling me a junkie, asking if I wanted another fix and all sorts... He wouldn’t stop – and I cracked, alright...I’m sorry.”

Cain sighed heavily, his body, rigid with anger loosened slightly on the exhale. “You’ve got to get used to people having a dig Aaron.” 

Aaron scoffed and shook his head in disbelief, “Oh great. I get accused of being a cheating drug addict and I just have to take it, do I?”

“Yeah.” Cain said quickly and so matter of fact, “They don’t know the truth about why you took that cocaine, and they never will – That’s how you wanted it,” he told with a pointed finger towards Aaron, “But who gives a shit what Barton or the All England Club or anyone else says, their opinions don’t matter. You cannot let them get to you like that!”

Yes, keeping the real reason for Aaron’s actions secret was what he had wanted. He also decided strongly against even a sniff of the trial and his past becoming public knowledge during and after those hellish few weeks he endured in the court. Getting the super-injunction had been a costly decision, though worth every penny in Aaron’s eyes. Even if keeping things secret did mean the public’s only opinion of him was a negative one, fuelled by the media’s insistence on portraying him as nothing more than a low life junkie. But just because he’d decided that, however, didn’t mean he had to accept every bit of shit flung his way in silence. 

“That’s easy for you to say, you’re not the one getting taken the piss out of and forced to take drugs tests in public.” Aaron hissed, his temper finally boiling over. “I’m allowed to stick up for myself.”

“There’s sticking up for yourself and then there’s attempting to chin someone,” Cain said pointedly, not understanding Aaron’s point of view in the slightest, “You could’ve gotten yourself thrown out of the tournament if you had hit him. They might’ve even thrown another ban at you! Then all that hard work you’ve put in since December would have been for nothing!”

His point was a fair one and Aaron knew it.

He worried the corner of his bottom lip between his teeth when a flash of guilt suddenly gnawed at his insides. He wasn’t proud of his behaviour the day before. He knew he had the right to fight back, but he also knew yesterday had been entirely the wrong way to go about it, and his embarrassment lay heavy on his shoulders. “I lost my temper yesterday. It was a mistake – believe me, I know that – and I swear it won’t happen again, okay.” he promised defiantly, looking back at his uncle with pleading eyes, meaning every word he said.

Cain’s gaze was intense as it tried to read Aaron’s face in a silent interrogation. Aaron wanted to hide away from it, but he didn’t look away, he didn’t back down. He was serious, he wasn’t going to make the same mistake again and he needed Cain to know that.

Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, Cain eventually nodded his head curtly and cleared his throat, “It better not.” The statement was clipped and heavy with disappointment, but Aaron nodded his head in appreciation all the same. He could tell his uncle was still fuming about what he did. His anger simmered just under the surface, yet he still decided to trust Aaron’s word and dropped the subject. For that, Aaron was grateful.  

A stilted silence fell over the table with Cain quietly seething, Paddy too frightened to say anything and Aaron too anxious to really think straight. The three men ate (or tried to in Aaron’s case) their breakfast awkwardly as the minutes stretched uncomfortably and painstakingly thin. With nothing to distract him in the void of conversation, Aaron couldn’t stop his nerves from rattling around his stomach like rusted, loose nails – the feeling unpleasant and uncomfortable and overwhelming. His omelette felt like cement sticking to the roof of his mouth, making swallowing near to impossible. His hands were so clammy and shaky that he struggled to keep a hold of his knife and fork and his right leg was bouncing up and down with almost violent jittery nerves underneath the table.

It wasn’t uncommon for Aaron to be edgy before a match. Nerves were a natural and healthy reaction to have beforehand, they often helped Aaron feel more alert and lowered the chance of complacency falling into his game. But the anxiety he was feeling now was unlike anything Aaron had ever felt in his professional career before. He felt like he could barely breathe.

He needed this win. He had worked his arse off to get back to the ATP level, and he needed to prove not only to himself, but everyone else that he belonged there. He needed to prove all his doubters wrong and shut them up. After the hash he made of yesterday with Barton, he needed to do that now more than ever.

Just when Aaron’s buzzing thoughts were threatening to completely overwhelm him, Cain’s phone pinged loudly with a new text message, the shrill sound split a crack through the heavy and charged atmosphere, making Paddy jump and Aaron snap out of his eternal panic. With a huff Cain pulled out his mobile from his jeans back pocket and read the message with intense eyes, “That’s Moira, she and your mum have managed to get themselves lost turning off the M1.” he sighed. “I’ll ring them and see where they are.” 

Aaron nodded his head and watched on as Cain took himself of to the side to call his wife. “Hiya. Where abouts are ya now?” Aaron heard him ask from the small distance, “What do you mean you don’t know, there must be signs...” 

Turning back to Paddy, Aaron threw him a strained smile and Paddy smiled back just as nervously in return. It soon melted into something much more serious and he leaned in closer to Aaron, “You alright?” he asked gently, eyes locked on Aaron’s face, clearly looking for the minutest of signs that he wasn’t.

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well…It can’t be nice having people accusing you all the time, can it?” Paddy observed with his typical kind-heartedness, his face sympathetic and surprisingly understanding.

He was right, the constant accusations and digs weren’t nice to hear – in fact, Aaron hated all of it. But Cain was right too, he couldn’t let the likes of Ross Barton get under his skin like that again. “Like Cain said, I’ve just got to suck it up, I guess.” Aaron sighed out, “Next time I’ll count to ten for something.” he attempted to joke, the light-heartedness fell flat when it didn’t reach his voice, and only made Paddy’s face crease in concern.

To avoid the worried and suffocating gaze Aaron looked down at his plate and attempted another bite out of his breakfast. It was just as unappealing as it was a second ago, and this time he decided to give up trying to force himself to eat it and pushed the mostly full plate away. He could see Paddy watching on from the corner of his eye as he did it, his mouth annoyingly opening and closing and opening again, just to close once more – clearly second guessing whether or not to say what he was dying to say. 

It left Aaron feeling agitated. “Just spit it out, Paddy?”

Even with the invitation to share his thoughts, Paddy stayed silent for a moment, clearly hesitant, “Do you ever wish you did make it public? – About your dad and the trial, I mean...” he began awkwardly, very aware of how sensitive the subject was. And Aaron felt the same pulse of panic that always flared whenever the trial was mentioned spike uncomfortably within his veins again. It must have showed on his face as Paddy started blundering away as a result: “Well, not all of the details obviously… but-but some of them – to the ITF at least?” 

“Why are you asking me this?” A frown cut deep between Aaron’s eyebrows when he questioned the older man and his mouth was the tensest and tightest of lines.

Paddy squirmed in his seat awkwardly, sensing Aaron’s hostility. The chair creaked loudly under his movements as he shifted, “Well, if-if people knew the basics – just minimal details...” he said with his hands up, halting Aaron before he could even attempt to interrupt, “I don’t…well… I doubt you would be getting treated as poorly as you are now.” he finally stuttered out, “I just thought maybe… you wish it was different, is all.” 

Aaron’s face screwed up and he roughly sat back in his chair, his arms now folded tightly and protectively across his chest, “And have the whole nation think I’m some pathetic victim? No I don’t, thanks.” he scoffed out, full of sarcasm and bite. 

“You are not some a pathetic victim!” Paddy declared strongly, his words no longer bumbling out like they had moments before, “You’re a young man who experienced a childhood trauma and made a mistake – that you regret – because of it. I think people would understand. They’d sympathise and be on your side, if they knew.” 

“I don’t want people’s sympathy Paddy,” Aaron sighed out, weary and impatient.

It wasn’t a lie, he really didn’t want anyone’s pity. Or for them to “be on his side”, for that matter. He just wanted to move on with his life and he thought he’d been doing an alright job of it, considering. “It was bad enough having you and mum and the rest of the village looking at me and treating me like I was gonna to break any second. No way was I going to let that happen with anyone else!”

Paddy opened his mouth to reply, but Aaron cut him off: “It’s done now Paddy, okay. I don’t regret the decision and I’ve moved on with my life – so there’s no point even talking about it anymore.” he stated quickly but firmly. The subject well and truly closed. He wasn’t ever going to change his mind about not going public. He would have much rather dealt with disdainful looks than pitying ones. End of. 

“Right.” Paddy agreed quietly, his voice sounding unsure. “As long as you’re not bottling things up?” he asked worriedly, and Aaron looked skyward and groaned in frustration.

“I’m not, I promise ya, Paddy.” he replied resolutely, though Paddy looked infuriatingly sceptical still – it was time like this, he really hated his father figure’s mollycoddling. “Like you said earlier, I have a match at Centre Court in less than four hours. I should be concentrating on that, not rehashing all of this.” he curtly stated, eyebrows raised in a challenge.

“You’re right – sorry. I won’t mention it again...” Paddy said in that Paddy way of his, gentle and kind and so understanding. And suddenly Aaron felt guilty for biting his head off. Paddy was only trying to be supportive and Aaron did what Aaron did best: lashed out. All because he wasn’t ready to speak so openly about the trial…maybe he never would be.

“You’re gonna have to drive up Shooters Hill… It’s a straight road, you can’t go wrong!” Cain’s impatient voice drifted over whilst the two men sitting at the table shared an awkward truce of silence.

“How are you feeling about the match today then, looking forward to it?” Paddy asked after one awkward beat too many. 

He was absolutely bricking it – “Yeah, it will be good to play in a grand slam again.” Aaron replied as casually as he could, unconsciously scratching at his eyebrow nervously. 

“Yeah, I bet.” Paddy nodded his head, it was slightly too enthusiastic to be real, like he could see right through Aaron’s over confident act and was trying to overcompensate. “And it doesn’t get any better than playing at Centre Court, does it?”

“Nope.” Aaron agreed quickly, his stomach lurching slightly at the petrifying thought. 

