Wordcarpenter Books
The Mantle Pat
 
The First Volley

Higgy with a risky cross court backhand...but Ketchum gazelles over and lunges with a topspin lob that goes deep to Higgy's forehand...just out of reach...

' Zéro - cinze."

--

The Return Volley

But unfortunately for the topspinner Ketchum the ball bounced just past the base line. "Nice try" Higgy says just loud enough for the fatigued Ketchum to hear, shaking his head, thinking "I had 'im."

Nicknamed by the fans of the ATP Tour as "Hellmantle," Higgins caught a glimpse of Yasmin, the Texan with the killer grin. Like many of Hellmantle's old flames, Yasmin ended up liking the shallow waters in contrast to his thirst for the deeper seas.

Ketchum tosses up the ball - in his highly unordodox serving motion - landing the ball on the centre line. Hellmantle gracefully executes a sudden drop shot to the net. Kethchum sprints to the net and drops one back but Hellmantle lunges forward and sneaks the fuzzy ball just out of reach of Ketchum who has stretched - with grinning teeth - to his maximum. Hellmantle, thinking he heard a grunt of some kind, is momentarily concerned that his opponent has pulled a muscle...

' Zéro - trente. Ketchum a servir.'

--

The Ketchum Maelstrom

Ketchum, still a bit shaken after the umpires overrule on what he figured was pristine perfection in lobbing, settles in and fires three aces in a row past a bewildered Hellmantle and measured applause from the crowd. A sunglassed Juan Carlos Ferrero in the VIP section nods his head and grins in approval subtly, remembering his same such antics from the day before. Can Ketchum tie Chang's record of four aces in a row? Just then, a distinctly French-accented "H-ELL - ManTELL" chant  goes up from the capacity crowd, trying to get Hellmantle back in the game after this recent Ketchum-serving maelstrom. Hellmantle's brief off-season affair with Mary Pierce has curried him favour with the French fans. Ketchum is aware of this, but glances none the less over at Ana K., his current squeeze, who waves a kiss and then whispers something quickly to a very-cool-looking Illie Nastase, Ketchum's new coach and the acknowledged reason or his recent rocket-like ascent to number #4 in the ATP standings.

'Quarante - trente.'

--

Hellmantle's Hooligans

Ketchum, the tall and somewhat thin Canadian who followed Rusetski's defection to "the Motherland," appears strained at the crowd's obvious favoritism towards the long-haired Higgins, who had purposely grown the hair long in anticipation of the French crowd's notorious liking for those sporting the Merovingian mane. The short-haired Ketchum appeared to blush at what appeared to be a kiss blown his way by his new squeeze, Anna K, and then hits what he thought was his fourth ace but what was then overruled by the chair ump.

Hellmantle, seemingly strengthening his usual droopy  posture after hearing a swift "Let's go Hellmantle" by non-other than Johnny Mac, his close friend and fellow guitarist in his off-court band known amongst the players as Hellmantle's Hooligans, jumped on the Brit's second serve, crushing it down the line. As if twisting an ankle, Ketchum stretched to the ball only to pop it up mid court for Hellmantle to put it away to even the ninth game of the fifth set at deuce.

As Hellmantle is shuffling back to the baseline in his characteristic loping gait, Barbara Schett, Hellmantle's long-time partner in both mixed doubles and off-court one-on-one horizontal tennis, walked out to the Who's Who centre-court box where she slipped in beside McEnroe and Hellmantle's long-time tour groupiee and guru Pete Townshend.

In the muted applause, the sun came out and Ketchum was forced to squint.

'Deuce.'

--

Semi Clad

Ketchum, two points away from fame, glory and a Royale with Cheese, calls for time and meanders thoughtfully to the shade of the back court. He lets out a deep, measured breath. After taking a fresh towel from Isabelle (his legendary insistence upon knowing the names of all the ball girls remaining intact) and dabbing his signature lambchop sideburns, he takes a moment to steal a glance up into the upper boxes on the east side of the court. It's so quick that even the t.v camera didn‘t catch it, but for Ketchum it's just enough time to make eye contact with Babs (Barbara Schett) whose right thumb and index finger are held to her lips in the universal sign of Plan W. It's a dangerous move and Ketchum knows it. But to no one's surprise, Higgy has missed the moment, choosing instead to ham it up with the crowd, air-guitaring another Hellmantle‘s Hooligans track - the same one that the French press has panned him for, but which the fans seem taken by.

