So really, through much of his life, tennis had been something Tony could take or leave. And why anyone would be interested in watching complete strangers play it was not something he had understood.
But Pepper was. She didn’t even play the game, or at least, she said, she’d never played it very well. But she tried to get to the US Open for at least one day each year, watched the other three slams on TV, and even other smaller events, and often when they were traveling together he saw her checking scores on her phone. When they started dating, one of the first things he did was look into getting them the best seats for the 2011 US Open. Although when he told her what he was doing, she laughed and said, “The US Open isn’t Wimbledon. Just buy us tickets to Ashe for the big days. Not even necessarily the finals, either; I’m not sure how far Roger Federer’s going to get and I want to see him.”
Later, there would be photos circulating of the two of them, Tony Stark and his company CEO and girlfriend, first hanging about in the rain, hoping to be able to watch the men’s quarterfinals, then of them coming back the next day when they were finally on. Watching tennis consumed a lot of time, Pepper ruefully noted, but she seemed to feel it was worth it. It no doubt entertained a lot of people, Tony thought when he looked at those photos, to see her looking absolutely enthralled by Federer versus Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, while next to her, if he didn’t look absolutely bored, he clearly didn’t find it quite as interesting. Although he did admit that Swiss guy could do some pretty gorgeous things with a tennis ball. Pepper was very gleeful when she got that out of him.
In fact, he thought he really made her month when he managed to arrange for her to meet Federer. All the way there she gushed, and while she wouldn’t actually allow herself to do that while in his company, she didn’t really manage the calm, cool and collected stance she liked to have around stranger celebrities either. He presented them both with an autographed tennis ball and all three of them posed for more pictures. “I ever design something you have use for and Stark Industries will be happy to join your sponsors,” Tony told him, but he just laughed and said, “Thank you, but I don’t think that’s too likely to happen.”
“Should I be worried?” he asked Pepper after they’d said goodbye. “I mean, that guy is pretty handsome, to the point where I have no qualms about saying that, and he really was nice.”
“Oh no, not at all,” she assured him. “He’s married, and honestly, if he ever split from his wife, I’d have to take her side, because she’s that awesome.”
She pointed Miroslava Federer out to him in the player’s box when they returned to watch the semi-finals. Tony had thankfully learned by then not to voice his thoughts when his reaction to seeing someone’s girlfriend or wife was to think he’d expected her to be hotter. Meanwhile, it kind of worried him how invested Pepper got in the epic five-set battle that Federer’s match against Novak Djokovic turned out to be. At one point she was even screaming and shaking her fists, and Tony just hoped to God the cameras somehow missed it. It didn’t help that Federer then went and lost the match, and she looked so crushed he decided to see if he could get her introduced to someone else.
But ultimately, she didn’t need him to set up the meeting she’d wanted. The following March, he found herself tagging along with him to Indian Wells, where they were having another tennis tournament, and she somehow went and got himself introduced to the surprisingly reclusive Mrs. Federer. He didn’t get to be with them for that one, but she came home talking about how much the two of them had in common, the way she only did when she ran into a woman who earned her most supreme respect. That led to the two of them sitting in the player’s box themselves for the final. When her husband won the trophy, Pepper leaned over and said, “So, Mirka, does us being here qualify as good luck?”
She smirked, and said, “Maybe.”
Had it only been the two of them, maybe they would’ve gotten themselves into the box for a couple of US Open matches. But by then, Tony had four fellow Avengers who had stayed on Earth, and he was determined to take them out to Queen’s, where he himself was grateful to go by then; since the whole shit with the aliens had went down he’d never felt comfortable when in Manhattan, even now when the debris was mostly cleaned up. It was disappointing enough when Rhodey finally had to tell him he wasn’t going to make it. It was still difficult for the six of them to get a date where they’d all be free, but they finally managed it on Labor Day. En route there, they learned that while neither Steve or Bruce had been to the US Open before, Natasha had once. “Mission related,” she said. “Still I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I like tennis. I’ve even taught it.” She refused to go into details at the time.
