Game, Set and Match Part 1 – Judith’s Game

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Prologue

Judith Spears, the newly appointed manager of the national tennis team, had always been a forceful presence in the sport. She was determined, focused, and unyielding, which were all traits that had helped her rise to the top of her game, previously as a successful player, and later as a sought-after coach. So, when she contacted me and said, ‘Chloe, I have seen something in you that encourages me to offer you a place in the team,’ I was both pleased and surprised.

Pleasure because I could not believe my ears when I heard those words from Ms Spears.

Surprise because I was young and inexperienced compared to the rest of the team.

There had to be a catch, I thought. And, in a sense, I discovered there was. Judith Spears told me of a condition I needed to fulfil for acceptance on the team. But, at the time, it seemed a harmless enough request. So, once I had satisfied her requirements on the day of our meeting, I thought no more about it until I attended the first day of training.

= * = * =

‘This is not a game,’ Judith Spears contrarily proclaimed at the start of our first morning of training as the national tennis team.

The newly appointed team manager smirked as she observed all six of us exchanging confused glances, as we considered what tennis was if it was not a game. She presented an intimidating figure, standing to attention in her designer tracksuit, tailored to resemble business attire rather than the customary sportswear for someone in her role. Her precisely cut, short-bobbed hair, angling up at the back, served to reinforce her dynamic presence.

‘Tennis is a passion,’ Judith Spears clarified, after a precisely timed pause. ‘A desire to be the best. For ourselves. For our country. And for our sport,’ she declared. ‘I require unity among the team members. And I have commissioned matching made-to-measure outfits for you all to wear that will reinforce team uniformity.’

Our team manager held up an immaculate white tennis dress and a collection of smart sports daywear. There was also a little black dress, reserved for us to wear in the evening to celebrate winning the forthcoming tournament. She asked us all to try on each outfit in turn and we discovered they all fitted perfectly. The team then spent a fun and enjoyable hour posing for individual and team photographs in our new clothes.

Once we had settled back down, a slideshow of the images played on the large TV screen behind Judith Spears while she spoke to us. ‘As you can see, each of you look wonderful in your outfits, and the whole team has a degree of cohesiveness.’

We grinned at each other, admiring ourselves in our perfectly fitting tennis dresses. We were keen to get out on the practice courts as a team. Eager to show our manager that tennis was our passion, as well as it being a game.

‘Cohesive, certainly, but you are not yet unified,’ the team manager added with a hint of regret. She looked at each of us in turn with her piercing eyes, while patting her immaculate bob. ‘Your hair is different lengths, textures, and styles. And that detracts from any sense of unity.’

I looked around at my new teammates, all of whom had beautiful long hair. I ran a hand through my own locks that stretched to the middle of my back. Then I glanced back at our manager unsure, like the rest of the team, where she was going with her damning observation.

‘Surely, Judith, when we are playing, or even posing as a team, just braiding it or wearing it in a bun sufficiently disguises any differences,’ Emily, the eldest and most outspoken of the team, suggested.

‘You may call me Ms Spears, or Ma’am if you wish,’ the team manager bellowed, ‘but coach is acceptable, and it would be my preference.’

‘As if the differences really matter,’ Emily murmured, under her breath, shaking her head.

‘It certainly does matter!’ Judith Spears emphatically contradicted. ‘Each of you will have your hair cut to the same length as the girl with the shortest hair,’ she insisted.

The whole team looked around nervously at the hair of their teammates before all their eyes settled on me. I felt extremely self-conscious. I reasoned that someone in the team had to have the shortest hair and most people would consider my mid-back hair as reasonably long by most standards. However, the rest of the team had markedly longer hair than me.

After an interminable ten seconds with the whole team staring at me, there was a cacophony of strident complaints. Emily, with the longest hair, was most vocal. ‘I would have to have nearly half a metre of my hair chopped off to match her pitiful length.’

I remained silent, ignoring Emily’s insult, satisfied with my “pitiful length”.

‘Silence!’ was the inevitable cry from Ms Spears as she quickly restored order.

The penetrating glares of the team remained locked on me. I tried to read their expressions that ranged from curiosity, through confusion, to annoyance. My hair was still an attractive longer length and I wanted to point that I could still braid it when required. However, I decided, as the youngest in the team, it was best to remain quiet.

‘So, are you all in agreement?’ our coach demanded. ‘For the sake of being part of a unified national tennis team, do you all agree to have your hair cut to the same length as Chloe’s?’

