The armchair film critic had some thoughts about the state of tennis on the big screen. And they weren’t good.
“There are almost no tennis movies,” said the critic from a hotel suite at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday. “And the few that there are,” she added, citing “Wimbledon” and “Love Story,” “are horrible.”
The commentator in question was not exactly Pauline Kael. In fact, she was someone better — Billie Jean King. The 12-time Grand Slam winner was speaking on behalf of the tennis-fan multitudes when she questioned the lack of movies about the sport.
But King’s presence here demonstrates that the absence could be addressed, at least for a minute. As Rafael Nadal and Kevin Anderson played in the U.S. Open Final on Sunday afternoon in New York, disguised dropshots and topspin lobs were in the air north of the border.
There are three tennis movies screening at this prestige gathering, an almost Federer-like show of strength given the usual bagel. Premiering Sunday was Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” the tale of the run-up to King’s titular 1973 match with Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone as the feminist and LGBTQ trailblazer and Steve Carell as the has-been showman.
Opening the festival just a few days earlier was Janus Metz’s brooding Scandinavian production “Borg/McEnroe,” chronicling the personalities and events around the famous 1980 Wimbledon final. (Shia LaBeouf stars as the hotheaded American and Sverrir Gudnason plays the cool-as-Stockholm legend.)
And also debuting over the weekend weekend was Jason Kohn’s psychology-rich Showtime documentary “Love Means Zero,” about the influential and controversial coach Nick Bollettieri, who fractiously mentored Andre Agassi and scores of other champions.
Making them an even more complete set, each film covers a different period in the evolution of the sport: the early days of professionalization and the Open Era in the King-Riggs story of the early 1970s; the dawn of an international golden age in the McEnroe and Borg moment of the early 1980s; and the waning pre-corporate days of characters and bad behavior in the Agassi-Boris Becker chapter of the early 1990s.
“They really are like three chapters in the history of tennis, each with something new to say about tennis,” Kohn said. (The release dates will be spread out: “Battle” opens Sept. 22 and “Borg/McEnroe” and “Love Means Zero” will likely debut next year.)
Tennis would seem an ideal sport for the silver screen. Every good movie seeks the kind of internal battles, and the antagonist-protagonist dynamic, inherent to high-profile matches. What’s more, grand visuals and dramas in three (or five) acts are the norm at most Grand Slams. Heck, the rectangle is even shaped like a movie screen.
As a series of competitive confrontations, tennis probably shares the most in common with boxing. And there are as many boxing movies as Fabrice Santoro has trick shots.
Not for nothing do many film people love the game. “Confession: Before I loved movies, I loved tennis,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said from the podium of the elegant Roy Thomson Hall before the “Borg/McEnroe” screening. He then showed off a pair of vintage white tennis shoes to go with his sleek dark tux.
Yet somehow tennis has avoided Hollywood’s gaze. When movies do feature tennis, it’s often not to show the game’s poetry or shrewd tactics but to demonstrate how comically awkward its players can be (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” e.g.). Woody Allen isn’t afraid of a baseline rally or two, but he mostly uses it in the service of social settings (“Annie Hall”) or metaphors (“Match Point”).
Movies that do ostensibly focus on tennis, like the rom-com “Wimbledon,” are largely vehicles for other genres.
One can’t avoid class as a culprit. Even nearly two decades into the Williams sisters era and an undeniable democratization of tennis fanhood, the sport is still seen as a province of the upper crust. And film producers tend not to like movies that will land wide of much of the mainstream audience.
But the biggest challenge may be technical. Unlike other sports, tennis can’t be faked. As hard as it is to construct a point, it’s even harder reconstructing one. Most competent directors can re-create basketball or baseball with some clever camera work and an on-set coach. But try to make a Nadal forehand or a Martina serve-and-volley approach feel genuine with an actor who plays in Beverly Hills every month or two.
“There are very few sports that take a lifetime to master, that require muscle memory from a very early age to be good at,” Kohn said. “It’s like why there aren’t as many movies about solo violin. It’s much easier to do ‘Chariots of Fire’ and replicate running on a beach.”
“Battle of the Sexes” co-director Faris takes a direct approach to the question. “We want great actors and we want great players. And they don’t really overlap,” she said.
Actors note the challenge they face when they do decide to tackle the role of a classic tennis player.
“Early on, the majority of the people working on the film kept saying, ‘We don’t want to make a bad tennis movie,’” Stone said. “So I had a ‘Don’t be a hero’ mentality. I realized I wasn’t going to learn to be a champion with a wooden racket in three months,” she added, “so I just tried to learn the shots I could and then relied on my pro double.”
Carell, incidentally, also had a double, whom tennis enthusiasts will appreciate was former ATP pro Vince Spadea, that lovably “Rudy”’-like figure known for his 21 consecutive tour losses early in his career.
For his film, Metz paid close attention to technical details, assembling footage of all the real-life points being used in the film and making sure actors were striking balls very similarly. He pushed his actors to go deep on lessons: LaBeouf signed up for a tennis-club membership the day after his initial conversation with Metz.
So with all this effort, can these movies break through with audiences, drawing off the millions who’ve been watching the Open over the past two weeks?
“Battle” taps into a zeitgeist of feminism, and the film could seduce with its period charm and politics, even if the ultimate battle — for equal pay — is not the usual stakes of mainstream commercial entertainment.
Metz may have the most unusual of the pieces, focusing on how Borg’s desire to keep it all inside was as much an attempt to hold down the McEnroe-esque impulses he had as a boy as it was natural inclination. (That boy, incidentally, is played by Leo Borg, Bjorn’s own son. The Swede cooperated with production; Metz is still waiting to hear back from McEnroe.)
“Borg/McEnroe” is interested in a certain aspect of tennis. As a game of private battles and thrilling rallies, tennis is equal parts existentialism and exuberance. The movie leans decidedly away from the latter. “It’s more a character drama and a psychological thriller about soul-searching, a look at the Nietzschean hole of darkness” said Metz, a Dane. “As human beings we long for a sense of purpose, for a sense of belonging, which is what Borg and McEnroe were really about.”
Kohn’s movie manages the trick of being both deeply about tennis — fans who recall Jim Courier-Agassi or Agassi-Becker matches will thrill to see vintage footage, with Bollettieri as the hard-edged, well-meaning Svengali at its center — while tapping into a larger drama.
Now in his eighties, Bollettieri is as colorful a tennis character as the game has seen, from his trademark “baby” to his desire to use a handshake as the gauge of a racket grip, a tactic this reporter can confirm from a meeting with the coach in The Times video studio this weekend.
But it also tells a larger story of a patriarch who often nurtured multiple sons only to choose one over the other, as he did with Agassi over Courier before eventually pushing away the former too.
Bollettieri breaks down emotionally on camera when reading a letter that Agassi sent to him years after their high-profile split. “I had made assumptions about Nick as an egomaniacal self-promoter,” Kohn said. “But what I discovered was someone more complex and sensitive, who has much more going on than what you see on the surface.” He’s a fitting avatar for the movie’s chosen sport.