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excerpts from sweetheart vs. spitfire, et al.

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"For the love of God, would you please stop that infernal noise!" he snapped, shaken out of an almost-trance by the uncompromising pounding on his door. "I am this close to finished! Leave me alone!"

"You are not missing the Roland Garros final because of that bloody book," came the unsympathetic reply. "Shut down your computer and get in the car."

He muttered something under his breath about pushy coaches who thought they were entitled to tell the whole world what to do instead of just their proteges, and then obeyed, because as little as he liked it, the source of the irritating interruption was completely right: putting the finishing touches on last year's history could wait. Watching this year's history would not.

~*~

Many people would ask John Granby, in the following year, whether he had any idea at the time what he was doing, that he was changing history. He would laugh, almost incredulously, and say, "History? For god's sake, it was a tennis match." But the fact remains: he knew perfectly well what he was doing.

Tharkay, Z. Sweetheart vs. Spitfire: Tam Eyre, Iskierka Kazilovic and the Changing of the Guard. New York: Random House, 2010.

~*~

Second set of the Wimbledon final for women's singles, nine points into the tiebreak. The first seed and reigning champion was leading one set to love, up three points in the tiebreaker, and her opponent was drooping after spitting fire and serving aces all tournament long. Granby eyed Iskierka's stiff back as she chose her balls, and then grinned and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Come on Tim!" he yelled.

"She's not a man," pointed out the man sitting to his left, a journalist who had been (grudgingly) granted permission to shadow Iskierka's team for the Wimbledon fortnight. He was foreign, Granby remembered, noting the faint accent once again; he looked more confused by John's mad English behavior than irritated. "She's not even British."

Granby grinned at him toothily. "Oh, I know, but I'm not cheering for Iskierka. I'm cheering for Tammy. COME ON TIM! GO TAMMY!"

Iskierka's head whipped around as if he'd yanked a string attached to her braid, her face going dangerously bright red. Granby waved with an almost demented smile, nearly clipping the ear of Eyre's coach, who was seated on his other side, and her expression darkened even further. She turned back to the court, her movements sharp and quick for the first time all set, and served two impossible, beautiful aces. Across the net, Eyre's eyes (dark, long-lashed, and perpetually praised as "Oriental" in interviews with Vogue, Elle and Sports Illustrated) widened. Iskierka took the next three points, and the set.

During the changeover, Iskierka stormed straight up to the player's box, ignoring Tammy, the referee, and any threats of penalties. "You are my coach!" she screamed upwards, unaware that her tantrum (along with seven other, somewhat milder versions from matches and practice sessions earlier in the tournament) would be uploaded to YouTube within the hour. "You cheer for ME!"

Granby sat back with an extremely self-satisfied expression to watch the final set, as Iskierka bludgeoned Tam Eyre, No. 1 in the world for two years running and three time Wimbledon champion, straight into the grass in a fit of righteous fury.

~*~

The rivalry between Eyre and Kazilovic is one of the most thrilling in women's tennis today, but off-court it is astounding how little they seem to regard each other as enemies. Kazilovic's coach, John Granby, was Eyre's assistant coach and hitting partner for nearly two years before leaving her for his Serbian protege; Granby and Will Laurence, Eyre's long-time coach, remain close friends. "She's like my family," Eyre has said on numerous occasions, when asked to define her relationship to her younger opponent. "Like my little sister." A somewhat bratty one, perhaps, given that Kazilovic has always been prone to outbursts of temper on-court and off, and jealously guards her claim to Granby's attention. But the two tennis stars are in each other's company more often than not: during tournaments, they eat together, hit together, often live only doors away in the same hotel. Last year, on their laughably brief off-season, Eyre and entourage visited Serbia with Kazilovic; the year before, Kazilovic had gone to China with Eyre.

The circumstances surrounding Eyre's official nationality are somewhat obscure, and it is only very recently that she has been able to visit the land of her birth, having refused - on pain of heavy fines - to even play tournaments in Shanghai or Beijing after the People's Republic of China laid accusations of kidnapping against her coach. China's interest in reclaiming an Olympic-level athlete is understandable, but the claim that an orphaned, eight-year-old Tam Eyre, whom the Republic refers to by her birth name of Lung Tien Xiang, was wrongfully abducted by her devoted coach received short shrift and succeeded only in alienating Eyre. Although she acknowledges her Chinese heritage, she is a proud British national and has represented her chosen homeland in both the Fed Cup and Olympics. "England is my home, and Will is my family," Eyre said in an interview with Vanity Fair shortly after China first expressed concern that her adoption by William Laurence had not gone through appropriate channels. "China can ask me to come home until they're blue in the face for all I care. I am home."

