Chapter THIRTEEN by Mick Joint
Tyler pondered the news that Shelley just unloaded on him. Squash in the 2016 Games? Here? In Rio? He shivered as goose bumps covered his bare arms despite the uncomfortable warm evening breeze that was only making the current humidity levels worse. It was like the golden nugget that all professional squash players for eons had been relentlessly searching for had just popped up out of the ground and smacked him squarely in the middle of his bewildered face.
Even though Tyler was ecstatic that squash had been accepted into 2020, he couldn’t help but feel the gouging pangs of jealousy mixed with resentment at the reality that aged 42 he would not have been able to compete for a gold medal six years down the track. But in two? This changed everything. A real chance at the ultimate swan song. Retirement was already knocking very loudly on the door, but to go out in such glory would etch his name in the history books as one of the all time legends of the game. There was more than a good chance he could regain the number 1 ranking if he won in Copacabana this week, but imagine the spotlight he would experience announcing his departure from squash with the first ever Olympic gold medal around his neck as well… his mind wandered euphorically.
“Hey, daydreamer!” Shelley poked him in the ribs. She whispered loudly. “You absolutely cannot tell anyone about the Olympics. Okay? This event needs to be a mammoth success. The IOC are 95% sure of our inclusion, but they want to see firsthand – right now – that squash is the spectacle we brag about. You need to perform. And you’re on in 15 minutes – Florencia is already 2-0 up. I know I can count on you to… squash is counting on you…” Shelley left the players area to the glass court without another word.
He was ready. The craziness of the past few days behind him, Tyler Wolf was back in his element. The veteran still experienced those little nervous belly flutters before each match. A good sign he thought, because it meant he still cared. It didn’t matter that his first round was practically a gimme.
His qualifying opponent had done well to reach the main draw, not that it was totally unexpected. Another up and coming youngster – a 19 year old African from Mozambique of all places – had come through both his two matches in 5 long games. Almost half Tyler’s age, nicknamed “The Freak of Mozambique”, Sylvain Fosu actually lived and trained in France. He had the potential to reach the upper echelons of the rankings, but he needed another couple of solid playing years on the circuit. On paper, he was no match for the fresh Australian, everyone was expecting a 20 minute match at the longest.
Tyler’s cell phone sprung to life with a quirky melody indicating a text had been received.
He looked at the screen and suddenly his delicate stomach butterflies turned into a rampaging King Kong. “From Russia with Love” he read.
“Oh, fuck” murmured Tyler to no one in particular. It then rung.
“Enjoy your little ‘vacation’, Aussie boy? How’s the leg?”
It was a reference to his recent kidnapping experience. That explained a lot. “I’m on in ten minutes”, he spat out. “I don’t have time for this shit. I’m done. Was done years ago. Leave me the fu…”
“Shut up,” came the sharp, nasty interruption. “You are never done. You made a deal with the devil and we own you. You do as we say. Everybody ends up unhurt. Kah-peesh?”
Tyler remained silent.
“Good. You lose this match. You lose in 3 games. You lose under 7 points a game. You lose in under 30 minutes. You lose, then you win. If you win, you lose… big time. Maybe lose girlfriend too. Kah-peesh?”
Match fixing. The fucking Russians were back. After three years of remaining off the radar they have suddenly turned up on the biggest stage in the history of the sport moments before he was due on court. Throwing this match could damage squash irreversibly. IOC delegates were present, the Olympics were at stake. But so were lives.
“Oh, fuck” murmured Tyler to no one in particular again.
Emily Miller was sitting in the third row behind the glass wall twirling her hair with one hand and fidgeting with her cell phone in the other.
“God, she’s like, hardly sweating. Such a bitch”, she cussed to Julia Brown who was sitting next to her in almost exactly the same pose.
“I know. Totally”, came the standard retort.
The two girls had managed to qualify for the main round both in part due to some pretty darn good squash and some luck with the qualifying draw. Both had scored local girls for their first match and both had managed to avoid Florencia Perez – who they were now watching – for their second.
