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Double Fault

A Novel

Double Fault by Lionel Shriver
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Tennis has been Willy Novinsky's one love ever since she first picked up a racquet at the age of four. A middle-ranked pro at twenty-three, she's met her match in Eric Oberdorf, a low-ranked, untested Princeton grad who also intends to make his mark on the international tennis circuit. Eric becomes Willy's first passion off the court, and eventually they marry. But while wedded life begins well, full-tilt competition soon puts a strain on their relationship—and an unexpected accident sends driven and gifted Willy sliding irrevocably toward resentment, tragedy, and despair.

From acclaimed author Lionel Shriver comes a brilliant and unflinching novel about the devastating cost of prizing achievement over love.

HarperCollins; May 2009
352 pages; ISBN 9780061915895
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Double Fault
Author: Lionel Shriver; Barrington Saddler LLC

Chapter One

At the top of the toss, the ball paused, weightless. Willy's arm dangled slack behind her back. The serve was into the sun, which at its apex the tennis ball perfectly eclipsed. A corona blazed on the ball's circumference, etching a ring on Willy's retina that would blind-spot the rest of the point.

Thwack. Little matter, about the sun. The serve sang down the middle and sped, unmolested, to ching into a diamond of the chain-link fence. Randy wrestled with the Penn-4. It gave him something to do.

Willy blinked. "Never look at the sun" had been a running admonition in her childhood. Typical, from her parents: avert your eyes from glory, shy from the bright and molten, as if you might melt.

A rustle of leaves drew Willy's gaze outside the fence to her left. Because the ball's flaming corona was still burned into her vision, the stranger's face, when she found it, was surrounded by a purple ring, as if circled for her inspection with a violet marker. His fingers hooked the galvanized wire. He had predatory eyes and a bent smile of unnerving patience, like a lazy lion who would wait all day in the shade for supper to walk by. Though his hairline was receding, the lanky man was young, yet still too white to be one of the boys from nearby Harlem scavenging strays for stickball. He must have been searching the underbrush for his own errant ball; he had stopped to watch her play.

Willy gentled her next serve to Randy's forehand. There was no purpose to a pick-up game in Riverside Park if she aced away the entire set. Reining in her strokes, Willy caressed the ball while Randy walloped it. As ever, she marveled at the way her feet made dozens of infinitesimal adjustments of their own accord. Enjoying the spontaneous conversation of comment and reply, Willy was disappointed when her loping backhand tempted Randy to show off. Ppfft, into the net.

This late in the first set, she often gave a game away to keep the opposition pumped. But with that stranger still ogling their match from the woods, Willy resisted charity. And she wasn't sure how much more of this Randy Ravioli (or whatever, something Italian) she could take. He never shut up. "Ran-dee!" echoed across all ten courts when his shot popped wide. Between points Randy counseled regulars in adjoining games: "Bit too wristy, Bobby old boy!" and "Bend those knees, Alicia!" Willy herself he commended: "You pack quite a punch for a little lady." And the stocky hacker was a treasure trove of helpful advice; he'd demonstrated the western grip on the first changeover.

She'd smiled attentively. Now up 4-O, Willy was still smiling.

The Italian's serve had a huge windup, but with a hitch at the end, so all that flourish contributed little to the effort. More, intent on blistering pace, Randy tended to overlook the nicety of landing it in the box. He double-faulted, twice.

As they switched ends again, Willy's eyes darted to her left. That man was still leering from behind the fence. Damn it, one charm of throwaway games in Riverside was not to be scrutinized for a change. Then, he did have an offbeat, gangly appeal . . . Ignoring the passerby only betrayed her awareness that he was watching.

Newly self-conscious, Willy bounced the ball on the baseline six, seven times. If her coach knew she was here he would have her head, as if she were a purebred princess who mustn't slum with guttersnipes and so learn to talk trash. But Willy felt that amateurs kept you on your toes. They were full of surprises—inadvertently nasty dinks from misconnected volleys, or wild lobs off the frame. And many of Riverside's motley crew exuded a nutritious exultation, losing with a shy loss for words or a torrent of gee-whiz. With Randy she was more likely to earn a huffy see ya, but she preferred honest injury to the desiccated well done and two-fingered handshake of Forest Hills.

Besides, Riverside Park was just across the street from her apartment, providing the sport a relaxing easy-come. The courts' wretched repair recalled the shattered Montclair asphalt on which Willy first learned to play: crabgrass sprouted on the baseline, fissures crazed from the alley, and stray leaves flattened the odd return. The heaving undulation of courts four and seven approximated tennis on the open sea. Poor surface mimicked the sly spins and kick-serves of cannier pros, and made for good practice of split-second adjustment to gonzo bounces. Craters and flotsam added a touch of humor to the game, discouraging both parties from taking the outcome to heart. An occasional murder in this bosky northern end of the park ensured generously available play time.

In the second set Randy started to flail. Meanwhile their audience followed the ball, his eyes flicking like a lizard's tracking a fly. He was distracting. When the man aped "Ran-dee!" as the Italian mishit another drive, Willy's return smacked the tape.

"You threw me off," she said sharply.

"It shouldn't be so easy." The onlooker's voice was deep and creamy.

Abruptly impatient, Willy finished Randy off in ten minutes. When they toweled down at the net post, Willy eyed her opponent with fresh dismay. From behind the baseline Randy could pass for handsome; this close up, he revealed the doughy, blurred features of a boozer.

Emerging from his towel, Randy grumbled, "I've been hustled."

"There was no money on the line," she chided.

"There's always something on the line," he said brusquely, "or you don't play."

Leaning for his racket case, Randy grabbed his spine. "Oooh, geez! Threw my back last week. Afraid I'm a pale shadow . . .”

Zipping up, he explained that his racket had "frame fatigue"; not much better than a baseball bat, capisce?

Her coach Max often observed, When boys win, they boast; when girls win, they apologize. "I was in good form today," Willy offered. "And you got some pretty vile bounces."

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