Wordcarpenter Books
The Mantle Pat

The Line Drive

"Zéro -cinze," chuckled Ketchum as he made his way to the baseline, his affected limp and accompanied head shaking drawing what he considered the perfect number of concerned ahh's from the crowd. The shoe incident had presented him, once again, with an opportunity to take Higgins at his own game. Though it wasn't in keeping with Ketchum's character (at least not according to the outside world and the media), the tall Brit inevitably felt the need in competition to take on the much maligned teen pop star at his own game for one reason and one reason only: he had, until now,  always beat him at it.  In fact, it never ceased to amaze Ketchum how quickly Higgins could forget the Brit's ability to beat him "below the net chord."

As he stood now at the base line waiting for Isabelle to bounce him his lucky ball, he stared back across at the antics of the lime-green shorted Higgins and couldn't help himself from a momentary and quite audible guffaw. Not only did the showcased behavior in the south end of the court remind him of his 10 year-old cousin after one too many cream sodas, something in the Norseman's awkward rhythm elicited a vivid recollection of last month's Tennis Magazine cover spread.

In keeping with his modest, humble, sportsmanlike exterior, Ketchum had managed to develop in recent years a very impressive, and much discussed business acumen. This knack, as he called it,  had recently landed him and Boris Becker with majority ownership of the German Publishing giant Bertleman, and thus the much-heralded Tennis magazine.  Very quickly, he had endeared himself to the editors and convinced them (in confidence) to run what was now being considered  a magazine cover of the year in Europe. The picture in question featured none other than Higgins on a tricycle flanked by Milli Vanilli - all  in Viking costumes. The accompanying caption read "Hellmantle's Wipeout," a play on his hometown pub but also a direct reference to Higgins' April concert in the little known Ontario town of Parry Sound. It was a concert in which Higgins, in the middle of his second song, tripped - indeed wiped out -on stage in front of a crowd of 180 teenagers, causing the playback to skip and thus revealing that he was in fact responsible for none of what was created on stage. Indirectly, the caption was a reference to Higgins' recent three first-round, straight-set losses to unseeded players in little known Southeast Asian tournaments.

Ketchum studied the balls that Isabelle had bounced to him, hit two back and made his way to the service line.

"He's popped the pills, it looks like more than one."  As he sauntered back to the service line, Nastase's calm voice beamed up clear as day from the speaker embedded in the collar of Ketchum's shirt. "Yeah, that was obvious!" Ketchum replied into the big ring  (or Microphone Maiden as he was fond of calling it) while stopping to engage in his now legendary chin-scratching pose. For fans of tennis it was almost impossible display of assured cool: a man scratching his chin in thought, staring straight at his opponent while at the same time bounding a ball repeatedly and quickly, back and forth between his legs a la Jordan.  So dexterous and appealing was this move that it had become the move of the summer at tennis camps across North America and Europe. Ketchum tastefully (and with full awareness of the huge PR impact) had even consented to sign over 200 posters of him in the pose that very morning for various clubs in his home province alone.

This ball bouncing ritual had also confirmed his crowning, by none other than Larry King, as  Tennis's "Justified  Philosopher King" - a title that pleased him no end not only for the sense of purpose it brought to his game but also for its reflection of his initials.  King, a close friend and godfather of Ketchum's first son, Goran, first coined the term during a 1999 interview following Ketchum's first Wimbledon title and sensational affair with the Australian Pop Princess, Kylie Minogue. Others, like Peter Jennings and Pedro Pinto, had gone on in subsequent years to use it regularly in interviews and on golf courses with the well-spoken scratch golfer and Wimbledon Champ. But it was even something more that made Ketchum smile every time he heard the name and that was the knowledge that Higgins' felt, very strongly, that such a title was owed to him since it was he who was the philosophy major and not Ketchum. Knowing that such a grudge represented at least some of what was behind Higgins' ball rolling transgression and other courtside misdemeanors brought a smile to Ketchum as he bounced the ball effortlessly, back and forth between his legs waiting for the crowd to settle down. Really, its like playing in a sandbox back in North Toronto, thought the lamb-chopped, power-serving Brit.

