|Looking for Molly
I met her where I meet them all, in my office. She was sitting between her parents
on the leather sofa. I was behind my desk Danish oak covered with a green felt pad
that I've marked to resemble a miniature tennis court. I folded my hands on the service
line and smiled. "So what made you decide on Rick Vandaway?"
"We were thinking of Bollettieri," her mother confessed, playing with an
engagement ring the size of a small acorn. "But we heard you were better
The air conditioner was humming behind me like a cello. "You heard right."
"We're from Tennessee," her father said. "We thought Hilton Head might be
cooler than Florida."
The mother was staring at the life-size photograph of me shaking hands with Stan Smith
after our Forest Hills match in 1971. I was grinning. He wasn't. He'd won. I hadn't. Wimbledon
by Wednesday, my advertising mantra, dominated the blue sky.
"We wanted someone with experience," she said, turning to her daughter.
"Someone who knows how to deal with the pressure out there."
I nodded sympathetically, but Molly still hadn't said a word. "And what do you
want?" I asked her.
"She wants to improve," her father said, putting his hand over her shoulder.
Molly wrapped her bare arms around her waist.
Maybe I'd set the thermostat too low.
"She's number nineteen in the state," her mother said.
Never trust state rankings. They're usually made by committees of parents.
"She's going to college this fall," her father said. "We want her prepared
for what's coming. Drills, challenge matches. Things like that."
I handed each one of them a four-color brochure on glossy paper. "It sounds like
you'll need the Full Tournament Package. Computer generated fitness training and
biomechanical instruction. I guarantee a one-hour semi-private lesson each day."
They always ask that. "If necessary." I flashed my Wimbledon-by-Wednesday smile.
"With The Vandaway Method, my associates can take care of most contingencies. In
difficult cases, they consult with me."
"That sounds reasonable, Mabel."
"Drills and match play every afternoon. And guaranteed placement in the main draw of
at least six sanctioned tournaments. No qualifying rounds. I provide transportation, food,
lodging, stringing, and emergency racket replacement." I noticed Molly's $80.00 Fila
blouse. "Everything but their clothes."
"What are we talking here, Rick?" The father had a pretty good smile himself. A
"Nine thousand nine-ninety. That includes everything for the summer. No hidden costs.
Unlimited calls to your home number on my WATS line."
"That's a nice feature, Brian." She turned to her daughter. "Remember that,
Molly was still studying the brochure. Most people just glance at the pictures. When her
mother gently pulled it away, she looked up. Her smile was absurdly, beautifully white
against her tan. "I really love tennis, Mr. Vandaway."
"Rick," I said, putting her father's check beneath the USTA gold championship
ball that I use as a paperweight. Since I'd have won the Hard Court Doubles in '72 if my
partner hadn't sprained his ankle in the finals, it really isn't false advertising. I
handed Molly her medical release form. "You've come to the right place."
After her parents left, I had Sanchez take her out to Center Court.
That's where I start all of my tournament students. Even though the stadium's empty, it
gives them a high to be hitting where they've seen Stefan and Steffi on ESPN, kicking my
former students' behinds.
Sanchez came back with her half an hour later, grinning like a diminutive ape. His
chocolate t-shirt was still dry. Molly looked like she'd taken a shower with her clothes
on. When I told her to go outside for a Coke, she put her Prince Graphite jauntily on her
shoulder, the racket head hanging down like a hobo's rucksack. She could have been a
little kid running away from home, confident she'd never get any farther than the end of
I handed her two quarters, then closed the door. "How'd she do?"
Sanchez stood on his tiptoes, stretching himself to 5'4" which is just about
the average height of my staff. I call my associate pros The Trolls. They're hand-picked
for incongruity. When an aggressive lawyer in the Advanced Adult Clinic sees them, he's
thinking Easy Money. (On the first day, everyone can do a Pro Challenge. You win, you get
a hundred bucks off your bill. You lose, you pay the pro for a series of private lessons.
In seven years, we're leading, 961 to 3.)
Sanchez returned to his heels. "She stroke you pretty good, Rick. But she no move you
around too much."
On his good days, Sanchez has a blistering one-handed backhand and the emotional maturity
of a five-year-old. I find Hispanics with a highly developed sense of irony difficult to
decipher, even under ideal circumstances. I'd have to check out Molly myself.
When she'd finished her Dr. Pepper, I walked her back to the stadium court. Sanchez hadn't
bothered to pick up the tennis balls. He tries to pass off his laziness as a form of
mystical intuition a regular Gabriel García Márquez in a jockstrap. So I grabbed
my old Dunlop 200G from beneath the umpire's chair and said, "Let's go for it."