Being a qualifier Aaron expected to draw someone tricky for the first round of the tournament. He wasn’t going to lie though, his heart dropped just a little when he saw who he was going to be playing against. Out of all the qualifiers, Aaron had managed to bag himself the hardest draw – a show down with Elias Jacobs, the ATP third seed and the year’s Australian Open champion.

No matter how well Aaron had been playing and training recently, the game was going to be an uphill battle. Jacobs was going to be the hardest opponent Aaron had played since before his ban, and the fact that he was going to have to play his first grand slam match in eighteen months on Centre Court – and for the very first time in his career – wasn’t going to make the situation any easier for him. He could already feel his stomach churn dangerously close to exploding at just the thought of it. 

Aaron’s American opponent was a talented and tricky top seed. He had a killer forehand and liked to play aggressive and smothering tennis; keeping rallies short and often forced his opponents into panicked, rhythmless play. Aaron’s slice needed to be on point if he had any ambition of making it through the round. It was the strongest part of his game and the defensive tactic would (hopefully) help him stay in the match. 

“And you feel good physically? No aches and pains you want me to check out?” Paddy asked. Paddy didn’t just follow Aaron on tour for family support, he was also his “tour doctor”. The ex-veterinarian had decided to abandon his career of caring for Emmerdale village’s pets and farming cattle when Aaron first broke out on the tennis scene as an angry and unruly teenager – he’d toured with Aaron every day since.

“No, I feel good actually.” Aaron replied with a genuine smile. Thankfully, he’d gotten over the fatigue which almost destroyed him in the last match of qualifying quite quickly. 

“Great.” Paddy smiled back, then turned his attention to Cain who had just returned to his chair. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah.” Cain sighed, then took a large swig of his now tepid coffee, it made him wince, “They managed to turn off the wrong junction on the M1, but they are going over the Dartford Crossing in Kent now, so they should just about make it to the match.”

“Nice one.” Aaron said with a nod of the head. He knew his mum would have been devasted if she had missed his first match back at Wimbledon. He would have been too. “Thanks Cain.”

Cain nodded his head and bit into his bacon butty, “What were the two of ya’s nattering about before?” he inquired conversationally, mouth still full of bread and his anger from before seemingly forgotten. 

“Nothing major. I was just asking Aaron how he felt before the match. You feel good, don’t ya?” Paddy asked cheerily, knocking Aaron’s elbow with his own. 

“Yeah,” Aaron agreed with a false smile, “Yeah, I feel great.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Aaron didn’t feel great at all. He was the complete opposite to great, in fact. He felt like he was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. 

He wasn’t the chattiest of people by any means, but he was being freakishly quiet – even for his standards – throughout the twenty odd minute car journey to the Wimbledon grounds. He sat in the back seat of Cain’s car stuck in his own thoughts and struggling to stop his anxiety from completely drowning him. He couldn’t stop his brain from overthinking everything; from his tactics, to Jacobs’ likely tactics… then there was the worry of Jacobs’ forehand – oh, and how could he forget the American’s big serve… and what if his slice abandoned him? … The list of worries was fucking endless.

He tried playing some stupid game on his mobile as a distraction, but that didn’t help. He then tried concentrating on the quiet hum of the car radio instead – it was set to Magic FM (Paddy’s choice) – but that didn’t help either, the easy listening pop music did nothing to help Aaron’s unease. Not even the flurry of supportive texts he received could help to control the eagle sized butterflies in his churning stomach, even if they did still manage to make him smile.

  

There was an electric buzz around the place when Aaron, Cain and Paddy finally made their way inside the grounds of Wimbledon – Centre Court looming large in the distance. There were people everywhere. Spectators were queuing up outside to get their tickets in their hundreds, whilst the early birds were already milling about inside, making their way to the smaller courts where the matches had already gotten underway. And then behind the scenes, fellow tennis players were either in the practice courts getting quick sessions in before their matches, or making their way to their scheduled courts.

“Right, remember what we went through… Try to keep your serves and play to his backhand wing as much as possible, yeah?” Cain said so confidently. He was walking through the corridors of the inside of Centre Court with assured and certain steps, Aaron was trudging behind him. 

“Yeah.” he agreed slightly wobbly, not feeling the same confidence as his uncle. Each step he took brought him one step closer to facing the crowd of Centre Court for the very first time.

“He’s going to try and smother your play, so make sure you stay in the rallies. Wait it out, then punish him with your winners.”

Aaron nodded his head and nervously clutched at the straps of his tennis bag, they were cutting into his shoulders like a painfully good distraction. Paddy threw him a sympathetic smile and squeezed his shoulder gently as he walked alongside him. 

“Don’t let him rush you and don’t be afraid to pull him closer to the net – he won’t like that.” Cain carried on.

“Yeah.” Came Aaron’s monosyllabic reply, words were difficult for the young man to sound out when his nerves felt like they were crawling up his throat.

Reaching the door to the changing rooms, Cain turned to face Aaron, “There’s no need to be nervous, alright,” he stated firmly, sensing Aaron’s anxiety pulsing off him in palpable waves, “You’re gonna smash this, okay?” 

Aaron took a steadying inhale then exhale, “Okay.” He smiled back at his uncle, feeding off his belief and confidence. Cain supportively slapped down on his shoulder and nodded his head decisively.

“Make sure you enjoy it.” Paddy smiled. He looked just as nervous as Aaron did.

Aaron nodded his head adamantly. “I will.” Excitement was bubbling away in his stomach, regardless of his sickening nerves. He loved Wimbledon and he loved the sport and he was finally going to achieve his dream of playing at Centre Court. Nothing could take that feeling away from him, not even anxiety.

He walked into the Centre Court changing rooms after parting ways with Cain and Paddy in the corridor, alone. The other men had taken their seats in the players’ box alongside Chas and Moira and Aaron felt their absence more than he cared to admit. The changing area was surprisingly big – bigger than he expected – with its many changing rooms, and it was startlingly white and intimidating. Aaron’s match was the first to be played on Centre Court that day, yet the changing rooms were already a quarter full and buzzing with the excitement and nerves of the other professionals, all waiting their turn to play out on the greatest court in world tennis. 

Aaron clocked Elias Jacobs across the large space, close to the showers. The tall American was an imposing figure, he was a good seven or eight inches taller than Aaron, built like a tank and was bowling around the changing area like he owed it, like he belonged there. Whereas Aaron felt like a fish out of water, vulnerable and uncomfortable – itching with buzzing emotions. 

Swallowing down his anxiety as much as possible, Aaron got to work getting ready for the match, hoping sticking to a controlled routine would help him stay calm. He started with a cold shower, the shocking temperature helping to make him more alert and less jittery, then changed into his white competition gear. The short-sleeved t-shirt was more tight fitting than he anticipated, and the material felt claustrophobic against his already clammy skin – making him feel even more self-conscious then he already felt.

“Fuck. I’ve forgotten my phone. I’m going to be bored shitless waiting in here.” The heavily accented voice of Marek Kovačić complained behind Aaron. The number one seed’s game was the second match scheduled on Centre Court. 

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long for your match. I plan on wrapping mine up in an hour.” Elias Jacobs drawled cockily to the Croatian, purposefully loud – clearly wanting Aaron to hear.  

After cracking with Barton yesterday, it was probably common knowledge that Aaron had a temper and could easily be wound up. Jacobs was trying to put Aaron off his game and get under his skin before they’d even stepped foot on a blade of grass. He wasn’t going to bite though. He knew what he needed to do, and he couldn’t let anything or anyone distract him. So he just rolled his eyes and let the American’s undermining comment wash over him, tying the laces of his trainers tightly instead, then placed his Bose headphones over his ears – blocking out his fellow athletes’ chatter and the gradually increasing hum of excitement filtering through from the gathering spectators in the stands outside – and sat down on the bench in front of his locker.

Aaron would always listen to an album or two in the locker room as a part of his pre-match routine. Music was a good distraction and always helped to relax and counterattack against the bubbling nerves which threatened to combust within his stomach. He picked an album which would help him feel pumped and energetic with its chunky riffs and catchy hooks – Royal Blood’s Out of the Black flooded his ears and he closed eyes, letting his breathing slow and relax with each passing beat of the song.

He’d just reached the second to last song – Ten Tonne Skeleton – when he felt a light tap to his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he pulled off his headphones and got the tail end of the what the tennis official was saying, “...warm up now.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Aaron smiled nervously, getting the gist. Both players had been called out for their fifteen minute warm up before their match.

Leaving his headphones on, Aaron picked up his racquet bag and slung it over his shoulders and walked closely behind Jacobs. The American strolled out of the locker room and onto the court, his steps full of swagger, like he didn’t have a care in the world. If the American was nervous, it didn’t show in the slightest. Aaron on the other hand, could just about put one foot in front of the other. He felt knock kneed and wobbly with every nervous step he took. 

 

The warm up came and went in a frighteningly quick blur of groundstrokes, volleys and smashes, and soon enough Aaron found himself opening the serving for the first set. 

Not that it helped him in any way. The set went in the direction that Aaron, Jacobs and every other person sitting in Centre Court had anticipated it would go. The American broke Aaron’s serve on that first service game and that set the unfortunate tempo. Jacobs predictably dictated the play completely, he forced Aaron to play metres behind his baseline, leaving his defensive backhand slice short and perfectly placed for Jacobs’ forearm to pounce on. With the relentless aggression constantly coming his way, Aaron couldn’t get a foot in at all. His movement and discipline went out the window as his legs, heavy with nerves, velcroed his feet onto the grass court and suddenly his groundstrokes became uncharacteristically rash and desperate. It was difficult enough to defend against the other man’s serve; it was aggressive and used Jacobs’ towering height to perfection. But for Aaron, it was far more disconcerting that it seemed even harder to defend his own. Jacobs was cutting right through not only his second serve, but also his first. He was reading it time and time again and Aaron was too flustered and nervous to be able to do anything about it.

