Journeyman Player on a New Journey…to Victory
By Brent Zahn
For years now, Boyd Melchior has been a likable player. This is arguably the worst thing you can say about an athlete. He was a nice guy, someone who never pushed or offended, who tried just hard enough to do all right but never that well. His body, too, was nice—easily bruised and broken, lacking resilience and enough natural armor to keep him out of hospitals and off painkillers and crutches. Away from the tennis court, his demeanor was pleasant and polite. He was a guy everyone liked or maybe just never thought about enough to hate.
Now, at thirty, Boyd has been reborn.
For the past year, he’s slashed and slammed; he’s contested calls that were incontrovertibly true because a computer made them; he’s used every stroke, including an obnoxious underhand serve; he’s grunted loud enough to undermine his opponents; and when he’s won, he’s ripped off his shirt and pounded his chest.
He’s been doing that a lot. Because he’s been winning a lot.
His body has followed suit: He hasn’t been hurt (even when running, sliding and falling to reach every ball) or under the weather, no matter what bug is around.
Off the court, Boyd, well…how can I put it on a family Web site? He’s been a total and utter SOB. Actually, that’s too erudite a term: He’s been a cave man, barreling past other people before and after matches, getting into fist fights and foul-mouthed arguments (though he says much less than he used to). Drug tests have found no pollutants in his veins; this has been a national evolution (or de-evolution, depending on your taste). Boyd’s got a new agent—Tine Sochis, the top fellow in the field—but he doesn’t have a coach. He’s done it all himself.
If before, Boyd had slid into the hundreds in the rankings, now he’s clawed his way back up into the high teens, an amazing ascension in such a short amount of time. And this weekend, he’ll play in the finals of the U.S. Open.
How has this happened? We don’t know.
All we know is that it’s working.
So all hail the new and improved Boyd Melchior! Then get out of the way of his serves and returns, his mouth and fists.
Boyd read the article again on his device. It had been written by a top sports journalist who had never been anything but patronizing to him. At first, with the Open final tomorrow, he thought he’d been exposed. He was relieved it wasn’t true: His secret, like his ranking, was safe.
Boyd could only have imagined what his father would have said—hollered, to be exact. His father had both prepared him to be a champion and made him skittish about being aggressive, made him shrink from the power that would have propelled him to the top. Had it been to punish his father—Lloyd Melchior, who’d named his son to rhyme with himself—that Boyd had always been promising and always fallen short?
God knows Lloyd had punished him enough. Years earlier, Lloyd had been described in a "Worst Tennis Dads" article that went viral as "all the world’s nightmare tennis fathers rolled into one." They’d listed Lloyd’s offenses in a funny ten best list, funny after the fact and to anyone but Boyd. Lloyd had:
- 1) In an Under-Ten Tournament, from the stands, loudly applauded Boyd’s child opponent’s double-faults and mistakes, and yelled "Kick him in the nuts!"
- 2) Made Boyd run home behind the car if he’d had what Lloyd believed was a bad practice
- 3) Beat him and shot at him with a BB gun if he lost as much as a set
- 4) Punched out two fans at a tournament who weren’t "paying enough attention" to his son’s match
- 5) Smashed journalists’ phones at an after-party
- 6) Publicly accused organizers of fixing a draw
- 7) Had a violent tantrum about the price of crab cakes in a players’ lounge, eventually up-ending a table
- 8) Broken the nose of Boyd’s teenage practice partner by butting the boy in the head
- 9) Allegedly spiked the drinks of Boyd’s opposing players, leading to one totaling his car afterwards and losing the use of his legs—though nothing was ever proven and Lloyd had denied it to Boyd’s face
- 10) Been banned from attending any tournaments anywhere in the world
A year ago, Lloyd had injected a liter of Vodka into his veins (using a new process of drinking the patent of which was recently approved) and dived into the pool of the hotel where he had tracked down Boyd, staying there under an assumed name to escape him. Lloyd fell head-first into the shallow end, hit bottom and died immediately while other bathers (including children) at first laughed and then screamed.
After his death, Boyd had learned the truth about his father. Unsure from the start about Boyd’s level of commitment and aggression, Lloyd had arranged to harness his enormous potential and perfect it. Secretly, with the ultra-sports agency, Swish, Spike, Slam, and Dunk (S, S, S & D), Lloyd had taken genetic materials from Boyd. He had mixed and matched the levels of ferocity, until he finally mastered the recipe of male aggression. Then he had created a clone of his son.