Then there was Clint. Tennis might not be the same thing as archery, and he was eventually pushed to admit that Natasha was a better player than him, but he might have been an even bigger fan than Pepper. It proved him rather than her who told them what to look out for that day, and at one point he even dragged Natasha and Pepper out onto the grounds to watch someone practice; Tony didn’t catch who. They were back, however, to watch Andy Roddick’s career end on Ashe. Pepper had a tear in her eye. Clint, too, was obviously affected as he leaned over and said to Natasha, “Our to del Petro, like Safin.” Natasha nodded, but she really didn’t look as moved.
“You know,” Clint commented to Tony a minute or so later, “I think you would’ve liked Safin.”
“If you say so,” shrugged Tony.
They’d gotten tickets for the night as well as the day session, which had seemed like a perfect idea at the time, but turned out to cause a problem when it turned out Clint really supported Tomas Berdych, and Pepper was quite appalled to hear he was going to cheer for him over Federer that night. Tony was pretty sure that was even why, when Clint also announced he was cheering for Ana Ivanovic over Serena Williams’ in the night’s first match, Pepper accused him of being sexist, and proceeded to lord it over him when Serena won pretty well. It even limited Tony’s ability to enjoy it, and when he’d actually taken a liking to watching Serena’s power; he’d even let himself be interviewed at Indian Wells expressing a wish she’d let the past go and lift her boycott of that tournament.
Really, by the time Federer and Berdych took the court, he was just praying the former would win quickly. Naturally, the latter won instead, and didn’t even have the decency, when it looked like he was going to put them out of their misery in three sets, to actually do so; no, he had to suddenly get nervous and lose the third set, get Pepper clenching her fists and grinning at Clint, and also at Natasha, who by then had joined in on her partner’s side, and get her hopes up, before they got crushed. It left Clint with the last laugh, Natasha possibly even more smug, Pepper depressed, Steve and Bruce dismayed by the behavior of all three, and Tony quite irritated at both players.
The whole affair had an arguably entertaining coda when Tony and Bruce went alone Saturday. Well, the day itself wasn’t so entertaining, because while the first semi-final was good, the second and everything else got more or less rained out, but his appearing at the event without Pepper for the first time combined with her looking so upset at the end Monday night sent two different tabloids speculating about whether they were breaking up. They’d been doing that since the news about their being a couple had first spread around(the first time anyone had really noticed Pepper’s existence, of course), and half a year ago it wouldn’t have been so entertaining, because she would’ve been mad. But since then they’d both moved into a phase of life where such things were distantly amusing, and instead of ranting and being upset and threatening to sue, Pepper had speculated on who they might try to say Tony was cheating with her on(“Natasha’s an obvious choice, but she might not be famous enough; they might try to pair you with some movie stars”). They tossed names about while watching the finals over the next two nights.
In 2013 it proved impossible to get everyone together, because Bruce was unavailable the first week and Clint and Natasha were unavailable the second, so they did multiple small group trips. Clint and Pepper mended fences while cheering on Serena’s demolishing of a past French Open champion opening night(“Never forgave her for beating Sammy Stosur,” Clint explained) before they all got caught in yet more rain, and he and Natasha even managed to cheer her up even though the rain cost them the chance to see Federer. It was the two them and Tony alone a few nights later, where he got his first experience watching Gael Monfils, and wondered why it had taken him so long to learn of the existence of such a brilliant player; he was sorely disappointed when the boring American beat him(he didn’t care if the guy had played an eleven-hour match once; he was still boring).
Steve unexpectedly dropped in to join him. Pepper, and Rhodey, who was finally in town, Sunday, and shocked her by saying he was bored. Honestly, Bruce watching Serena double-bagel some poor Spanish woman two days later looked bored too, but he wisely avoided saying so.
