By Ezra Solway
Akiva Cedar, on the cusp of turning eighteen, had long been inured to pre-match jitters. He sat by himself limbering his sore calves. He fastened the clips of his kipa and the tassels of his tzitzit. Across the locker room, Victor’s entourage—his father, coach, and girlfriend—stirred in support. Akiva briefly thought of his own father, thousands of miles away and wondered if he was thinking of him, too. Then his mind drifted to the press coverage leading up to the match, which seemed less focused on tennis and more on ginning up headline grabbers such as, Germany Versus Israel: Will the New or Old Testament Prevail? These divisions, while fashioned from the outside, seemed to produce the intended effect, as an almost instant friction developed between the German and Israeli players, despite their never having met or spoken to each other. From opposite ends of the locker room, they exchanged token glances. Scully entered and motioned both players to join her at the front of the tunnel. Victor jogged in place like a boxer, flapping his arms from side to side. Akiva stood expressionless, clutching his racquet bag to his hip. On the loudspeaker their names were announced, and both players took to the court, with the Bill Tilden Stadium pulsing and a wildcard bid to the US Open hanging in the balance.
Just after his bar mitzvah, years before he’d amounted to anything in tennis, Akiva’s future appeared to be set in stone. After serving in the IDF, a marriage would be arranged with the Kravitzes’ eldest daughter, Gal, and then they would be fruitful and multiply. She was a member of Yachad, the orthodox shul they attended in Jerusalem, but Akiva considered her loud and obnoxious, plus she smelled relentlessly of wet socks and garlic. His father, Yonatan, tried in vain to point out Gal’s redeeming attributes. She could cook a mean cholent. Her hair, when released from its bun, was lovely. And she was wise beyond her years about Halacha and Midrash. None of these arguments, however, succeeded in alleviating Akiva’s displeasure about the arrangement. So he resolved to rebel the only way he saw fit. Friday night his family was to host the Kravitzes for Shabbat dinner. After tennis practice, Akiva ventured to the Christian Quarter bazaar and stuffed his hands with fistfuls of bacon bits. When they arrived just before sunset, Akiva greeted Gal and her parents warmly at the door. They sat at the table and recited the prayers. As was the custom, Akiva adjourned to the kitchen to serve guests their first course. He ladled matzo ball soup into the bowls, and garnished each with tiny sprinkles of bacon. He could hear Gal’s shrill voice from the dining room discussing the Book of Job with Yonatan. Akiva walked out holding the bowls carefully, smiling as he set them down on the table. They stirred the spoons through the soup in confusion, Gal and her parents’ mouths widening in horror. Yonatan tried to express his deepest apologies, to no avail, as they stormed out.
Seeing that Akiva’s unruly behavior was far from an isolated incident, his father felt forced to consult Rabbi Joshua. He had never set foot in Rabbi Joshua’s office before, and the door was ajar when he arrived. He peeked his head in. The rabbi’s face was glued to a Talmudic text, flicking through the pages. He looked up at Yonatan and closed the book.
“Mr. Cedar, take a seat. I received your message. How can I be of assistance?”
“Rabbi, please help me control my son. He was never like this before my wife died.”
“There is a bigger picture here,” said the rabbi, lacing his fingers together. “You must understand. Akiva is a good soul, but lost. You must let him mourn the way he sees fit. Losing a mother takes time. Soon enough, he will be ready to see Hashem and come back to us.”
“With all due respect, Rabbi, Amalya died nine years ago. He barely knew her. I’m the one that was a mess, not him. I fear this misbehavior is because of my plans to arrange a marriage for him to Gal Kravitz. She is a nice girl, but I should’ve never brought it up. I should’ve waited until he turned eighteen.” Yonatan shook his head.
Rabbi Joshua ran his fingers through a thick beard. “Then from now on, do not mention the wedding. What does he enjoy doing for leisure?”
“He plays tennis very well, Rabbi. Granted he is not very tall, but he has shown some promise. He trains at the facility in Ramat Sharet twice a week.”
“Very well, then. My suggestion—contingent on Akiva’s approval of course—is this: increase his training to five days a week. This will provide a steady work ethic and eliminate unnecessary distraction.”