Boyd learned this at the reading of Lloyd’s will. Named Floyd, this new Boyd could perform any stroke and reach any ball. He could battle from the baseline or serve and volley; he could hit ace after ace. He could jam his opponent with a shot to the chest or toy with him by sinking a delicate lob and watch him run, pointlessly, to retrieve it. Most importantly, he never stopped fighting and ran everything down. He did not see aggression and winning as unfair to others, as did Boyd. He did not try to spite or disobey his father and lose. This was a version of Boyd with his mind removed or the part of his mind that had sabotaged himself. His double was—as he had been created to be—a champion.
Sadly, this other version of Boyd had limited language skills. S, S, S, and D and his Dad had concentrated on Floyd’s athletic ability and skimped on the intellect, favoring the brain power needed to play a game over reading skills and speech.
A contract had been drawn up in which Boyd would be secretly hired as Floyd’s coach. He would be retained by the week, his rate of pay rising according to results (a certain amount if Floyd got into tournaments, higher if they were Majors, heavy "bumps" if he made the Finals or, best case, actually won). The arrangement would last five years, with an option to renew in two-year increments. What would happen to Floyd in the case of its dissolution was unstated and left to the discretion of the agency alone. The two men would move into the same apartment in New York City. Facing a career of unending mediocrity, his body ever collapsing, Boyd had signed.
Months before the Open, Floyd had played his first lower-tier tournament. It was one of many new Fan Fun events ("Fannies" or "Funnies," as they were nicknamed) that had relaxed rules of play, designed to take the elitism out of sport and attract younger crowds. They were laboratories for changes that could be made to the Majors which, like all public events, had been leaking audiences and money due to climate catastrophes, pandemics, mass shootings, and dirt-cheap home alternatives. (Once-popular mainstays like the World Series and the Super Bowl now allowed virtual reality participation by viewers and home voting on foul and strike calls).
The Tarkofsky Crunch was a "Funny" or "Fanny" held in an ex-cattle stable in an Eastern European dictatorship. Boyd had stashed Floyd in his hotel room and arrived at the arena a day early to scope the place out. His agent at S, S, S, & D, Tine Sochis, told the organizers that Boyd had a head cold—"nothing serious, a little laryngitis"—so Floyd could avoid interviews. Snarky local reporters wrote that the "mediocre, oft-injured American was a surprise entry."
On his way in, Boyd ran into a familiar figure.
"Well, look who’s still alive, sort of," Ole Millstrom said, in his unaccented English. He was a Swedish player who had mopped the court with Boyd every time they’d played. Ole stood in the sunlight, which poured on him like gold coins from a fairy tale.
"You playing here?" Ole asked with his usual smirk, the polluted sun glancing off his brilliantly blonde hair and reminding Boyd of how telegenic he was and how many endorsements he had (Ole was the face of the #1 self-driving car and the credit card tattoo). How he’d asked it sounded contemptuous.
"Yes, I’m playing," Boyd said. "You, too?"
"Me?" Ole said, with an incredulous expression that crinkled the impeccable skin beneath his piercing blue eyes. "Yeah, right."
"Then what are you…"
"The Tarkofsky’s naming a court for me. I’m making a speech at the dedication. To inspire kids to play here. And, you know, older players who could use a break."
Boyd realized he had just left himself as open verbally as he had physically for most of their last match. He could have kicked himself, and his face burned with embarrassment.
When he turned to go, he snapped at Ole, "Hope it’s hygge," meaning homey, and Ole called after him…
"That’s Danish. I’m Swedish, you idiot!" which only made it worse.
The next day, when Floyd came out on court, the stands were half-empty and most spectators were attending for free. There were school kids on a field trip, residents of a mental institution, and soldiers on leave from a local base. Pets were allowed and—even though some were robotic—one could hear whines, barks, and even moos as Floyd warmed up. A DJ spun uncensored rap hits from yesteryear, encouraging sing-alongs from the crowd, often feeding them the obscene lyrics himself.
Like other "Fannies" and "Funnies," the Tarkofsky had new and generous court and equipment specs. Held on a self-cleaning hard surface made of hazardous materials, it boasted higher nets, wider courts, and balls which were six to eight per cent bigger and made to bounce lower due to reduced internal pressure, guaranteeing more "goofballs and punchlines." Courtside computerized Auto-Coaching was prohibited, because it lacked "eyeball-stroking optics." Instead actors dressed as coaches in black-and-white striped shirts and caps (nostalgic images so old no one alive could remember them) mimed and mouthed signals and frenetically danced to more rap blared during turnovers and between points.
