Sweat beaded down my forehead and I let out a frustrated grunt. This man wasn’t giving me what I needed, but I sure as hell wouldn’t let that stop me from getting what I wanted. I adjusted my grip, and the next time the ball flew toward me, I hit it squarely with my racket.
“Good form, Abigail,” Coach Carvel shouted from the sidelines.
I smiled and wiped the sweat from my forehead, glaring at my opponent. He was a new coaching assistant, and he wasn’t nearly as skilled as I was. His racket work was sloppy, and he kept sending me bad serves.
We continued the match, which I obviously won. The newbie assistant eyed me appreciatively, but I ignored his gaze. Besides the fact that any relations between students and coaches was strictly prohibited, I didn’t have time for men. Lately I didn’t have time for anything but tennis.
I wanted to be the next Serena Williams. Strike that, I wanted to be better than Serena Williams. Men didn’t factor into that dream, and they probably never would except when I kicked their asses on the courts.
I watched another match while I waited for Carver to assign my next opponent. It was the first official day of practice for the semester, so his goal was to see our strengths and decide our placements on the team.
I observed the other players, admiring their form and passion. They probably looked at me as the girl who was only half-assing the sport. How could I blame them? Until recently, I’d been playing softball for the school too. They probably thought I wasn’t as serious as they were, but that wasn’t true.
In fact, I considered tennis to be my life. I’d been playing since I was a child, and always planned to go pro. When I got to college, though, I was scouted out by the softball coach. She started me in my first semester, and I loved the feeling of being on a team. Tennis was usually more solitary.
Occasionally I’d play doubles, but I’d been told I could be a bit of a ball hog. My brother always hated playing with me because he could hardly ever get a shot in. Softball was different, we all had a role to play. On the tennis court, though, my singular focus was to win. If a partner couldn’t help me achieve that goal, I would just do it myself. It had always been that way.
“You’re up on Court Three with Lauren,” Coach muttered to me when he saw me peeking over his shoulder.
I smiled, pleased. Lauren was a year older and more established on the team. If he wanted me to play against her, that meant he liked what he saw in my match with his assistant. And, God, did I want to impress Coach. The regional singles tournament was coming up and I needed him to pick me. It was my chance to prove to everyone what I was capable of.
Lauren and I stepped onto the court facing each other. We walked up to the net and shook hands before we walked back to our starting positions. As a more senior member of the team, she got first serve. She had a great swing, giving me my first challenge of the day. Still, I easily hit the ball back to her and we played in earnest.
She won the first set, but I ended up winning the match. When I lost the first set I was more motivated to win. I played my heart out and it showed. I looked over to Coach, temporarily forgetting his existence as I was so caught up in the game. He smiled and wrote in his clipboard. I felt instant gratification.
I basically floated to the locker room, so buoyed by my win. Lauren had been profiled in our school paper last year. They’d named her “One to Watch” as one of the top athletes at Providence University. I’d just beaten her in our first match. Maybe this year the profile would be about me. I hoped they picked a good picture.
The hot steam of the shower helped loosen my muscles and I relaxed against the spray. There was a little time before my next class, so I didn’t rush. I reveled in every pain, every crack as I unwound myself. This was day one of the rest of my life, and I’d freaking nailed it.
“Good game,” a girl said to me as I stepped out of the shower.
She was dressed, but her hair was still wet from her own shower. She threw it up in a bun and smiled brightly at me.
“Thank you.” I smiled back. “I’m Abigail,” I told her, realizing that I hadn’t met her before.
She was taller than me and broader too. Her wet hair looked brown, though it could’ve been a dark blonde. It was hard to say. Her light brown eyes shone brightly at me and she extended her hand. I made sure to use my free hand to keep my towel up.
“Cassie,” she answered back. “I’m a freshman.”
Ah, so that was why I hadn’t seen her before. She looked so much older, though, not only because of her stature. She carried herself with a confident air, and her eyes held a glint of mischief. If I wasn’t careful, this girl might get me in trouble. Maybe the good kind, though.
“How long have you been on the team?” she asked.
“It’s my second year, but I’ve been playing since I was a kid.”
“I can tell.” She giggled. “I didn’t learn moves like that in school. You clearly know what the hell you’re doing with that racket.”
I smiled shyly, but inside I felt a hundred feet tall. It meant a lot when people noticed my form. I’d worked so hard to get where I was now.
Cassie prattled on for a while as I dressed. I slipped on a simple pair of leggings and my tennis sweatshirt. Strictly speaking, it was too warm to be wearing a sweatshirt, but our team t-shirts wouldn’t be in for a while. I wanted to represent for my first day of classes.