So, for the time being, there was no mention of Gal, or marriage, or the future. Yonatan had even allowed Akiva to skip his after-school Tanach study in favor of tennis, on the condition that he stop his antics at once, and that he always wear his tzitzit and kipa at practice.
For a time, the rabbi’s counsel proved right. Akiva did not have time to worry about Gal or subverting his father because he was busy with tennis and confronted with the vicissitudes of manhood. He sprouted seven inches that year, his voice descending and becoming gruff, while his muscles puffed out as if he were Popeye the sailor post-spinach.
Adjusting to this physical shift took time. He felt helpless at first to understand his new body on the court. During practice, he’d grow aggravated as each shot sailed into the tape of the net, his large feet awkwardly stumbling into each other. When he moved around the court, he felt as though he were running on stilts. But then, slowly, his mind and new body began to synchronize. With each clunker came a new insight about how he should contort his body, shuffle his feet, and flick his wrist.
At age ten, when Yonatan had first started training Akiva, he’d wheeled a lime green tennis launcher onto the tennis court.
“We’re naming it Amalya, after Mom,” he had declared.
Yonatan set it down at the baseline. The machine fired hundreds of balls in rapid succession, alternating distance and spin. Akiva bent his knees and whipped countless backhands with rote pace until his hands calloused over and sweat chafed against the polyester of his shirt.
It started with just one. Yonatan began to decorate the launcher with photographs of Amalya. The first was a photograph of Akiva’s mother as a toothless baby covered in spaghetti sauce. Next he stitched a picture of her playing Golde in her high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Then, one of her davening at the Western Wall beside Akiva’s grandmother. The launcher began to double as a strange-looking shrine, a creature of its own. At twelve, on the eighth anniversary of his mother’s death, Akiva came to practice and encountered a collage pasted on the underbelly of the launcher: photos of her and Yonatan eating hummus at their favorite restaurant, hiking in the Galilee, and wearing IDF uniforms with M16s tipped over their shoulders.
For the next five years the photos stopped, and Akiva felt comfort knowing it was over. But then, on Akiva’s seventeenth birthday, when news emerged about Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, inciting riots and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Amalya was revived. With each piece of tragic news, Akiva would discover a new photo affixed to the shrine. In Haifa, when a bomber killed fifteen travelers on a bus, a photo appeared of Amalya nursing Akiva as a baby on a bus. The morning after a suicide attack at the restaurant Maxim, there was a grainy photo of Amalya drinking wine at Maxim with friends. Other players who trained with Akiva at the practice facility speculated aloud on the meaning of it all, and whether it bothered Akiva, but he shrugged and carried on as if this shrine were just another fact of life, another piece of tennis equipment.
Once, the glimmer from a photograph caught his eye, and Akiva misfired. It happened to be a photo of his parents on their wedding day: Amalya with her olive skin and green eyes beaming up at Yonatan under the chuppah. The picture rippled and floated to the ground. Yonatan paused the launcher and picked it up, staring at it fondly as though it were the first time he had seen it.
Seven years of training with Amalya, ultimately, paid off. By the time Akiva turned seventeen he had ripened into the most prodigious tennis prospect in Israel’s history. He was a five-star junior tennis recruit according to the ITFA review board. He stood at six foot three with a strong, lithe frame and had the rare advantage of being ambidextrous, a distinction that talent scouts in Jerusalem had overlooked until his growth spurt placed him firmly on their radar. Scouts drooled over his effortless contralateral movement on the court and his fundamental strokes, which were so robust, they appeared to spectators like he was colluding with the ball when he smashed a backhand down the line or hit a perfectly angled drop shot that defied Euclid.
Soon, to the chagrin of the Kravitzes, every family at Yachad with a viable daughter now sought to match her with Akiva. Yonatan found himself fielding offers from some of the most prestigious tennis camps while staving off a bevy of marriage proposals. For months, Yonatan’s suggestions were ignored by Akiva. There was only one place Akiva sought to pursue. So, the following week, Yonatan accepted a visit from Michele Scully, the director of operations at the International Tennis Federation Academy in Florida. Akiva instantly recognized her from the ITFA magazines he had taped onto his bedroom wall as a child.