Yet, if it wasn't for Ketchum's long-time relationship with Anna K, his French Open affair with Babs, the love child with Uma Thurman, his two hit films opposite Susan Sarandon, the mansion in Chelsea, his five adidas commercials and his own new super band with Jimmy Page, Neil Pert and Flea - he could feel just a little bit envious of his long-haired foe and the attention now being addressed his way at this, a most critical stage in the match.

Ketchum is then suddenly drawn out of his momentary revelry by French Open officials restraining a gaggle of bare-breasted teenage girls who had jumped over the bar and had come within inches of jumping on the dapper Canadian-come-Brit.  It's a bit of a welcome shock and he nods approvingly and then, in near perfect French asks the officials to prend les chemises and let go of zee girls. The fans let out a roar of approval and within moments French Open history is made as officials bow to the pressure of letting three highly attractive, semi-clad teenage girls sit on Ketchum's bench for the rest of the match.

Higgy, noticing that Johnny Mac and Pete Townshend had turned their attention away from his antics, turned himself to watch the proceedings. His expression is one of confusion. Even Juan Carlos Ferrero, a staunch Ketchum supporter finds it in himself to feel some pity for Higgy and shrugs at the same time leaning over and squeezing Brooke Shields' bare shoulder.

Higgy's droopy, confident posture has now all but disappeared. He is now a wholly different animal as he douses himself in Perrier and walks like Eddy Murphy's white man to the back court. He bangs his Yonex hard against his North Stars and glares back across the court, now in half shadow, at his long-time friend and tennis foe.

Encouraged by the thought of Plan W with Fraulein Schett, Ketchum now returns himself to the baseline. To his right, Nastase remains cool and places his hand on Anna K's knee to calm her down. One tame "H-ELL ManTELL" weakly rises out from the far reaches of the upper decks before being quickly drowned out by the deafening roar of another Concorde Test Flight over the Jacques Chartrier court. Both players relax and step back. Silence eventually returns and all eyes focus on the Wimbledon Champion, now serving.

'Silence, S'il vous plait. Quarante,quarante. Ketchum a servir...'

--

"Bucket"

Taken aback by the series of events that had interrupted his flow, Hellmantle - the darling of the circuit who has, in such a short span of time, transformed the game of tennis into a battle of undisputed will and strength of character - could only be thankful at God's intervention by the timing and placing of the Concorde over the stadium at that particular moment. Hellmantle's wit - a hit with both the French and Ketchum‘s own supporters - brought him the much-needed relief from the attention of the crowd when he let out a much-pent-up force of flatulence. The sound was drowned out with strategic artistry of timing by the placing of the Concorde's roar.

Now, with the accumulated wind out of him, Hellmantle felt a swift breeze of lightness take his limbs causing him to jump in the air. Usually sporting unrivalled poise on the court, coupled with his balls-to-Monty goatee that complimented his Merovingian gait, the burst of energy startled the sweating-but-confident Brit to mis-bounce the ball off his Adidas-clad toe just before the toss. With the three barely-dressed girls oogling the reigning Wimbledon champ, the serve and volleyer was, for a moment, caught in a dilemma as to whether he should run after the ball rolling to the net or let it roll for Isabelle to fetch. In his indecision, Ketchum stumbled. The crowd wasn't sure if the tall man has injured his ankle or if he coughed. What the crowd did see was Ketchum wobble forward without any coordination after the runaway ball. Just before he reached the ball, he stopped. Dazed in the silence, the now red-faced Brit mumbled something that sounded like it rhymed with "bucket." Hellmantle stole a quick glance over to Juan Carlos, who he had knocked out the tourney already with a flurry of brilliant strokes, saw that even Ketchum's staunchest supporter couldn't figure out why he had stumbled for the ball. "C'mon John" he said weakly with a parched throat.

Ketchum, the lambchopped Wimbledon champion, now with tussled hair, regained his composure and hurried back to the service line and let rip a bomb that went just wide. Hellmantle jumped on his kick-out serve for a cross-court to his backhand that had the Brit lunge for a backspinning return. Hellmantle, who had been named "the man with the golden hands" by the ladies at the WTA end-of-season banquet in Las Vegas only three months earlier, approached the net and took the volley early, placing it deep into the part-time filmmaker's forehand corner. Even a man adept at creating decent special effects couldn't work his magic to return that fine specimen of picture-perfect technique at the net.