But of course, only Ketchum and his coach knew that the chin scratching was simply a nifty vehicle for downloading information from various courtside sources, information that would primarily help him in the match, but information that would also help him to lay the foundations for romantic endeavors immediately following his courtside heroics. In fact, of all the things that bugged Higgins the most, it was Ketchum's ability to already be hooked up with gorgeous, nubile young tennis fans while Higgins' was still packing or unpacking his bags (he was famous for misplacing key items like grip tape and keys at critical moments), or giving interviews to second-rate sports magazines from mainland China or the breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union. Bugged, in truth, was an understatement.

And yet perhaps the saddest truth of all was that only Higgins believed that his addiction to over- and under-the-counter pharmaceuticals went unnoticed. Misfits like Layton Corners were always around "Mantlepiece" in tight matches and all the players saw right through the various amateur ruses that were employed to deliver Higgins his so called "fuel." Some, it must be said, like Rios and Federer perceived Higgins' refueling as a strength. But then, they hadn't as studiously studied the effects as Ketchum had to know just exactly how to get the best of an opponent that was "fuelled up. "

Ketchum's service line reflection on Higgins' weaknesses was then shattered by yet another surprised roar going up from the crowd in the South End.  Forced to step back from the line once again, The Brit, four points from the Cup, thought  What Now?  Squinting in the bright sun, what he was able to see at the other end then brought a look of amused impatience tinged with pity to his face. Like a man possessed, Higgins was running around behind the baseline swatting frantically at what appeared to be a bee. At such a critical juncture in the match, one would expect that a player's focus would allow for no more than one or two swings in the direction of such an invading insect. But what Ketchum and the fans saw looked more like something out of Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a favorite film of Ketchum's and one that often made him think of his present opponent. So random, charged and loud was Higgins' (his shrieks sounded to the Brit like a fear-enveloped 10 year-old standing in a wasp's nest) that Ketchum even began to wonder if there was a bee.  While this grossly exaggerated, pill-primed display moved around the court, Ketchum turned back to Isabelle for a towel and sought to focus on the next point.  

Keep Cool, let him run himself down. Nastase's voice in the shirt collar reassured him and he coughed into the ring (indicating he had heard and agreed).

Focus, it must be said, was another skill that Ketchum held in abundance.  His many young years of travel, introspection and study into his family's potent ancestry had revealed some of the source of this talent. Yet, more than anything, it was his mother's oft-repeated Celtic Warrior lullaby to him as a child that had laid the foundations for this talent. 

Though his mother could trace her roots proudly and directly back to Clovis, ruler of the Franks in the fifth century and had even named her second son after the great ruler, she shared the belief that it was her husband's Celtic heritage should be impressed upon the first born. It was that sense of being on the fringe, fighting to get in, of underdog determinism, of supreme mission - indeed of being a focussed warrior that both Dr. Ketchum and his wife had agreed would make a champion out of little, and soon to be very Big, John.  And while they were not prepared for the now legendary anatomical and artistic gifts that their combined genes would produce in their first-born, they were justifiably very satisfied with the result.  "A ruthless, battle-like determinism couched in a charming well-mannered veil" the New York Times had called it.

To consider the Ketchum clan further, it should be emphasized that from the beginning, all sporting events that the Ketchum children participated in were referred to as battles. This mindset, carefully and purposefully instilled, was backed up by an insistence that each of the six sons would engage in a different martial arts training.  Such trainings, led by a band of Japanese and Chinese black belts that lived in a dojo out back of the Ketchum compound in North Toronto, resulted also in a disciplined mental education that included Japanese and Chinese language skills as well as extensive teachings in the art of war and noble conduct.  The depth of such training made a mockery of such pop warrior techniques as the Mantle Pat. And while Hadrian Jute, the Ketchum brother's spokesperson and John's psychological coach had communicated recently to the press that Big John had, in moments of weakness, admitted to a degree of envy at the proceeds that Higgins had brought in from the Mantle Pat series of books, training videos, and tennis schools. In reality, Ketchum and his team were secretly encouraged that the public would fall for something as banal and ultimately ineffective as the MPT (the Mantle Pat Technique).  To think of a new generation of tennis players so poorly prepared by so fleeting and undisciplined an approach to tennis and sport in general led the Ketchum brothers to laugh uproariously when their elder brother had first referred to it as the Mental Pat - emphasis on the "Pat." How a "Pat" could be of any challenge to the training their brother had received seemed ludicrous in the extreme. 