Scully looked like a woman who had once graced the cover of fashion magazines. She wore a white lace dress draped to the floor and a red velvet beret. In her left hand she held a Kamikaze cocktail, as if it had been there her whole life. She extended her free hand, beaming like a proud parent.
“On behalf of myself and the ITFA, it is an honor to finally meet you, Akiva. I’ve followed your progress very closely.”
“So nice to meet you, Mrs. Scully,” Akiva said.
“Please, call me Scully.”
It was a weeknight, but Yonatan had prepared the patio table as though serving royalty, with their most ornate Judaica: the golden chalah platter, utensils of sterling silver handed down from Amalya’s mother, and embroidered napkins. Yonatan passed around a decanter of water to wash for netilat yadayim, even teaching Scully how to recite the blessing.
“Are we expecting a fourth person?” Scully asked, pointing to the empty place setting.
“He just likes having it there for special occasions. For my mother.”
Scully looked uneasy as she engineered a somewhat more comfortable position in her chair.
“No need to bring this up again,” said Yonatan, glaring.
“Well, she did die in the Lebanon war fourteen years ago,” Akiva said, folding his napkin into a swan.
“I apologize, Ms. Scully, I’m sure you’re jetlagged and didn’t travel this far to hear about such extracurriculars.”
“Well, you’re right, if I’m being honest. I don’t usually come all this way just for one player. But as you know, Akiva is a rare talent, Mr. Cedar. The commitment to his religion and craft is nothing I’ve witnessed in all my years of recruiting. I didn’t want either of you to question how thrilled we would be having you in our ITFA family.”
Yonatan and Akiva looked at each other and grinned and thanked Scully for the kind words. For dinner, Yonatan served Akiva’s favorite dish, kibbeh: bulgur, spiced beef, onions, and toasted pine nuts enclosed in a golden-brown oval.
“Before I forget,” said Scully, pulling out a pamphlet from her bag, “here is information on our academy and the training we offer, as well as our annual qualifying tournament next month.”
They concluded the evening with Birkat Hamazon and a shot of Goldschlager. Scully retired to a nearby hotel while Yonatan started on the dishes. Akiva grabbed the pamphlet and looked it over. Palm trees with coconuts lined a promenade by the ocean. The academy offered grass, clay, and hard surface courts. It prided itself on its international constituency. Akiva flipped the page and there it was, in big bold letters: The annual junior ITFA tournament would be held on April 15 in their brand-new Bill Tilden Stadium. The winner would receive a small cash prize and an automatic bid for a wild card spot in next fall’s U.S Open draw. He fingered the glossy paper, staring at the message, reading it over and over again.
The next Shabbat, Yonatan sponsored a luncheon at their home after shul. Doting congregants enveloped Akiva, wishing him Mazal tov. “Just yesterday you were a small boy chanting Ashrei at the bima,” they’d say, returning to a memory long passed. Rabbi Joshua rested his hands on Akiva’s head and blessed him. Raising a shot of whiskey, Yonatan silenced the room to make a toast.
“Thank you all for joining us. The news today has ripped my heart to shreds. I’d like to begin by making a misheberach for the thirty innocent lives lost at the Park Hotel in Netanya. And yet, we must persevere… On another note, and why we’ve all gathered here today, my son will be competing in Florida in just one week for a spot in the U.S. Open. L’chaim!”
During the luncheon, parents swarmed around Akiva to promote their single daughters, but Akiva did not dignify their requests to meet. He wended his way through the crowd to the patio outside where his father was reclining on a wicker chair with a whisky.
“Just the young man I wanted to see. Come sit,” said Yonatan. “You know, there are a lot of parents out there pining for you to meet their daughters. Of course, nothing would come to fruition immediately, but I would at least hear them out.”
Akiva stood with his arms akimbo. “And what if I don’t? Maybe marriage isn’t something I want right now.”
“Don’t do this with me. Not now.”
“Why can’t I have a say in the matter?”
Yonatan set his whiskey down and stood up, rubbing his temple. “I didn’t want to have to tell you this now, with everyone here, but I just received word from the IDF. Yesterday they issued emergency notices to thirty thousand reserve soldiers for Operation Defensive Shield, and I am one of them.”
