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Game, Set, Match

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“Thirty All.”

Puffy clouds hid the full force of the summer sun, drifting slowly over London and the All England Club, home of the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. As the cheers of the Sunday crowd died down, Paul Rovia turned and strode back over the patchy grass turf court to reach the baseline, sparing a look up to the friends’ box. His coach, usually stoic and unflappable behind his Wayfarer shades, sat forward for the first time and gave him a nod. Then, the former World Number One tennis player, Grand-Slam Champion, and Olympic Gold Medalist returned a loving smile. Paul realized the ball kid was waiting for him with his towel. He accepted the cloth and wiped his face quickly. His white headband was nearly soaked in sweat by the fourth game of the set.

Paul had taken the first set in a tie-break and the second six-three. Now, he was up five-two and serving for the match, just two points from tying the all-time record of nine Wimbledon Singles Championships, the first two of which he’d reached by defeating the handsome man currently sitting in the box. Now, Daryl Dixon was his coach and so much more.

“Thanks,” said Paul as he handed the towel back. He tried to make a concerted effort to do so rather than just throwing it at the ball kids haphazardly; it just seemed like the nicer thing to do. He nodded to the other kid to toss over a couple of tennis balls. Paul checked the felt on each before selecting one and sticking the other in his pocket. Righting his grip on the black Yonex racquet and leaning over with his feet set behind the baseline, Paul bounced the ball a few times before looking over the net into the deuce court. Taking in a breath, he moved in fluid motion, rocking back on his feet, bringing his racquet back, and tossing the ball up into the court before springing up and striking it with a crisp, solid serve. It was his fastest of the tournament at 144 miles per hour. Chalk flew from the outer service line as the ball kicked wide, far out of the stretching reach of his incredibly frustrated opponent, Spencer Monroe, and once again the crowd erupted with applause, cheers, and whistles.

“Forty : Thirty.”

Paul stepped back behind the baseline once more. Daryl sat stroking his chin, Powerplant ball cap removed and replaced by sunglasses on top of his head, his deep blue eyes bright and sharp. When Paul locked eyes, Daryl caught himself nibbling a thumbnail and readjusted to tuck his hands under his huge biceps. Paul exhaled, trying to slow his pounding heart that only got faster looking at Daryl. Taking the offered towel in hand, Paul wiped his face, neck and arms and gratefully returned the towel once more. He nodded for more tennis balls, checking each to pick the best two before bouncing the others back to the ball kid. He couldn’t help but look up at Daryl once more, for strength, for courage. Paul closed his eyes and mused for an instance about their journey to this point.

-----

Twelve years earlier...

“We’re back with you live and in the changeover, and I have to say that Daryl Dixon has really taken off in this match against his younger opponent. He’s really showing his dominance out here on the grass of Wimbledon,” said the announcer. “Now he finds himself up two sets and a break, and time is running out for Rovia.”

“The key here is Dixon’s lethal serve and his powerful return game—he’s just amazing, a total winning package with the best groundstrokes in the game today, if not of all time,” agreed the second commentator. “Both of these men are from the southern United States, both played for the same university at different times. Rovia is fast and nimble at the net with a focus on timing and precision, but he doesn’t seem to be showing us the weapons he’s used to carve through the major players he's beaten in this tournament, and in the warm-up prior, to get to his first major final. He took out Raleigh in the quarterfinals and Rhee in the semis—both in straight sets, mind you.”

“But today, he seems to be having trouble finding his rhythm and consistency,” added the first announcer. “That, and as you mentioned Dixon’s big power game, really has him out of his depth and in serious trouble right now, and Daryl Dixon is a great front-runner. When he’s up, it’s virtually impossible to comeback against him.”

“We also have to keep in mind that this is Paul Rovia’s first Wimbledon final, and surely not his last, if the past few weeks’ performance is any indication,” continued the second commentator. “As I watch him today, all I can imagine is that he has to be suffering from nerves. After all, he’s said in various interviews that Dixon is his tennis idol. No doubt that it’s pretty intimidating to see the one and only Daryl Dixon facing you across the net.”

“That’s so true. Also, one has to bear in mind that Rovia has received a great deal of negative media backlash over this tournament since he confirmed that he is gay, making him the first active male player to be openly out in the public eye,” informed the first announcer. “We’ve been told by his agent that it has cost him several potentially lucrative endorsements.”