“9-3”, echoed the announcement from the surrounding speakers as the marker indicated the current score.
Florencia Perez was 2 points away from advancing to the second round. She was systematically destroying her hapless British opponent who could not for the life of her figure out how the Argentinean could hit so many deceptive drop shots for winners from the back corners. Her ‘perfect’ length made zero difference. Florencia would simply keep plopping the ball just above the tin in either front corner with ease. Not even the humid conditions helped the ball bounce barely more than an inch.
What incensed Emily even more was that her dream boy – Andres Lopez – was sitting in Florencia’s corner riveted by every single rally, movement and stroke with hardly a blink. It was crystal clear that there was something chemical happening between the two of them and Emily was turning more spiteful at every ‘thwock’ of the squash ball.
To mix things up, Florencia flicked the ball deep into the back corner, almost making her opponent buckle at the knees.
“Bitch. So full of herself. And look at that outfit. God, it’s, like, so last year”. There was not much Emily could do about Florencia’s squash game, but she decided she would do all she could to get Andres for herself. The gloves were now off.
With all the fight leaving the whipped British girl, she walloped the final serve into the middle of the tin. She left the court with an almost comical pout and proffered a wet-fish handshake leaving Florencia on the ‘T’ to take the quick post-match on-court interview with the tournament emcee. Emily stood up and made her way to Andres, whispered something x-rated into his ear, grabbed his hand and led him away making sure she was staring directly into Florencia’s eyes as she did it. As soon as they made eye contact, she blew her a kiss.
“Please welcome to the main court, Tyler… Wolf!” The crowd erupted. There were even a couple of Australian flags waving through the stands. The chant “Wolfie!” reverberated around the arena for 30 seconds or so before they eventually quietened down. Tyler was a fan favourite where ever he went despite the past black marks on his resume. As proven with other international star athletes, winning solved a lot of problems.
But it wouldn’t solve much here. Tyler was torn. His desperate childhood dream of Olympic glory was literally within arm’s reach. As was being king of the hill as world number one. On the other hand, lives were at risk. In order to save lives he had to disgrace himself and the sport. Call the cops? Ask for protection? He couldn’t exactly do that right now anyway as he started the warm-up with Sylvain. And the Russians have already proven they could snatch him up anytime from anywhere.
He didn’t know what to do. Losing this match was akin to a club professional losing to one of his average club members. And everyone knew it. Sylvain knew it, too.
The moment the warm-up concluded, Tyler raced to his bag, whipped out his phone and dialled Shelley’s number.
It picked up after the first ring. Tyler didn’t wait for a greeting.
“Shelley, I’m in trouble. I need help. The Russians want me to throw this match. Threats. Lives. Shit. I don’t know what to do.” Tyler’s voice was frantic.
“I am sure you shall do the right thing”, came the calm, collected answer. An answer that was undeniably drowning with a thick Russian accent. The phone went dead.
Tyler lunged deeply into the front forehand corner. A comfortable lunge, almost in slow motion for someone of his capabilities, and in perfect balance he placed his racquet face underneath his opponent’s boast for a delicately placed drop, rolled his wrist ever so slightly just before impact and clipped the top of the tin for what was recorded as his 12th unforced error of the match so far.
Another loud groan emanated from the crowd. “Down, 10-5, game-ball” came the call from the completely puzzled referee.
Sylvain was just as perplexed. He was playing well, but he knew there was no way he should be anywhere near the position he was in. One rally away from taking a 2-0 game lead over one of his squash heroes, his concentration wafted towards all the thoughts of grandeur and rewards he would receive from beating the world number 5. They would erect a gold statue of him in Mozambique, bow at his knees… It was a rookie mistake. He served the next ball out.
Damn, thought Tyler. Idiot. He couldn’t allow himself to win the next rally. The instructions were clear. And he didn’t want to think what would happen if he crossed the Russians. Nor did he want to serve it out – he was being obvious enough he thought, but a service error at game-ball down? Instead, with a half paced stroke, he lobbed it up just loose enough off the side wall for Sylvain to attack it.