The announcer was costumed as a forgotten idea of a reporter (wearing a fedora with a piece of paper reading "Press" perched in the brim) and held a cardboard microphone to his lips. Egged on by the DJ, the crowd both cheered and viciously mocked the display.
Floyd’s opponent, Flac Lochshmire, was a Serbo-Croatian who had served time for match fixing and bribed his way out of prison to get back on tour. His incarceration had left him tattooed over most of his body, including racist epithets scrawled on his face. When Floyd saw him across the net, he laughed, which earned a threatening sneer from Flac. Floyd imitated it, witheringly, and the intoxicated crowd roared.
Floyd had never played for an audience. At first, he stared at them with fascination and fear. Then it became clear they had inspired him to ratchet up his show.
"Let’s go!" he yelled, surprising both Flac and the umpire, a large child picked by lottery from the crowd.
The match was best of three with severe time limits for serving and crossovers, as well as no bathroom breaks (buckets were placed on either side of the net). While the amateur umpire was given nominal power over contested points, the crowd had final say, which it exercised by bellowing "in" or "out."
Yet there was no contesting what happened in the first set. Floyd won every point of his service games with aces, never even approaching the net. Twice his ball hit the lines so perfectly and so hard that the burst of flying paint dust blinded his opponent. Receiving, he broke Flac’s serves easily and with no less brutality. He mocked the waddling gait and wiggling breasts of the flabby parolee, who had over-indulged on prison grub and spent no time in the facility’s gym.
Floyd’s power game, plus his heedlessly aggressive behavior, so rattled Flac that when he lost—0-6, 1-6—he made to fling his racket at him before he bounced it disgustedly off the ground. As he left the court, he called to the clone in Serbo-Croatian, words obviously curses and threats of retribution.
Boyd had watched the match on the TV in his room. While the commentary was un-translated, he could tell that those covering the match had been both impressed and shocked by Floyd’s display.
"This was a new Boyd Melchior," one said, in halting English.
When Floyd returned to their room, he was—in the old expression—bouncing off the walls. He shadow-boxed an imaginary enemy, then flung his fists at Boyd, who caught and held them still.
"Knock it off," he said.
"I won!" Floyd yelled.
"I know. And it’s over."
"I won! Me!"
Floyd pulled free and danced around the room, again like a boxer. He sent out jabs and roundhouses—and overheads and volleys, sticking to his own sport—breaking picture frames, flower vases, and drinking glasses.
"Stop," Boyd said. "That’s enough!"
Boyd knew that, like a wild animal, Floyd needed more room to roam than the cramped Eastern European hotel suite. He had no choice.
"Get your coat," he said. "We’re going out."
Boyd pulled a cap with the S, S, S, & D logo over his face. He pushed his hands deep into the pockets of an agency wind breaker. Bounding beside him, Floyd was so invigorated by his victory that he flung his coat over a guardrail into a river.
Boyd kept them to the back streets, out of the way of tourists, the indiscreet or merely curious. Still, he couldn’t avoid everyone in the small but well-populated foreign city.
Floyd sensed him stiffen at the approach of a group of men.
"Who?" he asked.
"I don’t know," Boyd said.
When the three came close, Boyd could see that they were indeed not friends. Two were well-muscled beneath their long, leather, Soviet-style overcoats. The man in the middle was short and plump, wearing a light, tacky polyester vest. A tiny oval of his face was visible under his own woolen cap. Boyd could see that tattooed foreign words decorated his cheeks, nose, and brow.
"Flac Lochshmire," Boyd said.
Boyd realized the clone had never known the name of the man he’d beaten and couldn’t have cared less.
"The player," Boyd said, quickly, for the three were advancing, "who you…"
"Oh." Floyd got as close as he could to a giggle. "Hee hee!"
Boyd made a mental note: "Teach good sportsmanship" at their next coaching session. Then he didn’t know if they’d ever reach it.
"Loser!" Floyd called. "Hey, loser! Hi, loser!"
Steps away, the trio came to a sudden stop. Flac tipped his head toward his companions, who were obviously his bodyguards. Even with much of his face obscured, his expression was legible: Get a load of this guy.
"You!" Floyd repeated. He re-ran his imitation of Flac’s funny walk, which had been such a hit during the match.