He eventually lost the first set 6 games to 1. 

In the break Aaron sat down on his chair and bit into his banana, feeling deflated and slightly lost. He needed to get a foothold in the match yet didn’t really know how to, his opponent was just too good. He felt incredibly alone sitting there with just his whirring thoughts to keep him company. It was times like this – when he was in desperate need of some guidance and support – that Aaron was unfortunately reminded of how lonely playing tennis could be. He was out there on his own. Only he could turn the match around. No one else. 

His nerves had been getting the better of him, and now disappointment and frustration were the overriding emotions and they stabbed at his insides almost painfully. He couldn’t fall at the first hurdle like this, he just couldn’t. He needed to push through somehow, change the course of the match and come out the other side as the winner.

“Come on Aaron. You can do it, I know you can!” 

Throughout the first set Aaron thought he could hear a constant stream of shouts and encouragements coming from his family’s box, though he couldn’t be certain. He’d been far too absorbed in the hammering he was on the receiving end of to pay much attention to them. It was unmistakable now. His mother’s voice was loud and clear as it reverberated around the court and it was made even louder when Moira and Paddy joined in too – all cheering Aaron on. And suddenly he didn’t feel so alone out there. He let their support sink into his bones and let it steel his resolve and armour him with determination.

His family were right, he could do this. He could fight. He could win. He believed in himself, and he told himself that over and over again in his mind like a mantra, which strengthened him with each revolution in his head. 

The umpire soon called time on their break and Aaron decided to change tactic when he stepped back onto court. He naturally liked to play more defensively in matches, liked biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike in amongst his opponent’s dominance. That play wasn’t working against the American though. He dominated too much and was too talented to let Aaron play his way, so he had to be more offensive, he needed to attack more and start ripping back control by force.  

Jacobs was opening the second set serving and Aaron attacked every bit of play with controlled aggression; no longer passive and on the back foot. The change in tactic shocked Jacobs from the get-go, unsettled him in a way that made him suddenly need to think twice about his shots and gave him a taste of his own medicine. Aaron took him to deuce in that opening game, forced him to have to fight hard and save four break points to finally get the game in hand. Yes, he didn’t break his serve, but the seed of doubt was planted then, and Aaron exploited it. 

Suddenly he wasn’t the one feeling flustered and pressured.

With each point won, Aaron’s confidence grew. Soon he felt comfortable enough to take some more risks, started serve volleying more and added heavy topspin to his play, giving his slice that extra zip and trickily drew the American closer to the net; something he was visibly uncomfortable with. Resulting in an open backcourt, free for Aaron to execute his winners completely out of the American’s reach.

He won the second set 7 games to 5. 

Aaron didn’t let up in the third or fourth sets either. He fought fire with fire and was eventually rewarded by beating Jacobs 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4. He punched the air and couldn’t stop the adrenaline fuelled roar of elation from ripping out of him after he watched his final winner strike clean. Not even the delayed and slightly subdued applause that rang out around the stands could dampen his joy at getting through. Knowing he’d upset a lot of people by knocking out a top seed and a favourite, and unexpectantly going through to the second round just made it all the sweeter. He was going against script, just like he had done time and time again in his career.

After shaking hands with Jacobs and then the umpire, Aaron lifted his hands in acknowledgement to the crowd, thanking each corner of the large court. The rest of the post match duties went by in a beautifully pleasant blur after that. He energetically answered each question BBC One’s Tracey Shankley had thrown his way about his performance, and of choice, his ban last year. Then met the sports press with the same unwavering happiness.

By the time he got away from the press conference, Cain and the rest of his family were already in the changing room, waiting for his return. 

“Get in there, son.” Cain beamed, the moment Aaron walked into the room. “You played some amazing tennis out there.”

“Thanks.” Aaron smiled back, breathy and tired. He accepted all his families’ congratulatory hugs with exhausted happiness, suddenly feeling physically and mentally drained after such a pressurised match.

“I’m so pleased for you love.” Chas said with a squeeze, her warm voice comforting against his ear. After all the shouting she’d been doing, he was surprised she hadn’t lost it.

“Looks like you’re going to be playing Nemanja Jovanović in the next round. He’s two sets up on Darren Eden,” Cain said with a smile, eyes flicking back to his mobile with the live match scores updating by the second. Jovanović was a lower ranked player, meaning Aaron would avoid playing another seed in the next round if he did in fact beat Eden. “You can beat him easy.”

No match was easy, but Aaron was not going to deny that he was pleased to hear of a potentially kinder next round opponent. “Let’s hope so,” he breathed out, laughing tiredly and wiping the dripping sweat from his forehead with his sweatband. 

It appeared to be onwards and upwards for Team Dingle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Robert had always been a meticulous researcher in the build up to any tennis match he played. Whether he was playing a fellow top seed or a qualifier, it didn’t change his routine. He would watch recording after recording of his opponents’ matches beforehand, studying every aspect of their game, from the glaringly obvious, to the minutest of details; all serving to give Robert an extra edge over his opponent. And Davide Destro – his first round opposition – was no different. 

Each evening for the past two days Robert had learned all there was to learn about the Italian he was to play against; from his pattern of play, to his footwork and his favourite first serve, then his favourite second serve. Robert had even figured out his nervous tics and the sloppy play that could seep into his game when his over-confidence threw caution to the wind. He soaked up every bit of information and stored it in his mind, ready to be exploited if needs be. 

Robert had woken up the morning of the match unexpectantly nervous. Even if he was as prepared as he could possibly be and fully confident in his own ability, he couldn’t dampen down the anxiety which had been weighing down on him since the first day he stepped foot in Wimbledon’s grounds. After the injury he’d suffered he knew exactly how precious and precarious the life of a tennis player could be, competing at Wimbledon meant so much more to him now that he knew how it felt to have the tournament be ripped away from him. 

He was going to be playing on Court Two that day, the third match scheduled on the court. That meant he had hours to kill before he needed to make his way to Wimbledon, and after mentally going over his match strategy over breakfast, he decided to try and relax for an hour or two by watching the telly. He had been annoying Victoria by nervously flicking between the channels – “For fucks sake Rob, just pick a channel!” – but nothing was capturing his attention. Tired of her brother’s channel hopping, Victoria eventually snatched the remote from his hand and flicked onto the BBC One coverage of Centre Court, where suddenly a white-kitted Aaron Dingle filled the screen, just wrapping up his pre-match warm up.

Robert couldn’t help but notice just how good the younger man looked in his attire. He looked great in the white, it somehow made his strikingly blue eyes even bluer and the tight-fitting t-shirt clung to his fit body in all the right places – mouth wateringly so. He’d been shamelessly flirting with Aaron when he told him he’d look good in white the day before and the reality was so much better than he had imagined. 

He enjoyed watching the affect his words had had on the younger man yesterday. Robert could still picture the intoxicating image of Aaron’s breath catching in his throat as he tried to hide the lust which was shining, crystal blue in his eyes. Robert could feel his blood wanting to rush south just thinking about it.

“Shouldn’t you be watching footage of Destro’s Queens run, instead of watching that thug try and play tennis?” Clive said with an unkind edge to his voice. He sat down on the arm chair to the left of the sofa with a loud huff, snapping Robert out of his thoughts about Aaron Dingle and his bedroom eyes.

He ripped his eyes away from watching the man himself, preparing to launch into his first serve and frowned at his coach. “He isn’t a thug.” he automatically argued back in Aaron’s defence – it was second nature to always have Aaron’s back now. He didn’t have to think twice about it.

Clive scoffed cynically, “Threatening to punch a fellow athlete isn’t thuggish behaviour, is it?” he asked with an arrogantly cocked eyebrow, face full of judgement.  

“Ross Barton was winding him up. You know what he’s like, the bloke’s a dickhead. He was asking for it.” 

Clive’s face looked appalled by what he was hearing, “Asking for it?... You’re actually defending him!?” he exclaimed in disbelief, “Robert, the boy is clearly trouble, surely you can see that?”  

Robert’s hackles were up, his anger burning dangerously hot underneath the surface. He didn’t like the way Clive spoke about Aaron – so vitriolic and judgemental – and not only just today, but since Robert first admitted to speaking to Aaron three days ago. His mind suddenly flashed back to the conversation that he and Aaron had had the day before, he remembered Aaron’s face dropping in sadness as he spoke about how unforgiving the tennis world had been towards him. Clearly Clive was a part of that unrelenting and overcritical world Robert found he wanted to protect the younger man from.

Clive didn’t know Aaron at all, not like Robert had started to anyway. He had no right to judge him so callously. 

To try and to keep himself from spitting out a barbed retort in Aaron’s defence, Robert chose to not bite back straight away. He just looked ahead at the telly, only to unfortunately witness Aaron losing his first service game and after another painful minute of watching his struggle, Robert turned back to his coach with serious eyes, “Aaron isn’t trouble. He’s a good bloke and he deserves a second chance. Not pillocks like Barton winding him up, or the likes of you judging him.” 

“A good bloke? Robert, he’s a drug taking liability. Even Ed – someone who actually knows him – says he is a wrong’un... Surely that says something?” Robert frowned at his coach and shook his head in disagreement. Clive stared back at his friend and colleague in confusion, not understanding what Robert saw in Dingle. “I don’t understand why you would want to be anywhere near someone like that.” 

Someone like that?” Robert repeated with bite, offended and angry on Aaron’s behalf, “He took cocaine once, Clive – just once! You make it sound like he’s an axe murderer or something!” he said with steeled eyes, “I train with him because he’s a good bloke and a great player-”

“That’s not the only reason.” Vic teased in an undertone beside Robert. He knew what she was insinuating and glared back at her in response, regardless of it being true. She just smiled back smugly, hands up in mock surrender. 