With Higgins still paranoiacally ducking and jerking his head around in search of what Ketchum now considered imaginary items, Rusty Hugh called time. Ketchum, eager to move forward with his plan bounced the ball quickly before arching his back into a heavy topspin serve to Higgins's backhand. Higgins' retort mimicked the same motion he had used to swat at the bee and to everyone's surprise landed deep inside the baseline on Ketchum's backhand. Momentarily, stunned Ketchum, affected hobble in tow, moved over and sliced a backhand to mid court. Again, as if chased by a nest of wasps, Higgins ran frantically at the ball, hit it hard to Ketchum's forehand and then continued unevenly to the net. Lunging for the ball Ketchum then opened up his racquet face and proceeded to hit his hardest shot of the match directly at Higgins.

What happened next happened fast. In the face of the oncoming bullet of a forehand Higgins had turned away but in doing this, his dangling racquet had managed to intercept the ball returning it first to the tape on top of the net and then bouncing over and onto Ketchum's side of the court.

'Zéro - trente," came Rusty's voice, more confident than it had been in a while. For a fraction of a second one could here the beginnings of applause.  There was no surprise in this since Higgins' luck had turned the tide of the game and confirmed that it was still a match. What was surprising however was that instead of acknowledging his good fortune and holding his racquet up in apology to his opponent, Higgins began to shriek at the top of his lungs that Ketchum had tried to kill him. Ump! he roared at Rusty.  Did you #$#* see that!  He tried to #%#$ kill me!!! Higgins, like a man possessed proceeded to run around the court, looking over his shoulder, finding nowhere to hide.  Eventually, his eyes focused on his chair and he ran full steam towards it, diving at the last minute in order to slide under. By the time he had come to a full stop and his water and tennis paraphernalia had stopped rolling around, Higgins found time to reach up and grab his towel pull it over his head and cower. For Virginia Wade, the Eurosport commentator, Higgins had become  "like a frightened puppy who had lost his mother and found himself at a Pit Bull Bar."

In all his years, Rusty Hugh had never seen anything like this. True, it had been a tough match to this point and he had taken more than a few Higgins volleys on the chin. But now, on international television, in the dying moments of the championship match to have one of the players "hiding" in plain view was beyond his capacity to fathom.

Down 0-30, Ketchum wondered if indeed this was it, that the match, strange as it had been, was finally over. As medical staff rushed to the side of the covered, shaking Higgins', Ketchum thought of his parents.

At that same time, his parents, Dr. & Mrs. Ketchum looked up at the televised proceedings from the terrace of their Capri Villa and shook their heads. My Goodness!  What now! Mumbled Mrs. K.

Why his parents were in Capri was a matter of some sensitivity.  With so much sporting success on the part of their children, The Ketchum's had decided that to avoid favoritism they would enjoy their sons on the giant, waterproof Plasma Screen that lay up against the grotto on the sun-drenched Limestone cliffs, 300 meters above sea level. It made sense for when one considered Big John's Wimbledon Championship, Clovis' #3 pick in the 2000 N.B.A draft, "Fast Ed's " Windsurfing Silver medal in the 2000 summer Olympics, all the way down to "Prince William's" recent and stunning fourth place finish at the Masters in Oklahoma they could only sip on their Guinness and smile reassuringly at each other... It was a smile that both of them knew all too well, a smile that seemed to say - "Celtic joust, my dear?"  Why not, thought Mary after all they had created a dynasty: Yes, why not thought the Dr. K - such a monopolistic invasion under one name deserved a little bit of fun.  With these and other thoughts bubbling in their heads, they both took a big tug on their Guinness and smiled foamy smiles at each other and rose to their feet.