It was thanks to Bruce that for the final they made it into a US Open’s player’s box, kind of. He had apparently met and befriended Novak Djokovic at some event or other, and he, Tony, Pepper, and Rhodey got invitations to watch the final as his guests. There wasn’t room for them in the literal box(Djokovic had a big family), but it was still the best seats they’d ever gotten. Pepper even cheered for the Serb, and it was the first time Tony had ever seen her do that. Sadly, he didn’t win, but he sent at email to Bruce afterwards telling him not to be disappointed because what Bruce himself did was more important.
Pepper apparently had to have a conversation with Mirka afterwards. “It’s okay,” she told Tony. “I smoothed things out. We’re still welcome in their box in Indian Wells next year.”
On the first Friday of the 2014 US Open, finally everyone was available, including Thor. By then, “everyone” meant the Avengers, Pepper, Rhodey, Steve’s new buddy, and Thor’s girlfriend and her pair of interns. Most of the newcomers knew absolutely nothing about tennis, and Darcy Lewis didn’t know that much more, but they had a great day, with Clint being made happy by both Berdych and Sara Errani winning during the day(and everyone ultimately laughing over the craziness of that second match even though Pepper was a little sad Venus Williams had lost), and everyone also made happy when Federer won during the night session.
Three days later Tony was able to return with Rhodey, Bruce, and Natasha, and they were able to watch the Williams sisters play doubles and also see Monfils win(although Natasha was openly unimpressed by the latter. “Clint likes him, though,” she commented.) He didn’t make it there for the rest of the week, though other members of their group did. Thor even managed to have meetings with some of the top players, mostly, Tony thought, because the thought of meeting the God of Thunder was more than most of them could resist. The world got to enjoy photos of Serena Williams shamelessly clutching his arm, him and Rafa Nadal posing together(that one no doubt made a few women faint), and him and Roger Federer looking very chummy while his older set of twins climbed about the Asgardian’s shoulders. Tony kind of regretted not getting to sit in on that last meeting; he seriously wondered how eternal diplomat Federer had reacted to meeting a royal alien.
Thor might not have known much about tennis at the beginning of the week, but he spoke high praises indeed for it and for the warriors who partook in it by the end. Several of his more amusing quotes also ran in the media. Tony’s personal favorite was the one where he spoke of being moved by hearing about Andy Murray’s “rising his long-suffering country out of its age of suffering and defeat, until at last they can feast and drink again, even if Murray can not fully participate because he does not gluten.”
But the thing that would end up sticking in his memories long afterwards was a single photo, snapped that Sunday, when he finally made it back, as did everyone else except Dr. Foster and her interns. They all more or less agreed to cheer for the Americans, meaning Serena and the Bryan brothers doubles team, both of whom hit milestones when they won. The photo’s caption didn’t specify quite when it had been taken, but Tony thought it was probably right after Serena had run away with the first set. He looked at Steve and he sitting next to each other talking, he couldn’t even remember about what anymore, Pepper and Sam Wilson delightedly clapping, Rhodey having so big a smile it made Tony’s heart ache, Natasha leaning over and whispering something to Clint to make him chuckle, Thor leaning forward and looking weirdly awed, and Bruce just looking relaxed. Even after the difficult year they’d all had thanks to Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D., he would be made aware of how happy they had all been those two weeks.
The first half of 2015 was pretty good too. He and Pepper were present for the return of Serena to Indian Wells, of course, and while he had technically met King T’Challa before, when he showed up, it ended up being the first time he was able to have a real conversation with him. The King was a longtime fan of both tennis and the Williams sisters; he even was involved in the Wakandan Open, the country’s annual event, and tennis’ biggest tournament in Africa, at which they both were regulars. He told Tony stories of watching the two sisters from their earliest years, of being in the stands for their Wimbledon victories, of even working with Serena’s foundation for educating people.