Clive hummed sceptically, unimpressed with Robert’s weird sense of loyalty. “A great player, indeed.” he sarcastically retorted with a nod towards the telly. His scathing point was punctuated by the unfortunate image of Aaron hitting a poor forehand, the wildly hit ball disappeared into the top tier of the stand, winning Jacobs yet another game. Aaron was trailing 4 games to love already. 

“God, he looks so nervous.” Victoria commented, her eyes sympathetic as she watched Aaron’s struggle.

“Yeah.” Robert said in agreement, his worried eyes also fixed on the screen in front of them.

Aaron looked more than just nervous, he looked completely overwhelmed on the court, bless him. His face was tight, and his eyes were startled; clearly struggling to cope with the enormity of the occasion and the level of tennis his opponent was playing. Robert couldn’t help but feel concerned and gutted for the younger man.

He had been silently willing a still struggling Aaron along when he first heard the cheers of support for Aaron ring loudly from somewhere off camera. The coverage cut to the source of the encouragement to show a fiery and passionate looking lady sitting next to Aaron’s coach – his uncle Cain, Robert remembered Aaron telling him – in Aaron’s family box and the BBC commentator informed Robert and the rest of the viewers that the very vocal lady was in fact Aaron’s mother Chastity Dingle. She looked so passionate, so invested in her son’s performance, and it warmed Robert’s heart to see that Aaron had such amazing support.

Contrary to what a now silent Clive thought, Aaron was a fantastic tennis player and a real treat to watch. Thankfully, now that his nerves were seemingly muted and his confidence was up, Aaron was starting to show exactly that. The younger man played with a style so rarely seen nowadays and one that Robert admired deeply. He possessed such an elegant one-handed backhand, served and volleyed to perfection and was admirably comfortable at the net with his quick feet and even sharper reflexes. But it was his slice that really stood out in his game – it was a thing of beauty and head and shoulders above the rest in tennis – and currently, Robert was pleased to see, Elias Jacobs couldn’t handle it.

Aaron was playing great now (serving aside, that needed improvement) and Robert watched Aaron narrowly win the second set, then followed that up by smashing the third and fourth sets to put himself through to the second round. He was beaming at the television screen, excited and relieved for the younger man as he watched him celebrate the win in that endearingly laddish way of his. 

It was silly to feel it really, he’d only known him two days, but regardless of that, Robert felt incredibly proud of Aaron.

“See, I told you he was a great player.” he told Clive smugly, the vision of Aaron signing tennis fans’ memorabilia filling the TV screen now. He looked like a superstar. 

Clive just rolled his eyes and heaved himself off the armchair. “We’ll be leaving in fifteen, make sure you’re ready.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

It’s not like Robert had underestimated his opponent before the match, the hours of research he’d put in beforehand proved that. He knew the Italian could be a squirmy and tricky and agile. But he also thought he had his game sussed out, thought he knew Davide Destro’s game better than Davide Destro did himself. So when the Italian kept wrong footing him from the moment the first ball had been struck, Robert couldn’t stop himself from feeling completely and utterly stunned.

This wasn’t in the plan, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This wasn’t the Davide Destro he’d been studying for days. The man was like a fucking octopus; limbs everywhere, returning everything Robert was throwing at him, and pulling off these unbelievably athletic shots which shouldn’t have been physically possible. Like a tormentor, the Italian was making Robert fight for every single point he gained and Robert hadn’t ever responded well to feeling so out of control in the past, and he certainly didn’t in that first round match. 

He had started the match by trying to dominate from his baseline. Thought he’d get the Italian on a constant defence for both Robert’s service games and his own. The Italian had always been defensive minded, but Robert had planned to eventually tire the player out, then pounce when he was at his weakest.

Destro, however, had other plans and he stopped Robert finding any sort of rhythm. The first set went to a hard-fought tiebreak, which Robert had won on the narrowest of margins. And the second, unfortunately, looked set to be going in the same physically draining direction.

With his frustration already getting the better of him, Robert was now hitting his groundstrokes with anger-fuelled aggression, hoping he could out power the Italian that way. Any other player wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the forceful winners, let alone actually getting enough on them to return them back into court. But there was Destro, slipping and sliding across the grass like a hyperactive child, not giving Robert a single break. 

Robert was having to put everything he had into each game. It was by far the hardest he’d had to work in a match since coming back from his injury, and he could physically feel it. He wasn’t sure if it was just his stressed mind playing tricks on him or not, but he was sure he could feel the flaring of a sickeningly familiar dull twinge in his right hip when he was striding across the grass, working his arse off to try and get a firm grip on the match – only to watch the set be forced into yet another tiebreak after Destro won his sixth service game, the same as Robert. 

It can’t be back, it can’t

Please, it can’t?

Robert was starting to panic, mind racing a mile a minute and he desperately tried to ignore the fear which was slowly starting to creep into his thoughts and affect his game. His instinct was to call a medical timeout, get Ed down and examine his hip and hopefully disprove his suspicions, but he didn’t want to show any weakness in front of his opponent. The Italian had been a big enough pain in the arse as it was, him smelling blood was only going to make matters worse.

He had to find a way to end the match quickly. He needed to get to Ed and get his hip checked out away from the glaring eyes currently surrounding him. And it slowly dawned on him as he prepared to launch into his opening serve of the second tiebreak that he hadn’t been playing smart. He’d been letting his frustration and panic get the better of him. He’d been playing without much thought other than to out power his fellow professional and Destro was feeding off that aggression and throwing it right back in Robert’s face. He needed to play much more intelligently. 

So that’s what he did. He took the speed out of the match by adding dropshots and a defensive slice to his game, meaning Destro had to generate his own power rather than reacting off Robert’s, and he couldn’t manage it. Robert won the second set tiebreak quite easily with Destro suddenly struggling, and it was then that Robert knew that the match had permanently swung his way. He could see Destro’s confidence physically deflating inside him with each point he was now conceding – the Italian knew that two perfect opportunities to take a set off Robert had slipped right through his fingers and there wasn’t going to be a third. Robert had been in that position before, he knew how much it hurt.

With his opponent weakened, Robert blitzed through the third set, ignoring how uncomfortable his hip may have felt. He watched Destro sky his backhand to earn Robert his match winning point with exhausted joy. He ended up winning the match 7-6, 7-6, 6-2, but his body felt like he’d just finished playing a six-hour five setter instead – so he didn’t stick around long on the court. 

He was on autopilot when he quickly but professionally shook his tricky opponent’s hand and then the umpire’s. It was the same when he showed his thanks to the crowd who had amazingly cheered him on throughout the difficult two and a half hours it took to finally beat Destro. He didn’t mean to be ungrateful, he was the opposite to that. The nation’s unwavering support meant the world to him, but his mind was only on one thing: his hip.

  

“Are you okay?” Clive asked worriedly. Robert had entered the changing room uncharacteristically subdued and low, considering he’d just booked himself a match in the second round of the tournament. It left the coach feeling uneasy.

“It’s my hip. I felt a twinge in it before the second tiebreak.” Robert confessed quickly, the words flying out without much coordination in his panic.

Clive, Victoria and Ed’s faces simultaneously dropped in concern. “Right, lay up here for me?” Ed asked quickly, tapping at the cushioned physio table beside him.

Robert did as he was told and laid down on the table, letting out a shaky breath when a sudden flash of uncomfortable déjà vu overcame him. He hoped he wouldn’t ever be in that position again. Hoped he never had to worry about his hip either. But there he was, back on a physio table, just nine months after his return to tennis. 

With a worried Clive and Victoria watching on, Robert and Ed proceeded to go through a familiar set of movements and stretches, all designed to test and pressurise Robert’s hip’s durability. Robert knew the routine well; the actions were well practiced and ingrained into his body like muscle memory. But thankfully, that horribly familiar feeling of déjà vu started to slowly melt away after Robert completed each set of instructions easily and better yet, pain free. 

“Bend your leg again for me?” Ed asked gently, stretching Robert’s hip a couple more times, still examining the movement. “I can’t feel your hip locking up at all and you are moving it freely enough, for my liking.” The physio said positively, eyes flicking between Robert and Clive, “And you don’t feel any pain now, do you?”

“No,” Robert shook his head, the fact that the statement was true (unlike so many times in the past) was a massive relief and helped dull the panic that had been clawing at his insides. There wasn’t even a whisper of the pain he’d felt on court now, just the standard post-match achiness like normal.

Had he imagined the pain before?

Ed smiled and nodded his head, “Good. Perhaps have an ice bath now – that should ease any small aches and pains from the match – followed by a deep tissue massage, yeah?” he suggested calmly, clearly not concerned by what he could see, “I don’t believe there is anything to worry about, I assume what you felt was a standard twinge from such a physical match. You still haven’t reached your peak fitness levels yet, so that must have played a part. But if you feel anything in training tomorrow, let me know and we will contact Tate?”

“I will do, thanks Ed.” Robert smiled, appreciative and relieved. His relief was so strong, he could have cried.

“You were probably just panicking,” Victoria said gently, squeezing Robert’s forearm comfortingly, “I’m sure it was nothing.”

“Vic is right.” Clive agreed. His face looked just as relieved as Robert’s did. Robert wouldn’t have been the only one affected if his injury had returned. “Well done, by the way. You played well out there, considering the pressure Destro put on you.” Clive said with a smile, slapping Robert’s shoulder fondly.

In all his panic about his hip, Robert hadn’t let the thrill of his win sink in when he was out on court. Now that he’d been given the encouraging all clear by Ed, Robert could finally feel the addictive high of winning a match flood through his system – it was rapidly seeping into his bloodstream, making him feel buzzed and wired like he’d just been super charged by a lightning bolt. With a successful career spanning twelve years, the amazing feeling of success was extremely familiar to Robert, that didn’t mean that the sense of achievement had lost its shine though. Robert still felt like an excitable child on Christmas Day.

