- Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy
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I was thirty-four years old when I met Léon Descoteaux, the famous tennis player, and stayed for a few days at his home in France, where he lived with his wife and children. I was traveling with my girlfriend of the time, Vicky, and she was old friends with Léon’s wife, Marion, from when the two had been on the tour together. It’d been ages since Vicky had last seen Marion, and she convinced me to stop in on the Descoteauxes on our way to Rome, where the uptown magazine I was on assignment with wanted me to do a travel piece. “Rome to the Maxxi.” “Beyond Trastevere.” Something like that. I was toying with the idea of proposing to Vicky, and I thought that if I got up the nerve Rome was the place to do it.
It was an odd moment in my life. I no longer felt young, but I didn’t feel exactly old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the normal model. Vicky and I had been friends in college, one of those prestigious East Coast schools whose graduates are cagey about where they went, and we had reconnected two years before. That was five years after she’d given up pro tennis and fallen, in her blithe, chipper way, into a job at a consulting firm. We were not the most natural fit, Vicky and I, but I had scaled back my ideas of what romance looked like, and she must have, too.
The Descoteauxes had been living in the countryside of the Auvergne for several years, not far from Clermont-Ferrand but pretty far from everywhere else, and this was why Vicky hadn’t seen Marion for so long. [End Page 126]
“Léo has her secreted away in middle-of-nowhere France,” Vicky said. “I can’t imagine how she can stand it. She was such a party girl on the tour.”
I hazarded that maybe it was glamorous living in exile with a tennis legend. “And maybe people change,” I said.
“Not from Liberace to Thoreau,” Vicky said, with her great mischievous smile. When she smiled that way I felt, just possibly, that I could spend my life with her.
“Léon Descoteaux.” I shook my head.
I was excited about this part of our detour, I admit—the Léon Descoteaux part. It was why I’d agreed to go with Vicky. I didn’t think of myself as a person fascinated by celebrity, but that hardly meant I wasn’t curious to meet the guy, whom I had watched on TV all those years ago, to peek in on his private life. It would be a story I could tell people, a casual, small-talk currency. Hey, did I tell you I spent a weekend at Léon Descoteaux’s place in France last month? … a while back? … when I was in my thirties? … decades ago?
There was a more personal reason, too. I was no huge tennis fan, but I watched the Slams when I could, and once, about fifteen years before, I’d seen Léon play a gutsy five-set semifinal against some Scandinavian phenomenon. Léon was at the peak of his career, number six in the world, and although it was clear that his finesse game didn’t stand a chance against this freakish Nordic power baseliner, Léon, with his becalmed court presence and upright bearing, played the Viking to a fifth set and a tiebreak, too. I remember few tennis matches, but in the hours I spent watching this one I formed a bond with Léon Descoteaux and I rooted for him through the rest of his career. He had a slim body and moved lightly around the court, with a kind of magic poise—the sort, I suppose, that you need to return a 125 mph serve. It may have been no more than this...