Silence followed. One hand went up. Another followed. I raised my own hand to show solidarity, despite it being a pointless gesture as my hair was already at the target length. Two more arms slowly rose, leaving just a forlorn Emily looking down at both hands planted firmly in her lap caressing her long braid. Her reticence was understandable given the greater length of her hair. However, like a puppet’s hand dragged up by a string, Emily reluctantly allowed her hand to hover in the air.

‘Excellent,’ Ms Spears declared joyfully, before marching from the front of the room and abruptly stopping right behind me.

Without a word, our team manager began working her fingers through my hair. Her unusual and unannounced action must have seemed quite bizarre to my teammates. Abruptly, I began to feel everything was unravelling. Quite literally.

The whole team looked on with mild curiosity until, suddenly, there was a collective cry of horror. Judith Spears was brandishing the long hair extensions that she had removed from my own locks. She examined them disparagingly before tossing them into a nearby rubbish bin.

= * = * =

My mind raced back to the day that the celebrated Judith Spears had unexpectedly summoned me for a meeting. We met in a café, and she bought me a huge ice cream covered in all manner of different sauces and nuts. After a chat about my tennis hopes and dreams, she astonished me by offering me a place on the national team. While she recognised that I was young and inexperienced, in her new role she wished to encourage junior talent. Naturally, I accepted her offer without any need for further thought.

Judith Spears reminded me that my older and more experienced teammates had mastered looking good for an audience, both on and off the court. Although an annoying requirement, I accepted it was necessity in the media-focused modern era of tennis, and I was grateful that she offered to provide me with guidance.

In a related observation the team manager drew attention to my hair. And I wondered if her verdict on my personal bugbear would result in her withdrawing her offer for me to join the team.

Throughout my short life, I had suffered from “bad hair”. It was thin and wispy, whatever length I wore it. Whenever I allowed it to grow to my shoulders it would never hold a style. Tied back, in the manner of so many women tennis players, it looked woefully sparse. So, every few months, I gave in. I would have it cut shorter into an unstylish crop or a shapeless bob, and immediately regret it. With whatever style I received, within a couple of days I could only tame my errant flicks and curls on court with an unflattering cap or headband.

I knew that matching the long-haired glamour of my teammates would never be possible. In the light of the team manager’s pointed observation, I tried to maintain my composure on the outside. But inside I was distraught on realising that my dream of joining the national tennis team may come to nothing.

Judith Spears showed sympathy with the issues I had of managing my hair. However, as the youngest member of the team, she did not wish me to feel that I was at a disadvantage because of it. Consequently, as a condition of me joining the team, she required me to have hair extensions for which she would pay. Although generous, it did seem a peculiar offer to come from a tennis coach. However, with all the trials and tribulations I had experienced with my hair over the years, I gratefully accepted.

I was amazed that the team manager was able to make an appointment for a salon to fit the extensions that same morning. My transformed appearance differed out of all recognition. I had never expected to have long hair in my life, and it did look quite nice and glamorous. However, it did not take me long to remember the benefits of shorter hair.

My reward for accepting Judith’s conditions, had been my second ice cream of the day. However, I was frustrated when the wind did its best to whip my lengthened hair around my face, preventing me from consuming my well-deserved treat.

At that moment, with a face full of sticky hair, I assumed that long locks were something I would just have to become familiar with, if I wished to enhance my future tennis career in the modern era.

= * = * =

It had only taken a day for me to discover that becoming familiar with my longer locks would not be a lasting problem. When the team manager had removed the recently fitted additions from my hair, in front of my teammates, I was extremely puzzled. But part of me was secretly relieved as all that extra hair felt unnecessarily heavy. It was also very irritating as it kept getting in my way.

As Judith Spears absently raked through my hair, my astonished teammates slowly came to terms with what they were seeing. I felt her gathering my shortened hair into its traditional scrawny ponytail and securing it with a band.

‘What is that?’ Emily laughed disparagingly, proudly tossing her own thick braid. ‘It is not even a ponytail. That is just a stump! It is barely five centimetres long!’

The team were still reeling from our coach’s swift and unexpected action, but they nervously giggled along with Emily in a show of team spirit. However, each of them was stealing glances towards the ominously silent Judith Spears, trying to ascertain the reason for what they had just witnessed.

When the commotion had died down, the team manager spoke. ‘You have each agreed to have your hair cut to the same length as the team member with the shortest hair for the sake of uniformity,’ Ms Spears reminded the team, ‘so you will all have your hair cut like Chloe’s.’