Even before the ball had bounced twice the crowd erupted. As if by reflex, the rock'n roller turned his tennis racquet into an air guitar, sending the crowd into hysterics. From the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny Mac and Pete Townshend high five each other before quickly sneaking a large tug on their drinks below their feet.

'Ad Higgins...'

--

The Pause Faux Pas

In what appeared to be a sign of impatience, Hellmantle threw up his arm towards the tall, lanky ex-Canadian just as the man with the big-serve was about to begin his chalk-full-of-body-English toss. Letting the ball drop and looking at the chair umpire, the crowd fell silent at the apparent faux pas.

Hellmanlte straightened up and motioned to his wrist asking the referee to check to see if the part-time filmmaker had taken too much time between points and had in effect 'dropped the ball.' With so much pressure on the grass-court serve and vollier, Hellmanlte felt a wave of compassion towards his opponent; the sheer weight of pressure to take the title here must have been dehabilitating. Hellmanlte, as carefree player and full of j‘oi de vivre as anyone else in the history of the game (causing some pundits to compare him to the infamous Ile Natase who, ironically, coached his tennis foe), mocked such pressure by always playing as if he were the underdog. The fact was that Hellmanlte was impervious to pressure. This colourful personality turned tense moments into opportunities, striking fear and awe into his opponents.

Showing an ever-so-slight grin to the crowd, and for his coveted Faulein Schett, the Austrian beauty of Vienna's posh Club Ubermensch, Hellmantle for a moment became a stand-up comic and mimed the "waiting for eternity" pose much to the delight of the crowd. Shouts of "bravo" and "well done Mantlepiece" emmitted from the higher seats around the perimeter of centre court, revealing the nickname that Fraulein Schett had given him.

Equally well known for his unmatched sportmanship, Hellmantle turned and bowed to the sinewy build across the court, holding up his hand as if he was almost apologizing - not for his own antics but for the pressure-stricken Wimbledon champ. Terrorized by the increase of pressure, Ketchum revealed old ghosts returning from last year's final when he was up two sets to one and leading 5-1 in the fourth set against the Frenchman Grosjean, only to lose the match in the midst of roars of pro-French emotion. Ketchum had skipped the post-game press conference and had taken the fine of US$10,000 on the chin.

Now facing break point to go 4-5 in the fifth and deciding set, the young gun could hardly coordinate himslef for the toss. In stark contrast, Hellmantle, who in the quick span of a few seconds, was able to let off a wink to Fraulein Schett and a nod to the President of the United States sitting in the front row box (of whom Hellmantle happen to be on a first name basis due to a recent private party to which he had been invited). Hellmantle looked lithe and agile awaiting the chance to break the current world number four. Yes, it could be said that this young man of 22 had earned the mantle of the most charismatic player on the tour.

'No penalty given - still Advantage Hellmantle' said the chair umpire Rusty Hugh, motioning to Ketchum to serve. The rambunctious crowd had quieted and the girls on Ketchum's bench bit their nails.

--

The Six-Finger Vixen

Like her mother and grandmother before her, Isabelle Delacroix was born with six fingers on her right hand.  Unlike her female predecessors however, Isabelle had not had the sixth finger removed. Instead, she chose to keep it-some would say even flaunt it- believing from a young age that it would be advantageous when she finally took over from her mother as the third generation of flawless female French Open ballgirls from the Delacroix clan. And indeed, her ability to hold and rotate four balls in her right hand, to even throw and receive balls at the same time - all of this was quickly becoming  the stuff of legend - a matter that placed the 18 year-old beauty in strong demand on the pro circuit, by players and officials alike.

Isabelle was also well endowed, an ingredient she took pains to reveal in an effort to attract attractive men, mostly tennis players, mostly older, mostly more experienced and men more likely to bestow upon her gifts of high value. Isabelle liked gifts of high value.  And men liked her, and were drawn to her for all her anatomical accessories including her highly regarded six finger talents. Yet, what wasn't immediately obvious about the Six Finger Vixen was her extreme intelligence, a fact of life that had made her a MENSA alumnus, and a woman with a deferred, fully-paid MBA scholarship to Frances Insead (just down the road) and an emotional mess. But tennis was her salvation. More than anything else, ballgirling brought a sense of peace and purpose to her life. More and more her mother‘s words, "my dear, zee talents wiz zee balls eez priceless" had rung true.