Jimmy, we'll be inside, cooed Mary to the gentleman who had been sitting watching beside them. Of course, Jimmy Cole was not his real name. Instead, the man with the pipe,  the wandering left eye and the increasingly pleasant manner was none other than Thane Cranford - Patelle. After years of information gathering for the Ketchum's, he had finally tired of sleeping with the frigid Buffy and had thus, on Dr. Ketchum's orders, faked his death and come to live with them in Capri. His ability to foreshadow most of Higgins' moves entertained the monarchic-like couple no end and thus he had earned the title of "Uncle" to the Ketchum boys.

I'm afraid, he'll come out of it,  Jimmy called out, his eyes fixed on the cowering image of Higgins..  But it was too late, the amorous couple had slid the rice paper doors shut on the master bedroom and missed the information. Oh well,  reflected Cole, as he inserted his ear plugs, knowing full well that his ability to concentrate on the screen above would be hampered by the Celtic Summer Games that were about to get underway next door.

--

The Bad Bounce

Hellmantle was aware that Ketchum was playing his old games "below the net cord." Perhaps Hellmantle's pedigree prevented him from fully understanding why the defending Wimbledon Champ played such silly games, but he was not immune from all sorts of ploys and stunts from tennis players that he had faced over the years. He thought he had seen it all in his junior career; players who feigned injury and took time outs; players who made sounds at inappropriate times to put him off his game; players who took their time a little too much between points. The list was long but Hellmantle was now a pro and even at the top level there was well-polished "funny business," as his friend Yvgeni Kafelnikov called it. He had learned that these aspects of the game still existed for the simple reason that sometimes these deceptions worked.

Known among the players to use electronic help, the tall Canadian with a British passport often spoke about the effectiveness of having "a third voice" on the court. He spoke of how many times his magical ring had saved him from defeat. Being from the north, Ketchum always chose to take a sauna if the ATP facilities offered it and it was in this relaxed atmosphere that he had once shared his secret with Hellmantle that Hellmantle had not forgotten. He knew that Ketchum had been informed through his Iron Maiden ring, that he had opted for some fifth-set fuel. Ketchum knew him only too well.

After some hyperbole shewing away a bumblebee, and then complaining to the umpire about almost being killed, Hellmantle decided to embellish the act so the French Open would have in its history one of the strangest on-court scenes ever seen in Paris. Hellmantle was often a participant in the memorable, but never had his antics raised so many brows as he did in this French Open final. Perhaps it was his "tea," or perhaps it were the painkillers that Layton Corners had handed him, but Hellmantle had suddenly become bolder in his campaign to win the clay-court kingship. His legend was growing; his moment was now.

With his head buried under his Yonex towel, for some reason Hellmantle remembered how Ketchum had been the instigator of the bad press he had received after selflessly putting on a concert for some fans in Parry Sound Ontario during a snowstorm that had left a number of people dead. The cold had frozen their instruments and gear they had needed to perform the concert. Instead of disappointing the attending teenyboppers who loved Hellmantle's Hooligans, Higgins has decided to play their album and lip-sync the words. When they fell out of tune and their noble deed was revealed, the magazine run by Ketchum and Becker ran an article failing to explain the selfless altruism behind the "Manilli Vanilli incident" - as it came to be known. It made Hellmantle itch for justice that veered towards vengeance.

After time was used up and his face was flushed, he abruptly stood up (as it happened he was positioned strategically in front of van Goethenburg's shutterbugs) and pointed his finger at his foe, saying in his best Louis Winthorp the Third accent: "This man is physically threatening me," referring to the crisply struck line drive. One could hear a pin drop after he had uttered these words. The crowd didn't move nor did Rusty Hugh utter a sound. Instead, the experienced tennis fans had come up against a situation they had never seen before: one player pointing at the other accusing him of assault. Hellmantle, realizing that he had just as much to lose as Ketchum with this accusation, suddenly followed his outburst with: "But it's OK." He held up his hand and bowed his head slightly looking at the north end of the court. "I forgive you." The largely Catholic crowd was deeply struck by this noble and notably Christian act of forgiveness, and even Buffy Cranford-Patelle could feel the compassion and awe well up within her bosom. Yes, she thought, he has all the characteristics of the old families from Normandy; he's from the old line.

