Will we fi­nally get a good ten­nis film?

Three movies pre­mier­ing at TIFF may just break the curse

Metro Canada (Toronto) - - TIFF -

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.

Con­trib­utEd

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.

Evan agos­tini/thE as­so­Ci­atEd prEss; thE Cana­dian prEss

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