However, now as she stood at attention with her arms crossed behind her back in the shadows of centre court in the heat of the French Open Final, she remained uncharacteristically confused about which of the men in front of her she would have. She was aware of the conflict within her when the match had begun and had proceeded to go back and forth between the two, as if reflecting the punishing rallies that the match had featured up to that point.

Now, suddenly with Ketchum serving to save his ass (which incidently she thought was perfection in a man), her favour had turned to Higgins. It wasn't that she didn't like siding with the underdog (she didn't), it was the three, semi-clad teenagers on Ketchum's bench that had upset her and thrown her back into Higgins' court - as it were.  Pathetic French schoolchildren she thought with a disgusted look. "Enfants!" she fumed with contempt.

Ketchum heard Isabelle's utterance causing the lanky Wimbledon champion and ex-concert pianist to turn.  His lambchop sideburns curled up into question marks as he looked at her. Remembering names had netted him some find young talent in his days but never had it escalated emotions to such a level as this.

 This look of Ketchum's threw Isabelle back into a state of desperate indecision. Why he looked at her that way she wasn't sure but she felt herself melting. Now, the long-haired Higgins at the other end of the court with his tennis racquet-as-guitar, and his lime green surf shorts looked like a shabbily-dressed enfant himself. "Put him wis zee skul gehrls!"she whispered as she pressed her sixth finger into the fourth tennis ball, puncturing its shell.

The popping sound of Isabelle's finger entering the ball was barely audible, but one man, known for his hearing acumen, glanced over at her and smiled. He was none other than Bill Clinton, the ex-President and the same man she had received a note from the day before during the Ketchum-Grosjean match (a match that Grosjean had voluntarily  conceded in the fifth set claiming on national television that Ketchum was the better man and that the French audience should embrace him with all their hearts). That note had suggested a rendez-vous (spelt "Randy Vuz") at the Hotel Napolean in the 18th Arrondisement. The ex-President had blown off his invite to meet with Sebastien Grosjean for the occassion, a fact that had, at first, impressed young Isabelle. But seeing him now at this juncture confused Isabelle even more. What had happened between them the night before, the woody-challenged ex-President, the back of the red Citroen with the body guard - she had tried to forget it all in order to concentrate on the task at hand. "Merde!" she whispered, "all zee fucking variables!"

"Man!" As Ketchum was gathering his wits, the silent tension of centre court after the Concorde's passing was broken again, this time by a loud utterance from Johnny Mac accompanied by the  waving of his hand and the tilting back of his head. Clearly, the ex-super brat of tennis had had his olefactory glands assaulted from Hellmantle's side of the court and was letting everyone in the court and an international television audience of over 100 million in on the situation.

One seat up, behind Johnny Mac, a rather non-descript gentleman found himself looking down on the greying Mac and mumbling a childhood North Toronto dictum: He who smelt it, dealt it.

He saw MacEnroe shake his head because he had inadvertantly said Layton Corners, the North Toronto North Star shoe salesman who Peter Higgins had personally invited as a result of his North Star shoe sponsorship, was clearly dissappointed that a hero from his past should behave in such a manner and looked over at Higgins questioningly. Higgins mouthed the words "Frog legs", briefly touching his stomach.

And it was precisely this thought of frog legs that dominated Higgins' thoughts before, during and after the blistering, down-the-line ace that Ketchum fired up to return the game to deuce. It was his fourth of the game and he turned, admist the pandemonious cheering, just in time to see Isabelle faint.

--

The Mantel Pat

Dropping his head at being the victim of a down-the-line bomb, Hellmantle rubbed the sweat off his sweaty palm onto his lime green surf shorts and was reminded of the poker match he had become embroiled in the night before. Inadvertently he had been sucked into a game of cards while he was sucking a few beers with Yvgeni Kafelnikov at the bar in the player's lounge overlooking the Seine River. In the spirit of fair play, he had let the young and clearly talented ballgirl Isabelle 'of-the-Cross' DelaCroix (as he had charmingly called her), think she had conned the worldly Hellmantle into bluffing with what ended up being a pair of deuces. With her obvious intelligence and her good humor about her extra gift in her right hand, the evening had been rife with six-finger jokes.