With the world looking at him in eager anticipation, Ketchum, the Celt, who was looking impatient in his small tennis shoes and slightly hunched at the base line, elected to again bounce the ball between his legs in a much-to-be-admired nonchalance that had earned him the "nod of cool" from tennis greats all over the world. However, just at this moment when he bounced the ball between his legs, the ball bounced on a small pebble that had been lobbed by none other than Layton Corners. When the ball bounced off the pebble it veered towards and scored a direct hit on Ketchum's left testicle. The impact caused him to lurch forward in a reflex motion and cup his groin. As if in slow motion, Hellmantle saw the impact of the ball smacking Ketchum's bag area. There was even a slight muted thud upon impact. The other arm struck out to the air and a leg kicked forward as Ketchum stood in front of van Goethenburg's shutterbugs and the TV camera, clutching his left testicle with his right hand. Bent forward and leaning on his racquet, the Wimbledon star turned white suddenly and looked as if he was going to faint. In that moment, his years of innate sportsmanship came into play, when Hellmantle suddenly ran forward and hurdled over the net and ran to save Ketchum from falling and hitting his head on the rust-colored clay. The Jacques Chartrier Stadium crowd was aghast.

Isabelle Delacroix motioned for Hellmantle to bring his lamb-chopped opponent with the inflaming testicle to the chair beside her. As he put him on the chair, there was an unmistakable caress on Hellmantle's leg by Isabelle's hand. In the flurry of action that swirled around the testicle-injured Ketchum, it wasn't noticed by anyone in he crowd except John McEnroe who, after spending so much time with Hellmantle on tour, had come to know what to keep his eyes open for. What he didn't hear was what she said: "My shorts look good on you." Hellmantle, in his intensity, glanced at the six-fingered ball girl and could see in her eye that she wanted a poker game re-match. From experience, Hellmantle had developed a sixth sense to read the mind of yearning females, a skill that had kept him "in play" on the circuit and one of the most active bachelors on tour. He nodded back to her and whispered: "Re-match, you're on." Noticing the girl with the Perrier Pin approach and he left the limp Ketchum in Isabella Delacroix's care and placed Ketchum's hand from its awkward position to his chest. But just as Hellmantle did this, he caught the bulbous Iron Maiden ring enough for it to slide into his hand, all in one motion.

All eyes were fixed on the testicular-challenged Ketchum and an unusually attentive ball girl with a noticeably big left grip, all eyes except for Pete Townshend who noticed the Plan A (theft) of the ring perpetrated by Hellmantle. Pete followed the ring from Hellmantle's right hand to his racquet bag when he crossed the net on his way to his side of the court. Hellmantle stopped for a drink of his "tea" and executed one of his finest Mantle Pats. If he took this point, he thought to himself, he'd have a triple break.

In the silence of the crowd, a voice echoed throughout the stadium. "You need balls of steel to beat Ellmantle!" It was a voice that Hellmantle recognized to be that of Layton Corners because of his French-Canadian accent. It was enough of a jab yet soft enough not to offend the cultured French crowd so it was no surprise that this lone voice from the corner was the cause of one of the most questionable uproars ever to hit the Jacques Chartrier Stadium. With a man down in the conflict, the laughter hung over the unconscious man for a weary moment. And yet it was this roar that awakened Ketchum from his unconscious state. He found a six-fingered hand holding his own hand that was still cupped over his testes. The toy machine gun sound of cameras overwhelmed John and Isabelle at that moment. Van Goethenburg's troupes had brought lots of film. Flustered with his white face turning beet red, "Oh" was all he could say in response. The only thing Ketchum knew for sure in that moment in the ruckus was the unmistakable laughter of John McEnroe and Pete Townshend.