The elation of winning would never get old, and Robert would never stop craving it. Even now at thirty years old, with forty-five career titles to his name. 

“It was always in the bag.” he said cockily, making Victoria roll her eyes fondly and Clive let out a booming laugh. He hopped off the physio table and took long, well-earned gulps of his energy drink. The surgery liquid pleasantly amplified the electricity already flowing through his veins.

“Of course it was,” Clive smiled broadly, his voice so sure, like he hadn’t doubted Robert for a second. It wasn’t a surprise really, Clive hadn’t ever questioned Robert’s ability from the moment he was hired as Robert’s coach ten years ago. He was the father figure Robert secretly wished his own could have been. “You’ve got Pete Barton in round two, feeling confident?”

Robert had been anxious before the match that morning, but with the Destro win under his belt, he only felt assured now, cocksure even. “Always am, Clive.” he asserted breezily with his trademark smirk well and truly in place.

He couldn’t wait to get back out on court again. Pete Barton didn’t know what was going to hit him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

Aaron once again woke up to his alarm feeling happy and excited for the day of training ahead of him. The buzz from his win hadn’t died down yet, so he was practically bouncing around his hotel room and then breakfast bar where he met up with Cain and Paddy like a giant ball of energy – the complete opposite to the walking, talking bundle of anxiety of the day before.

There was no better feeling than winning a grand slam match, and that feeling only heightened and expanded the bubble of anticipation and excitement that was already beginning to ricochet in his stomach as he walked into Wimbledon, knowing he was going to see a certain someone again. Unlike two days prior, Aaron didn’t need to scan each court in search of Robert, his eyes fell upon the blonde effortlessly and he couldn’t stop himself from smiling at the sight.

Robert was leaning against the barrier of the court – the one that in an unspoken agreement had become their court – with his toned arms crossed and a lopsided smile quirking the corner of his lips, waiting for Aaron’s arrival. He looked ridiculously fit standing there and he wasn’t even bloody trying. Aaron found himself powerless to stop the thrum of attraction from fluttering in his gut, the nearer he got to the man.

“Your serve is holding you back.” Robert stated breezily, clearly bypassing the standard greeting a normal person would make and got straight down to business. 

He was still smirking when Aaron finally reached him, the cheeky git. 

Aaron scoffed out a laugh and dropped his racquet bag down next to Robert’s with a loud thud, “Thanks. Morning to you, too.” he deadpanned, secretly amused rather than offended by the bluntness of Robert’s greeting.

“Morning.” Robert replied sarcastically, his smile all teeth and gorgeous. “It’s true though, it needs addressing.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my serve.” Aaron said stubbornly, feeling slightly defensive.

“Really? Is that why Jacobs was cutting right through it before you started serve volleying?” Robert asked with a smugly raised eyebrow. There was no malice or unkindness in his tone, just gentle teasing. The know-it-all attitude, regardless of the playfulness, should have put Aaron’s back up considering he was criticising how he played, but it did the opposite. The arrogance somehow made him impossibly more attractive.

Ignoring his thoughts, Aaron rolled eyes and pulled out a new practice racquet from his bag. “It was just a bad day,” he attempted to justify, even he could hear how unconvincing he sounded.

Jacobs had powered right through Aaron’s serve like a knife through butter time and time again the day before. It was a massive concern that he and Cain had spoken about at length before they made their way to Wimbledon. Still, he preferred not to give Robert any satisfaction by agreeing with him, seeing the older man any smugger than he already was, was not something Aaron planned to see. 

“If you want to make it right to the top – which you definitely have the ability to do, by the way – you have to improve both your serves. Sharpish.” Robert pressed on, seemingly not done with coaching Aaron.

Aaron felt his stomach flutter embarrassingly after hearing how highly Robert thought of him, how much he rated him as a player. And against his better judgement, curiosity overode his stubbornness and made him want to listen to Robert’s advice. “Go on then, seeing as you’re clearly so knowledgeable, what do you suggest I do instead?” he found himself asking sarcastically. 

“You need to start generating your power through the ground.” Robert replied simply, face cocky and smug as hell as he leaned back further into the barrier behind him, pushing his pelvis further out; drawing Aaron’s attention to his lower half. 

Suddenly very aware of the direction of his gaze, Aaron ripped his eyes away quickly, only to find Robert smiling back at him with knowing eyes. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Aaron felt his cheeks colour slightly at being caught staring but chose not to acknowledge it. “You what?” he questioned instead with a confused laugh. Genuinely baffled by the random advice Robert had given him.

“Instead of trying – and failing – to generate the power through your knees, you should use the ground to drive the power instead. It will help compensate for your lack of height.” Robert replied knowledgably. He grinned when he watched Aaron pull an indignant face in response.

“Right, so let me get this straight. Not only are you telling me that my serve is shit, you’re also telling me that I’m short?” Aaron laughed out, “Thanks!” 

Robert feigned nonchalance, shrugging his shoulder like it wasn’t a big deal, “Can’t be letting your ego get too big after that triumphant win, can I? Got to bring you down a peg or two.”

“You’re the only one here with an ego, mate.”

Robert paused and considered Aaron’s accusation for a beat, “True.” he conceded lightly, grinning devilishly, “It’s hard not to have one when you’re as good as me.”

He was looking so smug it was ridiculous. Aaron wasn’t sure whether he wanted to kiss away the smirk which was playfully spread across his handsome face or punch it. “You’re so arrogant.” he laughed out, unable to stop affection from brightening the insult. 

“Maybe I am, but I also know what I’m talking about,” Robert smiled brightly, eyes twinkling gorgeously in the warm sun, “I never used to be world number one for no reason.” 

“Yeah, you used to be,” Aaron bantered back, not wanting to give Robert an inch. “You’re not anymore, mate.” 

“If it wasn’t for my hip injury, I still would be.” Robert countered with a grin. Their banter was crackling and smouldering between them like a molten hot inferno. Aaron could feel it electrifying the air, he could almost taste it – and he couldn’t stop himself from stoking the fire some more.

“Exactly. Why should I take advice from a bloke whose technique forced him to need a hip replacement!” he teased back, flashing a grin of his own as he watched Robert’s face drop in over exaggerated offence.

“You cheeky git!” he laughed out indignantly, shoving Aaron playfully, making the younger man grin even more, “It wasn’t a hip replacement, I had acetabulum reversal surgery, actually.” Contrary to his huffy, almost childish tone, an amused beam was illuminating Robert’s face, its wonderful glow made him look so much younger.

Aaron loved the sight–

Wait, what?

Momentarily startled by his own admission, Aaron had to mentally shake the thought away, not wanting to let Robert in on his embarrassment, then hummed in playful scepticism to cover his tracks, “If you say so.” 

With anyone else Aaron wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to have been that openly playful and flirtatious with them, but with Robert things were just so easy. Their chemistry sparked between them naturally and effortlessly, and they managed to slot into this comfortable and fun teasing so organically, like two perfect pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle.

“It’s the truth!” Robert protested loudly, though the creases around his eyes betrayed his true amusement, “I’ll show you the x-rays if you like?”

Aaron wrinkled his nose, snorting slightly, “Nah, you’re alright.”

“Suit yourself.” Robert shrugged light-heartedly. He watched Aaron for a moment with glittering eyes, which then narrowed slightly, “I see right through your game though, Dingle. Changing the subject to avoid talking about your serving.” 

Aaron rolled his eyes, “You’re the one who started talking about egos, not me,” he pointed out, before something dawned on him, “Why do you care so much anyway?” he questioned lightly, face caught between a frown and a smile. 

It was true, why was Robert showing so much interest in Aaron’s game?

“I told you, you’re a talented player who could be so much better… Plus I’ve been right about you twice already,” His crooked smile was unashamedly flirty and so were his eyes, he was staring back at Aaron with a crosshair gaze, Aaron’s stomach swooped at the sight. “And as they say, three’s a charm...”

Aaron teasingly frowned back, lips fighting to hold back his smile. “Right about what exactly?”

“I told you you were going to breeze through the next round, for one – sure, breezing through may be the wrong way to put it – you had a bit of a stinker in the first set – but whatever, who’s splitting hairs, right?” Robert toyed, velvet-voiced and eyes sparkling as his body swayed infinitesimally closer to Aaron, feline-like and dangerously attractive. Someone else may not have even noticed the slight movement, but Aaron could, his senses were heightened to the point of fever pitch whenever he was around the older man. “I was still right… and,” the blond drawled with a smile, the single word drawn out and richly laced like honey. “I said you were gonna look good in white.”   

Robert was smirking so seductively, not even trying to hide how flirtatious he was being, and Aaron had to swallow hard and bite down on his bottom lip to try and hold back his matching smirk, “Don’t see why what I wear is such a big deal?” he argued half-heartedly, eyes flicking between Robert’s eyes and lips. 

“It’s not, it was just nice to see you in a colour that didn’t make you look like you were going to a funeral for a change.” Robert quipped lightly, his striking smirk still firmly in place.

Aaron scoffed out a laugh “There’s nothing wrong with wearing black.” He shrugged his mouth and shoulder casually, even if he felt anything but casual. His heart was jackrabbiting in his chest, fast like speeding light and anticipation was charging through his veins.

“No there isn’t, but that’s the only colour you bloody wear.” Robert laughed out, “You do know, there’s like, this whole spectrum of colour out there just waiting for you to explore it.” His voice was lilted with amusement, his face light and grinning so playfully.

Aaron frowned at the piss taking, even though the corners of his mouth were struggling yet again not to lift in a smile. “You’ve got some front judging my clothes, mate. You look like you pulled down some poor old lady’s curtains and made a top out of them.” he threw back, highlighting the terrible paisley polo Robert was wearing with his eyes. They dragged up the older man’s body slowly – uncontrollably lustful and suggestive – and he arched his eyebrow when his eyes met Robert’s again. Check mate. 