After five minutes, I saw the point that Sanchez had so indelicately implied. Molly's
strokes were technically perfect. She'd received top-flight instruction, probably since
she'd been old enough to crawl onto the court behind her parents' six-car garage. With her
hair knotted in a pink ribbon, she resembled the young Chris Evert in a slow-motion
replay. Backhand, forehand, backhand, forehand a ball machine with a brassiere,
just as long as I kept them within easy reach. When she was thirty, she'd have three kids
and be number one on the women's ladder at the local country club.
I brought her to net with a short slice, then returned her excruciatingly correct,
paceless volleys six inches wider each time. The twelfth ball skittered off the edge of
her frame into the grandstand.
"Oh wow, Rick." Sweat had nearly washed off her mascara, streaking the sides of
her perfect face. "That was awesome."
Three weeks later I sat down with Heather in my office, quietly
celebrating our birthdays with a bottle of bubbly. Taylor '92, Brut. Heather's been with
me ever since she dropped out of Stanford a couple years ago. In '73 I was magna cum
laude. Comp Lit. Five, maybe six times she's slept over at the no, I shouldn't
say that. Heather doesn't close her eyes.
We were both a bit giggly when I heard a soft knock at the door. "Ill get
it," I said.
It was Molly. After I motioned her inside, I saw her mouth drop open. When I turned
around, Heather was refastening the first three buttons on her blouse. She must have
undone them on the way to the door.
She smiled evilly at Molly on the threshold. "Thanks, Richard."
Nobody ever calls me Richard.
Molly wanted to talk about her forehand. She was considering a change to a Western
grip. I advised against it. It would decrease her flexibility from poor to pathetic, and
Molly didnt have the aggressiveness to take advantage of any openings that the new
power might produce.
"Lets sleep on it." I pointed to the champagne. "Are you 18
"Not until July."
What the hell, I poured her half a glass. The drinking age here is 21 anyway.
"Tell your parents and Ill deny everything," I said, but I wasnt
worried. Molly hadnt used the WATS line since shed arrived.
That evening I sat on my oceanfront deck, watching the palmettos sway like anorectic
dancers. I was on call, but I was thinking about Molly. My first hunch had been right. In
three weeks she hadnt shown even the capacity for improvement. By the standards of
tournament tennis, she was clumsy, foolish, and short. She didnt have the strength
or the creativity to control the flow of play, and she lacked the speed and stamina for a
defensive game. Pretty, but not really what youd call...
The portable phone rang. It was one of my alumni in California, asking for advice on
his backhand. Ricks Fix, my telephone coaching service, is open from six to eleven,
Eastern Daylight Time. Call before that and youll get the answering machine. We take
all major credit cards.
"Keep your elbow closer to your body, Horace," I intoned. "Make it brush
your hip on your pivot if you have to."
"What if the ball doesnt go where I tell it?"
"Extend to the target on your follow through." Thats virtually begging
them to hit the ball into the court, but any decent teaching pro can tell you it works.
"Thanks, Rick. I think I got it."
"I have your card number." I did some mental mathematics. It was five
oclock in Santa Barbara, almost prime time. "Knock em dead tonight,
"Wimbledon by Wednesday!"
I returned his valediction before I hung up.
Molly utterly lacked imagination, so I decided to go with that for a while. On the
lowest level of womens tournament play, aerobic conditioning can win a few matches,
particularly on soft courts. I put Molly on the routine we call The Wile E. Coyote:
five-mile runs and Stairmasters, alternating days. Then I booked her for a full schedule
of clay-court tennis. Her first tournament would be on her birthday, July twenty-first.
We drove to Jacksonville on Route 95, with Heather and two girls whod be playing
in the 14s. I was pretty sure either of them could beat Molly, whod be joining
Heather in the main event.
Id called Bobby Parker, the tournament director, the week before. Id just
wanted to make sure Heather and Molly didnt get put into the same half of the draw.
It was, technically, improper, but in the small tournaments its done all the time.
Besides, Bobbys erratic overhead had cost us the third-round match of the U.S. Clay
Court Doubles, just before Id switched partners. It was twenty-five years ago to the
day, so I figured he owed me something.
"No problemo, Rick. Anything else I can do for you?"
I succumbed to temptation. "Bobby, this new girl really isnt very
"How bad is she?"
"Well, she looks like she knows what shes doing. She just cant
do it." As an afterthought, I said, "Its her birthday, for Gods
I could imagine Bobbys smile. Now I owed him one. "Ill take
care of it," he said. "No problemo."
