Love Is Not A Zero Sum Game
a Tennis RPF fanfic
Notes: Set during the Australian Open 2011.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction.
"Come in," Roger said, opening his hotel suite door wider. "Are you sure you should be on your feet?"
"The doctors say I will be fine. I just wanted to say goodbye." Rafa hobbled inside, and promptly trod on something lumpy that almost sent him hurtling onto his face.
He was saved by Roger's quick grab of his shoulder, steadying him. "Are you okay?"
The lethal object turned out to be a teddy bear, whose fluffy head Rafa had squashed flat. Horrified, he tried to fix it. Roger laughed at his dismay. "Relax, it's survived worse." He patted it back into shape. "Sorry about the mess. I wasn't expecting visitors."
"It's okay," Rafa said, feeling like a fool. "Where are the girls?"
"At the aquarium with their mother."
"Oh! I went there too. To see the penguins."
Roger smiled. "Where do you think they got the idea?"
As Rafa limped inside, Roger moved ahead of him, sweeping up an obstacle course of stuffed animals and building blocks. It was strange to see him in disordered surroundings, clutching an armful of toys. Rafa twitched a smile, and Roger grinned back, as if aware how incongruous he looked. "Make yourself comfortable. I'll get you a drink."
Rafa sank onto the couch gratefully--discovering another building block behind the cushions--and stretched out his legs in front of him. The glass coffee table held a bowl of Lindt chocolates and two coasters marked by coffee rings from a fortnight of breakfasts.
Rafa wondered what he was still doing here in Melbourne. He had wanted to apologise for not reaching the final, although he didn't know if Roger honestly wanted to face him, despite what he said in the interviews. He had planned to congratulate Roger, to wish him well, to show he could be mature about it being someone else on that day.
But he had hesitated too long, and now Roger was out too, his aggressive new tactics not finding their rhythm against Novak. And now Roger would be going home, to Switzerland, and they had not had the chance to play. Another grand slam gone, from the finite store they had left.
"What's wrong?" Roger had returned, a glass of cold orange juice in each hand.
"Nothing!" Rafa smiled, too brightly, and babbled something about the weather.
Roger quirked an eyebrow, but allowed Rafa to divert the conversation. So they chatted about the weather, and the food, and the sights, while Rafa longed to ask the real question.
Are you sorry it isn't us? Are you sorry it isn't me?
Rafa could not tell, even though Roger sat only inches away. Here was a man who no longer held any of the grand slam titles. But he looked as confident and assured as ever. A king who needed no crown. Or maybe a man who no longer had anything to prove.
What was there left to prove? Roger could retire tomorrow, with glory unmatched.
Rafa was afraid Roger would retire tomorrow. He had a whole new life waiting for him now.
Things were changing. Had changed. There were two men in the final, who were neither of them.
Roger's phone rang. He smiled apologetically. "Ah, excuse me. I'll be right back." He wandered into the kitchenette, talking amiably. It sounded like Swiss-German.
Rafa should make his farewells and go. He had already taken up enough of Roger's time. He wasn't even sure what he wanted from this. He stood, but his bad leg wobbled and banged against the coffee table, spilling his orange juice all over the glassy surface.
Rafa swung his head around frantically for something to mop it up. Through the bedroom door, he spotted a box of tissues on the nightstand, atop a pile of books and papers. He stumbled over and grabbed the whole box, his hip brushing a manila folder. It slipped from the nightstand. Rafa fumbled for it too late; it hit the carpet, scattering papers everywhere.
This was not his day. Rafa bent forward to clean up.
His own face stared back at him.
It was a photo from the French Open: Rafa on red clay, frozen in midswing, eyes dark with concentration.
Heart thumping, he crouched down, sorting through the papers. Newspaper clippings. Press photos. Interview transcripts. All of him. His eye was drawn to one article with an entire paragraph circled in red pen. As he began to read, he recognised his own words:
When I was young, I always had this dream: I was at the bottom of a huge mountain and I was looking at the top. When I beat Roger Federer in January, in Melbourne, in the final of the Australian Open, I felt an animal excitement. But afterwards, I felt an indescribable emptiness, as if I had no more purpose. To me, Federer is still the number one in the world. I want to meet him again on court. I know he can beat me.
Rafa remembered that interview, trying to give voice to the strange ache inside him. He had never read it after, had not realised how much of his heart he had poured upon the page.
"Rafa?" Roger stood in the doorway, phone dangling from one hand. Rafa scrambled upright, face heating.
"I'm sorry. It was an accident--"
"It's okay." Roger came forward and gathered up the papers. "I shouldn't leave these things lying around."
He smiled, casually, and Rafa wondered if this was normal, that maybe of course Roger kept a secret dossier on every player in the top twenty. Maybe everyone did it.
There was one photo of them together at the net, at Wimbledon, the first year they had played there. Before Rafa had started seizing the titles from Roger. The Rafa in the photo was grinning from ear to ear, delighted even to have lost to his hero. The Roger in the photo smiled back with casual affection. Rafa remembered those golden days well. Evidently Roger did too.
"I never even wanted a rival, you know?" he said, conversationally, as though he wasn't crushing Rafa's heart into tiny pieces. "All I ever wanted was to play great tennis."
"You do," Rafa blurted. "You are still the best."
"You always say that," Roger said.
"I always mean it." And he had said too much, surely; he would plough open a chasm between them, full of awkward silences. But Roger only regarded him thoughtfully.
"Did you know," Roger said slowly, "I came here ready to beat you. I changed my game, for you. I found a new coach, for you. I'm a different player now from before. Because of you." His fingers brushed the name lettered upon the folder. He smiled.
Rafa could not speak. There were things that had never been spoken, things that Rafa did not know how to say, even had his English been perfect. But maybe some things needed no words; tennis was a language that crossed borders, like mathematics, like music.
"Next time," Rafa said, heart beating like a wild bird. "I'll get better soon, for next time."
"Good," Roger said. "I'm counting on it."
- fin -