Did you know that former world no. 1 tennis player and nine-time major champion Monica Seles has written the first two volumes of a young-adult romance series? It’s true! The series is called The Academy. It’s set in a boarding school for athletes, and it’s a little like an EDM-conscious Catcher in the Rye crossed with a less vampirey Vampire Academy — only not like that, not even remotely. I discovered the first book, Game On, in the U.S. Open bookstore last year. This year, I read the second book, Love Match, on the train to New York for the tournament. Over the past week in Flushing Meadows, I was privileged to watch some of the world’s best tennis players, impossibly perfect young athletes striving for an unattainable standard of excellence. My thoughts kept turning back to the books, where the athletes also fully make out.
Well. The world, I think you’ll agree, has waited long enough to hear the opinions, the feelings, and — most importantly — the judgments of a thirtysomething male sportswriter on this YA series aimed at girls a little too young for the Twilight books. Herewith, therefore, 62 scalding takeaways from The Academy, by M. Seles,1 Books 1 and 2.
1. This sentence: “‘Only you can know how crappy that feels,’ Maya said, empathizing.”
2. This sentence: “Maya carefully stepped out of the Porsche Cayenne Turbo.”
3. This sentence: “She needed to hit up a lingerie store.”
4. These sentences: “‘True,’ Maya agreed. ‘But the heart does not keep to a clock.’”
5. The fact that the Academy is a pristinely manicured 600-acre private high school that trains über-elite athletes in all sports, from tennis to golf to soccer to football; that it features “million-dollar villas” and a “cluster of stores” ranging from “Hermes and Versace to Prada and Manolo Blahnik”; yet that it is never given a name beyond “the Academy,” as if Game of Thrones were set in a vast fantasy kingdom known only as “Map,” or the Harry Potter series took place in a magical castle called “School.”
6. That getting into the Academy requires “an obscene amount of talent or an obscene amount of cash,” and our heroine, Maya Hart — tall, blonde, anxious Maya; good-hearted Maya, 16 and innocent, the Cinderella of this particular turbo-charged carriage — is here on talent, her family being “more or less broke,” or, to use the books’ preferred nomenclature, “from Syracuse.”
7. That the owner/headmaster of the Academy is Nails Reed, the retired three-time Super Bowl MVP for the … although Nails is a major character and arguably even the co-antagonist of the series, we never actually learn what team he played for.
8. That we never actually learn almost any sports-related information in the books, including stuff like “who Maya’s tennis coach is” and “anything whatsoever about the rules of tennis,” tennis mostly being confined to deep background in a drama whose surface-level theme is succinctly stated at the end of Book 1, Chapter 10: “If dating were a sport, she’d be a world champion.”
9. That the tennis that does make it into the books is in some cases bafflingly misdescribed, cf. the tournament semifinal Maya loses when the umpire dramatically yells “In!” after she’s passed by the winning shot.
10. That, really, this is not necessarily such a flaw in a book aimed at 14-year-old girls, although if I were a 14-year-old girl who liked sports and picked this up thinking a novel by a legendary female tennis player would not mostly exist to make me nervous about boys and dresses, I could see being initially a little bummed out.
11. E.g., that two of the climactic somewhat-tennis-related moments in the books involve (a) Maya auditioning for a part as a tennis player in a movie, and (b) Maya auditioning for a tennis-related modeling gig for a line of court-to-club activewear by the renowned designer Esteban.
12. Further e.g., that at one point we read about Maya’s technique for exiting a car outside a nightclub without giving the paparazzi a chance to take upskirt photos, but at no point do we read anything about her backhand, which I guess arguably says something kind of dark and sad about the presumed fantasy life of American girls in 2014, although on the other hand, that Esteban tennis dress does sound really fricking comfortable.
13. This sports-related sentence: “Water wouldn’t be enough to restock the electrolytes she’d lost in that game.”
14. Which continues: “She knew she should get away from the area, but nothing would quench her thirst like one of the energy drinks they served at the cafe beside the courts.”
15. That Nails Reed’s son Travis is clean-cut, responsible, considerate, one of the best high school quarterbacks in America, “the most beautiful specimen of man [Maya] had ever seen,” also a student at the Academy, and — promise me you won’t freak, but — totally into Maya.