I could see the tightness in Mollys face in the vans rear-view mirror. To
get her into The Vandaway Zone, we played Musical Trash when we hit the Florida line. It
was me against all of them. Heather was serving first. She grabbed my hand from the
steering wheel and pointed to a silver flash on the grate of a storm drain. "Coors to
you, the clean of it."
"All night through, the fresh of it," I sang, blushing. Heather has a way of
twisting things around. "One-love, Vandaway."
Darla, a thirteen-year-old with a vicious topspin forehand, came next. She went for a
yellow novelty cup skittering in the wake of a Camaro in the left lane. "Have it your
"At Burger King now," I said. "That was a sitter. Two-love,
Finally it was my serve. I waited for the right plastic bottle. "Pepsi Cola hits
"Thats no fair," Darla said, pouting like Martina Hingis. "Hammer
never said that."
"Older men dont have to be fair," Heather said. "Just look at
I kept my concentration. "Twelve full ounces. Thats a lot. Game, set,
and match, Vandaway." I pulled onto the exit ramp. "Welcome to Jacksonville,
Heather was, well, angry. After her shower she put on her shortest dress and headed for
the lounge of the Ramada Inn. "Dont wait up," she yelled from the hallway.
I told her I wouldnt think of it.
Id watched Mollys match instead of hers. Bobbyd put Molly on an end
court to minimize her chances of getting The Concrete Elbow. I dont know where he
found the other girl. She was just like Molly, only worse. Watching them go at it was like
listening to a good 45 on 33 RPM. I was the only one in the temporary bleachers.
Heather walked by after shed lost her own match with the number two seed. At the
time, Molly was up a service break in the second set. Shed won the first 7-5.
The other girl let one of Mollys weak passing shots go by, praying it would float
long. It landed four feet inside the baseline.
"Luck of the draw," I whispered.
"Youre despicable," Heather said. "I should report you to the
Molly won on her third match point. She consoled her opponent, then threw her racket
high into the air, hugging me before it hit the soft Har-Tru. "Wimbledon by
Wednesday," I said.
After wed settled Darla and Annette in their room and made sure the TV was
working, I took Molly out to celebrate. I figured wed be safe in the dining room
while Heather was boogeying in the lounge at the other end of the building.
We had a candlelit table at the edge of the atrium. In that long white dress Molly
looked as if shed died in 1925 and gone directly to the Tennis Hall of Fame in
Newport. She was radiant. How could she be so in love with a game she couldnt
"I was proud of you," I said. "Most women dont do so well on their
Our minds were Perrier-clear. Molly had her second-round match the next morning.
Shed be facing the fourth seed. With luck, shed get about six points.
She lowered her face beneath the candlelight. "I did it for you," she
"I dont believe in favors," I said. "If you cant do it for
yourself, try something else."
After Id kissed her, Heather was standing at our table. She mustve been
filing her nails in the atrium since wed arrived. It took her about twenty seconds
to tell Molly everything about her first-round win. Then she called Molly a name I
wouldnt have guessed either of them knew. Sort of a combination between a vagina and
an old-fashioned frozen dessert. Id only heard it two or three times myself
and never south of Philadelphia.
After shed knocked over an empty chair and left, I paid the check and walked
Molly into the shadow of an enormous philodendron. I knew what I had to say, but I
couldnt say it. I told the truth, plain and stupid. "You try so hard. I wanted
to do something for you, Molly." More stupidly, I kissed her again. She thrust her
tongue into my mouth, fiercely, then broke away.
"Am I any good at that?" I couldnt see her face, but I knew she
was crying. "Whats my potential, Rick? In your professional judgment?"
That hurt me. "I cant teach talent," I said.
And she ran away, as fast as she could in a dress that went down past her ankles.
I telephoned her parents, of course, and told them what they needed to know. They
traced her to Atlanta, where the trail of credit-card slips went cold. Theyve hired
a private investigator, the one theyve used before. They have complete confidence in
But Ill find her first. My clearest picture of Molly is as a teacher, patiently
working with the Ten-And-Unders on an outside court after shed finished with her
Stairmaster for the day. She took her rackets with her. She mustve gotten a job as
an assistant pro so she could hop off her American Express.
I have friends in Atlanta enemies, too, but thats another story. And
Ive come up with an offer nobody could refuse. A featured spot in my next
videotape on competitive mixed doubles. Aim for the Dress. With ten percent of the
The rest Im splitting with Molly. Shell be terrific.
Ill get the word out, send some 5x7's to the bigger clubs. If that doesnt
work, theres always the WATS line. I figure I can find her in one week ten
days at the max. No problemo. You can bank on it.