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Book World: For Serena fans, ‘Carrie Soto Is Back’ imagines a happy postscript

Carrie Soto is Back  (Ballantine)
By Carol Memmott Special To The Washington Post

What timing! Just as Serena Williams announces her retirement from tennis, a new novel arrives that imagines a different scenario. While the star of “Carrie Soto Is Back” isn’t quite Serena Williams – who could be? – she is a tennis legend facing the end of her career. The book imagines the comeback Serena’s fans might have hoped for.

On one level, the title refers to an out-of-shape former competitor who craves a comeback. On another, it’s inspired by the Elton John song “The Bitch Is Back,” one of Carrie’s anthems. Her story encapsulates how female athletes have been historically disrespected by some sportswriters and fans. In Carrie’s case, her haters revel in calling her the B-word.

Carrie is the daughter of a celebrated Argentine tennis champion. She began moving up the tennis ladder in the 1970s, at age 13. By 17, she was the No. 10 player in the world. At 29, she won her 20th Grand Slam event, setting the world record for the most singles Slam titles. Carrie revels in victory: “I was now the most decorated tennis player by nearly every measure. Most Grand Slam singles ever. Most weeks at number one for any player in the history of the tour. Most singles titles, most aces over the course of a career. Most years ending number one. Highest-paid female athlete of all time.”

But Carrie’s left knee is shot. She takes time off to heal, and when she returns to the game in 1988, she can’t win. In 1989, at 31, she retires. Five years later, she decides on a comeback because Nicki Chan has tied her Grand Slam record. Carrie wants her record back, so she enters the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The final pulse-pounding match, serendipitously, takes place at the 1995 U.S. Open.

Carrie undertakes months of brutal training sessions, not just to get her game back, but to make it even better. Coached by her father and buoyed by workouts with Bowe Huntley, a male player who’s lost his mojo, Carrie prepares herself for war.

“Carrie Soto” (available Aug. 30) is like other sports novels in which underdogs punch, volley, bat and birdie their way to victory or additional defeat, but it goes beyond this to explore sexism and racism in the tennis world in the 1990s. Yes, things have changed since then. No, that doesn’t make Carrie’s story feel dated or read like a polemic. The vitriol spewed by the novel’s antagonists, who want us to believe that women’s ambition and hunger for greatness are unfeminine, still sounds like today.

While fans and sportswriters are rooting for Bowe to fight his way back to the winner’s circle, Carrie isn’t treated as kindly. Bowe’s racket-throwing tantrums are overlooked, while Carrie remains disliked for what many see as her cold and calculating demeanor. Commentators say she’s more like a machine than a woman. Her main rival, Nicki, is subject to the same type of criticism. Nicki – dubbed “The Beast” – is in the news as much for her wins as she is for her “brash and loud” style and the “incredible violence” – read unfeminine – of her serves and groundstrokes. The parallels to the commentary about Serena Williams and other female players (in all sports) ring, sadly, true.

Even if you’re not a tennis fan, this novel will grab you. You’ll tear through blow-by-blow descriptions of championship matches on some of the most famous tennis courts in the world. Equally entrancing is the audio version. Close your eyes and your head will move right and left, and left and right, as you envision the racket-breaking matches between Carrie and her rivals.

This is not the first time Reid has written about women and the perils of fame.

Her past novels have focused on Hollywood legends, supermodels and elite surfers. “Daisy Jones & The Six,” which Reid says was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, is being adapted as a TV series by Reese Witherspoon’s production company and Amazon Studios. But “Carrie Soto’s” deep dive into women’s tennis may be the most ambitious.

It’s the perfect novel to close out your summer, and whether Carrie defeats Nicki Chan is almost secondary.

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin, Texas.