The team manager promptly silenced the chorus of vociferous complaints by raising her hand. ‘You will all do as I command or you will be ordered to leave the team,’ Judith Spears barked unequivocally, her piercing eyes daring anyone to defy her.

The team knew someone had tricked them. While they reserved their hostile looks for Judith Spears, furtive glances in my direction indicated that they might believe I was complicit in the deception. They left me in no doubt that they intended to find out later, when we were all alone.

‘Sorry, Coach, I am not sure when I can get an appointment with my hairstylist,’ Emily spoke up smugly. ‘He is extremely popular, so it may be a while. And then I would need time off from training to travel to his salon.’

The team manager gave a little chuckle as she marched to the edge of the room. She lifted one end of a low bench that stood against the wall, then gestured for me to pick up the other end. Together, we moved the bench into the middle of the room.

‘Thank you for your irrelevant thoughts, Emily,’ Judith Spears said with a touch of sarcasm, ‘but the team require unity immediately. So, girls, please take a seat,’ she invited, gesturing expansively to the bench using one hand.

Judith Spears then opened a small case and retrieved a metallic object that glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window. Holding up the sleek item between two fingers, she ominously clicked together the blades of a pair of shiny scissors that looked scarily sharp.

= * = * =

‘What a magnificent collection of ponytails,’ Judith Spears teased, tugging on the end of the one belonging to Emily, ‘but, unfortunately, they are all far too long when compared with Chloe’s hair.’

My teammates, in their smart white tennis dresses, had all perched obediently on the bench. They knew that not to have done so would have resulted in their expulsion from the team. Each wore their long hair differently, sporting a variety of ponytails, braids, and looser styles.

With my hair already at the length – or rather the shortness – that our coach required the rest of the team to share, there was no need for me to sit alongside them on the bench. Instead, the coach tasked me with unravelling my teammates hair from whatever style they had chosen, brushing it through, and then securing it into ponytails prior to cutting.

With my lifelong “bad hair”, I had no experience of handling such long lustrous locks. Strangely, I found it a remarkably enjoyable assignment. Feeling the different lengths and textures of their hair was a sensuous experience. My excitement grew as I gathered the hair at the nape and secured it with two elastic bands that I fitted close to each other.

Initially, I was concerned that my teammates might consider my cooperation as more treacherous than it was. However, my enjoyment at what I was doing as well as receiving praise for assisting our coach, soon put those worries to the back of my mind.

I heard mutters of “traitor” and similar remarks from my teammates. However, the coach had tasked me with an activity that was necessary for the good of the team, so I simply ignored their rude comments.

As I bound each long ponytail securely, I found it strange to realise that our coach would soon be severing it from the head of its owner. Following my recent experience with the hair extensions, I knew that eventually they would be grateful to have their hair shortened. However, I appreciated that each of them had had long hair, unlike me, for much longer than a day. So, I reasoned, it might take them a while to appreciate what our coach would be doing for them.

Interestingly, alongside my thoughts of the practical considerations, I also felt a frisson of excitement. Unaccountably, I was looking forward to witnessing our coach lopping off the hair of my teammates.

Having thanked me for preparing my teammates’ hair, Judith Spears stepped forward brandishing her scissors. She forced Emily’s head right down, causing her to adopt a submissive posture. Lifting Emily’s ponytail, she called me over to assist once more.

‘Chloe, I need you to hold this and pull it taut, then I will be able to cut through it more easily,’ she urged excitedly.

A muffled whimper came from the Emily on hearing those words.

‘Yes, Coach,’ I readily agreed.

I took to my new assignment with pleasure. I placed one hand against Emily’s head, before pulling her ponytail outstretched with my other hand. Ms Spears positioned the blades of the scissors around the base of Emily’s ponytail, between the two elastic bands I had fitted, and sawed through her thick hair with great relish.

When the ponytail separated from Emily’s head, I held it up high in admiration. A collective intake of breath came from my teammates on the bench. With looks of disbelief, they inspected my magnificent trophy.

Wondering what I should do next, our coach indicated the rubbish bin where she had thrown my hair extensions. Without showing any emotion or feeling any regret, I tossed Emily’s extraordinary ponytail into the bin.

I found Emily’s short thick stump of bound hair fascinating. It was far more presentable than mine had ever been. I could not resist flicking it and then, giggling, as I watched it bounce back and forth. Emily maintained her submissive posture, but I could see her body was trembling because of her loss.

