When Roger hugs him at the net, Stan just feels numb. Four match points, three on his serve. He should have been able to take one. He knows he was the better player today. One ball played differently, and he would be in his first ever WTF final, an exclamation point for a fantastic year. But Roger was Roger, and the balls went his way – as they ever do – and it’s Stan who has to smile politely and exit the court, trying his utmost to blink back the blurriness in his eyes.
In his locker room afterwards, when Roger tells him he hurt his back in the tiebreak and won’t be able to play the final tomorrow, Stan doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Roger puts an apologetic hand on his arm, and Stan simultaneously wants to punch him and fall sobbing into his arms, neither of which are rational reactions at all. Now not only is Stan’s own dream in ashes, but Djokovic gets a fucking walkover, and their Davis Cup title hopes – so high in recent months – are probably totally fucked.
He takes a deep breath, restrains himself with an effort from shaking Roger’s hand off. He’s not sure if he’s more irrationally angry at Roger for winning injured, or rationally angry at himself for failing to convert one of those match points. Probably the latter. It’s not Roger’s fault. It just… fucking sucks.
“It’s okay,” he says, contorting his face in the approximation of a smile.
Roger’s gone to the showers. Magnus and Stephane are talking in low voices in the corner, occasionally darting worried glances at Stan. They think they’re so sneaky, but Stan knows them too well for that. He doesn’t know why they’re worried, though. He’s not the one who injured his back winning a tiebreak to put himself into a final he knew he wouldn’t be able to play.
God. He’s getting maudlin. Just get through press, find a bar. The sooner he can numb the sharp edge of tonight, the heavy weight pressing down on his chest, the better. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he doesn’t – just a beer, here and there – but after a loss tonight he thinks he’s entitled to get pretty damn drunk.
“Hey,” Seve says, sitting down on the bench next to him.
Stan sighs, still staring at his locker. “Hey.”
Seve pulls him into an awkward side-hug, his arms warm and familiar.
“Seve,” Stan says, half-laughing.
Seve always sits in Roger’s box during their matches. Stan doesn’t resent that; he’s always known that Roger comes first with Seve, as he does for 99% of the tennis world. Roger’s Roger - the idea that Seve would ever choose Stan over him is inconceivable. Still, he can’t deny that looking up and seeing Seve in Roger’s box, rooting against him, doesn’t give him the occasional pang. Maybe once, just once, he could sit somewhere else? Not in Stan’s box, that would obviously never happen, but maybe just once he could sit somewhere neutral. Then when Stan made an error, or missed a match point, or felt his heart plummeting, he wouldn’t have to look up and see Seve applauding.
Seve isn’t letting go. He hugs him harder, holding him close, and after a moment Stan turns his head, letting it rest on Seve’s shoulder.
After a moment, though, he brings his hands up, pushing Seve back. “I’m fine,” he says, keeping his face averted.
The trip back on the boat is silent and awkward. Just yesterday night they’d been clowning and silly, taking selfies of Magnus cuddling with Stephane. Now there’s no such atmosphere, just Stan sitting staring at the darkness, ignoring everyone else.
When they get off the boat, Magnus takes his elbow. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s find a bar.”
Stan knew there was a reason he hired this man. Well, there were tennis reasons too; all of his success in the past eighteen months has proven that. But down beneath all the tennis, he genuinely likes the guy, and anyone who’s willing to take him out drinking after a match like that is someone he’s glad to have on his team.
Stephane comes along, and so, somewhat surprisingly, does Seve.
“You’ve had a great year,” Magnus says, later, when Stan’s on his second beer and Seve and Stephane have gone to get another round. “You should be proud of it.”
Stan snorts, setting the bottle on the table with perhaps more force than necessary. “I’ll be proud later. Right now I want to punch something.”
“Yeah,” Magnus says, raising an eyebrow, “maybe don’t do that.”
The way his luck is today, he’d probably break his hand and then the Swiss Davis Cup team would end up being Chiudinelli, Lammer, Laaksonen, and Marti. They’d never speak to him again.
It’s just… he should have won. He was the better player. He had four match points. He’s so tired of almost, so tired of just not being quite good enough. The Australian Open was supposed to break that streak, and at first it had seemed like it might – Monte Carlo still a thoroughly satisfying memory, unlike the mingled feelings from beating an injured player in Melbourne – but the rest of his year has been maddeningly inconsistent. Both of his most frustrating losses have come against Roger; almost, again.
“You’ll feel better in the morning,” Magnus says, resting his hand over Stan’s, which has curled into a fist, his fingers aching.
Stan thinks he’ll be hungover in the morning.
Stan doesn’t intend to check his phone – he doesn’t need to see the outpouring of joy from the tennis world, as always so utterly in love with Roger; he had enough of that tonight, the crowd vicious and cruel, totally on the side of their beloved Fed, happy to cheer Stan’s errors and faults and miscues. He wonders if he’d have converted one of those match points, if he hadn’t had the sense that he wasn’t fighting just Roger, but the entirety of the stadium as well. Probably not. He can’t really blame anyone but himself tonight – it was his own fucking fault.
He doesn’t intend to check his phone, but when he gets in the lift on the way to his room, it’s just habit. He stays off Twitter – he’s already quickly fired off a congratulatory tweet to Roger, to hopefully shut up reports of a feud before they begin – but flips over to Whatsapp instead.
Next week he may very well be facing the French by himself, heading a Roger-less Swiss team. It won’t be the Davis Cup final he’d dreamed of; this year has been great, with Roger by his side in all the ties, and there’ll be a massive hole without him. It’ll still be possible, maybe, to win – but he’ll have to take both his singles rubbers and defeat the French Open doubles champions as well. A far different story than when he had Rog at his back.