Tharkay, Z. Sweetheart vs. Spitfire: Tam Eyre, Iskierka Kazilovic and the Changing of the Guard. New York: Random House, 2010.

~*~

Match point arrived too quickly, and Granby sat forward in his seat, abandoning his low-voiced conversation with Laurence as the other man mirrored his movement. The sports journalist, who had been clearly torn between watching the match and listening to them talk, glanced quickly at them and then focused on the women on court.

Tammy was tired, Granby thought, watching her bounce on her toes a few times before choosing a ball. She was moving slower, and her serve was losing accuracy. She wasn't giving up, though. He'd never once seen Tammy give up.

Iskierka, on the other hand... well, he'd seen her give up, of course. He'd seen her give up almost once a day when he'd started coaching her, and her threat to quit was usually accompanied by a racquet flying at his head. But she hadn't thrown any racquets recently - he'd told her he would quit if she did, and that was the one threat she did take seriously - and at the moment she was too pissed to even think about surrender. He watched her toss her braid over her shoulder and crouch down, waiting for Tammy's serve, and nodded to himself.

Tammy's first serve went into the net. Iskierka barely shifted, waiting for the ball with narrowed eyes. The second serve was good, and she sent it back, pinpointing the corner of the court, making Tammy run for it. It was the right strategy. Tammy got one return, two, three, and on the fourth she stumbled as the ball flew inches past her racquet.

The crowd erupted, Tammy let her shoulders sag the tiniest amount, and Iskierka stood stock-still at the baseline, seemingly waiting for the next serve. She straightened slowly as the umpire gave the score and mangled her name for the final time, still processing the fact that she'd won Wimbledon. Granby could see the exact moment it sank in, because she dropped her racquet on the ground and nearly bolted across the court, vaulted the net and flung herself straight at her opponent.

Tammy looked up just in time to brace for impact. Iskierka barreled into her, threw her arms around her waist and spun her around, actually lifting her completely off the grass. "Tammy, Tammy, I did it, I won!" she shrieked.

There was the briefest moment when Tammy paused - too brief for Iskierka to notice, but not Laurence or Granby. Losing Wimbledon thankfully hadn't made her any less Tammy, so the instant passed almost immediately. She laughed and hung on for dear life, feet and racquet dangling uselessly. "I knew you could," she said.

~*~

So, who called Kazilovic shaking off three match points to take down Princess Tammy in three, and can I have your lottery numbers, too? Because JESUS, nobody saw that one coming. She's eighteen, in her first Grand Slam final, and she claws the Wimbledon trophy away from Eyre? Those are some serious balls she's got there.

I can't decide whether that hissy fit Little Miss Spitfire threw at her coach in the changeover before the third set was infuriating or endearing, honestly. I mean, yeah, it was maybe a little out of line if he really was cheering for Princess Tammy. But she started screaming at him on court in the middle of the final. At Wimbledon. Is this the face of the new guard? Because I miss Tammy's gracious reign already.

Then again, this is the Serbian Spitfire we're talking about. I probably would have been disappointed if she hadn't thrown a tantrum. It's practically her thing. And props where props are due: she played an absolutely unbelievable tiebreaker, and a mind-blowing third set. Tammy looked ready to fall over and die by the time Iskierka was done running the legs off her, and Kaz wasn't even winded. I'm really looking forward to a revenge match-up soon. Bets on the US Open, anyone?

(Okay, I'll admit it: I sobbed like a little bitch during Kaz's speech. God, I want to hate her so bad for taking this from Tammy, and I can't. Dammit Miss Spitfire! Stop trying to express your love in adorably terrible English and go back to being hateful so I can loathe you in peace!)

I can't even face the thought of going through this wringer with the men tomorrow. The things you do to me, tennis...

Forty Deuce. 2009. http://www.cowbell.typepad.com

~*~

Kazilovic took home the trophy from her first Grand Slam meeting with Eyre. Watching the two of them on the winners' platform, however, you might have thought the opposite was true. Kazilovic, who had displayed nerves of pure steel in the match, staring down three match points without blinking, was obviously anxious during the trophy presentation and stuck to Eyre's side like a burr. It made for an almost laughable picture, since the Serbian is nearly half a foot taller than her petite Asian colleague: she was a St. Bernard trying to hide behind a housecat.

Tammy Eyre has always endeared herself to the public for her graciousness in victory; that day she proved her graciousness in defeat, accepting the plate instead of the cup with a speech full of kindness to her younger rival. Separated from Eyre during the ceremony, Kazilovic visibly screwed up her courage and launched into her speech.

