Will we finally get a good tennis film?
Three movies premiering at TIFF may just break the curse
As the Toronto International Film Festival improbably serves up three tennis-themed films, the question looms: Can the genteel sport finally get the cinematic ace it deserves?
Thursday’s opening night gala Borg/McEnroe enters the court and looks to be a contender, taking a fictional look at the rivalry between Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) from more than 35 years ago.
It’s joined by Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, about the historic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973.
There is also a documentary, Love Means Zero, which looks at the life of famed coach Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida-based academy has long been a hot house for tennis prodigies and future pros.
These films are walking onto the court and it wouldn’t take much for them to impress.
“I’ve never seen a good tennis movie; they all were terrible. I’ve been in a couple of them and it was embarrassing to me how bad they were,” is what John McEnroe himself told Vanity Fair last September.
And it’s true. In the pantheon of sports films, the tennis draw is a sorry lot.
Wimbledon, the 2004 matchup starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany, is the sentimental favourite for many and did birth the classic tennis rom-com line: “Love means nothing in tennis. Zero. It only means you lose,” from which the new doc took its name. But it barely gets a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the 60 per cent critical consensus describing it as “predictable,” “bland” yet “appealing.”
What else is there? Break Point is another recent mediocre comedy, where two aged players get back together to play a fictional Grand Slam. For those with longer memories, the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn film Pat and Mike might evoke some fond ones. There have been others, like Nobody’s Perfect, The Break and 16-Love, as well as raunchy comedies like 2nd Serve and Jocks. Mostly forgettable.
What about Woody Allen’s well-liked affair-gone-wrongwith-a-side-of-murder flick Match Point, starring Scarlett Johansson. The movie gets its title from tennis, but it’s not really a tennis movie. The game is mostly used to dial up the drama onscreen.
So while baseball has quality films depicting high drama (The Natural), historical drama (Eight Men Out, 42), romance (Bull Durham), magic realism
I’ve been in a couple of them and it was embarrassing to me how bad they were.
John McEnroe (Field of Dreams) and statistical geekery (Moneyball), tennis can only beat baseball in one department: screwball comedy.
The hilarious 2015 mockumentary 7 Days in Hell, starring Andy Samberg and Kit Harington, can easily match wits with baseball’s best, Major League. But it was made for HBO and never even had a theatrical run.
So what is it about the game that fails to inspire great films?
“When I think of boxing and you go back to Rocky, the drama come across so strongly on film it’s portrayed really well. When you talk about baseball, it’s about popularity; it seems easier to sell because it is a huge audience. When you think of tennis, it has a niche audience; it’s not a mass sport, globally. Maybe that’s what hinders it,” suggests Karl Hale, tournament director of the Rogers Cup.
“I just think it’s not American enough for a major studio to say, ‘Let’s make a $50-million tennis movie,’” concurs Adnan Virk, an ESPN sportscaster originally from Toronto. He also hosts Cinephile: The Adnan Virk Movie Podcast for the network.
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. Love Means Zero (below) is a documentary on famed coach Nick Bollettieri.