I know I've won when she starts talking to herself.
"Stupid, Emily!" I hear her say. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Watch the ball! Not the target!"
She paces and mutters, and as I wait on my side of the net, I calmly bounce the ball on the baseline.
That's right, Emily. Eye on the ball. You wouldn't have just hit it into the net if you'd kept your eye on the ball. Watch it closely. So closely that you can read the manufacturer's name as it connects with the strings on your racket. Say it as you smack it: Penn. Wilson. Dunlop.
Emily stops pacing, places her racket carefully on the ground and bends over to tie her laces. Pretends to tie her laces, that is. Classic. No line judge or opponent would dare accuse her of stalling. Of catching her breath and settling her nerves. But that's what she's doing. I've used that strategy myself when I want to interrupt the pace and play with my opponent's head.
Or when I'm losing.
She straightens up and slowly walks to the left corner of the ad box, preparing to receive my serve. She practically straddles the alley, that's how far left she stands. Protecting her backhand. Assuming that I'm going to serve into her backhand.
If you can't read the name on the ball, then you're not looking hard enough. How many times have I heard that? And still, in a match, especially a big one like this, you could forget. Forget the most basic, Tennis 101 lesson in the book: watch the ball hit the racket. Although, quite frankly, Emily my dear, even that won't save you now. You're down four games in the second set, it's 40-love, and I'm about to serve you into five games down. You're not stupid, Emily. You're toast.
"Forty-love," I call out, as if she doesn't know. I twist my hand counterclockwise on the grip, lean over and bounce the ball one, two, three times in front of me. A little compression in the knees, then spring! Both arms up in a perfect V. My left hand releases the ball, palm open to the sky, like I'm catching raindrops, while my right arm bends at the elbow as if the racket were a giant back scratcher. The ball floats up and over me, hovers in the air briefly at two o'clock, and as my arm snaps forward, hurling the racket face as if I were pitching a baseball, I see the word imprinted on the fuzzy yellow surface: Wilson. The ball makes a solid popping sound as it connects with the strings.
It arcs high over the net, down the center of the court. A loopy, twisting floater right down the T, a big fat second serve to Emily's forehand. Never mind that she expects a hard first serve to her backhand. The ball bounces an inch inside the line, then kicks high and away from her. She doesn't move. Doesn't even whiff at it. Ace. My game.
Applause, chatter, the usual eruption of spectator sound as we switch sides. We've parked our bags at opposite ends of the net, eliminating the need to make eye contact as we swallow water, towel off, and take a quick bite of a half-eaten PowerBar. We're allowed sixty seconds to make this journey from one side to the other, refueling as we cross the line. We aren't supposed to talk to anyone, especially not a coach. Just drink, gulp and go.
As I rescrew the top of my water bottle, I glance down the length of the net toward Emily. She has her head down, breathing hard. The red Nike top she wears has darkened during the course of the game, drenched with sweat. She has both hands on her knees, and a man wearing a blue polo shirt crouches beside her and speaks urgently into her ear.
"Hey! None of that!" a deep male voice bellows to my right.
The chatter stops and every head turns in the direction of the voice. Seated on the aluminum bleachers not a dozen feet from where I stand, another man, markedly tan, glares at Emily and her companion. He has a slim notebook opened across his knees and a pencil tucked behind one ear. Anyone who doesn't know him might wonder: is he a reporter taking notes? Of course, I know that he's been carefully recording every stroke of the game in that book, every point won or lost. A methodical, unblinking diary of the afternoon's event, to be analyzed in minute detail before the sun sets.
Tan Notebook Man is my father.
Blue Polo Man straightens, and raises one reassuring hand.
"It's okay," he says. Emily picks up her racket and begins walking to her side of the court.
"No coaching allowed!" my father shouts. "You want to get her disqualified?" Gasps of surprise. The whisper of hushed, urgent conversation from the spectators.
Here we go again.
Emily halts, midstride, and looks hesitantly at Blue Polo Man.
"It's okay," he repeats, firmly, to her. Then he turns to my dad.
"I'm not her coach," he calls back, then returns to the bleachers on his side.
"Oh yeah?" my dad retorts. "How do we know that?" He stands up, clutching his notebook so it doesn't fall.
"Hey, buddy, chill," I hear someone call out. "Just let the kids play," chimes in another voice. "Delay of game!" calls a third. My father doesn't sit.
"Daddy!" I hiss. Heads swivel in my direction.
"Pipe down and let me finish beating her, okay?" A moment's shocked pause, then laughter, rippling through the crowd. At first my father frowns, then his mouth twists into a knowing smile. Even if Blue Polo Man were Emily's coach, it doesn't matter. I need one more game, just four points, to wrap this up and become Henriette Lloyd, Northern New Jersey 16-and-Under Junior Tennis Champion. Emily could be on a cell phone life-lining Venus and Serena, for all I care. Read her body language, folks. This one is mine.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Jersey Tomatoes are the Best by Maria Padian. Copyright © 2011 by Maria Padian. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.