"Laaay..." he had uttered with an undertone to the six-fingered lass, to repressed murmurs from Johnny Mac (who still sported the headband even when playing poker), Yvgeni, John Newcombe, who has already had five-too-many lagers after earlier taking on the serve-volley-quaffing master Pat Rafter, in a drinking game, and Anna K who had come to the player's lounge after being exasperated by what she called "Fletch's uptightness." Newcombe couldn't help but retort: "You mean anal don'tcha Anna!" But Isabelle, displaying her exceptional cleavage and with a fling of her long yellow hair, slowly laid her pair of aces on the table, that had set off the mustachioed Newcombe hollering at Hellmantle. "Pussy-whipped" he blustered at him, but Mac knew that it was just Hellmantle's way of letting the young French teenager think she had an upper hand. And it was due to that hand that she had extracted out of him in what must have been a first in French Open history: wear her brother's ugly lime-green surf shorts in the finals. As a fair player and with the final only eight hours away, he obliged to Isabelle.

Personally, looking over to Ketchum across the court, Hellmantle noticed that instead of him taking three balls from Isabelle in the far corner, he was now standing over her as she lay on the court. Squinting for a closer look, it appeared as if the tall Brit was just about to give the ball girl mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but was thwarted when she came-to. She got up quickly and shook her head, and then upon seeing the Ketchum sweating in front of her, seemed to lurch towards him in a swooning motion. Blinking, Hellmantle shook his head and thought that he must have been seeing things because no woman in her right mind would find a skinny man wearing brown tennis shoes attractive. It wasn't the bulbous metal ring that Ketchum wore on his middle finger on his left hand, nor his very questionable gold-looped earrings he wore in both ears, or even his thick chops (which Hellmantle could see the argument for), it was the enormous size 13 and-a-half brown shoes he wore with a thin pair of black socks around his noticeably thin ankles that had distracted him from seeing if her upward lunge was a swoon.

Hellmantle looked at his own shoes and was thankful he had insisted on designing his own style shoe - one that had tripled the sales of North Star across all of their primary markets in Europe and North America. The thought of his North Star bank account in the Isle of Man reminded him again of his old buddy Layton Corners, so he motioned with a nod of his head for his towel, which brought Guy the ballboy sprinting over to his idol handing him his Yonex towel. He characteristically didn't wipe but patted his forehead, something the junior players had come to adopt, calling it the "Mantle Pat." While Hellmantle did a Mantle Pat, he glanced up at his old friend Layton who - precisely at that moment - was dangling a pair of frog's legs over his mouth. There was contortion before he let out a guffaw into his high-quality Yonex towel. The memory of Layton Corners letting out a Technicolor yawn all over Anna K's leg last night reminded him of why he played tennis for the fun of it. Any frustration at Ketchum's deadly serve dissipated from him at that moment.

Just then, as if reading the temperature of their souls, one of the girls from the Brit's bench - the only blonde of the three - ran over to sit on Hellmantle's bench drawing cheers from a certain spot in the north corner of the stands. The chair umpire looked over to Hellmantle as he handed his Yonex towel back to Guy. Knowing the secret to being cool is not to try but rather just be, Hellmanlte let the words fly uncensored out of his mouth: "No, no, I like it. I like it; it's good." The small colony of Hellmantle supporters from Normandy knew that these words were from his hit single remake of the Robbie Robertson tune, so they started by singing the next two lines of the tune much to the pleasure of the French crowd. Whatever Hellmantle did he seemed to strike gold.

Carrying the art of poise to new heights, Hellmantle-the-right-hander was unphased by Ketchum's rifling serve wide to his backhand but responded in kind with a backspin return. The brown-shoed left-hander launched a blistering approach shot down the line on Hellmantle‘s forehand. Just as Ketchum was thinking he had won the point, Hellmantle, displaying the iron will opponents had come to fear, flung himself towards the ball, barely getting his racquet but managing a lob to deep court. With the Norman still sprawled out on the court in a storm of clay, Ketchum, feeling the pressure, elected to smash the ball before the bounce resulting in the ball flying past the baseline just missing Hellmantle's eye by inches. As if in a vacuum, the crowd went silent, except for one word that hung in the air as if it were stuck: "Fuck."

It was said in a constricted manner but without anger. The French, however, brushed it off and stood more concerned for their hero's safety. Then, with the Yonex rising from the dust, Hellmantle emerged with the words: "I'm OK." And then "Oui, je d'accord. S'il vous plait." Without trying to be the gentleman, he raised his hand at the flustered and embarrassed Ketchum unable not to notice his skinny ankles, black socks, white legs and large chocolate brown shoes.

'Ad Higgins.'

--

 
 

 

 

 
 
 

 
 
 

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