A review of the tennis docuseries from Drive to Survive’s creators.

A review of the tennis docuseries from Drive to Survive’s creators.

Despite 20 years of trying, I’ve never thought about how to properly evangelize tennis. Maybe it’s because I take her beauty for granted, along with how she feels ready for high-stakes narrative drama. Tennis is a sport made up of individuals, all of whom have their own style and personality, duking it out for prizes and glory, demonstrating breathtaking athleticism and artistry. Really, who could ask for anything more?

But, at least in the United States, tennis faces serious obstacles as it continues to seek new fans. The basic rules of the game – especially the rules about how the game is scored – are complicated and difficult to explain. There are terms of art out the wazoo. The tennis “season” lasts 11 months, and the vast majority of tournaments are not shown on basic cable. Outside of the four Grand Slams and most Masters 1000 tournaments, you can’t even be sure that a player you like will play in a particular tournament. Three of the Grand Slams take place on other continents, and many of their matches are broadcast live at hours unwatchable by all but die-hard fans. Then there are the players themselves, who are media-trained from a young age, give dozens of press conferences a year, and play a sport with such intense rules of decorum that it can often be hard to see the humanity beneath their gruff facades. clenched jaws. .

The new Netflix documentary series Break Point attempts to overcome these barriers, focusing on a group of top tennis players during the 2022 season, showing the human dramas behind their tournament results. While the show is sometimes successful in showing us what tennis life is really like, the series often feels hemmed in by convention and neglects the actual play of the sport, which remains the most interesting and dramatic thing about it.

According to a recent interview with Esquire, creators James Gay-Reese and Paul Martin wanted Break Point to explore the more human sides of sports that casual viewers rarely see. “People see tennis as this cool game,” Martin said, “it’s dirty, tennis, and it’s hard. We sat down and did maybe 25 player interviews at the Australian Open last year. And every one of them that we did, James and I came out of them and said, ‘I don’t know why they do this. I honestly don’t know what the opposite is. Because that looks like torture.’ “

Tennis players give up any semblance of a meaningful, stable childhood or early adult life. They freelance, live, support their teams and save for their retirement entirely off of tour earnings and endorsement deals. The match play itself is physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting, and players lose far more tournaments in a year than they win. On the men’s side, the dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – a dominance that is only beginning to fade after almost 20 years – has meant that the top levels of the sport were closed to multiple generations of players. On the women’s side, the depth and variety of talent make even the early-round matches in the tournament tough and dangerous affairs. The players who navigate these challenges are, for the most part, very young. The oldest player covered at Break Point is Ajla Tomljanovic, who is 28. The youngest, Felix Auger Aliassime, is 21. I don’t know what you were doing at 21, but I was mostly getting up and running shows with my friends. Auger Aliassime sees his friends and family in Montreal so rarely that, in the fifth episode of Break Point, his team brings several dozen of them to his practice on his birthday. When they show up, a clearly affected Auger Aliassime gives them a thank-you speech that also makes it clear that he won’t have time to hang out with them.

The show’s humanism, its insistence on seeing the players as people rather than symbols, is its strongest asset. In a few minutes, Break Point can show us the Jekyll and Hyde transformation of Nick Kyrgios into a raging egomaniac on the court, the stubbornness of Taylor Fritz, the anxiety and depression of Paula Bedosa, the kindness of Ajla Tomjanovic that can sometimes translate into passivity in the field and Maria Sakkari. self-defeating perfectionism. Even less tortured players like Matteo Berretini, Casper Ruud and Ons Jabeur come off feeling like real people. Interviews with players’ coaches and doctors add to our understanding of their daily lives and the issues they struggle with on and off the field. The stakes of each tournament and each match are clearly laid out, especially thanks to the efforts of Hall of Famer Andy Roddick and WTA Insider’s Courtney Nguyen, who serve as talking heads. Show runner Kari Lia has a special eye for the meaningful wordless moment. Watching Casper Ruud meticulously put on his headband before his French Open final against Rafael Nadal reveals a lot more about his use of the ritual to calm his nerves than a quote ever could.

But once we get to the actual playing of the matches, something goes wrong. Break Point feels almost afraid to tell us the sport it’s about. The glory of tennis, its beauty and drama, can be found in the build-up of points, in the way players wrestle advantage from their opponents, overwhelm them or manipulate them into an unwinnable position in the blink of an eye. It is within the score that individual players discover themselves, as surely as a classical pianist playing Bach. Some matches can even trigger a single point, as momentum is permanently shifted from one player to another. The best non-fiction tennis writing knows this. John McPhee’s masterful book Levels of Play, for example, tells us a lot about the history of the race in the late 60s, the transition of the game from amateur to professional, the biography of Arthur Ashe and more. But it does all of this through a play-by-play matchup as the players tell McPhee their thought process point by point.

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Break Point gives us this inside look at a player’s strategic thought process just a few times during its first five episodes. For the most part, it relies on close-ups of players hitting the ball, as majestic as it is repetitive, while dramatic music raises the stakes. Trivia matches are sometimes given real estate that could go to exploring major ones in depth. The flaws of this approach are particularly apparent in Episode 3, which tells the story of an injured Taylor Fritz’s improbable victory over an even more injured Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells. The championship match ended in a deep tiebreak, especially in its final three minutes, as the margins between victory and defeat for both men narrowed under the microscope. Almost none of this comes to the screen at Break Point, which turns the game into incoherence in order to focus on Fritz’s final serve.

Part of this is almost certainly due to Gay-Reese and Martin trying to replicate the success of their hit show Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Break Point borrows a lot from that show’s successful formula, then, in both good and bad ways. It has the driving energy and sense of human drama of its predecessor, but it also has its own artificiality. I couldn’t shake the feeling when I saw that many of the conversations were staged; why else would Felix Auger Aliassime tell his longtime coaching staff about his childhood rivalry with his sister? And the use of the fake news mouthpiece to bridge narrative gaps and set the scene for each game gets crazy as the season progresses. Break Point has incredible access and its team knows how to tell a great, compelling story, but the show needs to learn what all great tennis coaches know: when to step back and trust the player and the sport, to finished work. .

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