In the middle of a clearly scripted address thanking the fans, the sponsors, the ballkids and of course her coach - despite her having lived in England for nearly three years at that point, Kazilovic's discomfort with formal English was plain, and she usually preferred to speak through a translator - she abruptly stopped, scowled fiercely, and began again, this time with words that were less than perfect but were clearly hers.

"Also I want very much to say the thank you to my family, my sister, because she is always being for me the person I want to see when I win, and today I am being so much happy, because of I win and she is here. Always she is believing for me and saying I can win, even when I am crying in hotel bathtub and saying I can only lose. Tammy, you play beautiful today, always you are playing so beautiful, and always you are being most wonderful sister in the whole world, and making me always so very much proud for you."

By the time she had finished, Kazilovic's face was blotchy red from either embarrassment or pent-up tears. Eyre shoved her plate into the hands of one of the sponsors and ran across the stage to throw her arms around the girl who had displaced her, unrelated by blood but undeniably her sister.

Tharkay, Z. Sweetheart vs. Spitfire: Tam Eyre, Iskierka Kazilovic and the Changing of the Guard. New York: Random House, 2010.

~*~

"So," Granby said to the journalist as the audience slowly filtered out of the seats, "what are you up to tomorrow night?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Tomorrow night," Granby repeated. Laurence had started to get up, on his other side; Granby reached back and yanked him down into his seat without looking. "Do you have plans?"

"I will be attending the Champions Ball," the reporter said, confused. "As will you."

"Oh," Granby said, and wrinkled his nose. "Will and I are just going to drop the girls off and go find a proper pub, actually. Tammy can look after Iskierka for the night, and the food is always terrible. To say nothing of the beer."

"I... see," said the journalist, who did not. "Why are you telling me this, please?"

"I'm inviting you to join us," Granby explained patiently. "You should come along, Tharkay - it's Tharkay, right? You've been around 24/7 for the past two weeks and I don't even know your first name. We should hang out."

Tharkay blinked, and obligingly provided a Malay word with approximately nine times as many consonants as vowels. "Bless you," Granby said.

"That was my name."

"Oh." Laurence kicked Granby in the shin; Tharkay saw him wince.

"Tharkay is fine," he said magnanimously. He didn't particularly enjoy hearing his given name mispronounced, anyway. "I do not understand. Why should we 'hang out'?"

"You're the least obnoxious reporter I've ever met," Granby told him, completely sincere. "Iskierka even likes you. Well. She doesn't hate you. We need to hang onto you."

"I am so sorry," Laurence interrupted, clamping a hand over Granby's mouth. "He's always like this. Too many tennis balls to the head as a child."

"I've been following him around for two weeks, Mr. Laurence; I am hardly surprised. Mr. Granby, I am afraid I have not grasped your point. How do Miss Kazilovic's feelings toward me enter into the matter?"

Granby threw a friendly arm around Tharkay's shoulders, much to his bemusement. "You think that little shitfit she threw earlier was bad? That was nothing. You've never seen her when some reporter gets up in her face. You never did that. You were polite, you stayed out of the way, you didn't ask her a bunch of intrusive questions or try and get at Tammy. So we're hoping you'll stick around. Interviews, exclusives, whatever you want."

"Within reason," Laurence added. Tharkay looked at him, surprised to realize that Tammy's reserved coach was apparently in on Granby's madcap scheme. Laurence smiled suddenly, and said, "We do like you rather a great deal, Mr. Tharkay. But you need not commit to anything more than dinner. Though perhaps you will oblige us by making use of our Christian names."

"Will, you are a disaster," Granby said affectionately. "I shudder to think what Tammy's childhood would have been like if I hadn't happened along. Come on, let's go check on the girls. They must be out of the showers by now."

Tharkay trailed bewilderedly in their wake down to the women's locker room. Iskierka and Tammy were finishing getting dressed - Tammy in a comfortable tracksuit, Iskierka in a frankly ridiculous sequined top and skin-tight jeans. It was utterly garish and utterly like her, and Tharkay could not help but smile as Granby kissed her forehead and called her a darling, tasteless girl. "Fasten my necklace," she demanded, not bothering to refute the accusation. "Also I am wanting my hoop earrings back. I know you stealed them."

Granby sighed. "I only do these things to protect you, you know. They won't match your outfit."

"I want them," she said, her voice rising perilously. "They're mine, I buyed them, I want to wear them, and you cheered for Tammy!"