Robert’s eyes lit up at Aaron’s obvious flirting, they were drinking in the younger man in front of him intensely and he smiled toothily back at him. “It’s fashion.” he shrugged lightly, his body swaying even closer. “Something you clearly know nothing about.” 

Aaron rolled his eyes, his body edging closer to Robert’s too, “And elbow patches, are they fashion?” he quipped, full of amusement. He could feel his pulse quickening within his veins with each step they took closer to each other, his blood was spiked almost painfully with desire. 

“How’d you know about them?” Robert’s eyes had suddenly brightened into a green glittering tease and he smirked that smirk that Aaron found he wanted to kiss the life out of, “Have you been google stalking me?”

“No.” Aaron scoffed, which was a lie, he’d struggled to fall asleep the night before when his body was too wired from the buzz of his match win. He had decided to kill time until he fell asleep by browsing the internet, and naturally found himself searching for Robert Sugden. Less than a week ago Aaron thought Robert was very much a ladies man and engaged to Chrissie White – Robert’s quite obvious flirting and forwardness said otherwise on both counts, and it made Aaron curious.

He searched article after article and then Google image after Google image, but nothing had helped to clear up the mystery of Robert Sugden and his apparent bisexuality. It was then, scrolling through the endless amounts of images of Robert at parties and social events that Aaron noticed the older man’s horrifyingly bad habit of wearing shirts with elbow patches. There was no way he wasn’t going to take the piss when he had the opportunity. 

“If you say so,” Robert said sarcastically and smiled all smugly and knowing, clearly reading through Aaron’s bad attempt at denial, “I’ll let you in on a little secret though… elbow patches are a classic, they will never go out of fashion.”

Aaron puffed out a laugh, “Yeah, for grandads.” he bantered back, “Just because you practically are a grandad, doesn’t mean you have to dress like one.” He was unable to stop the laugh that cackled out when he saw the incredulous look on Robert’s face. 

“I’m thirty, not ninety!” Robert said offendedly, but the glint in his eye was very telling. 

“Still old.” Aaron smiled, enjoying his turn at being the cocky one too much to stop.

“You little-” The blonde reached out and tried to grab Aaron’s t-shirt, but he accidently skated his fingers across Aaron’s ribcage instead, making the younger man squirm away from the ticklish feeling and let out the most embarrassing sound. Robert’s eyes lit up devilishly at Aaron’s reaction, knowing he’d found a weakness and he stepped in dangerously closer, one thing on his mind, “Don’t you dare.” Aaron warned, reading the mischievous look in the older man’s eye and started to back away in protection.

“What?” Robert asked playfully, shrugging his shoulders innocently. “I’m not doing anything?”

Aaron couldn’t look away from Robert sauntering closer and closer to him – the image was dangerous and exciting, all at the same time – and he soon felt his back collide with the barrier behind him, leaving Robert only a hairbreadth away, and Aaron secretly relished feeling the older man’s body heat so close to him. His skin was thrumming with anticipation, he wanted Robert to touch him again so badly.

“I know what you’re think-” he was about to say, eyes full of heat and heavy-lidded, but his words were interrupted by a loud clearing of a throat behind them. Both men turned to see that Cain was staring back at them, looking extremely unimpressed and bristling with impatience. Robert’s coach looked just as unamused.

“When you’ve stopped fucking about with Sugden, can you actually get to work on your drills please? – you know, seeing as they’re the reason you’re here in the first place,” he snapped out sarcastically, making Aaron and Robert snap away from each other and trade a pair of bashful smiles, “And Sugden?” Cain called, ripping their gazes away from each other and back onto Aaron’s uncle. His eyes were piercing. “Aaron’s playing a left-hander like you tomorrow, can you make yourself useful and help him out with his returns of serve?”

Robert casually shrugged his shoulders, unfazed by Cain’s hostility, “Yeah, I can do that.”

“Thanks.” Cain replied bluntly.

Robert flicked his eyes back towards Aaron for a second before he picked up his racquet and slinked his way towards the court. “Are you coming or what?” Cain asked Aaron abruptly when his embarrassed nephew still hadn’t moved. Aaron could still feel his cheeks colouring, he’d completely forgotten that Cain had been right there, and he’d caught him flirting with Robert yet again.

“Yeah. Sorry.” he replied sheepishly, pushing himself off the barrier and picking up his own racquet. He knew he and Cain would be having words later and he was already dreading it.

  

They trained for two hours together after that, but under the very watchful eye of both their coaches. As he had agreed, Robert helped prepare Aaron for his second-round match with Jovanović by providing the big, left-handed kick serves similar to those he would face against the Serbian, whilst Cain gave Aaron pointers on how to defend and also attack such quick and trickily delivered balls.

Eventually they drifted off to complete separate drills with their respective coaches, but that didn’t stop their eyes from connecting across the courts time and time again – catching and igniting whatever was building between them with each knowing look and secretive smile they shared. It felt like they were moths to a flame and their reciprocated bond was a force of nature neither could fight against. Not that they would have wanted to fight against it anyway, they were both being drawn in willingly.

It didn’t feel dangerous or frightening to Aaron like it maybe should have been – he’d only known Robert three days after all. But it felt as right as breathing to Aaron, as second nature and inevitable as gravity. And deep down, Aaron knew, as his eyes caught Robert’s yet again, that he felt exactly the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

“I know what I said earlier about your serving, but all jokes aside, you played brilliantly yesterday.” Robert said with a genuine smile, pulling out a chair from a table in the far corner of the canteen area.

With their morning sessions completed, Robert had suggested that he and Aaron take a break and get lunch together. As much as Clive and Aaron’s uncle had been annoyingly breathing down their necks the whole time, Robert had enjoyed being in Aaron’s company again and he found that he wanted to spend as much time as he could with the younger man. And getting Aaron on his own, away from the watchful eye of Cain Dingle, was too good an opportunity for Robert to resist.

To most Aaron probably came across as moody and standoffish, but Robert knew that wasn’t true at all. He got to see the real Aaron, the fun, playful and hilarious one. He was dry and witty and knew exactly how to push Robert’s buttons, and Robert knew exactly how to push his as well.

Robert hadn’t ever believed in soulmates and fate. He used to think it was all just fairytales and wishful thinking, too sickly sweet to ever be real. But even he couldn’t deny how perfectly he and Aaron had fitted together, how they were almost made for each other. It left Robert craving Aaron’s company like an addict.

“Thanks,” Aaron smiled back in that appreciative and small way of his, “You played great as well by the way.” He’d pulled out a chair for himself and sat down opposite Robert, faltering slightly when he heard his phone chime with what Robert guessed was a new message.

Robert shrugged his shoulder, not so sure of his own performance. “I could have played much better, but I didn’t adapt to his game quick enough.” he admitted truthfully, very aware of his own faults yesterday.

“Yeah, he did give you the run around, didn’t he?” Aaron teased playfully, nose wrinkled. His eyes were shining with that trademark cheeky sarkiness Robert was growing to love about him.

“Shut up.” he fired back light-heartedly, making Aaron puff out a laugh.

They’d been doing that the moment they first started training together. That easy and light flirting dressed up as playful teasing. They both knew what they were doing, both could read each other’s game without even trying, but neither commented on the blossoming bond that was forming between them – they were having too much fun together.

“I’ve obviously got to work you more in training,” Aaron suggested lightly, grinning back at Robert so attractively, it took all his will power not to push forward and devour the younger man’s inviting lips. “Work you harder.”

“I’d like to see you try-” Robert began to flirt back, but his words were interrupted when the start of a loud and fast guitar riff – Aaron’s ringtone, which Robert later found out was a song called Stockholm Syndrome – began ringing through the younger man’s phone speaker.

“Sorry,” Aaron apologised, before quickly looking down at the caller ID. He rolled his eyes with a fond smile when he saw who was calling, but he made no move to answer it. Robert frowned slightly when the call continued to ring out, “Aren’t you going to answer that?”

“Nah. It’s only my little sister, I’ll call her back later.” Aaron said quickly, tucking into his lunch instead.

The dismissiveness was almost hilarious, but that was Aaron all over: charmingly rude and endearingly grumpy. Robert was sure he was becoming besotted.

He laughed out loud and shook his head playful disbelief, completely amused by the man sitting in front of him. “You’re a brave man Aaron Dingle. My little sister would string me up if she found out I was dodging any of her calls.” he smiled, affection and love for his sister shining through his eyes regardless of his words. 

“Yeah, well, she should be studying in school, not calling me.” Aaron shrugged, finally deciding to mute his phone when his ringtone started blaring again.

“It could be something urgent?”

“It’s not, trust me. She’s just upset that I didn’t tell her about playing in Centre Court yesterday – and for not buying her tickets.” Aaron explained with fond annoyance. His phone buzzed by his water bottle with another text message, clearly from his unimpressed and very persistent little sister.

“How old is she?”

“Fourteen, going on thirty,” Aaron sighed out, “I love her, I really do, but she can be a little pain in the arse at times.” he said truthfully, but not unkindly. It was impossible not to notice how his voice was so much lighter when he spoke about her, his face too.

That was before yet another text message overusing capitals and exclamation marks (from what Robert could make out, it was hard to decipher upside down) flashed across Aaron’s phone screen, making Aaron roll his eyes once more. A pain in the arse seemed like a fair assessment.

Robert smiled and hummed in understanding, immediately thinking of Victoria, she too was a little wind up, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Little sisters aren’t doing their jobs properly if they’re not annoying the hell out of you.” he retorted lightly, making Aaron smile in amused agreement. 

“True,” the younger man laughed, “Your sister works with you, doesn’t she?”