16. That Nails Reed’s other son, Jake, is cocky, unpredictable, a little dangerous, a little violent, the driver of a “black ’68 Firebird,” also hot, also a student at the Academy, and — seriously, have a fan at the ready — ALSO TOTALLY INTO MAYA.
17. That Maya and Jake’s meet-cute in Book 1, Chapter 2 involves a locked-out-of-her-dorm-room, post-shower Maya clutching a towel around herself while Jake staggers out of the room of the girl across the hall and offers to make out with her.
18. That Jake is then described in the following manner, instantly reordering the literary pantheon of depictions of turned-up rumpledness: “From the head to the clothes, everything about him looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. A sexy bed, but a bed nonetheless.”
19. A SEXY BED.
20. BUT A BED NONETHELESS.
21. That it is also maybe worth noting that Jake has, literally, just rolled out of a bed where he was having sex.
22. That many of the books’ other major world attributes are as curiously undefined as the Academy: The ESPN-ish sports news channel is called, uh, Sports News Channel, and all sports and celebrity gossip runs through a website known only as the Wall.
23. That this is in contrast to the specific and exhaustive notation of brands that runs throughout the series, which is full of asides about “Travis’s Mercedes Roadster” and “the agony of wearing a pair of Ottaviano shoes” and “a Michael Kors dress, a Cartier tank watch, a Chanel bag” and “a stunning blue Vivienne Westwood cocktail dress,” until you feel like you’re inhabiting a sense-environment where anything that isn’t a luxury brand is drained of character and life, as though the Academy is Jurassic Park, you’re the T. rex, and only the Jimmy Choo sandals are moving.
24. That Maya’s nemesis is a tennis phenom named Nicole King, a “Latina from Los Angeles” who is already a top-10 player at 17, who buys a new car after every tournament, and who repeatedly manipulates and betrays Maya, sometimes tricking the Reed brothers into helping her, sometimes leaking salacious details about Maya’s personal life to the Wall.
25. That only Maya can know how crappy this feels, he wrote, empathizing.
26. That if you’re keeping score at home, this means we now have the makings of a YA romance series combining elements of Harry Potter (boarding school for kids with a rare and amazing gift), Twilight (#teamedward vs. #teamjacob–style love triangle involving “nice,” respectful vampire/quarterback and bad-boy werewolf/linebacker), Gossip Girl (gossip, caring about shoes), and The Hunger Games.
27. That, OK, not really The Hunger Games. Although one of Maya’s friends does have an eating disorder!
28. A sexy eating disorder, but an eating disorder nonetheless.
29. That at one point, when Travis is trying to persuade Maya to be his girlfriend, not realizing that she has just last night spent three hours making out, topless, with Jake, he offers her this as a carrot: “They’ll give us a nickname like Traya or Mavis.”
30. Wait, sorry, that was a spoiler, the making-out-with-Jake thing.
31. On the other hand: Traya. Mavis.
32. That here’s an even bigger spoiler: Maya eventually decides she’s ready to go all the way with Jake, but Nicole tricks Jake into thinking Maya is secretly back with Travis, so that when Maya shows up at Jake’s hotel-room door, the day before her big movie audition, wearing amazing lingerie, and OK, wearing it under her clothes, but still, lingerie she’s bought for the occasion, for this moment she’s dreamed of for so long, this moment that’s about to change her life, when she summons her courage and knocks, whom does she meet in the doorway but Nicole, wearing Jake’s favorite bar-code T-shirt … and nothing else.
33. That it’s not like love isn’t confusing for 30-year-olds.
34. This, Maya’s description of a sports blogger: “He’s probably some loser who lives in his mother’s basement watching the Golf Channel all day.”
35. That at one point Maya is so stunned by the sight of the shirtless, gleaming Travis that she drops her cell phone into a ball machine, whereupon it goes rocketing through the air and smashes into Nicole’s brand-new Aston Martin.
36. That Maya’s best friend/roommate is a punk Chinese golfer named Cleo, who discovers during the course of the first book that she is gay.
37. That no one makes a big deal out of this discovery except (understandably, and only for a little while) Cleo herself.
38. That Maya’s other best friend is a French South African swimmer named Renee, who is beautiful, rich, dressed to the nines, and hated by every girl on campus except Maya and Cleo (and, complexly, Nicole, with whom she shares a “million-dollar villa”) because she is so extremely not hated by the guys.