“And you’re going?” Akiva asked bewildered.
“It is my military obligation. You know I don’t have a choice.”
A soft ringing filled Akiva’s ears. He turned, and pushed past the crowd, through the front door. He ran with long perfect strides, the clips on his kipa loosened, the tassels of his tzitzit coiled against his stomach. He didn’t know where he was running, but he refused to look back. He eased up and found himself approaching the tennis facility. Of course, he would end up here, he thought. The seventy-eight by twenty-seven feet of white painted lines had shaped his life for the past eight years. He walked over to Amalya. The shrine was old and withered as if it had survived some great tragedy. Its photos were peeling off and the paint was crumbling. When Yonatan had bought it, the engine revved like a brand-new truck. Now it ached and moaned to reach the same capacity. Akiva turned Amalya on, grabbed an extra racquet, and began to hit. Shifting his body, he flicked his wrist quickly to generate more spin, the ball dropping perfectly each time onto the corner baseline. He surrendered to the sounds of the skidding ball, the swooshing air in his strides, and the vigor with which he punctuated each shot.
Balls stopped shooting out rhythmically. One launched, and then thirty seconds later another one dribbled and rolled to the net. The engine rumbled, a red light flashed from the neck. He gave the launcher a shake, which had worked in the past, but now the growl continued to roar. At that moment, Akiva realized he had spent twice the amount of time with this machine than with his mother. He whacked his Prince racquet against the side of the launcher. It dented. She had fought on the front lines and for what? For patriotism? He couldn’t wait to leave home. To start anew. He whacked it again. This time harder. His racquet broke and the launcher billowed and fired balls in a flurry. Akiva summoned all the energy he had left and kicked it. The launcher toppled to its side. He pounced on it with bare fists, pummeling it mercilessly. He rose, took a number of hurried breaths, and wiped his cheeks. He looked at the damage. Photos were scattered on the court. His knuckles were ripped of flesh. His mother’s memory had been reduced to this pathetic hunk of dented metal. He dragged the broken scraps of Amalya and hurled them into the trash outside.
Akiva was on his way to Florida the next day. His taxi pulled up to the terminal, and Yonatan unloaded the luggage and tennis equipment onto a bell cart.
“Mom would be pinching herself right now,” said Yonatan as his tears welled.
Akiva looked at his father. Gray hair flecked his beard. Wrinkles lined his cheeks. Deep pain existed under those eyes. Pain, Akiva realized, he would never understand.
They parted ways, Akiva looking back one final time as he reached airport security, his father shrinking out of view.
Victor jogged through the tunnel first. Akiva followed closely behind. The stadium roared as they entered and it buzzed in anticipation. Scully wished them luck, retreating to the club box. Hatikvah and Deutschlandlied were sung, and the Israeli and German flags raised. Akiva wore a shirt with a Star of David fastened to his pocket, and a green kipa with the golden IDF emblem stitched in the middle. Across the net, Victor fussed with bits of hair that had slid under his elastic headband. Linesmen clad in navy blue Ralph Lauren uniforms settled into position.
The two players warmed each other up for precisely seven minutes, the umpire keeping time. Victor won the coin toss, electing to serve first. Akiva swayed behind the deuce corner baseline, preparing for return. Victor dribbled the ball four times. He bent and lifted his body in a flash, releasing a grunt as he torqued a serve to the shallow right side of the box, drawing Akiva out wide. Akiva had prepared for this, however, as he knew how much Victor’s serve relied upon spin. He advanced, taking the ball on the rise, flattening the ball down the line for a screeching winner. The crowd erupted. On the next play, Akiva angled a slice low to Victor’s backhand, and before allowing him a moment to react, Akiva charged the net like a Golani on the front line, volleying away the point with ease.
They swapped sides. Akiva broke him at love. Victor looked to his team in disgust, muttering German invectives under his breath. Akiva sat down, the linesman shielding him from the sun with a parasol. He scanned the crowd and spotted a well-dressed group shuffling to their seats in the club box where his father would have been sitting. The night before, when Yonatan was off his post, he had spoken with Akiva on the phone. The previous week, he had been dispatched with a cordon of troops in Jenin. His voice was tremulous, sputtering in and out from poor reception.