“Vic? Yeah. She’s the one to thank for my squeaky clean public image.” That wasn’t giving her the credit she deserved really. She’d been Robert’s rock for the past twenty months, supporting him through his operation and rehabilitation, and then she loved and accepted him unconditionally when he came out. He would have been truly lost without her.

“I could probably do with her helping me out with my PR.” Aaron joked, making Robert snort out a laugh in response.

“Don’t get me wrong, Vic’s great n’all, but she ain’t a miracle worker. Even she couldn’t help you, you’re a disaster.” Robert decided to tease, regretting it a split second later when he realised that maybe he’d pushed too far trying to wind Aaron up.

But he needn’t had worried, Aaron’s face may have dropped in offence, but his eyes were shining good-naturedly back at Robert, and a smile stretched handsomely across his face, “Fuck you.” he laughed out, no heat behind his words. Robert couldn’t stop himself from smiling back.

“What the hell was that ringtone about by the way?” Robert asked, deciding to change the subject, “You’re not one of those mad metal-heads, are you?” His smirk couldn’t have been any wider.

“No,” Aaron snorted, “It was Muse, they’re not metal, mate.”

“What genre are they then?”

“Alternative rock.” Aaron said simply, his tone made it sound like the extremely convoluted categorisation of Rock music and its many variants was the most obvious thing in the world and Robert was silly for not knowing.

“Right,” Robert said, drawing out the vowel, “Same thing really.” he conceded with a shrug.

“No, it really isn’t.”

Robert rolled his eyes at younger man’s know-it-all attitude. Aaron Dingle was a music snob, who would have thought?

“Whatever genre they are, they explain the grim reaper look you’ve going on.” Robert was unable to stop his eyes from dragging down Aaron’s black covered torso to highlight his point.

Aaron huffed out a laugh, “What’s with you obsessing over my clothes?” he asked, eyes shining and so, so blue. Robert couldn’t stop himself from marvelling at how beautiful they were. He found himself momentarily speechless just staring at them.

“Just observing what I see.” he eventually managed to get out.

“Right…” Aaron laughed out with bright eyes. “If your terrible taste in clothing has any baring on your music taste, then you probably love… Cher or something.” He surmised, off-the-cuff and awkward enough that the words stumbled out endearingly.

“Everyone loves Cher, she’s amazing.” Robert said without a shred of embarrassment and Aaron looked horrified by the confession, almost comically so. The younger man clearly hadn’t expected in a million years that Robert would actually agree with him, let alone admit his love for Cher so freely. Robert couldn’t stop himself from chuckling at the sight.

“You seriously like Cher?”

“Yeah.”

Aaron’s nose wrinkled, “Then we seriously need to have a chat about your taste, don’t we?”

“Well I like you, don’t I?” Robert countered with his most charming of smiles, not missing a single beat. His heart skipped in his chest when Aaron shyly nodded his head in response and bit his bottom lip to supress the smile which was threatening to lift at the corners of his mouth.

Aaron had a habit of doing that and a spike of want pierced through Robert like an arrow every time he did it. He wanted to drag his tongue across Aaron’s smirking lips. He wanted to prise his mouth open and taste the hot, wet heat inside. 

Robert wanted Aaron so much it was silly. Desire was burning deep within his gut and the flames were licking his lungs, pressing against his ribs, making his hot blood rush south... And his lust only got stronger when he could see the same want swimming in Aaron’s sea of blue irises as they locked onto his. The world was suddenly a blur of nothingness around them–

–But another text message vibrated against the table, splintering the charged moment and dragging Aaron’s attention away, much to Robert’s annoyance.

“She’s relentless,” Aaron groaned, looking at his phone again.

“It’s not surprising, your mum seems like a fire cracker n’all. Must run in the family.” Robert said with a small smile. He remembered how Aaron’s mum’s shouts of encouragement had rung out so loudly across Centre Court yesterday that they were picked up by the television cameras. 

Aaron’s smiled at Robert’s words, his face soft with fondness and love, making his eyes look even more beautiful than they already were, “We don’t have the same mum, but yeah, Liv’s a character alright. My mum too.” he laughed, “Dunno where I’d be without her though, to be honest.”

“Does she go to all your matches?”

“She tries to, but she owns a pub back at home with her cousin, so she can’t really afford to leave it. She normally comes to my first round matches and any weekend ones though – if I manage to get as far as that, that is.”

Aaron proceeded to tell Robert all about how amazing his mum was. With a loving smile he talked about how his mother had helped finance his tennis each time he had lost his LTA funding, and how she hadn’t stopped believing in him, even when Aaron was at his most destructive and least deserving of her unconditional support, and then how she had been his rock when he’d been depressed, lost and low during his tennis exile. Their relationship sounded so wonderful, and sadness and a little bit of envy washed over Robert as he listened on. He didn’t begrudge Aaron his relationship with his mother, not in the slightest, but hearing all about it made him suddenly miss his own mum even more than he already did. He missed her so much, it hurt. 

“It’s amazing how supportive she is. You’re incredibly lucky.” he said quietly, he tried to hide the sadness he was feeling but he clearly didn’t succeed because Aaron’s soft features suddenly creased into a small frown, “Do your parents not support you then?” he asked gently, his voice quiet and sad. 

“They both died before they could ever see me play professionally.” Robert said heavily. The words hurt to say out loud, pain stabbed at his heart like it always did when he thought about them.

“Oh Robert, I’m sorry-”

“Don’t be, they died a long time ago now,” Robert reassured quickly, though sadness thickened his words, betraying just how raw their deaths still were for him. “My dad hated me playing tennis anyway, said I was only doing it because I thought I was better than what I really was – just a farmer’s son – and I should have known my place.” Bitterness lay heavy and unmistakable in his voice then, the memories of a million arguments he and his father had had about his tennis future had flashed across his mind like a bad dream. Each fight had fractured their fragile relationship just that bit more, then Robert went and kissed a boy and shattered it into oblivion, never to be repaired. 

A frown cut deep between Aaron’s eyebrows and fury was clouding his blue eyes at hearing Robert’s words. Robert was probably being silly but seeing Aaron so angry on his behalf – to care enough about Robert to be so – sent a rush of warmth flooding all through him. “Sounds like your dad was a dick.”

The bluntness of Aaron’s statement knocked a laugh out of Robert. He couldn’t disagree with the younger man. “Yeah he was.” he agreed bitterly, but his face soon bloomed into something fond and soft, “But my mum,” he smiled so lovingly, “My mum was amazing... she was supportive and passionate and loving – the best mum I could ever have asked for.”

“Yeah?” Aaron asked, his smile was the softest thing Robert had ever seen, it morphed his anger from seconds ago into something so beautiful and Robert found himself smiling even wider because of it. 

“Yeah.” he breathed out a laugh, face warming as he remembered his mother’s almost stubborn determination to make sure he achieved his dream, “She was the one who took me to lessons, used to work a second job just to pay for them, bless her. She was the one watching from the side lines when I was competing in the juniors.” he smiled warmly, eyes flicking back to Aaron’s to see the younger man listening to Robert’s words so intently, eyes focused entirely on him, like Robert was the centre of his everything. Perhaps the intensity should have made Robert feel exposed and uncomfortable, maybe a little vulnerable, but it didn’t. He felt comforted and comfortable instead, and it encouraged him to carry on. “I remember her always telling me to never give up on my dream, to never stop believing in myself, no matter what my dad or my brother said... I know I wouldn’t be here without her.”

“I bet she’d be proud of you.” Aaron was smiling that smile again, that soft and kind one that Robert could easily fall in love with – maybe he already had.

“I dunno sometimes.” Robert winced, self-deprecating and unsure.

He didn’t mean to be so truthful or vulnerable in front of the other man, yet, like he had done a few days ago, in the same canteen and at the same table in fact, Robert found himself unconsciously opening up to Aaron again. Trusting him.

It didn’t make sense really, how much he did trust Aaron. He barely knew him, but that didn’t seem to matter. He already trusted Aaron more than most of the people he’d known for years.

Robert had made a lot of mistakes down the years – Katie, Andy, Max, Chrissie, his dad in a way – the list was endless, and he wasn’t proud of himself for any of them. There was a niggling voice in the back of his mind that told him his mother wouldn’t be either; she’d probably be ashamed of him. He ignored the voice for the most part, but sometimes it seeped through against Robert’s control. Made him doubt himself completely.

“What makes you think she wouldn’t be?”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, done a lot of stupid things.” Robert said quietly, suddenly unable to look Aaron in the eye. 

“Everyone has, Robert. Just look at me, I’ve made enough to last me a life time.” Aaron laughed lightly, trying to ease Robert’s doubt. “Don’t ever let a couple of mistakes make you doubt yourself.”

“You don’t know what I’ve done though Aaron, you don’t know what I used to be like.”

“Well I know you enough now to know that you’re a good bloke, who’s been kind to me when no one else has.” Aaron stated passionately, his eyes were full of an intensity Robert couldn’t stop himself from being drawn into. They were blue and strong and kind, and they left Robert speechless. “And I know how great a tennis player you are - I mean... just look at your career, all that you have achieved, the titles you’ve won – how you’ve come back from that hip injury,” he said determinedly, learning in closer to Robert, desperately trying to get him to see. “Robert, it’s amazing. And your mum would be so proud of you – mistakes or not – and you should be too.”

He was looking at Robert so openly, so kindly still and it took Robert’s breath away. “Thanks.” he smiled shyly, unsure what else to say really, he was floored by Aaron’s words. Only Vic had ever been so pro Robert before.

“It’s what us brits do innit, we support each other.” Aaron said softly, reaching out and brushing his fingers against Robert’s. It was a hesitant and unsure show of affection, the faintest of touches, but a spark of electricity passed through them regardless, and it crackled through Robert’s veins like a lightning bolt – leaving him breathless and the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. 