Tyler almost chocked as he heard his opponents frame crack the ball. He went for a screaming full-blooded cross-court nick. Youth and stupidity. A guaranteed combination. But sometimes dumb luck gets thrown into the mix and the miss-hit volley floated agonizingly slowly, spinning itself oval, brushing the front wall half an inch above the tin and jutting off sideways on the bounce for an outright winner. It had made no difference that it had missed the nick by at least five feet.
The crowd clapped respectively. It was a strangely sterile atmosphere.
“Game, Mr. Fosu. Mr. Fosu leads 2 games to love.”
Sylvain exited the court to his corner, picked up his water bottle, sat down and fist-pumped excitedly towards at his coach. Peering over to Tyler’s side, he watched the Australian plant himself heavily into the chair, lean forward so far as to place his head between his knees, and drape a towel over himself. Sylvain could smell blood. Even from this distance. “No mercy,” said his coach. “He’s down and out. Doesn’t want to win. You go as hard as you can every rally so he cannot get a sniff.”
Sylvain nodded. He was overflowing with nervous energy with the astonishing upset he was about to pull off.
For the first 12 rallies of the third game, Sylvain was in total control. Tyler did not have to hit any more errors, as the Freak from Mozambique was riding on his natural high and started slotting winner after winner. Tyler certainly helped him along with rather clever ‘feeds’, ideally placed onto his opponents racquet. His 4 points actually came from Sylvain’s tins – all of them as he went for the nick.
At 8-4, as Sylvain was leaping up for his next forehand volley kill, the sound of a gun shot boomed around the stadium. The fibrous tissue ripped violently tearing it completely in two. With a banshee scream, Sylvain collapsed to the floor in a heap. Ferociously rolling around the court, he grabbed his left ankle.
He had snapped his Achilles tendon. The rupture had sounded like an explosion.
Tyler felt physically sick. Without a doubt he felt bad for his opponent, but the awful realization of what just happened hit him.
He had won.
Chaos ensued. Medics rushed the court, tournament officials were everywhere, and the crowd were almost stunned into a riot. John Allenby forced his way through the multitudes of people to kneel by Sylvain’s side as the emergency crew got ready to lift him onto the gurney, and then into the ambulance to go to the local hospital. After a couple quick minutes with the poor teenager to ensure he would be taken care of, John started to look for Tyler. He knew a dummy spit when he saw one and he was infuriated.
He found the Aussie slouched in his player’s chair looking as white as a ghost.
“I fucked up,” was all Tyler could say shaking his head solemnly as John approached him with fists clenched. He wasn’t going to slug him, but he sure felt like it.
“What the fuck was that? “ John was almost shrieking. “The biggest tournament in the world… the IOC… Olympics… and you… fuck… want to throw the game? Listen, you piece of shit, I don’t give a flying fu..”
Tyler cut him off. “Shut-up, a-hole. You are clueless. You have no idea what’s going on so go away and leave me alone.”
After a deathly stare John snarled, “I’ll deal with you later,” and he stomped off to look for Shelley.
“Prick,” mumbled Tyler. His cell phone played his text receiving ditty.
Reluctantly, Tyler picked it up. He knew who it was from but he could hardly ignore it. How do you turn a blind eye at the train barrelling down on you as you’re tied to the tracks?
The message was simple enough. It read:
“The Russians are coming.”
Attached to the text were two photos. The first one was of a smiling Shelley Anderson. The other was the dead body of Charles Buckler.
About The Author
MICK JOINT was born in Melbourne, Australia, 41 years ago and began playing squash at age five. He trained at the Australian Institute of Sport with greats Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay.
Mick coached in Argentina, Germany, Australia and Canada before settling into his current position in 2004 as Head Pro at the Detroit Athletic Club in Michigan.
Mick is married with one daughter and authors the entertaining blog, The Squash Joint.
Next Up: Chapter 14 from Jamie Crombie