01 Ready? Play!

“Time,” Lynn said, pressing the switch of the microphone.[]

Both Lana Uzilenko and Sasha Mrachova, two excellent players from Eastern countries headed to the baselines. Sure, Lana, the Ukrainian seemed to rely a bit too much on challenges but when she forgot about it, her game was nearly perfect. A hard hitting left-hander who was able and willing to come to the net to finish the points in magnificent fashion. On the other side, Sasha, a Czech veteran player aged only 23 years but a three-time Grand Slam winner. It was four years now since she had won her last big title. After nagging injuries her serve was past the zenith, and most experts would say, so was she. Nowadays, the most talked about feature of her game was her infamous shriek. It was her turn to serve.

Waiting for the server to chose the right balls Lynn allowed herself a look at the stands only to notice a familiar player with red hair sitting down in a chair near the exit. Amanda Auster, the home-crowd favorite would probably stay for a few minutes only, as an observer. The draw foresaw that Amanda had to play Sasha if she made it through to the semi. As if her famous struggle to play in front of the home crowd wasn’t enough she had a terrible record against Sasha. Amanda Auster had never even won a set against the tall blonde from Czech Republic. Amanda was one of the nicest players on tour. She was also one of the most reticent players. There have never been player party stories about Amanda. More than once, Lynn had chosen as one of her girls in the Love Game and it had proven costly. In those years she had lost the title. Lynn liked Amanda nevertheless. She had a strong serve, an impeccable forehand, and she worked hard to prove to everyone she could make it in singles, too, after having succeeded in doubles so brightly.

Lynn concentrated back on the match. As soon as Sasha had served for the first time, the match had been tight and extremely competitive. Sasha took the first set from the younger player, but Lana had fought back in the second set in formidable fashion. For the delight of the audience, the girls had gone into the game as if their lives depended on it. From backhands to forehands, from volleys at the net to excruciating groundstroke battles – the level was very high and the tension palpable.
Even if Sasha seemed like the better player throughout the match with her first serve deserting her this second set was heading straight into a tie-break. But on the other end of the net was Lana Uzilenko. And Lynn knew the pattern that was about to unfold.

Had she abused of challenges? Not really, assumed Lana. Anyway, it was a limited tool. The previous attempts had turned to be unsuccessful. She had started the tie-break with only two challenges, including the extra challenge granted to players after twelve games. One challenge was gone at 3-2 when she had hit a forehand cross-court. It looked on the line. At least, from where she was standing. Hawk-Eye said differently.

But this time, Lana had clearly seen the yellow ball fly above the white line before landing on the floor. Except not a single line judge called the ball out. Immediately, she had raised her finger and desperately looking at Lynn, had asked for another challenge. After fighting so hard in the second set, after coming through such tight games, she wouldn’t give this tie-break and the match to Sasha.
Lynn’s eyes grew wider, silently asking if she was sure that she wanted to challenge it. Lana nodded and held her breath under the crowd’s applause. Challenges set off that wave of adrenalin players loved so much; the suspense, the crowd joining into the excitement. There was something so special about that moment that Lana seemed to be addicted to it and if it weren’t for a slight dependency on its outcome, Lynn would have said that the Ukrainian simply challenged for the sake of it. I was 6-5 for Lana and if she challenged correctly Lynn would have had the ball replayed.

But the ball was in. It had caught the line by a tiny margin and Lynn called the score for 6 all. Looking in disbelief at a fist-pumping Sasha, Lana swallowed hard. Her challenges were all screwed.[]

In frustration Lana swung her racquet and smashed it onto the ground. It bounced back right into her hand. It was a motion Lana used so often on court it had become her trademark move. Lana was feeling the pressure mounting on her shoulders. In silence she headed to her seat. Restraining a sigh of exasperation, Lana grabbed her bottle of water and took long, slow sips. When she didn’t lose herself in double faults, Sasha was almost unbeatable. Damn, a three-time Grand Slam champion wasn’t that easy to defeat and Lana knew it too well.

Two points later the tie-break was over. Sasha Mrachova decided her first match of the season with two brilliant forehand winners. With the voice that never gave away her feelings, Lynn called the score and began thinking of the match ahead of her.