But for now that’s in the future, and one of his best friends is reaching out past all the pre-Davis Cup trash talk. Stan blinks, leaning against the side of the elevator, the alcohol not entirely dimming the ache in his stomach. He should write back, should make some cheerful jibe about how he’s okay and he’s still going to thrash French butt next week; or, with the beer as an excuse, he could send a stream of crying emojis.
He turns off his phone instead. He’ll deal with it later.
Stan is woken in the morning by the heavy weight of a four-year-old landing on his stomach.
“Wake up, papa,” Alexia says happily, reaching with insistent toddler hands to pull away the arm Stan threw over his eyes to block out the sun. The sun is far, far too bright.
“Sorry,” Ilham says from the doorway. “She wanted to see you, and she’s faster than I am.”
Stan’s chased Alexia around tennis courts - he knows how fast four-year-olds can be. He squints against the glare of the sunlight, finding a smile for his little girl. No matter how devastating a loss, no matter how crashing a hangover, she always makes it just that little bit better.
“I painted a rainbow,” Alexia says, showing him her stained fingers proudly.
“A rainbow?” Stan asks, groggily, rolling on his side and bouncing Alexia off, which makes her giggle and has the excellent effect of getting the sun out of his eyes. “That’s great, sweetheart.”
“It’s for you,” she says, and dimples.
“For me?” he asks, trying not to wince at the headache behind his eyes.
The lingering regrets and bitterness are somewhere behind the headache, rising threateningly, but he pushes them away. Later. He’ll deal with them later. Right now he has his little girl to make happy, and that takes precedence, always.
“I’ll get you some water,” Ilham says, prudently.
The knot in his stomach doesn’t fade, but Stan ignores it, drinking water and admiring finger-painted rainbows and trying to laugh.
It’s lunchtime when Benoît finally calls.
“Took you long enough,” Stan says, curled into the armchair by the window. London looks especially gloomy today. Although maybe that’s just him. Or just London. London often looks gloomy.
Benoît makes an unimpressed sound. “Thought you’d want to get over your hangover first.”
“Who says I had a hangover?”
“Please,” Benoît says. “I’d know even if you hadn’t sent me drunk selfies.”
Stan doesn’t remember drunk selfies. If Magnus forgot to confiscate his phone like he usually does when they drink, however – and Stan does remember checking Whatsapp in the lift – then it’s distinctly possible. He only hopes he didn’t post any to Twitter – that would be embarrassing. “Any good ones?”
“If you count making crying faces at the camera good,” Benoît says, his voice light. “I’m so lucky, my boyfriend gets emo when drunk instead of naked.”
“I think I had an excuse,” Stan protests. “Were you a single point away from the final of the WTFs?”
Benoît hmms. “You should’ve smashed a couple racquets. That would’ve made you feel better.”
“Says the champion racquet-smasher.”
Stan’s a Grand Slam champion now. He can’t smash all his racquets in a fit of fury, or burst into tears on court, or let out a string of profanities so blue that his mother nearly combusts. (Or, he could, but he’d rapidly get a horrible reputation, and Stan’s had moments of that already; he knows there are many people who’ll never forgive him for beating an injured Rafa at the Australian Open, and he can’t stand the feeling of people hating his guts.) You have to hug at the net, and keep a poker face, and say all the right things in press, self-deprecation and respect for your opponent and never a hint of a tear.
“Exactly,” Benoît says, sounding triumphant. “I’ve tried it out myself, so I can recommend it.”
“I’ll leave it to you,” Stan tells him, slouching down, leaning his head against the side of the chair. “Smash one in my honor.”
If he closes his eyes, he can picture Benoît, the long lean lines of him. He wonders where he is - sitting on the practice court? Waiting for pizza? Lying on his stomach on his bed, his feet kicked up in the air?
“Come to Lille and smash one for yourself,” Benoît says. “Although I may possibly have other ideas for how to work off some of your frustration.”
“I’ll bet you do,” Stan says, surprised into a laugh, and feels the knot in his stomach relax a little.
Benoît’s voice drops. “We could get started early. What are you wearing?”
“Discontent and self-loathing,” Stan says.
If he’d won, he’d be playing the final right now. He’d probably have lost to Djokovic – the man’s in incredible form. But he’d have forever been able to say that he made it to the WTF final.
“Not a good look,” Benoît says, decidedly. “I’ll rip them off you so I can kiss you all over, from chin to elbow to knee.”
“Just kiss?” Stan asks, smiling.
He can hear Benoît shifting. Probably lying on his hotel bed, then – even Benoît wouldn’t start phone sex on the practice court. Unless he was deliberately trying to pester Jo and Gaël for some reason.
“I could bite if you like,” Benoît offers.
“Not what I meant,” Stan says, but his breath catches at the thought, and he knows Benoît heard.
If Benoît was here, they’d tumble into bed immediately. Stan thinks he’d like it fierce today, fast and hard and hot, no room for match points and finals and wasted opportunities. Just Benoît’s skin under his fingertips, and Benoît’s smell in his nostrils, and Benoît’s heartbeat against his lips. And yes, a hint of teeth wouldn’t be unwelcome. Not today.
“Fuck, get your ass over to Lille already,” Benoît says, and Stan laughs, sliding a lazy hand into his sweatpants.
“You going to be okay?” Benoît asks, after, when Stan’s slouched boneless in his chair, hangover-headache entirely banished.
He could push Benoît away, as he’s been pushing everyone else away. I’m fine, he could say, or it’s okay. He could keep ignoring the deep ache in his stomach, trying to avoid facing it.
At the O2, Novak is being crowned champion, after Roger pulled out of the championships. Stan would’ve given him a match. A good match, he thinks.
“Not today,” he says. “But I will be.”