“But if you learn his personal history, you’ll see that he is such a fascinating individual. Growing up an orphan, Rovia got involved in martial arts and tennis to develop personal discipline. At 15 he won the Juniors at the US Open, then he earned himself a scholarship to a small community college in Alexandria, Virginia, and started playing the pro circuit before he transferred to play for the University of Georgia, and from there he went on to became the NCAA singles champion. Now here he is, right out here on Centre Court, having won the qualifier rounds and Queens Court by defeating the Number Two seed, Glenn Rhee, there in a three-set final before beating him again here in the semi-finals.”

“Now the players are returning to the court,” said the first announcer. “And Rovia is now serving to try to stay in what might, in all likelihood, be the final set of the tournament for him.”

He had a solid read on the little guy’s serve all day, and Daryl had been making Paul Rovia pay dearly for a short second serve. He could tell that Paul was nervous. They’d met before at a tournament in Miami and the Italian Open, although Rovia had been ousted before he and Daryl could meet on the court. The young man stammered all over himself talking to Daryl, and he had to admit, it was fucking adorable. He’d wanted to ask him out to dinner, but Paul left the tournament immediately after both tournaments to move on to prepare for the next event. Daryl wondered if he’d been too obtuse and missed his moments, being closeted himself. He could care less about endorsements, but the contracts with Wilson and Nike had “morality clauses” and non-disclosure agreements that he’d found out about later, firing his manager and coach over it and replacing them with his brothers.

Now, they finally faced one another, and if Rovia caved in to nerves…well, no one would be adding an asterisk by his name on the trophy saying “His opponent was flustered by Dixon’s smokin’ ass.” But then it happened: the nerves died away. Paul Rovia cut loose, going for the lines and attacking everything because he had nothing left to lose. Paul Rovia started blasting in fast, flat serves, first and second without reservation; it was hot and dry, and the court was lightning fast, keeping the ball low and forcing Daryl to hit up. Whenever he did, Paul Rovia was there to carve the goddamn ball with a volley straight out of Daryl’s nightmares, varying between dying out right near the net and leaving scorch marks opposite Daryl’s court position. Instead of trading groundstrokes and matching Daryl in a side-to-side battle, Paul mixed up his shots to draw Daryl in, punishing the man with touch shots that barely crossed the net or lobbed over him into back corners. When it was Daryl’s serve, Paul stepped up into the court rather than backing away, taking the balls earlier in order to deliver super-quick returns, setting himself up for winners, and forcing Daryl to make errors. In less than thirty minutes, Paul Rovia had won the third set six-four and put the crowd on their feet. Paul Rovia, the most beautiful man Daryl had ever seen, with those perfect lips, lustrous light-brown hair, and misty blue eyes—the man everyone was calling “Jesus”—was dictating the play.

At the changeover, Daryl caught himself in a double-take and swallowing hard when Paul changed shirts on court while taking a drink of water. Daryl watched as Paul’s throat moved. Around his neck, Paul wore a tiny cord with a small, triangular, rainbow pendant. Those misty-blue irises locked once with his own ocean-blue eyes, only this time, it was Daryl who shied away first. When Daryl found himself facing a third break point in the second game, he was beginning to get frustrated with himself. He looked into the box to find his coach, Rick Grimes, and his older brother Merle looking deeply concerned. Daryl didn’t give a shit about royalty watching, but these were his brothers, and they could read his irritation. Unfortunately, so could his opponent standing across the court. When he went for too much on the second serve, he double-faulted and handed Paul the game and a break of serve, the aftermath of which earned Daryl a warning for audible obscenity from the chair. Another hour later found the pair in a tie-breaker with Paul fighting off two match points before stringing together four points of his own to take the fourth set and even things up.

In the fifth set, Daryl found Paul had become a wall. Only one of every ten passing shots made it through the aggressive volley barrage. Trading volleys with Paul turned out to be even more futile, and to be such a seemingly short guy, Paul could jump like a kangaroo and had one hell of an overhead smash. The other thing he did that set Daryl on edge was applauding Daryl’s winners; it was downright infuriating. And if Daryl served in a bomb, Paul simply chipped it with a textbook-perfect slice shot, fast and low over the net and very deep to the baseline, causing the bigger man to have to run down the ball as Paul charged the net.

