SBD: Match Maker by Alan Chin

This is going to be a bit scattered, but I want to post it before I just give up and abandon it. So here it is for SBD, my thoughts on Match Maker by Alan Chin.  It also seems appropriate since today is National Coming Out Day.

How did this book come to my attention? A popular gay romance review site reviewed it. I tend to discount their reviews, since my tastes seldom match any of the reviewers, but skim the book descriptions, since they seem to get a wide variety of books from more traditional gay publishers and newer e-publishers. When the summary mentioned gay men in the professional tennis arena, I was sold. Tennis is one of my favorite sports, one that I play (poorly) and watch (regularly). I can’t find it right now, but there was an article a while back at either ESPN or Sports Illustrated online, that touched on gay,athletes and even mentioned tennis, since there are no openly gay players in the ATP today.  Although there are a few women on the WTA who have been out while still playing professionally (Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo), there are no men.  None.  The one gay male tennis player that people refer to, Bill Tilden, was not out while playing or even after.  It seems odd, given the lack of physical contact in the sport (meaning less physical risk/threat from homophobic opponents) and the fairly large subset of gay fans…but then again, maybe not according to this article.  

In the four years since being forced off the professional tour for being gay, Daniel Bottega has taught tennis at a second-rate country club. He found a sanctuary to hide from an unkind world, while his lover, Jared Stoderling, fought a losing battle with alcohol addiction to cope with his disappointment of not playing on the pro circuit.

Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor’s doubles partner.

Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor’s career in tennis, Jared’s love for Daniel, and Daniel’s very life.

You can read an excerpt here.

Cover Art: the cover art is both specific and generic. Tennis racquet, tennis ball, stadium tiers, so the cover fits the content, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the story otherwise. If it were a print book sitting on the shelf, I wouldn’t be able to guess its genre without reading the blurb.

What did I think?    As I first sat down to write about Match Maker, the 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Final was playing in the background. Given the characters of MM, the French Open might’ve been more apropos. If I hadn’t already been sold on this book by virtue of the tennis setting alone, early on it is revealed that David’s favorite tournament is the French Open. He and his protégé are fans of the terre battue. Which made me all *heart eyes* because my favorite part of the tennis season begins in Monte Carlo and ends in Paris.

The set up: readers first meet David at work. He’s the tennis pro at a small club, watching a challenger match, knowing what’s about to happen. Connor Lin, an American-born Chinese teenager, is losing badly despite his talent and skill, but Daniel sees huge potential in him, if only he can master the mental part of the game. Imagine David’s surprise when his club (specifically David) is offered the chance to coach Connor and work on his mental game. Why David? Because he is half Chinese himself and Connor’s family wants an Asian coach. Thus begins a coach/mentor/friend relationship that changes both of their lives, professionally and personally.

After David and Connor meet, the narrative backtracks a bit, and readers learn how David began playing tennis; about his family’s history; how he met and fell in love with Jared; and how they were blackballed from the professional tennis circuit because of their sexuality. Then back to the present, full of training and strategizing, along with the travel and match play that comes with the life of a tennis player on the tour. The narrative style didn’t bother me, but some of Chin’s prose was, well, a little florid. There were times when I itched for a red pen, even as I enjoyed the overall story.

This book is not a romance novel. By definition, a romance novel is supposed to focus on the relationship of the primary couple, and while Jared and David’s relationship is part of what goes on, it is a small, small part of the story told. In fact, Jared and David share relatively little page space, which is fortunate, because it is the weakest part of the book IMO. Much more time is devoted to David’s development of Connor as a player and a young man, and his own issues, which begin only with his professional frustration and morph into something much larger after a confrontation with a homophobe in Miami.

Chin either knows and loves tennis, or he did an immense amount of research, and it shows. He knows about the scheduling, the tournaments, the tiers, the drug testing, the sponsorship deals and pressure to perform, and the media scrutiny of the top players, and it’s all there in the book. The current real top players are there, too, with names changed, but there as competitors for Jared and Connor to face on court. There are a couple of places where I had to roll my eyes, though. First, some numbers. Two million Americans watching ESPN for the quarter final of the French Open? I don’t think so. First, the French is usually aired on tape delay; second, tennis ratings are horrendous even for the US Open, let alone the French. And 32,000 cheering? Not from Chatrier or Lenglen; the largest tennis court in the world is Arthur Ashe, and it seats only 23,000. Second, the wild card situation. After a promising start, Jared & Connor are reliant on wild cards into the European clay court season in order to get their ranking up and not have to qualify into the French Open. But when David and Jared offend the ATP president by being out rather than quietly gay, the wild cards suddenly are revoked. While I have no doubt that the ATP president could influence a tournament’s decision about to whom to give a wild card, they aren’t controlled by the ATP but by the tournament and once given generally aren’t revoked without reason. [Please thank Ana Ivanovic and the Canada Open wild card brouhaha for my knowledge of this process.] This is a little picky of me, but the revocation is a huge deal, plot wise, so it stuck in my mind.

Gender and family in MM:
I felt ambivalent about the portrayal of women in MM. The strongest women in the novel were criticized overtly or implicitly as being unladylike, while the more positively described women were either in traditional maternal roles or ethereal presences with little impact on the plot. On the other hand, family and their expectations and impacts are quite significant. Would Connor be playing tennis at all but for the persistence of his father, who sees him as a golden goose? Although David has relatively little interaction with his own family, Connor’s family, particularly his grandfather, has a huge influence on David and on Connor, in terms of motivating them both and giving them a support network when things go bad.

The Romance:
To be honest, the romance is the weakest part of Match Maker. It suffers because there’s so much else going on, but also because Jared isn’t a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. Empathetic, yes, but he spends a lot of time being a monumental jerk with an ego the size of Center Court, wallowing in his own misery, and David lets it go because he’s been done wrong by the ATP and life.

Language quibbles: prospective /= perspective, they are not interchangeable; and referring to the players as gladiators — what a sports cliche, must it be overused even here?

SPOILERISH LINK here: Midway through the book, something happens that changes David permanently, and it also changes the focus of the book a bit, in terms of David’s simultaneous coaching of Connor and Jared. In a bit of serendipity, at about the same time I was reading MM, a similarly situated real life person was making headlines and appearing on magazine covers.

Ultimately, I would probably give this book a qualified recommendation. If you like tennis-set books, you’ll probably enjoy Match Maker. And if you are looking for Asian characters in gay fiction, you’ll enjoy Connor’s family.

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