"And then you won," he pointed out. When this failed to soothe her impending tantrum, he sighed again and pulled a jewelry box out of his pocket. Iskierka was immediately all smiles once more, bad temper forgotten.

Tammy slipped around them to stand by Tharkay and Laurence, putting her hand in her guardian's in an instinctive gesture that clearly calmed her exasperation. "So will you be staying with us, Mr. Tharkay?" she asked with a smile. Iskierka looked over.

"Oh, yes, you are going to be our reporter person and not annoying like other reporters persons!" she said, beaming. "I very like you. You no ask the stupid questions."

"Ah... thank you?" Tharkay hazarded. Granby shushed Iskierka with the deft skill of long practice and sent her off to put in her earrings, before she could stick her foot even further in her mouth.

One of the uniformed tournament lackeys poked a head into the locker room and announced, "They're ready when you are, Miss Eyre." Tammy sighed and nodded.

Tharkay had turned to speak to Granby, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Laurence put an arm around her shoulders and kiss her temple. "You played well," he murmured, barely loud enough to be overheard. "Go on, now." Tammy straightened her shoulders and went.

Tharkay hesitated, then said, "I should be at her presser."

Laurence nodded politely; Granby clapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to rock him back on his heels. "We won't keep you."

"I'll see you back at the hotel," Tharkay blurted, wishing belatedly that he'd bitten his tongue as a flush burned his dark cheeks. Granby was looking at him quizzically. "And. At dinner tomorrow. John."

A startled, delighted expression moved across Granby's face. Tharkay beat a hasty retreat, praying his face would cool before he had to sit with his colleagues and interrogate Tam Eyre about her unexpected loss. It was the right thing to do, however, he consoled himself; if Iskierka Kazilovic could stand on a stage while the whole world watched and, in a language so very obviously not her own, tell a woman she had just knocked off her throne she loved her, he would be ashamed not to have the courage to take the hand that John Granby had extended to him. It was a day to be brave.

~*~

History has not yet determined who will win the rivalry between Eyre and Kazilovic, if either of them ever will. Anyone could tell you, after that first Wimbledon final, that their names would go down in history together.

Tharkay, Z. Sweetheart vs. Spitfire: Tam Eyre, Iskierka Kazilovic and the Changing of the Guard. New York: Random House, 2010.

~*~

Tharkay sat back and watched the cursor blink at the bottom of the page. "I think I'm done," he said.

"Really?" Tammy asked, looking up from the card game she was playing with Iskierka and Granby on the bed.

"I want to read!" Iskierka said. "You say I am prettiest, yes? And best player. And have all the nice clothes." Tammy poked her in the side, but gently. Iskierka still took losing badly. She'd only cried for half an hour after the final, though, and when she came out of the locker room her face was blotchy and tear-stained but her favorite, tacky hoop earrings were flashing in her ears, signaling defiance to the world. Her presser had been phenomenally gracious, if you considered that normally after a loss she either sulked and only answered in Serbian, or threw things at reporters she thought were asking stupid questions. Maturity came slowly, maybe, but it was coming.

"It's in English, dearest," Granby said mildly. "You wouldn't get very far."

"I said you were very pretty," Tharkay interrupted. "I even wrote about the dress you wore to the Champions' Ball. With the glitter, and the sequins." Though it had made his soul die a little bit inside just to think of it again.

"Oh, good," Iskierka said, cheered. "I buy new dress for this year! Tammy, we go shopping in London."

Tammy hit Iskierka over the head with a pillow. In the ensuing chaos, Granby slipped away from the girls and came to sit with Tharkay in his corner by the electrical outlet. "I'm proud of you," he said, directing his remark to the light fixture a foot or so to the left of Tharkay's head.

"Thank you, John," Tharkay said gravely.

"So, what project will you be working on next, do you suppose?" Granby's attempt at feigning nonchalance was largely unsuccessful.

"Well, there is always more tennis to write about," Tharkay mused. "I think I may ask the Times to let me switch to the men's tour, at least for a while."

"Oh."

Tharkay barely glimpsed the hurt on Granby's face before he looked away. "Well, it's important in journalism, not to lose perspective," he heard himself saying, as if from very far away. "I could hardly be objective, you know, about women's tennis."

"Why is that?" Granby asked softly, still watching the girls make a mess of the hotel bed rather than meeting Tharkay's eye.

"Don't be obtuse, it doesn't suit you," Laurence said impatiently from the other side of the room as he frowned mild disapproval at his daughter and her sister. "How could he be objective about his family?"

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Tam Eyre and Iskierka Kazilovic celebrate after Wimbledon