Flac stared, incredulous that Floyd was still pulling this stuff. He seemed spooked by the extent of the clone’s insensitivity: Illuminated by a street lamp, fear flashed in the other man’s eyes. Then he regained confidence. Flac flicked the arms of his tougher companions, signaling them: Come on.
As he plugged forward, Flac briefly checked out Boyd. He was relieved that the visible piece of his face didn’t identify him. The three moved swifter than Boyd was expecting.
"Uh oh," Boyd said.
"I’ll cut right. You cut left. We’ll meet back at the hotel."
"Yes. Go. Obviously."
"Okay. Go." Floyd meant, you go. I’m staying. Obviously.
"You’re kidding, right?"
"Right." Floyd was being sarcastic, a first for him. Had he always been able to do that? Or did the clone only learn what he wanted to learn? Far from fleeing his aggressors, Floyd was powering toward them. Boyd exited stage right, yelling…
"Don’t be crazy! Come on!"
But Floyd kept going.
It didn’t happen the way it did in movies, with the hero dispatching one foe after another with ease. Instead Floyd barreled into Flac Lochshmire like a baby cannon-balling another baby, for fun. When two piled on Floyd to protect the third, and real pain started being induced, Floyd was still having a good time, the only one doing so.
"Knock it off!" Flac yelled in his own tongue. Floyd was hammering on him as the two strongmen struggled to tear him off. The clone elbowed the first in the face while kneeing the second in the groin.
"That’s enough!" Boyd whispered from a safe place on the sidewalk, in the shadows.
"Soon!" Floyd responded, as one of Flac’s cronies (the one who’d been elbowed) sprawled backwards and the other (who’d been kneed) fell forward. Flac remained erect, and he was too scared not to run, which he did.
"Okay!" Floyd said to Boyd. "Now! Done! Coming!"
After the fisticuffs, Boyd saw that Floyd was sated and satisfied. Back home in the states, he even began to sleep without his usual night light. Boyd decided to forego fruitless attempts to harness the clone’s violence and to secretly release it—off the court.
He knew that wear and tear on Floyd’s appendages had to be kept to a minimum. So he had to teach Floyd to keep the carnage brief, to run before he could be caught and not to be clocked in the face or kicked in the shins.
"Mostly menace them," Boyd advised.
"It’s when you…" Boyd had to resort to pantomime. In their apartment, he stalked the clone like a monster, teeth bared and arms extended, lumbering as if his legs were connected by screws and not bone. Floyd backed up, feigning fear, laughing like a horrible little boy.
Just as Boyd reached him (and was planning to pull away), Floyd got him by the neck and then the throat. The clone’s fingers began to press.
"Stop," Boyd said, before Floyd’s thumbs ended his ability to speak.
Floyd did stop, though he didn’t take his hands away, just quit moving them. He held Boyd as you might a ladder climbed by someone you loved. Boyd stared at him, colors falling from his face, knowing that if he failed to police him now, he would never succeed. Boyd looked into the clone’s eyes which were his own and knew that if he died, they would both cease to exist (in his case, literally). And suddenly, Floyd knew it, too.
He let Boyd go.
"Only menace," Floyd said.
Boyd hacked, coughed, and stumbled away. This had been the first time Floyd had acted on him physically. Boyd believed it would be the last.
Floyd steadily progressed on court until he burst through all speed stops, as it were, leaving his opponents in the dust. He won every "Fanny" and "Funny" he entered, treating each event (and most of its participants) with contempt. In ATP tour matches—from Acapulco to California to Brisbane—he reached the quarters three times, the semis in two and the finals in one, which he only lost in a tie break.
Floyd had no trouble qualifying for the Majors, where his results were remarkable—the quarters in Australia (before it was canceled due to climate change forest fires), the Round of 16 in the French (Floyd enjoyed sliding on the clay so much he sometimes forgot to hit the ball), the semis at Wimbledon (where even though the dress code had been relaxed to bolster young people’s interest, Floyd’s T-shirt featuring obscenities—unvetted by Boyd—got him into a screaming fight with the computerized Auto-Umpire and almost expelled), and, at last, the final of the U.S. Open.
Now Boyd saved the article on his device. He could only hope for the best in the match tomorrow.
Floyd’s opponent would be Ole Millstrom.
When Boyd told him, the Swede’s name meant nothing to Floyd, who had never seen him play. Ole, of course, knew Boyd. The next day, before the match, he stopped by the clone’s locker.
"So, Boyd," Ole said, "good for you."