It was largely thanks to him that Tony and Pepper finally made it to Wimbledon that July; flying to England with tickets for the final Saturday. By then, of course, meeting with him was also partly an exercise in diplomacy and dealing with the fallout of the Hulk’s rampage through his nation’s capital. Even so, Pepper was in seventh heaven almost from the moment they stepped through the gates of the All-England Club. It took them longer than expected to make it to their seats in the Royal Box, because she wanted to see *everything* first. When they finally showed up fashionably late, T’Challa grinned to see the look on her face. Of course Pepper, as was her wont, managed to make use of the fact that her fangirl excitement had charmed him. After Serena had won, she took him off during the men’s doubles final, and he came back before she did, and spoke to Tony of how incredible his woman was.
“She even says,” he said, “that she wants me to sit with you for the ladies final of the US Open, where Serena may well finally win the Grand Slam.”
“Of course she will!” Tony exclaimed, confused as to his having any doubt. “She’s got three of them already, and really, who’s going to beat her? Sharapova?”
Those three tickets ended up being the only ones anyone related to the Avengers got for the 2015 US Open. By the time the tournament rolled around, half of the group was barely on speaking terms with the other half, if that, and while Tony and Pepper both called Natasha to ask if she wanted to go, she made pretty clear she didn’t. “It was Clint’s kids she was doing the teaching of tennis to, you know,” said Pepper. “Watching it’s probably painful to her right now.”
So it was just going to be the two of them and the King of Wakanda, Tony thought, watching something that they all could’ve celebrated had it only happened a year ago. Maybe some of the others would watch on TV, though. Maybe they’d all be happy about the same thing. It was a silly thing, but in these hard days, it was something. Except that the camera would probably show the three of them at some point, and that was going to be one time Tony would wish it had ignored him.
When, during a long and painful Friday, Pepper looked at her phone and saw the results of the semi-finals, she shook her head. “We should have known better. Nothing’s ever going right anymore.” They were aware Serena losing a tennis match was not an appropriate reason to feel despair, but they did anyway.
So the final was two Italian women instead, but they’d bought the tickets, so they went anyway. All three of them wished they hadn’t when some probably racist asshole recognized T’Challa and taunted him about how stupid he looked when the woman he had come for had lost. They watched someone Tony knew nothing about and T'Challa didn't know much about either win her first and last slam, and Pepper declared afterwards that this had been worth watching, but Tony still wished they hadn’t come.
They did get to watch Serena win together again, this time at the Wakandan Open in February, where they saw the city doing well in its recovery, and she herself expressed her happiness for that during the victory ceremony, where T’Challa himself presented her with the trophy. But that trip they ended up regretting even more; the medias of both their countries decided to object, and the fallout was just awful. Just another thing that by then had spiraled beyond Tony’s control.
After that, not even the news of Venus following her sister back couldn’t tempt them to go anywhere near Indian Wells. Especially when by then there was a doping scandal in progress as well, and really, when they watched Venus lose her opening match on TV, it just felt like it summed the whole thing up.
Pepper had lied to him. When she had bought tickets for the second day of the 2016 US Open, she had said it was just for the two of them. She had bought them after Federer was scheduled for that day session; Tony was sure she’d been truthful about that part. It was only when they got to their seats, halfway through the opening ladies match, and found Steve there, that she admitted she’d bought three tickets. She’d lied to him too; she’d claimed she was coming to talk to him alone.
“You’re really forcing us to do this?” asked Steve.
“It’s been three months,” she said. “No one wanted it to end anything like the way it did; you know that. There are many things Tony would go back and do differently if he could. I know there are certainly things I would. And I also know there’s at least one thing you’d do differently, isn’t there, Steve? Meanwhile, the scum of the universe probably don’t care if the Avengers had a spat. You were both there when Fury paid that last visit, and made pretty clear even without saying it that while we were all fighting, Hydra and their World Security Council guy nearly took over the world, and he had to go find someone else to stop them. What if that someone isn’t available next time? You two are going to bury this hatchet, and even if refuse to talk to each other today, sitting here and watching Roger play is still a start.”
“Clint and Natasha came here together yesterday,” she added. “I believe she agreed to go back home with him. It’ll be her first trip there since this all started.”