39. That Renee and Cleo interestingly complicate the series’ predominant anxiety-about-self-allayed-by-landing-a-modeling-gig theme, because whenever Maya’s life gets too Kardashianized, there’s always a very important friendship talk to be had about “realness” and staying true to yourself and being there for the people who knew you before.
40. This moment: “Jake laughed. ‘Those aren’t your real eyelashes?’”
41. That these talks about “realness” are invariably capstoned by Maya remembering that she came to the Academy to become a champion, not to become a celebrity, and rededicating herself to tennis, spending a page or so blowing through a couple of weeks of intensive, makeup-less training in such a way that this reader couldn’t help but imagine a pretty stirring montage set to Katy Perry.
42. That “realness,” as defined by the author, M. Seles, is inevitably contrasted with “image,” and that by a strange but not exactly uncommon bit of magic, “image” winds up being the locus of the book’s appeal to the reader’s fantasies while “realness” forms the core of its moral lesson.
43. That there is thus a Sopranos-like thing happening here in which you are encouraged moment by moment to enjoy behavior you are ultimately expected to judge as wrong, or — minidresses not quite rising to the level of actual homicide — at least wrong-ish.
44. That one of the “realest” moments conjured up by M. Seles during the course of the narrative comes totally out of nowhere in Book 2, when Maya calls home and talks to her dad, and he says he’s fine, only she can tell by his voice that he’s hurt his back again, and she knows this will knock the wind out of his struggling lawn-mowing business, and she’s suddenly desperately worried about making money.
45. That the first time you read it, this scene maybe almost made you cry a little bit, because the heart does not keep to a clock.
46. That the entire sequence only becomes more poignant if you are familiar with the basic outline of the life of M. Seles, her relationship with her father, her father’s death from cancer, etc. etc.
47. That the other fascinating thing about the books’ image/realness dichotomy is that, consistently, it’s good-boy Travis who’s associated with “image” and bad-boy Jake who’s associated with “realness,” leaving little doubt through two volumes that Maya is really supposed to be with Jake, even though she wants “to cover [Travis] in tiny kisses.”
48. That it’s not like wanting to cover other people in tiny kisses isn’t confusing for 30-year-olds.
49. That it feels a little weird, if it’s been a few karmic cycles since you were last a teenage girl, to creep along spying on these imaginary kids’ imaginary love lives.
50. (Or it does, anyway, until you realize that M. Seles is herself actually a bit older than you and that her cowriters are both men whose ages land them squarely in the category of grown-assed.)
51. (At which point the whole idea of what is and is not creepy kind of flies out the window.)
52. This text, which Maya sends to Travis: “lol! u 2!”
53. That at a certain point you start to wonder if maybe what’s dark and sad about these books is not cynicism but lyricism, i.e., not that the authors are trying to prey on girls’ anxieties about brands and money and bodies but that these are in fact the authors’ own true anxieties and they only happen to approximate a teen-girl imagination matrix.
54. That this only becomes more poignant if you are familiar with M. Seles’s autobiographical writings, which cover her own struggles with body image, lack of confidence, etc.
55. That at a certain point you start to wonder if maybe we are all, on some level, teenage girls, and it occurs to you that in fact actual teenage girls are probably better equipped than you are to take what is legitimately fun and awesome about these books and filter out all the dark, sad stuff, which you start to perceive as something that’s happening exclusively between you and M. Seles, as adults.
56. That your own heart was broken in 1996, by your high school girlfriend, while you were home from college for Christmas, and that after this happened you suffered terrible insomnia for two weeks, and those two weeks happened to coincide with the Australian Open, and so that was how you first fell in love with tennis, staying up all night watching Monica Seles win that tournament.
57. That for a whole year after that, you maybe kind of almost thought you were in love with Monica Seles.
58. That it’s all true. Only you can know how crappy it feels. The heart does not keep to a clock. Water won’t be enough to restock the electrolytes you’ve lost.
59. That we still don’t know, at the end of Book 2, whether Maya will choose Jake or Travis; that Maya still hasn’t played Nicole in a meaningful tennis match; that Maya still hasn’t won a tournament or gone all the way with anyone; that all the big questions remain unresolved, as usual.
60. That it’s not like anything is ever not complicated.
61. That this is all set in Florida.