"Huh?" By now Floyd could use a few more words yet—Boyd was convinced—he just didn’t feel like doing it.
"I said, good for you." Coming from Ole, even a compliment sounded like an insult.
"For what?" Floyd said.
"For improving so much. Is it being with S, S, S, & D?" The condescension would have been clear to anyone else.
Having no history with Ole, Floyd shrugged the remark away. Ole came to the sudden conclusion that Boyd seemed not to remember him, which was weird.
"Well," Ole said, not wanting to fill his head with what was weird before a match (despite Boyd’s recent string of successes, Ole believed it was a fluke and about to be snapped), "see you out there."
"Where?" Floyd didn’t even know this was the guy he was about to play.
This question was too weird for Ole. He left, suspecting Boyd was on a drug which had made him both win and weird. It was a suspicion he maintained for a few minutes and—he admitted later, in a press conference—distracted him at the top of the match.
Some matches are decided at the top—one player dominates, the other submits. Some matches go back and forth, with each player surging and fading. The U. S. Open final featuring Floyd and Ole was the first disguised as the second.
Ole won the toss and chose to serve. At first, Floyd sprayed returns from the baseline and stormed the net, hit balls harder than necessary, and generally displayed a lack of discipline destined to do him in. Yet in fact the match was over as soon as the next game started, when Floyd’s titanic first serve spun the Swede around in a fruitless attempt to return. From then on, the mistakes Floyd made came either from capriciousness (he was experimenting with bad shots because he could afford to fool around and recover) or miscalculation (of how much force he needed from the frightening amount he possessed). In other words, Floyd could afford to be wrong once in a while because he was right so often. And he was still fiddling with the amounts of power in him as those inventing him had fiddled with his DNA. Ole didn’t know any of this until it was too late.
"In!" Floyd screamed at one point, while his overhead still fell. The impertinence infuriated Ole right as he saw it land on the line, winning Ole the first set. This made the Swede realize he was going to lose and had been going to lose the whole time.
"Cheater!" Ole howled at the net when it was over, in lieu of a handshake (Floyd never offered one, win or lose; Boyd didn’t know if he didn’t comprehend the custom or didn’t care). As the two exited, Ole barreled by and bashed into Floyd, knocking him off balance.
"Don’t take the bait!" Boyd yelled at his screen at home. He was relieved to see that Floyd didn’t retaliate, instead found his footing and mocked Ole’s pigeon-toed progress into the locker room. The imitation angered the Swede more than any violence, since that might have revealed insecurity and a caricature came from confidence. Ole officially comprehended he had just lost in a final to Boyd Melchior, of all people, who had played with pitiless and awful brilliance.
Afterwards, Boyd and Floyd moved into the dark streets of New York, Floyd like a dog desperate to lose its leash. Boyd pulled his cap down especially low, for even these back alleys were lighted.
"Where? Where?" Floyd asked.
"Soon," Boyd said.
Boyd knew where to find gangs squatting in the barren landscape that had been the retail hub of Soho before the pandemics, looting, and floods. Here was where the hippest clothing and housewares had been sold and now the addicted, insane and criminally cruel were harbored.
Miscreants had emerged from the murky and deserted dead end into which Boyd and Floyd turned. As soon as he saw them, the clone’s head snapped back, like that same dog sniffing something delicious.
Boyd backed off, as he always did, seeking a doorway or alcove that would shield him from view and harm. Floyd ran ahead, like—yes, again—a dog at the run after a week of waiting. This dog wanted to do more than bound around and blow off steam. He wanted to spill some blood or at least do some damage.
"Hey!" Floyd yelled.
"What?" one of the gang members shot back, starting a fire in a garbage can.
"Knock it off!"
Tonight, Floyd had met his match in inarticulateness. Even though his foe was backed up by pals eager to assist, the clone didn’t mind and advanced.
Boyd hid his face behind his hands and pulled his hat down farther, to cover his ears. The muffled and obscured sights and sounds reminded him of old cartoons Floyd liked, fists and feet coming out of a cloudy circle of smoke.
After the melee, Floyd barely made it to bed before he fell asleep. He had won his first Major, then done maximum damage to others and minimum damage to himself, suffering no more than a scratch. Boyd watched him sleep like the most indulgent parent in the world.
Beside him in his own bed, Boyd too felt elated, filled with and drained of the same adrenalin. In the street, Boyd couldn’t tell if the clone’s moans of pleasure had been his own. For the first time, he had been too excited to care.