“Good luck,” he said. “I love—”
He had intended to say more, but was cut off before he could.
For the next few games, Victor attacked Akiva’s backhand with looping shots blurred in topspin. He remained patient and slowly maneuvered Akiva to a lull, and then deceptively fired flat shots to his forehand. Games turned into a war of attrition, long points in which each player fought to stay one stratagem ahead. Akiva began to bait Victor with shallow slices ankle-high. When charging the net, Akiva flicked his wrist and lobbed it over his outstretched racquet to the baseline with filigree precision. The first set was tied six to six, heading to a deciding tiebreak. Akiva took control, striking consecutive aces down the pipe of the center service line. With the velocity of each shot, and as the crowd burst from their seats, Akiva imagined that the cheers had helped, in some tiny way, mend the spirit of his father worlds away.
It looked like this was Akiva’s set to win. He had two set points and controlled the serve. Yet on the following point, Victor’s return skidded wide and, as Akiva celebrated, the baseline linesman ruled it fair. Normally calm on the court, Akiva waved his arms in shock. He fumed when the chair umpire told him he was not allowed to challenge the call. The crowd shifted its favor. Victor went on to win the tiebreak. Akiva retired to his chair, wet his lips from his water bottle, and covered his face with a warm hand towel.
The final memory Akiva had of his mother was from when he was four, bedridden with the flu. She had bought a golden pendulum from Ben Yehuda Street that day. It swung back and forth, making designs in a bed of white sand. She sat there rubbing Akiva’s back, explaining how the pendulum is a lot like life. If you push the pendulum too hard, sand will fly onto the floor. If you push it too softly, the pendulum will barely move. Only when you push it at just the right speed will the pendulum swing in a perfect figure eight. God gave us all of these options, and it is up to us to push the right speed, she had told him.
Akiva fought back in the match. He glided around his backhand at every opportunity, firing a fusillade of liquid forehands. The eyes of fans ping-ponged back and forth with the ball and they rose from their seats in admiration. Akiva captured the second set. Everything seemed to be going as planned. Victor hunched over in fatigue while Akiva had revived his game thanks to the enthusiasm of the crowd. What happened in the final and deciding set, though, still burns in his memory.
They were locked at three to three. Victor hit a shot to the far-right baseline. Akiva sprinted over, stretching his limbs to slice it back. He collided with a linesman. The same one who had called Victor’s shot good, sending them both to the ground. Akiva felt a pop in his right shoulder. He picked the linesman up from the ground and then let go, whimpering in agony. He waved to the towel boy and asked the umpire for a timeout. A medical specialist came over and glided his hands over Akiva’s shoulder. He could barely raise his arm over his head. The specialist suggested he retire, out of fear of worsening what was surely a torn ligament. Akiva looked down at his knuckles, now blemished from Amalya. The sky had darkened, Shabbat was fast approaching. Akiva felt dizzy, and vomited quietly into a trash bag. The umpire left his chair and asked Akiva if he could continue. The stadium was silent. Akiva thought: They’ll have to cart me off the court in a stretcher before I forfeit. He knew how to play with his left hand well enough to push through.
The result was not pretty. Victor jumped at his lefty-backhand weakness like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth. Akiva tried to run around his backhand, but Victor kept pushing the ball deeper into the far corner until Akiva was left with no choice. Balls flew wide into the net post, and one miss bounced into the stands. Akiva had no chance and, before he could even process that the match had ended, they were shaking hands at center court, Victor pointing to the sky, to his yelling entourage, and pumping his fists on the service line.
The award ceremony was long and drawn out. Fans were enchanted by the moment. The stadium lights had turned on, brightly centered on the podium. Akiva nursed his shoulder on ice. Victor offered words of praise about his opponent’s courage. A microphone was thrust in Akiva’s face. He shifted to look at his club box, which was filled with strangers. Suddenly he had no desire to be there. His father was home, fighting for their country. This was Victor’s moment. His time would come soon enough. He looked out
at the tangerine orange sky, the sun descending out of view. He had to leave now or he’d be late for Kabbalat Shabbat.