*

And the only thing that Brad the bartender could hear in his bar in Cape Scott, Canada, was the sound of Remy laughing. In the spirit of scheudenfreunden*, Mike had to hold his head up with his hands and cover his eyes because his laughter was so fierce. In fact, his laughter was more than fierce; it was violent. Looking at Remy bent over and crippled with laughter, Cindy Kafel could only wonder what he found to be so funny with Ketchum out cold from what appeared to be a bad bounce. She thought it "must be a guy thing." Like his brother, his father and his father's father before him, the Higgins' laugh was notorious for being infectious, so in no time it was no surprise that Cindy herself was infected enough from the sounds of Remy's laughter so that she broke into a high-pitched classic Kafelnikov laugh that would have done Yvgeni very proud. Through squinting eyes they looked at the TV and saw McEnroe and Pete keeled over with laughter, Lennox Lewis looking spaced out, and his wife smiling with her hand by an enormously swollen eye.

*

In the player's lounge in front of a table strewn with empty bottles, Nicholas Lapentti yelled, "Where a damn cup if you're going to bounce the ball through your legs!" It was enough for Rafter and Goran Ivanesevic and Yvgeni to join in the heckling. "Have Nastase call an ambulance for you!" added Yvgeni in a slurred English as he finished his vodka and slammed the glass on the wooden table. "More vodka!" he said to the cluster of waitresses that hovered around the big table of top seeds. "C'mon mate, walk it off" said an animated Rafter more concerned with holding his beer balanced with his expert volleying arm as Yvgeni reached for his vodka drink in front of him.

Ketchum, with the camera close-up on him, could only blush when he looked down and saw the two hands holding his swelling left testicle. Hearing Nastase say "Shake it off mate, shake it off," Ketchum for a moment wondered if there was a joke hidden in Nastase's word ‘shake.' "Shake," he mumbled, feeling the eyes of the world on him in his confusion. For support, Ketchum looked up to his woman Anna K. but she wasn't there. Her seat was empty. Instead he caught sight of someone in sunglasses pointing at him. Stung by fear, he stood up despite the pain and motioned to Rusty Hugh that he was OK.

Knowing now that the crowd was back on his side, and feeling the euphoria that his beloved "fuel" brought to him on court in his tie-dye T-shirt and lime green surf shorts and headband, Hellmantle walked back to the base line to wait for the skinny-ankled Celt to serve. In his state of mind, a thousand things rushed through his head as he waited for the serve.

The tall Brit looked stiff bouncing the ball in front of him and then appeared to stiffen more when he stopped bouncing for a beat looking at his bare left ring finger. Ketchum, using every inch of his lamb chops to deflect the blow, bounced the ball awkwardly and hurriedly hit an 88kph serve to Hellmantle's backhand. Caught off guard by the weak serve, Hellmantle returned with a deep backspin. Ketchum took a tentative step to the ball and hit a strong cross-court to the forehand.

Hellmantle's muscles had relaxed and felt strong as he lunged at the ball with more of a ballet gait than that of a tennis player. The left leg jutting out a foot higher and a foot wider as he followed through on his forehand down-the-line passing shot that somehow Ketchum was able to return. When Ketchum approached the net to put away the short ball, he moved with a lightness in his stride that suggested something closer to a prance. As he struck the ball his arm was completely extended in a sweeping forehand topspin to Ketchum's backhand where he returned it like a bullet an inch over the net. In stunning grace Hellmantle swept his racquet face net level and hit a textbook volley at his feet. As if twisting a knee, Ketchum elected to try the all-too-familiar squash shot, Not even sure if Ketchum was looking at the ball, he struck it flatly and cleanly down Hellmantle's backhand. He lunged in and caught the ball just inside of the edge of his frame, directing it crosscourt in a spectacular display of jumping ability. Tumbling to the clay by the net, he watched Ketchum try to reach the uncleanly hit backhand volley with the loose wrist shot. Ketchum tried to ease the miss by sliding to a stop on the clay but instead fumbled on the tape and landed on his hip. It almost looked like he bounced. Just then he heard a faint yelp by the brave Celt followed by a word that sounded like "bucket."

The teste-hampered Ketchum, with one hand on his groin, sat covered in red clay with his head down in defeated posture, sweat dripping off his nose. He faced triple break point.

"Zéro -quarante."

--


* A German word describing when one laughs at the temporary misfortune of others.

 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 

 
 

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