Column: The Culture is Ripe for More Tennis Movies
With the recent retirements of both Roger Federer and Serena Williams, professional tennis has lost two of its titans. Headlines have celebrated their exceptional careers and rued their pending absence on the pro circuit.
Tennis is a sport whose top players often earn icon status on a global level. From McEnroe to Borg, Federer to Nadal, and Williams to Osaka, its athletes inspire awe.
Maybe this is because tennis, unlike so many other sports, is such an individual endeavor, and one that involves a combination of extreme psychological resilience with physical endurance.
It’s also entirely international; no single country dominates the circuit or its winners, meaning the next Federer or Williams could come from just about anywhere.
Documentaries about tennis icons are multitude, like Showtime's new "McEnroe" or Netflix’s upcoming Grand Slam series. But fiction films about the sport are few and far between – possibly due to those same factors that make the game so special.
How do you capture the physicality of a match as well as the interior battles players endure?
Spoiler alert: internal monologues are common, court play is staged and choreographed and scripts often use the complexities of tennis as a premise to explore aspects of character.
Following last year’s five-time Oscar-nominated “King Richard” about the Williams family, the culture feels ripe for more tennis movies. Here are a few, all available to stream in the US, which have tried to do the real ‘beautiful game’ justice.
Perseverance and Skill
Will Smith’s on-stage slap at the Academy Awards last year overshadowed his win as best actor for “King Richard,” which was also nominated for a coveted best film Oscar, among others.
The movie paints a detailed picture of the dedication of the full Williams family in prioritizing Serena and sister Venus’s chance at professional careers over all else in their lives.
It also touches on issues of classism in the sport, as Richard champions his daughters and secures opportunities not naturally open to them at the time as Black girls from a low-income area.
Another film, 2017’s “Battle of the Sexes,” highlights the changing norms of the game last century, reenacting Bobby Riggs’ macho ‘70s-era challenge of leading female player Billie Jean King, who was also struggling at the time with her own sexual orientation.
Swedish feature “Borg vs. McEnroe” portrays another historic rivalry, that of Björn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) at the 1980 Wimbledon final, this time focusing on the psychological toll the game can have on top-tier tennis players and those closest to them.
From superstitious rituals to temper tantrums and the stresses of fame, the two players are depicted as ‘not quite right in the head,’ possibly a requisite for this level of tennis.
Borg is Nordic cold, McEnroe New York hot, the hammer versus the stiletto, the gentleman and the rebel. They’re told they must block out their emotions and hide their rage, fear and panic.
Tennis isn’t just about winning like other sports, a young Borg is told, it’s the way you win that’s just as important. The film sets up their classic showdown patiently, through flashbacks and an increasingly tense musical score.
“The tension is almost like torture,” a commentator of the match notes, a reality so difficult to show on screen but which this film does admirably well.
Luck and Thrills
After “Annie Hall’s” tennis-set meet cute, Woody Allen returned to the game in 2005’s “Match Point,” using tennis as a backdrop for a murder mystery.
The film opens on a tennis court with a ball sailing over the net. A voiceover reflects on the chance involved when the ball hits the top of the net and could land on either side, foreshadowing the sinister luck a character has later in the film.
The story turns on an Irish pro turned instructor who falls in with a pair of high-class London siblings and gets caught up in a doubles love story that ends in murder.
One day he runs into a former tennis rival who recalls his old pal’s game as ‘cool under pressure, but creative.’ Is Allen suggesting the qualities that make for a successful tennis player are the same ones a murderer possesses?
The film takes a nod from Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “Strangers on a Train,” which also exploits tennis for thematic concepts. A classic scene shows one character staring ominously at another from the stands, the only motionless head in a crowd tracking the back-and-forth play.
In romantic comedy “Wimbledon,” an aging player has fallen steeply in the rankings as he nears retirement. When he meets a young rising superstar, their relationship kindles a newfound competitive fire in him, but it risks throwing her off her game.
Genteel Wimbledon, and its on- and off-court friendships and rivalries, serves as setting for the budding romance, and the film offers entertaining insights into the game, the mindsets of championship players and their handlers, and even some of the behind-the-scenes promotional fanfare of pro tennis. McEnroe and others make cameos.
“Tennis uses the language of life – advantage, service, fault, break, love… every match is a life in miniature,” Andre Agassi once said.
Maybe that’s why tennis makes such an attractive backdrop for any film genre.
Versions of this article originally ran in The Seattle Times and The Daily Record.
Images courtesy of WB Pictures, SF Studios and Amblin.