While Cassie spoke, I learned a lot about her. She’d been scouted out of high school and was here on a tennis scholarship. She was nervous about starting college and the rigorous academic schedule. I wondered briefly if her nerves were why she talked so much, or if maybe that was just her.
She was absolutely obsessed with boys, something we didn’t share.
“Oh, are you, ya know, playing for the other team?” She giggled.
I rolled my eyes. There were so many stereotypes about female athletes. Though, to be fair, I knew several bi athletes. Still, my lack of interest in guys had nothing to do with my orientation.
“Men are a distraction,” I chided. “If you have any hope of being a tennis pro you have to keep up your focus.”
“Lots of professional athletes are married.” She laughed. “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re in college, this is your time to sow your wild oats!”
“Is that what you’re doing?” I asked her, taking in her short shorts and crop top.
“Oh, I’m very sex-positive,” she affirmed. “I plan to do my way through the school before graduation!”
I rolled my eyes again. “And when do you plan on improving your tennis game?”
“God, you sound like my dad!” She laughed. One thing I was learning about Cassie was that everything was funny to her.
“If I’m being honest, I got into tennis because he handed me a racket when I was five. Tennis is fine, and it’s paying for school, but it’s not my priority. It’s a means to an end, you know?”
I bristled at her words. How could anyone be on this team and not have the same single-minded dedication? Maybe the guys could get away with this nonchalant attitude, but we had to work harder and be faster just to keep up with them.
“You aren’t trying for the singles tournament?” I asked, totally bewildered at her attitude.
She scoffed. “Look, my scholarship just stipulates I have to be on the team and keep up my GPA. A tournament sounds like effort, and right now I’m focusing all my effort on getting straight A’s in classes and straight D’s in—”
“I got it,” I cut her off, not wanting to hear the rest of her philosophy.
I braided my hair quickly and added some light makeup, but only to cover some of the redness my face still held from practice.
“So the boys’ team practices at six tonight,” Cassie started.
“I’m aware,” I grumbled, annoyed that the boys got to practice when it was cooler.
They were always getting advantages over us.
“I was thinking about coming back to watch them play. What do you think?”
“I think if you want to watch them play, you should,” I said as I packed up my gear and shoved it in my locker.
“No, silly, what do you think about coming with me?”
It was an intriguing idea. I didn’t normally watch practice, but it could be a good chance for me to pick up some new techniques. I had a feeling Coach Carver was holding out on us.
“I don’t really know.” I hesitated. “I’ve got class until four and I was planning to study after dinner. Gotta keep up the GPA and all that.”
“Please, Abigail?” Cassie whined. “You’re the first person I’ve really gotten to talk to since I arrived, and I really don’t want to go alone!”
I had a hard time believing that Cassie hadn’t talked to anyone else. She didn’t seem to have any issues talking in general. Still, I did have some pity for her. It was hard to leave home and start college. If it meant that much to her, I supposed I could stop in for a little while.
“Fine,” I conceded. “I’ll come watch practice with you.”
She squealed at a pitch only dogs could hear, and it made me wince.
“Oh, I’m so excited!” she screamed. “I’ve been checking out the team roster and there are some real hotties on the team! What better way to meet a guy than to exploit a common interest?”
I rolled my eyes again and stood to leave.
“Cassie, I will come watch practice with you under one condition. For every guy you tell me is hot, you have to point out one element of his game you would do differently.”
She pouted at me. “That sounds so boring! Can’t we just ogle them?”
I sighed heavily. “How would you feel if the boys came to our practice just to ogle us?”
She got a dreamy look in her eye and I immediately realized my mistake.
“Don’t answer that,” I said, stopping her with my hand before she could say anything.
“Oh, you won’t regret this, Abigail.” She sighed, pulling me into a tight hug. “We’ll have the best time! Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a love connection!”
“I know very well that I will not be making a love connection tonight, but I wish you the best of luck.”
I walked to the door and she followed at my heels. One of the seniors brushed past me, giving Cassie a dirty look. Suddenly, I felt very protective of the naïve girl who just wanted to hook up with hot college guys. Even if I didn’t particularly understand her.
I turned back to Cassie.
“I’ll meet you here at five-forty-five okay. Don’t be late, and for goodness sake, put on a sweater. It gets chilly at night.”
She gave me a fake salute and followed me out of the locker room. We walked down the long hallway until we exited the sports complex and emerged into the now cloudy morning.
“Five-forty-five,” she repeated. “Got it! Oh, and can you bring us some coffee?”
I rolled my eyes again as I started my long trek across campus.