‘Cute,’ our coach announced brightly, watching me, and joining in with my mirth.

The team manager and I promptly repeated the same sequence of events with the other girls. Having watched Emily demonstrate what we required, each of my teammates obediently bowed their heads when it was their turn to have their hair severed.

Surprisingly, everyone remained stoic in the face of the difficult challenge they faced that they could not have predicted at the start of the day. However, I heard further whimpers from a couple of the bowed heads, and red and puffy eyes were sometimes apparent when teammates raised their heads.

I tossed the last ponytail into the overflowing bin and, as the team stood, I watched Judith Spears take a step back to admire our work.

‘What a lovely neat and tidy collection of girls,’ she enthused, clapping her hands together in praise. ‘So, now we can hit the practice courts as a proud team, unified in both spirit and appearance.’

= * = * =

Six girls, in matching white tennis dresses, all sporting short stumpy ponytails was an unusual sight on the practice courts. However, for anyone watching, our appearance did unquestionably exhibit unity. Our identical short and neat ponytails complemented the crispness of our indistinguishable white dresses.

For the first time in a group of tennis players, I experienced the feeling of belonging. Surprisingly, Emily was able to gloss over the events that had taken place earlier. She even made light of not having to cart around a thick rope of hair when diving for a dropshot, and joked about her braid not slapping her in the face when she went for a high lob.

Our first morning of practice as a team, which promised so much, proceeded extremely well. But that only lasted for about ten minutes. After that, short strands of errant hair were falling out of barely fastened ponytails and flicking in our faces and covering our eyes. Ponytails eventually became completely undone. Once loose, our unevenly bobbed hair, inexpertly cut by our coach, looked terrible.

Judith Spears grew increasingly distraught as she watched. She ran between us, using a plentiful supply of grips and slides to pin errant locks. And we helped each other repair our stumpy ponytails whenever we found enough missing elastic bands littered around the courts.

After an hour, we all looked a complete mess. Wayward strands were stuck to our perspiring necks and foreheads, and we tucked irritating tufts of hair behind our ears. We had so much ironmongery holding our hair together, the metal grips were more prevalent than the locks they were attempting to keep under control.

When the team had long hair, the braids and buns provided uniformity in all aspects other than overall length. With hair so short and wayward, we all looked completely different from each other. It was the opposite to what our coach had intended.

Eventually, feeling defeated, our coach blew the whistle. We retired to the locker room for a cool drink, feeling far less positive than we had when we left it an hour earlier.

= * = * =

‘This has been a disaster,’ Judith Spears lamented. ‘And I must shoulder some of the responsibility,’ she added magnanimously.

“Some?” was the mocking unvoiced question on everyone’s lips.

‘We must reverse this disaster we have created,’ the team manager contemplated morosely, expressing no sense of irony, despite it being her decision her alone to cut the team’s hair.

Emily bravely spoke up, voicing what we all felt we should say. ‘I think I can speak for the whole team, Coach, and say that we know that what you did was with the best intentions. For the good of the team. The unity of the team. Obviously, it will take a while, but we will all get through this together. As one.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Judith Spears snapped dispiritedly.

‘Reverse it, like you said,’ Emily persisted, forcing a smile. ‘We will grow our hair. Obviously, it will take a while, but we can all keep it neatly trimmed, and all to the same length. Very soon it will be long enough to stay neatly in a ponytail and -’

Our coach interrupted Emily’s heartfelt statement of unity with cackling laughter. ‘I did not mean reverse the direction of the shortening of your hair. I mean reverse the disaster caused by your hair still being too long.’

‘Eh?’ Emily asked, reacting to our coach’s confusing statement. Her remark attracted an irritated stare. ‘Er, sorry, I mean pardon … er, Coach?’

‘It is quite straightforward, Emily. Your hair will need to be shorter,’ Judith Spears announced. ‘All of your will need to be shorter!’ she added, raising her voice hysterically. Judith’s Game had taken a worrying turn.

‘Yippee!’ I blurted out, but mine was the sole voice of assent.

Five pairs of threatening eyes bore into me, their owners wishing I had remained silent.

I gulped, wishing I had remained silent too.

TO BE CONTINUED

3 responses to “Game, Set and Match Part 1 – Judith’s Game

  1. Wonderful story! It’s really great to read about a team having a mandatory haircut so that they all have the same haircut. I can’t wait to read the other parts to see what Judith Spears has planned for their hair!

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