When the telephone rang in London on Tuesday morning the clock read 8:30, a reasonable hour for a father to call his daughter and wish her good luck in her upcoming tennis match. "Molly," he told her, "the way you're playing, you can beat anyone in the world." And then King Van Nostrand, calling long distance from his home on Long Island, put down the phone and did the sensible thing to do at 3:30 a.m. He went back to sleep.
Five hours later his phone rang; it was Molly calling. She really could beat anyone in the world. Just now, way out on Court 7, with her mother Boots watching, she'd beaten Manuela Maleeva, the fourth-ranked woman in the world, 7-5, 6-2. Maleeva didn't scare her at all, hadn't shown her a thing. And now here she was, unknown 20-year-old Molly Van Nostrand, No. 155 on the computer and a qualifier no less, just an afterthought to the main draw -- Molly Van Nostrand, who'd had an operation on her left foot in March, hadn't played a tournament since and wasn't sure she'd come here at all -- here she was in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. "Like a dream," she was saying, beaming as she tugged excitedly on her strawberry-blond ponytail. "Like a dream."
She held on tight to her mother as they walked from the court.
Like a dream.
A tennis family, the Van Nostrands. King -- sure, the name may not make those high school math students he teaches stand up and salute, but don't tell me it isn't a natural for the royal box here -- is the top-ranked American, 50-and-over division. Boots teaches the game. Their four children all played on the college level, and when Boots was asked how big an influence she'd been in helping them develop their games, she smiled and said, "Let's put it this way: All my children, their first big win was their mother."
All her children.
Yes. Now for the sad part.
John, the second son, turned tennis pro in 1983. He was a handsome boy, so much so that he was a model as well as a tennis player; he'd taken screen tests, and there was talk of commercials. But tennis came first. On April 15, 1984 he was on his way to a satellite tournament in Mexico, driving with fellow pro Joe Heldmann on Highway 120 toward San Luis Potosi, when their car failed to negotiate a sharp curve and finally stopped falling some 600 feet down the side of a ravine. John Van Nostrand chose that particular tournament to pick up needed points for Wimbledon; before leaving for Mexico, he reportedly told his agent, "I've got to make Wimbledon."
If he made it, he and Molly planned to enter the mixed doubles together.
Like a dream.
Instead, Molly Van Nostrand came to Wimbledon alone and lost her qualifying match.
"Tennis is a very big part of our lives," Boots said softly. "But every time we got on a court we were reminded of John. Let's put it this way: Molly tried to play, but she really couldn't for six or eight months."
Even now, more than one year later, it's difficult for Molly to discuss her brother. She was asked about him today, after her stunning victory, when she should have been too numb to feel pain. But of course, it was still there. She gritted her teeth and said, "It was hard on all of us." Then, her eyes clouded over and she begged off: "I really don't want to talk about it."
But Tuesday, away from the glare, she said: "It was very difficult playing. For a while there, I just wanted to win for him. It got in my way. I was playing horribly, I was trying so hard. Now I feel he's there with me, but the pain has eased a bit. I still want to win for him, but there's not the same pressure."
Of the 16 players left competing in singles here, Van Nostrand is the least likely. Her lasting through four rounds is more of a surprise than is the other qualifier in the quarters, Ricardo Acuna, the 133rd-ranked man, for surely Van Nostrand had further to come. It is one thing to, as tennis players say, "get in the zone" for a week or so, and hit BBs. But it is quite another to do it coming off corrective surgery on your foot and not having played a match in more than three months. This is Wimbledon. A player is supposed to build respectfully to this crescendo, not just walk in and do better here than she'd done anyplace else so far in her brief and decidedly uninspiring (three times reaching the quarters in 34 tournaments) career.
"I almost didn't come," she said. "A couple of weeks, I couldn't even run. My doctor said I should go. My physical therapist said I shouldn't." She giggled and said, "My dad said to go because I'd probably play less here than I would at home."
Another giggle. If you're going to be cheeky, why not do it in England? "I had to start somewhere. I felt this was as good a place as any."
By making the quarters, she has already assured herself $19,135, not only her biggest payday yet, but more money than she has made, total, as a pro. She next draws Zina Garrison, the eighth seed. Once again, as they have throughout the tournament -- and as they especially did against Maleeva -- the odds don't favor someone ranked 155th, no matter what the surface is: grass, clay or eggshells. But Van Nostrand is healthy for the first time in her career, aggressive, confident and looser than an old fan belt.
Her father, who's afraid to come see her for fear he'd jinx her, says the way she's playing, she can beat anyone in the world. Her mother says, "Now that she's healthy, there's no stopping her." And she's saying, "I'm getting less nervous as I go along, even though I'm playing bigger players. I never expected to get this far, so I've got nothing to lose." So who could blame her for dreaming?