Before Robert knew it though – before he could even react – Aaron had taken his hand away. The comforting sensation of Aaron’s warm skin against his own was replaced by coldness and a bashful look on Aaron’s face. He almost looked panicked, liked he’d done too much or crossed some line by reaching out. 

He hadn’t and Robert was going to tell him that, was going to tell him that he wanted to be touched, but Aaron’s next words stopped him: “I’d kill to have your career, you know.” The younger man said, cheeks still rosy from embarrassment and he scratched at his eyebrow nervously. 

Robert couldn’t help but be endeared by the sight, “Well you can do if you listen to me and sort out your serve.” he replied lightly, making Aaron roll his eyes in reply. “You’ve definitely got the ability to go right to the top of you do.”

“Don’t think I’ll ever be as good a player as you though, regardless of my serve.” Aaron confessed with a wry smile. His shyness from before seemingly long forgotten. 

“Probably not.” Robert quipped, making Aaron laugh loudly.

“You’re so arrogant.” Aaron smiled with a shake of the head. Robert beamed back in return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

They walked back to the practice courts in comfortable silence after lunch, stealing not so subtle glances at each other. Their smiles were knowing and shy.

They were just about to walk onto their court when Robert saw her, Chrissie, standing there observing the players already training, and his stomach dropped. He hadn’t seen her since the vicious outing in Leeds last year and a rush of betrayal and pain washed over him so potent and strong, that he suddenly felt like he was back there in that god forsaken restaurant all over again, drowning in humiliation and shame, unable to stop or erase the spiteful words Chrissie was firing out like bullets. 

He told himself – like he had done so many times last year – that she wasn’t worth his time or his energy to even acknowledge her existence. That he should just ignore her and get on with his life, but there was also a reflex in him baying for revenge, it was difficult to ignore. He hated her and he wanted to destroy her, just like she had done to him. 

Before he knew it though, Chrissie had turned around and their eyes met for the first time in sixteen months; making Robert’s blood boil in his veins even more. Chrissie’s face had pulled itself into something ugly and unpleasant upon seeing her ex fiancé, and it managed to sour even more when she took in Robert’s company. 

“Aww, how sweet, the love cheat has befriended the drugs cheat. It’s like magnetism at its worst,” Chrissie sarcastically remarked, her look of distain flicked between the two men before her in equal measure.

Her hair was cut into the shortest and harshest of bobs and just like that terrible time in the restaurant, her eyes were steeled and dangerous; everything about her was hard lines and sharp edges, no softness to be seen. And looking at her in that moment, Robert wasn’t sure what he’d ever saw in her.

He was just about to reply to her jibe with a sarcastic and biting remark of his own – his mouth open with the words on the tip of his tongue – but Aaron beat him to it: “I’m not a cheat!” he spat out.

Chrissie’s smile was patronisingly insincere, “You think so?” she asked sarcastically and spiteful, “I think your positive drugs test last year says otherwise, Mister Dingle.”

“Still didn’t cheat.” Aaron insisted with bite, his jaw steeled in a challenge and his eyes were burning with determination. He looked ready for a fight.

“Oh yes, of course, what was it you told the International Tennis Federation again? Recreational use, outside of competition, wasn’t it?” The rhetorical question was spat out with such venom, Robert was almost taken aback by it.

Had Chrissie always been such a nasty piece of work?

“But in competition, out of competition – it doesn’t matter, it was still in your system when you were tested.” Chrissie carried on with quite frankly unwarranted hatred, she didn’t even bloody know Aaron. “And I think anyone with a brain knows that the pathetic cross-contamination excuse you came up with was a load of bull.”

Aaron scoffed, his laugh humourless and full of attitude, “Yeah, well, it’s the truth. So I don’t care what you or anyone else thinks!” He hissed out his words and Chrissie’s face twisted in distain.

“You’ve got some nerve, arguing the toss with me. You should consider yourself lucky to even be standing here. If I’d have had it my way, you’d be nowhere near this competition.” Chrissie spat out, “People like you don’t belong here.”

“Yeah, you've made it perfectly clear you don't want me here. But I am.” Aaron fought back with fire, cocky in a way Robert hadn't seen before, “So get over it and yourself, or do one.” he said dismissively. 

Chrissie’s face looked stunned for a moment. Her mouth was tight and strained; unable to find a sufficient enough come back to Aaron’s retort. The younger man had called her out and she was left speechless. Robert had been silent the whole time his ex and Aaron were trading the verbal punches, and he'd been feeling like a bit of a spare part just standing there. He secretly wished he was the one to outsmart and dismiss Chrissie like that, but he found watching Aaron do it was just as enjoyable to experience.

“Watch how you speak to me Mister Dingle, I could easily make things difficult for you.” Chrissie eventually threatened, the words sounded pathetic and flustered. Knowing she didn’t have the upper hand anymore, she straightened her back, kept her head held high and made to retreat away from the pair of them.

She had just reached the exit when she turned towards Aaron, her arrogant mask firmly back in place, she could never be on the backfoot for long. “By the way Aaron, I would think twice about the company you’re keeping. Robert is a bit of a hater you see. What was it you used to say about him?” she asked in Robert’s direction, eyes brimming with spite, “He was a moronic chav and time waster, wasn’t it?” She was smiling nastily, taking pleasure in weaponising Robert’s past words to hurt them both. 

But she didn’t wait for Aaron’s or Robert’s reaction, she just carried on her way with her heels click clacking loudly behind her.

Both men watched her walked away with hatred in their eyes. Robert was about to explain himself, explain how his past-self had been wrong about Aaron, but he was stopped from doing so by Aaron.

“It’s true you know.” Aaron said quietly, head bowed before he looked up at Robert with honest eyes, “What I told the ITF.” Chrissie's skepticism of Aaron's explanation for his drug use had clearly gotten to the younger man.

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me Aaron.” Robert assured quickly.

Sure, he found it hard to reconcile the troubled man who recklessly took an illegal drug, with the man that was standing beside him. Robert had seen every day when he trained with Aaron how hardworking, dedicated and passionate he was about the sport. Just like Robert, Aaron lived and breathed tennis. It made his poor attitude in the early years of his career and last year’s drug taking not make any sense. It just wasn’t the Aaron he was slowly but surely getting to know.

That being said though, Robert never wanted Aaron to feel like he had to justify himself to him, or to someone like Chrissie.

“No, I know I don’t… but-but I want you to know the truth, because...because I care about what you think of me.” Aaron confessed shyly. 

Robert felt his heart flutter in his chest at Aaron’s admission. The younger man didn’t have to reveal anything to Robert, but like he had reiterated, he wanted to. He trusted Robert, just like Robert did him.

“I know it’s not an excuse, but I was in a really bad place at the time and-and I wasn’t really thinking straight when I took it,” Aaron explained quietly, face embarrassed and subdued as he spoke.

Sadness washed over Robert, listening to the younger man explain. Knowing Aaron had been so unhappy last year that he resorted to drugs hurt him more than Aaron would ever realise.

“It was just the once and it was out of competition – the coke only showed up in my drugs test because I stupidly kept the bag of the vile stuff in my washbag with my painkillers for a while.” Aaron said quickly, the frustration and disappointment he felt towards himself lay thick and heavy in every word. “It’s the worst mistake of my life.”

Robert didn’t really know what to say, that was not the story that the papers had spun last year and continued to do so now. It angered Robert to know how they had twisted things, how Robert like everyone else, had believed them.

“You said you were in a bad place before,” Robert said with concern, “Are you in a better place now?” He hoped he was, he really did.

Aaron’s smile was so soft and bright, it was almost blinding, “Yeah. Yeah I am.”

“Good.” Robert replied with a half-smile, relieved to know Aaron wasn't in that dark place anymore.

The air around them felt slightly awkward now, their conversation had been unexpectantly heavy and neither man really knew what do to with themselves. Aaron cleared his throat and scratched at his eyebrow. Robert eyes flicked between the ground and Aaron quickly.

Then suddenly a ghost of a cheeky smile broke out on Aaron's face. “A chavvy moron eh?”

For a moment Robert had forgotten that Chrissie had told Aaron that. His face wrinkled into a grimace, embarrassed by his past words. They sounded so petty now, “Sorry.”

Aaron hummed, not offended in the slightest. “Don’t worry about it, I’ve been called far worse.” He was smiling so brightly, it was beautiful. Though Aaron’s words made Robert feel a pang of sadness still.

He was aware of the abuse Aaron had endured on social media around the time his cocaine use became public knowledge. Robert had teased Aaron for stalking him on Google earlier, but he’d been guilty of doing the same thing the day he found out Aaron dated men. It was then that Robert stumbled upon an article about Aaron having to quit his Twitter and Instagram accounts because he had received so many vile and cruel comments. Robert had unfortunately read some of them, no one deserved to have that amount of vitriol levelled at them, and especially not Aaron. 

“I’m just surprised you’re willing to knock about with me,” Aaron said, small creases forming around his sparkling eyes. “Considering I’m so thick and chavvy.”

“Well desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they,” Robert said with a playful shrug of the shoulders, and a wide smile spread across his face at Aaron’s narrowed and suspicious eyes. His eyebrows were raised in a question.

“Meaning?”

“Couldn’t find anyone else dumb enough to try to compete with me in training, could I?” Robert said in explanation, grinning widely. “Had no other choice but to make do with you.”

A loud cackle erupted out of Aaron, lighting up his entire face and igniting a wonderful warmth within his eyes. “Fuck off, you idiot.” he laughed out breathlessly, shoving Robert playfully away at the same time.

Robert was pleased that they had managed to find their flirtatious banter again. And like before in the canteen area, sparks of electricity fizzled through them at the point of their contact, leaving them feeling breathless and charged.

It was like Chrissie had said, it was magnetism.