The French Open Final
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
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
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
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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...'
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.
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.
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.
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
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
'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
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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
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