They’d long made up, of course. The other Avengers had also made inroads with each other. Sam Wilson had been the first, soon getting back on everyone’s good side. Peter Parker and Scott Lang had followed suit, and were probably now better friends with each other than they were with the people who had been allies with. Natasha had also gotten pretty good with Sharon Carter. Vision and Wanda Maximoff had even become so close Tony was starting to wonder if his robot was capable of feeling and provoking romantic love.
The silence lasted throughout the women’s match. Tony speculated idly on what people would make of the photos that would no doubt circulate around the world of the three of them making this public appearance together, none of them even trying to look happy to be there. He wished he was still someone who would find the reactions to that amusing.
When Federer came out playing badly, and lost the first set, Pepper started to sigh and grumble. More than she ought to have; Tony was pretty sure she had decided a badly-playing Federer wouldn’t do enough work on them and was improvising on the fly, trying to spur them into fleeing her together. Although this was the kind of thing she only did when she was really determined to achieve something. When he made a ridiculous miss and was broken, she gave such an obvious long-suffering sigh that he finally gave in. “Come on, Cap,” he said. “Let’s leave Pepper here to melt down in peace.” Thankfully, Steve followed him; he knew Pepper well enough too.
The two of them walked around the grounds for a while, a comfortable distance from each other, but close enough to unmistakably be walking together. The paparazzi was going to go crazy. That actually did still amuse Tony.
The first days of a slam saw most of the world’s top one hundred or so men and women who weren’t famous enough to make the big stadiums pass through the outer courts. After five years of seeing various tennis matches, Tony was surprised by how many of them he recognized. He started pointing them out to Steve: “There’s Roberto Batisita Agut; I saw him here in 2013; he lost to David Ferrer. Danka Kovinic; she’s someone Pepper likes. Dominika Cibulkova; she was Serena’s opponent in the final in Wakanda this year…”
Then he stopped short when he saw one of the players on Court 8. Steve recognized her too: “Marja Ebvic. Let’s watch her for a little bit.”
They didn’t go into the proper stands; there were benches on one side of the court, and they ended up going and standing behind them. “Reduce the chances of the players noticing us,” Steve whispered. “It’s better if we can avoid distracting them.” It would no doubt attract attention anyway; gossip websites everywhere would post about him and Steve Rogers stopping to watch the Sokovian qualifier play her first round match.
They watched until the first set ended in a lengthy tiebreak. When Ebvic finally won it 14-12 with a spectacular shot, they watched her jump and yell in excitement; she was definitely not favored to win this match. They clapped along with everyone else, then Steve turned and walked towards the hedges at one end of the court. Tony followed him, and when they found themselves within them, they also found themselves alone.
“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “About Rhodey. I’d do anything to change that. I mean, I hope you believe me when I say that.”
“Of course you would,” said Tony. “I know you. I’m sorry too. Like Pepper said, there are a hell of a lot of things I’d change myself. I mean, I’m not sorry for supporting the Accords, but…”
They turned out of the hedges and walked silently past Court 7. Beyond it were more hedges to get lost in. In those, Steve said, “I understand it, you know. Everything that you did. I still think much of it was wrong, especially about Bucky, but…I think eventually I can forgive.”
“If I’d known more about him…well, honestly, I don’t know.” He hesitated, then asked, “How is he?” He hoped Steve could tell he really did want to know.
“Working on it,” shrugged Steve. “It’ll take him a long time. That was always going to be true no matter what.”
Eventually they turned and walked back to the main plaza, and took a look at the scoreboard on Ashe’s outer wall. Ebvic was up a break in the second. Then they saw Federer was in the middle of a third set tiebreak, and with a “We’d better get back there,” from Tony, they hurried back into the stadium.
They got in just after he won it. Pepper was glowing even before she got a look at them. “He was down a break,” she told them. “Mannarino even served for it. But Fed managed to get it back. He’s finding a way. He’s going to get out of this one.”
Tony’s favorite photo from that year was the one someone got of him and Steve celebrating together when he did.