At six-all in the final set, each having started out the set by delivering shut out games of aces, Daryl pulled two forehand passing shots wide and found himself on the ropes once more and facing a break point. He’d regained his focus and pumped himself up on significant points, much to the adoration of the crowd, but Rovia was making it clear that he wouldn’t be pushed off the court, including a fully outstretched leaping volley that caught Daryl totally off the court. The guy was tenacious; he reminded Daryl of himself at that age. Meanwhile, Paul shut out the crowd, the chair referee, and the scoreboard—all of it—and just played every point as if it were his last. Daryl tried to capitalize on a drop-shot, expecting Paul’s reply to open himself up to be passed, but Paul reply was an extreme angle that clipped the top of the net and dropped over onto Daryl’s side. Paul held his hands up in apology, not wanting to win the point on such a shit shot. Daryl just shook his head and walked back to counter Paul’s service with his best return game, keeping the ball in and forcing Rovia to come up with the winners. At championship point, as the crowd finally died down at the behest of the chair umpire, Daryl knew the young man did indeed have the right stuff on the court; he determined right then and there to find out if Paul had it off the court as well, whatever the outcome. Daryl caught the second serve, driving it down the line along the alley, but Paul had been anticipating it and sliced out into the open court. Daryl raced to his left to crack a topspin backhand cross-court and spun to run back to his right, but Paul was already at the net and his forehand volley caught the ball and placed it in the corner behind him, completely wrong-footing the defending champion. The crowd roared over the umpire’s announcement.

“Game, set, match, Rovia, three sets to two: four-six, six-seven, six-four, seven-six, eight-six.”

Realization caught up to Paul as he dropped to his knees and looked up to the sky with a barely coherent cry of adulation. Instantly, his face scrunched and tears burst forth as the young man tried to rise and wipe at his eyes, his features belying his bewilderment as he watched Daryl Dixon jog over to him, hop over the net, shake his hand, and pull him into a brief hug.

“Great game, Paul.”

“I’m sorry,” Paul stammered.

“What are you sorry for?” Daryl asked. “You beat me fair and square.”

“No,” Paul clarified with a soft smile, leaning in to speak into Daryl’s right ear. “I’m sorry that I had to duck out on you in Rome and Miami. I know who your sponsors are, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble.”

Daryl was thankful that their exertions hid their mutual blushing. “Nah, don’t worry about that. You let me handle the sponsors. Besides, I might like the trouble you bring.” That earned him a smile. He leaned into closer to Paul, speaking into his left ear as they moved toward the chair umpire together. How about after all this big to-do, we go out and grab ourselves a late dinner somewhere. Talk some more. Please?”

This time it was Paul who gulped nervously. He nodded. “All right. But you have to stay and watch me play doubles.”

“I can do that.”

They shook the umpire’s hand, put up their gear, and added warm-up jackets. At the ceremony, both thanked their support teams and the fans. After the trophy ceremony, presented by the Duke of Kent, Daryl and Paul stayed back to sign autographs for the fans. Daryl gave Paul his number before heading to his post-game press conference. Paul spoke briefly to a few reporters, made his way through the locker room to relax and get ready for his doubles match, which he won with Aaron Merchand.

Dinner turned into breakfast, then to lunch. At tea time, Daryl introduced Paul to his coach and his brother. Two months later, he defeated Paul at the US Open, and officially came out at the press conference after the match. Later that night, the pair found themselves as hot, sweaty, and exhausted after five sets in bed as they’d been on the court. Daryl’s new endorsement offers were even more lucrative than what he’d had before. The following year, Daryl lost the Australian and the French to Paul but won his last Wimbledon over his boyfriend, and the two became the number one men’s doubles team, devastating every draw. After Daryl’s retirement eight years later, he became Paul’s coach.

----

Now

“Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please,” ordered the chair umpire. “Thank you.”

Taking a cleansing breath, Paul set himself to the left of the center mark as the chair umpire once again asked the spectators for silence. He chortled to himself and smiled over at a pair of teens seated court-side, wearing t-shirts with his face on them that proclaimed "Jesus Serves!" and "Jesus Saves a Match Point!" Six ball bounces later, he flew into motion, firing in a powerful serve that his opponent drove into the net. Moments later in midst of the thundering ovation, Paul climbed gracefully up the dark green walls to make his way into the friends’ box, hugging everyone in his team and shaking hands with his opponent’s loved ones. Before he could embrace the man of his dreams, Daryl took his hand a placed two very expensive rings of platinum around black opal into it.

“Will you?”

“YES!” Paul cried.

Daryl shrugged and smiled. “In that case, we both win today.” The kiss that followed made ESPN’s play of the day.